Annulling the Contract
It is not so much through
a Fertility of Invention
It is always the same window, one out of which they have climbed
Into the garden; leaving the house to its dreams at the fringes of sleep:
Out of it by the back stairs or in by my half of the bedroom;
Always the same low window in a corner of that parlour into which
And out of which they have climbed in bare feet in the moonlight.
Water their dreams in the back of the parlour with its low window
Opening onto that wing of the garden which has the forest branches hanging over it.
That aria in the parlour which is climbing up and up to the bedroom
By the window then opening so freshly onto that sleep into which they glide,
Is climbing in through a low window and then up the back stairs
To the door of the guest bedroom or to that of the Moorish bedroom
Next to it. The window-sill is merely a ‘has been’ following the secluded smells
With the same edge of that water which Boy and then Igor, Burhardt, Rudi and Eric
All pronounce bare to the moonlight. The back door of the garden
The guest so obscured is through the next window up the stairs.
Jenny and Arja — all pronounce it ‘Aria’ — wash their
feet in the house, or wash my feet
In the parlour opening onto that secluded corner half obscured
By a rhododendron. Always the same back window climbed. Always,
Always the same low pair of branches out of which they wing,
To glide up the stairs and into the forest. Burhardt is bare and, boy, they
Are in through that window, getting their legs over Arja and Jeanne;
Rudi is hanging over the stairs next to the Moorish ghost which hides in the wall.
The lawn slopes up to the edge of the low brickwork where the window
Is always the same; the opening, out of which they have climbed onto the fringes
Of kilims where the lawn slopes up to it, a window into and
Out of which they have climbed, Giacomo and Jeanne, getting
Their legs over the sill, or following a ghost which is merely a pair
Of split pantaloons up the back stairs to the guest bedroom which has been
Freshly decorated or to the Moorish one next door where the walls are hung
With kilims, one of which hides the door to the bedroom. Which? The one
Next door. Then it is Igor and Eric, at wing in the moonlight, is bare brickwork
Which has feet in it, low in the wall where the walls of the house are hung
With decorated Moorish pantaloons, and into the garden next door
To the window Jenny and Giacomo climbed through — or they split a guest in.
Annulling the Contract
Originally the genitals of Pegasus provided a moisturiser
That eased the infinite present into a finite self.
But everything is peripheral now: potentates and pop-stars,
The lover who rejects you, able to provoke heart-attacks
And erect road-blocks as the bride returns to France.
I don’t think you’re for me, thank you.
The chance number sentences what relates to expression
To the hold. Force a disappearing art to love anything disarmed.
Watching generates an underlying number and is all together
As you’re never to agree – for the lover eased is in mind.
And when you say ’agree to anything’,
What specifically do you have in mind for
A woman to agree to? A dice-throw
Never abolishes chance. Good macroscopic form always
Depends on microscopic processes.
The disappearing number is what ‘relates to my body,’
But I don’t think you provided moisturiser for me.
The trial of Phryne is a microscopic dice-throw
While the heart-attacks at road-blocks always
Have thank you in mind. Avoidance of what you do
Is good form. Originally into the self,
Pop-stars The Who erect a clock in my body.
The irrational number generates an expression
Underlying art while I put together all is sentences.
Delusion or avoidance is the final force in France,
And love disarmed is watching the clock at the trial of Phryne.
The woman now abolishes the final present
That put able potentates on Pegasus specifically.
A macroscopic infinite is peripheral, I hold,
And when you say ‘agree to provoke delusion’ or
‘The bride rejects the genitals,’ everything
Returns to irrational finite processes. Depends.
It is not so much through a Fertility of Invention
‘It is not so much through a fertility of invention
that we occasionally
find expedients, as through a poverty of judgement,
which makes us listen to everything
that imagination presents
and hinders us from discerning what is best.’
Imagination makes such a monstrosity of the poet,
who’s as inexorably
moved by ecstasy as by aromas of a blood-bath;
yet pilots whisper of fishermen,
and of barbed harpoons to the shark
— thus Hermes guided the singer out of Hell.
We create more fuss when an entablature of commandments
from some authority
calls for penalties, than when the evidence uncovered
directs a question at remedies
which our situation prefers
and shows us how some deception furnished hate.
Illumination fades with a diversity of enchantments
that will invariably
end as flickerings—until obscurity is total:
the darkness mingles the mountainside
with accumulations of cloud,
and underneath this tarpaulin where’s our tent?
What denies the drought is this entirety of the language
that so continually
spreads its influence, and some propensity for listening
which brought the forest to meditate
where sands would blaze in the sun,
and kept the lamb by the lion’s side unharmed.
Annulling the Contract and Rhododendron work with the notion of a limited vocabulary; the constraint being that every word in the poem has to be used twice, or an even number of times. Thus ‘Pegasus’ might appear twice while the definite article might appear four times. A word cannot be used an odd number of times. There is never ‘a remainder’.
A poem or a text using this process I have named a Statheron — derived from the Greek word for stability. It can have many shapes, being a process rather than a form.
I have worked with limited vocabularies for many years, sometimes in texts where each and every word in a paragraph has to be employed in another paragraph. The process is then repeated for several more paragraphs.
Another strategy has been to work with palimpsests — this was in the days when Tippex was essential to corrections! A sentence could be replaced by other words which exactly mirrored the rhythm of that sentence, thus a second (third, fourth or fifth) sentence could be ‘overlaid’ on the initial one, engendering new meanings. This method generated Orpheus and Hermes, a book length poem derived from an original root of some thirty-six sentences. It is not so much through a Fertility of Invention is a lyric from this work. Each verse is a sentence scanning in its entirety with the first sentence (which happens to be a maxim by La Rochefoucauld)
The American revolutionary
written in the form
of a collective
or a mass-biography
is a study of an individual
in conflict with society
The heroine of the story
emerges first as a bizarre
figure whose goal
is to transform herself
into a poet so that by
asserting her courtliness
she can win a place
— Rochelle Owens, W.C. Fields in French Light
This article was first given as a paper for Experimentalities, a conference at the University of Adelaide, 17-18 September, 2015. — A.J.C.
twentieth and twenty-first century North American long poems / expansive women’s poetry / poetry and experimental form / social poetics
The long poems of Rochelle Owens have been little explored within the developing field of studies in modern and contemporary expansive poetics. Owens’ long poems present a reworking of the epic tradition. They construct a social subjectivity where voices, tonalities and subject-positions are legion. Varied in genre, style and form, they are incantatory, intersubjective, modern, ancient, monodic, lyric and choral. Professing a ‘kaleidoscopic’ sense of form, these long poems rework the details and capacities of the page, unsettling modes of reading and writing long poems, and reanimating contemporary practices of sustained reading.
Reading Owens Today
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The long poems of Rochelle Owens join Anne Waldman’s The Iovis Trilogy and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts as some of the major long poems of the second half of the twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries. The breadth and volume of Owens’ use of expansive poetics since the 1970s makes the scarcity of critical work on her work surprising, especially given the remarkable continuation of the long poem well into the twenty first century not only in the USAmerican context, but in other literary contexts and hemispheres.
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To say ‘North America’ is, of course, now fraught: for no longer is the epic a thing of Nation-State or of Empire. Rather, the USAmerican long poem can be considered in the context of the Americas; it is firmly transnational, global, oriented across multiple hemispheres and continents. We might think of the long poems that have jutted their way into the twenty-first century as world poems.
Owens’ long poems and the worlds in which they appear help us map the continuation of the epic into the twenty-first century, now in a feminist mode, transformed and transmogrified and with a different freight of characteristics.
Reading Owens can, I think, broaden the scope for future criticism on long poems and for poetics. This inquiry, at least in part, emerges out of research into techniques and forms of the postmodern long poem, various unresolved historical problems and questions, and some interest in how the long poem has fared more recently and how it might (or might not) continue to fare for contemporary poetics.
Because Owens writes very much within the epical tradition at a time in which the Olsonic field of the page, with its bricolage and broken striations, has become very old hat, and because she writes very much in the experimental tradition, there is much to grapple with on the level of both literary surface and cultural depth, much to answer in terms of either her reworking of, or departure from, this tradition.
For USAmerican readers: I read these works from across a large ocean (I am Australian, or more precisely, Asian-Australian) working in the field of expansive poetics. I have paid attention to Owens’ contexts (the multi-hemispheric tradition of the long poem in [mainly] the Americas, 1961-2011), and the poetics of these texts. Recently I acquired a good deal of the Owens oeuvre in Berkeley’s Small Press Distribution warehouse, happily covering some gaps and providing a fuller picture of her work.
Born 1936 in New York, Owens is probably better known as a playwright than a poet. She has produced a number of classic avant-garde plays, perhaps most notably Futz (1962), Futz and What Came After (1968) and The Karl Marx Play (1974), all of which are situated as monumental avant-garde plays of the Off-Broadway movement, and all of which went through multiple productions and achieved international success. Futz was made into a feature film in 1968, and is readily available online. A 1969 production of Futz at Toronto’s avant-garde Theatre Passe Muraille gained notoriety for causing obscenity charges against the entire company. The charges were later dropped.
Owens is, or has been, associated with the ethnopoets, and if she is, in fact, classed an ‘ethnopoet,’ she is one of few women to be included in this loose nexus of (mostly male) affiliations including Jerome Rothenberg, David Antin, Armand Schwerner, Nathaniel Tarn and Dennis Tedlock. The poem ‘Hermaphropoetics’ / ‘Desire’ curated by Rothenberg appeared in Jacket2 in 2013, including a note on the then forthcoming Selected. Link: https://jacket2.org/commentary/rochelle-owens-hermaphropoetics-brown-dust. The ethnopoets began experimenting out of the 1960s and through the 1970s and 1980s, and their concern was for the origins of culture and cultural systems, the origins of language, and for a poetics of ritual (sometimes live, performative) and carnality in conjunction with these cultural aims.
The ethnopoets also maintained a poststructuralist insistence on the importance of disjunction verbal and syntactic surfaces and referential decentering, at the same time as staging a mythopoetics that would both surmount, and intersect with, these textual aims. These contradictions are present in the ethnopoesis of Owen’s work: how mythic and shamanic ambitions come through the scattered field of the page.
This article will provide preliminary readings for the vast body of work that constitutes Owens’ experimental long poems. The aim is to first of all situate these large-scale works as long poems, and further as experimental long poems, before differentiating within this the kind of expansive poetics Owens’ constructs.
I want to first determine the historical, cultural and social location of these works before pointing towards ways in which her writing can, here and now, inform contemporary practices of inventive reading and writing.
Several things I have not had the time to adequately cover. For example, future research might situate her practice in ethnopoetics as a nexus and an institution, with its ideals and materials, its networks of exchange and affiliation. Future research might further attempt to unpack the several books which select shorter poems, like her first book Not Be Essence That Cannot Be (1961), Salt & Core (1968) and I am the Babe of Joseph Stalin’s Daughter (1972), linking the long and the short poems. Scholarship might take to a comparison between her plays and her poetry.
However my focus here is confined to her sequential and modular expansive poetics, coextensive with her poetics of culture. These long works have that sense of capacious volume, that long-poem-curiosity for the epical relation to origins. Oftentimes I have had difficulty understanding Owens’s treatment of culture, ethnicity and the raced subject. Does a cosmopolitanist poetics confront power structures, or reinforce them? I think, however, that this difficulty in Owens has manifest in ways that are productive of knowledge in and around cultural poetics of an historical era.
A poet like Owens deserves critical attention despite, perhaps even because of, her sometimes zany corporeal poetics and the cultural questions it raises. By investigating an unexplored aspect of Owens, her expansive poetics, her sense of modularity, sequentiality, partition and continuation, some of these cultural strands I hope will come more closely into focus. How the long poem has the capacity to critique culture through expansive form is crucial to this (and nor should the burden fall solely on the long poem to provide a model for culture, even though it might opt to envisage the utopic).
Discussions of Owens’ work have occasioned discussions of dynamics of neglect, recovery, recognition and reception: peers of mine have wondered why her work has not developed as strong a critical following as many of her contemporaries. One reviewer has claimed that Owens’s lack of ‘academic’ ambition has led to a neglect of her work (See Weinstein 290). But this can only refer to a certain understanding of what ‘academic’ (in the pejorative) means, not if we are talking about critical and poetics-based analyses of her work.
If one goes on her publication record alone, there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s a sustained output. Every decade since the 1960s at least three books are published, disregarding an assortment of chapbooks. And her books now will routinely include the bionote phrase: ‘A central figure in the international avant-garde for fifty years.’
This kind of claim has not been taken up (yet) by criticism on the international avant-garde. Despite the fact that she is undoubtedly a central figure in international avant-garde theater for over half a century, to my knowledge, no academic journal article has yet been written on her poetry, and no monograph.
The recent publication of Out of Ur: New & Selected Poems 1961-2012 by Shearsman introduces her work to a larger readership, but as the economy of a Selected requires, Out of Ur puts an emphasis more on single poems than longer sequences. The New & Selected does confirm the difficultly of assigning any one stylistic tendency to her work, showcasing her variability across sequences and forms, her flexibility in approach to concept and narrative.
Owens has published an extraordinary number of long or lengthy poems, rather than one totalising life poem. The narratography of these works means the notion of ‘life poem’ does not apply. Given the number of extended works Owens has written, and given the modularity and the vastness of their subject matter, Owens might actually be the most prolific twentieth century writer of the long poem.
The bulk of this article will isolate what I perceive to be two major groups of books that appear throughout her oeuvre as long poem works, or works-in-progress, 1. The first series, begun in the 1970s, the Joe Poems and 2. The second series on painting, particularly the Discourse on Life & Death series Luca, Discourse on Life and Death (2000). This latter series is developed from these studies of art and close portraits or personas that weave through the long sequence. Though these seem to be two major works, her entire oeuvre can be read as a plotting-through, or chain of interconnected books that build upon and supersede one another.
The Joe Series: 1970-1985
The first major long poem series of Owens, the Joe Poems consists of several books and chapbooks, Poems From Joe’s Garage (Burning Deck 1973) The Joe Eighty-Two Creation Poems (1974) and The Joe Chronicles II (1974) both with Black Sparrow Press, by then a ‘big’ small press, so to speak, then Shemuel (1979), and a projected choral work, The Joe Oratorio, that did not seem to ever materialize, but that is mentioned in the book jacket to The Joe Chronicles II.
Constructs, a 1985 chapbook, further explores the Joe character in a series of prose fragments which she considers ‘watercolors’ (the beginning of a larger preoccupation with painting that paves the way for the later ‘Discourse on Life and Death’ series). Though Constructs could be said to sit between the two major works—right at the end of the Joe series—at least for well over a decade Owens was preoccupied with literary character of Joe.
The front matter to several of these books contain information about how they fit into this proposed sequence. A note to The Joe 82 Creation Poems announces that it is ‘Written in four parts,’ and will recreate ‘the tragic, joyous, and complicated journey of a mystical consciousness through the world and time. Within its structure–based on a ‘free’ juxtaposition of events–Wild-Man and Wild-Woman, the two personae who embody physical and spiritual nature, reveal the primordial and multitudinous levels of human experience.’
In front matter to The Joe Chronicles Part II, Owens notes that this is the ‘second installment of a continuing series of poems begun in 1970, and are about the multitudinous levels of human experience and the totality of the world.’ Shemuel bears the description ‘Imagination is generator of the word as act/event. In Shemuel the journey begun in The Joe 82 Creation Poems and The Joe Chronicles Part 2 continues to explore through patterns of force the conjunction of the old and the new, the spiritual and the physical.’
With this kind of breadth and continuation of theme and character, Owens is thoroughly engaged here in the idea, the writing and the plotting of a multi-book, experimental long poem, one in which the ‘installment’ marks a cumulative stance or vantage point from which to view both a totality and a sense of incompleteness, a vantage point to imagine what comes next. The succession of books strives toward the impossible, perhaps a totality, in a way that materializes the spirituality that lurks behind any striving toward the negated whole (a difficult assignation for the expansive poem, apt nonetheless in Owens).
Brian McHale would call this the ‘obligation toward the difficult whole,’ a phrase which captures the duty, discipline and fidelity that binds practitioners of the long poem to their projects.
For McHale, Armand Schwerner is one such postmodern long poem poet (Schwerner blurbs Owens’ Shemuel). In fact, the tonality of spiritualist carnality and shamanic wildness binds Owens to Schwerner in interesting ways, particularly Schwerner’s experimental long poem The Tablets (1968-1999).
The Tablets is decidedly hybrid with its materials (it includes, among many other things, a musical score), and is counter-Poundian (to use Alan Golding’s phrase), and uses a similarly textured language of emboldened totemic genitality and carnality, but its conceit involves a mostly singular subjective position, a male Scholar-Translator, whose task is to translate a series of Sumerian tablets. The poem includes scholarly commentary throughout, and this commentary is intimate to the poem and its reading.
While The Tablets is an epic told through what ultimately remains a single voice (though this singularity is always under threat), The Joe 82 Creation Poems is divided along an axis of gender difference, with two persons or registers, Wild-Man and Wild-Woman, a division that according to the experimental poet and performance artist Jane Augustine is there to enact an ‘androgynous re-vision of the word-world.’ Augustine writes:
Owens has undertaken not only the creation of this androgynous re-vision of the word-world but also has attempted to press it into the depths of our psyches where it must take root. We cannot go back to the old dichotomies. The revolution of androgyny has already begun, and Rochelle Owens is its prophet. (89)
In a 1989 interview with C.B. Coleman, in which Owens makes a case for both the radical feminism and the radical avant-garde experimentalism of her work, she likewise references the androgynous as a horizon beyond patriarchal culture (23). The book itself is divided into four parts, Part 1: Magnetic Flux, Part 2: The Enfolding, Part 3: Fire Clay and Part 4: Basic Information. Within these four parts are a total of eighty-two sections.
This is a common long poem synecdochal division of parts, or parts within parts. Part 4: Basic Information, breaks away from the first three in that it introduces the figure of the father (the book itself is dedicated to the memory of her father, Max Bass), and is a series of incantatory songs, including an Equinox Commandment and a Kaddish hymn. This puts the book’s ending in close proximity with Anne Waldman’s monumental feminist epic The Iovis Trilogy, which contains and critiques a gamut of male personas and characters, including her own father, disrupting the mythopoetic and psychosocial expectations of the long poem. With The Iovis Trilogy, the Joe 82 Creation Poems shares an incantatory and shamanic vocality, an archaeopoetics in which the cultural breadth of its personas and characters is again of the world, decentered and well aware of both the regional and cultural stranglehold of Empire and the godhead-patriarchs of war.
In the Joe 82 Creation Poems, the lines are a performable score for incantatory vocalities, but a score replete with broken utterances. The form of each modular section is often disjunctive, occupying the full field of the page. The size of each modular section rarely exceeds one page in The Joe 82 Poems or two in The Joe Chronicles Part II.
In this way, Owens appears to be composing by page, with the page as a kind of constraint but with horizontal and vertical vectors pulling language across and down:
Father’s Expression Into Air
Towards the Atomic century
the Alphabet driven into fire two demons
a motorized fiend
a pig’s dialogue/
1,2,3, touching the concrete
the next knife closing the
mystery of wondering &
both devils are happy.
(The Joe 82 Creation Poems, 132-33)
In the ‘Atomic century,’ the expression of language ‘into air’ moves sounds into the regulatory system of alphabetization. It might not seem so austere, particularly if two stories are told at once (which Owens will accomplish, we will soon see, using another kind of textual geometry). Note the divisions and radical graphic moves in the following section:
Wild-Man And The Influence Of The She
divides With all Temptation/ All creatures
& r w n
& g o i g O growing by force, power
groin! wild woman with hanging breasts!
the bloody intensity / the dance
of veins spleen of the wedding
party / the masked Sun dragging the Virgin
woman of birds, rubbing her stomach with
& forcing her to eat
/it did haunt her/
the naked wylde birds. He Saw.
walked into the
(Joe 82 Creation Poems 56)
These might very well be wild scores, a wilderness of language in which the gendering of influence (and the influence of gender) seems to palimpsestually blot letters out. The referential center is dispersed. A 1975 symposium on Owens, which resulted in a special issue of Margins edited by Karl Young, featured a piece by Jackson Mac Low titled ‘Rochelle Reading Rochelle’ in which he imagines her disjunctive poetics to be the result of some kind of aleatoric system:
I first read a poem of Rochelle’s sometime in 1961, or very late 1960, when I read her ‘Humble Humble Pinate’ in Trobar 2. 1 was struck then by what seemed to be similarities with my own chance-generated work, especially the numbered Asymmetries I was then writing. There seemed to be extreme disjunctions between lines and even parts of lines. There seemed to be no continuing referential center. I even surmised that she might have used a nonlogical, nonsyntactical, or even an aleatoric system to make the poem. Tho there seemed to be emotion involved, it seemed continually to be broken and interrupted, as if some collaging technique had supervened between the original emotion and the final work. It was puzzling. (83)
Mac Low goes on to contrast Owen’s outbursts of emotion, anger and fear to his own work for which ‘Very little personal emotion was involved’ (83). For Mac Low this impersonal approach was an oddity, given his association of the aleatoric with decentered (nonegoic) and notational poetics. An example of what Mac Low calls the absence of a ‘continuing referential center’ can be found in Part II, where the disjunctive patterns form unconventional axes on the page, or gather around an absent central axis. The section is titled ‘King Lugalannemundu Also From The Cruel Cube Derived And / Or Betrayed’:
This WordPress version of the same poem is typed into a two-columned float.
little woman in Thessaly
sitting on a hill
sees Fallen down
a person and her palm o’
the hand holds a
collection of elements
she sits on the
throne, her yellow
names in healing
the earliest hope
of some undetermined
Ice which lies
combined and laid
across the surface
the people remember
the committed junk
the borne up
in midday on all
fours that myth
plucks its skin
(The Joe Chronicles, Part II, 30)
This complex passage spatially sets out, or up, certain geometries of divided attention. That is, the eye-ear can trace its reading vectors in multiple ways. Going ‘across’ from left to right columns is sometimes possible: ‘Thessaly’ and ‘idolatry’ carry between the columns, likewise ‘animal / shrieks’ would meaningfully be read together, and if so go against the oxymoronic ‘noiseless / shrieks.’
Other times this non-normative pattern is foreclosed, enforcing a separate attention for each column or voice so that mythic elements are told in succession: the eye might, but is unlikely to hear ‘her yellow… Noah’s Ark.’ Poems like ‘Anthropologists at a Dinner Party’ (in How Much Paint Does the Painting Need) are divided into two columns or axes, again suggesting a double voice or split subjectivity. In this poem the elements are juxtaposed (arguably) to challenge the anthropologist’s authority. Another poem that doubles its registers is ‘ME HOGGISH (HOD)’ in Not Be Essence That Cannot Be:
This WordPress version of the same poem is typed into a two-columned float.
Ducs ME hog
To two untied
At the bitter
Me either uva
Of bean door-keeper
On the water
Not lay by with
How to read is uncertain: should one read the left column first before moving to the right, ‘Of axis’ or off-axis, taking stock of lettristic drift from right to left to right? Should the reader pause, as in antiphonal reading, making their way down the page in equal measure? Even more radically, are two readers required to read sections such as these?
If two, this is a strategy that redefines not only what happens on the page but also off it (in performance, in scenes of reading). Whichever way passages such as these are read, they will require increasingly complex geometries of divided attention, and hence interpretation.
Indeed the ‘HOD’ of the title, meaning ‘splendour’ or ‘glory’ refers to the eighth Sephira of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, a force that is key to the mystery (and language) of form; hence the energetic geometries of passages such as these and their ‘Kabbalistic’ hold on interpretation. In Part 9 of Section 1, the ‘Book of Kin Lugalannemundu The Course of the Blood,’ she writes:
And Songs. ? where. My own interpretation
faythfully. ? where. My own condemnations
today. My prophecies
exult and I see myself
for the first time.
I am the woman, Say I
the book and brings together
e m b o d i m e n t
my writing helps hear
the center of Mirth
I go anywhere
(The Joe Chronicles, Part 2, 26)
A statement of subjective intent by the arranger of the book, the gapping of the letters ‘e m b o d i m e n t’ seems to lead to a centering of the subject, a ‘center of Mirth,’ but this is followed by a radical opening out: ‘I go anywhere.’ This in many ways encapsulates the question of subjectivity, difficultly and complexly, in Owens’ work. In another long poem, one that needs to be accounted for but that does not seem to fit either into the Joe series nor the next (the Discourse on Life and Death series), ‘French Light’: W.C. Fields in French Light (1986), something more centered takes place, centered in voice and in its conceptual arc. The fuller quotation, taken from Part 2, and which serves as the epigraph to this article, reads:
The American revolutionary
assaults courtly literature
The assault on courtliness
is as follows:
The American revolutionary
written in the form
of a collective
or a mass-biography
is a study of an individual
in conflict with society…
The heroine of the story
emerges first as a bizarre
figure whose goal
is to transform herself
into a poet so that by
asserting her courtliness
she can win a place
by the end of the tale
she stands as a quixotic
positive to the insistent
mendacity and grossness
of a world which subverts
(W.C. Fields in French Light, 7)
The American revolutionary, who must stand for a collective / mass biography, contrasts with the heroine, who serves a courtly function in order to enact a kind of social failure; becoming quixotic, internalising its limiting function, her downfall is ‘pathetic positivism,’ the game of courtliness. Thus the poem reads not only as an allegorical meeting-point between two States (or two ‘worlds’) founded on revolution, France and America, but also an assault on the Quixote, a figure of exceptionalism, idealism and subjectivity at odds with the ‘world which subverts courtliness.’ The chivalric narrative, which aspires to courtly love, is one in which the social mass threatens to overcome, to become the narrative. So W.C. Fields precisely is one of these figures, when seen in French light, an individual ‘everyman,’ or American ‘funnyman’ going against the mendacity of a world (America) that both courts the cult of the individual and sets up an obscure conflict between it and the ‘democratic’ socius.
That is to say, that in these passages and in the narrative development of the poem, its claims and its concepts are divided, deeply paradoxical, courting contradictions, most of all the contradictory status (or conflict) between the individual and society in the USAmerican unconscious. The recurrent place (and sonic motif) of the poem is the ‘Sacre Coeur,’ a monument against Revolution. The sacred heart, as it were, is the failure of revolution, the failure of the American revolution, even, to produce a lasting revolutionary (gender) consciousness. Most of the poem proceeds spatially just like the above, with relatively thin lines running down the page mostly without breaks, following the revisionary mythopoesis of H.D. A singular voice, if it is so, it is more choral than courtly lyric.
Another way of saying it is this. The summative congealing of these lines, their taut faceting and scale, functions to bind the thematic of the whole poem: they are, in effect, synecdochal. What becomes the text is a dissident but totalising analysis of the American subject as an anti-heroine or anti-American, the (anti-)American person as poet-heroine-misanthrope-everywoman. Still the text, or counter-text, is the thing that drives the dissonant and dissident subjectivity of the poem: she can say ‘The text is behind/the revolution’ (11).
The ‘Discourse on Life and Death’ Series: 1988-2010
Light and darkness, painterly poesis and ekphrastic poetics become central topoi for the next wave of multi-decadal long poems Owens would attempt, beginning in the late 1980s. Unlike the harsher lexical segmentivities of the Joe Poems, where the concern is more how to get inside the word, to shatter the material surface, phrasal repetition of this formal and thematic kind will continue in the later long poems, perhaps with more intensity. Still, perhaps even more so, the narrative component will drive the long poems to come. Marjorie Perloff writes a preface to Luca that situates it as an ekphrastic long poem that uses a poetic version of the Renaissance painterly technique of sfumato. Perloff further designates Owens as a ‘proto-Language poet’ with her ‘marked ellipses, syntactic oddities, and dense and clashing verbal surfaces recalling the long poems of Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman’ with the added exception that
Owens is angrier, more energetic, and more assertive than most of her Language counterparts, male and female, and she presents herself as curiously non-introspective. Hers is a universe of stark gesture, lightning flash, and uncompromising judgement: it is imperative, in her poetic world, to face up to the horror, even as the point of view is flexible enough to avoid all dogmatism. (Luca 12)
That is to say, the Language writing comparison for Perloff is only valid to a point; there is a directness to the disjunctive surface that is imbued, slightly less introspectively, with a certain energetics. But compared to the even more disjunctive surfaces of the earlier long poems, the ‘Discourse of Life and Death’ series interrogates poetry and painting intersections arguably via more constrained syntactic oddities (that are odd still, nonetheless). The roots of the project and its painterly narrative, particularly the characters of Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci and Sigmund Freud, lie in the 1980s with French Light (1984), and the aforementioned W.C. Fields in French Light (1986), How Much Paint Does The Painting Need (1988), and extend beyond the project, potentially, to Solitary Workwoman, published in 2010 by Junction Press, her most recent long poem publication, and which is not explicitly aligned with the ‘Discourse of Life and Death’ series.
In her first new and selected poems, published in 1997, she says the project started in 1988. But the books that are explicitly associated with the project are LUCA, ATELIER: Discourse On Life & Death (1989), which was partially published in the 1994 selection Rubbed Stones, and Black Chalk (Texture Press, 1992). All of these books are subtitled ‘Discourse on Life and Death.’ A contemporary example of a running subtitle is Claudia Rankine’s transitive ‘An American Lyric.’
Owens too writes unmistakably lyrically in these books. This is a long poem lyric that is more smoothly continuous, difficult yet phrasal, loquacious rather than faceted or compacted, a lyric encased in the long poem container. Among other things, having a recurring subtitle bequeaths a kind of long poem sequentiality that is aware of bookhood as accumulation. Alongside accumulative logics, it also gives the sense of majorness, of making a statement over time.
The book jacket for Black Chalk describes it as ‘the latest segment of a major work-in-progress, Discourse on Life & Death… other earlier segments of Discourse on Life & Death have appeared in prestigious publications of experimental poetics, including Temblor and Abacus. ‘Prestigious’ experimental poetics publications situates, moreover, the work in its own poetics history, as something major in this poetics territory.
In an interview with C.B. Coleman, Owens gives a detailed description of her work-in-progress Luca: A Discourse on Life and Death and how it creates the dynamism of process and is the continual assembly, deconstruction, and re-assembly of subject matter. It has a lot of voices, multiple voices, and I feel that it is a definite evolution from my dramatic work. The fact that the work is called ‘Discourse on Life and Death’, creates the dynamics of description.
The poem is a loose personal narrative around the themes of Mona Lisa and Da Vinci. Pattern, contrast, and juxtaposition is an important aesthetic concept. Pattern finds expression in the repetitions and the integration of images into a kaleidoscopic form which deals with all elements of culture — from primitive society to modern technology, as well as personal and universally experienced reflections on history, mythology, and art. The various voices of the narrator and the characters create psychological polarities of experience.
— (Interview 20)
Epical in its narratological processes, and dramatic in its polyvocal registration, the ‘kaleidoscopic’ here is how the multifarious elements of culture and character come to concatenate in form. Luca, Discourse on Life and Death can be read as an extended ekphrastic work. It critiques the Male Creative Genius, bringing to life the characters Leonardo Da Vinci (Lenny), Mona (of the Mona Lisa), her friend Flora, and Freud (Siggy), weaving them in a complex and continuous epic narrative that runs over 200 pages.
She then goes on to say, towards the end of this interview, that ‘the process of writing itself is unpredictable, immediate… inherently experimental.’ This notion of an ‘inherent’ experimentality is curious (what does it mean to have an essential drive to experiment?). Certainly in Luca the reflection on the process of writing becomes allegorical for the painterly act:
space breaks away spontaneous plague
new & clean enlarging its incessant
swelling in Mona’s posing
the thought that the model
is looking out
the maximum of distance pleasing
to Mona water compresses the easel
When reading passages from Luca the subtlety of its sonic layers combines with an imagism which can, as long poems do, offer a summative characterisation of the century in which the poem takes place while imaginatively calling up multiple temporalities from Early Modern to Modernity itself and beyond (Da Vinci; Freud; the present). Several pages later the text tunes in to a moment of incision:
Mona hearing the flap of the abdominal
cavity fibrous circles the depths
of the edge of the masterpiece burnt
on the left side
the blocked breath & punishment she
was the legitimate daughter passed
her adolescence winters are long
Why at the end of the 20th century
the laying on of hands
— (Luca 52)
After this, the interpretative gesture of the paint as it is applied turns chemical; the burnt edge of the canvas exposes its surface to combustion. Mona becomes a chemist, herself responsible for thinking the arrangement of her own face as the result of a reaction (or more accurately embodied impression) and to the ‘deposit’ on a shroud. This shroud becomes a motif for the book, but more than a motif it becomes a ‘discourse’ or extended metaphor. Through Mona, Owens mounts a lyric theory of impression that approaches the allegorical:
Mona says theorizing what might be
grouped combined accumulated coded
collected the substances
onto the shroud 14 feet 3 inches long
death may be gist essence
Flora intoned without end
14 feet 3 inches long the shroud
bears faint hidden forms
— (Luca 54-55)
Mona’s ‘slow molecular smile’ (53) thus shows up on the text as a face might deposit its chemicals onto the shroud. The shroud as textual surface solidifies in the lines:
maneuvering the text
onto the shroud one can sit wondering
in the same position thinks Mona
nailed into space
— (Luca 55)
Space is, despite the positions from which we view these characters, indeterminate. Its nailing or quilting is the very maneuvering (and maneuverability) of the text, following us like Mona’s smile. Alongside narrative and characterological thematics are phrasal motifs repeated throughout that function as quilting points for the narrative, a common practice in the Discourse series.
Some of these are ‘I’m a hungry bum,’ ‘death may be gist essence,’ ‘a lira here a lira there’ (lira can refer to a Ukrainian folk musical instrument, the currency in Turkey), ‘in the space of the atelier,’ ‘the smile of Giaconda,’ ‘in a poetic mood,’ even individual words: ‘hayre,’ an archaic form of ‘hair’ (which also appears ten years later in Solitary Workwoman), ‘paysanne’ (French for peasant woman), and ‘Leo na r do’ (gapping within words, demonstrating a penchant for lexical segmentivities). Reading these motifs is, analogously speaking, a fugal patterning of the textual fabric. The theme of the shroud continues in a section titled ‘Frightened of Exposure’:
her resistance of imitation consists
embodied buried black in the museum
trusts her glance theorizing the image
a belief implanted when she was
scrutinizing the precise texts on
the face of it the portrait is a steady
logic drawing attention until scientific
studies accumulate a photographic
telling of the other things
she saw there she looked up and saw
hand-written words on the masterpiece
saw the atelier after the fire saw
whirling wrath in the space
— (Luca 58)
The photographic negative again is an x-ray image of the work, to use the Adornian phrase, which is not quite an imitation, but rather a ‘mutation’ (60), closer to a molecular or chemical manifestation of the work, suggesting that the work of poetry, like the fugally-discursive patterning that so characterises Luca, is analogous to the act of transmission and imprint of the staining body and stained textual surface:
complex chemical dyes subtle color
through your light brown hayre
and how the cloth said breath in
the image sonnet sequences patterned
like the portrait of the merchant’s
— (Luca 61)
The extraordinary persistence and consistency, long past exhaustion, of the poem means the key phrasal motifs will return even hundreds of pages past these. Anatomies of perspective are the long ‘sittings’ of the long poem, its notational breadth in time. The time of this series is, indeed, not up.
The most recent long poem Owens has written, Solitary Workwoman, might be considered (in both style, form and in its politics of the body), an extension of the Discourse series. Her poetry begins from the mouth of an American Hag, also Below Ground (the opening section title), out of the grave, so to speak:
This treacherous possession
of words of a HAG
a hag’s words are SEVEN
then she tightens
your black silk hood
Her life is among the ELECT
seen in SCENES of
Daily life in a rural
And then the thought
of mundane domesticity
washes over me
— (Solitary Workwoman 11)
The siting of the American town recalls W.C. Fields in French Light, and like that poem, the cast of characters in the poem center around the hag-workwoman, a central character who could be multiple but is most often the speaking of a singular voice. The ‘solitary’ of the workwoman reworks questions of the characterology of the previous long poems:
A SOLITARY workwoman ONE who asks
nothing more from her climate-controlled
DOMAIN than that household tasks be done
And that the DOMAIN wherein dwells
the hag of patterns and sound
in her domain in the hag’s domain
LET sound be AMPLIFIED with her breath
her breath forming WORDS
— (Solitary Workwoman 17)
This is curious because Owens’ poetry reading voice, which can give untold pleasure if accessed (there is a generous amount of it online at Pennsound), with its incantatory qualities, held notes (long and short), and its matter-of-fact violence and profanity, seems to be this voice, singularly recognizable, ‘AMPLIFIED,’ zany, uncompromising. Yet still the model of subjectivity, though drawn from a single source, ‘breath forming WORDS’ is social.
But even so the question of the surface of the text, and more complexly the question of notationality; of the transmission between print and voice, is reflexively raised:
An imprint penetrating OPENS
toward us UTOPIA six letters
DEFEAT scratching OUT mistakes
daily the words envy/sloth
these are a SMOKE of automobile
Burning tone daily saying this is
UTTERANCE pressing your lips
while the words loshon hora BLOCKS
— (Solitary Workwoman 127)
The loshon hora, or ‘evil tongue’ refers to derogatory speech, and seems to put a blockage on the speaker. What information or gossip is passed around, that is, the social power and value of speech, is at stake. Implicit in one passage, a clue perhaps to Owens’ vision for the subject, is the role of the scholar in relation to the subject. The subject is assembled, dissembled, designed (its impact is subject to interpretation and information, one might say ‘socialised’), but the scholar brings the subject ‘down to earth’:
A scholar offers motives
MEANINGS and draws conclusions
to bring her SUBJECT down to earth
wanting to be an ally not an
A subject is assembled designed
and the IMPACT it makes on us
depends on interpretation
— (Solitary Workwoman 22)
In perhaps the most powerful passage in the poem, Owens can be heard to show poetic subjectivity at its most discordant but delightful moment of splitting, under the pressure of multiplicity:
Neither a POETRY pure or a RANCID
verse EXPELLED pieces of a
SCROLL a scroll of multiple colors
unrolling from the MOUTH of an old
WOMAN looking upwards COVERS over
this detail splitting
splitting into SIGNS and WONDERS
signs and wonders splitting
into questions a SOLITARY workwoman
a solitary workwoman LIFTING and LOWERING
— (Solitary Workwoman 134)
The work of expansion that makes long poem poesis so vast is, considering its history, this kind of expansiveness: the ‘splitting into questions.’ Interpretation, the work of the scholar, is never far behind the long poem poet and her unfolding poetic information. Whichever way passages such as these are read, it will always be indeterminate.
Divided attention, splitting, also manifest in spacing and gapping the letters in words, the majuscule capitalisation, the accents, emphasis, or even holding of the words, are part of this kaleidoscopic scroll of ‘multiple colors’ that rework the details and capacities of the expansive poem.
The Work of Expansion as Allegorical Time Lapse
Now that some of this historical work has been laid out (and it is of course incomplete), I want to make several observations (or discourses) that might accompany critical readings of these long poems. The first has to do with the kaleidoscopic, ‘open’ field of the Owens page. Its geometries are notably wide, Olsonic, holding vectors that are unusually extreme, or harsh, and lexical segmentivities that are sharply fragmented. We might put it in a longer timeline of the long poem: they can be said to follow Robert Southey’s defense in the Preface to Joan of Arc: An Epic Poem, where he writes ‘With respect to the occasional harshness of the versification, it must not be attributed to negligence or haste. I deem such variety essential in a long poem’ (8).
So too the kaleidoscopic toolbox of microscopic formal strategies Owens deploys accomplish this long poem ‘variousness,’ albeit with modernist means: spatially fixed axes, vectors or registers come into play. Compositional techniques — because that is what they first are — that Owens is prone to use in her expansive poetics, like splitting of the page into two or more registers or ‘axes,’ have consequences for reading (and writing) practice that are significant.
But much of these questions concern temporality and temporal capacities particularly with regard to the political and cultural horizons of gender. At this point it is apt that I make some mention of revisionary mythopoesis as both a process of poetic abstraction and as feminist strategy.
The work of comparison, as I noted earlier in this essay, is advisable. Such a strategy parallels gender discourses in Waldman’s Iovis in its attempts at a subversion of the patriarchal male / war-godhead, a subversion singed with utopic strivings that, as noted, envisage androgyny its horizon. Like Iovis, Owens’ Luca, for instance, reworks myth in jutting syntactic skips and cuts.
The final horizon for gender poetics is not a world without gender, but one in which gender is no longer worked into binary logics and is rather flattened, perhaps even ontologically flattened. The genderless horizon, more than androgyny, would cancel-out gender to the extent that gendered multiplicities take the role of subjectivity, or at least the subjectivity that Iovis constructs.
Gender poetics is, simply and truly, a question of subjectivity. The Joe poems sarcastically burlesque the gender binary and cast in-betweens and crossovers as counteracting its rigidity. Like Waldman, her poems are led by hags and heroines, models to reclaim the pejorative.
There is also the question of (gender) performance. Like another ethnopoet, Schwerner, author of The Tablets, Owens is also interested in the literary hoax and the idea of autoreferential or sarcastic conceit, the poetic arras. Comparison has been made with Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, even if slightly differently attuned to the page-scape; Owens’ page is too an unpredictable field, open to variegated line lengths, syntactic cut, thinning, blocking out and striating its surfaces.
But the role of heroine-poet as American Revolutionary and archaeologist, borne out most trenchantly in both Luca and W.C. Fields in French Light, challenge the male long poem in that the female-gendered subject is never fixed, but rather a heroine and a contradiction. In the Joe Poems (Owens at her most Olsonesque), the woman is an abstract cultural personage written into the fabric of a poetics, and poetic politics, in which the founding myth is situated alongside an apocalyptic teleology (the ‘Atomic century’).
There are other differences with the male long poems of the twentieth century, particularly in subjective configuration. The American revolutionary is an (every)-woman who is both partially responsible for the calamities of a century and, though not a utopic counterpoint to Hegemony, and not untainted by Empire, is positioned as thoroughly opposed to its workings.
For the long poem including culture in the late twentieth century, the stakes were high, and in their wake the stakes remain high. Having written some of the most sustained long poems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, perhaps Owens’ Luca can stand at the culmination-point of much of this work, labour, and poetic thinking. To try to achieve length, to carve out capacious space in time, is a tactic peculiar to the long poem poet. The temporal element needs stressing: long poems inhabit the form for a long period of time, and not just time in composition but the reader’s time. As commitment to labour over the period of not just days or months but years and decades, the long poem both stands within subjective time and resists time; it bridges cultural changes and political styles, inhabiting, hoping, failing, beginning and starting again.
Getting beyond the patriarchal long poem is the provenance of late twentieth and early twenty-first century long poems by women. The gender projects of both Owen’s long poems and Waldman’s Iovis seek a horizon other than the M-F binary that buttresses the power relations that are.
What are the larger consequences of this study, one which only begins to scratch the surface? Having written some of the most sustained long poems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the long poems of Rochelle Owens need to be given some more attention within the developing field of studies that is expansive poetics. My project has been, and will continue to be, historiographical, but with urgency for the work of poetics: these works need to be brought into the field and the vocabulary of expansion.
These modes of expansion are incantatory, intersubjective, modern, ancient, monodic, lyric and choral. Owens has developed not one but many means to expand and contain work. There is no one life poem here. Her long poems rather present a reworking of the epic within a subjectivity where voices, tonalities and subject-positions are legion. Owens inhabits, in her own words, a ‘kaleidoscopic’ sense of form, which reworks the details and capacities of the page, unsettling modes of reading and writing.
Owens’ long poems need to be read, in my mind, alongside other North American epics in the postmodern era, Iovis, Drafts, The Tablets, and other, participating in the same kinds of poetics, but with different strategies and narratologies. They can be read as paradoxically anti-monumentalist cornerstones for the history of North American long poems in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, epics that question the very centrifugal forces from which they have arisen.
Just as crucially is the capacity to read her works as part of an international and transnational mentality of experimentation. The characteristics of these expansive works are increasingly understood as cumulative of an array (or arras) of experimental techniques that we draw on today for our own experiments. These long poems test the limit-points of disjunctive fields, lyrical and antilyrical tonalities, modular sequentiality, extraordinary discipline and devotion over long periods of time, transformative of linguistic textures (of what can constitute the discursive layering of a poem), are boldly and avowedly experimental, and, as an unlikely term for poststructuralist criticism, totalising.
Not culturally totalising, but reaching toward a totality of the Book, a totality of multiplicities. To rehearse once again that phrase of McHale’s on the postmodern long poem, the ‘obligation toward the difficult whole’ remains at the conceptual core of all long poem projects even if these totalising aims are ultimately thwarted.
A long poem in this sense both sits in time and catalogues time warp and time lapse; a writing-through swathes of time that decelerates and accelerates, carves up and distends time. The long poem, in its multiple variables and guises, across books and through the deep axes of concepts and the superficial shifts of these concepts, persists as an allegory for a period of time, whatever length of time that period takes up. A temporal container that might stand for other, larger things, extending and metaphorising questions of culture, empire, whole decades or centuries. As collage, the allegorical long poem fragments the time of the century; to end with the beginning of W.C. Fields in French Light:
A fragment catalog paste-up
of the 20th century
a time lapse
a naive father allegory
She says: The scruples
of myself should be
the scruples of the world
the woman as wrongly treated
Augustine, Jane. ‘Androgynous Re-Vision of the Word / World: Rochelle Owens’ Joe 82 Creation Poems.‘ Margins. A Symposium on Rochelle Owens (1975): 88-9. Print.
Coleman, C.B. ‘The Androgynous Muse: An Interview with Rochelle Owens.’ Theater 20.2 (1989): 19-23. Print.
Economou, George. ‘The Early Poetry of Rochelle Owens.’ Margins (1975): 79-80. Print.
Mac Low, Jackson. ‘Rochelle Reading Rochelle.’ Margins. (1975): 83. Print.
McHale, Brian. The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2004. Print.
Nash, Susan Smith. ‘Apocalyptic Enactments in the Work of Rochelle Owens.’ Norman: Texture Press, 1994. Print.
Owens, Rochelle. How Much Paint Does the Painting Need. New York: Kulchur Foundation, 1988. Print.
——— The Joe Eighty-Two Creation Poems. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974. Print.
———. The Joe Chronicles II. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1977. Print.
———. Luca: Discourse on Life and Death. Preface by Marjorie Perloff. San Diego: Junction, 2000. Print.
———. Poems from Joe’s Garage. Providence: Burning Deck, 1973. Print.
———. Shemuel. Kensington: New Rivers, 1979. Print.
———. Solitary Workwoman. New York: Junction, 2011. Print.
———. W.C. Fields in French Light. New York: Contact 2 Press, 1986. Print.
Southey, Robert. Joan of Arc: An Epic Poem. Bristol: Manning & Loring, 1798.
Weinstein, Norman. ‘Nocturnal Remarks Regarding Selected Poems of Rochelle Owens: Eros Speaks from Northwest of Basra.’ Great Writers Occupy Golden Handcuffs Review: Anthology of the New. Ed. Lou Rowan. Seattle: Golden Handcuffs Review Publications, 2015. 289-92. Print.
Rochelle Owens (Wikipedia) is the daughter of Maxwell and Molly (Adler) Bass. A native New Yorker, Owens studied at the New School for Social Research (now The New School) and University of Montreal. After a brief marriage to David Owens, she married the poet George Economou on June 17, 1962. She has taught at Brown University, the University of California-San Diego, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). A pioneer in the experimental Off-Broadway Theatre movement and also influential to the poetry at St.Marks Poetry Project and Deux Megots as a founding participant as well as being involved in the ethnopoetics movement, Owens is widely known as one of the most innovative and controversial writers of this century, whose ground-breaking work has influenced subsequent experimental playwrights and poets. Since its first publication in 1961, her play ‘Futz’ has become a classic of the American avant-garde and an international success. Toronto banned it, an Edinburgh paper dubbed it ‘lust and bestiality play’ but New Yorkers queued around the block when it was first produced in the sixties. In 1969, it was made into a film, which has attained a cult following. [The name ‘Rochelle’ is taken from the name of the French city La Rochelle, meaning ‘little rock’. It first became commonly used as a given name in America in the 1930s, probably due to the fame of actress Rochelle Hudson (1914-1972) and because of the similarity to the name Rachel.]
a.j. carruthers is an experimental poet and critic, member of the New Wave poetry movement in Australia. He is the author of the academic book Notational Experiments in North American Long Poems, 1961-2011: Stave Sightings (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and the first volume of a lifelong long poem AXIS Book 1: Areal (Tokyo: Vagabond, 2014). Other titles include The Tulip Beds: A Toneme Suite (Vagabond 2013) and two downloadable online books; Opus 16 on Tehching Hsieh (Oakland CA: GaussPDF, 2016): at http://dl.gauss-pdf.com/GPDF221-AJC-O16OTH.pdf, and Ode to On Kawara (Buffalo NY: Hysterically Real, 2016). Download the E-Book here: http://www.hystericallyreal.com/post/150137803670/ode-to-on-kawara-by-aj-carruthers-pdf. He is poetry reviews editor for Southerly magazine, essays editor of Rabbit Poetry Journal and the founder of SOd press.
Metrical patterns and metrical narrativities are analyzed in the free verse of oral poet, language conservator, and slam guru Bob Holman using Annie Finch’s theory of the metrical code. The concept of metrical action, or the ways in which meter connotes, builds suspense, creates a narrative, and renders a poem dialogic with other poems, is introduced. Scansions of Holman’s poetry in griot, postmodernist, avant, and performative free verse styles are deconstructed, decoded, and celebrated. Meter, as studied by Finch, and oral poetry, as Holman performs it, is discussed. The metrical mythology of an oral poet in the Twenty-first century is explored.
Key Words: Bob Holman, metrical action, metrical code, iconic theory, proprietary theory, frame theory, Annie Finch, Roland Barthes’s narrative codes, Roland Barthes’s mythologies.
Every critical analysis of a poem is the result of the braiding, in Roland Barthes’s use of the term, of a series of codes by which the reader deconstructs its structure, connotations, and dialogic relation to other poems. [See endnote 1]. In the case of narratives, the five codes delineated by Barthes in S/Z obtain: the divagating, enigmatic hermeneutic code of suspense; the proairectic code of shoot-‘em-up cinematic action; the semantic code, regnant in the poetic world, of interior connotation; the symbolic code, or that associative dialectical clash of two antitheses into a transgression we know of as creativity; and the cultural code which links a work to the ideas, products, and happenings of the world from which it spawned. [See endnote 2]
For poetry, an additional analytic tool is required, and this has been provided by Annie Finch in the metrical code, described in her work, The Ghost of Meter. In this work, Finch explores the possible meanings of meter in free verse where it appears irregularly, scarcely, or apparently unintentionally. In studies of Dickinson, Whitman, Eliot, and contemporary poets, Finch conducts an analysis of prosody and metric patterns to deconstruct these poets’ relationships to hegemonic canonical forms such as iambic pentameter [See endnote 3]:
numerous lines of free verse can be read fruitfully in terms of the metrical code. This phenomenon should not be astonishing. Writers obviously absorb the regular rhythms of their literature. Quotation of metrical patterns are ready tools of heightened expressiveness, intensity of emotion, or closure… the metrical code adds a level of profoundly allusive, yet wordless meaning, to poetry. [Endnote 4]
Finch traces the motion of meter from the strict syllabication of the eighteenth century to the rebellion against meter in the nineteenth heralded by Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and by the use of nonstandard meters such as dactylic feet, whether employed regularly as in Longfellow’s Evangeline, or functioning as variations, as in Dickinson’s hymn stanzas. Such movement opened the door to the metrical experimentation of the twentieth century. As Robert Bly states, many twentieth century poets felt they had ‘no choice but to write in free verse.’[Endnote 5]. Yet in the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, poets still encounter meter even as they avoid it, surrounded as they are with accentual rap, hip hop, and spoken word and the traditions of formal poetic literature [Endnote 6]:
Meter can take on the lure of the forbidden. Like their predecessors, contemporary poets respond prosodically, embedding emotionally powerful, often positive connotations ranging from reassurance to desire. [Endnote 7]
The use of metrical analysis for avowedly non-metrical poems seems counterintuitive. However, as Finch notes above, much metrically variable free verse includes metrical elements absorbed unconsciously and almost somatically; the beat of words, associated with dance and song, may bear a more powerful message to the brain than their semantic sense. The unacknowledged and unexplored meters of poems may be associated with feelings and ideas deeply held, and thus provide hitherto unused windows for original analytic perspectives.
Finch’s work, inspired by Barthes’s codes, functionally includes and subsumes his, encompassing, as it does, this powerful metrical component containing somatic, intellectual, cultural, and historical information. The metrical code adds vibratory life to the page-bound Barthian codes and is admirably suited to the analysis of oral poetry. Finch’s metrical code is thus a useful tool to analyze an oral poet such as Bob Holman.
I will use Finch’s theory in conjunction with Barthes’s narrative codes to examine the scansions of Holman’s poems in four of his signature styles — griot, post-modern, avant, and performative — to discover their ‘metrical actions,’ [Endnote 8] the ways in which meter connotes, builds suspense, creates a narrative, and renders a poem dialogic with other poems. I will demonstrate that this code can serve as a vital interpretive tool of free-verse poetry, one that cannot be overlooked in poetic analyses. I will show how the code can reveal the braided codes that, together, create a poem. Using the prosodist’s ‘cups and wands,’ Finch’s charming terminology for the markers of stress and unstressed syllables used in scansion, [Endnote 9], we can decode the metric hieroglyphs of a free-verse poem and its connection to its meaning, literature, and cultures.
The Free Verse of Bob Holman
and the Metrical Code
Bob Holman is acknowledged as a leading curator and proponent of oral tradition, with interests in oral poetry and language preservation. He is known as ‘the Dean of the Scene’ [Endnote 10] of performative poetry and as a slam guru who offers this coda at the end of competitions: ‘The best poet always loses.’ [Endnote 11] He is proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, an international poetry mecca. Holman is also a popular oral poet known for his wit and versatility in performance.
Holman’s meters in performance vary and are influenced by dramatic pauses. Line breaks are elided or respected; drawled vowels alternate with the staccato rapid-fire delivery of alliterations; there is impromptu back-and-forth with musical collaborators. In an interview, Holman states ’When you’re performing poetry, that’s also part of the creative process. It’s not just a presentation of a finished piece… Writing a poem continues as you perform it.’ [see http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/bob-holman[Endnote 12]
As a poet, Holman has strong artistic ties to accentual poetry from Africa, urban spoken word, rap, and hip hop [Endnote 13]. Now a professor of literature and writing at Columbia and New York universities, Holman also belongs to the world of the canon and the meter and ‘antimeters’ of academic poetry. This provides a round and thorough test of the breadth of the metrical code.
Scansion and Oral Poetry: The Pin in the Butterfly?
As an oral poet, slam poet, and avant-garde artist, Holman’s work is immediate and theatrical. There is a ‘one-time’ experience of each poem as it is performed. There is also a personal quality to the work as Holman interacts with individual audience members. Scansions of his work may seem like sticking a butterfly on a pin, but, as I will demonstrate, they provide insight into the poem’s content and context in a manner that reveals its orality more than textual analysis alone can do.
Scansions are subjective, varying with pronunciation and isodialects. Finch estimates that prosodists tend to agree on scansions at a rate of only 80–90 percent when analyzing poems in regular meters.[Endnote 14] The subjectivity rises with free verse, and more so with oral form, in which, as Holman above has noted, a poem may change with each performance. However, when analyzed in terms of the metrical code, Holman’s metrical traces and rhythmic tracks reveal literary and cultural affinities. Scansion in its minute attention to every syllable of a poem paradoxically captures some of the immediacy of Holman’s oral poetry.
Holman’s Griot Metrical Action
‘Sing This One Back to Me,’ the title poem of Holman’s recent collection, is ‘a poem about orality.’ [Endnote 15] . Rhythmic and accentual, the poem is abundant with rich natural imagery. The griot encounters oceans and animals and offers advice on silence and singing. As Longfellow’s ‘This is the forest primeval’ in Evangeline, where dactylic meter is powerfully associated with nature,Holman uses dactyls in his title and first line followed by a blast of energizing trochees:
/ = stressed syllable
\ = half-stressed syllable
u = unstressed syllable
(u) = a syllable missing from a metric form
| = divides the feet apart
/ u u | / u u Sing This One Back to Me / u \ | / u \ | / u u | / u \
Honeybee honeybee deep in the honeytree \ / | / u u \ | / u | / u | / u
Do not tell me to suck dry the tips of whip grass / u | / u | / u | / u /
Swan sway swan sway Ganges flows all day / u | / u | / u | u u / | u /
Would you send me off then to the blasting seas?
In these lines, trochees directly oppose hegemonic iambic meter; trochaic meter, according to Finch, is a meter commonly identified with female and nonwhite voices, and suitable for the voice of a nonEuropean, Nuyorican griot. [Endnote 16] A first paeon and a cretic, variations found in dactylic and trochaic falling meter, appear in the opening of his poem.
In a triple rhythm characteristic of a nursery rhyme, the griot like William Blake invokes the honeybee (‘The poison of the Honey Bee Is the Artists Jealousy’) [Endnote 17] and calls to its deep realm. As in the Blake, the seemingly pacific honeytree and its bees spell a hidden danger. In response, the griot switches to a defensive injunction patter with a five-foot trochaic line that declares he will not be told what to do.
The swaying swans escalate this drama with more trochees as the poet refuses their invitation to ‘the blasting seas’; conflict is shown by the presence of rising meter as the seas rise. The native poet’s chariness of the rising sea reflects the distrust of the rising meter, the canonic dead white male’s meter, the iamb: the griot is in danger, as Finch has pointed out, of ‘drowning in this colonizing meter.’ [Endnote 18] Alliteration and repetition mark the easy seductiveness of the rocking meter of the bees and swans.
The song of the nightingale, companion of the swan and bees and the animal totem of the griot, presents with the reintroduction of the falling triple rhythm:
/ \ u | / u u | / u u | / u u u | / \
Tale singer nightingale crooner carousing on the leaf drip
This is reminiscent of another crooning and carousing ‘griot,’ Walt Whitman, who used dactyls in his free verse as a default. (‘Out of the cradle (u) endlessly rocking’)
Like Whitman and the dactylic poets of the nineteenth century, the established order in poetry is challenged in ‘Sing.’ [Endnote 19] As the poem builds, the poet chides back in trochee:
\ / | \ u | / u | /u | / \ | / \ | / u
Who dares say, Excuse me, quiet please, eat dry leaf clippings
The long seven-foot line with strong half stresses sings out in everyman ballad meter, the four / three lines appearing in one, again challenging the canonical iamb, singing with the voice of the people, not the privileged.
The griot’s dialogue is conducted in trochaic feet for the narrator’s voice and triple meter for the interlocutor animals. It might be suggested that, according to some propriety theory of meters, Holman’s dactyls, like Whitman’s and Longfellow’s before him, may be eminently and traditionally suited for the province of nature. [Endnote 20] Notably, the pivotal rhymes drip, whip, tip, and clip, are all stressed, heightening this emphasis on nature.
The poem concludes with the poet speaking primarily in falling rhyme, trochee and dactyls, but with iambs and anapests blended in. This may be a note of reconciliation as the griot rocks the robin and the reader to his story’s conclusion, with an occasional caesura or unspoken unstressed syllable to soothe, quiet, and say shh:
u / | u / | u / | / u u | / u | / (u)
This robin-rocking tail lit by the fullest moon / u | / u | / u | / u | / (u) | u u / | u u /
Try to redirect to fogbound swirl, see what happens to you / u u | / u | / u | / / u | / u
My feet on the lotus? No, my feet are the lotus! / / | / u u | / u | / u u | / \
All God? Gosh, I was looking over at you — shh. (\ ) / u | / u u | / u | /u u | /
No need this talking, this poem so obvious, shh.
Thus, the poet weaves a creation myth out of the fogbound swirl. The hint of foreign languages, such as the glottal click of the Khoisan languages of Africa in the unspoken syllables and the isodialects of the poet’s birth in the south and residence in New York, provide universality to this poem’s cultural code. The meter of the magical storytelling of ‘Sing This One Back to Me’ relates it dialogically to other oral, traditional poems; in ‘Sing,’ Holman sings in anti-iambic meters, defying the traditions of privileged, canonical poetry and exploring the powerful rhythms of nonwhite and non-European cultures. [Endnote 21] Yet the griot ‘redirects’ to the iamb, in an act of shamanic outreach to all people.
The semantic code of ‘Sing This One Back to Me’ tells us, in a jocular way, that we don’t need to seek the divine in the lotus, that we are the divine; this, the griot tells us, does not even need to be said. In this zen koan move, the griot tells his fable and untells it, unfolding it by negating it. He invites the listener to sing the tale — and then tells her to shut up! The shh counterpoised with the invitation to sing is an example of the Barthian clash of symbolic antitheses, and a pun on the poet’s own oral art, his Aloud.[Endnote 22]
Of course, Holman the oral performer now ups the ante and adds spontaneity and new meaning to his verse. In performance, Holman provides a coda to ‘Sing This One Back to Me’ by hand signing the end of the poem with its title, which is also the title of the collection. Adding the title to the end of the poem completes the circle and again invites the listener/reader/audience to sing the poem, perhaps even the whole collection, back to the griot. In the poet’s own words:
I am asking you to continue the infiltration of writing by the oral tradition by asking you to ‘Sing this one back to me.’ It was Papa Susso who taught me that, as generations of griots/jeli have — it’s the essence of orality. Part of my practice is my belief that performing is a continuation of writing/editing, altering it to the audience/circumstance. [Endnote 23]
In preparing the print version… I was thinking solely of text, how the repetition of the title wasn’t necessary because the Reader would be holding the title, would refer to it as the poem ended, all these assumptions. Orality proceeds much more linearly and temporally — the moment is gone. You want to bring it back? Echo it, for real. It’s also a rhythmic thing, propels the full poem/experience at the listener. [Endnote 24]
This chirography parallels the oral art as a thing of the body, as one-time, personal, and nonstandard as compared to text. Meter, also with a strong somatic component, is similarly linear and temporal. A ‘rhythmic thing,’ it ‘propels the full poem/experience at the listener.’ Orality, chirography, the metric beat and action, bring us back to the origins and bardic roots of poetry, in the body as well as the mind.
Holman’s Postmodern Metrical Action
The freedom of accent and meter born in modernism meets antimodernist majesculation and distinct metric patterns in ‘The Collect Call of the Wild.’ As the literary historian Henry Hallam said of Donne, one may think these ‘lines too rugged to seem metre’ [Endnote 25] but there are distinct metric patterns in the poem: alternating trochaic-dactylic falling meters and headless iambic lines are married to content in a manner that even prosodic traditionalists might approve. Variations pepper these reflective words as in John Donne’s dirty sonnets. Enjambment elides line breaks even as majesculation stops that flow, another Barthian meeting of antitheses in a classic Holman maneuver. The use of the ampersand, revived by the Beats and other more colloquial poets, reminds us that surrounding the poet’s revery is a world of texting and technology.
u / | u / | u u The Collect Call of the Wild / u | / u | / u | / (u)
Here it is, just where you said / u | / u | / u | / u
It would be. Your mind is quiet / u | / u u | / u u | / u
& your shoes, well, they seem to be going / u u | / u u | u u /
Somewhere. The road, the road, as was once / u | / u | / u | / u | / (u)
Said, or twice, is where we go on. Where / u | / u u | / u u | u / | (u) /
Everything is acceptable, the blame more u / | / \ | / u u | / u u
Than most. Gray hair, cigarettes, tightening / u u | / u | / u | / u | / u | / u
Pants. To be gored by age is not exactly sexy, u u / | u / | u / | / \ | u /
But it’s not to be denied. Not anymore.
The poem begins with an rising meter iambic title, wildness set at variance with tradition at the outset, followed by trochaic lines. The epic term gored is conveyed by a hexameter of falling rhythm lines in trochee, a foot short of epic dactylic meter. The personal items of ‘pants,’ ‘gray hair,’ ‘shoes’ walk on a contemporary hero’s road to ‘somewhere.’ That age is ‘not to be denied’ is underscored by iambs, the inevitable meter, and a mostly pentameter line length.
\ / u u | / u u u | / (u) | / u u | / (u)
Not any less, either, as the sun earnestly plies u / | u / | u u u / | u u u / | u / u
The window dressing. A vocabulary, not the secret (u) / | u / | \ u / | u u / | u
Of life, that’s all. If it taxes your spirit, / u u | / u u | / u | / u u | / (u)
Some kind of government must be flowering. Blood / u u | / u u u | / u u | / u u | / u u
is one example, the example of constancy, readiness / u | / u | u / | u u / | u u / | u /
& effulgence. Another is lit up like Reno, popped / u u | / u u | u u / | u / |
Champagne & caviar on a paper plate.
As the poet muses on death and taxes, syllables are taxed, taken from the beginning and ends of lines. [Endnote 26] The contrast of champagne and caviar and paper plates is underscored by iambs opposing the falling rhythm. The oral poet, never told that he must use only one meter, uses rising and falling words and even paeons in four beats, to tell his story, but to this point, dactyl and trochee predominate.
The concluding motion of the poem shows a shift in tone as well as meter.
/ u | / u | / u | / \ | / u u
Doesn’t last, & what is lost will probably u / | / u | / u | / u u | / u
Transform even if it’s found. That’s the problem, / u | / u | / u | u u / | / u
That the idea of the thing won’t stand still, u / | u / | u u / | u / | u /
A doggie finding its spot. Which name is Spot.
As we ‘see Spot run,’ the meter turns to iambs. Here the poet mocks the traditional rhythm as playschool, but also turns to it to discuss metaphysics, the idea of a thing in Kantian and literary objectivist terms. These variations here are not a ‘metrical contract’ in John Hollander’s term [Endnote 27], in which a reader may bank on encountering a certain meter in a given poem, but they are certainly not ametric, as with many contemporary poem in which meter is functionally absent.
In ‘Collect Call of the Wild,’ Holman seems to want to break out of spoken word into conventional meter as John Donne seems to want to break out of standard meter to the rhythms of spoken word:
u / | u / | u / | u u / | u /
Of course the pay phone rings in the crowded lunch, u / | u / | u u / | u / | u u / | u /
With no one caring the slightest for its emergency. / \ u | / u | u u / u | / u | / u
Too many crackers in the soup, the glass is greasy, u u / | / u | / u | / u u | u / |
Yet we rest easy. It’s the company, I’d guess. / u | / u u | / u | / u | / u u | / u | / u
That we finally have accepted knowing each other this way, u / | u / | u / | u / | / u u | / u | / u u
& that’s the way we find ourselves, little by little, by & large.
The lack of emergency and the ignored phone are conveyed by iambic feet. The final seven-foot lines compress the ballad stanza of three and four stresses. Rising and falling rhythms reconcile in the final lines of the poem. The rhythms become regular and soothing as the poet comes to terms with now-small disturbances in the light of love for the other. Even the ampersand, once ancient but now revived by modern American poets, is low-key, unstressed.
In ‘Collect Call,’ Holman uses iambic as proponents of the proprietary theory of meter describe its usage — for intimacy, reflection, relation, insight. Thus the oral poet adheres to the traditional intention of the iambic line within his trochaic-dactylic personal epic.
Holman’s Avant Metrical Action
Barthes’s codes are intended for deconstructing realism on the model of Balzac. Holman’s avant poems, with vivid images of beer and fires and clowns, sport a short-hand hyperrealism. The avant poems are familiar, with a narrator and narrative, and a distinct denouement. Their avant nature is in their unexpected linguistic juxtapositions. However, the disjoint words are held together by meter, often close to regular. The result is a secret formalism hiding in avant-garde pants.
/ / /
One Red Eye / u | / u | / u u
Blink a room of bad paintings / u | / u | / u | / u
Turn a circle out of prison / u | / u | u / u | / u
Air raid! Fata Morgana! Winter! / u | / u | / u | / (u)
No escape — a little flame
‘Fata Morgana’ is both a witch and a mirage here in this narrative with a compressed and evasive hermeneutic code. ‘Air raid’ suggests mirage; circle and prison suggest the witch; flame suggests both. The mirage and magic are held together by female trochees which knit and knot the room, the paintings, circle, prison, air raid, winter, and sad little flame. The poem blinks and turns in stressed syllables as the narrative blinks and turns.
‘One Clown to Another’ matches, per the iconic theory, changes in motion to changes in meter. It moves around the ring with a loping iambic tetrameter, tangos in trochaic lines, and ends on amphibrach to talk of secrets, as Russian verse does.
(u) / | / u | u / u
One Clown to Another u / | u / | u /
Around the ring it’s fun — u / | u / | u / u
A freshly furnished garden / u | / u | / u | / u
Harmless germoids watch ’em tango dance u / \ | u / u
You call that a secret?
Disparate associations are held together by their pairings, metric code working hand in glove with the poem’s semantic code of connotation. As an interesting side-note, the poet encodes ‘a secret’ in amphibrach here and in ‘The Collect Call of the Wild’:
Holman’s Performative Metric Action
As a performance artist in the 1970s, Bob Holman subtended the arc between conceptualism,experimentalism, and performance. At his noted reading at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979, he embodied the cover of his first major book, Tear to Open (This This This This This) (Power Mad Press 1979), wearing a paper bag, torn and tearful, on his head. [Endnote 28]
On the back of this book is a typewritten four-line poem, ‘Dream.’
/ u u | / u | / (u)
this is to let you know u / u u | u / | u /
that somebody is chasing you u / | u /
that it is me u / | u / | u /
& there are two of me
Bob Holman explains: ‘After the second line, and continuing on down, is the poem, handwritten. Reading between the lines is simply an echo of the lines. That’s still how I think of spoken vs. oral, and yes, handwritten vs. typed (as we called it then), is, I believe, analogous, to a certain extent. My typed name is ‘Bob Holman’ but I signed it with my signature, a very morphed version of which I still use today; it’s my full name with middle initial: ‘Robert C Holman.’ (The ‘C’ stands for ‘Chad.’)
The two main meters of the poem are the dactyl and the iamb, triple falling and double rising. The dactyl announces the poet’s intent, this is to let you know. The double message by the doppelgänger authors, the celebrity Bob Holman and the private citizen Robert Chad, is encoded in double meter. The poet describes these double meter personages as ‘the me who wrote it (and I write by ear;)… and the now me who is performing this to / for you.’ [Endnote 29]
These antitheses of double meter and triple meter, rising and falling in opposite action, are an example of Barthes’s symbolic code, the action of opposed transgressions become creativity. The iambic meter is nonstandard in line length and, with a paeon, surprising; like the oral performance of a poem, it chases the reader. As Holman describes this: ‘Then when I have them, I reverse field and they chase me and then I lay a few snares and then, surprise: “there are two of me.”’ Barthes also speaks of ‘snares’ in such creation of suspense and interest by the hermeneutic code.
The Meaning of Metrical Action
in Bob Holman’s Poetry
The scansions of Holman’s poems, signature works such as ‘Sing This One Back to Me,’ ‘The Collect Call of the Wild,’ and ‘Dream,’ along with representative poems in his avant genre, demonstrate strong trochaic and dactylic involvement: per Finch, nonwhite, nonprivileged, nonhgemonic. The combination of trochaic and iambic lines in his work create complex and syncopated rhythms, as in Blake and Donne, and thus interactions with the canon, ‘academic poetry’ They are a collect call to hegemony, inviting it to see how the other half lives.
As in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where the three witches bubble, toil, and trouble in trochee amidst a sea of iambic pentameter, the magical world outside canonical white male reason is conjured up by trochees with variations in ‘Sing This One Back to Me.’Yet true to proprietary theory, Holman employs iambs when he wishes to reflect upon ideas and love, as in ‘The Collect Call of the Wild.’
The surprise of an oral performance is captured by paeons, amphibrach, spondees, and other feet interspersed in the alternating trochaic / dactylic and iambic / anapestic environment. By interesting contrast, Holman’s avant poems studied here follow regular meter, at least within each line; this meter functions as a holding pattern, a framework for edgy linguistic experimentation.
As has been noted previously, many contemporary free verse poets are ametrical and not susceptible to analysis by the metrical code. Holman’s work, born of the beats of orality, is exceptionally suited to such analysis. The relationship of meter to oral tradition has existed since Homer; it is here demonstrated in the work of oral poetry’s well known champion.
Conclusion: The Metric Mythology
of a Modern Oral Poet
In the digital Twenty-first century, or even the post-Gutenberg sixteenth, an oral poet may seem anachronistic. And he or she is, as a rock concert is, or a live performance of theater. Modern existence is media-driven and much of modern poetry is meterless, written for the head, but not the body or heart. Thus it can be read on a screen and not heard. But such reading bypasses much that needs to be understood and felt in a poem, including its metrical sinews.
It is no surprise that there are fewer readers of poetry in the United States than ever before, whereas people still willingly go to prison for listening to poems in Russia. Is the fact that most of these poems are rhymed and metered part of the reason for this passionate attachment to poetry there, and throughout Europe, and not here?
However, the spoken word — of which Bob Holman is a champion — is alive and thriving along with its cousins rap and hip hop and rock and roll. Metrical action is not the province of a professor with cups and wands, at least, not solely. Metrical action is a call to poetic action, to wake up to the body and soul of poetry. It is an invitation to the dance and to the scene of vibrant accentual verse deaned by Bob Holman for decades to the benefit of us all.
This paper is dedicated to the memory of Roland Barthes: Dear Roland, I am sorry I lambasted Le Plaisir du Texte ; I was drunk. Thank you for writing back and telling me ‘j’écris pour être aimé de loin’ — I do, too. And no, in my case that was not ‘raté.’ I wanted to write to you and tell you that I loved you, but you got hit by the laundry truck before I could. Merde.
This paper would not have been possible without the generous guidance of Annie Finch. I am indebted to Annie for her consultation on the metrical code, her insights into the metrical actions of Bob Holman’s poetry, and her kind review of the scansions presented in this paper.
Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back
to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.
 ‘The grouping of codes, as they enter into the work, into the movement of the reading, — constitute a braid (text, fabric, braid, same thing); each thread, each code, is a voice; these braided — or braiding — voices form the writing…’. —Barthes, S / Z, page 160.
 E-mail to the author from Bob Holman, July 26, 2015.
 I am indebted to Finch and her work on metric diversity in The Body of Poetry, A Poet’s Craft, and The Ghost of Meter and for discussions regarding the historical and cultural roles of iambic and trochaic meters.
 William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, poets.org, accessed August 10, 2015.
San Francisco: Brume by the Milliliter
Three Romantic Pieces
San Francisco: Brume by the Milliliter
There is a lapsed world, a present,
and a future proscribed by digital
imaginings: past edited, present
snuffed, electrodes stabbed
everywhere in case reanimation
technology catches up, O robo polis,
once western charm, streets choked
in luxury cars and buses, no eyes
peering out, and living ghosts cling
to vestiges, otherwise it couldn’t
matter for them outside memory.
Fog rolls in the same though now
captured and used distilling vodka
for the wealthiest drunks in history.
San Francisco / September 2016
Three Romantic Pieces
I. The Thief
After seeing off the new love of your life you miss your
own last train and it starts raining. It’s a three hour walk
home where you left your phone so there’d be no distractions.
It’s cold, there are no cabs or buses, every street is deserted.
You spot an unlocked bicycle leaned against a wall in an unlit
alleyway with no one in sight. You hear wailing, screaming,
arguments, gunshots in every direction around you in the dark.
Though hesitant, you lift and climb onto the abandoned bike
and while adjusting yourself to the seat a cursing tattooed skin
head, shirtless in a leather vest, slams through a dive bar door
across the street and runs towards you swinging a bicycle chain
that you look down and discover is missing from its sprocket
II. The Coast
It was on that coast while he was reading I. Turgenev
for the first time and a poet’s former wife with whom
he was sleeping was ensconced in their airy bungalow
secretly reading his secret diary until shrieking loudly
enough to be heard above surf he later said and came
running at him through foam and wet sand kicking up
water blades and sand clods before and to the sides of
her then considerable bulk waving a fish bat her mouth
in a frozen howl with the sound sucked away by waves
so he couldn’t hear her shouting the way he had before
III. The Zoo
She said she was single and made a big deal of it. Her insistence
might have triggered suspicions but didn’t so they went to the zoo
where she cried over apes in their cages and various other creatures
swearing she would never visit another zoo but nonetheless bought
elephant dung for her garden, delighted to be with her new friend,
so much so they wound up at nearby Menagerie Vista Motel, making
passionate love during which her new paramour insisted she wear her
beret the whole time, which she did, every so often shouting ‘Oui’
or ‘Oui oui’ to be charming and evocative, driving her lover to heights
of passion even as the dung became obvious, and at a moment they
reached one of those heights someone called her name and there was
heavy pounding on the door with what sounded like the butt of a pistol
San Francisco / July-August 2016
Cupping his smartphone he sat talking on a bench outside the arboretum turnstiles near Lincoln, across and down from the locked Bard’s Garden where he would soon go, knowing a secret way in, planning to wait there until the guards cleared the arboretum for the night then come back. The minutes on his phone were gone and it was dead but he held it anyway. Phones were handed out for free to reduce crime, but he knew the only crimes reduced by free phones were phone thefts.
Still, holding even a dead phone was good cover, and he felt it helped him seem normal, connected somewhere, no matter his hair was like a Henry Moore sculpture balanced on his head. He could recharge the phone if he wanted, with power and minutes — there were free USB plug-ins everywhere, even at bus stops — but he’d only used it to watch David Letterman reruns anyway, and with no one to call or be called by, not even by the friendly gal at City Hall who gave him the phone, it was just a prop. Plus he had seen all he could bear to see of Dave for one lifetime.
After counting various trees, cherries most numerous, he crossed and went to the Bard’s garden where he stood facing the locked alcove containing a bronze bust of the poet displayed during special occasions and weddings in the garden (the irony of which was not lost on the Bard’s presumed low estimate of his own nuptials). Splayed to both sides of the alcove, on brick walls, were bronze plaques with bas relief lines excerpted from the plays, containing the names of every plant and flower mentioned by the Bard.
Behind him, a garden of those flowers, variously in bloom, dying off, or freshly planted. He shuffled along the wall reading the lines splashed with light green corrosion, imagining the drama, plants, and flowers, reading aloud while touching the raised words as if making them speak. Afterwards he sat on a bench and continued talking, following a monologue that rode into depths as would fishing line pulled by a fish.
‘If a man wants roots, he can get them. Wants beauty, he’ll find it. If he wants happiness can establish it, define it, shrink it to reality. Happiness can’t be any owned thing — too particular, sized up, market defined. Must be flowers. No, must be what a man’s willing to risk his mind for. ’
He knew he’d been foolish in life, but only partly, during his youth, and when you’re young, he reasoned, it’s fine, even de rigueur, to be foolish. But it was not okay in a San Francisco closing in on everyone not well off, fixed, rich, trussed up and trust funded, like box flaps being slammed and sealed from outside. But he felt the same as he did when he was young. That was the problem. Nothing could change that, but it set him off against almost everything afoot.
He would wait until dusk, and then, before night patrols started, leave the garden through a secret flap in the chain link fence. The arboretum would be closed and locked, so he would camp there by the head of the south draw near the Chinese dwarf redwoods. If not there then in the moon garden. It depended on who was around, who else made it in. They could be crazy. He had to be careful. He liked the Chinese copse best in that weather. Its dense ground mist was solid cover. The hidden bench at the duck pond behind the Hall of Flowers was always better, but he didn’t want trouble. The city was swarming with outlanders since the Tech Rush (more so than Summer of Love crowds), playing things like Pokémon Go on their super smart smartphones and catching on fast to easy spots — at least what used to be easy.
He said almost all of this aloud, the enormous hair on his enormous head bouncing.
San Francisco / September 2016
George Evans lives in San Francisco. Among his books are Sudden Dreams (Coffee House Press), and The New World (Curbstone Press). His most recent collection is Espejo de la tierra / Earth’s Mirror, a bilingual selection of poems translated by Daisy Zamora and published by Casa de Poesía (Costa Rica). Other poems from his on-going San Francisco series will soon appear in translation in an anthology of contemporary US poetry to be published in Mexico and Spain.
Dark Black Cherry Blossom,
7th Floor Angels (prose poem)
Dark Black Cherry Blossom
Have you seen the sparkle
of the pavement light shining
on the dark black cherry blossom branches
as it rains at night time?
as if dripping actual branches
as if you could find it
on the ground
as another new tree
7th Floor Angels (prose poem)
I was at the Hospital when I saw a man and thought he was an angel so I followed him. His face possessed an understated gentleness similar to the one used to depict trustworthy adults in picture books. It was as if the part of the world that had shrunk as I got older was suddenly at its original size again and all the things that inhabited it were no longer hidden from it. When something like that rushes back to you, you don’t let it out of your sight.
He took the stairs not the lift so I saw him ascending. We arrived quite quickly as if every step increased our presence. I followed him through many doors and not for a second was I worried that he was taking me the wrong way or that someone would mind that I came into their place without a nurse’s badge or a doctor’s badge or a cleaner’s badge to justify my being there.
He told me about the other angels without speaking. There is a network of them and they are spread out all over the hospital. Some are patient advocates, some have other missions. They are increased easily. A lofty thought creates their soul. A holy deed creates their body. Sometimes people create these deeds but without the right thoughts. Sometimes people create these thoughts without these deeds backing them up. The new angels then have to come into existence through a sort of Divine mix and match. A kind of celestial pregnancy takes place and 2 different people are able to combine their thoughts and deeds with each other to birth the same being, the same new angel. The largest group of them, known as a ‘camp’, is on the 7th Floor which is for Infectious Diseases. I said, ‘Do you do this with all your time?’
At that point, I stopped following. I was overcome by the need to leave my fingerprints behind. To have someone ask to see my qualification after all. I didn’t want to spend all my hours going up and down Hospital floors without ever being noticed or credited or praised. Without at least someone sitting up in their Hospital bed and saying out loud, ‘I believe now.’
It was like an instinct. It was a necessity. It was a drive. I turned him down. I wanted to affect the places I went through in life whilst he was content to be mistaken for the Hospital ‘wind tunnel’: the light breeze in the corridor, the physical equivalent of a faint murmur. I wanted to be seen like a miraculous bird with unfathomable colours on its wings, the patients transfixed by me, a source of wonder and fast recovery.
In fact, the angels help to oxygenate the entire building with their wings, theirs is a soft existence — too soft for me. That introduction: the guided tour that relied purely on intuition, doors opening and shutting so easily, a lattice of messengers who explore by heart; I let it end quite quickly. I closed that world behind me as they extended and then hid behind their wings, re-establishing their territory. It almost sounded like a deck of cards being shuffled.
The shores receded again. A hemisphere collapsed into diminishing points of latitude. It was like being the National Flower of Antarctica: everything that grows there is so rare, there’s no need to make something rarer. I’d rather be special. I’d rather be counted. Although I miss that seraphic secret. Just by me telling you this, I realise I will probably never see that angel again.
Eli Spivakovsky is a poet, prose and short-story writer from Melbourne, Australia. One of her poems has been favourited to inspire a new scent by Fleurage Perfume. Another was recently rewarded a Commendation as part of the ‘My Brother Jack’ Literary Awards. She has been published in MadHat literary journal, The Australian Jewish News Literary Edition and by Edgar Allen Poet magazine among others. She is also the singer-songwriter and guitarist for the band ‘Circa Aeon’.
‘The ghosts with names and the ghosts with none’
— Michael Palmer
the tree in heat
the burning tree
the cat on fire
hat worn flat
future — past
dust in advance
carry me home
beyond the bone
dolls on the bed
one playing dead
they are not,
and they are air
float on up
or take the stairs
minds are windows
winds have rows
the word false
is also true
kill me twice
shame on you
why the night
and light go under
the heart’s penumbra
is not a science
what’s a color why’s a sight
a fool’s forever
first the image
then the rain
light of science
scent of pears
the sun is raw
the moon is new
first the marriage
then the weather
push the car
and crash the carriage
names are blameless
a game of tennis
cross the valley
swim the ford
flesh has answered
bone’s on hold
did we ever
in Fargo, in
the Target store
Repetition and Difference
‘The infinite resources of the thickness of things’
— Francis Ponge
swept snow and kept it.
empty arms waving.
birds erased by wind.
a journal of aesthetics.
a train is the ghost.
slipping through the zoo.
the fog itself is warm.
too primitive to be dreary.
cold mountain beings.
wearing stone clothing.
the history of empty space.
steaming at the table.
the modern world is tender.
snow on all its owls.
to sing an empty room.
go to bed scowling.
a sensuous apprehension.
leaps the world’s meanings.
what do you mean boulders.
along the doorway border.
he called it diamond silence.
hidden by its brightness.
river and its ladder.
sun falling on your knees.
a roaring river fire.
house key in the snow.
must be silence walking.
in three-word groups.
comparable to water.
a white trackless skyway.
dogs sleep on the road.
beneath the sound of scree.
among the honey jumpers.
bleary to the bone.
it’s warm underground.
her lovely snapping eyes.
the world’s leaf laden.
that’s a yellow path.
handprint on the window.
it’s never egret season.
an oath before we sink.
punching holes in water.
blue lupine eyes.
and for a common cause.
eternity’s going slow.
about to take the corner.
who’s immortal now?
the stove’s about to go.
another ragged actor.
your permanent shadow.
naked in that realm.
all laughter is solemn.
distance is in ribbons.
don’t hurry falling down.
it was called the lipstick riot.
I heard strains of music.
the unaccountable stars.
tell a public secret.
crayfish and momentum.
sleeping isn’t resting.
resemblance is a peach.
the sunlight’s whipping now.
a valley three states wide.
and not a single fire.
a life of ledge walking.
seems so normal now.
no tree falls inward.
I’m your gun for hire.
the campfire takes a walk.
across six mountains.
stands near the lake.
screaming at the bees.
river approaching heaven.
glamorous yellow aspens.
it’s snowing in the song.
soon the empty words.
spread of pine needles.
wet feet on concrete.
eternity’s not a game.
the seasons are amazing.
sea greenness and the journey.
dreaming at the gate.
are we in or of the dance?
a handsome secret man.
the shadow of your smile.
fracture of your hand.
comparisons are listening.
blue eyes down the line.
appetite is enough.
he summarized an owl.
snow bank and white towel.
shadow and actor.
I sat down on the fire.
the plums were overripe.
the place seemed familiar.
beauty isn’t endless.
thought dies on the tongue.
nothing is transparent.
everything half done.
what’s original now?
immediate but distant.
naming every gesture.
history is the vestige.
overflow of powerful grammar.
waste product: contemplation.
a series of vivid abstractions.
flourishing off the page.
the god of disproportion.
moves in fictive time.
a thought on her face.
submerges once again.
the desperation to mean.
lucidity and madness.
what does ‘ought’ propose?
moral reserves on empty.
the grass is at attention.
a faucet steadily drips.
the light behind an object.
needs no complication.
why is heidegger quiet?
where’s the emperor tonight?
watching with steady eyes.
nothing thinking something.
What Do Drones Know?
‘Dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible.’
The body with the bullet in it
has not ceased bleeding;
corruption is setting in,
changing every aspect
of our residual friend.
A corpse travels far;
its molecules speed furiously in,
like a sparrow in Ohio,
an arrow in Pasadena,
where I mirrors eye.
We feel the dust all over us.
It arrives every second,
bringing dander and disquiet.
It falls on the leaves of plants
and on the harp playing.
Low men and tall women,
we’re going nowhere fast,
offering little resistance,
backs against the wall.
The rice that fell
on the bride and groom
created time one afternoon,
as rivers create evening
and the bridge invents the span.
The smallest things are sacred—
mica that makes the glaze,
the coral and glass in sand—
and the largest are corporations.
But we are green and driven.
We suffer the image,
endure peace by raging
and are beaten by our songs
within an inch of being.
Only the fragment is whole.
The boy who sings Madonna
mouths the music as if chewing.
Slow music, deliberation—
because he desires, he is on his way.
‘I Am the Size of What I See’
— Fernando Pessoa
You hurry but you are late
to every party and dinner date,
so naturally they begin without you.
Like a pale leaf through the window,
you make your entrance secretly.
Now you can shine in the corner
as quietly as any leaf,
rarely speaking and then in puzzles;
in English when they are Spanish,
in cliff — edge when they are hanging.
They are the size of what they see,
swimming in their vocabularies
of desire and principal interest.
You’re a bird too young to fly,
a map without its pink and salmon.
You’re so late you arrive on time,
and later slip out unnoticed,
not even a smudge on your glass.
They never knew what passed them.
You walk to the absolute corner,
where the roof of the sky
meets the limit of the eye
and a breath lasts a lifetime.
you’re the size of what you see.
The sky is the size of the sky,
and the sun is just the sun.
But a tree is the size of the flame
you hold in your fingers.
What shirt to wear to eternity
and tomorrow to dinner?
And what size will it be?
You’re asking while you can.
There are things you can’t forget
like the life before this one.
My Dog Is Wild
He scratches the earth
to bury his bone
as others do paper
to bring up a word.
My dog is pleased
when I scratch his head,
but has a wild insistence
that he is the master
and I’m his servant.
He sleeps like a bog,
but now and then
he runs in his dreams
I can see from his teeth
I sit on the bed in my house
on a street they forgot to name.
My red dog runs through the night
until he breaks through.
It’s then the night brightens,
in truth and in trial,
as if it were in flames.
My dog resides in a world
that dims and flares and dims.
We do what we must do,
in and out of the cycle.
We stand together, howling,
at the bleeding station
on Peephole Street.
We’re mirror — image beings
of a post — philosophical age.
Our summers are loud with bees.
Our winters crack to pieces.
We are not distracted
by the traffic of sun and moon.
In the palace of our retirement,
my dog whispers to me, even the earth is passing.
Paul Hoover has published fifteen books of poetry including Desolation: Souvenir (2012) and the forthcoming chapbook from Legend (Little Red Leaves Textile Series). His translation of The Complete Poems of San Juan de la Cruz, with Maria Baranda, will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2017.
A lecture given at the Gloucester Writers’ Center, June 1, 2016 (slightly modified for print)
‘I’m a cosmopolitan,’ said my friend Jerry Rothenberg, when I told him the title of this lecture: ‘I’m not sure I want to find my place.’ I remember talking about the etymology of that word with Ed Dorn one day, its superiority to ‘metropolitan,’ the long view rather than the local. On the other hand, I’ve been reading Peter Anastas’ novel Decline of Fishes while I’ve been here, which deals with the mostly unsuccessful struggles of the local fishing industry in Gloucester to preserve itself against encroaching gentrification, and yesterday had my first look at the Man at the Wheel Statue at the Fishermen’s Memorial: ‘no difference,’ though, as Olson wrote, ‘when men come back.’
And that’s the story, isn’t it? The local vs. the cosmos… or, as the writer we’re talking about tonight had it, the local as the cosmos. But I’ve lived a lot of different places, from Oklahoma City to Czechoslovakia to Encinitas, and my wife and I will be moving out of So Cal as soon as I retire in a few years. So I’m an unlikely candidate to tell anyone about finding one’s place, unless I can usefully complicate our understanding of that word… which I’ll try to do, and then simplify things again. Because my real thesis is a line of Dr. Williams from Paterson that most of us know, but forget every now and then: ‘The writing is nothing, the being / in a position to write (that’s / where they get you)’ (113). That is, finding one’s place, for me, is being in a position to write. Or as Jack Hirschman had it in the recent Letters to Olson (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016, ed. Ben Hollander), Olson ‘is the one who most brightly shows the mind and heart how to / Begin. / The key word: Begin. / The essence of what poetry is’ (181).
you don’t have a place just because you barge in on it as a literal physical reality, or want it to prosper because you live there. Instead go see the Grand Canyon, that’s what it was made for. Place, you have to have a man bring it to you. You are casual. This is a really serious business, and not to be tampered with. (Dorn 31)
Written and published in 1960, ‘What I See in The Maximus Poems’ has been called the first important critical evaluation of Olson’s epic poem. It’s an argument, in one sense, for place not being local, at least not in the sense of parochial:
I am certain, without ever having been there, I would be bored to sickness walking through Gloucester. Buildings as such are not important. The wash of the sea is not interesting in itself, that is luxuria, a degrading thing, people as they stand, must be created, it doesn’t matter at all they have reflexes of their own, they are casual… (Dorn 34)
Dorn would always try to relativize simple location, most obviously in Slinger but also in his Olson Memorial Lecture (1981) published by Ammiel Alcalay in his Lost & Found series: ‘[R]ealism precludes the occult, except on the coast. And the reason for that is that the coast is not the West, being infested with Orientalism’. There are some funny shots about gods with eight arms and three faces in the ‘Maximus’ essay; the thing about Ed was that his disdain was awe-inspiring, and to the extent that I got any spiritual instruction in Boulder, it wasn’t from the Buddhists but from sitting around his dining room table with his wife Jenny and other friends who were passing through. It was great to hear his voice again in that lecture, because it reminded me that to truly understand him, you have to hear his intensely ironic, sarcastic, deadpan tone of voice. And it was Ed who got me on to the 18th century, about which more in a moment.
Anyway, here’s some backup for his idea about east and west from an unlikely source, Deleuze and Guattari, who wrote in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’:
But there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. There is a whole American ‘map’ in the West, where even the trees form rhizomes. America reversed the directions: it put its Orient in the West, as if it were precisely in America that the earth came full circle; its West is the edge of the East’ (19).
I was reading the New York Times today about the NBA Playoffs and there was a note about Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors: ‘he thinks of the game as a process, describing himself as a “continuous player.” Rather than dwell on individual possessions — the makes, the misses — he searches for his place within the game’s broader rhythms.’ There’s a zen-like saying about basketball that I like: let the game come to you. All this seems to be an argument for place being relative, and just to include another local comment about the limitations of the local, the Boston NPR station this morning was interviewing a woman named Amy Cuddy, who said that — despite her recommendation that we assume ‘power poses’ — people will never attain presence completely: ‘You can’t “Be Here Now” all the time.’ Speaking of spiritual instruction, I was glad to hear a reference in that interview to Ram Dass, one of my early influences.
Let’s get back to the blurb on the flyer for this lecture for a minute:
So to start, it’s one’s literal place — the ground — that we’re talking about, as Shakespeare wrote about his lover: ‘My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.’ But that place can also be inhabited in other ways, and has been by Olson and other writers like Geoffrey Chaucer — a place without hierarchy that exists without ‘displacing’ other places — possible with ‘the attention, and / the care,’ even when ‘so few / have the polis / in their eye.’ That’s the project.
Or at least, that was the project, because to be honest, I had no idea what ‘finding one’s place’ meant when I proposed the title to Henry Ferrini a few months ago. Of course, Olson’s place was here, Gloucester, the city of Maximus, where the Maud/Olson library will open in a few weeks down the street. What else needs to be said? Well, perhaps that ‘such a precise location, as isolated as it is, now seems almost a luxury.’ Ammiel Alcalay asks, in his remarkable a little history (re:public/Upset Press, ed. Fred Dewey, 2013):
Has not the velocity of change and consumption, through some law of diminishing returns linked to depletion of the planet’s life sustaining resources, overtaken our ability to stay in one place and allow ourselves the idleness local knowledge demands? (144-145)
Similarly, Michael Davidson, in an essay about Ed Dorn and his relation to Olson, writes that ‘‘place,’ as a strictly geographical term, no longer exists; it has been so totally mediated by entrepreneurial capital that one locale is the same as any other’ (123). So the ground might be here, but the only way we can make that ground an actual occasion, as Whitehead had it, or ‘the whole of the condition of space,’ as Jeremy Prynne had it, is if the lecture becomes a circular curve, ‘the condition of the cosmos where the cosmos becomes myth.’ (By the way, that’s a quote from a letter he sent to Dorn that Ed read in his Olson lectures.)
So to that end, I’ll announce tonight a new sub-title, namely, ‘My Special View of History.’ And that’s because of what Olson wrote when he was preparing the materials for his own: ‘a man’s life is an act of giving form to the condition or state of reality at the exact moment of his birth – So therefore error or truth in the execution of that imperative is the whole shot!’ (11)
As it happens, I was born on April 4, 1953, which turns out to be the exact day Olson, at Black Mountain, received in the mail Vincent Ferrini’s magazine Four Winds, later the occasion for Maximus Letter 5; indeed, that week in 1953, a run of Maximus poems were started (thanks to the scholarship of Tom Clark and George Butterick here) including Letter 6, from which the quotes to the flyer Henry made were taken. In context:
or in every human head I’ve known is
the attention, and
however much each of us
chooses our own
and a few lines later
have the polis
in their eye (32)
So these are the poems by Olson that were written the week I was born, which is slightly mind-boggling, at least for me! But as for the actual content of ‘Letter 5,’ I have to go back to Ammiel’s a little history, in which he makes clear that Olson depended on Vincent and his wife Mary as ‘the one brother and sister that I have’ and that the so-called ‘slam’ against Ferrini and Four Winds has been taken out of context:
One of the things that Olson is trying to say here is — if you’re going to have an independent society, which is this magazine — an independent community — then it has to be as good as any other endeavor. I think at some point he compares it to a fishing vessel where everybody on your crew would have to be tested, you wouldn’t want to have somebody on that boat, on your crew, just because you heard they were good. That could be very dangerous. So Olson engages Ferrini. (103-04)
I’ll always be grateful that I was engaged in that way in my education, first by Norman O. Brown at UC Santa Cruz and then at the University of Colorado with Ed, in very much the same form as Robert Duncan says, when he talked about ‘the force of Charles and his use of the school’:
He saw education as spiritual attack. On the first level we can take it as to attack a subject. There also was a kind of spiritual attack, it seems to me, on students frequently. He wanted things to happen in them. I don’t mean he wanted things to happen in his classes. He wanted things to happen in them spiritually.… Charles wanted to produce a new and redeemed man. This is actually Charles’ alchemy. (qtd. in Charters 11)
In a way, this lecture started three weeks ago, when I picked up a few books about Olson at the Encinitas library (Encinitas is the town I live in in Southern California, my current ‘place,’ at least geographically, which I’ve written about in my book Coastal Zone).
But it really started earlier than that, when Robert Duncan, in a panel discussion in Vancouver in 1963 — where Olson read his poem ‘Place; & Name’ — also used the words of the blurb on the flyer: ‘Someone here asked a question about care and attention. And we did get that the only place you have any care or attention is right where you are, right where you are in the poem or right where you are in the event’ (4).[See Fred Wah’s account of the 1963 Vancouver conference here.
a place as term in the order of creation
& thus useful as a function of that equation
example, that the ‘Place Where the Horse-Sacrificers Go’
of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is worth more than
a metropolis — or, for that matter, any moral
concept, even a metaphysical one (‘Place; & Names’)
Robert Creeley was quoted in Ann Charters’ introduction to The Special View that Olson was ‘trying to break the habit of history as some discrete ordering apart from what energies or active forces were the case,’ and that ‘the only place they [the materials of history] could obviously be was where you were, if they were to be there at all’ (6). So bearing in mind Slinger’s caution that ‘All is transhistorical, functions / Have no date,’ let me throw out a few other dates that make up my particular special view: I’ve already mentioned 1960 and 1981 and 1953: then there are 1390, 1742, 1847, and, again, this week.
And by the way, it’s not a literary inheritance I’m tracing — it has more to do with orality and visuality than literacy — but I do want to bring in other writers who have inhabited this ground, and talk about how they got there, most of them not usually mentioned in the same breath as Olson: I’m thinking of Geoffrey Chaucer and Henry Fielding. That’s partly because I’ve been teaching British Literature over the last four months while I’ve been writing and not writing this lecture, and the two activities sometimes became confused, but it’s also because the nature of that confusion is very much what ‘finding one’s place’ is all about for me. So here are the next parts of this lecture:
1390-1399: Chaucer gives up his court duties
and composes The Canterbury Tales
1742: Henry Fielding publishes Joseph Andrews
1847: Emily Dickinson writes a letter
Gerrit [Lansing] took us to see Jack Hammond’s medieval castle yesterday, where he used to live, and one of the things I found out while teaching this Brit Lit class was my special connection with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; that is, I told you that my birthday is on April 4, and that’s, it turns out, when the poem begins: ‘and the Yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne’… that is, when the sun is halfway through Aires. Anyway, the first tale had been told by the noble if somewhat inarticulate Knight, and the narrator wants a monk to go next, following the order of the medieval social hierarchy. But the drunken Miller interrupts and insists that he be the next to tell his:
Now telleth ye, sire Monk, if that ye conne,
Somwhat to quite with the Knightes tale.’
The Millere, that for drunken was al pale,
So that unnethe upon his hors he sat,
He tolde avalen neither hood ne hat,
Ne abiden no man for his curteisye,
But in Pilates vois he gan to crye,
And swoor, ‘By armes and by blood and bones,
I can a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knightes tale.’
Oure Hoste sawgh that he was dronke of ale,
And saide, ‘Abide, Robin, leve brother,
Som better man shal telle us first another.
Abide, and lat us werken thriftily.’
‘By Goddes soule,’ quod he, ‘that wol nat I,
For I wol speke or ells go my way.’
Oure Host answered, ‘Tel on, a devele way!
Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome.’ (10-27)
In other words, ‘There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only / eyes in all heads, / to be looked out of’ (‘Letter 6’). The Miller then goes on to deliver an obscene parody of the impossibly romantic and mostly mangled Knight’s Tale, and if you’ve read it, you know its comic pleasures. Of course, this isn’t the only time in the history of poetry when a large man under the influence of alcohol has assumed the stage and held forth to an audience, some of whom found his lecture unwelcome:
‘Now herneth,’ quod the Miller, ‘alle and some!
But first I make a protestacioun
That I am dronke, I knowe it by my soun.
And therefor, if that I misspoke or seye,
Wyte it to the ale of Southwerk, I you pray.’ (28-32)
But the point, or one of them, is this: when Chaucer is introducing the various characters in the Prologue, the last group includes the so-called untrustworthy servants, including the Miller, but also ‘A somnour, and a pardoner also, / A maunciple, and myself — there were namo.’ In other words, he includes himself among the rogues, and by so doing, makes a pretty funny reference to the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy, when Dante meets the famous poets of Limbo and includes himself among them. And he does so not because he’s a thief or some kind of untrustworthy servant himself. Rather,
by beginning The Canterbury Tales with the Knight and Miller, Chaucer makes a clear statement that he is writing no longer from within the world in which he had for all his life served. On the contrary, he is now standing outside that world as an independent, and by no means uncritical, observer. He is not an untrustworthy servant — like the Miller, Reeve, Manciple, Summoner, and Pardoner. But his position is even more radical: he is a servant no more. (Patterson 14)
As Olson with the Democratic Party, so Chaucer with the court of Richard II. The radical act, the break between this and his earlier ‘commissioned’ poetry, should be recognized: finding one’s place is to move from slavery to freedom.
But there’s more: ‘[Chaucer] shows us a world in which our view of hierarchy depends on our own position in the world, not on an absolute standpoint’ (Mann 26). The pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales are grouped on how they work and what they do, not on ideas of chivalry or any other ideal conception. Written in then still-rare vernacular English, his is a purely comic and narrative art, a fierce respect for things as they are: a ‘cherles tale’ in which ‘harlotrie’ is ‘tolden’ — or to use the French word, a fabliau. Anyway, the Miller’s Tale ‘finds the physical world enough — its plenitude, its charm, its energy, its rules… an idea of order sufficient to man’s needs… a world temporarily — by an act of imaginative exclusion — unshadowed by Last Things’ (Kolve 92)
Characters in such stories live, for the most part, as though no moral imperatives existed beyond those intrinsic to the moment. They inhabit a world of cause and effect, pragmatic error and pragmatic punishment, that admits no goals beyond self-gratification, revenge or social laughter. (70)
To be secular is to exist in a place where no moral qualifiers are allowed to exist: ‘an animal world in which instinct takes the place that reason holds for man, a world in which instinct and necessity are one’ (79). Or in other words, ‘the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.’ ‘It’s the secular I don’t think is going to go out of our bones yet,’ wrote Olson in ‘Bill Snow,’ who later in that essay has a rather startling prediction of the War on Terror:
by which courage is suddenly a new word in the dictionary, that we are surrounded by enemies and must stay fit. It sounds like athleticism to me, and when all that is is only demonstrated by self-consciousness of that it is, games are being played. I’d go straight from Nature to the World. If form ever did lie in tales and on short stretches of distance between personally known towns already the Collector of Port Duties on Wool in the city of London in 1390 had had it. (352)
Another time Olson refers to Chaucer is at the beginning of ‘Proprioception,’ after detailing the old ‘psychology’ of feeling, desire, sympathy and courage being linked to the heart, liver, bowels and kidneys, which he calls ‘(Stasis — or as in Chaucer only, spoofed). Today: movement, at any cost’ (181).
So let’s move on to 1742, when another comic writer, Henry Fielding, is trying to make a case for his novel Joseph Andrews; as it was one of the first novels in English, he’s having a hard time trying to classify it: ‘it may not be improper to premise a few Words concerning this kind of Writing, which I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our Language’ (3). One of the great things about the 18th century novel in England was that people were just making it up as they went along, because there wasn’t a tradition of fictional prose and there were no conventions to follow — think of Tristram Shandy a few years later — so he settles on ‘a comic Epic-poem in prose.’
It is very funny — I’ll read you an example — but comedy, as we saw with Chaucer, also involves social realism. ‘And perhaps there is one Reason,’ Fielding writes in the Preface, ‘why a Comic Writer should of all others be the least excused for deviating from Nature, since it may not be always so easy for a serious Poet to meet with the Great and the Admirable; but Life every where furnishes an accurate Observer with the Ridiculous’ (5).
This was actually Fielding’s second attempt to respond to the success of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded two years earlier, a novel of an innocent young girl who’s rewarded for her chastity by a marriage proposal from the Squire who had been trying to seduce her: Fielding couldn’t believe that such a story had gotten popular. So he first tried to undermine its success with a novella called Shamela in 1741, where Pamela is re-imagined as a very different character — duplicitous and carnal — and then decided to write a much longer novel in which Joseph Andrews is Pamela’s brother, a male version of Richardson’s character, a virtuous and innocent young lad. Besides putting other fictional characters in his story, he also puts in real people and establishments: ‘within four Hours, he reached a famous House of Hospitality well known to the Western Traveler. It presents you a Lion on the Sign-Post: and the Master, who was christened Timotheus, is commonly called plain Tim’ (53). That was an actual place outside London: as Olson says in the Special View, ‘the dimension of fact’ was the story: there was no separation between fact and fancy, the real and the imagined.
So there’s humor — constant improvisations and spinnings and intrusions into his own novel — but this is also a novel that charts a period before the stratification of social classes, when rich and poor mingle throughout in what today would be called a revolutionary social democracy: like Chaucer in his Tales, he includes all the characters of his society and has them clash verbally with each other. And that decision to represent revolutionary society — one of absolute equity — necessitates revolutionary form:
She [Lady Booby] resolved to preserve all the Dignity of the Woman of Fashion to her Servant, and to indulge herself in her last View of Joseph (for that she was most certainly resolved it should be) at his own Expence, by first insulting, and then discarding him.
O Love, what monstrous Tricks does thou play with thy Votaries of both Sexes! How dost thou deceive them, and make them deceive themselves! Their Follies are thy Delight. Their Sighs make thee laugh, and their Pangs are thy Merriment!… Thou puttest out our Eyes, stoppest up our Ears, and takest away the power of our Nostrils; so that we can neither see the largest Object, hear the loudest Noise, nor smell the most poignant Perfume.… If there be any one who doubts all this, let him read the next Chapter. (41)
That’s from a chapter called ‘Sayings of wise Men. A Dialogue between the Lady and her Maid; and a Panegyric, or rather Satire on the Passion of Love, in the sublime Style’; the next chapter is called ‘In which, after some very fine Writing, the History goes on.’ It’s also probably relevant to say that this was a novel that was published in stages, so that there was always a sense of beginning again, as if for the first time.
But let’s get back to the social realism and the politics of the situation:
Traditionally, there is a tendency to see literature and the other arts as having a tenuous connection to politics at most. The aesthetic, the argument goes, is above the political, meaning not only ‘better than’ but ‘beyond’ and having little to do with the political. In this model, the critic tends to look at the organization and appeal of the formal attributes of the poem, often pointing to its representation of universal themes. (Morrissey 249)
I don’t have to point out the silliness of this argument to anyone here tonight, but would point out that this is still very much the model in academia, despite our so-called liberation from the new critics, the new new critics and most college and university literature programs. But it’s not just literature and politics that were melded together in this writing, it was all branches of knowledge:
Today, literature has come to be associated generally with the ‘literary’ or the aesthetic use of words, and it is often thought to be separate from many other fields. During the Restoration and the 18th century, however, literature was a very capacious field, and could include drama, history, natural philosophy (which we would today call ‘science’), political philosophy and poetry. (Morrissey 246)
This reminds me a lot of Olson’s attempts to re-make the curriculum at Black Mountain and of Jack Clarke’s Curriculum of the Soul. And while we can find this capaciousness in Dryden and Swift and Pope — and certainly in Milton, perhaps the most politically radical of all English poets and whose most famous works were written in this time period — where we find it most is the 18th century novel. And it’s an international world: that is, ‘cosmopolitan.’ Just as Chaucer traveled to France and Italy as a diplomat and absorbed the work of Dante and Boccacio, ‘the major 18th century novels are often engaged globally, rather than domestically,’ writes Morrissey, who contrasts them with the more familiar and domestic 19th century novels:
[T]he most famous 18th century novels are populated by world explorers such as Robinson Crusoe and Lemuel Gulliver.… the landscape of the Restoration and 18th-century novel is the terra incognita of colonial locations, the New World that Britain was increasingly engaging. (255)
Of course, ‘the New World that Britain was increasingly engaging’ also included the colonies, as the plaque at Stage Fort Park we saw yesterday testifies. Interestingly enough, it was Ed Dorn who got me interested in the 18th century; as an undergraduate, I had leaned, naturally enough, to the Romantics, and thought that Pope and Dryden were a little too arch and contentious. And Ed, as he did every once in a while, told me I was full of it: ‘They’re us!’ One of his favorite books at the time was Samuel Johnson’s The Life of Richard Savage, and I’m here to tell you that it’s an amazing piece of work.
There’s one more thing I want to say, though, about Fielding’s narrative style, constantly correcting itself and elaborating on previous points, as in ‘Letter 15’: ‘It goes to show you. It was not the ‘Eppie Sawyer.’’ And ‘You go all around the subject.’ And I sd, ‘I didn’t know it was a subject.’’ This is from Curtis White’s book called The Middle Mind:
Art is most itself, is ‘true’ art, when it makes itself not through the conventions of the universal… but, as Adorno thought, ‘by virtue of its own elaborations, through its own immanent process.’ Lawrence Sterne understood this… as the only true law of the novel: the novel is ‘the art of digression.’ This is why, ultimately, craft has little to do with whether or not a work is a successful piece of art. The most powerful and sinister gambit of what Adorno calls ‘administered society’ is to promise the freedom of individuality while simultaneously prohibiting it… Art is a response to this repression. (52-53)
And here’s where Deleuze and Guattari come in again:
Unlike the graphic arts, drawing, or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.(10)
Mapping the ground we walk: ‘On First Looking Through Juan de la Cosa’s Eyes.’ It’s what the AWP, in its all-consuming ambition to institutionalize poetry, never does. And it’s what comparison and classification don’t do, in their attempt to mute the active displays of knowledge, what’s said and what’s seen.
Creeley introduced the panel discussion at the Vancouver Poetry Conference:
I would like to center on the question of context, i.e., in what context does language operate, in terms of what is the ground that you walk on, in no metaphoric sense, but actually. Because I think the first day we were here the poems were still isolated from quote ‘actual events’ unquote, and I’d like to take it not so much into the whole business of what you can do with a poem, where you can put it or hang it on the wall, but where — what is ‘’history’? (1)
So the last thing I’d like to mention is that other word that follows from the polis — not Donald Trump, whom I still believe will self-destruct any day now — but, for example, Peter Anastas’ Decline of Fishes, an example of Gloucester politics. And again, Ammiel’s book, on which I’ve leaned so heavily:
It’s unimaginable but extremely valuable for our understanding to grasp dissent and opposition, what assertiveness can mean and how these can be, and have been, tied to thinking, research, action, and placing the body, as well as our public activities, literally, on the line. These are crucial to imagination, the imaginative faculties, to narrative, to poetics. To think about such things enables us to see how constrained we are, how constrained things have become, and to experience an opening that is not limited to the present. (79)
I mentioned that Gerrit had given us a tour of Gloucester yesterday; after we’d dropped him back at his place, my wife Sara and I followed a mail truck to make sure to get our mail-in ballots posted on time for next week’s California primary (because, you know, our two votes are going to put Bernie over the top). And I remembered our book club in Bolinas in the late 80s — Sara, Bob Grenier, Shao Thorpe, Joanne Kyger, others — reading Maximus III and wondering whether Olson would note Kennedy’s assassination, since the poems were mostly arranged in chronological order around that time. At Vancouver that year Olson said that we have to get back to the etymology of history and politics: ‘Otherwise we’re simply getting caught in the event either of the society, which is one form of what’s boringly called history, or the event of ourselves, which is also that damn boring thing called personal history’ (1). Last week I saw this old letter from another Massachusetts poet: ‘Wont you please tell me when you answer my letter who the candidate for President is?’ she wrote her brother Austin in the fall of 1847, when she was sixteen.
I have been trying to find out ever since I came here & have not yet succeeded… Has the Mexican war terminated yet & how? Are we beat? Do you know of any nation about to besiege South Hadley? If so, do inform me of it, for I would be glad of a chance to escape, if we are to be stormed. I suppose Miss Lyon would furnish us all with daggers & order us to fight for our lives, in case such perils should befall us.
Olson took national politics a bit more seriously than Emily Dickinson — at least for awhile — but there was a time when he gave it all up, to find a more central place in which to construct a republic, in gloom or otherwise: ‘a place as term in the order of creation.’ So I think it’s instructive to compare him with possibly the most apolitical poet we have. This is from a reprint of a New York Review of Books article by Christopher Benfey (1999):
Scholars have combed her verse and prose for mention of the Civil War, which coincided with her greatest outpouring of verse. But her inspiration during those years seems to have been resistance to high rhetoric.… Edmund Wilson may well be right in claiming that she never referred to the Civil War in her poetry. Her father’s commitment to the Whig values of compromise — he had served a term in Congress and campaigned for Zachary Taylor and Henry Clay — may have tempered her response. While Julia Ward Howe was writing her saber-rattling ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and Whitman his ‘Drum-Taps,’ Dickinson was quietly demolishing myths of heroic pomposity:
Finding is the first Act The second, loss, Third, Expedition for the ‘Golden Fleece’ Fourth, no Discovery— Fifth, no Crew— Finally, no Golden Fleece— Jason, sham, too—
I think that’s just an amazing poem, and I’d never seen it before. Benfey goes on:‘Dickinson’s language, oblique and sharply objective, can be seen as one response to the degraded verbiage of the Civil War era, and the Gilded Age pieties that followed… a voice raised against the pompous posturing of both sides. She once mentioned to Higginson her adamant resolution to ‘never try to lift the words which I cannot hold.’’
As with Olson’s cautions against ‘hypostasizing’ in ‘Special View’ and in Maximus V. III.11:
I am a ward
Man myself and hate
It only feeds into a class of deteriorated
Personal lives anyway, giving them
What they can buy, a cheap
Belief. The corner magazine store
(O’Connell’s, at Prospect and Washington)
has more essential room in it than
About three weeks ago, Sara offered to read a draft of the lecture while I was writing it, and I said it was still in a nascent state. We argued — as we do, occasionally — about the pronunciation of that word, but the next day I realized that the lecture had to end in a nascent state as well (and I’m not referring to the ‘nascent capitalism’ of Maximus 23).
That is, ‘finding one’s place’ is finding a place where one can move freely — can act — without any restraints but those self-imposed, as limits are what any one of us are inside of. ‘Every place, according to Olson, is an opening place,’ writes Shahar Bram, who wrote a book on Olson and Whitehead, ‘and can serve as a gate inward that can be used to return outward, after further growth.’ We don’t exist until we act: it’s the kinesis of the thing. ‘that no event // is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal / event’ (‘A Later Note on Letter #15’). Or, rather, the local contains the eternal: ‘finding one’s place’ is a constant action, a means of travel without necessarily going anywhere, because ‘one’s place’ is always being invented, and might be another’s as well, plus the space between. Just find a place to make your stand, and take it easy. This is eternity: this now. ‘The writing is nothing / the being in a position to write / that’s where they get you’
Michael Davidson’s essay ‘Archaeologist of Morning’ is a chapter in his book On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics (Wesleyan, 2011).
Olson’s poems are from The Maximus Poems (University of California, ed. George Butterick, 1983); his essays are in Collected Prose (University of California, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, 1997).
Duncan and Creeley’s quotes are from ‘On History,’ a transcription of a panel discussion at the Vancouver Poetry Conference, 1963, printed in Muthologos Volume 1 (Four Seasons Foundation, ed. George Butterick 1978)
Lee Patterson’s essay is his introduction to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: A Casebook (Oxford, ed. Lee Patterson, 2007); Jill Mann’s essay ‘The General Prologue and Estates Literature’ and V. A. Kolve’s ‘Nature, Youth, and Nowell’s Flood’ are from that same volume.
I used the Longman Cultural Edition of Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (Pearson, ed. Adam Potkay, 2008)
Lee Morrissey’s quotes are from his extended essay on the Restoration in English Literature in Context (Cambridge, ed. Paul Poplawski, 2008)
Curtis White’s The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves was published by Harper/Collins in 2003, and if you haven’t read it, you should.
If I had world enough and time, I would have incorporated these extra morsels from three of the main sources for this lecture.
from Charles Olson’s The Special View of History (Oyez, ed. Ann Charters, 1970):
The tenses, in other words, of the mythological are never past but present and future, a thing I have elsewhere called attention to, about history as it has now re-presented itself. Anything done under strong emotional excitement (as Miss Harrison puts it) and done in front of and with another or other persons (which is all that collective need mean) is what is under discussion here (22)
from Ed Dorn’s ‘What I See in The Maximus Poems’ (Four Seasons Foundation, ed. Donald Allen, 1980):
Olson is a master in the normal sense, i.e., there is no trafficking possible with his means, so tied to the source is he with his art. Nor can we learn anything of use from him.… It isn’t that Olson doesn’t manifest the same recognizable properties that mark writing. It is that the terms are not extractable from the whole art: there are no terms, but there is the term of the form. It isn’t just a piece of logic to say that for the total art of Place to exist there has to be this coherent form, the range of implication isn’t even calculable. I know master is a largish word. I don’t mean my master. I mean Dostoevsky, Euripides. The power. It is a removal from the effete and at the same time the aesthetic.
But when the Place is brought forward fully in form conceived entirely by the activation of a man who is under its spell it is a resurrection for us and the investigation even is not extractable. And it is then the only real thing. (32, 34)
from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, tr. Brian Massumi)
In contrast to centered (even polycentric) systems with hierarchical modes of communication and pre-established paths, the rhizome is an a-centered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states. What is at question in the rhizome is a relation to sexuality — but also to the animal, the vegetal, the world, politics, the book, things natural and artificial — that is totally different from the arborescent relation: all manner of ‘becomings.’… Some sort of continuing plateau of intensity is substituted for [sexual] climax, war, or a culmination point. (19)
Joe Safdie has lived, mostly chronologically, in Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Venice Beach, Boulder, Olomouc, Prague, Seattle, and now Encinitas, where he writes from a small office with a window that looks out over a cherimoya tree, a lantana bush, and a lemon tree (from left to right). His most recent books of poetry are Scholarship (Blaze Vox, 2014) and Coastal Zone (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015).
When it rings, followed by that long distance static
I brace myself. It’s the wrong hour for a chat.
And as she speaks, I feel seasick
Strange brine and bile rising in my mouth.
The phone falls from the desk, I was pulling too hard.
I kneel for it, bending into the chair, unbalanced
As if my ship were listing to the right.
Its hull’s cargo all dislodged.
Now her words form a harpoon.
Something huge and black pitches about in the small room.
Spewing, whipping about too fast
His wet tail knocking all the furniture.
Come home, she says, it’s time.
When I left the house the sun had just begun pulling down.
Acorns crackled under foot and globes of persimmon bright orange
Hung forgotten on a tree near the edge of a field.
I couldn’t help but reach for one less bruised.
Surprised when it exploded in my gloved hand,
Orange sinews and sputum. I pulled back the puckered flesh
To suck in the glands of sweet juice, fruit of heaven.
But my black dog wanted nothing to do with it. She tugged on her leash
Eager to pull me up hill to the lost farm.
We trudged past manicured vines and olive trees
Tending the dark-eyed farmhouse like sentries. It was the quiet
And a bit of breathlessness from the climb that kept us there.
Out of nowhere, a net of black stars rose from the field. They spun and soared,
Plummeted, daredevil diving as they had done for the Etruscans,
For the Romans, and now for me and the little black dog.
The sun slid further down.
The dog barked. The starlings reeled towards darkness
But I hesitated to head for home.
If I could read their urgent dispatch I could save the world.
Dana Prescott is an American painter, writer, and educator who has lived in Italy for over thirty years. Formerly the Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome and Director of Rhode Island School of Design’s European Honors Program, she is currently Executive Director of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation.
excitement a revised
flyover to choctop
boredom so let’s sip
prosecco like white
how those 3d-eed
bubbles tickle your
fancy i went to
the wrong movie but
had the right ticket
for an emergency tax
deduction i’m sorry
i can’t remember the
director’s name was it
fellini, bergman, or taran-
tino everyone seems to rush
out before the credits start
to roll — i’m indebited to
the reliability of an elevator
even if the traffic lights insist
on being stubborn the spring
water is half the price across
the rheumatoidal road they call
it tank stream spa well did you
bring your pack of loyalty cards
is it a deal
always that juggle
with the bubble
the intimate triangle
of the talentoidal clock
brief bun burgers laced
with secret hooks ˜ ˜
hi carb and barb how
fries lie a bikini backed
career on the sand; patriot
koalas hit the ground running
a dataset glut risk
apartments wobble like notional
agreements heebie jeebies heckle
and jeckle are coming to peck you out
in the flat pack airflows executive
breakdowns in subtower carparks status
details so quo commemorative coins joyride
above karmic clouds remuneration surrenders
to cardboard shoes press the elevator
button we’re going down
They tossed him aside, half-dead. Near the stadium steps
with some others, very much the competitor on the racetrack,
but then? She floated away rippled from the stage
like a jazz-waltz tidal wave;
or was she at the corner
next to the shop window under the rain?
You lowered the window glass and the vapor from inside
the little car was cleared.
A cigarette caught her profile in the storm.
You spoke looking in the rearview mirror: butcher or buffoon?
The curve of the nose, eyes of sweet corn liquor,
apple purée, Leda’s swan,
chlorophyll crap, the display cart bucking its prow
under a leaky drainage tube,
two drenched doves, a broken glass where it drums.
Auto, author, entrance
was no more than exit,
backhand of a glove caught between dunes
while strong air whistled:
the king and the queen pursued by Juno and Venus
entered the grotto; a lantern beam maneuvered
between rocks and sediment.
Antinous? The emperor, afterwards, devoted himself to statues,
he dedicated him as a statue invading this side of the world.
Little teeth whitened the field from Parthenope to Memphis,
columns shit-stained by swallows rob the sea of New York pallor.
Did he speak? Deaf in one ear,
he twisted the other so that you might tell him, quick
under a wing of hard hair smoothed with brilliantine or opaque lacquer
(the birds of his look threatened to fly with each lick of a question;
meanwhile, promptly, you ran your hand through a girl’s mane:
a waste of time?).
We ended at a neighbor’s house, a weightlifter
He undressed, leaving only his bathing trunks on.
You were in the hands of someone who could kill you:
‘We are surrounded.’ The word stopped being subservient
to the letter. This life (how to imagine the other
or stop keeping it in mind?) makes us crewmembers
exposed to wear and tear, made real by punishment;
each edge is scraped, but the tanning accumulates time.
Genetrix denies her role as protectress.
Life begins somewhere else: dash, pain, pool balls
at the edge of an assumed danger:
cutting of a hand, gesture of the fingers.
In what style? They hunted in the sierra,
ate in canvas chairs.
The voyage is forgotten but voyaging continues.
With each ball a question is redeemed.
The dead return to give a criterion,
neither prescriptions nor mandates.
‘Why must we girls be so beautiful?’
A phosphorescent summer triumphed in the parking lot.
Feminized lips for mother love
despise a disowned master
who protects the woman who loves him not,
or is it a young boy? Was his dad a sugar daddy?
Does he remember to have been darling?
The silk corsage presses against his muscles and stifles him;
he can’t run or play polo,
a prisoner of love, that assigns him a gender.
They used to call them hobble skirts, women couldn’t board the trams.
Is it a girl’s lace or a cobbler’s knife?
A tongue lashing of affronting sarcasm,
criminal rage, a cocktail party explodes
in the apartment of Solaris, light of two,
clouded screen, plastic jellyfish,
dirty contact lens.
Or a cutting insult on tossing away the towel.
You took a white poplin shirt, ‘crazy’, large,
that belonged to my father, purchased at a sale at Caubarrère,
and left yours all sweaty after the electoral campaign.
Looking askance at feelings? In what story?
If thinking what others might think paralyzes you
humiliation arrives from the least expected quarter.
An edge of danger preserves our atmosphere.
Rooms with few or many furnishings
are snapshots, but, interrupted,
they won’t say what we haven’t said yet.
Your porcelain nostrils dilated like cows nostrils
from having been used so many times.
A well-aimed arrow alighted in your arms.
Half-hidden among the plants,
a woman lived here in another time.
You made a claim to her that doesn’t cease burning.
A homeland, a business center, a real intersection
for opposing stances without attaining power;
power? Was the City Hall a lost opportunity?
A real option remains, hardly labored yet,
a shadow without doffing its beret.
But we all choose.
A show-piece is produced, a first vote:
a hotel, my house, the house of a friend?
It’s worth trying each of those,
different conjunctions occur;
in the house of a friend it will turn out a farthing,
in my house, a meal,
at the hotel he asks me for a shirt
but he abandons himself priceless.
The little backroom near the fig tree,
the double bed, was the drum kit of the maid.
She danced with an arm fastened to the ironing board,
raising the other. The tomb of Gala Placida,
cool at the hour of siesta.
The boy grasped the horns of the ram;
a flyer, it carried him far from Rhodes.
He sacrificed it in a sunny spot.
With his hair over his nose, he looked up
and rubbed himself.
I looked for binoculars in the green strong box
where my dad kept documents
but when I returned he was already gone;
he needed me in place as a peeping tom.
There is always a potential abasement:
either to denounce the kid at the police station,
or that married life might rob us of the chance to be heard,
falling where the other’s power has put us.
Splitting stops the trajectory at a certain point
although signs of disrespect already appear.
Before entering, I didn’t know his deafness,
his muscular curve, his medical past,
or what route he would follow to rein me in.
Baco was at first as terse as a geisha;
hair thick and blue, the nest of a goshawk, bird of Zeuxis,
a floating fortress, not of algae, of interlaced vines.
With lacustrine shudder, pulse of an ecstatic hummingbird
he held a tumbler of pressed grapes; his heavy eyelid
was the bread and blood of a submarine sky.
An almost deaf puppet, did he turn a gesture of disdain?
Was he alive? He was living without death
unsettling us as we accepted his mandate.
The lizard came in later.
The arm suddenly clenched
under the impact of a voltaic arc.
The lewd toga revealed a smooth shoulder, convulsed;
the space between eyebrows, a curved Borromini window, bulged
more alarmed than furious. The nest
collapsed but still held a flower in it. Furor construendi constrains unto pain
the boy overcome by surprise.
In biting his hand, the lizard bit its own tail.
The leaves were hiding a nest of serpents, Animalaccio, sold by Leonardo’s father
to the Duke of Milan.
You weren’t there, neither was I.
One had to pinch. You did with zest.
The severed head twisted an elliptical, extreme leer.
A gorgon on the shield, whom to attack?
Whom to defend?
Perseus decapitated Medusa,
Delilah cut Samson’s hair,
Judith beheaded Holofernes
(an old woman in profile, her eyes bulging, awaited
the fall of the gift into her lap).
David decapitated Goliath; he exhibited the head to the people at war.
Absalom was hung by his hair,
then a lance pierced his back.
Caravaggio painted the grin:
swollen, identical, Goliath to Holofernes.
He crossed swords with Pietro di Cortona.
Seizing the horns and laughing,
Baptist lost his head for Salomé.
They kill, they die, they are free of death.
I rasp a leather thong with a metal brush.
A boat piston circles inside my tripe,
a bull’s eye, gold for eye.
Vapor. There’s no one here,
in the street there were plenty.
In twenty minutes twenty-one years.
Why did you this to me?
The blood runs from the knife blade to the water, mascara;
it runs parallel to a neon line on the wall.
Opening a way, conceded to whom,
Something is brushed askance when said
until it comes to life in an almost invisible way.
A whipping top spins for a moment where nothing is.
As I look at you, the windshield shifts a rugged mountain chain.
The event has wings short or long
as it advances a peculiar pattern:
to walk on foot barefoot
over grass gravel sand macadam.
Where to stop, and when?
The girl on bicycle fell in front of the car
(it wasn’t yours: it was a Fiat).
The wheel stopped against her breast.
Her throat almost bled.
We entered a house in front of the fortress-lighthouse La Barra.
A priest said: ‘It’s half past eight if the clock hasn’t stopped.’
It’s also one thirty in the afternoon
according to the slant of light inside the church.
Something ends — begins.
The fruit of a circumstantial compromise,
an experience blends with another
but isn’t confused with it;
not to repeat is the watchword, in order to advance still further
where the path breaks off.
Another turn or the wheel will reveal
what some hid or showed
but we didn’t manage to define.
It happened at times, although it did not last.
Signs multiply a never thorough knowledge,
impeded by dilatory circumstances:
few years, little money.
So Gatsby or Stahr contemplate the lobster
displayed in the window of a café.
Donald Wellman is a poet and translator. As editor of O.ARS, he produced a series of annual anthologies of experimental work, including Coherence (1981) and Translations: Experiments in Reading (1984). His poetry works with sources from several languages. His collections include Roman Exercises (Talisman House, 2015), The Cranberry Island Series (Dos Madres, 2013), A North Atlantic Wall (Dos Madres, 2010), Prolog Pages (Ahadada, 2009), and Fields (Light and Dust, 1995). He has translated books by Antonio Gamoneda, Emilio Prados, Yvan Goll, and Roberto Echavarren. Albiach / Celan: Reading Across Languages is forthcoming (2016) from Annex Press.
Roberto Echavarren has several prize-winning books of poetry to his credit, most recently Centralasia (Xalapa, 2014; bilingual edition Sao Paulo, 2014) and El monte nativo (Buenos Aires, 2015). Recently published in English translation by Donald Wellman and the author is The Espresso between Sleep and Wakefulness [El expreso entre el sueño y la vigilia] Cardboard House, 2016. A native of Uruguay and professor of world literature, long associated with New York University, Echavarren is the co-editor, along with José Kozer and Jacobo Sefamí, of Medusario: muestra de poesía Latinoamericana (Medusario: A Survey of Latin-American Poetry), the leading anthology of poetry in the Neo-Baroque style. Echavarren’s critical prose addresses the distinctive characteristics of innovative Latin American poetry. His poetry is definitive. Rooted in both surrealism and contra-constructivist practices, it employs both dislocation and disjunctive series.