Saturday, February 04, 2006

 


Darrell Gray,
photo by Alistair Johnston

CA Conrad’s Neglectorino Project now is up on its own weblog.

§

And Tom Orange has a nice piece about Darrell Gray, who is mentioned twice in CA’s blog, once by Rae Armantrout & again by Tom Raworth. Orange is right when he suggests that CA’s blog is one that really needs to have its comments section turned on.

§

The next issue of Jacket, which is starting to emerge online, has a lengthy piece on a British ex-pat neglectorino, Jack Beeching.

§

And it occurs to me to mention that Cary Nelson’s great Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 is a wonderful volume to wade into for just this reason. Nelson attempts to describe all of American poetry over that 35 year span by starting with its most despised position, leftwing doggerel in radical newsletters, and proceeding outward from there.



Friday, February 03, 2006

 

At some point, the spread of literacy in any given culture has an impact on that culture’s poetry, an instance in which the formal embellishments that helped to separate scribes from the masses gives way to a more casual, plain-spoken method. In Greek, I believe that it is Cavafy who first begins to write in the demotic. In Turkey, it’s Nazim Hikmet. In English, you can see the same shift occurring at least twice, first with Wordsworth in the 1790s, then with Williams in the 1920s. I will never get over hearing Josephine Miles tell me once than when she & her friends first saw Williams’ work, they found it unreadable. By the 1950s, however, it had become the icon of clarity.

In Russia, the figure who holds this same position is Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), a writer who continues to be controversial even in his own land. A number of the Russian poets of my own generation dismiss Mayakovsky rather the way one might expect a language poet to dismiss Gregory Corso, as a buffoon who attached himself to a moment in history. In Mayakovsky’s case, tho, it is that moment in history that proves poisonous. In spite of the fact that Mayakovsky committed suicide and clearly deserves to considered an early casualty of the murderous Stalin regime, his memory in Russia was propagated by the state for decades, since he so forcefully celebrated the October Revolution of 1917. But since the promise of that revolution proved false, everything associated with it has been tarred with the same brush. It didn’t help that Stalin continued to be an advocate for Mayakovsky or that there is a monument to the poet in Moscow.

(One of the great ironies of this sort of dismissal is that a Joseph Brodsky, whose solution was a return to the formal precision of pre-Soviet poetics & to abstain from collaborating with the aesthetic bureaucrats of his time, easily fell into the hands of the same sort of apparatchiks once he was able to come west. An even greater irony – the new critical roots behind Brodsky’s later School o’ Quietude friends could be traced back¹ to the Russian Formalists & their principle source of inspiration, old “Cloud in Trousers” Mayakovsky himself. Now that the old Soviet Union is no more, of course, they are constructing a monument to Brodsky in St. Petersburg.)

Mayakovsky’s open style, which from a distance sometimes looks like a rough precursor of Williams (as, in fact, does Hikmet’s), found echoes later in the work of Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrey Voznesensky, poets of the 1960s just old enough to parlay their own declamatory poetics into world renown through a loose association with the Beats of North America. But neither of these aesthetic liberals carried forward any sense of Mayakovsky’s futurism and their work-within-the-system literary politics struck many of their juniors as thoroughly compromised, especially against the likes of absolute oppositionalists like Brodsky. It would take another generation for formal innovation to really return to Russian poetics, which happily translators such as John High, Lyn Hejinian & Kent Johnson have been making available in English. When, last year, Evgeny Pavlov translated, and Ugly Duckling Press published, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s Chinese Sun, the novel was less than ten years old.

But good Mayakovsky translations remain hard to find, especially since for so long a major source of his work in English was a series of books from Progress Publishers, the English-language arm of the Soviet state publishing agency. It’s not an accident that Larry Fagin listed Mayakovsky among his Neglectorinos. One volume that is worth tracking down is a boxed set published six years ago by MIT Press entitled For the Voice, which reprints Mayakovsky’s 1923 collaboration with El Lissitzky. It’s only a 60-page book, but MIT published it in a facsimile edition in Russian, an English parallel edition translated by Peter France, and joined these two with a fat anthology of critical pieces (plus a few excerpts by Mayakovsky & Lissitzky). This third volume is divided further into three parts, one dealing with accounts of hearing Mayakovsky reading, the second to the poems themselves, the third to the role of book design in Futurist art. The most valuable pieces here are the memoirs by Mayakovsky’s peers (including one by the Burliuks and an interview with Lissitzky), plus a translation of the end passage of Mayakovsky’s own How are Verses Made? which is even harder to find than For the Voice. G.M. Hyde’s translation, published in 1970 in the Grossman Publishers / Cape Editions series edited by Nathaniel Tarn.² So one might not be wrong in protesting that the critical volume is there only to make the boxed set feasible as a publishing project and it wouldn’t matter, because it’s good stuff, worth owning in its own right. Alex Miller’s translation from Verses is less “old school” than Hyde’s – “Poetry is production,” vs. “Poetry is a manufacture” – tho my sense is that Hyde has a clearer view of the big picture, the context in which these works were first written.

The poems in For the Voice are not necessarily Mayakovsky’s best or most representative, tho they do show many of the poet’s different sides. To hear Mayakovsky read three of his poems (and another three read by his lover Lily Brik), go to his page on PENNsound. You don’t need to know Russian to get a sense of his style.

Lissitzky’s cover for Dlia golosa (For the Voice) 1923

 

¹ Via Wellek’s formative study at the Prague School of Linguistics under a still-young Roman Jakobson.

² The same series through which many in my generation first read Olson’s Mayan Letters or carried around Zukofsky’s “twin” poems that conclude “A,” “A’’ 22 & 23 or read Henri LeFebvre’s Dialectical Materialism.



Thursday, February 02, 2006

 

Just how bad does a poem have to be before the poet is swatted around the head & neck & forced to go sit in the corner wearing a dunce’s cap? Stephen Dobyns’ “Alligator Dark,” the focus this past Sunday of Robert Pinsky’s column in the Washington Post, offers an excellent test case.

At one level, the poem is a simple narrative vignette, a boy taking too long to pee at the potty. At its second level, however, the Oedipal myth is fully invoked & the boy is not just splitting a cigarette up in the toilet with a stream of urine, but (always already) getting a blow-job from mom. The first line – Stiff as a fireman's spray, his urine smacks – is comically overdone enough to warrant a laugh, but the long first sentence dissolves into prolix details, 3½ more lines, in its long march to invoke nostalgia, so much so that an inattentive reader (or one not yet sensitized to the Freudian subtext) might not hear the echo of lips in smacks, nor assign a second meaning as yet to the idea of a two-inch remnant. The Perhaps in the second sentence – Perhaps he is eight – is not merely cloying, tho it certainly is that, but is there also to keep the line from falling short at four metrical feet: padding your metrics is exactly the mark of Slacker Formalism. It’s also just bad writing.

The third sentence deserves to be quoted here in full, to shine some light on its special awfulness:

A chaste delight in this pre-filter era
before Freudian notions could for him
ruin the simplest of pleasures.

What is this sentence’s worst moment? Is it the ham-handed adjective chaste, appropriated here for smoking, but not really (tee hee) about smoking at all? Is it the metical inversion of could for him / ruin that enables Dobyns to end that line with an iamb, even if it makes the sentence sound as if it were spoken by an ESL dropout? Is it the blatant flag-waving of Freudian, so that no reader could be too stupid to miss this clever parallel subtext? Or is it the banality of that last cliché, the simplest of pleasures?

The next sentence starts off with no less subtlety: The butt’s / lipstick-reddened tip bleeds into the murk, ending on an em-dash. At least here the sound of the language is inherently interesting. But apparently the poet felt this was just too subtle, given the ejaculation of the poem’s next phrase: Take that, Mom! I’m really not making this up!

This, as one might imagine, is the poem’s climax, but we still have six lines left to go & here is where Dobyns’ makes a wrong turn, invoking yet another conceit – that of the Titanic, no less (no two-inch remnants for this boy) – as the frame sentence returns (complete, I must say in Dobyns’ defense, with the consonant clusters of t and p again): till the paper splits apart / and tobacco bits skitter off like peewee / lifeboats. Considering how tightly Dobyns is trying to tie themes together here, that verb skitter simply is out of place, but, hey, we’re hearing those ol’ Freudian undertones again in peewee. That phallic synonym for shortness is contrasted at the end of the next sentence, one that returns to the master narrative of the vignette itself: The boy zips his pants as his mother /shouts, What's taking you so long? The first portion of the final sentence stays on this plane – Just / washing up, he calls back, before flushing – the iambics almost brutally wooden – before sinking one final time into the bathos of the cutely figurative: the tiny survivors of the stricken liner down, / down to the alligator dark beneath the streets.

Yes, the tiny survivors are both the shards of the split open cigarette & spent semen. But does the metaphor of the stricken liner here add to the clunky conceit or merely clog it? Further, does adding yet another colorful metaphor in the final line – the poem after all is called “Alligator Dark” – add further or simply demonstrate a poet incapable of controlling the tools of his craft? And let’s not forget the joy of down / down.

This, Pinsky intones, is a poetry that “lives in that borderland between the ordinary and the dreamy, the banal and the mysterious, the grandiose and the squalid.” The mystery here is why anyone would think this patchwork of tacked together conceits makes for a heightened experience of language? The squalid I can see alright, Robert, but the grandiose? There’s that two-inch remnant again, down / down indeed.



Wednesday, February 01, 2006

 

When I first met Abigail Child in the mid-1970s, she had just moved to San Francisco from Boulder where she had been studying dance & poetry at the Naropa Institute. Tho Child was (is) a film-maker, the costs of her first independent “feature” film, Tar Garden, had left her without the resources to pursue film-making for the time being, and had also left her with a deep critique of the manipulative elements of normative (or “Hollywood”) narrative. Writing, however, appeared to require but a pen & a notebook and a dancer’s palette is her or his own body, art forms that one might pursue with a minimum of cash.

“The essence of dance is fund raising,” represents the polar position to this, something I once heard Margaret Jenkins, the dean of Bay Area choreographers, bemoan. Sets, costumes, studio space, salaries, touring costs all quickly turn the art of dancing into what is literally a major production. Back in the days when Margy’s dancers were my age, I used to see them around San Francisco in their day jobs. Larry McQueen might well have been the finest male dancer in the City then, but he also managed a copy shop forty hours per week. Dancing can be very nearly as inexpensive as poetry to pursue, but to be such, you have to dance alone.

What then does it mean for a 19-year-old to attempt to establish a dance company? That’s exactly what Braham Logan Crane did three years ago, founding ASH Contemporary Dance, a Philadelphia-area ensemble that is starting to show signs that it just might succeed. The son & grandson of professional dancers, Crane, who has won several awards for his dancing and choreography, such as the Gold Leo at the Jazz World Dance Congress in 2003, starts with some serious advantages. The most obvious is that he himself is a great dancer, a joy to watch. The second is that he knows what he’s doing choreographically, which has enabled him to attract two other great male dancers to the company: Carlos Lopez, ASH’s “permanent guest artist,” whose day job is as a soloist with the American Ballet Theater – he’s appearing in ABT’s Romeo and Juliet in Washington, DC, this week – and Billy Larson, who was the first American ever to win the gold medal in the solo division in the World Tap Dance Championships in Germany in 1998, merely the first of a long list of similar accomplishments. Larson & Lopez, as you might imagine, bring very different skill sets to the company & Crane’s view of choreography, which incorporates elements of jazz, tap, contact improv, modern, ballet & even gymnastics, touches them all.

Krishna & I caught the company’s current show at the Annenberg Center on the Penn campus last Saturday night. We sat far enough back to get a good view of the stage as a whole, which turned out to be the right way to approach it – Crane has an excellent eye for the stage as a canvas & his works have a sense of energy that is boundless. He makes demands of his dancers that would send a bulimic to the hospital – as it is, the seven-work program Saturday used two solo dances by Lopez and one work performed by the ensemble’s training company, ASH Contemporary II, to enable the full company to make it through their four pieces.

The company is at its best when Crane’s choreography follows his personality – lively, humorous, deliberately busy, not unlike the way an R. Crumb comic overpopulates any given frame, with slightly exaggerated gestures that carry the effect forward. Dancers dart about the stage, some being pulled by their ankles, others literally doing tumbling runs barefoot on the hardwood floor, then everyone huddles into a cluster while one woman, then another climb over, a game of King of the Mountain turned into a slow motion version of leapfrog. Using music by Deathcab for Cuties, Suger Rios or Lamb, the effect is often as breath-taking for the audience as it is for the dancers.

Crane is at his weakest, tho, when he tries to single out just one side of his work, as in the case of a modern solo performed by Lopez to Andrea Boccelli’s signature Con Te Partirò, that may have been terrific technically, but aesthetically proved a cliché that reminded you just how young this choreographer really is.

The other element of Crane’s vocabulary that needs to be strengthened is choreography for women – there was hardly a solo moment in the entire evening for female members of the full company, tho they’re all strong dancers (they have to be) & Kara Bason in particular stood out.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

 

The bad news is that the link to the Impeach Bush website is down, at least temporarily.

The good news is that it’s because it exceeded its allotted bandwidth.



 

I own four books of poetry by Harold Dull. One of the books, Venus and the Moon Poem, which offers no publishing information on its 8.5x11" stapled format at all, also turns out to be incorporated – even the cover art is the same – into The Star Year, published by White Rabbit in 1967. Another White Rabbit book – actually the one that first turned me on to Dull’s work – is the 1963 volume, The Wood Climb Down Out Of. The fourth volume I have is The Door, published by Open Space in 1964. Two books of poetry I don’t have lie at the far ends of Dull’s literary career, a White Rabbit book from 1958, called The Bird Poems & a 1975 volume entitled A Selection of Poems for Jack Spicer on the Tenth Anniversary of His Death. I don’t know when Night of the Perseids was published.

Even you had never heard of Harold Dull before, anyone with passing knowledge of these presses, Open Space & White Rabbit, will recognize them as imprints closely tied in to the Spicer Circle and the San Francisco Renaissance, so-called. And while the Spicer circle in particular has earned its reputation over the decades as a gay Mecca for poetry in the New American period of the 1950s & ‘60s, Spicer always admitted a few women (Joanne Kyger, Fran Herndon, Dora Dull) as well as a few straight men (Harold Dull, Larry Fagin, James Herndon) in the mix. But just as James Herndon turned outside of poetry to establish himself as a leading activist among California school teachers, Dull went on to become a successful therapist, eventually developing a form of aqua therapy that combines shiatsu with water: Watsu. Watsu has become a big deal in recent years – there are now over 1,000 trained & certified Watsu practitioners worldwide – & Dull’s books, tape & teaching on this are clearly what people will associate with his name several decades hence.

In 1977, tho, Tom Mandel & I coaxed a reluctant Dull into giving a reading at the Grand Piano. He was tall, quiet & shy, not yet the Watsu guru. He wasn’t’ really writing any more, he told us. But he gave a fine reading that left me with a pang at the idea of another good poet putting down his pen. Frankly, I thought that was his last work as poet when I sat down to write this ote, but happily a little googling proves me wrong. Right click here to download a PDF file that amounts to a “new and selected” poems, a 54-page book that includes maybe two-dozen poems from the Spicer years, and an even larger gathering of new work.

In The Star Year, you could feel Spicer’s presence in the work. Here are three poems from late in the book, only the first of which is reproduced in the ebook where the title has been fleshed out into “For George Stanley”:

for George

I wish
every year
in June when the moon is full,
these, or their successors, would come
with wine and food and sleeping bags
and make love in the garden
and dance in the living room
and sleep all over the house,
so many cocoons or great birds roosting in a tree,
and you and I
could sit up and drink and talk
of how they do,
or do not, change and we change,
of how,
in our poems for them,
we are immortal,
though everything changes,
and, before dawn,
before they awake
and turn to each other for a last embrace
or crawl out of their sleeping bags to make coffee,
you and I could walk through the garden,
the moon’s light fading.



§

In –
terrupted
I think that death will be as sudden
a dragonfly exploding in the brain
”Do you think they saw us?” she asks.
”It doesn’t matter.” I say. The met –
al dust of its body’s sheen
falling through the thin air.
The unclimbable cypress’s branches droop
as if overburdened with fruit, not
cluster of small dry cones that look like bells
that ring when the wind pulls


for Jack

It wasn’t
until I was halfway down the hill
I saw the bees
I was so worried I’d step on
were monarchs
their new wings
the same color as those we found so many of last winter
we couldn’t walk without stepping on them
(and I think I’ve read someplace
they fly over a thousand miles north
– the same orange butterfly I chased when I was a child?
and back to mate and die)
and they seemed to still move,
but I think it was only a wind
up through the needles and twigs they had dropped on
for now, in memory,
that whole hillside seems to move as to one rhythm,
and now, these

These poems, published two years after Spicer’s death in 1965, have an optimism one never finds anywhere in Spicer, even contemplating the demise of butterflies. Yet the devices are largely similar, a good demonstration of poetry’s formal neutrality – any device can turned to almost any purpose if done so thoughtfully.

Yet if you look at a poem that is just four years older, written at a point when Spicer is still alive (and Dull has been part of the scene now for some six years), there is hardly a hint of it, save perhaps for the anti-lushness of the lines and the use of a deliberate misspelling. This is The Wood Climb Down Out Of, as published in Dull’s ebook:

The wood climb down out of
(and almost dark) footing
nearly lost leafmeal and cones
leaves underfoot turned
(almost lost) the

The climb down
to the sea
across
not straight down
but across
the up-from-the-sea-
tree-tilled-ravines
(and almost dark)

The climb down
to the sea
not straight down
but across
the up-from-the-sea
tree-tilled-ravines
(and almost dark)

It was the behind from the sea

Following the trail
b
Following the trail
the road ending
we began climbing
w

Following the trail
the road ending
we began climbing
up the hills
behind the sea
open country
through woods

open country
out of the woods

Over and over
open country
behind the

Steep country
up and down
these hills behind the sea
trees come up the ravines between
and bareness over the top of each

Steep
the hills behind the sea
trees up ravines between
bareness over each

Steep
the hills behind the sea
trees up the ravines between
bareness over their tops
we walk together
nothing separates up
and the sea lies flat below
 
Steep
the hills behind the sea
trees up the ravines between

as if seven years
we have lived
like this
tried
nothing but
to cross
and climb down
to the sea

as if seven years
we cross
and climb down
to the sea
across the ravines

we cross
and climb down
to
across ravines
my heart
grows trees so straight
they cut the sky
into a thousand pieces
we climb
not up
but down
and stumble
clubsily (fearful) almost clumsily
almost dark
and my footing
is not so sure

and stumble
clumbsily
for it is almost dark
the footing
not so sure

a thousand pieces
and

bareness over
the sea flat below
we come to

we come down to
not straight
but across
(so steep
it could not be otherwise)
the ravines
(and almost dark)
filled with trees
almost invisible
the sea
is a thousand miles
below us

a thousand miles
below
half open
and half filled

half open
half filled
with trees so straight
they cut its surface
into a thousand lines

they cut
a thousand lines
seven years
we have lived together

as if seven years
we have lived
like this

to try
nothing but
to cross
and climb down
to the sea

my footing
is not so sure
and the trail
 
the trail
though down now
disappears up
into the tree's straight bare branches

disappears up
into trees
the hills between
stand out ou

stand out over the sea

stand out over sea
so bare
I can see all of the sea

I can see all of the sea
darkly

I can see all of the sea
and there is no way down

and no way down
but across
these hills
and ravines

the ravines
each darker with trees
than the one before
the sea
is no light
but the bottom
what I mean is
to get down to it

the sea
is no light
but the bottom
to get down
we must cross
these open hills
and these ravines

these ravines
not straight down
as trees grow straight up
from the soil
but across
the heart
does not know how
to change its direction
we love
like some trail
that is hardly passable
but still holds
beneath it
where it is dropping to
in the only way possible

the heart
does not know how
to change its direction
the trail
is hardly passable
but still
it is the only way possible

the heart
does not know how
to change direction
is hardly passable
but still
the only way possible
trees fall
the sea flattens
trees fall
the sea rises
the hills smooth out
and move closer
to the sea the trees

rising up what is left
between them the ravines
we must cross in the almost dark
scrambling from left
to get down not right
but the only way
tired but the only way
the only way
to get down to the sea
over these steep hills
is across

trees fall
the sea rises
the hills smooth out
and move closer
to the sea the trees
rise up
between
cross
the only way
down to the sea
is across

and down that way
the trail ends
not in the sea
but in the dark
they are not in the same
though they are as close together
and as often
as bare hills
and tree filled ravines
we cross

the trail's end
is not the dark
but the sea
they are not the same

though they seem so now

This is not the text as I first read it in the mid-1960s – mostly passages have been cut away that cast the poem as an elegy for a seven-year relationship come to an end – but it’s fascinating to read it now, knowing the importance of water to Dull’s life in the decades to follow. It’s also fascinating to hear the use of reiteration here, an echo of Robert Duncan that, in these deliberately plain lines – I’ve never been sure why Dull so apparently prefers them this way – presages a kind of writing we will be hearing from John Giorno (and, via Maria Sabina, even in the work of Anne Waldman) not so far into the future.

Reading Dull’s new work is interesting as well. There is a lengthy daybook account of a trip to Italy in 2003 to teach Watsu. The line remains consciously plain, but there’s no sign of Spicer anywhere to be found:

Everything was a mistake.
This train does not stop.
The stops just slip up alongside at the same speed
and if you step out of the station
the sidewalk slips alongside the street at the same speed.
The city does not stop for anyone.
I would love to hold you in my arms.


Unless you hear that final line – an allusion to the process of giving a massage in water – as reminiscent of the quick shift of a Spicerian last line: This is a poem about the death of John F. Kennedy.

It’s good to see new work after all these years & find that the hand hasn’t lost its sense of sureness as it writes. Dull spends much of each year at Harbin Hot Springs at the north end of California’s wine country. It would be great for him to connect up with the current generation of poets. And I’ll wager that there are more than a few poets who could use Watsu.



Monday, January 30, 2006

 

 

 

 

Nam Jun Paik

 

1932 - 2006

 

 

&

 

Stew Albert

1939 – 2006

 

 



 

Joanne Kyger’s Night Palace wasn’t the only Backwoods Broadside I received from Sylvester Pollet last week. Enclosed in the same envelope was Samphire, by Robert Kelly, a series of eight poems “offered as homage to John Cowper Powys.” It’s an ambitious project to shoehorn onto a single sheet of paper, and the eccentric Powys is a good fit for Kelly’s imagination. Yet, coincidentally enough, this was only one of three separate Kelly projects that found their way to my door all in the same week, no two coming to me from the same source. With Lapis, a rich new collection of poems issued as a Black Sparrow Book¹ by David Godine last May, one might even see Samphire as one of four separate books Kelly has issued in the last year. If, that is, you will grant a one-page publication the status of a book. The way Kelly works, it makes sense.

For over 40 years now, Kelly has enacted the most restless imagination conceivable, with more than 60 books to his credit offering a startling range of interests & formal competence. He conceived the form of the lune & his Axon Dendron Tree remains one of the great booklength poems of the last half century, which also means that it is about the furthest thing conceivable from the fixed format of the three-line lune. Tho it is in fact no less formal.

No poet in the New American tradition has written nearly as much as Kelly, not even Larry Eigner. Kelly’s output is less on a scale of Pound or Olson, more almost on a scale of Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. One consequence of this is that, if you read the critical writing that is growing up around Kelly’s oeuvre, you realize that his readers have very different ideas as to what might be his best or most representative works. I have a tendency two focus on a string of early books, not because they’re his best, necessarily, but because they were of great importance to me as a younger poet trying to gauge a sense of what might be possible. Axon Dendron Tree, Finding the Measure & Songs I-XXX had a huge impact on me, one that I can still see reflected in my writing all these decades later. One way to honor that is to continue talking about these books, all of which have been out of print for decades.

The third book in Kelly’s quartet is a small green chapbook, privately printed & distributed², called Earish: Thirty Poems of Paul Celan, in homophonic (or, as Kelly writes it, homeophonic) translations, following the signifier of the German syllable for syllable, letting the sense come out as it will:

WILD YOU THEN NOTE SHARING FONDEST
in the view’s tongue
rune the shattered yards hounded a neighbor to rouse
and hay run thick – thank him

Feel like it’s a war,
dash here the freed of twice failed curb’s rock
out tone – go face them.

Having done homophonic translations from the German myself, I’m fascinated at how differently Kelly’s Celan sounds from my somewhat randier Rilke, tho hardly surprised: Spicer sounds nothing like Duncan, for example, tho both use the same language & do so without the yawning gaps in intention, time or purpose that cleave Celan’s austere neologisms from the too-rich rhythms of Rilke.

But what may be the most original – and deeply fascinating – text in Kelly’s quartet is a long prose collaboration with the German-born Swiss poet Birgit Kempker, called Shame, so new from McPherson & Co. that the book is not yet listed on its website. Kempker is 21 years Kelly’s junior, so that the project engages not just language, gender & geography but generations (or perhaps, in scare quotes, “history”) as well. This books ranks with Lyn Hejinian & Leslie Scalapino’s Sight, as one of the most ambitious & fully realized collaborative poems ever written. The text is 118 pages long, presumably with Kempker & Kelly alternating passages, Kempker writing in German peppered with English, Kelly writing in English peppered with German. Those are the right-hand pages of the book. On the left are translations of these passages, English into German & vice versa so that the total book comes in at around 240 pages. The “salted” passages of English in the German texts (und vice versa) are left in their original tongue in these translations, but positioned in italics. Actually, it’s more complicated that this, in that both poets felt permitted to respond in the midst of their translations and these are also included, in italics & bracketed by slash marks.

If Sight is indeed the theme of the Hejinian-Scalapino project, Shame is every bit as directly confronted here. And every bit as playfully. Here is just the opening portion of the sixth of the book’s sixteen passages, as scripted by Kelly:

Shame is a white tree. Ich bin war. Now is then. I was wrong, not a horse. Shame is a white tree. I know it when. I am was. The past is not the past.

Here is Kempker’s translation:

Scham ist ein weisser Baum. Ich bin war. Jetzt ist damals. Ich war falsch, nicht ein Pferd. Scham ist ein weisser Baum. Ich weiss es wenn. I am was. // Das Pferd ist nicht zuhaus, horse, mein englisches Pferd, ist dein deutsches Haus. // Vergangen ist nicht vergangen.

I would translate Kempker’s interpolation here as The horse is not at home, horse, my English horse, is your German house.

The tone of this project is extraordinary – abashed & shame-faced, guilty & perpetually self-flagellating, a work of extraordinary masochism – and a text as erotic in its own way as any of the novels of Kathy Acker’s. This, you might point out to M.L. Rosenthal were he still alive, is really what confessionalism means. And it doesn’t sound at all like Anne Sexton’s drunken nursery rhymes:

I am ashamed now, really ashamed. I said skin when I meant sky, I confused you, I confused us both. I confused you with the equinox, I mean the solstice.

Did you know I was born on the equinox? How could I confuse you with my birthday. Sometimes I’m ashamed of being born.

 

¹ Godine is treating the venerable Black Sparrow line as a brand, a vehicle for modernist-cum-New American writers. Godine’s press allowed the Black Sparrow Press domain name to lapse earlier this month. Henceforward, it’s Black Sparrow Books from David R. Godine, Publisher.

² Complete with a stern note: This edition is not intended for sale, and is for private distribution only.



Sunday, January 29, 2006

 

I mentioned Helena Bennett among my roster of poets who died too young awhile back. Now Bill Luoma, her widower & a fine writer in his own right, has put Bennett’s one chapbook you don’t have to call me Merle Haggard, (anymore) up on the web. Bill also is making available a few copies of Enigma Variations, a book by Alex Smith – yet another poet who died early, not the hapless quarterback – that Helena published. Smith was part of that generation of poets from Yale that included Kit Robinson, Alan Bernheimer, Rodger Kamenetz & Steve Benson. Smith has been gone for nearly 20 years, Bennett for 15. I can hardly believe it.



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