Saturday, April 19, 2003
I received an email from Tsering Wangmo Dhompa:
It was a surprise, and such honor, to see my name this morning in Silliman’s Blog.* I have come to rely on it for sustenance during long hours at work. I am not often able to linger in the dialogues and thoughts you bring up, or talk about them with anyone around me as I would wish to. I learn a lot from reading them. Thank you! (I hate to admit it, but I read more fiction than poetry so your writing helps me keep a daily link to so many poets, and to the condition of poetry, so to speak.)
The inevitability of change is
something Tibetans are taught to believe in. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is
therefore what it is. And that, I think, allows for great freedom in writing,
in talking about the condition of exile, of culture, of language and of
existences (breathing or objects) imagined or understood. Perhaps surrealism is
very much part of it. Here we are, Tibetans in
I cannot comment on poetry,
Tibetans are writing poetry in
English. There are more of us than we know because very few are published and I
think the only other Tibetan poet I know of published in the US is Chögyam Trungpa (who was a
well known incarnate lama and author of several Buddhist books). I’d like to
share two poems by poet Tenzin
Tsundue who lives in
THE TIBETAN IN MUMBAI – Tenzin Tsundue
The Tibetan in Mumbai
is not a foreigner.
He is a cook
at a Chinese `take-away'.
They think he is Chinese
run away from
He sells sweaters, in summer
in the shade of the Parel bridge.
They think he is some retired Bhahadur.
The Tibetan in Mumbai
abuses in Bambaya Hindi,
with a slight Tibetan accent
and during vocabulary emergencies
he naturally runs into Tibetan.
That's when the Parsis laugh.
The Tibetan in Mumbai
likes to flip through the MID-DAY
loves FM, but doesn't expect
a Tibetan song.
He catches bus at a signal,
jumps into a running train,
walks into a long dark gully
and nestles in his kholi.
He gets angry
when they laugh at him
The Tibetan in Mumbai
is now tired
wants some sleep and a dream,
on the 11.pm Virar fast.
He goes to the
the 8.05.am fast local
brings him back to Churchgate
into the Metro: a New Empire.
EXILE HOUSE - Tenzin Tsundue
Our tiled roof dripped
and the four walls threatened to fall apart
but we were to go home soon,
we grew papayas
in front of our house
chilies in our garden
and changmas for our fences,
then pumkins rolled down the cowshed thatch
calves trotted out of the manger,
grass on the roof,
beans sprouted and
climbed down the vines,
money plants crept in through the window,
Our house seems to have grown roots.
the fences have grown into a jungle,
now how can I tell my children
where we came from.
I have babbled on and I am afraid I have lost my train of
I simply wanted to thank you – for encouraging me to continue writing and for opening me to other poets whose writing I otherwise wouldn’t know.
Best wishes – Tsering
It’s hard to believe that I didn’t think of Trungpa when I characterized Dhompa as “the source” of Tibetan-American poetry, given Trungpa’s role as the founder of Naropa. Yet this is precisely where Dhompa’s evolving reputation as an American poet comes into play. I’ll stand by my characterization of the historic importance of her poetry – I think it’s right.
addition to his poetry & fiction, Tsundue is well-known as a political
activist, whose creativity in bringing attention to the plight of occupied
Finally, a kholi literally is a room used as a home for one or more families.
* But see Tim Yu’s thoughtful critique of this particular blog. I worry about these things, too, Tim, though I think it always makes sense to discuss context, which I know from experience+ leaves me open to just such critiques.
+ See my discussion / collaboration with Leslie Scalapino, “What / Person,” in Poetics Journal 9 (1991), which grew out of “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject,” a piece I wrote to introduce a collection of poets in Socialist Review 88/3 (1988). In fact, the poetry world of 2003 wasn’t even imaginable in 1988. What amazes me isn’t so much how far poetry has come, but how fast.
Friday, April 18, 2003
As in T as in Tether, David Bromige’s most recent book, is divided into four sections: “T as in Tether,” and three others recognizably titled for different stages of the PC booting process – “Initializing,” “Establishing” and “Authenticizing.” On my PCs at least – & I’m a true agnostic, having one each of Dell, Compaq, HP and IBM systems around the house – that last stage is called authenticating, the process of verifying authenticity. That Bromige has revised the term here for his own purposes – “Authenticizing” might be the process perhaps of adding authenticity – is characteristic both of the sorts of devices he employs & the surgical wit this revision embodies.
Indeed, the book itself appears to have been originally entitled T as in Tether, the additional As in coming sometime after the “forthcoming books” web page at Chax Press was uploaded.* There is a history of book titles going through this sort of evolution – Robert Duncan, for example, refers in several places to Opening of the Field simply as The Field as late as 1959, the full title apparently showing up at the last minute.
Reading Bromige has always been an experience requiring close attention. Thus the third poem from “Authenticizing,” which has the title of “Two Highs, One Image, Many Melodies,” begins by turning on what seems the blandest of homonyms:
Eating hash will get you high
But not weed. When somebody likes us
We pass on wisdom.
This is the stage people like us
Tend to get stuck at.
Because I do like you
And I am the news, which is bad.
Bromige is the sort of writer whose understanding of normative grammar is excellent – as it needs to be to construct the longer, almost Faulkneresque sentence structures he has used at different moments in his career – so ending that third sentence with a preposition is a device that leaps out to a familiar reader in a way that it might not to someone who was encountering his poetry for the first time. Bromige uses the device to accomplish a number of different ends:
- It maximizes the sound symbolism of the line – every word is a single syllable term defined by its use of the phoneme t – the first two at the beginning, the last three at the end – the prosodic equivalent of a great hoofer pretending to stumble.
- The syntax enables Bromige to position “people like us” parallel to the phrase at the end of the second line – the positioning almost makes us forget that the second like is not the same term as the original likes.
- The positioning of “people like us” also drives the second comparison, again using what I can only think to call homonymic contrast, with “I do like you.”
- The terminal t sounds of the fifth line set up the accentuated stop at the end of the seventh line’s bad. The effect may be comic, but it’s comedy in the sense of a Swift, which is to say completely serious. Note also how this device at the end of the seventh line echoes the fainter (but still perceptible) comic hard stop at the end of the very first sentence: weed.
Bromige makes this all look so easy & “natural” that it’s almost scary once you begin to delve a little more closely into any of his texts. He pulls a very similar sequence in the middle of the next stanza within a single stanza:
Those feathery leaves, light green
Once leathery, bring out
A sinewy cadaver quality.
That leathery rhymes with feathery seems simple enough, but what is impressive is watching how the f in feathery sets up the v in cadaver in the third, while the terminal y moves outward in both directions in this line, into sinewy & into quality. The sound of these lines makes such strong sense that you almost don’t notice just how loopy the connotations are – what precisely is a sinewy cadaver quality? And if we pull back just a little, we discover that Bromige has been setting this sound sequence up since introducing the image of the oak in the meadow in the first stanza: “Being an old oak / Isn’t all gravity. . . .” In fact, the first stanza ends with “attractive virtue.”
Bromige’s use of the image of the “failing tree” in a meadow that is “barely middle-aged” is at once both playful & entirely serious. Yet in the end it leads into a sequence in the final stanza that is ultimately far more ominous:
It’s mere analogy, each tells the other,
And the next step can obliterate
The gain. Initialize me
You cool hunk. Make my body
Drool & drunk. The gentle touch
We can understand
Lulls like a false establishment,
A Senate, House, Motel, CW
Bar. I could have danced all night
But it wasn’t on the jukebox.
As in sinewy cadaver quality or even And I am the news, which is bad, each move here functions by undercutting: the tree leads into the recognition of the trope. Lust leads to a list of progressively déclassé establishments (in which House functions as its own homonym). Note also how the titles of earlier sections of this book turn up.
The constant undercutting, the allusion to pop music – especially to music that is at once retro & hokey – and ending on a single word line that can be read as an abrupt rejection of whatever hope the poem offers are all devices that Jack Spicer used a lot, for example in the third of his “Ten Poems for Downbeat” in Book of Magazine Verse:
“With two yoke of oxen and one yellow dog, with one
Shanghai rooster and one spotted hog.” Light baggage. Pike
What we carry with our bones is much like that. Light baggage that no unfriendly Indian can take from us.
Ourselves. Yet pointed to like the compass of the needle. “
Even the line that focuses in on Of nothing is a signature move of Spicer’s.
I don’t think of Bromige as being particularly Spicerian – Bromige uses humor with a softer touch, for the most part, and his most visible influences among the New Americans have always been the Projectivists. While the undercutting logic was visible, say, in a relatively early book such as Tight Corners & What’s Around Them, issued by Black Sparrow in 1974, I certainly didn’t make a connection to Spicer then. Possibly it was because the short prose pieces that appear in the volume were what drew such attention & comment when the book first came out. But today I turned that earlier book open to ”The Plot”:
Christmas 6 feet deep
Christmas 3 feet wide.
Christmas 6 feet long.
Stuffed with straw.
Absolutely a poem that could have appeared in almost any of Spicer’s books from Heads of the Town Up to the Aether onward. Yet I’d never read it as such before.** What these two pieces share in common – they’re radically different poems in some ways, written nearly three decades apart – is that each confronts death & does so with none of the believer’s sense of closure or completion. The darkness of the humor in the earlier poem is not so much the description of a graveyard plot (even then Bromige texts were turning on puns), but the insistence on Christmas. Again like Spicer, an element whose content can only be accounted for outside of the rational.
There is a post-face at the end of As in T as in Tether, in which Bromige gets to the idea that
Poetry is the theory of heartbreak. That sentence can be rearranged so that its nouns are in any order of precedence, and still be true.
Though Spicer would never have put it in exactly those terms, that’s as succinct a description of where these two poets’ systems of belief – or perhaps systems of disbelief – converge as one might find.
NB: Go here for an earlier review of As in T as in Tether.
* The book has been out now for at least seven months.
** Some of the short poems in Threads, the 1971 book the contains work immediately preceding Tight Corners, might similarly be argued as echoing aspects of Spicer, although generally I think they’d be more of a stretch.
Thursday, April 17, 2003
How neurotic is this? I have
stacks of books that I’m in the middle of reading pretty much everywhere. I
keep one group in my bedroom, a second by my desk, a
third by the front door. The group in that third pile are
those books that I read when sitting out in the sunshine on my front porch or,
less often, at the table in the patio on the back side of the house. In one
bathroom I have a couple of non-fiction books I’ve been in the middle of
forever – they replaced a history of
Spring is starting to show up hereabouts – fitfully (it’s cold again today after two days with temperatures in the high seventies) – after what feels like the longest winter ever. The first snow storm came early, the first week of November, while the last (or what I hope was the last) was just about 12 days ago. So it’s been five months, give or take, since I’ve taken that “outdoor” stack outside to give it a read. During that time, some of the books that were in mid-read when the snows arrived were shuffled into some of the other stacks. Three that weren’t, because it felt like it would be a violation in some deep way of my own private reading experience, were Lyn Hejinian’s A Border Comedy, Edwin Torres’ The All-Union Day of the Shock Worker & David Bromige’s As in T as in Tether. In Hejinian’s case, the determining factor may have been that each of its “books,” as individual sections are called, are the perfect length for a satisfying single-sitting read.
To which my plan is to add back one book that was in the stack last fall & came inside next to the desk for winter, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts 1-38, Toll, and George Stanley’s At Andy’s, plus maybe three new books. There’s a lot of the latter to choose from – I have a bookcase full of nothing but unread books upstairs, plus several stacks (some as much as four feet high) of others for which I lack the shelf space. After much shuffling & hemming & hawing, I think I know the three I’ll start with:
§ Jack Collum’s Red Car Goes By: Selected Poems 1955-2000; Collum is someone whose work I’ve liked in magazines for years & years, without ever having read a book, so I’m way overdue
§ Dick Gallup’s Shiny Pencils at the Edge of Things, a book I bought after reading David Shapiro’s interview with Joanna Fuhrman in which he sites Gallup as an example of a poet whom the language poets “disappeared”*
I still have to sort through stacks of chapbooks & pick out 4 or 5 to mix into this outdoor stack. Probably won’t get to that until this weekend. There is a rhythm to working through a group of books like this, even as slowly as I do, and the distribution of shorter texts through the batch – the Collum volume is over 500 pages long – seems integral to the process, creating a kind of syncopated punctuation. Given how long it takes me to read a book in this fashion, I get a sort of giddy kick when I complete something, anything – the chapbook as a form is perfect for such psychic rewards.
* I’ve commented on that charge before.
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
Who was the first successful
But if there is a single social phenomenon – with the possible exception (not unrelated) of the longer term consequences of a bloodthirsty return to an openly imperial foreign policy – that seems destined to transform American poetry over the 21st century, the acceleration of this gumbo-fication through the influx of influences from non-European cultures is an obvious choice. One instance of this broader trend, Walter Lew’s Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, is the sort of volume that makes anyone who has ever edited an anthology shudder at the contemplation of the sheer labor needed to produce a work that is at once both this comprehensive & challenging. Yet not one of Lew’s 73 poets appears to come from the landlocked Asian nations: Nepal, Tibet, Ulan Bator, or Mongolia.** This is just one reason why the arrival of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa is of such importance – with two chapbooks (In Writing the Names, in Potes & Poets’ A•bacus series, & Recurring Gestures from Tangram) & one brand new larger collection (Rules of the House, Apogee) – everything she does creates new ground just because she’s doing it. A century from now, Tibetan-American poets will look to Dhompa as the source, the moment at which their own writing becomes conceivable.
Happily, the arrival of Dhompa is important also because she does it so well. Not unlike, say, Larry Eigner, who could be called a poet of disability but who was actually more simply a great poet who happened to be physically challenged, Dhompa is a good poet first who happens to have been born on a train in India in 1969 & raised in the Tibetan exile communities of Dharamsala, India & Kathmandu, Nepal before coming to the U.S. Her latest work showed up in the mail this past week in the form of the Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Broadsides Chaplets, miniature booklets printed on a single sheet of paper. Entitled A Matter Not of Order, it contains either two serial poems – which is how I first read it – or a single work divided into two serial movements (which is how I’m rereading it now). The first, which shares the title of the chaplet, is divided into seven parts separated by their respective lower-case Roman numerals. The second, untitled movement contains three sections or pieces, separated now by the standard Arabic numbers. Nine of the ten sections in the two movements explicitly involve a figured relationship, that old dualism of I & you (&, less often, we). While each movement comes to a closure of sorts, there’s no narrative in the vulgar sense of that term.
While there is less of the surreal here than I noted in her work in Bird Dog or Vert, the writing is continuously inventive & fresh:
I am drifting into a world of enquiry
to quantify, qualify, even as
around me, summer performs.
Beetles are coal stunned in sun.
That inversion in the third line casts the movement of the syntax precisely “around me.” Here is the entire fourth section of the first movement:
You eat with your right hand.
Hold the broom away
from your body. Strike.
A roof of wool, a bed of skin.
A follicle for food. A hand of error
and infliction is given to all.
The left hand heeds prayer beads.
The left hand signals retreat.
What is your good name?
Where are you from?
The spareness of Dhompa’s language translates as compactness with this many references to hands, flesh & follicles. The intensity of the two final questions are magnified first by the lingering echo of Strike, a term that does just what it says, as well as by the qualifier good in the next to last line. In particular, good, coming after error, infliction & retreat articulates a gap I experience as halfway between longing & loss. This degree of specificity isn’t accidental. Dhompa knows exactly what she’s doing.
* Is that the first book of poetry whose title also included an exclamation point?
political fate of the landlocked is itself worth noting. It is no accident that
Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Heriberto Yepez has shut
down his English language blog, The Tijuana Bible of
Poetics which is a damn shame, as it was one of the very best. It never
got the readership it deserved – its best days saw a little over 50 visitors.
One can speculate as to why that might be, but I’m more interested/concerned
about the larger implications.
Ж Ж Ж
I got several responses to my
mention of the murder of Rachel Corrie in
Ж Ж Ж
David Bromige has solved the
mystery of who read in the one event at the Berkeley
Poetry Conference that appears not to have been captured on tape. It was Bromige, Ken Irby, James
Koller & David Schaff. Schaff published two books that I’m aware of, The Ladder from Dariel
Press in 1967, printed by Graham Mackintosh, and Moon by Day, published by
Ж Ж Ж
The question I asked in Friday’s blog as to whether Andrew Zitcer’s spoken portion of his text would stand out against the electronic backing tracks when broadcast on WXPN Sunday night was answered with a resounding Yes. In fact, the engineer mixed the backing tracks down so far that they didn’t have nearly the impressive impact on the air that they did in the Writers House Arts Café when the show was recorded a week ago Monday.
Monday, April 14, 2003
I’ve said this before, I know,
but if there is one poet whose work rests at the absolute center of American
poetry over the past 50 years – the point at which all other literary
tendencies (at least all the post-avant ones) converge, that poet is Joanne Kyger. Having, I
believe, studied with Hugh Kenner in UC Santa Barbara, Kyger arrived in San
Francisco in the mid-50s in time to briefly marry Gary Snyder, leading to
various adventures in Asia with him
& Allen Ginsberg, was the one straight woman to have been completely
integrated as a writer into the Spicer Circle*, became John Wieners’ best
buddy, working for KQED television before moving out to the Bolinas mesa where
her neighbors over the years have included such folk as Phil Whalen, Bobbie
Louise Hawkins, Lewis Mac Adams Jr., Bill Berkson, Tom Clark,
I’ve just received & read – twice already – Kyger’s newest book, Ten Shines, published in an edition of 125 copies in venerable photocopied-pages-stapled-on-the-left format by Larry Fagin’s Nijinsky Suicide Health Club.*** Shines, to the degree that they’re a form & not “just” a work, are prose poems, none longer than a page, two just a single paragraph, such as “Shine Four”:
Pacing behind the Footsteps of Spring, I win the view. One big drop off into the ocean blue. Last week it blew so terrifically out here the cypress got a permanent wave. And homonyms make the last simple magic along the sidelines of sound. Hurrah! Take a seat, a low seat.
On the surface, a poem like
this is so straightforward as to appear artless. Narratively, very little
occurs – a person comes to the edge of a bluff overlooking the ocean & sits
down. But consider all the little balances at work in this verbal machine. The
aptly named Footsteps
of Spring are a brilliant yellow wildflower common
enough along the ocean in
It would be easy to make some extravagant claim at this point about Kyger’s work in Ten Shines but the simpler truth is that she’s been this good for decades, creating works that on the surface look so apparent but which offer exceptional depth & richness to any closer reading. In fact, what strikes me most about Ten Shines isn’t this aspect of her work at all, but rather how political it’s becoming – “Why is everyone except Michael Moore so stupid,” “We don’t need to perfume a disaster” – a level of social engagement that I hadn’t recognized in her writing before.++
Kyger never precisely explains the category “shines,” as such. There is a single use of the term in the first piece, literally as part of the phrase “if you shine it on.” But I don’t think that’s what she’s getting at ultimately, but rather something much closer to the ontological implications of the word Hurrah! If culture & nature are the polarity under view in ”Shines Four,” novelty & perfection are the opposed aspects in the first piece, loss & chocolate (or comfort) in the second, consciousness & dirt in the third, and so on. Each piece seems built out of such an opposition & what “shines” is that aspect the two share when understood as not really opposed. “Shines” in this sense is more akin to the agency of light. Pound would have called it virtu and buried it in the stuffed pillows of his crackpot scholarship. Kyger just raises that sphere of light for all to see. Hurrah.
* Fran Herndon was & is a visual artist active in that context all these long years.
** You can
see Kyger’s hand in how
*** “Allen Ginsberg’s name for his imaginary dance company.”
+ Thus the
colors of the
++ With the notable exception of her dour registrations of the sexism of male poets, something that shows up in her work nearly 15 years before second-wave feminism.