Monday, January 30, 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:

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.