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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

American Sign Language as a Medium for Poetry

 Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner of the Flying Words project performing ASL poetry (Jessica Munyon)
for Joseph Castronovo & Edward S. Klima, in memoriam

[The great breakthrough resulting from a new signing poetry in Deaf Culture has been to call into question a poetics in which orality & sounding are assumed to be the foundational bases of all poetic expression. That revelation goes back three decades & more, recently & notably presented in Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature, ed. by Dirksen L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, & Heidi M. Rose (University of California Press, 2006). Still closer to the present is an ASL-oriented web site, Deaf Jam, dedicated to a documentary film of that name, from which the first of the comments, below, is taken. The other two notes presented here represent my own early attempts to bring the poetry of sign into the ethnopoetics that I was promoting in the 1970s & 1980s. They also coincide in a startling way with the exploration of an outsider poetry that has been one of the themes of Poems & Poetics – a poetry distanced enough from the mainstream as to effect substantially our ideas about the nature of poetry itself. (J.R.)]

“Pain” for Joe Castronovo

two fingers,
nearly touch

matching the pulse inside
the skull
a figure “8” explodes

over the temples,
gentle movements of the mind
of words in air

in silence:
do I learn to speak you?
can you hear

the way the lines weave,
moving from the touch

to vanish
as sounds do
writing frees itself

from object-
at last

(1) ASL POETRY is a performance art form utilizing body language, rhythm and movement to create a three dimensional pictorial equivalent to oral poetry. The similarity of hand-shapes can act as alliteration, and using the same hand-shape repetitively works as rhyme. Visual Vernacular (a term and technique originated by Bernard Bragg) involves cinematic concepts. The technique involves references to close-ups, wide shots, images dissolving into other images as well as "cutting" back and forth between characters to show different points of view on a scene.

HISTORY: From 1880 to 1960, American Sign Language Was Suppressed In The Schools And Went Underground, Until Statistics Showed That The Suppression Of Sign Language Was Detrimental To Learning For The Deaf.

Signed poetry grew out of a tradition of playing with the language in Deaf clubs throughout the country, where deaf individuals and their families and friends would congregate for entertainment and to socialize.

ASL poetry has been described "as a kind of writing in space... a language in motion, and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance." (Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi, "Poetry Without Sound,” 1983)


Translation for ASL poetry into a written or oral form involves crossing modalities. In ASL poetry the body is the text. It exists in performance or through a video recording, not on paper. Rhyming schemes are based on visual elements such as facial expression, movement, locations of the signs, and hand shapes. Therefore an oral or written translation of an ASL poem can only be an approximation of what is being expressed.

(2) Regarding Ameslan [American Sign Language] poetry, you might check the
anthology Symposium of the Whole (edited by myself & Diane Rothenberg) for the article "Poetry without Sound" by Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi. Bellugi has done terrific work in this area & early contacted me on the relation of signing poetry to the way in which I and others had been approaching oral poetry in the course of doing (so called) "total translation." I then published this piece in my magazine, New Wilderness Letter (a successor to the earlier Alcheringa Ethnopoetics) with my very strong sense that what was involved touched on a dimension of poetry that made pure oralism inadequate, however much we had then been (or continued to be) commited to a speech model. I made an attempt (around 1976/77) to work out an experimental approach to a total translation from Ameslan, collaborating with the deaf poet Joe Castronovo, who was himself a native signer. But circumstances got in the way & we never followed through on it, although since then I've come on the work of performance poets like Peter Cook & Kenny Learner composing & performing in ASL & have been hoping to see how much further it would go. 

(3) POETRY WITHOUT SOUND. Even in its early, tentative stages, the signing poetry emerging as an aspect of the "culture of the deaf" challenges some of our cherished preconceptions about poetry and its relation to human speech. Ameslan (American Sign Language) represents, literally, a poetry without sound and, for its practitioners, a poetry without access to that experience of sound as voice that we've so often taken as the bedrock of all poetics and all language. In the real world of the deaf, then, language exists as a kind of writing in space and as a primary form of communication without reference to any more primary form of language for its validation. It is in this sense a realization of the ideogrammatic vision of a Fenollosa -- "a splendid flash of concrete poetry" -- but an ideogrammatic language truly in motion and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance. (Ethnopoetic analogues -- for those who would care to check them out -- include Hindu and Tantric mudras, Plains Indian and Australian Aborigine sign languages, and Ejagham [southeastern Nigerian] "action writing": a history of human gesture languages that would enrich our sense of poetry and language, should we set our minds to it.) // The reader may also want to relate this piece to recent discourse about "written-oral dichotomies, etc., but the revelation of Ameslan, in that sense, isn't a denial of the powers of oral poetry but the creation of its possible and equally impermanent companion in performance. (J.R., from Symposium of the Whole, 1983)

[See also the entry “Uncollected Poems (3): ‘The Silent Language’ with a note on poetry & signing” in Poems & Poetics, August 30, 2008. And for those who want to pursue this further, a relevant online resource is The Deaf Studies Digital Journal, edited by Ben Bahan and Dirksen Bauman, with postings primarily in American Sign Language.]

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Robert Kelly, from I TAROCCHI NUOVI or, Major Arcana of the Sacred Ordinary

photo by Jennifer May


I presume to offer a glimpse of a new Tarot. The major arcana of the deck are ordinary things of this world, and the suits are not four but infinite, for there is no end to the counting numbers, and no end to the things they can count. This deck is prefigured in a story published half a century ago called “The Infinite Tarot,” where there was talk of the Ace of Sewing Machines and such like. There are no such racy conjectures in the present pack, of which after research and deliberation I offer to the world only the Major Arcana, the Trumps. Of course there are many ordinary things in this sacred world, but these seem to have special cogency, special power to alert the mind to the sacredness of ordinary things. I use the Italian title to honor the great primal images of Mantegna’s Tarocchi.
January 2014

preliminary advice:
to the querent
who seeks an answer from the cards

But what are you looking for
in all these pictures?
They’re all dead people by now,
the Husband, the Child,
the Nun, the Prophet lying
drunk beneath his tree,
the Tree, the Cellar Door,
the Dog. Dead or fallen
ruinous and sad. Are you sad?
Do you come to the cards
the way you’d drink some wine
or call a friend you haven’t seen
in years? Did you ever know him
anyhow? The images don’t lie
because the images don’t die.
Did you know I’d be here
when you came in, a sly voice
no louder than a silken
dress on a thigh, a whisper
of light in the dingy trees
around your yard? Why
can’t you take care of anything?
Do you want to wind up
like me, a voice yearning,
yearning for ears, doesn’t
really matter, even yours?

But I can tell you everything.
You whisper to the cards,
they whisper to me, I whisper
to you. A lot of susurrus
to go round, mice in the pantry,
tiny endless appetites questing
like you for anything. Like me.

Because I began out there like you
then got trapped in it. I asked
and it answered, I leaned close
to hear every detail, and before
I knew it or could flee, the voice
became my own. And I’ve
been talking ever since. Now
what was it you wanted to know?

the tailor

crosslegged on his table
in strong sunlight
finding old stitches
in an older coat.

He will unpiece it
and take each scrap
and make a new coat
for a naked man.

Meantime he squints
at the fraying thread
praying to the God
of seams and sewers,
Hera’s aunt,
the Spider Queen
of Anatolia
who taught us
to connect.
And why not?

Magic lives between
the skin and the cloth,
silk or hide
makes no matter.

Magic is all.
He unstitches
and stitches afresh
in fine red thread—
under the table
wind is blowing
scraps of linen
here and there.

You and I are
just a week from being born.

the glass of water

A man holds it
in front of his chest
but his eyes are not on it,
they look out at you,
viewer, querent,
whatever you are.

Unknown to him
or at least unnoticed
there is a woman in the class
small, perfectly formed,
eyes open, rather beautiful
she is, and she’s looking
right at you too.

This is Melusina,
the elemental
daughter of water and air,
you need her to live.

When the man has drunk his water,
all of it or only some
she will still be there,
adrift before his eyes

and yours,
out from the image
into your world
or whatever you call it,
this thing around you.
And then he gives it to you.

the husband 

He holds a hammer in his hand.
He holds a wounded sparrow in his hand.
He holds a yardstick in his hand.
He holds a letter in his hand he hasn’t finished reading.
And never will.
            He holds a key in his hand.
He holds an antique ormolu clock on his hand.
It tells old time.
He holds a book in his hand, it’s open, pages riffled by wind.
He holds a kitten curled up on his palm.
He holds a photo of a lost love in his hand.
He has forgotten her name.
He holds a mirror in his hand but does not look at it.
Who knows what he would see?
He holds an ear of corn half-eaten in his hand.
He holds a bottle perhaps of water in his hand.
He is sustained by the simplest things.
He holds a rifle in his hand.
Does he know how to use it? Not sure.
He holds a butterfly net in his hand.
He feels ridiculous but he loves things.
He holds his hand out and a dragonfly lands on it.
He holds his father’s cane in his hand.
He holds a map of China all open and dangling.
He holds a silk stocking draped across his wrist.
He holds a branch of holly in his hand.
He holds a wad of paper money in his hand.
He holds a pair of scissors in his hand.
He holds a bell in his hand.
He holds a dog-leash in his hand but no dog is in it.
He holds a wooden flute in his hand.
He holds a red ball in his hand.
He holds a kitchen strainer in his hand.
He holds a stone in his hand.
He holds nothing in his hand.

[note. The preceding excerpt is from a remarkable new series of on-line poetry works, Metambesen, edited by Charlotte Mandell & Robert Kelly & freely available on the internet.  In the words of the editors: “As citizens in the commonwealth of language, we are anxious to make new work freely and easily available, using the swift herald of the internet to bring readers chapbooks and other texts they can read and download without cost.”  Beyond that noble & notable plan, my showing it here is a further tribute to Kelly himself, who was a poet essential to my own formative years as a poet, a time of transformations now a half century in the past.  With him there was a brief time in which we struggled together with the dimensions of ‘deep image’ as a strategy of composition developed by us along with a cohort of contemporaries in New York & elsewhere.  In my own case this was the forerunner to that ethnopoetics to which I came on my own by the end of the 1960s, but looking back now I feel sure that it was Robert who was an early one & possibly the first to point me in that direction.  Rounding out his seventh decade now, he represents for me & for many others a poet of the greatest powers & with a devotion to our art & to the shared life from which it springs second to none in my memory.” (J.R.)]

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Technicians of the Sacred, Revised & Expanded: An Announcement & an Appeal

[The following is an early announcement of a work now in progress: the latest expanded & revised edition of Technicians of the Sacred that the University of California Press will be publishing in 2017, almost in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication in 1968.  As I launch into the work I’m posting my proposals for the book as an indication of what’s in store & in the hope, as with other assemblages of mine, that others will come forward with suggestions for materials relevant as texts & commentaries that fall along the lines of those in the earlier versions.  My email address appears in the right margin of this blog & I can also be reached, by those so equipped, through my account on Facebook.  I will try to respond as far as I can to all suggestions & to acknowledge in print all those that prove pertinent to the work at hand.  (J.R.)]


It is now nearly a half century since the original publication of Technicians of the Sacred (Doubleday Anchor, 1968) and thirty years since the University of California Press published a substantially revised and expanded version in 1985.  Over those years the book has remained in print, while it has become the starting point for a dozen subsequent anthologies/assemblages of mine with a focus on ethnopoetics (a field it helped to establish) and a parallel commitment to the poetry and poetics of an experimental and international avant-garde.  Six of those books were published by the University of California Press, and all but one of them have also remained in print.

As was the case when I revised Technicians of the Sacred in 1985, the time has now come for a further expansion and revision, largely to reflect new writings and discoveries over the intervening decades.  Most important here is the unprecedented development of a worldwide range of new/old poetries, both written and oral, in many of the world’s indigenous and threatened languages.  At the same time poets and scholars have continued the translation and publication of traditional and archaic poetry that has greatly enhanced the range and depth of what we can recognize and read as poetry.  A version of Technicians of the Sacred for the 21st century would then appear to be long overdue.

What I’m proposing therefore, aside from adding material to the already existing sections, are the following major changes:

– Following the three opening sections (Origins & Namings, Visions & Spels, Death & Defeat) I would add a fourth section tentatively titled “Survivals & Revivals.”  This would recognize the changed reality and modify the tragic inflection of the original book, influenced as it was by earlier notions of salvage anthropology and the preservation of extinct or vanishing cultures.  Like the other thematic sections this one would have a worldwide reach spanning many continents and cultures, with an emphasis on both linguistic and cultural continuities.  Particularly relevant at present is what amounts to a movement of new poetries in the indigenous languages of the Americas (Mazatec, Zapotec, Quechua, Mapuche, Tzotzil Maya, etc.), with similar developments to be explored throughout the world.

– In light also of the increased recovery and translation of poetries from what I referred to in Technicians of the Sacred as “the ancient near east,” I propose to separate that region from its linkage with Europe and to present it as a sixth and distinct geographical section.  This would make up for its relatively sparse appearance as part of the combined “Europe and the Ancient Near East” section in the earlier volume and would allow a wealth of new material to appear in this final version of the book.

– With the introduction of these additional materials another major revision would involve the creation of new accompanying commentaries, and I would combine this with some revision and updating of the previous commentaries.  This would allow me to take account of more recent critical and scholarly work but also of later experimental poetry that presents analogues to the traditional poems uncovered and shows the impact of ethnopoetics itself on the work of contemporary poets.


In the original edition of Technicians of the Sacred in 1968, and again in the expanded 1985 edition,  the three opening sections end with one titled “Death & Defeat,” which I’ve come to think of as a marker of the tragic if secondary dimension of the original work.  The final poem in that section, however, was a small prophetic song from the Plains Indian Ghost Dance”:

           We shall live again
           We shall live again

In the years since then, along with the continued decimation of many poetries and languages, there has been a welcome resurgence in others of what was thought to have been irrevocably lost.  This has taken place both in indigenous languages (sometimes called “endangered” or “stateless”) and in the languages of conquest – in written and experimental forms as well as in continuing oral traditions, and as often as not showing both a continuity and transformation of the “deep cultures” from which the new poetry emerged.  It is with this in mind that the old Ghost Dance song becomes a harbinger for me of what can now be said and represented.                                                                                                   
My own experience here has been largely with the new indigenous poetries of the Americas, both north and south, but in the course of time I have also begun to explore similar outcroppings across a still greater range of continents and cultures.  The new indigenous poets with whom I’ve had direct contact in mutual performance and correspondence write and perform in languages like Nahuatl, Mazatec, Tzotzil, and Mapuche, among those in the Americas, while I can also draw on others (both poets and translators) in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, to maintain the global balance that characterized the earlier Technicians.  I also expect to represent pidgins and creoles, as well as poetry written in languages like English and Spanish but tied in formal and semantic ways to the deep cultures from which they emerge.

When Technicians of the Sacred first appeared, David Antin wrote of it: “Technicians is beautiful.  Really it’s two books, an anthology of ‘primitive’ poetry and an essay on what’s interesting in poetry now.  Either part alone would have been worth the price of the book.  Together they’re incredible.”  Needless to say, the new section of the book will carry along the two-book framework (as will the additions to the other sections), even while the “survivals & revivals” themselves will also, I expect, be a reflection of “what’s interesting in poetry now.”

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ariel Resnikoff, with Jerome Rothenberg: From an Interview (continued), on Jews & Experimental Modernism, with Notes toward a Poetry of Witness & an Omnipoetics

Jerome Rothenberg, from a production circa 1984 of "That Dada Strain" by Luke Morrison &  the Center for Theater Science & Research, San Diego & Lexington, NY
[The following is a continuation of an interview, the first part of which appeared in Poems and Poetics on December 10, 2014.  The full interview, conducted by Resnikoff over a period of several months, was published later in The Wolf magazine, number 31, edited by James Byrne & Sandeep Parmar.]

AR: I’m curious how the question of a Jewish entry into experimental modernism relates to your interest in the work and character of Tristan Tzara (born Samy Rosenstock, 1896-1963), and in Dada, more generally. “[Y]ou are dead” you write in the third section of Abulafia’s Circles, titled, “The Holy Words of Tristan Tzara”,

& dada life is growing
from your monocle
ignored      exalted
you lead me to my future
making poems together
flames & tongues we write…

Do you see Tzara’s work as functioning within a tradition of secular Jewish experimental art? Do you feel that your own work is in dialogue with his?

JR:  In a conversation the other day a question like this came up – about the presence of Jews in experimental modernism and in Dada more precisely – and it struck me in a flash that except for Tzara and for Marcel Janco as his Romanian-Jewish compatriot, none of the core Dadas I could think of were Jews.  I remembered too Hugo Ball’s curious remark about the two little “oriental” men (Tzara and Janco) who showed up at the Cabaret Voltaire before it opened and, twenty years later, the Nazi intertwining of Jews and entartete kunst, with Dada foremost.  Yet Tzara, as far as I know, never comes forward as a Jew, the ethnic mark as hidden as the ethnic name.  And I remember another incident as well, when I was showing Edouard Roditi A Big Jewish Book, Edouard, who had known Tzara in Paris, laughed at how a Jewish shagetz like Tzara would have responded to seeing himself included in a book like that     .
              Nor do I believe that there’s something specifically Jewish in Dada and other extreme avantgardisms, although I can find analogs in (largely) mystical judaism as in other deep cultures.  As for “a tradition of secular Jewish experimental art,” I can’t imagine that that would have meant anything to Tzara – to separate that in some way from experimental art over all.  The milieu in which he wrote was French and European with a strong interest in the remote and “primitive” (African and Oceanian), as it was then being called, or in ethnopoetics as we would later speak of it.  It’s curious too that the racist and anti-semitic connection the Nazis made between “degenerate art” (like Dada) and presumably Jewish conspiracies, would sometimes overstate the Jewish presence in the experimental and international avant-garde, with figures like Tzara cited as arch-conspirators – elders or juniors of Zion corrupting the Aryan West.  In other words precisely what we take and value as the rehabilitative and cleansing power of the historical avant-garde and the “great negative work of destruction” that Tzara proclaimed was what made it the target of Nazis and others who hated it to start with and found it to their advantage to assert a phony Jewish presence as its defining characteristic.
              In another sense Tzara’s late adolescent Dada fury, which I love and still draw from, was no more Jewish at its core than Rimbaud’s a generation or  two earlier.  The only difference of course was in the blood line – a matter of race (of racism, I almost said) pure and simple.

AR: Is it only a matter of race, then, that connects Tzara to Jacob Frank and Abraham Abulafia in Abulafia’s Circles? How did this dynamic trio come to be?

JR: Obviously Frank and Abulafia fit into a Jewish context in a different way from Tzara, so the comedy or irony in this involves putting him alongside the other two, which may in some sense be a question of blood line or race if one wants to see it that way.  More immediate for me is that Frank and Abulafia were both self-proclaimed messiahs while Tzara, when he came to Paris from Zurich, was awaited by Breton and the other Paris Dadas as a kind of latterday messiah – or as an “anti-messiah” and “prophet” in the account by Hans Richter, which rings truer though it comes to much the same thing.  The point anyway is that for the project I was then engaged in I needed Tzara to fill out the messianic trio and that his identification with Sammy Rosenstock allowed me to play off that absurdity as a part of my own “Jewish surrealist vaudeville.”  Probably too that would be closer to Richter’s phrasing than to Breton’s tongue-in-cheek remark, but enough to call up the “ghost of Abulafia no ghost” while having him proclaim:

              messiahs are passé
              there is no greater savior
              than this no eye
              so credible

with a sense after the fact that the apocalyptic hopes of his later stalinism have crashed against the reality that doomed Mandelstam and others (that too, if you want, in a kind of Jewish context).  And when the poem ends it’s with a sense of ruination and loss:
            like earth
            the brain
            the passage to other worlds
            passage to something sad
            lost dada
            an old horse rotting in the garden
            maneless waiting
            for the full moon
            someone leaps into the saddle
            rushes after you
            exuding light

Or as I end another poem from that time: “guess I got nothing left to say.”

AR:  In “A Re-Vision of Jerome Rothenberg’s Poetry and Poetics,” Heriberto Yépez tells us that “[i]f after Deep Image came Ethnopoetics — with the former not so much going away as merging in the helix of his total project — after this Deep Ethnopoetics came a poetics of witness.” Tell me about this poetics of witness. In what ways do you see your work serving as testimony? I am especially interested in your most recent book, Eye of Witness, and in what Yépez calls your desire to construct an omnipoetics.

JR: To go back for a moment to the end of the previous answer: when I concluded “Cokboy” with the line about having nothing left to say, I didn’t realize at first how it resembled John Cage’s definition of poetry: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.”  In the poem of course I had invoked the reality of genocide – of both Indians and Jews – and after crying out four times “America disaster,” had turned from it in disgust, but the nothing there, I would like to think in reconsideration, is really poetry as I came to understand it.  That came back to me – the quality of poetry as both nothing & everything – when I write in Khurbn: “After Auschwitz there is only poetry.”  With this there is also an increased determination to let other voices come into the poetry, to take over the saying for me, so that I become a conduit for their speaking or witnessing.  It’s already there in Poland/1931 and in the anthologies; still more explicitly, even painfully, in Khurbn; & it’s picked up in a different way in the title of my first book in the new century,  A Book of Witness, or in my first poem for the millennium that starts: “Voices are dumb until / I speak for them.”  And later on: “I open up / my mouth & hear / a multitude / of voices.”  I think all of that is what Yépez has in mind when he credits me with “a poetics of witness,” as something toward which the earlier work had been heading.  And that leads me finally to think of an omnipoetics: an assemblage and poetics of everything, which is more than I can ever accomplish on my own but seems to me to be the great work that all of us, as poets, have had and still may have in common – a work, as Isidore Ducasse had it, that’s made by all, not one.  It’s a motif anyway that runs through Eye of Witness and that’s the foundation for the new assemblage – of “outside and subterranean poetry” – on which I’d been working for the last few years.

AR: Say more about “outside and subterranean poetry.” I know you and John Bloomberg-Rissman recently finished putting together the book.

JR: The book, then, is a work with a theme or motif – “outside,” “subterranean” – in search of something like a definition.  That anyway is how it started, a sense I had of how much poetry lies outside of poetry as we commonly think of it and how much emerges otherwise from the conditions that Joyce described to us as those of  “silence, exile and cunning.”  Or going at it from a somewhat different direction, there was a fascination with what I described in the Jewish instance as a “world of … mystics, thieves and madmen” – only extended now as far and wide as we could take it.  So the experimental side of the project – the real experiment – was to see what we could find and what would happen if we brought together or juxtaposed a number of outside or subterranean works, however defined, from a wide range of times and places.  Or maybe another way to put it is that we started with the words “outside” and “subterranean” as they might apply to poetry and set out to track and map them with regard to actual poems and poets, but taking poetry not only as a learnèd practice but as the common inheritance of most of us who open up to language and the world around us.  And still the words “outside/outsider” and “subterranean” may have been excessively defined or misdefined before we came at them – like “primitive” and “archaic” in Technicians of the Sacred, where I found myself at the end of the process putting the older notions of “primitive” in doubt.  So as I asserted there that “primitive means complex,” I might assert here that “outside” and “outsider” reside at the very center or heart of the over-all poetry project.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jerome Rothenberg: At the Hotel Monopol

in Breslau
PROEM [1988].   It was raining when we got to Wroclaw [Breslau], the miles from Auschwitz bringing back the memories of what had happened there.  Traveling with our son we had made reservations for a single suite at the Hotel Monopol, but when we pulled in, the hotel could only come up with two separate rooms.  After a while, though, the desk clerk said that they had found a suite for us that was free.  An elderly bellhop carried our bags up the central flight of stairs, threw the big doors open, put our bags down on the floor, and asked me with a little smile, “And do you know who slept here?” Then he answered his own question: “Hitler!—And he made a speech from that balcony.”  After which  he turned and closed the doors behind him, leaving us to think again about our fate and theirs.

in the room
where Hitler slept
dreams didn’t come
but sounds
broke from the walls

& cracked
then crackled
made us stare down
past our feet
the dance beginning

while over our heads
the lights would flicker
brought to life
we stepped out

on his balcony
& hailed the crowds
hard faces
theirs like ours

our fingers flat
above our lips
looking like hairs
bunched up
touched by his tongue

the rain falls
from iron boxes
the dead outside the ring
surround us

cousins fallen
where the rain
like tiny knives
opens their wounds

children & rain
the redfaced killers
reach up to the man
the victims without faces
broken underfoot

I hadn’t been there
where the lines of gymnasts
march to the sounds
of open flesh

for them his face
is golden
old as time & echoing
the cry of what can never
be reborn

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Anne Blonstein: from “worked on screen” (some notarikon poems with a note on notarikon)

[Anne Blonstein died much too soon on April 19, 2011.  She had by then created a remarkable series of works in which she employed & transformed traditional numerological and hermeneutic procedures (gematria, notarikon) in the composition of radically new experimental poems.  Too little known, her oeuvre, as I would read it, is in a line that goes from Abulafia to Mallarmé and Mac Low & various poets of Oulipo and Fluxus, among others, while the devotion & precision that she shows throughout are clearly & powerfully her own.   The following, published several months before her death in the blogger version of Poems and Poetics, is available also at, along with five more of her poems; & an essay by Charles Lock on her life & work was posted in Poems and Poetics on May 15, 2011. The complete worked on screen was published as a book by Poetry Salzburg in 2005(J.R.)]


Jewess undresses
........noun garments
...............round an uncircumscribed parenthesis

...............the room assumes exile
...until mouths
— eyestormed nightboats —



Keeping ontological masks
kaleidoscoping epistemological rhythms


.....Pandora encounters ruth
seeding enchancements
under stones.

.....................(Danced exilically rosed

...............Words infiltrate the zonedself

her and this

.........unlessened each becoming
each recombines

dreams ash sentences

....Limited expressions incorporate

gifted exspellent soritude
.......i exones
.....gene terminations.)


................Water excels in bonding


...................Thirst intimately excells responsability


Kissing odontological margins
keeps epidermally resonating


.........or how ends never delete's semiosis

.........unopened palatial


...Democrat anarchist situationist

...........Keyworker or notepadder
.......zeitmassed experiments


...Pariahs and refugees
.tune ectopolitical instruments

(Lead is both
exhausted radioactivity
and lettoral insulator
softly mysnomering)


noncooperatively educated
............I should know
............I knew
............I was playing with fire
............I ran the risk
............I would still do the same
............I wanted to avoid violence
............I want to avoid violence
............I had either to submit
............I do not ask for mercy
............I am here

(Before a line drawn
exigent indigent shantied)


............& sentimental & longing
....& skin & loneliness
.......& stinking & lyrical
.& streets & liberty
& solitary & largely
..................& specifically & literally
...........& story & lost
....& spirits & labours
........& struggle & luck
............& silent & laughing
...............& sometimes & lucid
..............& survival & love
.....& suffering & lament
....& states & locates
............& situation & leaving
.........& schemes & lust
.....& stillness & lessons
..& stranger & listeners

On notarikon and "worked on screen"

Like gematria originally a rabbinical hermeneutical method employed to interpret the Hebrew scriptures, notarikon offers an intimate procedure for writing poetry that draws on existing texts. There are several categories of notarikon. The form that I apply might be regarded as the unfolding of acronyms. Each letter of a word is perceived as the initial letter of another word, such that the original word, letter by letter, fans out into a phrase. A four-letter name gives a four-word phrase : And notarikon never ends …

In some of my sequences, notarikon provides just a part of the poetic structure, in others it dominates.

All my notarikon-based projects since I began writing them about a decade ago have used source texts in languages other than English. While for my most recent sequences I have worked with texts in French, Spanish and Hebrew, my first two sequences drew on (and in) German. The source texts for "correspondence with nobody," written in 2001, were Paul Celan's translations of 21 sonnets by Shakespeare. I wrote "worked on screen" the following year.

The impetus for these poems was an exhibition held at the Basel Kunstmuseum, "Paul Klee — Works on Paper." There is one poem for each of the 108 pictures in the exhibition, which showed drawings and prints (and the occasional painting) from nearly every year from 1903 to that of the artist's death in 1940. Klee's titles (often themselves micropoems) for each picture provided the letters for the notarikon. To begin with, as in the poems 1–7 here, I used the notarikon quite stringently, but as the sequence progressed, I experimented with a variety of ways of composing the poems with and around the basic notarikon method.

The poems are ekphrastic to varying degrees, and their spatialization occasionally echoes features of the Klee pictures, though in most poems it is independent. Because social and political contexts — Klee's and mine — are thematic threads etched through the sequence, in my book I give the date for each artwork (and of the poem's composition). Poem 53 refers to a quite well-known picture (easily viewed online) painted in 1922. The year of the so-called "Great Trial" of Gandhi, as well as the first publication of a rather famous poem …