Friday, December 26, 2008


In February 1948, Henri Michaux’s wife, Marie-Louise, after surviving four years of the Nazi occupation and a fight with tuberculosis, died of complications from burns when her nightgown caught fire. The next year, Michaux published Poetry for Power, a short book of 3 “action poems” intended “to transform what is wrong, the enemy, the irritating situation, hostile surroundings into energy.” As he wrote in the Afterword:
There is a certain threshold beyond which, but not before, a thought-feeling counts, counts differently, counts genuinely and takes on power. It may even spread out in all directions …

—Henri Michaux, Afterword: Powers and Maledictions (trans. David Ball)
The poem he designed to heal “a person who was very dear to me” (she healed) seemed a good way to send out 2008 and brace for the new.

Opening the door inside you, I have entered
To act, I come
I am here
I support you
You are no longer abandoned
You are no longer in difficulty
Their strings untied, your difficulties fall
The nightmare that left you haggard is no more
I am shouldering you
With me you place
Your foot on the first step of the endless stairway
Which carries you
Which brings you up
Which fulfills you

I appease you
I am spreading out sheets of peace in you
I am soothing the child of your dream
Surge in fronds on the circle of images around the frightened woman
Surge on the snows of her paleness
Surge on her hearth… and the fire lights up again

Your thoughts of thrust are supported
Your thoughts of failure, weakened
My strength is in your body, slipped inside
..and your face, losing its wrinkles, is refreshed
Sickness no longer makes its way in you
Fever leaves you

The peace of vaults
The peace of flowering prairies
Peace comes back into you

In the name of the highest number, I am helping you
Like a smoking crater
All the heaviness rises off your overburdened shoulders
The wicked heads around you
Venomous observers of the miseries of the weak
Can see you no longer
Exist no longer

A crew of reinforcements
In mystery and a deep line
Like an undersea wake
Like a bass chant
I have come
This chant takes you
This chant raises you up
This chant is animated by many streams
This chant is fed by a calmed Niagra
This chant is entirely for you

No more pincers
No more dark shadows
No more fears
There is no more trace of them
There is no need to have them
Where pain was, is cotton
Where scattering was, is solder
Where infection was, is new blood
Where locks were is open sea
The carrying sea and the fullness of you
Intact, like an egg of ivory

I have bathed the face of your future.

—Henri Michaux, TO ACT, I COME, trans. David Ball

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Note on Camp

There’s a lot of talk in poetry today about “camps.” Here’s a view from the Concrete Formalist one.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Judith Roitman & Stanley Lombardo in Portland, 12/18/08 (Fin)

Stanley Lombardo read from his translations from five epics: the Iliad, the Odyssey, On Nature (Parmenides’s mostly lost philosophical epic), Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno. The scenes he selected connected thematically, most involving the power of women, in forms human or divine, to impart what you might call the Roitmanesque virtues of rationality, restraint, impassioned detachment, and carefully measured language (as in Francesca’s speech to Dante) to a world on the lip of going berserk.

Lombardo read in a rich, dramatic, books-on-tape voice which stressed the oral provenance of the epic, and recovered the vivid intensities of well-worn HUM 100 scenes. His translations were elegant and direct, contemporary without resorting to the colloquial, and conveyed the still grandeur that epic seems to insist upon in even its most intimate scenes, where the effect’s hardest to pull off.

It’s tempting to think of the Lombardo/Roitman pairing as a kind of “state of the civilization” report, Roitman holding down centuries 20 and 21, Lombardo in the backfield tracing the path to the now. Beats the hell out of HUM 100, and the only syllabus is listening.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Judith Roitman & Stanley Lombardo in Portland, 12/18/08 (Part 1)

Judith Roitman & Stanley Lombardo read in Portland on Thursday, their first time together and not in a marathon of stars. Roitman read mostly from No Face, her “new new and selected” as David Abel put it, with title and some of the poems inside inspired by the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I don’t know Miyazaki’s films, so couldn’t trace their affinities to Roitman’s compelling abstractions, direct enough in diction and syntax, and engaged with recognizably “poetic” subjects like love and sex and the phases of the moon, but made strange by a peculiar distance—an interest in features assumed to be present, but not able to be seen—that operates not unlike the image on the book’s cover: a “No Face” that’s clearly got one, but that we only intuit through its opposite, presuming a front from the back.

The lines swept by in clusters too tight for me to follow closely, but the ones I picked out most often mentioned distance or occlusion: “as if distance without mechanism”; “the distance must be kept around them”; “your heart tremble is unknown to the observer”; “you enter into it but it’s somewhere else”; “this would be our lifeblood if we could find it.” This insistence on the virtues of detachment, observation, and precision achieved through abstraction, like math I guess, or Zen (Roitman’s a veteran practitioner of both), contrasted with the nature of the subjects under scrutiny, “the body,” or sex (especially in the sequence Under Mollusk), or death: intensities not so easy to detach from. The paradox driving the poems, or the sense of reality they expressed, was the way the things of this world have of becoming more elusive the more we scrutinize them: analysis as Entfremdung, which is maybe poetry’s best claim to being a species of knowledge.

Roitman closed with the best intro to a closing poem ever: she simply announced it’s the favorite of all her poems. “Past Muster,” which I heard as “passed muster,” followed like a rim shot—the idea that the favorite of all your poems, after a lifetime of writing, would just “pass muster,” tickled me, and seemed typical of the clear-eyed exactitude I’d gleaned from her reading. But it was “past muster,” and lovely, and a wry meditation I think on death but I can’t find it online to be sure.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Vatic Urbanism

A friend back-channeled about yesterday’s post, wondering whether all modern vatics—Blake, Whitman, Ginsberg, maybe Hölderlin—are essentially urban at heart, taking their vapors from Lambeth or Brooklyn or the dreamy university towns of Central Europe, while keeping their eye fixed on the mythic ‘elsewhere’ beyond the carriages and horse crap of the boulevards. What grabbed me about Boone’s description of Dahlen’s work as “vatic urbanism” was the way it pulled the modern city adjacent to ancient prophecy, two great tastes I don’t usually think of as tasting great together. My friend points out though that an advantage of being an urban vatic, or more correctly, vatic urbanist (one website sniffs that in matters vatic, “no one seems to have ventured a noun thus far”) is that the target of your jeremiads—the city and the alienating modernity that pushes it up—is always close at hand. In this sense, a “rural vatic” would be hard to imagine. They’d complain about, what, suburban sprawl?

I liked this idea because it injects a little knowing charlatanism into a role that can quickly become obnoxious. The prophet’s a pure product of the surroundings she claims to transcend, and for the thunder to work, you’ve got to shake some sheet metal. Olson comes off best when he’s clearly talking out of his ass; Blake’s visions, when they don’t make me sleep, appeal where they’re most ludicrous, angels atop an omnibus or giants sprawled on public greens. With enough booze, I might argue that we’re all vatic urbans now, silly enough to carry on with an art so out of time with the media rush—the urban waged by other means—but just enough in it to giggle about it. Or revise it via giggle: “There can be compartmentalization in this world—and among those compartmentalizations are giggles.” (Bruce Boone)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Osiris Grows in the Dark"

Phrase of the week: vatic urbanism.

(I’ll expose how local I’ve gone in just two years by pointing out that Beverly Dahlen’s from Portland. Bruce Boone isnt, but I like his case for the virtues of dyspepsia anyway. Can they ship some up here?)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Some of What He Does

You know that gimmicky new State by State anthology, where 50 “hot” writers cover different segments of the Union? Instead of that, why doesn’t some genius editor commission Brandon Brown to red-eye the nation and write up reports like these? North Carolina, Ohio, and New York already down (with advanced drafts of Nevada & Missouri.) That leaves just, what, 46.5 to go.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Other Side of Language, Part 2 (Elvira edition)

Nada Gordon left this comment on yesterday’s post about J.M.G. Le Clézio:
I’m a little suspicious of the notion that one writes (poetry) to “make a better world.” In fact, I criticized the otherwise wonderfully uppity authors of the “Neoliberal Poetry” essay in the new Crayon on that very point.

It just sounds so do-goody. I can accept that one writes poetry to create alternative paradigms, to build fantasies, to narrow or widen focus, to drive a wedge into, to collapse or overturn, to celebrate, etc. (this list could go on and on). I just don’t think it’s about “making a better world,” which makes me think of nothing so much as Disney’s Tomorrowland.
I replied:
Hi Nada,

One thing that intrigues me about Le Clézio’s Nobel Lecture is that he tips his hat to the “must make better world” idea while fully recognizing that most peoples of the world don’t need literature to do that—they’ve got movies, or myth, or storytellers to do whatever socially useful things it is that art does. That’s a weird bind to place the writer in, whose ability to even “remember” or bear witness or whatever, let alone improve the world, becomes kind of superfluous. A desire to “have an impact upon reality” instead of a real possibility. The upshot’s not a better world, but writerly malaise. That seems like an odd (and very possibly true) thing to say.

If you read the
whole speech, I wonder what you make of this “Elvira” he dedicates his prize to (among others). Elvira is an Amerindian storyteller Le Clézio witnessed in performance in the Embera forest of Central America. I admire his humility and generous angle of vision, but why then aren’t we hearing from Elvira? Is Le Clézio’s (the writer’s) global role just middleman between cultures? It reminded me a little of that moment at the end of Heart of Darkness where the African “queen” that Chinua Achebe talks about in his critique of the novel gets to keen, but not talk. Not sure how to feel about all this … one reason I like it.
Some of this exchange reminded me of Konrad Steiner’s comments about Peter Sellars’s “The State of Cinema” speech last year in San Francisco. (“Film is the greatest art form at the moment for penetrating deeply across the cultures, across the world, and it’s the art form that has the lifeblood of the gestalt flowing through it right now”). You?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"The Other Side of Language"

I thought the intense concern with the relevance, and especially the political efficacy of literature was a pragmatic American thing, but here’s J.M.G Le Clézio in his Nobel Lecture taking it global:
The idea that literature is the luxury of a dominant class, feeding on ideas and images that remain foreign to the vast majority: that is the source of the malaise that each of us is feeling—as I address those who read, who write. Of course one would like to spread the word to all those who have been excluded, to invite them magnanimously to the banquet of culture. Why is this so difficult? Peoples without writing, as the anthropologists like to call them, have succeeded in inventing a form of total communication, through song and myth. Why has this become impossible for our industrialized societies, in the present day? Must we reinvent culture? Must we return to an immediate, direct form of communication? It is tempting to believe that the cinema fulfils just such a role in our time, or popular music with its rhythms and rhymes, its echoes of the dance. Or jazz and, in other climes, calypso, maloya, sega.


To act: that is what the writer would like to be able to do, above all. To act, rather than to bear witness. To write, imagine, and dream in such a way that his words and inventions and dreams will have an impact upon reality, will change people's minds and hearts, will prepare the way for a better world. And yet, at that very moment, a voice is whispering to him that it will not be possible, that words are words that are taken away on the winds of society, and dreams are mere illusions. What right has he to wish he were better? Is it really up to the writer to try to find solutions? Is he not in the position of the gamekeeper in the play Knock ou Le Triomphe de la médecine, who would like to prevent an earthquake? How can the writer act, when all he knows is how to remember?

J.M.G. Le Clézio, Brittany, 4 November 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Attention, Terry Gross

North Carolina’s NPR affiliate, WUNC, must be pretty cool, because they talked to Magdalena Zurawski for a good 20 minutes about philosophy, literary theory, and The Bruise.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Dept. of Good Questions

“Why did pirates and dinosaurs disappear?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Time for Heine

I’m anxious to see the new Chernoff & Hoover Hölderlin, but isn’t this is more the age of Heine?
“For Heine, the elements of Nature—nightingales, roses, lilies—have become a kind of emotional bric-a-brac, and they work simply as part of a psychological system of signs: nightingales are only a symbol of the lover’s sorrow; lilies make present the whiteness of the beloved’s skin. The banality of his poetic paraphernalia does not disturb Heine—quite the contrary: he uses it expertly to reflect a bitter irony onto a genuine passion, a passion that is forced to use such commonplace modes of expression to reveal itself.”

—Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation

Thursday, December 04, 2008

They Paved Paradise ...

This “flying books” installation in North Beach should make me feel happy; instead, it’s sad like those plaques in Silicon Valley that remind you there were once fruit groves where you’re standing, or the Ohlone memorial at the Emeryville Shellmound mall.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Proposition Future (Vagueness of Reputation Remix)

Johannes Göransson blogs about poetry and futurity, along with poets’ sometimes ugly efforts to vault themselves into the syllabi that distribute poems forward into time. He lays C.K. Williams’s recent swipe at the Language poets and their anxiety to be recognized next to Dana Levin’s broad dismissal of “younger poets since the late 1990s” as flashy confectioners, sweet on the palate but short on lasting flavor. Both sound dorkily Victorian:

Williams: “I don't like to speak badly of anyone but I can’t bring to mind a single poem by any of the core group of language poets that’s stayed with me more than five minutes after I read it.”

Levin: “… such books promise sensational tastes that in the end amount to light confections [because their] lingual beauty doesn’t linger long after turning the page.”

I’m apt to be softer on the future than Johannes. In an art that so often gets so little attention in its time—whose “classics” (say, Harmonium, or Alcools, or Flowers of Evil, or the entire output of Emily Dickinson) can move less than 200 copies, if any, in their day—it’s natural for the future to take on more weight than it does for filmmakers or novelists or painters or musicians, where the chance of reward in the present diffuses some of the panic over posterity. The gap between present-day neglect and the fantasy of future readers is less a product of poets’ vanity I think than a structural condition of the business.

What I can’t get down with though is pegging a poem’s value to its ability to stay in the memory, which is one step away from saying it ought to be memorized. Here, let’s take that last step:
“I wonder about some poets I enjoy reading and much admire: why do their poems not lodge in my mind? Between readings, they sink into the vagueness of their reputation. I have read most of John Ashbery’s poetry and reviewed three or four of his books, but I couldn’t recite two consecutive lines of his work. When I go back to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” I assent to a cultivated voice as it leads me through the lines, but when I’ve finished reading it, nothing of the voice stays with me but a fading echo. If it is a superb poem—as I think it is—its quality is consistent with a culture that reads with the eye and keeps the ear idle.”

Denis Donoghue, Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot
I agree with what a lot of what Donoghue says here—my experience of reading Ashbery isn’t so different from what he describes. But the “fading echo” is a deliberate (and virtuoso) effect: Ashbery couldn’t deliver the experience of time he means to convey without the “cultivated voice” standing slightly above or apart from the pressures of memory, solipsistic melancholy, and trivia bearing up the skirts of the sublime if the language made the same demands on our attention that “consecutively memorable” lines do. More significantly, this isn’t a private or mannered effect, it’s “consistent with a culture that ___________ .” Fill in that blank however you like: once you’ve conceded a poetry that’s “consistent with” its time and place, you’ve opened up the door to things like poetics, world events, social structures, and poetic careers whose value may be separate from (and, for future readers, potentially more interesting than) individual poems.

The truth is, none of us know what the future’s going to need from us. For readers still unborn, poetry may be, like Levin’s, a type of fine dining, where connoisseurs recall the exquisite meals they’ve enjoyed. Or like Williams’s, where you strive in your off-line hours to “bring to mind” great poems as a form of sentimental exercise. Donoghue’s read a ton of poetry in his literary career: maybe for professional readers like that, it’s the stuff that still sticks in your head at retirement that’s great, or that you read (like Donoghue did Eliot) as your gateway drug to poetry in your twenties, and nothing after was the same. Right now, my money’s on a poetry future of geeky comic book collector-types with tenure: brainy, overworked, under-appreciated, and spending way too much time on the web.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Couldn't Leave Her If I Tried

“A style, when it is no longer the natural mode of expression, gains a new life—a shadowy life-in-death—as a prolongation of the past. We imagine ourselves able to revive the past through its art, to perpetuate it by continuing to work within its conventions. For this illusion of reliving history, the style must be prevented from becoming truly alive once again. The conventions must remain conventional, the forms lose their original significance in order to take on their new responsibility of evoking the past. This process of ossification is a guarantee of respectability.”

—Charles Rosen, The Classical Style

This gets me thinking not only about my own relationship to the cartoon-Beatles version of the ‘60s I grew up with, but the “shadowy life-in-death” the 1910-1939 generation still lives through our best poetry. That one floated on a bubble, the other on a bust, makes me wonder what the Dow has in store for 21st-century poetics. While we wait, maybe we can re-jigger our attitudes toward “The conventions.” Irony is the first step toward the realization that a “natural mode of expression” is most natural when it recognizes it’s also conventional. Is it the last? At what point is the difference between the Beatles and the Monkees no longer worth a snicker? When does the set become simply the world, by dint of us living in it?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Dept. of Monday

“Piú cari i piú mordaci.”
The harder you bit the better it felt.