To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Avrom Sutzkever: “Green Aquarium,” a poem newly translated from Yiddish by Zackary Sholem Berger

(l. to r.): Avrom Sutzkever, Abba Kover and Gershon Abramowicz in the Vilna Ghetto, 1942
[The post-Holocaust fate of Yiddish writing is something that’s troubled my mind since the murders of the last century appeared to have decimated both language & culture.  Avrom Sutzkever, who fought as a partisan during the years of the khurbn, was one of the outstanding survivors with many kudos & honors in his later years, but the secular mysticism & near surrealism/realism of some of his work wasn’t easy to grasp as he came over to us largely in that more ethnic context & in a translated language not his own.  What follows here & has lately caught my attention in Zackary Sholem Berger’s new translations is an example of a poetry-in-prose that opens to what the Surrealist master André Breton spoke of as “the Great Mystery” in which he saw “the future resolution of those two states, dream and reality, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.”  No mere fantasizing it was central too to what Gary Snyder noted as “the real work of modern man: to uncover the inner structure & actual boundaries of the mind.” 
            It’s my intention by posting this here to place Sutzkever as well among our predecessors in one of the core projects of what remains to us of international twentieth-century modernism.  (J.R.)] 

Green Aquarium

“Your teeth are bars of bone. Behind them, in a crystal cell, your chained words. Remember the advice of an elder: the guilty ones, who put poisoned pearls in your goblet -- let them free. As thanks for the pardon, they will build your eternity; but those others, the innocent ones, who falsely chirp like nightingales over a grave -- don’t spare them. String them up, be their hangman! Because as soon as you let them out of your mouth, or your pen, they’ll become demons. May the stars not fall if I speak the truth!” 

Years ago, I was left this will in the lively city of my birth by an old bachelor, a poet somewhat touched in the head, with a long ponytail in back like a fresh birch broom. No one knew his name, where he came from. I only know that he wrote rhyming notes to God in Aramaic, dropped them into the red mailbox near the green bridge, and thoughtfully, patiently strolled by the Vilia, waiting for the mailman in Heaven to bring him an answer. 


“Walk through words like through a minefield: one false step, one false move, and all the words which you have threaded onto your veins your whole life will be torn apart, and you with them...” 

That’s what my very own shadow whispered to me, when both of us, blinded by the reflector-windmills, traveled by night through a bloody minefield, and every stride of mine set down for life or death gouged my heart like a nail into a violin. 


But no one warned me to be careful of words drunk from otherworldly poppy-blossoms. Thus I became the servant of their will. And I can’t understand their will. Certainly not the secret, whether they love or hate me. They wage war in my skull like termites in a desert. Their battlefield pours out of my eyes with the radiance of rubies. And children go gray from fear when I tell them, Good-dreaming. 

Recently, on an ordinary day, when I was lying in the garden, with a branch of oranges over me - or was it kids playing with golden soap bubbles - I felt a movement in my soul. All right, my words are heading out! Since they had won a victory over somebody, they obviously decided to take up positions where no words could previously. On people, angels, and why not stars? Their fantasy plays, drunk on otherworldly poppy-blossoms. 

Trumpets sound.
Torches like burning birds.
Accompanied by lines. Frames of music.
I fell to my knees before one of those words, apparently the overlord, who was riding ahead in a crown in which my tears were sparkling. 

“That’s how you leave me, no goodbye, no see-you-later, no nothing? We wandered together for years, you ate from my time, so before we break up, before you go off to conquer worlds -- one request! Give your word you won’t turn it down.” 

“Agreed. I give my word. But without long sentences. Because the sun is bending on the blue branch and in just a moment it will fall into the abyss.” 

“I want to see the dead!” 

“That’s quite a wish...okay, fine. My word is more important to me …. See now!” 

A green knife cut open the earth. 

It turned green. 



Greenness of dark pines through a fog;
Greenness of a cloud with a burst gallbladder;
Greenness of mossy stones in rain;
Greenness revealed by a hoop rolled by a seven-year-old girl;
Greenness of cabbage leaves in splinters of dew that bloody the fingers;
First greenness of melted snow in a circledance around a blue flower;
Greenness of a half-moon, seen with green eyes from under a wave;
And celebratory greenness of grasses hemmed around a grave
Greennesses stream into greennesses. Body into body. And the whole earth has now turned into a green aquarium. 

Closer, closer to the green swarming! 

I look in: people are swimming here like fish. Numberless phosphorescent faces. Young. Old. And young-old together. Everyone who I saw my whole life, anointed by death with green existence; they are all swimming in the green aquarium, in a kind of silky, airy music. 

Here, the dead are alive! 

Under them rivers, forests, cities -- a giant plastic map, and the sun floating above them in the shape of a fiery person. 

I recognize acquaintances and friends and doff my straw hat to them: 

“Good morning.” 

They answer with green smiles, like a well answers a stone with broken rings. 

My eyes slap with silver oars, race, float among all the faces. They search, looking for one face. 
Found it, found it! Here is the dream of my dream ... 

“It’s me, darling, me, me! The wrinkles are just a nest for my longing.” 

My lips, swollen with blood, are drawn to hers. But - oh, no - they are stuck on the glass of the aquarium. 

Her lips swim to mine too. I feel the breath of burning punch. The glass is a cold cleaver between us. 

“I want to read you a poem, about you, you’ve got to hear it!” 

“Darling, I know it by heart, I’m the one who gave you the words.” 

“I want to feel your body one more time!” 

“We can’t get any closer, the glass, the glass...” 

“No, the border will soon disappear, I’m going to smash the green glass with my head...” 

The aquarium shattered after the twelfth smash. 

Where are the lips, the voice? 

And the dead, the dead - did they die? 

Nobody.  Facing me - grass, and overhead, an orange branch, or is it kids playing with golden soap bubbles.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Will Alexander: from “The Ganges,” excerpt with glossary

[The following is an excerpt from a long poem, “The Ganges,” which runs around a hundred pages & is itself a third of a giant book entitled The Combustion Cycle. The book contains two other poems, “Concerning The Henbane Bird,” & “On Solar Physiology,” the former in the voice of a hummingbird, the Andean Hillstar, &  the latter spoken in the voice of an Angolan shaman. As for “The Ganges,” Alexander tells us, "it pours from the voice of an untouchable."
               Of Alexander himself  I’ve written elsewhere: “Will Alexander, more than any of our other American contemporaries, is the inheritor of an ecstatic surrealism derived from European sources, colored by factual & scientific particulars, & drawing with great intelligence & passion from an international avant-garde & from the negritude writings of Aimé Césaire & others, for whom he acts as a true successor.”  His use here of historical & appropriated materials is also worth noting. (J.R.)]
The fifth-century Indian philosopher ... considers the faculty of speech to be an instinct or intuition. He compares it to animal instinct and does not believe language is learned.
-Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Volume .4

Lamas ... are not so much monks as priests and ghostly warriors who understand the art of fighting with demons.
- Sir Charles Eliot
Hinduism and Buddhism Volume Three

...a race of gnostic spiritual beings.
-Sri Aurobindo

The Rig Veda was composed by the Bramans ... and represents the sum total of the early Aryan experience. ... it is absolutely rampant with violence and racial overtones. It is also in the Rig Veda that we find the first documentation of the racially oriented caste system.
- Runoko Rashidi

"I've come to these waters
as Shudra*
as hallucinated lama
as spellbinding dictor*

in this regard
I'm not a mahatma
nor a spurious intrusion
singing in mystical parlando

I'm an old Dravidian from Goa *
velvet ssiv
discussing motions concussive with sand

or a poem ensourced by cholera
or formations tense with blue rotational acids

I am no more than a spectre
or a villainous discovery
or a gainless instigation
based upon a psychic set rivalrous with absence

I've come to these waters
to craft my own tremendums
to walk outside my nomen
to blur my trans-identity through culture

this is how blood works
how audition reacts
& stages itself
through reactive physical conflagrations

have I come to view to simply foil myself? or to ignite my force by regressive combining?

as I react & speak as I react
I've come to hover at the ghats
the colour of a psychic Kashi *
sometimes sable & liquid
at others
solferino & volcanic

as I respond through parallel as persona
there is Benares *
& Varanasi *
& Kashi once again
as if synergies were overactive with agua

as Buddhist
as Dravidian sprung from Goa
there is the English voice mixed with Kanada Hindu agua *
plunged in the depths
then exploding
as unquelled power as in the purity of ravens

& I see boats burn beneath an unstable Sun
ghats waver as strange proportional. Richters
as ciphered monsoon epics
as blind emission misfocused
& so the maharajah's walls
take on a cunning electrical rate
as collapsing body self-moored to an unsteady balance

I am different
I make no offering of "jai flowers" *
or take as my form philosophical unravelling
to evince a kind of portion
forced from the gullet as mountainous prayer

perhaps firewood on the ghats *
perhaps corpses piled as conflagrant in-audia
& perhaps my heresy of claim
being more than entranced moaning more than something beyond intransigent chakras *

for instance
my psyche swims through neglected alter currents
as if I'd stumbled on a feast of vermin
on infested sugar hamlets

& for those who declare themselves through samsara *
I've risen to no higher than the status of a ghoral or a pangar * 
or at best I'll live a million times
& never subsist as a purposeful vahana*

I've never sat in posture
chewing on Channa *
or invaded a dharmshala
speaking quietly to myself through immolated frenzy

when letters burn
when rocks fly in from the heavens
they are signs from bats & thistles
their kinetics refracted by curious solar incandescence

these being kinetics
between the "Varuna" & the "Asi" *
as if I were speaking of a liminal Varanasi felled
& brought to life again
by rays from the great Surya *
from solar form as shard
as cosmic spiral
as situational treatise
as looking glass spawned by complexification & sulphur
thereby listening to suns as scorching indigo & silver

what I am able to do
is to translate
is to merge samsara with ghat after ghat yet all the while barred from the crypto-Bramanic

but I know the very summoning of phenomena
as the Ganges reacts as luminescence through phenomena
through a spell of transverse murmurs bringing in
& taking away
the purest patterns of breathing
being colourless amethysine which emboldens
itself through rotational blinding

errors are seemingly blinded & drained yet what has always concurred
is the body as wooden abandonment
as exhausted coronation
as the sensate stained through providential inversion

so if I pick out points in time
it makes no ultimate significance

& if on such inscrutable date
a certain sari was stolen
if peculiar Yaks were transmogrified
life would seem as no other outcome
being nothing in itself
being energy randomly exchanged
not unlike tsunamis in Lisbon
so nothing would blaze at that hour
such as listless feuds
such as pointless tiger cats prowling

these being energies which create from themselves riddles
& superimposed
so that
from  the core of being ciphers erupt where animals can live & be brought back from the living
so if vultures crawl & exhibit no response I call them naked
fraught with competitive cremations

& there exists from this
a flicker of understanding
within fuels
which are considered transgression
much in the manner of the torment of owls
or hornets which gather their own affliction
& then revert in themselves
to a scorched or empty preludial

this is how hawks grow empty of their optimums
of their torsions
of the writhing in their bones

at times
I make sport
synchronized to certain bodies

as a curiously saddled sheep
absorbing codes from Mongolian ponies
transposing in my sleep certain levels of waking

not that I contest my own substance by cognition
or that I've reached unefforted fissure that thoughts from certain Gods can't bury
because I've lost my thirst for the heralded soma
for the image of myself
that nothingness inspires

the rats condone me as vapour
as a scent which kindles venom encircliing itself without envy

as if Í'd entangled myself netting
with unsuspected clauses
with rifts in the motes of cyclonics

as if I'd captured dust from fractured ‘tidal heating’
as if my strange basaltic wastes had hollowed their way through gravitized
as lighted prows
as blazeless forts
as monomial stealths & tensions

not that these wastes are cold tellurian rapids
or that they exist as forms peculiar & mixed with carnelian
or as heightened waves
delimited & sterile by fraction

of course beings exist
they descend from the ghat
they descend as perplexed Plesiosaurs in crises
being those who emote by proportional strain

I cannot say that the Ganges contains no suffusion
or that it has no effect on human deliverance
or that it ceases to provoke insular navigation

I am not saying
that the Ganges is not of summoning
or has never existed
that it's monaural worth has not blossomed beyond the Vedas
beyond its stones of sacred writing

the Ganges
perhaps fumes from a stored up sun
or from a moon
which has fallen from itself
in response to halos seized at ironical twilight

as Shudra
do I seek to extract from the Ganges
flow from Tibetan soliloquy
or give it the means to sculpt from itself proportional tenet?

because I remain perilous to the ghat
I am seen as alien
splashing its iniquitous waters *
& am seen as witness
according to navamshas
poised as they are against dominance & forgetting ..."


glossary for “the ganges 

Shudra - Lowest of the four castes. The Brahmins being the priests, the Kshatriyas being the warriors, the Vaishayas being the trading classes, and the Shudras being the servile class. An Untouchable.

dictor - coined term. Variation on the word dictation.

Dravidian from Goa-Southern Indian "descendants of the Nile Valley." Their central energy was located in the Indus Valley civilization. The language spoken was Brahui and is part of the Dravidian language grouping, which includes Tamil, Malto, Andhara, Malayam, and Gondi.

Kashi/Benares/Varanasi-Kashi and Benares, synonymous names for Varanasi, regarded as holy. It is the oldest city in India, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth. Located along the Ganges.

Kanada - Another Dravidian language.

jai flowers - Cast by Hindus into the river Ganges as symbols of their troubles floating away.

ghats - Refers in this instance to the burning-ghats. It is a level spot at the top of a river ghat where the Hindus burn their dead.

chakras - Seven major centres of psychic energy located along the spinal column.

samsara -The Buddhist cycle of "birth and death."

pangar - Light colored onagar in Malaysia.

vahana - Animal that accompanies or conveys a God.

Channa - Asian snakehead fish.

Dharmshala - In Buddhism "a building devoted to a charitable power; a shelter for travelers."

Varuna & Asi - Tributaries to the Ganges.

Surya - The visible Sun. Yet during the Aryan period the Sun was never considered the most important deva during the Vedic rise.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Homero Aridjis: [On Riding the Beast]

The search for asylum winds through Mexico
[note. Aridjis of course is a major Mexican poet & environmental activist, & his close account of the border refugee crisis calls further attention to the longer & more difficult part of the journey that the refugees have undertaken.   It seems to me important to see what has been happening in a context other than its relation to domestic United States politics or its coverage by the entertainment news media that so much dominates our political & social thinking & reporting.  Homero’s account appeared first in The Huffington Post (07/08/2014), from which it is respectfully borrowed.  I see it here also as a part of his & our total poetics: a continuation of the work of poetry by other means. (J.R.)]  

The evening news in Mexico regularly features footage of a ramshackle freight train known as La Bestia (The Beast) making its way across the country bearing a cargo of illegal immigrants trying to reach the United States's southern border. One can see hundreds of men, women and children perched on the roof, crammed between the boxcars, clinging to the sides. The trains are loaded with cement, iron, quartz, wheat, corn, diesel, vegetable oil, fertilizer, or wood, but the human cattle along for the ride have no food, drink or guarantee of safety.

To reach the depot at Arriaga, in the state of Chiapas, across the border from Guatemala, from which La Bestia departs every two or three days, migrants walk for days, even skirting mountains to avoid immigration checkpoints and roadblocks. The U.S. border is two weeks from here on the back of the Beast. Along the way pregnant women, mothers with infants, teenagers and adults will sleep on the streets or, if lucky, in makeshift or more permanent church-run shelters. During the long journey, accidents often happen, and passengers tumbling off the roof have their limbs severed. An aid group in Honduras has counted more than 450 migrants who have returned mutilated. Derailments are common, with cars flying off the tracks, leading to injuries and death.

Murders, muggings, extortions, gang rapes of women and kidnappings (some 20,000 a year) are committed by the rapidly expanding Central American Mara Salvatrucha gangs or by Mexican drug traffickers such as the bloodthirsty Zetas. They often infiltrate the groups of travelling migrants on the trains or in shelters, selling them drugs, tricking girls into prostitution, luring boys into gangs or murdering perceived informers. And at each stop, the migrants are prey to local police, who demand bribes up to several hundred dollars a head in exchange for allowing them to continue on their way.

At crowded safe houses along the Beast's route, the migrants' smugglers may coach their charges in how to reply to questioning or fake a Mexican accent. Forged birth certificates and other documents are available at a price, either to migrants or to their traffickers. Everyone knows the road to the American dream runs through the Mexican nightmare and that many passengers on "the train of death" will either perish during the journey, disappear by the wayside or be wounded, robbed or mutilated.

Who reaps the profits from La Bestia? Why do officials turn a blind eye while thousands of women are trafficked inside Mexico or abroad? What laws are broken to allow the transport of undocumented aliens across the country by tri-national smugglers acting as travel agents, risking lives and creating a humanitarian crisis? How much do the railroad engineers charge? Human despair has been turned into a commodity, a flourishing business for illicit enrichment.

The Bestia line once belonged to Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which bought the 1,119-mile Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab freight concession in 1999 during the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo, when the government-owned Ferrocarriles Nacionales was privatized. After the havoc wrought on the track by Hurricane Stan in 2005, GWI sought to end its 30-year concession and suspend freight service. The government threatened sanctions and transferred service to the semi-public Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec, and after years of legal wrangling, extended the latter's concession to fifty years. The concession clearly states that it is for carrying freight, not passengers, so the company is in constant violation of the law.

These days many migrants prefer to take a bus and risk detection at a checkpoint, where a payoff may allow them to continue. Others are crammed into airless trucks for the trip north. A former National Migration Institute agent reported that the going fee at each checkpoint for a truckload of migrants is around $20,000 dollars, divvied up "fairly" among the employees. Coyotes and polleros (literally "chicken herders") charge upwards of $5,000 dollars per migrant to shepherd him or her across the U.S. border.

For years refugees have started their journey north by crossing the Suchiate River, the border between Guatemala and Ciudad Hidalgo, in Chiapas. Lately the number of unaccompanied children who pay $1.50 to cross on an inner-tube raft has grown, as has the business that services them. Three ad hoc unions control the crossing, and the rafters, who are also money changers, are on call 7/24 for U.S.-bound migrants or mere shoppers, as well as for running drugs, guns and cash. A Catholic priest working with migrants estimates that 60 percent of the underage children come from Honduras, mostly driven out by extortion or running from gang recruitment. These thousands of migrant children, some barely able to understand Spanish due to their Indian heritage, have been an easy prey.

In Tapachula, half an hour's drive from the border, up to 1000 migrants are held at a time (or "lodged," in official parlance) at the Siglo XXI Migratory Station prior to being repatriated (read: "deported"). Mexico deports 250,000 foreigners a year to Central America. Meanwhile countless girls, young women and boys who have been sold into prostitution are working in Tapachula, which the founder of the Center for Investigation and National Security has compared to Sodom and Gomorrha. Elsewhere in Mexico, corpses of migrants have been found with their organs harvested.

Smugglers have been spreading false rumors about lenient U.S. policies to drum up business for themselves, convincing parents that after their children turn themselves into the Border Patrol, they will be allowed to remain in the country if they can furnish the name of a relative already in the U.S. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the border since the start of the year, more than twice last year's total of 24,000.

Chronic illegal migration and trafficking of persons can only be tackled if the U.S., Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala work together on combatting the underlying causes: a reign of terror and violence imposed by organized crime, relentless poverty in the migrants' home countries, lack of opportunities and employment, and weak law enforcement and corruption at the official level. Family businesses close as owners can no longer pay off the criminals who threaten them, and even street vendors have to hand over some of their earnings. Teenagers face a future of gangs, prostitution, and drugs. Perhaps the time has come for a Central American Marshall Plan. And what about UNICEF, and the UN Refugee Program?

The situation is very complex. What are the options? Deporting 52,000 children, at least two thirds from Central American countries embroiled in violence tantamount to civil war, to become victims of gangs or sex slaves, with slim chances of survival? They are war refugees and deserve treatment guaranteed by international agreements to which the U.S. is a signatory. Or allowing them to join family members already in the United States, legally or not, sending a message that this is the way to go? And turn the U.S. border into Lampedusa?

The Obama administration has not looked south of the border at failing states. Human rights experts estimate that 10,000 undocumented immigrants are kidnapped every year during their passage through Mexico. Mexico is legally obliged to guarantee the safety of these migrants. Should Mexico close down the border crossing at the Suchiate River?

Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans escape from hell, journeying through the limbo of Mexico to be held in the purgatory of shelters at the U.S. border, always striving towards the paradise of rejoining family members in the promised land.

Is it morally acceptable -- or even legal -- to send thousands of children back to hell?

Mr. Obama, while you ride in the comfort and safety of The Beast (as the Secret Service calls the armored presidential limousine), give some thought to the hopeful passengers on the Bestia.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Peter Quartermain: “Incompletable Text,” a view of Jerome Rothenberg’s Eye of Witness (Part Two)

[Part One of the Quartermain essay can be found here on Poems and Poetics.  His complete view of Eye of Witness will appear early in 2015 in the twentieth issue of Lou Rowan’s Golden Handcuff’s Review, a major repository of poetry & poetics moving from one century & millennium to another.]

There is indeed a politics in this, the politics of a “work intended – above all – to question and disrupt the power of dominant European discourse” (169); it underlies the whole of Eye of Witness and is a well-spring, and the rhetoric, embodying as it does Rothenberg’s persistent late twentieth-century Romanticism, is persuasive. In October 1961 he commented on “the poetic image struggling with the darkness. The image rescued from the lie of the unthreatened. Not as a literary prescription, for writing better poems or nurturing the language, but from an impasse in the soul, in which the protective ‘reality’ & false emblems of the inherited past have drawn a blank” (59).  Thus Eye of Witness is a purpose-driven book which eschews, utterly, the literary: it is driven by a sense of loss closely linked to its sense of the incomplete. It is that sense of the incomplete that propels the symposium of the whole, a symposium from which, ideally, nothing can be omitted. Such expansive inclusiveness is very close to Whitman’s resolve, in “Eidólons,”  to “put first” the ever-mutable range of human activity in its entirety:

Of every human life,
(The units gather’d, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed
      left out,)
The whole or large or small summ’d, added up,
In its eidólon. 

Whitman, another constant in this book: his encyclopaedism informs the whole of Rothenberg’s activity.
      So if one of Rothenberg’s aims is, as he says, to “open up to voices other than our own,” then it’s essential that those voices not be separated out, compartmentalized off  from the welter of human speech and art and music, essential that we read this book as a single work, whether that work be composition, compilation, or performance, albeit a work in progress and in process. Rothenberg’s poetics demands a mingling of his voice with others – “my own words interlaced (collaged) with theirs” (391) – in an encompassing never-definitive text, unindexed and unclassifiable, always tentative, always of the moment. We are invited to view the book as a continuum, all of a piece, even while discontinuities remain and are preserved and even emphasized, and tentativeness persists. The book thus out of deep need challenges not only empty conventions and emotional and social-political habits, but also long-held and seemingly ineradicable assumptions. Those assumptions are based on a syntax and ways of seeing which determine that the world can be understood, and that such understanding can be certain and true; which is to say, immutable. But incompleteness has its own necessities.
      Eye of Witness challenges deeply-inscribed patterns of belief, and works to undo those “monotheistic habits of thought” which Pound called “the curse of our time.”[1] Such motives, I need hardly add, carry their own dangers, for purpose-driven writing, like thesis-driven poetry, drifts rapidly into monotone. It fosters listless reading and is not to current taste. That’s the risk, but Eye of Witness successfully counters it through playing, or rather, plying a centrifugal move against a centripetal, an outward move against an inward, each folded with, against, and into the other. This is as true of the prose as it is of the poetry – and there is indeed a lot of prose here, over 200 pages of essays, letters, manifestos; much of the work reaches out to other cultures, other voices, other realms “which only a colonialist ideology could have blinded us into labelling ‘primitive’ or ‘savage” (Shaking, xxi) – the archaic, the ancient, the autochthonic. At the same time many of the individual poems (the Lorca poems, say, or the Goya), though they none of them behave like a conventional lyric, are tightly focussed; they push inward, the move is centripetal. For instance, there’s the quite extraordinary and lovely charge of the repeat in these lines from “The Wedding” (214-215), the opening poem of his early book, Poland / 1931: 

thy underwear alive with roots o poland
poland poland poland poland poland
how thy bells wrapped in their flowers toll 

There’s comedy here, but there is also great affection, and the poem is, in its psalmodic and liturgical rhythms and vocabulary, its management of long vowels and repetitions, a ritual or ceremonial lamentation whose power arises from its mildly surreal comedic elements. Whoever the speaker might be, male or female, that speaker is individual (but not by that solitary); the voice might be reflective, directing its monologue to the self; it preserves its private elements, it moves inward. The voice is personal, and its ironies largely gesture outward, as do the “poland poland” repetitions (they appear several times) especially if voiced in something approaching a cry (as Rothenberg does, in some performances). In this poem such ironies are primarily social, suggestive more of the comedy of manners than of any romantic lyric. The poem, then, calls to and invokes a more-or-less definable and familiar group, nicely balancing the life of private feeling with an implied public and social order.
      In their deployment of repetition the lines I quote have discernible kinship with such radically different work as Frank Mitchell’s horse songs or Richard Johnny John’s songs. Here’s “A Song About A Dead Person – Or Was It A Mole?” (325), John’s poem-song written with (rather than by) Rothenberg. Citing Haroldo de Campos he calls this process “transcreation” (137): outsidering the work lest we think we “understand” it. I quote the poem in full


g thru the big earth
I went thru this b
I was going thru the big earth
I went thru this big earth
I was going thru the big ea
I went thru this big earth

It might be tempting to skip, but the song warrants close attention: Three blank lines of silence between the final four lines of upper-case chant; seven lines of rather bald let’s-call-it-prose narrative somewhat irregularly and unevenly marching thru the block of uppercase, its claim not always completed, and indeed, without clear beginning – in medias res, then. With its two (or more) voices – and one if not both of them emphatically out loud – the song’s ritual and ceremonial elements are much more prominent than they are in “The Wedding,” and they beckon the group. The song almost irresistibly calls for performance, moving towards the shared speech of chorus. It also moves toward simultaneity, not just of voices in chorus but lines spoken/voiced together in simultaneous overlap, a public act which affirms an identity in, for, and of the group; a shift towards communitas in which that isolate “I” of the fourteenth (otherwise silent) line is perhaps subsumed into the group-voice of line fifteen, but equally perhaps absorbed into and thus constructing, well, constructing what? Maybe it reflects what Rothenberg calls “self-othering,” wherein “there are many ‘others’ in me” (161). Where does the “big earth” come into all this? How do we account for it? I run into difficulties here because my own habits, my own cultural baggage, get in the way – my own cultural baggage rests uneasily when matters are not explained – but the poem folds one culture into another with that in medias res and that ply of narrative and chant and refuses accounting. The lines fold ear into eye into ear in quite complex play, story into chant, single voice into multiple voices, and that repeated “thru the big earth” – with its variants, and the shifts in the verb -- gestures towards, even invokes, an apperception beyond words, an apperception of a physical world and, yes, to western eyes an imagined experience.
      The physicality of the world thus sung is crucial, in much the same way as Rothenberg’s conjuration and invocation of the body and the life of the senses (not always pleasant, not always celebration) are central to his more conventional poetry. This poem, with its foldings, is in what Velimir Khlebnikov might have called a “beyondsense language.” Rothenberg, quoting that phrase of Khlebnikov’s in his 1990 talk on “The Poetics of the Sacred” (169), sounded a principal theme, constant throughout his poetics, that we must return to, recover, an understanding of language (and hence meaning) as motivated rather than arbitrary. This is what we have lost. An essential step in such recovery is to move outside our language, step outside our cultural norms, which all get in the way. We must somehow find a means to see our language as Other. For the last century or more, or at the very least since the publication of Ogden and Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning in 1923 and Leonard Bloomfield’s Language in 1933, it has been fashionable to believe that meaning is entirely a social construct: Bloomfield’s pronouncement that “the connection of linguistic forms with their mean­ings is wholly arbitrary”[2] has more or less the status of gospel. Any sound, in this view, can be attached to any referent, and the meaning of any given word is necessarily a matter of social convention. So, if there is nothing in a word per se that reveals its ineluctable meaning, then our perceptions are filtered by and through language, itself an inevitable and unavoidable screen between us and the world: language mediates; it hides the world from us. And there’s a price attached, for such a view takes us at least one remove from the world of direct feeling and direct apperception, and the world in its very reality is hidden.
      The alternative view is that a sign really does designate what it signifies, that words actually do mean what they say; it sees language as unmediated, what linguists call motivated. In this view, our experience of the world and the things in it is immediate. Words say what they mean, and the essential connection between words and things not only provides or confirms an essential and sympathetic concordance between humankind and the world of what might be called nature, but in addition makes language itself a significant agent of discovery and the word itself a thing, contemplation and investigation of which opens the hidden world to view. Whence Ferdinand de Saussure’s dictum that in symbol “there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified,” and his work on anagrammatic composition as the basis of poetic texts.[3] In Michel Foucault’s account (in Chapter Two of The Order of Things), words “once had an absolute, primary, initial relation to the world,” and a sign once really did designate what it signifies, much as might those repeats of “poland” and yohoheyheyeyheyhahyeyeyhahhah (the lower-case or upper case bringing eye to bear on ear. Rothenberg’s somewhat puzzled first response to Jackson Mac Low’s “aleatory / chance experiments,” that “something real & important was taking place” (158), points to the possibility that a “natural bond” between words and the real can be restored, Mac Low opening up even in a tentative way the world of the hidden, obscured as it is by habit and belief. The motivated and the arbitrary are not, of course, mutually exclusive; they can exist side by side in a single practice, and even in a single utterance, but it is our daily habit to linger with the arbitrary. Most English poets, at least since Blake and Wordsworth but also before, write as if the words they use were indissolubly linked to things, and were things in their very nature. The poem is a means by which to discover / recover that bond; it is sound, along with its rhythm, that gets you out of the arbitrary and into the motivated.
      In a 1976 note, on Tristan Tzara, Rothenberg described ethnopoetics as “a positive work of recovery & return to the lost basis of human poesis” (141); he had elaborated  that sense of loss fifteen years earlier, in October 1961, writing about “deep image”:

The world as it existed for the first man still exists. It taunts us & breaks into our dreams. The poet dares to face it without hope & to create from pure desire, from pure love. The world as it existed before man. The primal world, not yet hardened into the mold of law, but a new law to be imposed on it in the daily encounter. A return to the beginning. A struggle to shape the world . . .Poetry as a total & desperate act (59). 

That’s not far from Jack Spicer’s desire, in After Lorca, to “make poems out of real objects . . . a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper . . . . make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.” But, perhaps unlike Spicer, Rothenberg does not succumb to a sense of loss but seeks in its place to assert and rediscover hope in a language which has a “true” connection to the “real,” however that real might be construed, imagined, imaginary.
      So primal is a favourite Rothenberg word, and you have to pay attention to what the words say: “As a way of making the poem I must still come on the source directly, as a head-on confrontation, . . . I can’t build it up yet through intermediaries, but have to create it new in order to accept it” (56).  But that’s an impossible dream, and it derives as much from the Romantic poets as it does from Pound’s make it new. Writing about Picasso, Gertrude Stein talked of the difference between “things, things seen, and things known,” and thought “things” were unknowable, even unperceivable. Wordsworth sought to restore the immediacy of language and thought the language of ordinary men would rescue poetry from the artificiality of literary convention. It would thus open up the hidden real. Rothenberg’s determination to escape “the protective ‘reality’ & false emblems of the inherited past” (59) and open up the hidden real leads to the great range of his sources; his strategy is encyclopaedic: the sum total cumulative mass of all human (and other?) discourse might possibly add up to an unmediated relation with the real. Ostranenie: each strange voice, each step, however incomplete, into another culture, makes it possible to step, no matter how briefly, outside one’s own language and culture. So almost the last poem in the book, dated 30 August 2011, (it is followed by a coda) closes with: 

the book of witness
opens      all the words we have
are theirs & lead us
eyeless whispering
the years themselves
a miracle
over against a world of pain. (575) 

[note. Peter Quartermain taught contemporary poetry and poetics at the University of British Columbia for over thirty years, retiring in 1999. He was the first Mountjoy Fellow at the University of Durham, UK, in 1990, was Resident Fellow at the Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio Study and Conference Centre, Bellagio, Como, Italy in 1997, and was awarded a Killam Research Prize at the University of British Columbia in 1997. He has written or edited numerous articles and several books, including Basil Bunting: Poet of the North (1990) and Disjunctive Poetics (1992); with the English poet Richard Caddel he edited Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (1999), and, with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999).]

[1] Ezra Pound, "Studies in Contemporary Mentality . . . XIX.--? Versus Camouflage," New Age 22.11 (10 January 1918): 209.
[2] Leonard Bloomfield. Language (New York: Holt, 1933), 145.
[3] Ferdinand de Saussure.  Course in General Linguistics. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, ed.; Wade Baskin, trans. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 68. For his work on anagrams see Jean Starobinski. Words Upon Words. Olivia Emmet, trans. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Geoffrey Squires: Five poems from “Irish Poetry 600-1200” (a work in progress)

[Following his remarkable translations of the great Persian poet Hafez, Squires has embarked on an assemblage of translations from Old Irish, “the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe.”  Its relation to what John Bloomberg-Rissman & I have been assembling as outside & subterranean poetry should also be noted. (J.R.)] 
Over the sea comes Adzehead
off his head
with a hole in his cloak for his head
and a stick with a bent head

he stands in front of a table in front of his house
intoning impieties
and his followers all respond
amen       amen

Ticfa tálcenn … A hostile poem about the arrival of St. Patrick. The Adzehead is a rude reference to the shape of his tonsure. Anon, 6th c. or earlier. 

How many Thirties in this noble island
how many half-Thirties allied to them 
how many townlands side by side                                                                                 
how many yoke of oxen in each townland

how many townlands and Thirty-hundreds
in Ireland rich in goods and chattels
I tell you straight
I defy anyone else to work it out

and do not presume to challenge me
I who am known as Fintan the wise                     
the most learned man that ever was
in Scotland or Ireland

ten townlands in each Thirty-hundred
and twenty more       to be precise
and although they might seem small to us
together comprising a great country

a townland sustains three hundred cattle
with twelve ploughed fields       to be exact
four full herds can roam there without
one cow rubbing up against the next

eighteen Thirties       this is my tally
for the rich and fertile county of Meath
and one score and ten Thirties
belonging to the fair-haired men of Connaught

and fifteen thirties and another twenty
I can tell you as a matter of fact 
without fear of contradiction
in the mighty province of Ulster

eleven Thirties and another twenty
in crowded affluent Leinster
from the mouth of Inver Dublin
up as far as the Boru road

ten thirties and another three score
living together in perfect harmony
in the two illustrious provinces
of the far reaches of Munster

of the Thirty-hundreds I have reckoned
nine score altogether             
and not a townland or half a townland
short in any of them

five thousand five hundred and twenty townlands
by dividing and adding them up
believe me
this is how I have arrived
at the number of townlands in Ireland

Ca lín tríchaIreland was originally divided into areas that could raise thirty hundred fighting men. Over time, these became simply administrative. The term ‘townland’ is still used for a small community. Fintan is a mythical poet. Anon, undated.

My cat and I are of one mind
he hunts mice but I too
hunt in my own way

indifferent to celebrity
I like nothing better
than to be seated quietly
at my books
diligently pursuing the truth
he is not put out because
he has his own small pursuits

when the two of us
are alone together in the house
each of us deploying our skills
we have great sport       endless amusement

he fixes his beady eye
on the far wall
my eyes are not so good now
but even so I focus
on the finer points of the arguments

every so often
a mouse falls into his net
as a result of his martial arts
as for me from time to time
some answer drops into mine

he is overjoyed when
with one swift movement
he traps a mouse in his claws
I am pleased when I grasp some problem
that has long preoccupied me

though we are like this all the time
neither of us gets in the other’s way
each of us loves what he is doing
my little white cat and I

he is a past master
of the work that occupies him daily
I too have my work to do
elucidating difficulty

Messe ocus Pangur Bán … This much-translated poem, known by the cat’s name White Pangur, was written in the margins of a manuscript in an Austrian monastery probably by a missionary monk. The original is in rhyming seven-syllable lines. Anon, 9th c.

I invoke the seven daughters of the sea
who spin youth’s threads of longevity

may three deaths be spared me
may three lives be granted me
may seven waves of good fortune wash over me

may spirits not harm me as I make my rounds
in my flashing breastplate
may my fame not come to nothing
may I enjoy long life       let death
not come to me till I am old

I call upon my silver champion
who has not died and will not die
may my life be as strong as white bronze
as precious as gold
may my status be enhanced
my strength increased

may my grave lie unprepared
may death not come to me
while I am travelling
may I return home safely

the senseless serpent shall not take hold of me
nor the pitiless grey worm       the mindless black beetle
no robber shall assail me        nor coven of women
nor band of armed men

may my lifespan be prolonged
by the King of the universe

I invoke the Ancient One of the seven ages
whom fairy women suckled on their flowing breasts
may my seven candles be not extinguished
I am a strong fort
an immovable rock
a precious stone
a weekly benediction

may I live a hundred times a hundred years
one after another
enjoying all the blessings of life
may the grace of the Holy Spirit be upon me

Domini est salus (thrice)
Christi est salus (thrice)
super populum tuum Domine benedictio tua

Admuiniur secht … Attributed to the abbot of Comraire who died in 762.  The poem mixes pagan and Christian references, typifying the mingling of the two cultures.

A bank of trees overlooking me
       how could I fail to mention this
a blackbird composing an ode for me

above my book       the lined one
here       in the glade
the chatter of birds       birdsong

a clear-voiced cuckoo in a grey mantle
sings to me
making a fine speech
from the top of a bush-fort

truly the Lord is good to me
I write well in the wood 

Dom-farcai fidbaide fál … Another marginalia poem found in a Latin grammar in Switzerland. The Irish is quite mannered rather than spontaneous, and has given rise to discussions about the role of ‘nature’ in such verse. Anon, early 9th c.

[note. “The poems translated here were, with one or two possible exceptions, written between the 7th and 12th centuries AD, making them the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. Latin, which arrived with Christianity in the 5th century and brought a script, was the only other language in play, although there are occasional loanwords from Norse and other tongues. … This work gives us a window onto a world that is in some respects very different but in others seems strangely close. There are poems about war and warriors, the geography and topography of the country, the religious life, nature and the seasons, the Viking threat, about love, exile and death. They comprise a mixture of pagan and Christian in a period when the two cultures intermingled, with the latter gradually displacing the former. … Here … the over-riding aim has been to make of these originals an equivalent poetry in English, and without attempting to reproduce the very different Irish prosodies, to capture something of their form, dynamics and style. The translations are typically close without being literal, and draw on the painstaking scholarly work that has been done in the field over the last century and more. But they are offered as literature: as texts that, despite the great chasm of time, and without in any way diminishing their otherness, still somehow speak to us.” (G.S.)]