dominance and singularity in nonlinear space
“All this means that when the forces within man enter into a relation with forces of finitude from outside, then and only then does the set of forces compose the Man-form.”
Paragraph One follows — 1:
In my opinion, the concepts of “territorialization” and “singularization” shed a double light concerning the future of humanity. The idea of singularity derives from quantum theory, relating particularly to the origins of the universe. A singularity is an infinite time previous to all known visibilities and laws of nature.
Singularities hold endless divisibility in a dangerous “legendary” epoch of shadow images of the unknown. Singularities also associate with uniqueness and in this way apply in the discussion of the nature of Being. Singularity is perpetual discovery. Singularity is the foundation of the real.
These terms appear in the Structuralist writings of Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. But they permeate all of Postmodernism and benefit the philosophies of many art forms. They bring in perception, spontaneity, error, separation, articulation. Singularities are sometimes thought to be inside of departure and sometimes outside of departure, though in either case there is a sense of consciousness and spatial relationship that opens the discourse of the self — knowledge interacting with knowledge, actions propelling other actions, exterior organically reflecting interior across time.
Singularity is an irreducible alienation. With singularity, objectivity is dispersed, and subjectivity advances on a gravitational path of justification — a path impossible to measure linearly. The disturbance of common uncertainties begins its lonely walk of credibility in an incomprehensible fullness and legibility that obstruction reduces to violence. Without singularity the metaphorical landscape is falsified and entities assume a negative signification.
Alongside experimentation, improbable systemic balances, conceptual finitude continually surpasses and reinvents itself, conflicting not only linear geometries and categories but, more importantly, the onrushing entropic kingdoms of absolutism. Citizenship ascends toward meaning — a higher more difficult temporality and superimposed meaning-in-question in which the impossible gives rise to the possible and multiplicity is the condition of content. The purpose of thought is to deconstruct iconic (non)meaning, not create it.
Singularity breaks into memory with the light of diversity and difference on the order of the nothingness of concrete finality, which appears as an “economy of death.” The fluctuation of singularity “presents itself therefore, as the right to difference, variation and metamorphosis.”
History becomes limitless inconsequence, comparable with “spurious infinity” — infinity of perfection, infinity of education, infinity of minutia. A type of solar incompatibility dehistoricizes the closed tropes of the world. Whereas, singularity becomes “the image of a distant light… [serving] as a reference for less clearly localized images.” Undoubtedly, the logos is multiple. In the words of Jean Baudrillard
The whole traditional mode of causality is brought into question: the perspective, deterministic mode, the “active,” critical mode, the analytical mode — the distinction between cause and effect, between active and passive, between subject and object, between ends and means.
Death is the indictment of improvisational everyday regions of caring praxis associated with the imposition of mass subjection. The passports of Cartesian orientation have been revoked. In their place is substituted a formal metal-detecting religion of genetic stereotypes, which prohibits all risk associated with structural responsibility, liability, paradox and interaction, trampling the space of utopian autonomy. Definitive motion of singularity and nonlinearity is immobilized in the crowded prisons of mistrust and distortion.
The gun, which once differentiated territories from subversion and trivialization, has now become the means of eliminating the duality that characterizes them. The gun has become a means of invalidation — severely compromising identity. The gun is the agency of deceit. It manipulates need. It outlaws deviation, accuracy, cooperation, significance — but only in order to steal them — so that the natural systems and networks of production are clogged with pretext. The gun kills diversity. The gun is the simulacra of hasty anonymous commercialization, an immense featureless familiarity.
Does spontaneity and singularity topple the world of secret power? The gun is the Being-of-Power. But subjectivity — articulation of the first world — has little to do with power. Ideologies often take the place of contentment.(7)
Today, modes of discussion along with terms of discussions are decentralized and poeticized in order that prominent conceptualities are prevented from marginalizing reality in the tautologies of unreason. As Foucault states, “The practice of power remains irreducible to any practice of knowledge.” In its volume, subjectivity eventually transcends objectivity — but from a different, more distant and variable approach — a new dimension.
The Being-of-Power eradicates itself totally. Dominant power fearfully misuses the resources of technology, with unprecedented growth: repetitious, reactionary, rapid and diseased. The dominant power structures of unilateralism, with their privatized walls paying lip service to truth and disdaining democracy, ask, “What might I be?” They terminate their own theories and ideologies, folded into the melting flames of extinction. But the open struggle leads again to a global world. “Life becomes the resistance to power… .”
Because there is no power other than truth: Within homogeneous borderlines life becomes flooded and “simulated” and nowhere are we able to discern a crossing. Trapped within the shell of coherence, sensibleness, morality and decorum, only cataclysm, the occult, sad remnants, exile, rejection, disasters, a surprising consolation, new belief offer a way out.
We await our execution in the terrorizing black holes of the lost houses of the corporate diaspora: oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, “great recession,” hurricanes or remote pristine areas encompass with empathetic signification the volatility of a predominantly social system, arbitrarily misleading, similar to a previous fossilized idea of class struggle.
Mythic dominance supplanted as a polar effect purports to be movement but in fact is the opposite — suppression and stagnation. Leaders become targets of their own police and upheavals, because of the unyielding strength of static moral authority. Only a nonlinear society is capable of an economy — of any sort.
Classical power arises in an instinctive consolidation of discipline, order and morality. It became recognizable — a logos — but a logos whose very structure could not account for flux or transformation. Freedom had not yet been born.
In early cities and kingdoms founded on elemental principles, there resided semblances of order and justice based on Laws whose ultimate ineffectiveness repeatedly surfaced as civilization. Like early Egyptian paintings and architecture, groping toward three-dimensionality, these hierarchical societies of fear were concerned with surfaces and forms whose strength as yet had no connection with depth of understanding.
Everything emanated from authority and lawlessness, attempting only strict domination; nothing that emanated from these regimes attempted to reconcile, teach, act selflessly, forebear, interact, create or co-produce in a general cumulative way. In this sense, servility is incapable of permanence.
Yet within these inhumane edifices there occurred inexplicably slight movements and interstices of an anomalous sort that represented the hidden patterns of understanding and ambiguity. In these inviolable movements, these aberrations, crises, fatal flaws seemed to give way, revealing the structural notions of cycles and equilibrium. “Radical reconsideration” took place causing “a shift in the very space” of political and economic structure.
We fail in our successes. We destroy in our haste to preserve. Baudelaire said that the essence of the modern is the ephemeral. He might have added the ambiguous and the diverse. Contemporary societies claim they have advanced simply because they have connected in a greater number of destinations and markets and with increased speed. But confusion is different from Chaos.
What’s important is the vertical rather than the horizontal, the unknown rather than the known. It’s in disconnection rather than connection that Mankind recognizes mere colonialism and hegemony.
Discovery is out of the unknown rather than known, the immoral rather than established moralities. In suicide is the greatest self-knowledge and the greatest insight into the future. “And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.” It seems that, in its prominence, “global climate change” has itself become inert and imperialist.
It emanates from the Being-of-Power. There are no new terminologies. For these reasons, the science has stopped evolving. The more successfully it presents itself, the less its singularity and effectiveness.
Death is linearity, stagnation, laxity, imprisonment. Life is in the ecological flow of society — beyond our powers of comprehension and intentionality, which, in producing something unexpected sustains itself. The new ideas of globalism must remain faithful to a wonderful nonlinearity, the state in which free societies continually manifest their essential principles — rather than the imposition of repetitious power.
Globalism is power apart from maliciousness and force. The Being-of-the-Universe is not the Being-of-Power nor the Being-of-Knowledge but the Being-of-Mystery. “… everything is subject to variables and variation.”
Power may perhaps impose an order from above, but, the permanent structure of societies is mysterious functionality. Rather than from above it is a force from below. Such a power is of an order inherent in creation itself, not in the “strength” that stands apart from it that cannot be anything but harmful to its natural processes.
Death is the destruction of singularity. It is the prosification of space — a de-territorialization. Globalism is a currency of equilibrium and growth maintained in nonlinear movement and interactions of worlds essentially diverse.
 See Nomadology: The War Machine, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Semiotext(e), 1986 (paperback).
 A phrase used in Jacques Derrida’s writing, particularly chapter 4, Writing and Difference, University of Chicago Press, 1978, (paperback).
Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, paperback, p.87.
 The idea of varieties of infinity, including “spurious infinity,” appears in Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, ibid., and Inventions of Difference, Rudolphe Gasche, Harvard University Press, 1994.
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, Beacon Press, 1969, p. 32.
Simulations, Jean Baudrillard, Semiotext(e), 1983, p. 55.
Other books used in this brief article: The Birth of the Clinic, Michel Foucault; Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. II, Henri Lefebvre; The Illusion of the End, Jean Baudrillard; General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes.
Tom Hibbard has had many reviews, essays, poems and artworks published online and in print publications. He had many reviews and articles published in the early version of Jacket Magazine. Other publications where his reviews and poems have appeared are Word/ For Word, Big Bridge, Galatea Resurrects and Solitary Plover. With Washington D. C. poet Buck Downs, Hibbard read his poetry recently at Myopic Books in Chicago and Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee. He has written extensively on “visual poetry.” And his poetry collection Sacred River of Consciousness is on sale at Moon Willow Press in Vancouver and Amazon.com.
A Column of Cloud and a Column of Fire:
Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni
One of the most original and significant texts to have come out of Europe in the past generation is Dimitris Lyacos’ poetic trilogy, Poena Damni. I call it ‘poetic’ because there is no word that quite describes a work that moves alternately between poetry, prose, and drama, and that turns each like a prism in a quest for meaning that yields no final stability but only a ‘further horizon of pain’ (The First Death, Section X).
As the above suggests, the text offers us a shifting series of scenes and perspectives, somewhere between a journey and a travail. There is an implicit narrative voice, but no narrative, that shifts abruptly from first to third person, a thread of consciousness that weaves in and out of dream and waking, fantasy and vision, confronting us at every turn with that which both forces and repels our sight. You know there is a narrative, because something in the voice compels you to continue; you simply do not know what is being told. You are simply within the framework of a temporality in its most radical sense.
Dimitris Lyacos was born in Athens in 1966, and studied law and philosophy. It was conceived back to front, with its ‘last’ part, The First Death, written and published first, and the other segments proceeding backwards toward an origin that instates the original wound of the poem’s birth. Lyacos has revised it extensively over the course of some thirty years, retracting an earlier version of what is now With the People From the Bridge that was originally published as Nyctivoe and heavily revising the text called Z213: EXIT. The suggestion, I think, is clear: the poem remains open, a circularity that deflects all progression, an ourobouros that never meets its own tail.
How to begin, then, with a text of this nature? Perhaps we might start with the act of writing itself. Nearly midway through the revised text of the middle volume of the poem, Z213: EXIT, a prose section begins thus:
Make a point of remembering to write as much as I can. As much as I remember. In order for me to remember. As I keep writing I go into it again. Afterwards it is as if it were not I. How do I know that I have written this. Faded, someone else’s words. My own handwriting though. From a void I wake up within, time after time… (Z213: EXIT, p.61)
The voice of this section has no identity, most of all for itself. It begins in the fashion of a diary injunction to get something important down, indeed something crucially vital. No subject is specified, however, other than the act of remembering itself, of remembering in order to have memory. The writing must not stop, has no point at which it can safely stop, and yet its continuity as an act does not guarantee the writing subject. Repetition (‘I go into it again’) is no foothold either, for as soon as there is a halt or a pause, everything is lost: ‘Afterwards it is as if it were not I.’ The effacing hand is temporality itself, for no sooner does the pause introduce it then everything instantly ‘fades,’ and the words, even if still physically present, belong to someone else, an identity not one’s own. The speaker may even recognize his own handwriting, but only as a piece of external evidence suppositionally linked to but already alienated from himself. The attempt to create memory by marking time collapses upon itself, and, returned to a pre-maternal void in which the speaker wakes without birth to find himself in a ‘within,’ he can only labor without issue, ‘time after time.’
The reader will recognize in this passage an echo of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, with its futile attempt to create a past by moving forward (‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on’), and the temporal abrogation of Pozzo’s climactic speech in Waiting for Godot: ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ We might not need to hear this again, especially expressed as inimitably as it was the first time; but Lyacos’ perspective is quite different. The real precursor of his poem is the Odyssey, by way of the New and Hebrew Testaments and such modern texts as George Seferis’ ‘The Argonauts.’ Superficial resemblance notwithstanding, it is not as in much of Beckett a journey to the interior of the self, with or without a mirroring companion, but outwards toward a community of others.
We must, therefore, correct ourselves at the outset: if the problem of the self is identified with memory in the passage we have cited, Lyacos lays claim to the collective temporal dimension we inhabit as well, that of history. To put it in terms of the texts he appropriates for his vision, if the Odyssey is a circular journey that returns to its point of origin — the arc never quite completed in his own poem — the Bible, taken in both its books, is a long passage toward a transcendence that, always immanent, remains frustratingly out of reach. The condition this presents for the modern subject, with the burden of a situation that portends the end of the human story not as transcendence but annihilation, is the presiding subject of Poena Damni.
We might, then, seek another point of entry into the text (and many might be chosen, given its aspect of circularity). The first of the fourteen sections that comprise The First Death is a prose passage that describes a broken piece of human flotsam in a condition of ultimate extremity:
Sea of iron. Moon silent as pain in the depth of the mind. A body swept here and there on the rocks like seaweed or a lifeless tentacle, fruit of a womb ship-wrecked by the winds, ensanguined and flesh-filled mire. The left arm cut short, the right to the end of the forearm, a rotted stick raving amid the water’s lungs. Of the ravaged mouth there remained only a wound which closed slowly. From the eyes a blurred light. The eyes without lids. The legs down to the ankles — no feet. Spasms. (The First Death, p.9)
The Odyssey is invoked here, the peril known to every sailor. It is not clear whether the broken body is alive or dead, or, perhaps better said, capable of death. It is moved as if ‘lifeless,’ but also ‘raving,’ shaken by spasms, and with a wound still ‘closing.’ Seemingly rejected by a ‘Sea of iron,’ it also appears to drown in a watery lung under a moon whose silence suggests a pain too deeply embedded for expression. If in our first-quoted passage a balked narrator seeks an identity that continually eludes his grasp, in this one, it is a core of suffering that cannot relinquish itself.
This scene would seem to be the reductio ad nihilo of the human predicament, a thrashing agony indifferently trundled among shape-shifting elements. Nonetheless, a consciousness slowly emerges in subsequent sections of the poem, prodded by an authorial persona that suggests both the possibility of will (‘Keep moving’) and the intuition of a shared destiny (‘aware that all men have drowned within you,’ 15). These are not merely the companions of the subject’s own suppositional journey — the shipwreck of a particular Ithaca — but of all deaths in all places: ‘regiments of the dead whispering unceasingly / in a limitless graveyard’ (13). This suggests in turn the mythic sacrifice of a Year God, ‘the return / of a dismembered body in the spring’ (12), and the terrain of a more familiar religious imagery, ‘the heavenly hand which now / draws you with all its might’ (15). But salvation — if that is what is on offer — is not so easily obtained from a source that is itself perhaps not so easily what it seems:
Consequence of a face without mouth. Thirst for resurrection. I am baptized in the trenches of mourning; dry kisses, bitter sponge, the rotted leaf returning to the ground. Turn back inside. I swell with lust, unhallowed I writhe, in the recesses of your body I spill my blood. 16)
This complex and twisting passage returns us to the beginning of The First Death, with its image of a mouth that is simply a wound closing on its own silence. The mouth, and the broken body to which it is attached, ‘thirsts’ for something that is for the first time identified as ‘resurrection.’ Has the body died, or is it simply wandering among the ‘regiments of the dead’ in the state that lies between death and extinction, and in which it conceives the desire — or premonition — of resurrection? The passage shifts from third to first person, with a subject introduced in mid-sentence. The voice we hear declares itself to be ‘baptized,’ thus completing the conventional circuit of Christian imagery, but it is so only among the dead or at least those in uncertain transit, receiving the ministrations of dry kisses and a bitter sponge on a body itself defined as in an irreversible process of decay. The ‘life’ this brings it to is similarly grotesque; it swells with lust as though merely proceeding to a further state of corruption, and it ‘writhes’ with this in a motion indistinguishable from pain. It is, in a word, ‘unhallowed’; that is, uninhabited by a truly animating spirit, and perhaps being taken only to a further level of darkness in which (as Lyacos sets the scene), there is only ‘scourging,’ ‘slaughter,’ and the image of a now-screaming moon.
At this moment, the speaking subject again changes register and identity: ‘in the recesses of your body I spill my blood.’ This seems, unmistakably, the voice or at least the gesture of a savior-figure, sacrificing its own blood for the tortured body. The result, however, is only further degradation that, in the poem’s next section, ‘surfeited with pain / … / will overflow / and spit all out / and drink it all, once more // to reach / the dregs of scream’ (17). This passage, too, plays on contradiction, for what seems an ultimate cry of agony from the furthest recesses of pain, is nonetheless an affirmation that suggests, again, the ‘heavenly hand’ of Section IV that ‘draws… with all its might.’
The reigning image here seems to be that of Christ’s own sojourn in hell, which is both a ‘harrowing’ of wickedness and a voluntary immersion in it. Incorruptible, Christ cannot experience hell as the damned do; he is sovereign over it. At the same time, however, he has taken upon himself all sin and punishment as the Man of Sorrows, and so the sojourn in hell is a completion of the arc of salvation, an extension of it to the land of the dead. In Christ, this arc is perfect and foretold; nothing further remains to be accomplished by divinity alone. But it is only here that the human story properly begins.
If we recall the tripartite structure of Lyacos’ poem, and likewise of its major sources, we can see the conundrum The First Death seems to pose in better context. The world of the Odyssey knows no heaven, but it is framed by an underworld to which Odysseus can gain access only by drinking from a blood-pit. The connection between the world of the living and that of the dead is, consequently, one in which the vital source is also connected to ritual pollution and contamination. The intercourse between the two realms is fraught with peril; in effect, it is a wager of mortality. Redemption is not part of this equation; only the hero attracts the attention of the gods, in many cases fatally: hence the phenomenon of tragedy. The broken being to whom Lyacos introduces us at the beginning of The First Death and who moves through a terrain of the dead to a space suspended between a beseeched heaven and an apparent hell is thus pre- as well as perhaps post-Christian, a circling between hope and despair in which faith remains out of reach. The only thing clear is that the First Death’s subject cannot achieve ‘resurrection’ for himself alone, and that the effort to do so evokes only a deity that intensifies his predicament, filling him with the spurious vitality of a lust whose contortions assume the aspect of agony.
We are thus presented with the necessity of the Other. The bridge that leads the subject toward his counterpart begins, paradoxically, with that very lust that denies him the status of anything but an object. In Christian terms, lust is sin, but outside them it is as Freud, the still-presiding figure of our own age, describes it, an instinctual drive that seeks merely a locus of discharge. Human relations, then, begin with an act that simultaneously establishes and denies them.
For Lyacos, sexuality is a point of origin — always, as in the poem’s motion of circularity, to begin again and again — in which the self and the other are constituted simultaneously. Again, we may choose a passage that expresses this with particular clarity, from Z213. It begins with a baffled subject who has been ‘walking for long without purpose.’ He does not know where he has come from or where he is going, nor can he recall his name although he supposes he must have one. He instructs himself — or is instructed — to ‘Sit,’ and at the same time to try something again that he fears will not (cannot?) be accomplished.
This introduction segues without pause to a room in which the subject recognizes a woman who has been an object of desire. It is a contemporary scene; there is a furnished room which voices penetrate from outside, and desire enacts itself in the form of a passive submission to a bodily event:
I laid with my legs stretched out together, arms glued to my body. Like in a coffin. And I stopped breathing for a while. She began, I turned my eyes up to the ceiling. White, a blank sheet two yards above us. She asked me if I wanted slow or faster, I couldn’t sense, told her a bit slower. It felt as though an alien member was stuck to my body. An alien member coming out of my body. Back to front, like cleaning the barrel of a gun. Front to back, now slower somewhat. Her breasts were pressing forward. She was looking down at her hand, waiting attentively. I could feel it was squeezing me and then opening and relaxing…. The hard body on me. For a moment you don’t look anywhere, just feel, the body fills out, saliva starting in the mouth, the animal scratches inside and wants to get out, you want to get out, the animal thirsty pushes inside to exit your mind overflowing. Overflowing between her fingers and surging and you move toward her breasts. And then, then as if you didn’t exist, as if the animal died and me that I came wholly inside her. If I could stay like this, empty, empty and clean. (99)
This passage suggests an experience of female ravishment, of the male body submitting to and then rising toward a ‘hard body’ that simultaneously pleasures and masters it, that arouses and expels an indwelling animal that, like a succubus, strains for release and final purgation. The description echoes that of Section V of The First Death (‘I swell with lust, unhallowed I rise, in the recesses of your body I spill my blood’), but here the act of coition leads not, as in the former passage, to a final sense of ‘Despair,’ but to one of futurity, of possibility, in which the woman may be returned to and the liberating cycle resumed (101).
We are still, at this point, far from a properly human relationship, let alone the larger one of community. The speaker of the passage doesn’t have a name, though it’s unclear whether he can’t recall it or simply never had one. The woman he’s with is similarly unidentified. Their relationship is one of sexual conjunction, which is to say, an animal function. They do, however, share speech, and the scene around them is urban and even fastidiously civilized (‘Trousers carefully on the chair’). What transpires between them on the essential level, at least for the male, is the expulsion of a primal animality that creates the space for a possible humanity, a death unto life. The critical passage is, as so often in Lyacos, grammatically indeterminate: ‘And then, then as if you didn’t exist, as if the animal died and me that I came wholly inside her.’ From ‘you’ to ‘me’ to ‘I’ suggests an identity coming into finally possibility through a violent ontological passage. The ‘animal’ in the speaker does not die, nor is it permanently expelled, for we cannot physically exist without it as a component of our being. It is, rather, set aside so that another space can be cleared within the speaker, the space for a person.
I take this scene to be particularly critical in the poem, because it suggests its process as a passage, by no means guaranteed or identifiable with a progress toward civilization, but rather as a constant toil, now advancing and now retreating. Lyacos suggests this a bit further on in Z213 in the image of a ‘burnt out Lighthouse’ (the capitalization is significant) that opens up on the prospect of a terminally decayed world:
your cities exhausted, the aged
children, the aching teeth of desire, the carriages full of
the drowned, the truth that tightens, around what
happened it tightens,
you say it, they gather together, a circle, the gallows, the trees,
the fruit that does not fall on the ground, the bodies that
broke from affection,
the friend you don’t see and don’t hear … (107)
In this densely concentrated passage, Lyacos depicts a condition that seems to have gone beyond hope, in which desire begets only aged children; a carriage — the image of passage — carries only the dead; truth has hardened into dogma; trees bear but, Tantalus-like, do not yield their fruit; bodies conjoin but no longer affirm; friendship is recalled but no longer attainable. In the center of the passage is a circle, a symbol of gathering and community that immediately assumes the grotesque form of a noose that, aligned with the ‘trees’ that bear the fruit that does not fall — the bodies, perhaps, of the hanged?
This is the saeculum, the order of the world that cannot be its own salvation. We are once again within Lyacos’ synoptic vision of Scripture, one that does not separate the two Testaments but engages them as a continuous dialogue with each other. The Hebrew Testament is the story of an unconsummated pilgrimage, in which a single tribe of people, distinguished from yet symbolic of all humanity, seeks a Promised Land, loses it through iniquity, regains it through renewed exile and struggle, loses it yet again, but never abandons the hope of a definitive return. It is the single most abiding myth of the three great monotheistic religions, whose founding faith has, thus far and against all historical odds, kept it startlingly alive in the modern political world. Lyacos adapts it to his own purposes, and universalizes it as an emblem of the human condition as such. Judaism has no final eschatological dimension; there is no transcendence of history, but the People endure. This connects Judaism with Hellenism, with its implicit notion of the cycle in which the human city waxes and wanes in a perdurable round. We seek, that is, the final accounting which the New Testament promises us as a blessedness beyond time, but we remain in the saeculum, a condition in which hope rises and falls to define itself anew, and names are forgotten only to be reinvented.
In the Hebrew Testament, the most potent symbol of this experience is the Tower of Babel, in which human aspiration exceeds its limits in the hope of provoking a final reckoning through supernal knowledge or empowerment. This hope must necessarily be dashed, and all fall with it; as Lyacos puts it, ‘And let us be lost, perhaps better for us like that’ (Z213, 129). As this is a repeated experience on the collective level in the saeculum, so too it is on the personal one. The latter portions of Z213 are preoccupied again with the problematic of individual consciousness. Our inability to fix reality is, as Lyacos points out, a function of our most defining cycle, the biological one that alternates our lives between sleep and waking, memory and loss:
… you sleep, you wake up so many times, so often, you don’t know when you are asleep and when you are awake, why be awake, now you may be asleep, what you remember you may remember in sleep, wake up in a dream, remember inside a dream, different memory other things you remember when you are in a dream, you have a different life in the dream, you remember who you are what you did, and even though you may not be the person you were when again you wake up you don’t doubt who you are in the dream, even when you are changing and you are changing continuously, you don’t wonder, things are naturally so, it is not strange, you are changing continuously, your body, around you, everything everywhere, you are somebody else, but you are the same, you are him. (131, 133)
We are both more protean and more believable to ourselves in dream: perpetual transformation seems our lot, and the labor of memory we resume when awake is only the poor substitute for the natural conviction we possess in dream, the sense of both world and self as a condition of flux. Continuity is change, ‘God reeling up and down landscapes and buildings, knocks down, opens new roads, doesn’t like it, changes again’ (ibid.). Or so it seems, for what appears change is only the changing face of continuity: ‘His world is onefold, and you perceive neither seam nor contradiction.’ This is the secret of divine unity, the unity that belongs to the Being without a name. We may intuit it, but it is not the realm we inhabit, and even if we are ‘hiding’ a true name in the recesses of our own being, one that we hope will truly define it, it is finally only ‘a name at the end of a series of names’ (ibid.). No human understanding prevails, and, even in this world seemingly enclosed by Scriptural vision, ‘Not even Scripture stands out’ (139).
Z213 ends not with this solitude, however, but, in its penultimate scene, with the most primitive assertion of human community, a detailed depiction of the slow butchery of a lamb. The lamb is the symbol of sacrifice par excellence, of course, but there is no sense of ritual here, merely brutal slaughter. The coda to this, a single long sentence that starts without predication, appears to take the perspective of an animal hunted down to sheer exhaustion and surrender. There is no moment of recognition between predator and prey as death (presumably) comes: ‘you are feeling the blow, you open your mouth, you look at his mouth, you don’t want to stand up any more’ (147).
We are, perhaps, at a degré zéro here, in which life is reduced to a feeding frenzy in which the distinction between human and animal itself vanishes. If, however, we must begin with the individual as one who fails to remember himself, so, Lyacos suggests, fraternity begins with the simple objectification of the other on the most primitive, even cannibalistic level, as a source of alimentation. It is the labor of each day, individually and collectively, to go beyond this point, even if what is built is only a new Babel.
With this in mind, we may turn our attention to the second volume in the trilogy, With the People from the Bridge. This volume offers us a figure, the Narrator, who suggests a continuous presence although he too lacks a name and does not actually narrate but rather functions as a kind of stage manager and director in the mise-en-scène of the text, assigning other figures their roles and action although nothing approaching drama actually ensues: speaker tenses fade in and out of the first person, and identities only slowly coalesce or persist for long. At the same time, Lyacos exercises a firm mastery of these disparate materials; nothing in them seems arbitrary or wasted, and the sense of atmosphere they build is cumulative and compelling. It is this atmosphere that creates such stability and focus as the poem is willing to entertain, and enables us to consider it as presenting a social image rather than a kaleidoscope of personal extremities.
The unifying symbol of the poem is the bridge, a concrete as well as metaphoric image of passage. As it appears, however, it has no indication of traffic and is perhaps a derelict structure. The people who live by or under it, like any homeless population, are seemingly cut off from any economy beyond scavenging. On the other hand, they are not people under or of the bridge, but from it, which implies more than a transient abode. Perhaps it would be better to suggest that it is a situation, comprised of an indistinct past and an uncertain future, and that the bridge itself is the emblem of a journey with no sure promise of destination or arrival.
The ‘people’ — thirteen more or less identifiable characters, but also assorted voices and presences that appear among them as revenants — are, like any homeless population, living in primitive conditions, burning fires for warmth and using a cut-down oil drum as a table-cum-altar. But they also have possession of a working television and the cast-off technology of a video cassette, and books and newspapers are occasionally brought in from outside, primarily for fuel. The suggestion is that some kind of modern civilization is still going on outside, but it is also true that past and present seem permeable, as if time had been beaten flat. If there is any privileged context, it is the biblical one, for biblical texts are quoted, paraphrased, or intimated throughout the text, and the Bible is the one book the ‘people’ do not consider burning. This point d’appui creates the spatiotemporal grid on which the poem rests, enabling Lyacos to move from remote antiquity and folklore through visionary figures such as Dante to the stalled and crumbling enterprise of modernity. If we’re never entirely clear where and when we are, it’s because we’re everywhere at once, among the living and the dead, all copresent in the matrix of the text.
The ‘people’ who set off on their journey — and the critical Hebraic element here is that of the journey, a progression against all odds but with a destination that, in this world or the next, is not theirs to finally define — have been given a further vision in a Word that leads beyond the Law, but one which clouds as well as clarifies. At its most exalted, the Christian vision had been one of a kingdom of souls, living, dead, and yet to come, all comprehended in the eternal gaze and embrace of God, but torn, too, by the competing empires of Heaven and Hell. The vision, that is, was at once unitary and fluid, and deeply penetrated, as historical Christianity was, by the darker intuitions of folkloric myth, of wandering spirits, of vampires, of unseen presences just beyond the campfire. Christianity had sought to banish or at least domesticate these dead / undead figures, but in its present technobarbaric decay (the narrator with nothing left to narrate, the communicative devices with nothing to communicate), they deeply unsettle us again. A quotation from Mark 5.9 early in the poem reminds us of the task of exorcism faced by early Christianity:
For he said unto him, come out thou
unclean spirit from the
man, and he asked him;
what is thy name? and he answered
saying; my name is legion
for we are many. (Bridge 13)
What Jesus seeks to expel here is not a single spirit but a figurative host, and it is not clear how he will prevail. The dogs whose barking is invoked throughout the poem are symbolic both of the underworld (Cerberus) and of the animal alertness that detects the presence of the fearful and the uncanny; they are, too, emblematic of the feral creatures of social decay. On one level, indeed, it is possible to read Lyacos’ text as a conventionally apocalyptic postmodern one in which meaning is not signified but depleted by broken narrative and repetition. Speech and action are repeatedly broken off, and circumstances seem to grow progressively more dire. Fires will not stay lit; wounds will not heal. Seagulls that swoop to peck at exposed flesh seem to indicate a city under a particularly intimate and malefic siege. But Lyacos’ aim is not to depict despair as such. It is rather, in the deeply Christian signification of the poem, to suggest the possibility of redemption. Indeed, Lyacos’ fundamental insight is that redemption is dialectically entwined with despair, and that one cannot be called forth without the other. This too is a part of Christian tradition — the dark night of the soul that precedes the moment of grace, of enlightenment and salvation. In Lyacos, however, such a moment is experienced not simply on an individual level, but as a collective crisis in which personality and community are inextricably interwoven, and each person, even in solitude, experiences in and for the whole. Moreover, what ‘redemption’ means in and for a secular society in the present is very much an open question. The small group of people who live under Lyacos’ bridge, largely cut off from contact with an outside world that may only consist of similar, isolated groups, tells us little about what a genuinely sacred community might look like: you might call them pre-Christians living in a post-Christian world, in which there is a book that may not be burnt, but, by the same token, can no longer be read. Is there, then, any ‘bridge’ between the quest for love between individual persons and the potential agape of a community?Lyacos suggests this, finally, in a latter section of the poem:
They are coming, look at the street,
there are already enough of them
down there, look further back,
you see how many there are?
At the end of the street it is full. Wait a bit. Do you see them there?
Like a wave that swells as it comes. Full now. Here, look here. A great flock splitting left and right. Each one gets to his door
knows which one. There is still something in their minds. You wanted to go and find them. But they come and find you before that. Leave the door open for them to come in. Listen. He is coming up the stairs. Don’t stand up. He is coming. He came up. He has come. They have come together. (38-39)
A ‘chorus’ is speaking here, though the imperative voice appears to be addressing someone in the singular (‘Here, look here’). The observer thus indicated sees a great crowd that seems to be forming in procession and then spilling over like a wave, a ‘flock’ that divides at what seems a moment of impact into single individuals for each of whom there is an appointed door he or she finds unerringly. This suggests an enactment of salvation in which the ‘saved’ community, the ‘flock,’ is disaggregated at the critical moment so that individual souls may find their destined way before the reunion of beatitude. At the same time, however, the journey is incomplete: there is still a separation, presumably that of the observer, who for his part and in the same instant reaches to join them (‘You wanted to go and find them’). But in the divine instant in which act becomes coterminous with desire, the observer himself is discovered before he can reach out.
In the last lines of the passage, the observer is again addressed imperatively (‘Listen’), but what he is told to expect is not a throng but only a nameless singularity (‘He’), who is indicated as simultaneously on his way and already present (‘He is coming. / He came up. He has come.’). The three tense instructions indicate the condition of simultaneity, of time as overcome. Yet we are not to make the facile assumption that the ‘He’ indicated here is the singular Savior. The community of the ‘flock,’ although it has divided into individuals each of whom has a separate portal, is nonetheless immediately reconstituted (‘they’ come and seek the observer; it is for them that the door — his door — is to be left open; it is ‘they’ who have, already, found him. ) The observer belongs to the flock, which is incomplete without him; there is no kingdom but that all must belong. At the same time, however, there is, as Lyacos says, both a column of cloud and a column of fire, a pillar of many and a pillar of one (Z213, 123).
Poena Damni is, nevertheless, not the poem of a Christian apologist, but of an agnostic thoroughly permeated by the Christian tradition in its deepest sense, and to the folklore — pagan as well as Christian — that has formed around it as part of its historical substance. Whether or not we can or will be saved in any eschatological sense is left unresolved; what Lyacos wants to tell us is that we must all be saved — or save each other — together. Thus, With the People from the Bridge appears to end with its last remaining voice, that of the Narrator, offering the assurance of a resurrection in the flesh:
I will open your graves
and cause you to come up out of your graves
behold I will cause breath to enter into you
and I will lay sinews upon you
and will bring up flesh upon you
and will cover you with skin
and put breath in you
and ye shall live. (60)
On the facing page, however, we read this final text: ‘The partially decomposed head of a / woman, stolen from a crypt at / Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery / early Sunday, was found in the street / next up to a man who was subsequently / arrested, Los Angeles police said.’
This gruesome tabloid bit serves to bring us back to earth, to the abiding reality of human depravity and the distance that separates the saeculum from salvation. But it is also the poet’s reminder that the heavenly company will always be incomplete as long as any member of the human community is left behind, and that the world is the condition of the one who has not been included.
All textual references are to Poena Damni, The First Death ; Poena Damni, With the People from the Bridge ; Poena Damni, Z213: EXIT , all translated by Shorsha Sullivan in collaboration with the author and published by Shoestring Press (Nottingham, UK).
Robert Zaller is Distinguished University Professor of History Emeritus at Drexel University, Philadelphia. He is, most recently, the author of Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime (Stanford University Press). His translations of modern Greek literature include Thirty Years in the Rain: The Selected Poetry of Nikiforos Vrettakos (with Lili Bita).
translated from the Greek by Shorsha Sullivan
Z213: EXIT (Poena Damni vol. 1)
Paragraph One follows — 1:
these names and that’s how they found me. And as soon as they brought me I stayed for a while and then they took me it was a building of four wards large yards and rooms the rest of the people were there four wards separate not far from the sea. And we would eat together sometimes and in the middle a log with cut branches on top over it an opening for the smoke, and ashes spread out on the floor black stains and ashes. And from the pores in the walls a little water would come and sometimes you could ask go upstairs and visit somebody else and when sometimes in the evening the power was out and we were sitting silent in the dark but the wards which weren’t connected three four five among us fond of each other yet most of us there would die at some point all of us me too and then those who believed used to cry out others did not that right we had and we were in all those wards about a thousand and each day a man from personnel would come with a list and stand in the doorway right there in the entrance the main door to go in standing and shouting to them to come out and they would call them then take them from there and remained ten somewhere else fifteen depending on ward and they would take them to a special place from the evening of the day before and next day in the morning they would come and take them from there and you could hear at that time they were going in and calling their names hear those now saying goodbye to us we were about two thousand. And they were saying goodbye to us now I with all the others saying goodbye to us and the place sounding with their goodbyes. And then they would come out go into a car and round the back there was the sea and they were going. And as soon as they would come out you could hear now people shouting and from that place in a car from the back to the sea it was not very far it was from the back where they dug pits and sometimes the water would reach there and the town was woken by this noise. And they would lower them down into the pit. This is what comes to my mind most of the time. And to hear them cry as far as the last houses of the town where the wall was and everybody understood. And some used to get close to the pits and go back again and it wasn’t a secret it was under our feet but nobody. A whole town just about. And that moment indescribable moment when I went down past midnight and saw bringing them in that truck down to the sea.
If I could, only from that place he told me about, that gallery which leads behind the wall to the abandoned fort and the tunnel through the mountain. Because all other roads were guarded to prevent anyone getting through. Lights overhead broken apart from one at the far end. And then that skylight, an open hole in the dark. Going inside that way you leave the city behind, the passage which narrows and narrows, you go up, hear sudden flutterings. Hear like a river flowing somewhere around. Soon you make out the end, light, you come up trees drizzle, leaves spilled at your feet. Voices and footsteps draw near then away. Then you start going down again as fast as you can, get there before break of day. More would die tomorrow. And some will know about you. Night cut in two by the yellow strip running through it. And he had told you to wait for the time they come and the way out is easier. And about fetching and separating them, two ranks — two ranks mingling together as they were pushing them forward. And many were falling into the sea or stumbling and the rest trampling on them. And I wore the cross like he had told me and passed by the side of the tower and came out on the road for the station. From there you could leave. If I could take a train from there. But I sat down then to recover for I was in pain.
I got up, wandered about quite a while, then walked to the first platform on the other side. A soldier beside a niche in the wall laid on his side, eyes shut, a blanket over his legs, a pile of clothes beside him — uniforms — a kit-bag behind his back. I went, pulled out a pair of trousers and a jacket, eyes shut, a little blood under his nose, he raised his head gently, wiped it off with his sleeve. I returned to the toilets to change, came back left my clothes on the heap. Eyes closed, a drop of blood under his nose. I looked for a pair of boots from the kit-bag and put them on there, sat down beside him. Bent double, his side on the half-empty sleeve. A red beam held us inside it for a while and went away again. It must have been already past six. Cold, keeping my hands under my armpits, something hard, the little Bible in the pocket, I open the pages blank here and there a few notes, somewhere else parts written clumped together, could not make them out. It had almost got dark. I sat still for a while waiting for what — stood up, walked again, to the clock, the time-table, evening service 21.13. In one and a half hours.
Even if it didn’t make a great difference in the compartment, at least to some extent. Turned off the light, pulled the curtain, passed a strap hanging there two or three times as tightly as I could around the door handle in case someone came. Sat for a little, no one, went out again walked up and down the corridor, no one, lit a cigarette, it would be nearly time. Went in again tied up waited inside, a jolt in the dark, another one after that in about five minutes when we set off, one more cigarette, laid down, better now. As if I were awake and as if I were sleeping, suddenly something beside me, inside me, awake, asleep, dark changing landscape, day breaks, you turn your back to the light. We stopped, early morning, a little water from the tap in the toilet, then outside. Blue, and around the slopes of the hills. Old border post. Someone came out told us to get on again, same man came up to do the check, the papers were fine. I got off once more and got a sandwich — bread and beef — from a roadside vendor. Frozen hard. First light that opens your lungs all around and above and from here onwards the strong smell of the landscape goes with you all along.
A few hours more, station, deserted, a dirt road leading into the town, mud, mud, blankets outside, mouldering corrugated houses, the shattered pylon further behind, not even a car, rubbish, two children setting fire to a heap, two or three other fires on the horizon, houses, the smell even more acid, tarmac pieces and pieces, concrete block houses, few people, half-open doors, half-light, the mattress as if it were soaked, that milk, the cramp in the stomach and dizziness, when I awoke, I hurried to make it before it got dark, a little by chance and from what I remembered, asked questions, the other side, back to the bridge, murmur of water, trees turning black but I could still see, it was in front of me almost as soon as I entered. What are you doing here, sit for a while beside you, if you could also back then, did someone bend over, hear you while still you were heard, your eyes that were gleaming, eyes growing dim, pain growing dim, with how many more did they bring you, the bell, silence as they lowered you down, stifled song and a pause, murmur of water. I am cold, I walk away through other names, photos that look at you and yet they cannot, the sun now again at its end. On the road back, on the plain, a tepid, breath, like the last, and a gleam, the river falling behind, the town mute as before, with some wine on the end of a table, the Bible being erased, between its pages the words of a stranger, among his pieces I write wherever I find a no-man’s land.
Nobody is coming after me. Surely they have forgotten about me. Nobody will ever come here to find me. He will never be able to find me. Nobody ever. And when I fled they didn’t even realise. They took no notice of me no one cared no one remembers. Now they will remember neither when nor how. Not even I. Tracks only, a hazy memory and those images when I look at what I have written, tracks of footprints in the mud before it starts raining again. Uncertain images of the road and thoughts mumbled words, and if you read them without the names you won’t understand, it could have been anywhere, and then I spoke with no one and those who saw me no chance that they remember me. Every so often a face seeming familiar, from another time, someone looked at you, you recognised him, no, a part of another on a stranger’s face. Or the rhythm of the steps that sound behind you, the rhythm of your own steps, which occasionally you think follow you, they stop when you stop, or for a moment you think he is coming behind you, or you think that someone is breathing behind the door and will now come in. And then nothing, and then back again, and you suddenly turn your head as if you had heard him. But no one. You are far away, no one knows you, no one wants to find you, no one is looking for you. And tomorrow you will be somewhere else still farther away, still more difficult yet, even if they would send someone. But they don’t know the way and before they find out you have decamped somewhere else. They know how to search but they don’t know what way. And even if they set off from somewhere they will still be quite far. And they will not be many. Perhaps just one. One is like all of them together. Same eyes that search, same mind that calculates the next move. Same legs that run same arms that spread wide. Ears straining to listen, nostrils over their prey. Always acted like that. Two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs. The symmetry of the machine that pursues you. A net that thinks decides and moves ahead. The head a fishhook the body a belt. All the same. Me too. One behind the other. Forward back further back, to follow the road. And even if you don’t know you run ahead anyway, because someone is always coming behind you. Sooner or later he comes. And sometimes there comes a hand taking you by the shoulder, or a worm that climbs up on your hand. It rolls on a pillow of saliva. Forward. And as it rolls it is growing and wrapping around you. A flat tongue on its saliva with two eyes that rise up to peer at you. Maybe not you, they check for a confortable place to start from. Like him that, that night we were hungry, that had etched an open mouth on his stomach. Likewise this tongue is also stomach and mouth, always open. From there you go somewhere else, on the inner road opening up, in the twists of the gut, there of course you are unconscious by now, unconscious you take the road of return and when you wake up they have brought you inside there again.
You sleep at night. At night you wake up. Not even the shadow of a tree, a sign, something standing upright. Desert. Sand. Like you they are sleeping. Night. Every time you get up you expect daybreak, it is night, you sleep wake up it is night. That continues many days while you are travelling. As if you were pursuing a light which recedes with the speed you advance. For days it is like this. Then it dawns a little, a little. A line on the horizon, light, sky or sand or ash, more light, you do not know where from, goes on for a couple of hours, then again night. And then all over again, you can no longer keep count how long does it last either the day or the night or the light. At first, each day almost the same then shorter and shorter, in the end it seems to you that the sun rises and sets within a few minutes. As if time fading out as if nothing perishing here. Day like a train moving in front of your own, waits a little, then slips away ahead. You just about hear the whistle ahead like wind that goes through a pipe. And while you sleep you don’t know what happens either, what could have been changed while you have been sleeping. If things are different when you woke up just now, it could have been different before and you might not have remembered. Or if it is the same, the scenery, one way or the other you don’t see much of it. Or, it could be that you do not remember this, something else you remember, you sleep, you wake up so many times, so often, you don’t know when you are asleep and when you are awake, why be awake, now you may be asleep, what you remember you may remember in sleep, wake up in a dream, remember inside a dream, different memory other things you remember when you are in a dream, and you can have a life of your own in the dream, you remember who you are what you did, and even though you may not be the person you were when again you wake up you don’t doubt who you are in the dream, even when you are changing and you are changing continuously, you don’t wonder, things are naturally so, it is not strange, you are changing continuously, your body, around you, everything everywhere, you are somebody else, but you are the same, you are him. This is continuity, you travel, perhaps in your mind, a paper world real, God reeling up and down landscapes and buildings, knocks down, opens new roads, doesn’t like it, changes again, but there isn’t a seam, His world is onefold, and you perceive neither seam nor contradiction, continuity only. An injection you have forgotten at once, a skin slowly settling over what you remembered, they change, all things, memory changes, you change yourself, some woman you search for, you don’t know if you were seeking another, if you had some other hope, some other aim. Tomorrow perhaps something else might erase those things as well, the new veil of the world, but you will never know it, you won’t be able to know it. What have you done, if it is indeed what you remember. Who is to tell you. Or even your story to now. Or if the name, the one you are hiding, if it’s a name at the end of a series of names.
Anyway, if I can think of myself right here, there ought to be something else outside, some place else. Now, if this outside is part of my mind, my mind then is not made of one single piece, it isn’t onefold, there’s here and there’s there, outside and inside, that is to say, in a way, there is something in it that is outside of myself. Something outside of myself. Somewhere else. Even if I don’t know where this happens to be, where i am myself, where I happen to be on the map, which place is here, which is elsewhere. Thought by itself tells you. Even if it is all otherwise and I don’t rightly remember, even if all things around me are fake. I am here, I am not there: two worlds alien to each other. And then, the space, distance, the road, even if I didn’t travel myself. The road exists.
It began with something like drowsiness. I could see what was happening but could not move, not even open my mouth. Not even think about simple things, where, what day or what time. I was not sure. In a confusion I couldn’t shake off. I was very hot. I wanted to take off my clothes. I lowered my trousers. There was someone stretched out beside me, fallen down, I wanted to piss on him as he was fallen there. I went and kept trying but nothing would come.
Could be from something in the food, could be from something we had inhaled. But nothing smelled bad. I was beginning to see in a blur. Mouth completely dry. Suddenly my heart was beating louder and faster. Skin burning and growing red. Burning. We were madly thirsty. And a weakness and arms and legs not to obey and not to coordinate.
Two letters the second Z, I think, and then some numbers. Why do I remember this? I don’t even remember where I saw them written. Could be simply the way they had divided us, the section perhaps and number of people in there. I crawled to a corner and was looking around. And then, every so often a fear suddenly seizing me I don’t remember why. I was looking and at first couldn’t believe it
And came out, he, of a manhole cursing and had burst into laughter. And then took a stone for a pillow and fell down and slept at my side. And like a tooth that was sprouting from his head. And the sun went down red and giving off smoke. And we slept. And we woke and a beam of light a ladder that was coming down from the clouds down to the earth. And it had like feet, as it were, braced on the earth and a head in the sky. And they were going up and down on it. And they were going up and down on it, angels with the faces of our own. And behind me he said: don’t be afraid. And angels were going up and down. Don’t be afraid, because I will protect you on your road
And he said, you go up and you go down and when you are down your own are burning and your memories and you don’t want to leave them. Everything will burn to the end, you suffer, but nobody is punishing you, they are just setting your soul free. Don’t be afraid, because while you fear death they will rend your soul like demons. Only calm down and you will see the angels who are setting you free and then you will be free. And he took the stone and poured oil on top.
surely, they were taking them so as not to kill them in front of us. Bringing, taking. Then my own turn. Days came and went and they were staring at me eye to eye. Panic. I was sleeping deeply and when I was up I could not understand again where I was, I was crawling further away and looking about, I was waking from one place to the other, I was waking, was waking, was waking, I couldn’t remember, I could, later as if nothing had happened, but like a lie slowly fading and coming again. Exhaustion.
WITH THE PEOPLE FROM THE BRIDGE
(Poena Damni vol. 2)
Night had already fallen when I crossed to the other side of the station and came out on to the road. It was still raining, a little. I would find them in one of the arches under the bridge, as he had told me. I would see light. I arrived outside, I waited. We waited. They opened. We entered. We were given a handout. Inside you could see up to a point, then dark. I sat on the dirt floor among the others, ten, more or less, some of them with their dogs. On the left the wall crumbling. Two more coming from there. Three. Lights, high up opposite blue, green on the right and white lamps hanging, five or six, from the ceiling exactly above us, lit except one. On one side the women. Three around a cut-down oil drum, another one fetching newspapers. They tore some up and threw them inside. Fire. It went out. Again. When they moved back for a moment, close to the wall, you could hardly discern them, was it their clothes or the light that was making it look like that. And they kept opening and closing their eyes all the time, like spasms reaching as far as their mouth — apart from the one on the left that was probably younger. Now this man, passing them naked to the waist with a broken brick or stone? in his hand and coming our way. A scar like a word on his chest, from his neck downwards. Sits down, takes two pieces of wood, hammers, he made a cross. Sticks it in the mud. To the side a glass and a bottle. Further back, the shell of a car half-buried, front door missing. On the bonnet a cassette-player and a television, the wind-screen covered by a sheet of iron. A woman comes out from the car. It had seemed empty a few moments ago, you wouldn’t have known she was there. From her nose down, like a mask made of earth, mouth hardly visible. Goes inside again, pulls a wooden cover in front. Drags it shut but can’t altogether do it. Old bits of iron around. Engine-parts. And another man walking about, coming to us. Haggard, torn pullover, book in hand, some papers inside. Four names on the handout they gave me: Narrator — the one holding the book. Like a Bible. Turns the cassette-player on and off. Hum. Goes and helps the women. More newspapers, Chorus — the women. LG — further back, he was hammering something again. NCTV — her in the car. LG, NCTV. These were the names. Title: NCTV. That is how I remember the name of the station, vaguely somehow. Nyctovo. No. Nyctivo. Nichtovo. No. Another hum, louder, going on from the time I came in. Cassette-player. Narrator. Turns on and off, goes away, comes again opens the Bible, tears pages from there and goes and glues them on the wall to the right, one beside the other. Then he waits. He waits. With his back turned, almost. On one side and on the other crosses sprayed on the concrete. He comes here to read. Narrator. Lights above turned out.
And always, night
and day in the tombs
and in the mountains he was crying
and cutting himself with stones.
But when he saw Jesus afar
off he ran
and worshipped him,
and cried with a loud voice,
and said; what have I to do with you, Jesus,
son of the most high God?
I adjure thee by God,
that thou torment me not.
For he said unto him; come out thou
unclean spirit from the
man, and he asked him;
what is thy name? and he answered
saying; my name is legion
for we are many.
He turns and signals the women to start. They start all together.
It’s a while since you’ve been out.
You sit inside and
wait. Sometimes as if heard
or so you think. It seemed this way,
when you went outside and came
to the door.
Nothing. You live with it though.
Same every day
They stop, look at each other and round about
sometimes more so.
like voices somehow, more or less.
It is inside you.
That. Afterwards, though, comes the day
they come outside
you wait for them in the house.
Same day every time.
Sometimes in the morning when
you wake up it is as if you are stuck
and you prise yourself off them.
You want to stay a little more
you don’t want to get up. You turn look
right left in case they came. No.
They haven’t come. But get up
Today. Get up.
Another year gone by and we will
They stop suddenly, for a few seconds, again, who is this?
be all together.
A few hours still. Then we will sleep,
will wait. Will sleep.
Wake up. Will wait.
All together. Narrator wipes his hands on his pullover,
signals to them, they stop, they would have continued.
accounting that He
was able to raise them up
Smiling? As if he smiled. LG, with the cross, him also with papers, reading from there. Bent over then leans on his elbow, as he reads he stretches out on his side.
one more kick but then
you stop because you are in pain.
Wait a bit until it goes.
The whole arm going in. Opened.
It wasn’t hard. Like that. Then
the mind stops for a little
He stops, wonders
the last time. I left after that.
After some time I thought I heard something.
After that Him.
Every now and then He would come,
behind me all of a sudden. Telling me go.
She is there. Waiting for you.
I would turn my head.
Nothing. Then again. Then
every so often, many times it would not stop
I wouldn’t believe it. Then it was starting again.
Like a needle inside my ear
then nothing. I am sweating. I mop my brow
These hands are not mine, I don’t feel
Stops, thinks about it. Starts again suddenly, as if in a hurry.
I put my head inside for a while, to see.
Hurts again. Wait a bit until it goes.
Sometimes you hear her clearly, now
the others cover her.
One on top of the other.
You hear her.
Like a wave inside you, all of a sudden.
Now I am above
I know she is there waiting for me
I hear her. She wants to come out.
A box and something moving inside it,
open it. Bones, earth. Close it.
Open it. Same again. You leave and
go back to it again. Why though.
I was coming and going. Seagulls.
Wouldn’t leave me alone.
I found a cloth and wrapped it
around my feet because they were
and pecking me. I got up again
to go. Going as far as I could.
behind me, would stop start again,
but I wasn’t turning around to see.
He stopped, finally.
He gets up to leave, Narrator signals to him, he sits down again, continues
I had found a blanket
to cover myself. I was sleeping outside.
Then I came and settled here.
It’s a bit better here.
They might leave me alone.
Until now, every time I used to wake up,
a towel on my face.
They were pouring in water on top.
I was drowning. They were taking it off.
Then I could I breathe for a while.
Then again. Then they would leave,
the others would come.
Night. Long shadow with an eye
behind it looking at me.
Shadows. More. Shorter and darker.
Digging. Stopping. Digging again
A little beyond
He holds the cross.
hammering on top and then
lowering them in. Somebody shouted.
What if they came this way.
The other signals him to stop, stops for a moment and then continues
It hurts but I keep my mouth shut
because they might hear me.
Don’t let it come out. Then they left and I slept
a bit. Silence. I hear her in there. She wants
to get out. Then again
Narrator, goes and stops him. Train, like a heart beating inside the bridge, we wait, it’s gone, now the women, in their turn or nearly so.
A dog had come up outside the door.
Scratches and wants to come in
a little light in the window
but it is still early. Out on the street
nobody yet. Let’s go in and prepare. Fire.
They like it. But they will say nothing.
They will sit at the table
like always. They will eat huddled
over their plates, silent.
Last year he was holding a stone
some papers he was wiping
his lips all the time there was
something wrong with his lips
what is he saying
Water. Corn. And a little pomegranate.
They can’t sit properly the body is hard
doesn’t soften. The arm-pits closed.
They can’t hug you.
Eyes cast down. They will stand up and go
over there to that corner and will stay for a while
and then out in the garden and stand there,
at the same spot.
They will stand still, for a moment it is as if
they wanted to say something,
as if something rose in their throat,
but it’s nothing.
It has boiled. A table-cloth.
I will spread it myself.
Flour. Alright. Mix. A bit more.
Corn. Sugar. Alright. And some wine.
Turn on turn on
Bring chairs. They will sit
where they used to
Barking. Someone comes in, sits beside me. We go on, LG down on his face now. Gets up puts his hand inside his trousers, sits down again. Takes off one shoe.
then I would hear footsteps again and
like somebody chewing.
Same thing every day.
This pain is like the clock that is heard
every time you pay attention to it.
Take it and throw it away.
The sun in a blur.
Closer to one eye than to the other.
You hear them above. They left again.
Then again rain, no time to dry
the blanket. Then I went out
because I was hungry and
I went to find something to eat.
When I came back
they had put back the bricks
and had closed again.
Stops, carries on
hit harder and knock out the bricks.
Once you are in put them back in place.
Put back the blanket on top. Tear it a bit
for the light to come through.
I sat at your side
I knew you were there. Time passed.
As if I could see you. Half-opened mouth
eyes like then, in the end
I went out again and fetched some water.
A sip. Helps my stomach, it soothes me
and I can lie down for a little.
In sleep again, your voice coming strong.
I couldn’t. I stood up
and was banging on the lid until it broke.
I took it out. I pulled her
and turned her on her side.
I lifted her up. She fell again. Again.
In the end I got her out. I let her down and
went to see the blanket in case the wind
had blown it away. I went again and laid down
beside her. I was tired.
Enough light. A white worm, long.
A finger digging all by itself.
Leave something for me.
Something will be left in the end.
A tooth from her mouth.
something for me
Takes the glass from the floor and drinks, leaves the papers, now by heart. My head aches since yesterday, today no water at all, nor did I eat anything. After it’s finished. LG, continues
Hairs stuck on her skin.
She had sweated a lot.
That smell beside me and
I couldn’t sleep.
Then I slept a little. When I woke up
I was holding her in my arms.
Later, again I was searching for her in my sleep
the way I used to back then. A hand
that was drawing me in. Didn’t know how.
Stops and starts again louder, pacing nervously up and down, close to me something like laughter, but it was not.
Earth had got into my eyes
and they were smarting.
Then I slept and was woken again
by the dogs that had come and were
barking on top
I shouted to them.
They were startled and fled and
then I went back to sleep.
Narrator, interrupts him gives him another piece of paper prompts him: they lie down then, LG carries on
Then. On their backs. In a line.
One to the side of the other.
They shut them in carefully
in case they went out.
Not quite. I pay attention
in case I hear someone.
What I hear has nothing to do with this.
There it is again. I heard it.
No, that’s not it, it is them on top.
Someone shouted to somebody else
to go away from there. Same thing every time.
If they find me they will catch me and
won’t let me go. They will take me away
to lock me up. The whole wall full of drawers.
They are about to open.
I went and pulled one.
And another one after that.
One under the other and to the side
and below. I close my eyes. You. In a haze.
Then I was again on top and
I was opening the hole again
just as He told me, don’t stop He had told me.
I am not sure when this happened.
Opened. Here. She is just there.
She is waiting for you.
you will find a door
underneath. And He told me she is in.
A tree growing downwards.
The others outside had lit a fire.
Tonight they have come, almost above us.
I saw them and sat still inside.
Us. In this room.
And those at our side and the others on top.
And us in between.
But you can’t stay here for long
and there is nowhere to go.
Smoke coming in from above.
They will start to take them out again.
Eventually they will get
they will separate us
He comes our way, they fill his glass, returns sits down and drinks. Comes and gives us to drink as well, I drank a little. Now the women
Take a log and throw it on. I’ll go down
some more so for them to dry.
They are hard to light because of the rain.
Went out again.
Wait. Soon they will come.
They will eat with us at
midday. Later the afternoon light
will stoop for a while
through the window.
When it gets dark they will leave,
and they will take something with them,
you don’t really know what
but you will be missing something.
A log, you light it and it goes out again.
Together. When the light fails the walls rear up.
A hole as if the fire had opened it.
Bring some more wood.
Go down to the garden.
Some more wood.
A spider underneath that is waiting
to pounce on something. Pounces on it.
Pounced on it.
She will suck out
the inside. She wrapped it and left it
to tug a little and goes
there as far as
You have understood. It grew dark
for a moment. The rain got stronger and then
it stopped altogether. You can’t see,
then you see again.
Light again, same. The door
opened closes closed yes
open they came yes they come up the stairs
THE FIRST DEATH (Poena Damni vol. 3) I
Sea of iron. Moon silent as pain in the depth of the mind. A body swept here and there on the rock like seaweed or a lifeless tentacle, fruit of a womb ship-wrecked by the winds, ensanguined and flesh-filled mire. The left arm cut short, the right to the end of the forearm, a rotted stick raving amid the water’s lungs. Of the ravaged mouth there remained only a wound which closed slowly. From the eyes a blurred light. The eyes without lids. The legs down to the ankles — no feet. Spasms.
Judgment of the sea,
shackles from broken sobs
beneath the dry bowl’s split eyelids
an unseen prey —
plunder from passions’ tombs, litanies to the senses
on the point of crumbling, inarticulate melodies, lava
from beheaded rivers
blades of the waves cut deeply into the screen;
development of an hour-glass, epidemic
unmixed visions of heroes leaning
into the drunken veins of the light
the tempest that winters on the marshes —
shedding its leaves the return
of a dismembered body in the spring.
Dead jaws biting on wintry streams
teeth broken under the victim’s tremor
that disinterred their roots before kneeling down to the hook;
mouths all over around suck through the earth
empty heads searching for some drop of flesh
they have begun. Reeled off the net,
the sky has descended.
Regiments of the dead whispering unceasingly
in a unending graveyard, within you
too you can no longer speak, you are drowning
and the familiar pain touches
outlets in the untrodden body
now you can no longer walk —
you crawl, there where the darkness is deeper
more tender, carcass
of a disemboweled beast
you embrace a handful of bed-ridden bones
and drift into sleep.
Because you can no longer stay
because your vision allows the idols to writhe
until the lake congeals, until your hand ceases
to poke among the gizzards and the burning coals
seeking a useless axe
and let the sea scratch the dried blood;
Because you are looking for the mountain and the nails beneath the stars
black crosses leaning towards the triumph
and once more you crawl and
scramble on the earths wounds
spitting sulphur which cauterizes your limbs
panting as once upon the whores,
watering the lustful sandbanks
and the croaking of the birds of prey accompanies
the defilement; ecstatic on the mountain.
And the moist stings of the scorpions
show the way
and the mind a map dipped in wine
and the soul within its muzzle
the further horizon of pain.
Dimitris Lyacos is the author of the Poena Damni trilogy (Z213: EXIT, With the People from the Bridge, and The First Death). The text in its current form developed as a work-in-progress over the course of thirty years with subsequent editions and excerpts appearing in journals around the world, as well as in dialogue with a diverse range of sister projects it inspired — drama, contemporary dance, video art, sculpture installations, photography, opera, and contemporary music. So far translated into six major languages and performed worldwide, Poena Damni is one of the major examples of postmodern literature in the new millennium and the most widely reviewed and best-selling Greek literary work in translation of the past decades. The second English edition of Z213: EXIT appeared in October 2016, while the second English edition of The First Death will appear in October 2017, and a new French translation in November 2017.
Shorsha Sullivan was born in Dublin in 1932. He studied Classics at Leeds and has spent most of his life in England where he has worked as a university instructor, archaeologist, and librarian. He has a special interest in Modern Greek theatre and poetry and was responsible for setting up the Modern Greek section at the Brixton Tate Library. Since 1996 he has been working on Lyacos’s Poena Damni trilogy in close collaboration with the author.
Some Burmese Poems, Part 2 of 2
…a sample of poems written by young Burmese Poets
All poems translated into English by Maung Day
Two collections of Burmese poetry, translated by Maung Day,
appear in this issue of JPR. See Part One and Part Two
A Thi Nar (b. 1989)
A Thi Nar lives in Pyay, Bago Region, and she graduated from Dagon University, Yangon.
My Boyfriend and Cats
Head bashed in, guts falling out,
Pieces of limbs scattered in a puddle of blood,
And chunks of meat still dangling from her mouth,
The poor creature lay on the ground.
My boyfriend screamed and then he wept.
Since he was a six-year-old boy, he has always believed
People need to hate cats in order to love them.
When he was young, cats would jump onto him
Even though he anxiously tried to cover his body
With his two little hands.
He would cry when cats snatched fried fish from his plate.
He once said: “You know they are always trying to deceive you.
They will come to you timidly, and that’s a deception.
You must not fall for that.
Their eyes won’t be as innocent as you might have expected.
They will stare at you without blinking.
It means they are up to something.
Don’t allow them on your lap and don’t pet them.”
Some nights I went insane and he didn’t.
Whenever a cat made a meow that sounded like a crying baby,
My boyfriend’s flesh blew up into pieces and scattered away.
He wept thinking about witch cats that eat their young.
When he wept, I just looked at him
Praying I would never have a son with a morbid fear of cats.
At that exact moment, at our door,
On our furry carpet, on our sofa,
On our bed and in this world of cat-fearing people,
The pieces of fleshes from cats went scattering about.
My boyfriend became a cat and a cat became him.
They looked so identical like those doubles in the films
Produced by Twentieth Century Fox.
But I am not sure if the cat entered his body
Or he morphed into a cat.
Anyway, they became remarkable allies.
They jumped out of the window and ran away.
Nay Myo Set Lu (b. 1994)
Nay Myo Set Lu grew up in Dawei, Tanintharyi Region. His debut poetry collection Marketing was published in 2016. He currently lives and works in Yangon.
A girl puts on a black dress and looks in the mirror. She takes a quick selfie. She posts it on a social media website. And then she doesn’t know what to do.
We all have this problem: we don’t know what to do. For instance, people who work in offices don’t know what to do once they step outside their offices. Lovers don’t know what to do after they finish having sex.
I feel sorry for the girl in the black dress. She doesn’t know what to do after putting on the dress. If you don’t know what to do, it means you don’t know what to do. There isn’t much you can do about it. The girl throws herself on the sofa and puts her hand where she wants it.
The society has progressed. There aren’t spinning fans on the ceilings anymore. My mind spins like crazy. Old movie scenes flicker on my eyelids. A cat runs but not on piano keys.
The girl in the black dress puts on glasses with big round rims. She looks in the mirror. She wishes her hair were three or four inches longer. She wants it to be as long as that of the actress from a movie she saw. She wants to live as freely as the woman from a novel she read.
All these thoughts are reflected in the mirror, and these reflections are so intense they could sting people’s eyes.
The girl in the black dress gets on a train. She thinks about reading a book, but takes her phone out of the pocket instead. And then she doesn’t know what to do. This happens to people all the time, especially men.
If a woman experiences such moment again and again, it means that woman is wishing she were a man. At least that’s what the girl in the black dress thinks. She posts that thought on the social media website.
She takes off the black dress. I am not sure what kind of dress you see in your mind when you read about this black dress. For me, I see something short and tight — one that exposes thighs. So she undresses and looks in the mirror. The mirror is strangely large.
She thinks about taking a photo of herself, but decides against doing it. Her bra and panties are also black. She stands in front of the mirror for a long time.
Then she goes to the living room, pours herself a glass of wine (or whisky), lights a cigarette and stares out the window. All these things happen simultaneously.
She picks up her phone from the windowsill and takes a photo of herself staring out the window. She thinks about posting it on the social media website, but it doesn’t happen. The smoke from her cigarette wafts away in front of her eyes.
I don’t want to get up, so I stay in bed for two more hours. When I check my phone, I see many new emails. I reply them as fast as I can, but it takes a year to finish. Then I sit in front of my computer and join a web conference like in a Hollywood sci-fi film.
A year later, I buy a roast fish. But I forget about it because I am too busy. The fish comes back to life. I put it in an aquarium. Then I buy a bottle of liquor and invite friends to drink together. One of them keeps going on about something. I hit him with the liquor bottle.
One of my cats dies. I meet a woman during a train ride. She is wearing a black dress. We start talking and she asks about my work. I take off the condom and leave the hotel.
I start to drink every day. Knocking back glass after glass with a friend, I wait for the return of another friend from overseas. Years go by. My friend goes back to the country where he works.
That day, I am traveling on an express bus on the highway, apathetically watching the shitty film they are playing on the bus. A woman wearing a dress which is 80% black comes over to me. She asks: “Are you Nay Myo Set Lu?” I make the nod of a gangster. She then brandishes a gun that she has hidden on her thigh and shoots me several times. I say: “Thank you for everything, Kay Thi.”
I smile to myself thinking about the final scene from Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild. The woman sees me smiling and asks: “Are you OK?” I reply: “All is well.” She asks me if I want to lay my head on her shoulder. I can feel the warmth as she wraps her arms around me.
On the highway, trees move backwards and the darkness settles in. But I know it for a fact, that her eyes will be gleaming in the dark. I tell her that I want to sleep a bit. She strokes my hair with her fingers.
Salai Myatnoe Thu (b. 1995)
Salai Myatnoe Thu was born and raised in Mindat, Chin State. His poems have widely appeared in local magazines and anthologies.
People sitting in the open pavilion are not talking about it
But it burns.
What’s burning what? Who’s burning whom?
What’s burning? Who’s burning?
It isn’t a forest fire, not a trash fire, not a burning cigarette,
Not a Molotov cocktail, not a burning candle, not an accidental fire.
But it burns, sir.
It burns poor quarters, it burns villas.
It burns streets, bars and hospitals.
It burns military outposts, buildings and everything else.
Legs, hands, heads and hair are on fire.
In villages and in cities, it burns and burns.
It burns the whole wide world.
It is a fire which isn’t a fire?
It devours everything it can.
It crawls like a snake and burns.
It glides like a bird and burns.
It swims like a fish and burns.
But people sitting in the pavilion are not talking about it.
I know you are confused but don’t worry.
I know you are confusing but don’t worry.
After all, you yourself are aflame.
Fresh Mushrooms from a Festival Market
The city is swarming with crows and foxes
Hanging about in their t-shirts and jeans.
The sun hasn’t risen yet for my optimistic self
And it hasn’t set for my pessimistic self.
It isn’t water that’s raining down on us.
It’s troubles and sighs.
Sitting in the theatre watching a play, I feel queasy.
The hand gestures of the actors are in complete chaos.
Are you implying we have no one to blame
When you say everything that has happened is nobody’s fault?
Well deep down, both you and I know whose fault it is.
We keep saying we are going eastward.
And we keep crossing paths in the west.
Happy or not, we keep singing songs, we keep weeping.
I don’t think our mothers wished it on us. The flying bullets, I mean.
Our brains should have grown much bigger.
These days, the wind carries the smell of money
Through the window in the evening light.
I wonder what our gift boxes will bring with them.
Good news or condolence messages?
Lawoon Yang (b. 1993)
Lawoon Yan grew up in Monywa, Sagaing Region. His poems have appeared in several poetry anthologies.
I got an email concerning my poems
From someone who doesn’t read my poems
The run-down zoo sneaks a look at my camera through the bushes
All the places I have to go before I finally go home
All the abandoned playgrounds I will be walking by
Winter arrives while I am making all kinds of gestures
The rollercoaster comes to a grinding halt under the summer sky
As the old echoes of joy meander about
The pirate’s got the words MISSING YOU tattooed on his back
The spacecraft gets itself an ice cream
And now it wants to go bowling
The whole area is sandbagged with people’s backpacks
The entire playground is dreadfully quiet
The Ferris wheel turns slowly making creaking sounds
And rust stains screech and walk across the ceiling of emptiness
In this emptiness, an ocean of noise emerges from our past
Smells take me back to where I was in the beginning
A hand grows from a cigarette that is almost done
And in the palm of the hand, a small chamber of broken deserts
Flowers bloom from the wrist
The body leaning against the wall is dark as tears
Words lose their colors
Hurry back to the previous decade
And stare down at the blue curtains
The plates spinning on the sticks in the juggler’s hands
To the floor
Khon Shine (b. 1996)
Khon Shine is a poet from Monywa, Sagaing Region. Together with Lawoon Yan and Insect, he published his poems in a collection called The First Snowfall in the Movie Theatre.
Spending Time at the Hospital
One holds a rose. Another sings a rap song.
Our eyes are filled with prayers.
We imitate the sound of trains and weeping.
The road to the hospital dons a thick robe of slimy tar.
We are hungry larvae biting each other’s lips.
She took liquid insecticide. Is now in the hospital.
Her ward has the same window, the same curtain
And the same view that I saw when I was here last year.
A life that wants to end jumps with fright, again.
My body temperature is uncompromising,
And I measure the width of my face with razor blades.
Our parents got those roses from a local market.
Her mother is holding them in her hand.
I have half a mind to put my earphones on her father.
We two dance to a rap song on the hospital floor all day long.
The First Snowfall in the Movie Theatre
I sing a song
Which illuminates the light bulb on the ceiling.
Last year’s panorama of grass
Couldn’t protect us from snow this year.
She looks happy when it starts snowing.
There are small holes in the walls
Which would suck in everything.
Elongated shadows move across the floor.
I love her laughter because it chimes lightly.
The cold feeling starts in the soles of my feet.
Then the sound of her laughter starts to tremble.
Then I realize the town is located in the path of earthquakes.
I write down the sentences
That I have left unfinished in my head.
She is entirely made of those
strands of hair.
There’s an eyeball in my soft drink
And it came flying out of her laughter.
I look at the ceiling
And continue singing song after song.
I also have to bring myself to tell the clouds to piss off.
Recorded conversations are lost.
Recorded news goes on and on
And stings my face.
I harvest the hair that floats.
Crops wash up on the shores of this year.
Bashful mountains hide behind fog.
Softly, I kiss the wall with my lips
On which pictures have been painted all over.
Cryptic upside-down lip pictures.
In the river tainted by orange-colored lies,
Water flows with numerous life jackets
Into the expansive waters of time.
One of us climbs a stupa
And another one shakes a bell secretly.
We feed our sins to the pigeons.
The dentist pulls out my aching tooth.
He is wearing a gas mask.
In this movie about a psycho killer,
I go to a late-night bar
And buy three or four more colors.
I am going to put these colors on my quilts just by myself.
Ma Thout (b. 1984)
Ma Thout is a poet and seaman based in Yangon. He has published two collections of poems.
I helped myself to the fruit
Ripening in someone else’s yard
I drank the liquor
Which was offered to a spirit
In a glass on a table
The stolen fruit was sweet
And the liquor intoxicated me
I didn’t know
How the fruit ripened on the tree
Nor did I know
Who filled the glass with liquor
I drank the liquor
I ate the fruit
I’ve never seen
In real life
I only know them
But I plan
To write a poem
People ask me
How it’s possible
To write about
Something I have
(They’ve never seen
Black roses either)
Written in one sentence
Is about black roses
Hidden from sight
On the dark side
Of the earth
Some Burmese Poems, Part 1 of 2
…a sample of poems written by young Burmese Poets
All poems translated into English by Maung Day
Two collections of Burmese poetry, translated by Maung Day,
appear in this issue of JPR. See Part One and Part Two
Tha Kount Tharr
Tha Kount Tharr is a poet, translator and musician living and working in Yangon. His poems have been published in local magazines and poetry anthologies such as Nje and Revo Cat.
An old woman is sitting in an armchair. She’s sitting and staring ahead. In front of her is a table on which there’s a glass terrarium with a big snake inside. The woman knows whether the snake is a python or a boa, and she continues staring. A dream of snakes means good luck; you may win the lottery. Staring at a snake before bed helps you dream about snakes. The lottery ticket that you have in your hand may become the winning ticket. The woman continues staring. The snake wriggles behind the glass. I must dream about it, the woman tells herself. In the dream, she will let the snake do whatever it wants. Bite her. Swallow her. Anything. Now she feels sleepy. The dream is just around the corner.
An old man is playing a piano. He is playing the piano because he lost his left arm. He is playing to his dentures that he has put on the piano. He is playing to a canon shell vase on the shrine. Pressing the black and white keys with his numb and feeble right hand, he is playing to a snake lying stiff and full of aches in a glass terrarium, to an old woman who is forgetting to blink and to a girl who walks past him every now and then — he can’t remember if she’s his maid, or his daughter, or his nurse. He is playing because he’s been told that music lives forever. He is playing hoping his left arm grows back. And thanks to the music, he can already feel that his arm is about to grow back.
The maid/ daughter/ nurse/ blurry image goes about her work. She washes the canon shell with a wet towel, feeds the snake, lifts the lid of the terrarium and leaves it open, gives medicine to the snake, puts cotton in her ear to block the noise from the piano music, spits on the sickly piano tune, has sex with a postman in the library just like in the pulps (mind you, the postman didn’t bring any letter), crushes two old sluggish cockroaches, curses the rats, fixes the clock hands that never keep the correct time, checks her armpits in front of the mirror and chooses a name for the child in her womb.
Now, the maid/ daughter/ nurse/ blurry image writhes her body in the glass terrarium, the old woman starts to bleed from all over her body because she wins the lottery, and the old man stares at the snake sprouting out of his stump.
I will do you.
I will do all of you.
I will blindfold you and do you.
I will do you in the kitchen with pots clanking.
I will do you with words.
I will do you with cameras, lights and reflectors.
I will do you with stories.
If I feel doing it alone isn’t enough for me,
I will invite other people too.
I will play loud music and do you.
I will open a book and do you.
I will do you in splashing water.
I will do you by pointing a knife and pulling your hair tightly.
I will do you while pressing the piano keys with my left hand.
I will do you in the middle of a meeting and while watching a film.
I will do you across from the dhamma house behind the brier bush.
I will do you in whatever way my wild imaginations dictate.
I will do you in September until you become many colors.
I will do you to burn my calories.
I will do you during a class.
I will rub you with olive oil and do you.
I will do you whenever I get a minute.
I will torture you, pound you and do you.
I will do you with a big smile.
I will curse and scream.
I will do you until the whole neighborhood knows I am doing you.
I will do you after everybody goes to sleep.
I will do you using all kinds of theatrics.
I will hang my portrait on the wall and do you.
I will stuff you like a pie.
I will stop the car on the way, fill the tank and do you.
I will do you, rain or shine.
I will do you as if I were climbing a mountain.
I will do you until people get shocked and awed.
I will rub you with ice, put cream on you and do you.
I will do you with a masked gang.
Yes, you are right.
I will be doing what you think I will be doing.
Nge Nge (Kyaukse) (b. 1985)
Nge Nge (Kyaukse) was born in Kyaukse District, Mandalay Region. Her poems have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation and local magazines. She is a teacher at a local school.
Every Wall Should Say “Stop”
When I Start Talking About Myself
I accidentally deleted some data from my memory.
Slight traces of your laughter were also gone.
I took a glance at the old ghost on the wall
Before I said something really important.
Some of the lines in my poem are dedicated to him
And some other lines are dedicated to myself.
I know it has to be a joke coming from a siege mentality
When someone says they will start living for themselves.
Your future, a crowded street, is my guide map.
When I really need someone, I find no one around me.
Now I have resorted to laughing at my own misfortunes.
The allusions in my poem have become actual things.
My index fingers stare at me bewilderedly.
To Whisper About You With My Dry Lips
Here I am, summer.
I don’t do selfies with lush landscapes.
And I don’t need your water
To enjoy the coolness for one fleeting second.
You will just try to cut my branches
And sever my limbs at the time of a heat wave.
Just go, this climate isn’t for you.
Han Lynn (b. 1986)
Han Lynn is a poet and translator living in Yangon. He is the author of three poetry collections and translates international poetry into Burmese. He edits Be Untexed, an online journal of new writings and visual arts.
Arms Hanging out of Car Windows,
One at Each Door
If I decide to live like a ghost, most people will not see me any more. No, they won’t. They won’t see me. Someone must have smoked in the elevator. The mountain goat will be hopping around on the edge of the mountain. Sometimes a crocodile may come out of the lake backwards, and without having caught any fish. Is there a cat in a tree? A cat climbs a tree. There are giant sumos on TV. They are pushing each other out of the ring. Have you, by any chance, seen a cat climbing down a tree?
When I finish speaking, people at other tables turn their heads and look at me. Some don’t. Obviously, foreigners don’t understand my language. I wish they did. That’s why I take a glance at them. A waiter closes the window. The curtain stops blowing. Perfectly still now. A gecko tries to cross the curtain. Go, gecko, go! I roll down my sleeves because I start to feel a bit cold. A bit chilly. What is she doing over there?
My voice goes into the microphone, but the voice that comes out isn’t mine. It has changed somehow. I haven’t expected it. I don’t want my voice to change like that. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear my voice any more. People try to comfort me by saying there’s nothing wrong with my voice. It’s true those are my words, but it isn’t my voice. Bootleg liquor was sold here before. The place was crammed with people because food was cheap. Also very noisy. I am not saying it’s the same restaurant. The same place, but different restaurants. The food and liquors at the present-day restaurant are expensive. But not many customers. Just some people. The place is quiet and peaceful. It will remain so only until some noisy customers arrive. The longer they sit, the noisier they become. You won’t hear your own voice when you speak. Your voice will be drowned in noises coming from other tables. Some people don’t really like noise. When people get noisy, even cats get upset. You can make some adjustments to your voice on the amplifier. You know. It reminds me of a friend who fell into a well. People are still singing in the bathrooms.
There are arms hanging out of car windows, one at each door. Both short and long sleeves. Cars are like people. There are noisy cars and there are quiet ones. People are not always inside those cars. Someone who gets in a car must get out at some point. In junkyards, there are only cars. Nobody gets in or out. But some people live in those cars. Now our car is going really fast. Are you trying to jump off? We get power blackouts frequently. We have to open the windows and roll up the curtains. The wind is hot because the weather is hot outside. The hot wind comes into the house carrying dust. This dust mixes with the dust in the house. Cars speed up in front of the house. The cars must also be very hot. As I am about to operate the robot toy that I received from someone as a gift the other day, and the phone rings. I pick up the phone holding the toy with my other hand. Its legs are already moving.
What went wrong?
A train ran over the people
Who were fixing the railroad.
Camera from My Past Life
They put masts and sails on flip-flops.
Now they have so many flip-flop sailboats.
Everyone, at some point in their lives, thinks about robbing a bank.
The exhibition space becomes so graceful
After they removed all the paintings and sculptures.
In the park, swings are moving on their own.
It just so happens that we end up wearing military jackets
Without any particular reason.
Nobody looks at the camera including the cat.
But the dog is looking. It’s looking at the camera.
People put on their t-shirts in different ways.
You can’t guess how many hands they have.
I have come to look for the camera from my past life.
But it is nowhere to be found.
My flip-flops are bigger than my hat.
It is only natural that villages move.
So villages are moving right now.
The sculptor is grinning cheerfully.
His eyes are closed but his teeth are showing.
They are all gold teeth.
Ghosts Don’t Need to Open the Doors
Ghosts can enter houses and rooms
Without opening the doors.
I wish I could do that too.
Then I would just walk right through the doors.
But even if I were a ghost,
There could still be some kind of door that I can’t walk into.
Tall grass has devoured an old car
Which is pretty much just a rusting metal skeleton.
A night bird flies over my head and away.
I know it’s a night bird because of its nocturnal call.
It’s only because of its nocturnal call that I know it has flown away.
Most of the piano keys are broken.
I have to avoid those broken keys, with much difficulty,
While pressing the good ones quickly.
I can’t see the view because of the fog.
When the fog finally thins out, I am able to see the view.
It’s only when the fog thins out that I am able to see the view.
They have brought a very big box from afar.
But they have to keep holding it
Because they don’t know where to put it.
My long coat is blowing in the wind.
My tie is blowing in the wind.
If I hadn’t used the chinstrap, my hat would have blown away.
The leaves on the trees and the leaves on the ground
Are also blowing away.
Dlugalay (b. 1986)
Dlugalay is a poet, translator and lawyer. He has also been organizing poetry readings in Yangon for some years. In 2014, his poems were published in a poetry collection called Biological Perversions along with four other poets.
You get into your car and drive off.
That stirs up dust in another part of the world.
Nobody can tell you why this happens.
You get upset and knock over a cup of coffee.
You get drunk and you are itching to curse.
You begin to curse. You curse everyone.
You curse the president.
The next day, you are a revolutionist.
Two days later, you are a prisoner.
You evolve from one thing into another.
Crows build a nest on your roof.
A branch breaks for no reason.
You think about all this before you start your car.
Your head is filled with dust.
Your brain needs a wash.
You start to question every possible linkage between
What happens here and what happens there.
You abandon your belief in black-and-white thinking.
You go fishing with a bundle of flowers —
The same bundle you have had with you since your birth.
You wrestle with yourself in front of your life-size mirror.
The sorcerer parks his rickety truck and gets out.
After he walks away from his truck,
People draw a sacred circle of protection around it.
The night wears my shoes and stands on a mountaintop.
My bone-dryness rises in the sky like the moon.
Revolution is a personal thing.
When I stumble and fall on my face, you will watch.
You and your angry crowd will spit in my face.
Your angry crowd has always been like this, hasn’t it?
I am alone and that makes you happy, doesn’t it?
I take a ride in the sorcerer’s truck.
When I get to another city, I will try to forget about this one.
But I know I can’t get away from your angry crowd.
They will be waiting for me in the new place.
I will tell them the roach dying under my tongue is a tree.
If I can lie to them, maybe they will start loving me.
You and your crowd are too many. I am only one.
I must make sure I won’t get crushed under your bodies.
The sorcerer’s truck shoots off to a new moon in a cinema.
A group of fighter jets enter my lungs
And come out again as smoke and military police.
Holding Barbie dolls in their hands,
The police officers run across a field.
Red roses fill the whole landscape.
My bed that screeches like a hunted flamingo
And tastes like chocolate most of the time
Lies on the floor like a fallen coffee cup.
And the floor is such a mess.
If she claims I have been unfair to her,
It means I have loved her more than she does me.
It’s the only unfairness I am responsible for in our relationship.
Life is shrinking at an unusual speed.
If it keeps shrinking at this rate,
Sooner or later, it will be trapped in a triangle.
It will burn and smoke and screech.
Everything the existence of which we have denied
Transforms into rings of fire and overruns the whole city.
Sone (b. 1990)
We have no photo of this Burmese poet. Sorry. JT.
Sone was born and raised in Aunglan, Magway Region. He is a seaman by profession.
coffee-flavored candies — little things that I loved when I was little —
whenever I crossed the road — candies and euphoria —
if only candies could talk — they’ve been silent for a good part of my life — anxiously —
remember nothing — remember something — kindly look — a mental surgery table —
pocket knife — goes into the stomach — fragments are still fragmentary —
a poison bottle like a coffee-flavored candy — that I like very much —
a foxy lady — who likes ladies —
if you want to destroy the world — why let it rain —
let me apologize like a child — let me remain drowsy —
incoherent — yawning — all alone — that look —
nobody except me can see it — me in a space in motion —
going crazy — subtly — hear nothing — all alone —
I came alone — high as a kite — if you know how to breathe — it tastes better —
drift with the flow — the lights are too bright — does everything still exist —
no, nothing exists any more — the brick walls are no more — the floors are no more —
and the ceilings — and the stairs —
and the telecommunications cables — and the trains that are forever far away —
and the lovers’ lanes — and the wishful thinking for the hereafter reunions —
and the colorful raindrops — and the greenish blue stars —
and the distances — and the temperatures below zero — and the mad dreams —
and you — no more — these are no more —
bruises and cuts like my favorite coffee-flavored candies — when I kneel —
my jeans touch the bridge — I haven’t heard from her for two years —
just stay away — don’t move — don’t make a sound — don’t do anything —
I want to not stare any more — I close my little window —
now when I cross the road — I try to forget about my favorite coffee-flavored candies —
yes, it’s like that
a star burned out with a bang, but nobody heard anything
balloons and umbrellas — when I need them —
will force their way out of my spine —
the train has flown away — over my head —
up the kite string — I will crawl —
I know what I need — casual and light-hearted —
should I be held responsible — for the things you don’t know — about me —
take off your mouths — yes you, and you too —
white pianos rain down on us —
so that you may understand — art —
pick them up — take them home — adopt them like children —
so that you may understand art —
I hang a wind chime called silence
— at the door —
when someone comes in — it moves and swings —
without making any sound — of course I know —
I know it’s my laughing — that opens the door —
in a box — in which smoke secretly melts —
I live — I sit calmly —
I haven’t put life — into my art —
you won’t see me — an invisible corpse —
I have taken out — out of my body — the beating of my heart —
I am of no use anymore —
I also took off — my face — long ago —
to hide from sight — tissues growing on the wounded dreams —
I scratch off the scabs — with a shard of glass — conscious scabs —
even when the pain is completely gone —
we will still hurt each other — with guilt —
when people make marks on each other — with red-hot flat iron bars —
we call that — love —
your will to be free is in fetters — too many compromises —
what are you doing in those dark chambers — of the river —
you have no idea — what you are dealing with —
my fingers run on the colorful piano keys — holding back their urge —
to laugh — my fingers —
you cannot even save yourselves — you prisoners —
you can get out of my face now —
I fly a kite — to take a close-up photo of the flying train —
up the kite string — I will crawl —
even if I only had a minute left —
I wouldn’t have given it to you, Yin Wai Oo
Nay A D (b. 1990)
Nay A D is a poet and publisher based in Yangon. She manages 90/91 Press with her poet friend Mae Yway. Her poems have appeared in local magazines and poetry anthologies.
In this universe, all things depend on each other.
If you ever try to hurt me, I will never forget that.
Now everything is clear: mom is done with you.
She is worried about me all the time.
I am trying to kill you, dad.
I pray that you die a terrible death.
After you die, I will sit on your grave and eat my birthday cake.
Mom, I think I have done something wrong.
Actually, dad may become a tree or an insect.
I don’t know. He can become anything.
Let there be peace even though it may be insignificant
After the peace we have now gets destroyed.
It is so sad to see them leaving.
In the end everything becomes really quiet.
Hello dad, I am a tiny shred of peace in this universe.
You Should Be Glad These Women Are Snakes
Over the past few years, I have been back and forth
Between home and the psychiatric hospital.
Spending nights with my mother at the hospital,
I almost became a patient too.
I heard someone laughing behind the locked iron doors.
I saw, when they switched off the lights, eyes gleaming in the dark.
I encouraged myself not to be scared
But my own hands, cold as ice, frightened me to death.
A woman was always staring into the dark through a window.
Another woman was always walking, covering every spot in the ward.
A young woman approached me as if she had something to tell.
But she would just stare at me and then turn around.
There was a six-year-old girl, always chewing on a plastic doll.
I started to realize that one doesn’t need a reason to be crazy.
An old woman with scruffy hair was looking for a comb that didn’t exist.
When my eyes met hers, I gave her a big smile.
I called these women ‘snakes’. Snake is a fitting name for snakes, I think.
In those days, I witnessed with my own eyes
The souls that were immune to sleeping pills.
I don’t think I will easily forget the woman
Who explained with gestures that she once lost her arms and legs.
There was also a woman who liked to eat her own hair.
And one day, a nurse came and shaved her head.
The woman whispered to me
She would let nobody know when her hair grew again.
These women shelled out sunflower seeds and put them in my hand.
They were definitely snakes and they drove me crazy.
I think I contracted from them a disease
Which makes me think about keys all the time.
One of those snakes was planning to bite an iron bed.
I almost suggested her that she swallowed it instead of biting.
Spellbound, I ate food, drank water and slept among the snakes.
In my sleep, I walked back to where all these things started.
And when I needed someone to talk to, I hurried back home.
I tried to laugh, and smiled at people.
With kindly eyes, this person in my mirror asked me who I was.
Write Down Questions You Might Want to Ask
Before We Go on Our First Date
The morning kisses the pieces of me
That I have vomited up.
I make a paper bird
And let it fly in a glass bottle.
Are those your lips
Or do they belong to a girl I know?
The beach is making fun of me
Because I am building a sand castle in the sea.
I am losing patience with time
And that hurts my stomach.
When I received your phone call,
I was having all my periods in one day.
After putting on my skirt backwards,
I take out my uterus and leave it on the table.
I am still trying to figure out
Which could be the right place for it.
Hell reeks of Lucifer.
He is breathing anxiously.
I leave home with bloodstains on my skirt.
People are checking on me.
Some of them come to me and take photos.
I think about taking all this with a smile.
Then I decide not to go to the temple
Because I don’t want to be judged for my body.
I take a walk around town counting pigeons.
I also feed them, but crows are a different story.
I can’t hold eye contact with them for long.
I wonder if they have ever eaten women’s uteri.
Maybe I should give mine to them.
So I leave them my address and come back home.
Mae Yway (b. 1991)
Mae Yway was born in Myeik, Tanintharyi Region. Her poems regularly appear in local magazines and poetry collections. Her first poetry book was published in 2013. She gave a reading at Rotterdam Poetry Festival 2017.
We Are An Unmistakable Fusion
You and I are an unmistakable fusion
It’s like I crawled under your fence and entered you
At first I only wanted a small piece of your territory
Then my desire to make you my colony grew
A rose that blooms from childhood traumas
Drying leaves and smoldering pleasure
A happy family only in the frozen moment of a photograph
Problems, they found me and she did too
I put a wall between them
So I wouldn’t hear any more noise
Problems, they start to learn to talk
The child living in blood may stutter but his words have meanings
Sunglasses that I ordered came on the first day of rain
The numbers at the traffic lights go backward
The bridges crack on the day of their opening
A cracking relationship and I became twenty-five
They snipped my hemorrhoid with scissors
You may say she’s a stain that can’t be removed
Crazy, crazy rainbows
Their differences are colorful
Sex treats me like a sick patient
The needle penetrates my bone
It started with a skin-deep and now the length of the whole finger
They were still going on about other people even after you left
‘That’s the daughter-in-law of…’ ‘She’s the mother of…’ they say
My relationship with them is like a surface with curves
The kind of relationship that can dive underwater till it touches the bottom
Or it is a sea that ends at the arc of the horizon
I know I haven’t told you about the clouds pressing down
It’s Like You Avoid Eating Chicken When You Get a New Tattoo
It’s like you avoid eating chicken when you get a new tattoo
The map of excitement is underarm sweat
The two of us burn to ashes while screaming “peaceful love”
When I cry, you tear tissues from your body and give them to me
But we have to look up the word ‘body’ in the dictionary first
So that we spell it right
It just so happens that we have omitted some realities
From our memories of coincidences, for instance, our ex-lovers
In reality, nothing could kill me
And in the end we went different ways
I go shopping and cook something
When the kitchen knife decides to attack, I get cut into pieces
Then there are wounds that heal in fire
When scabs peel off, the tattoo comes into view as a new scent of hunger
One’s ultimate right is the midnight, making love
In the kitchen or in the living room or on the verandah
Shortcomings are so tedious
Light rises from the mountains
Light looks down at me
Vines attempt to seduce me with their grapes
“How should we carry on?” I shout and shout
My voice doesn’t come forward, but goes backward and crawls on the ground
You messed me up and now I am little pieces scattered and destroyed
My hands go under the bed, but the feet don’t know what to do
The brain rolls and bumps into the dustbin standing in a corner
The scalp glows in the dark
A new door has found me at the age of twenty-five
This is the color blue going to the sea
Or the yellow of afternoon that constricts pupils
Or traffic lights in Yangon, that shows red light and green light simultaneously
Otherwise bullet-riddled bodies will come floating from the border
Otherwise Nwe and I will just be playing checkers
Or it may just be Ponyo swimming among whales in the city flooded at the doors
Or the year 2016, which I lived through by curling up in a piece of luggage
Or please just take our watches and give time in return
Or I may just be sitting on two stools at the same time, sweetheart
Or Mae Yway may just be mumbling “nothing’s important in life” in her sleep
When did the sense of self-importance enter my body and from where?
Zeyar Lynn wrote a phrase “a fire engine catching fire” in one of his poems
Well, I am that fire engine
It just so happens that I go into that poem and catch fire
It just so happens that you won’t sing a loud siren like that fire engine
Note: Ponyo is a fish character in the
Japanese animated fantasy film of the same name
written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
And So, January
White sheets of paper take flight together
Will they be blown away if I open the window?
Will I need to glue the fragments together later?
And what would lovers think about it?
The conflict between ‘seeing’ and ‘believing’ has to end
And I would love some red meat after that, baby
Something boils and spills on the stove every month
Who’s hitting the switch?
Lifeless eggs melt and spread through cotton
A child called NEW MADNESS is born
Now I can see the mole in your eye
Come take my nose and brows
Every insect died the day I was born
Sorry I didn’t bring any living things with me
The worst yet is there aren’t any trees in that
green field. Not a single tree
For the crows. Little wonder they have flown elsewhere.
A starry night means
A night full of stars
That are about to fall
My longing for you will finally make you miss me
Hopes drive round the corner and come into my street
It’s time for the long wait to end, time to take the chair inside
Then comes January, and I have forgotten to lock the room
When I came around, I found two holes in my brows
Everything has become ash
Where does fear come from? I wonder and keep wondering
Give me inhalers…inhalers, please
Trees, so strong and unwavering, skin me alive
Nay Thit (b. 1992)
Nay Thit is a translator, poet and essayist. His writings have appeared in local magazines and poetry anthologies.
No One Knows the Names of Those Windows
You may not see in the dark
But you see the darkness. My cat
These days looks at me
As if there was someone standing next to me.
Memory never dies.
My grandma with impaired memory
Calls her grandchildren the names of deceased people.
When I was little, someone told me
If I looked at the mirror everyday before bed
I would go to heaven when I die.
Now I’ve grown up
And I stand and stare at reinforcing iron bars
Pointing upwards from construction sites.
He finally found himself
On shards of glass
At a train station.
The Man With Rounded Shoulders
Some people hope when they wake up
They could suddenly speak several languages.
Some hope they don’t wake up at all.
Things that we don’t realize we don’t know during the day
And things that we don’t want to know we don’t know at night.
Gravity is a beautiful but deceptive thing.
When night gets late,
I look down into the darkness of an empty box
And make different sounds.
Doing that, I feel proud.
I know there’s another word for it, that kind of feeling.
But it’s been long forgotten.
Even though time has no special power in reality,
I have become used to the idea it just might.
For instance, I might wake up tomorrow
With a pair of wings on my shoulders. Who knows?
Two collections of Burmese poetry, translated by Maung Day,
appear in this issue of JPR. See Part One and Part Two
A Brief History of Burmese Poetry
Paragraph One follows — 1:
Today in Burma, we see a poetry scene with a large number of poets vigorously writing their poems in a wide range of aesthetic directions. Poetry has always been a popular literary genre and a formidable force in this Southeast Asian country. It has been associated with various social and political movements from the independence struggle of the 1930s to the recent people’s movement against the damming projects on the Irrawaddy.
The history of Burmese poetry began in Bagan Period (1044–1289). Mya-Kan (Emerald Lake) and Popa Nat Taung Bwe (An Ode to Sacred Mt Popa) have been documented as the earliest poetic verses. Burmese poetry has developed and evolved from that point encompassing six dynasties of Burmese kings and nine centuries. The characteristics of the four-syllable ‘climbing rhyme’ scheme can be traced back in the earliest verses, and early Burmese poets attempted to refine this scheme to make it a more perfect poetic form, resulting in new poetic forms such as yadu, pyo, mawgun, taw-lar, ei-chin and so on.
By the time of Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885), which was also the last dynasty of Burmese kings, there were as many as thirty poetic forms.
Then the country fell under the British rule and ushered in a new poetry movement called khitsan (literally translated as ‘testing the times’). Khitsan, which came out of Yangon University in the 1930s, was the earliest modernist phase of Burmese poetry. Khitsan poets played an important role in the independence fight through their direct involvement in the anti-colonial activities and through their poetry.
Dagon Taya, a revered figure in the history of Burmese poetry and literature, extended the tradition of social engagement in poetry. He launched his own ‘New Literature Movement’ in the following decades, stressing the significant place of ideology in poetry. His motto ‘You may get rid of rhyme, but not ideology’ has influenced many poets, past and present. This motto was first heard in the 1970s when khitpor kabyar — a new modernist poetry movement that favors poetic experimentation, but also holds social engagement in its heart dearly — was emerging in the poetry scene. [The book] Htinn Yuu Pin Yeik (The Shade of the Pine Tree, 1968) was probably the most important contributor and the biggest influence for the emergence of khitpor kabyar.
Htinn Yuu Pin Yeik is a book of translations of Western modernist and romantic poets, put out by Burmese writer and literary scholar Maung Tha Noe. This book received widespread praise in the local poetry scene and changed the course of Burmese poetry. It influenced poets such as Aung Cheimt, Maung Chaw Nwe and Thukhamein Hlaing who, drawing influences from the translations of this book, parted way with the traditional rhyme schemes and adopted a more contemporary and experimental approach to their writing.
The other scholars who contributed to this aesthetic shift included Mya Zin with his Manifesto of Modern Burmese Poetry and Min Hla Nyunt Kyu with his concept of ‘modern sensibility’. Khitpor kabyar — rich in imagery generated from everyday social realities and ingenious metaphors, and informed by French Surrealism, Imagism and Romanticism — has been the most dominant poetry practiced by a great number of Burmese poets for decades.
However, at the turn of the new millennium and especially in the late 2000s — the decade in which poet and critic Zayer Lynn put out a series of books that introduced new poetic experimentations and avant-garde poetry movements around the world and especially in the United States — new species of poetry sprang up in the scene, and the dominance of khitpor kabyar started to wane.
In the later part of the 2000s, essays on and poetry translations of the New York School Poets, the Language Poets, and European avant-gardists were regularly found in local literary magazines and journals. The bulk of the work came from Zayer Lynn, and some of it from poet Aung Khin Myint and myself.
Poets formerly known as khitpor kabyar saya such as Moe Way, Lu Sann, Win Myint and Sai Win Myint started to write with more cutting-edge and experimental approaches. Their poetic language changed from the transparent to the opaque, from the predetermined to the unpredictable, from being linear to disjunctive and fragmented, and from being easy to difficult. Thus, new forms of poetry emerged in the scene. Younger poets such as The Maw Naing, Aung Pyi Sone, Maung Yu Py and myself were also the members of this pioneering avant-gardist group.
Today a number of poets, many of them born in the 1980s and 1990s, have come up with new species of poetry. They reject received forms and experiment with a variety of avant-garde poetics. It should also be noted that some of them have redefined and incorporated older poetic traditions, especially khitpor kabyar, in their works.
Today we see different groups of poets with shared poetic tendencies. These groups include PEMSKOOL, RevoCat, and Nyay to name a few.
There are also individual poets such as Lunn Sett Noe Myatt, Maung Phone Myint, Thura Ne, Thura Thit, Nay Myae, Nay Thit, Shein Thu Aung, Shain Wah, Mae Ywayy, Cho Pain Naung, Moon Thu Ein, A Moon Mon and Phyu Hnin Phway, again, to name a few. These poets draw influences from a wide range of poetries (including Flarf, Language Poetry, Post-Language Poetry, Conceptual Poetry, Deep Image, Surrealism, Visual Poetry and post-modern Lyricism) as well as from the works of individual poets writing and publishing today both locally and internationally.
The works of these young Burmese poets are also informed by structuralism, post-structuralism, post-Marxism, feminism, anarchism, environmentalism and emerging social and political debates.
Younger poets such as Zarti (Antima) and Nay Myo Set Lu are drawn towards post-modern Lyricism and New Prose. These are tendencies that we may be seeing more of in the future. Speaking of the future, today we are also seeing more and more established khitpor poets adopting experimental or rather avant-garde poetic techniques in their works, giving rise to a very interesting aesthetic dynamic. Maung Pyiyt Min and Khin Aung Aye have been doing that for a few years, and now Khaing Myae Kyaw Swar is a new addition to the list.
The vibrant Burmese poetry scene has benefitted so much from small independent presses such as The Eras founded by poet Moe Way, and the DIY ethic of young generation poets. Be Untexed is a Yangon-based independent online journal that publishes poetry and poetry translations in English, the first of its kind in Burma. This journal, founded by poet Han Lynn, poet Nyan Lynn, and graphic designer Nyi Sane, accepts submissions from both local and international poets and translators. As poets, writers and artists enjoy a much more improved freedom of expression under the new civilian government, the contemporary Burmese poetry may be headed for better days.
New Old Censorship
Compared to the past few decades, it is much freer today to make any form of artistic expression. Censorship has been lifted and it has improved the condition of freedom of expression to a certain extent. But this is not to say there is no more censorship, because there is, especially one that artists, writers and poets impose on themselves. There is this elephant in the room called ‘nationalist sentiment’.
Another thing largely missing in the art and literary scene is the discussion of ethnic issues. Some poets and writers just don’t have a clue what is going on in the country with ethnic minorities. But they often demand peace in their writings, which is just an abstract idea, totally removed from local realities. Their version of peace is more of a utopian fantasy.
As you may have already known, there has always been a nationalist agenda in the government and its bureaucracy for decades. This dates back to the colonial period where Bamar leaders tried to unite the country by propagating the importance of race, religion and nationality. This is reflected in the Ma Ba Tha Movement led by the fundamentalist Buddhist monk Werathu. It can be considered a colonial legacy, but one that should not be continued.
However, we have seen ethnic minorities and migrant communities being marginalised over the years. This became really bad during Thein Sein’s government as they went as far as banning interfaith marriages. There has been so much hate speech in everyday life as well. But we haven’t seen many poets, writers and artists address this in their works.
I have also said: ‘Another thing largely missing in the art and literary scene is the discussion on ethnic issues.’ I was then referring to the ethnic conflicts and miseries afflicted on ethnic people, especially the Kachin, the Karen, the Shan and so on. In the past we could say we didn’t know much because the military government saw to it that this wasn’t discussed and covered in media. But what’s the excuse today? People apparently know there are armed conflicts, but they don’t know what exactly is going on including the looting, the burning of villages, the raping, the arbitrary arrests, torture, and the land grabbing being carried out by the military.
This is also linked with the Burmanization process. Within the framework of Burmanization, the mainstream education, bureaucracy and state media are systematically embedded in Buddhist values and Bamar identity, undermining the essence of diversity and ultimately denying the voices of other ethnic minority groups.
Education is a very good example where kids learn largely Buddhismized textbooks, reciting verses that propagate the role of Bamar and Bamarsar (Burmese Language) in the making of the nation. Building Buddhist temples by the military in ethnic communities where the entire population believes in Christianity is another obvious example. In sum, the censorship has been lifted, but there is still censorship.
Maung Day is Burmese poet, artist, translator and development worker. He has published six books of poetry in Burmese and one chapbook in English. His poems have appeared in literary journals such as The Wolf, The Awl, Guernica, Shampoo, International Poetry Review and Bengal Lights. He has also shown his artworks internationally. He now lives and works in Yangon.
Two collections of Burmese poetry, translated by Maung Day,
appear in this issue of JPR. See Part One and Part Two
In the sand, a shadow of an impress where he died.
In the snow, a shadow of an impress
where he died. In the dirt, a shadow of an impress
where he died. In the cake batter,
a shadow of an impress where he died. In the tar,
a shadow of an impress where he died.
In the ball pit, a shadow of an impress
where he died. In the gorse, a shadow of an impress
where he died. In the moss, a shadow
of an impress where he died. In the mincemeat,
a shadow of an impress where he died.
In a parking lot’s dust,
a shadow of an impress where he died. In the mangled
steel and concrete of the demolition zone,
a shadow of an impress where he died.
In the spray of monkeys sheltering their young,
a shadow of an impress where he died.
In the golf green’s fairway, a shadow of an impress
where he died. In the lava, a shadow of an impress
where he died. In the flames,
a shadow of an impress where he died.
But never this, I have always thought a poem.
How much of the present is a bubble
And how much a portal. The goon
Likes the matter of pearls.
What about Broome, Western Australia.
Unmourned graves list in the mud.
I disclose, like a drone’s near whirr.
Why no narrative — why no epitaphs.
You might as well ask why no heroes.
Then, the panthers dance,
and the tea leaves conspire to return
some strong imperial phone call.
Truth is: yachts and penthouses, pearls,
yachts and pearls and penthouses and
yachts. Yack-until-hoarse yack.
Out spills people’s primogeniture
as yachts pop.
Fowl with virtual wings dreams of rockets. Fowl can’t be owl.
Will by fossil assumes an updraft that my feathers belie as Dad cries.
A watery name spoken by a shepherd, a fisher,
and a tour guide. Can you believe that such a place resembles sun and moon
with a mine, as procrustean bus routes fumble with your fat?
Into the sea which bore his name, sucked.
Relent, lingering feathers, the particles stir.
Original inhabitants of the remains of a caldera,
big reverse plug of stay, retrieve their name
from the golden state.
Roast documents for the main meal,
as the dreaming fowl prepares for candied dessert.
The inventor struggles with positionality and a corrupted compass.
The struggle is simple: the golden state already adopted the sun’s name.
Guardianship and control, with no relaxing alcohol.
It is hard being a sphere. Still, harvest comes again on time.
Those are not climate odds anyhow, icebreaker.
Listen to the whirring reeds during the worst of the typhoon.
Your hard armour of sense even laughs with bloating clouds.
So did the briefer accommodation funded unintentionally
by a far-right think tank looking for interstate ties.
You can’t buy loyalty.
The traffic of currency itself is loyalty, silly,
just like that midnight binge on milk.
Flush stings the hot chest of shame.
High-speed rail distracts the question from lighting
on a Cadillac prince as the account outstands.
Be quiet before the plaque, says a distant mayor.
Prince Regent beats a closer mayor.
Drenching the clothes in all the sweats of the town,
so many palm trees hovering.
Fowl with virtual wings dreams of the rockets Icarus mocks in fire.
The profession even gets a different title there;
does that mean that the cosmic and the astronomic compete?
fly by constraint.
The Missing Citations
Sometimes I want a festival of proper nouns.
But often I retract. Reason being the larger procedure.
Every finger introduced to the mechanism breaks.
By comparison, the smartphone softens at his touch.
Cuba softens too. Venezuela, though, hard as glass.
In the course of this poem’s turn, I want you to laugh.
Scanning the circumstances of address,
here I am wanting you to laugh in your reading.
Such suggests that the same chess game is never played.
Laughing not at a joke, really, but at the realisation
that you and I are much closer than we thought.
This could be Scarborough, you in wetsuit, me in jeans.
Forehead sting and the salt chap.
Bus pass buried by sand drift.
This could be as migrating clouds.
It isn’t long before the millennial transition,
which so often has the connotation
of awakening, which it never was. Connotation.
I’m not so sure we learn much here. But we are.
Sure. That puts the ochlocracy at odds with
the individual, at least for the duration of
this poem’s reading. That is my big problem.
Just think about that. My in the context of you,
the court longing for the romance it does not solicit.
Charles II, meanwhile, enjoys himself.
Instead of was it any different I say it could be different.
The fixed time that this poem takes to be read.
Initially, how many genres were thought experiments.
We drift further away from each other.
Chicken salt never the option. Tomato sauce
the demon. Some mother slaps some son
at the table for shaking the bottle, for frustration,
for spraying the contents instead of pouring them.
Droll clarity of that meandering bravado.
Things like this we share with Soviet Russia
before Krushchev. Dispensing with the centrifuge,
I lodge with Polish acquaintances.
Bed is hard, heater flickering.
Endless cheese butters anxiety.
Don’t forget the smouldering theatre.
Winnowing banner ruffles the dead show.
Near incumbency sets up a division.
Of course, she rails.
Because Dad is so much like me, I resist him, I admit.
The rest of the time we languish in the panorama,
half-drowning in our drool.
The council dwindles like a village.
Stupidity will win. Conciliation, which could start
the stirring vertigo of a uniformed riot,
looks comparatively like a stoic.
The names to support stoicism similarly reside in pages,
pages themselves which resemble conciliation.
No help in the reaction void.
I’m not saying a deep consciousness of mathematics
won’t help you, I’m just saying, instead,
at the moment,
that the urgency lies in the legs to flee.
Corey Wakeling’s second full-length collection, The Alarming Conservatory, appears with Giramondo Publishing in 2017. Born in the UK, Corey grew up in Perth, Western Australia. From 2009 to early 2015, he lived in Melbourne, where he received a PhD in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. He lives at present in the Kansai region of Japan where he teaches literature and drama at Kobe College.
is withered, loud, thirsty, withered with sad-fragrant sound,
noon frámed and sháme-fallacious in many-languaged wine-dark everywhere.
September sacrifices twenty helicopter associations. Forty excruciating summers fly past,
úpstruggled, hurried, státely, and viewless. Sixty gleesome Romans,
ancient in flower-zoned vine-blood, utter rúddy suggestions
round combined light, sáddened in Márch.
Kiama shudders somewhere through stern cloudrack description
The expression transfigures the Rover, throwing fan-wise gloomy-browed Byron at Urara
here while delusive bliss blossoms bury Hawkesbury
emotional like Geraldine stealing rhymes round Euroma
Worn syllables fell alóne over austere-coppery threshold slumberers.
Blue = AISaddleBrown = ADGreen = ACRed/underlined = ALL SHOUT
Inseparable with-patient-looks-nailedCONSTRUCTED CONCEALMENT CONSPIRATORS nut-coloured chronicle remuneration eye-glue yellow-lidded
árguement sleek-necked fractional
tricolour parallel nósebridge medállions THERMIDOR obstruction constructions ELECTROMAGNETISM MAXIMILIAN NEWMAN’S FUNDAMENTAL BUNDLE
THUMB TICKLE SQUID fast-flowing Modern Diversifier Farmer IMAGINATION CONVERTIBILITY wheelspokes expression fired expression thistlepoints
voyage podsMOTLER ZAPS THE WORD expectations disinclination gruff guidons grássblades
, Susy said we’ll sell them to the Pope. Doctor Volta floated bricks with cream boats.
Unháppy unpalatable filling-in-tíme
bumping thumping pulsingFANTASTIC MOTLER DESTINY original comet Waterspouts.
Nothing orchestrated scissorsHOSPODARmantelpiece crisis
electric-elections DOMINO DONdistand-motorsickles
, BROGLIEbanished flowering chestnuts
entanglingMECHANICAL EXPERIMENTS leadership thoughts replastering all-weather all-purpose sulkiness —
rice millsOPOPONAX anchors disappointed toothbrushes, cóffee candles lóbster tea
furiously succulent underANARCHIS CLOOTS , AustraliaURIZEN QUACKENBUSHdóme báck dóme fan mist flaps feet falls feeet
neither slide, regains craft, cuff, veil dáy valve TEN WHEELED PATENT SCROGGS’S ABSTRACTNONCHALANTY
A NOTE ON THE EM+STANZAS
The above seven poems are reading drafts from a finite series of sixteen poems dubbed the EM+ stanzas. Each has a seed text, The Darkening Ecliptic (hence EM, Ern Malley), and a number of “additional” source texts. Hence the titles are EM-DM (the DM being Dora Montefiore, Australian socialist feminist), EM-NK (Ned Kelly), EM-HK (Henry Kendall) and EM-JHD (Jas H. Duke, specifically his 1978 concrete novel-poem-drama Destiny Wood). The seed is either an acrostic or an “antecrostic”; following the end letter of the line rather than the first. After laying out the seed text I spontaneously and freely “pulled” a word from a section in the source, written conventionally from left-to-right. Care was taken to use rhythms from “surrounding” words or phrases not used, in the next stanza.
Occasionally what I term the “chorastic” method was employed to lay phrases down vertically from extra source-texts like Diane Fahey (DF) and Raffaello Carboni (RC). Though derived from the mesostic and the diastic (the latter a method of Jackson Mac Low), the “chorastic” emphasizes a balance of vertical and horizontal axes through seed and source. Often more than one vertical seed axis was deployed to supplement the antecrostic.
Rhythms occur with “outscape” and “outstress”, developed from the instress and inscape of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and which might be viewed as a reinterpretation or extension of Hopkins’ invention. Attention has been drawn to the exteriority of sound, stress and rhythm, written into the text using diacritical markings. Exterior rhythm, dissonant prosody.
Some may be performed with multiple voices. The final of the seven poems was performed with Amy Ireland and Amelia Dale at Toby Fitch’s Sappho Books Café and Bar poetry reading series on July 11, 2017.
an interview with Allen Fisher
Paragraph One follows — 1:
Allen Fisher began work on Gravity as a consequence of shape in 1982 and he completed the project in 2007. Individual poems and sections appeared in various publications as they were written, and the work was published in its entirety in three volumes as: Gravity (Salt Publishing, 2004), Entanglement (The Gig, 2004), and Leans (Salt Publishing, 2007.) In 2016 Reality Street published the complete work in a single volume.
Fisher was born in London in 1944 and began writing in the 1960s. He was a member of radical arts group Fluxus and was involved with performance art early in his career. He later became a painter.
Fisher was living in Brixton, London, when he conceived and planned Gravity as a consequence of shape, having just completed his other major book-length project, Place.
In 1988 he moved to Hereford, which has been his home ever since. In 1998 he became Head of Art at Roehampton, working in Roehampton four days a week. In 2005 he was appointed Head of Contemporary Arts at Manchester Metropolitan, again working four days a week on campus. Since 2009 he has lived in Hereford full time.
These changes of location are reflected in the work, as is the evolution of Fisher’s ideas as a result of formal study and more general reading. He has long been interested in science, in the ethical issues science creates, and in the major questions to which science does not yet have answers — such as the origins of consciousness, and the nature of space and time.
Gravity as a consequence of shape is Fisher’s magnum opus, running to almost 600 pages. This includes 16 pages of ‘notes and resources’ listing the primary sources upon which the work draws. It is a complex poly-vocal text, impossible to paraphrase or summarise, which engages with a wide range of subjects.
It is a materialist and secular vision which proposes a different way of thinking and being in the world, written in opposition to the Enlightenment tradition in which ‘reason’ is a means for humans to manipulate the natural world and ‘improve’ it.
This interview was conducted by email between May and August 2017. The text was subject only to minor editing. I’m extremely grateful to Allen for the time he devoted to our conversation and for his patience with my many questions.
Collings: In the ‘Notes and Resources’ section to ‘Gravity’ you list Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, as well as an issue of Semiotext(e) devoted to Nietzsche which included an essay by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.  There are a number of themes in Nietzsche’s work, at least as interpreted by Deleuze, which strike me as possibly relating to the way Gravity as a consequence of shape is structured.
The first of these is Nietzsche’s critique of dialectical thought and his proposing of ‘pluralism’ as an alternative way of viewing the processes of history, multiple unconnected events happening simultaneously. The second is what Nietzsche says about the dice throw, and the role of chance in determining the course of life. You’ve long been interested in chance and the use of chance procedures in the making of a work, and I imagine that Nietzsche’s ideas resonate with you. The third element is Nietzsche’s frequent use of the image of dance as a metaphor for how the ‘superman’ responds to life.
Ordinary mortals build prisons for themselves out of systems of values, denying life and murdering ‘God’. The ‘Superman’ laughs and joins the Dionysian dance. There are parallels here with Blake and his ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. To what extent have these kinds of concepts influenced the form of the work?
Is the multi-vocal text, the collage of diverse discourses, the employment of chance procedures an enactment of the concept of plurality? Can the work be seen in one sense as a kind of Dionysian dance? After all the titles of the poems are names of jazz dances, and there are many references to dance in the text of Gravity and a consequence of shape.
Fisher: Very encouraged to read your recognitions from Nietzsche and Deleuze on the critique of dialectic and on their Dionysian attentions particular to dance and chance. I guess I would also add their programme to critique metaphysics. I had read the 1978 semiotext(e) Nietzsche’s Return, and that had Deleuze’s text ‘Nomad thought’. I was reading Anti-Oedipus in 1979. During the writing of Gravity as a consequence of shape you can follow readings of Deleuze’s Kant, Spinoza and then Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (which has a chapter ‘Treatise on Nomadology — The War Machine’).   I had also read the important last chapter of that book, ‘Concrete Rules and Abstract Machines’, before it was in book form (I forget which journal) and then What is Philosophy?
You ask to what extent have these kinds of concepts influenced the form of the work? I would say to a tremendous extent, and with this I would need to have on board a necessity to make and break sets. ‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.’ There is that necessary struggle, but this activity is also open and vulnerable to small disruptions about which decisions are made. In many senses kinds of dance, in that sense highly organised and planned for, with prepared for improvisation or transformations. A developed, albeit modest, Golgonooza. The parallel is that of Jacques-Louis David where the decision to act is disrupted by the necessity to hold the larger social or aesthetic benefit.
Collings: Could you expand on your comment about David?
Fisher: I have been engaged in a small painting project using derivations from some of the work of Jacques-Louis David. There are three aspects of his work that I have worked with. I think my engagement began in the nineties when I taught a few sessions on the works of David, Goya and Blake and their various aesthetic responses to the state of Europe in the 1780s into the early nineteenth century. I derived from David that sense of difficulty for the individual in the position of making a choice between personal and local attentions and a broader social responsibility. The stark decisions made evident in his paintings Oath of the Horatii and in The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons.
They appear to me to be about aspects of the Enlightenment that were not fully comprehended, and that lack led to the fraught response from Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment.
David was one of the first painters to break with the establishment and set up his studio for public view, he was simultaneously running some of the public events inside of the period. He also provides the basis for a considerable debate regarding measurement and passion, which Schiller articulated in his Aesthetic Letters and which get characterised as a debate between Classicism and Romanticism, or in some of my visual work as Frenzy and Self-Control.
Collings: Could you say more about those aspects of the Enlightenment which you feel Horkheimer and Adorno misunderstood? I’m assuming here that there is also a connection with Marcuse’s work, for example his highly influential book One Dimensional Man. Marcuse was influenced by Schiller’s ideas about play and its role in creating the possibility of freedom. This would connect, I assume, with what you said earlier about Blake’s ideal city of Golgonooza being in some way a ‘model’.
Fisher: Much of my difficulty with the Horkheimer and Adorno text may derive from their terms, like subjectivity, but I will try it. Early in Dialectic of Enlightenment we are mediated through the principle of the self, self-preservation is encouraged by a division of labour and then eventually subjectivity is replaced by automatic controls. Subjectivity is put in opposition to logic. Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘logic’ is to link irrational and totalitarian capitalism, which tends towards the extermination of life on earth, to some kind of hero who escapes from sacrifice and self-sacrifice. They propose civilisation as an introversion of sacrifice, which transforms into subjectivity. Marcuse pitches the individual against the public dimension of coercion and mass domination. He affirms modernist aesthetics and estrangement.
Horkheimer and Adorno turn to the remote past to perform their work on modern mass society. They put the Enlightenment in prehistory or in The Odyssey. For them Odysseus is the first bourgeois and the embodiment of the ‘enlightenment’, that is not mythological. Odysseus’ self-sacrifice is substituted for in the practice of human sacrifice to non-existent gods. The term ‘enlightenment’ becomes vague when it is stretched back to the Greeks. It is misappropriated as a confidence trick played on democracy. Horkheimer and Adorno describe mythically petrified rationality as a dominant figure of the enlightenment.
The modernist project is unfinished and cannot be abandoned. Habermas sees reason as instrumental in the domination of nature which is paid for by the repression of subjectivity. Cartesian Meditations and The Declaration of the Rights of Humankind and the Citizen posits modern subjectivity as intrinsically related to the developments of reason. This is a complex suture and dialectic process does not always help clarify it. The Dialectics of Enlightenment has been a necessary irritant, it is appropriate to note its use-by date.
Collings: I share your critique of the Dialectics of Enlightenment, and agree with you about the ‘use by’ date. Jurgen Habermas wrote what I think is an interesting essay on Dialectics of Enlightenment in which he says: ‘The Dialectics of Enlightenment does not do justice to the rational content of cultural modernity…’ Interestingly, Habermas links the ideas of DoE with the revived interest in, and readings of, Nietzsche exemplified by the contributions to the semiotext(e) issue we discussed earlier. Habermas is therefore arguing both against Dialectics of Enlightenment, and against the positions of thinkers like Deleuze and Derrida. Are Habermas’ arguments here something you would identify with? How do you see the work of Nietzsche and Deleuze in relation to Habermas’ position?
As an aside to the above, I’m puzzled by your statement ‘Habermas sees reason as instrumental in the domination of nature’. I would see Habermas as a critic of Horkheimer and Adorno’s concept of ‘instrumental reason’, counter-posing it with the idea of ‘communicative reason’. Habermas is certainly a champion of rationality, but he is critical of ‘instrumental reason’ and doesn’t see it as the only kind of reasoning available to us from the Enlightenment tradition.
He is also conscious that his idea of a ‘public sphere’ of reasoned debate influencing society is severely compromised and threatened in practice, e.g. by media monopolies, the rise of large global corporations etc. Personally I’m not convinced that ‘reasoned public debate’ can exist in the way Habermas conceives it. The processes are far more complex and chaotic. I’m asking about this because, while I suggested earlier that Gravity as a consequence of shape might be seen as a kind of Dionysiac dance, it is also evident from the text that you have a considerable interest in science, including recent advances in neuroscience, and quantum physics. Your work is also socially engaged, e.g. in relation to biodiversity.
Fisher: I am somewhat forgetful of or never fully grasped many aspects of Habermas. The book you cite is the one of his that I have used most. My copy is dated 1988 and I have noted quite a few passages, mainly as a feed to my Enlightenment and Post-Modernist Poetry & Art courses, which I ran at Goldsmiths’ in the eighties. (I left at the end of 1988.) I only subsequently came to Habermas’ book on the public sphere, I guess during the nineties. (I’ve just checked, it came out in 1991, I must have used a library copy.) I had read Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘Concrete Rules and Abstract Machines’ before that in Substance in 1984, and had time with the 1988 book A Thousand Plateaus, which Paige Mitchell had a copy of. Because we were both using it, I purchased a second copy for myself in 1992. Much of this must compel intrusion into the Gravity sequence. (I notice I acknowledge the 1987 US edition in my resource notes, so maybe I had a library access to that.)
I partly came to Nietzsche through subsequent readers like Derrida and Deleuze and partly through August Wiedmann (who I studied with at Goldsmiths’). I am ambivalent with both Derrida and Deleuze, but they have both provided sustenance: Derrida particularly in his critical attention to metaphysics and Deleuze’s attention to Dionysos. I have had a long dialogue with myself and others about the efficacy of logic in the line from Plato. In other words ambivalent about that tradition, but got some comprehension through Schiller and his complex of the middle disposition.
I started a series of paintings titled Frenzy and Self-Control in 1984-87 and picked up that again in 2013 using paintings by William Blake. (In case you’re wondering, I don’t remember dates quite as easily as that, but have recently been involved in making a visual catalogue raissoné). I might have misremembered, but I think Nietzsche must have been developing aspects of Schiller’s work. I was also very interested in the painters Picasso and Braque who were reading Nietzsche and Bergson before the First World War.
I think Habermas sees reason as instrumental in the domination of nature which is paid for by the repression of subjectivity, but I see that he is critical of this and as you say counter-poses with the idea of ‘communicative reason’. I agree with your reading of Habermas and, like you, have been weary or lack expectation for ‘reasoned public debate’. As you aptly put it, ‘far more complex and chaotic’.
I do have an interest in science, including recent advances in genetic technology and quantum physics, interested as much in their vocabularies and the difficulties they raise in terms of truth-telling and the danger of their enterprises. My work does make socially engaged proposals in that difficulty, in some knowledge of the problems raised as much as attention to what they mean. I find myself in a nervous humour, trying to stand firm in opposition, in a condition of tentative understanding and sometimes frailty. Yet that is a necessary vulnerability to assist response to a variety of situations, or as you put it, in complex and chaotic situations.
Collings: I relate very much to what you say about ‘a condition of tentative understanding and sometimes frailty.’ I feel very much that way myself. Adopting a position of ‘uncertainty’ is challenging in the face of the simplistic black / white narratives of the popular media, a soundbite culture, and pervasive lying. Art perhaps provides a space where alternatives stances become tenable propositions.
It’s interesting that you mention Schiller’s possible influence on Nietzsche. There are a number of studies which analyse this and the importance of aesthetic theory for Nietzsche’s alternative to the repressive, ‘life’ destroying culture he saw around him. Towards the end of On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche suggests that the true antithesis to the ‘ascetic ideal’, to a culture of self-denial and death, is art.
Rather than pursue this though, I would like to ask you about the influence of science, and the use of scientific concepts, in your work. You mention the ‘difficulties…of truth telling’ which are created by recent science. I’m interested in two specific concepts you borrow from quantum physics which I think relate to this question of truth: ‘entanglement’ and ‘decoherence’.
Gravity as a consequence of shape consists to a large degree of collaged texts from very diverse sources, which you often also modify. You juxtapose material which generates lots of questions — recent research on the neurophysiology of vision, with phenomenology, with descriptions of events you observe (e.g. in the garden). You’re interested, I think, in the idea of there being many discourses each with its own ‘truth claims’ and consequently in the impossibility of creating a single, coherent narrative about anything we experience. The text of individual poems enacts the dislocation and confusion which this way of thinking creates, while also trying to represent the way the brain deals with disparate stimuli moment by moment.
Entanglement, as I understand it, refers to the way quantum particles mirror each other’s behaviour (e.g. polarity) even when they are very far apart. You make use of this phenomenon, in part, in structuring Gravity as a consequence of shape. For example, the beginning and end sequences mirror each other, the poems having identical form in terms of numbers of lines or stanzas, line lengths, whether verse or prose, and share phrases, though the material is often ‘transformed’ — it retains the same rhythm and syntax, but words are changed, often through use of synonyms.
So ‘Wobble’ mirrors ‘Ballin’ the Jack’, ‘Winging Step’ mirrors ‘Banda’. The same mirroring can also occur within individual poems — in ‘Ballin’ the Jack’ the second stanza transforms the material in the first stanza, but moving in reverse. This, I think, is ‘entanglement’ represented in the text. It creates recognisable patterns in the work across distances of many pages.
Decoherence, on the other hand, is what physicists observe when a quantum of energy, a wave, experiences interference from other waves. The position of the original wave form becomes impossible to ‘see’, though we can detect the direction of its travel. Decoherence is the fuzziness created by the interference.
The equivalent of this in your poems, I think, is the noise created by the juxtaposing of disparate material in a way which creates at times very dense and impenetrable text. In the middle of the work, in ‘Fish Jet’, there is a kind of spiral created by two overlapping Fibonacci sequences where the text is particularly entangled and decoherent. It’s as though the work is spinning into a black hole at its center — or perhaps exploding outwards.
I know you have long been interested in the use of number symbolism in Renaissance poets like Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Is the use of quantum mechanical concepts in your work a critique of these earlier, Neo-Platonist ideals? Or is my reading wholly missing the point?
Fisher: I find your remarks on Gravity as a consequence of shape encouraging. What you respond to regarding truth or truth-telling is very much what I think. Discussing ‘entanglement’ and ‘decoherence’ are two viable ways to elaborate on this.
I have understood ‘entanglement’ as you indicate and use it as a premise to mirror and transform. You’re alert in your observation about the elements in Gravity as a consequence of shape that take advantage of this and, as you note, particular poems respond to other poems.
‘Ballin’ the Jack’ has its own stanzaic mirroring. This then leads on to engaging with or comprehending how this is sometimes subverted. I’m not sure that my play here is as formal as a critique of Spenser or Sidney, but this might be a way of characterising it. I initially think of it as development and play derived from a celebration of their poetry and poetics, which leads me into a difference in our own experience and necessities in a different context. That is, my work is a positive critique, a recognition that continuity of Neo-Platonic ideals is not viable — it is to understand that we need to develop a new set of conditions, or at least the potentials for new conditions. So your reading really does get this. This kind of composition does risk that these procedures and plays can easily go unnoticed, your recognitions really help my confidence that this can work.
I also very much care for your reading of Gravity as a consequence of shape through comprehension of the work’s review and disruption of Fibonacci and similar ideals. I would also add what may be my inventive comprehension of what ‘decoherence’ means in terms of a positive response to alternatives to coherence.
Given that the latter can be oppressive and over-determined the alternative might be incoherence (my spell check initially turned the word to innocence). I don’t accept that — my preference was to find a state for which I have adopted the term ‘decoherence’. I also began to discuss this in Imperfect Fit.
I have taken the opportunity here to copy-across a couple of brief paragraphs, which I think begin to open my interest in using the concept (knowing at the same time that some of my interpretations might be anathema to the quantum physicists).
These come from pages 16 and 18 in my introduction:
Vision and comprehension are contingent on processes of facture, the simultaneous proprioception and the aesthetic component necessary for cognition. These are factors damaged by their own realisation and expression, damaged by understanding and communication. In a mobile situation, coherence is made vulnerable by the physics of the situation where participants are in danger of lost confidence and are subject to manipulation and exploitation. I have named this situation decoherence, which has been derived from recent theories of quantum mechanics.
— (I referenced work by Roland Omnès as an example.)
In figurative terms, we are in a state of decoherence when we realise with confidence that some aspects of our knowledge are reliant on an interlocutor, a black box between us and the information. In descriptions of the cosmos or of sub-atomic particles, we are unable to use our perception but must rely on the information reaching us through machines that transform the data into a form we can then interpret. We can be confident in the truth of that data, but we are in a state of confidence in lack, that is we can realise what the mathematician Kurt Gödel meant when he proved that truth was not demonstrable.
— (Of course, that reading of Gödel may be poetic and not strictly as he may have intended it.)
Yes, my premise is that Platonism and Neo-Platonism have over-restricted our explanatory capacity. This has been overtly obvious in the metaphysics Derrida and others have endeavoured to critique. This has also been obvious for me in the proposals Platonism and Neo-Platonism demand for contradiction and logic, but I divert.
Collings: I like your characterisation of the relationship with Sidney and Spenser as a ‘positive critique’, and as ‘a celebration of their poetry and poetics’. That’s very much the way I read your work — it engages with the tradition but recognises, as you say, the need to develop ‘a new set of conditions’ which reflect a very different understanding of the universe. I also like your use of the word ‘play’.
Staying with the topic of science there is a term ‘crowd-out’ which appears in the later sections of the book which I’d like to ask about. It connects I think to what you say about ‘decoherence’. If I understand correctly ‘crowd-out’ is a term you coin to describe the way information is processed in the conscious mind, the arrival of each new quantum of data cancelling what has gone before. This happens very quickly — the mind jumping between multiple sources of stimulus. So to give a banal example, we might be talking in a café, people are sitting at neighbouring tables having conversations, a bus goes by outside, our coffees arrive. Fragments of awareness of all this passes through our minds as we continue to talk, our awareness is multi-dimensional.
There is a reference to ‘crowd-out’ which I find particularly interesting in ‘Stroll’. In section 6 of that poem you write:
Thought relies on crowd-out and
cancellation, a principle
of representation promotes all co-existence
of meaning and its metonym
and at once transformed
I think you’re saying here that the process of thought involves multiple parallel operations which interfere with each other, associations the mind is making to disparate concepts, past readings, personal memories and so on, and that this is the ground from which new ideas emerge.
There are various points in Gravity as a consequence of shape, like the one above, where the text appears to be commenting on its own processes. The poem ‘Philly Dog’ begins:
This work begins with the self
moves towards boundary breaks
overlaps the other and others
and false promises
therefore does not begin
continues with interruptions inconclusions
The work a multiplicity of works embedded
disparate and without circularity
Later in this same poem you write:
This book an assemblage unattainable and multiplicit
in structure offset by laws it self-invents
by deterritorialization and connect with other multiplicities
of combination rhizomatic determinations magnitudes
The terms ‘assemblage’, ‘deterrotorialization’ and ‘rhizomatic’ used here come from Deleuze and Guattari, and there are references to their work elsewhere in ‘Philly Dog’.
In ‘Woodpecker’ there is a passage which seems to be a description of the moment when you first conceived the work:
Enthusiasm I felt that day its origin in the future
the harmony of mutually divergent things
that kind of muddle
constructed out of experience in the presence of place
a lability of long-term memory at
each recall modified and reconsolidated
Would a reader be correct in viewing these passages as statements about the ‘process’ of the work?
Fisher: Thank you very much for these analyses. Yes, the comments make a lot of sense. Your sense of ‘crowd-out’ equates to mine. I think crowd-out can include a shifting, which would anticipate a potential reassembly of part of a process. Cancellation proposes the need for a new process. The combination (crowd-out and / cancellation) in the ‘Stroll’ passage you quote may come from that difficulty and thus complexity. I think you have it correctly in your sentence on ‘multiple parallel operations’. As you subsequently both state and imply the work comments upon itself, on its own processes. The work questions its own statements and, as you note, converses with works by Deleuze and Guatarri. It is as if the work is in dialogue with itself.
Collings: I like the idea of the text in dialogue with itself, that’s a good way to formulate this. In ‘Stroll’ just before the passage I quoted, there is another very interesting section where you say:
After his long study
the content is less evident to his peers
than the structure
I have been asking a lot of questions about the structuring of material, and about some of the ideas behind the facture of the work. But there is also, of course, a great variety of content to the work, and this develops over time as your reading, engagements with others, events in the external world (the Iraq War, climate change, and so on), ‘compel intrusion’ as you say on the facturing. Perhaps, therefore we could turn to content.
You said earlier in this conversation that Gravity as a consequence of shape makes some ‘socially engaged proposals’, albeit within the context of acknowledged difficulties of ‘truth telling’. I’m interested in exploring this in relation to ‘Dog’, and the three poems which follow it, ‘Ditty Bop Walk’, ‘Dixieland One Step’, and ‘Double Shuffle’. These were written in 1989 to 1990, just after you moved from Brixton to Hereford, and they relate to a series of paintings, Views of the City, which you made at around the same time. The interview with Paige Mitchell and Shamoon Zamir in Imperfect Fit includes some discussion of these paintings and their relationship to the poems mentioned above.
‘Dog’ is a long poem in eight line stanzas which presents us with a kind of overview of early human migration and settlement in Europe. Alongside this are passages about the disappearance of beavers from Britain in the Middle Ages, about hunting, including references to badger baiting drawn from a poem by John Clare. One line referring to beavers reads: ‘they haven’t been around since colliers took the trees precise.’ Later in the poem we have: ‘On a November day in Perthshire 6 guns shot 1289 hares.’ The final stanza refers to ‘the chemical art’ and ‘common insecticide, the norms of devastation civilised’.
Badgers then feature in ‘Ditty Bop Walk’, beavers in ‘Dixieland One Step’, and hares (as well as stags) in ‘Double Shuffle’. These poems also include references to the significance of the emergence of the private dwelling, and of the growth of cities. In ‘Ditty Bop Walk’ you quote fairly extensively from the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, Sartre and De Beauvoir are sources for ‘Dixieland One Step’, and the work of artist Joseph Beuys seems to inform ‘Double Shuffle’.
There is a clear concern in these poems about the threat humans represent to other living organisms, and I think they are suggesting this has very deep historical roots. At the same time the animals are also symbolic of certain potentialities or possibilities. ‘Badger-play is purposefully unproductive and useless / We cancel the repressive and exploitative traits of labour…’ your write in ‘Ditty Bop Walk’, adapting a phrase from Marcuse quoted by Baudrillard in The Mirror of Production. In the interview with Paige and Shamoon you talk about the poems being concerned with ‘the theory of civilisation and being civil’. I wonder if you would elaborate on these comments, and on the connection with environmental issues? How might looking at the View of the City paintings help inform the readers understanding of the text?
Fisher: When I came to Hereford in January 1989 there was a strong lobby proposing to build a by-pass on the Lugg Meadows, a lammas land on the east of the city. The site is special for its plant life, but more importantly is an indicator for land use such as ancient woodlands elsewhere in Herefordshire. The agencies proposing the road were challenged, taken to court and the road didn’t go ahead. This raised my expectation for what was possible. The natural fauna and flora appeared to represent a struggle against environmental damage.
I chose to give animals like the badger and beaver and hare metonymic roles, to stand for different kinds of struggle within human activity and I used what in retrospect could be seen as over-simplified ideas about social engagement. One of the young men locally was living in a make-shift house in one of the woods. The authorities had been trying to evict him. A picture in the local rag showed him with an air rifle, trying to protect himself. When I saw him in town, with long thick braids of hair down his back, I thought of a badger, I thought of the local and national campaign to cull badgers.
These threads of ideas began to build up and led to the facture of the poems you cite, from ‘Dog’ into the ‘Three Kinds of Perception’ and the drawings and then the subsequent paintings that became Views of the City. The latter is in three parts. One shows a badger with a rifle, another takes a portrait of Augustine in his study by Vittore Carpaccio and gives Augustine the head of a beaver. In a third a hare runs through the rubbish with a view of the Lugg Mill just beyond the Lugg Meadows. Here’s a snap of the paintings hanging in the King’s Gallery in York.
A further set included a painting titled Prelude: Estimates (1993).
It must have been around this time that I started working on traps (as part of Tools or Traps & Damage). My show in the Hereford Museum & A.G. had that title in 1994. Light Trap (1997) has a view of the Lugg Meadows with a pile of debris in the foreground.
Collings: It’s interesting that you say the victory against the planned by-pass led to an expanded sense of possibility. The opening of ‘Ditty Bop Walk’ is clearly proposing an alternative to the history described in ‘Dog’, and there is a change in tone I think at the start of ‘Ditty Bop Walk’. The poems in the next section ‘Fizz’ build on ideas in those we’ve been discussing, and seem to me to have a similar optimism. At the end of ‘Fish-Tail’ you appear to dream, perhaps half-seriously, of a performance piece in which an ‘antlered dancer pulls a golden thread and spins/to protect human kind…’
I’m interested in what you say about using ‘what in retrospect could be seen as over-simplified ideas about social engagement’ in the facture of ‘Three Kinds of Perception’. Are you less optimistic today? Or is it just that you have a different sense of what resistance entails? Clearly, from the paintings, the meadows continue to have an importance for you, and I guess the struggle to protect them goes on.
Environmental concerns emerge in the work much more strongly with the move to Hereford. The first section of the book — ‘Brixton Fractals’ — seems to me more concerned with social inequalities. Do you have that sense?
Fisher: Yes, I think I am less optimistic today and that would partly be contingent on what resistance entails or maybe, more aware of how resistance doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Proposals to take over the meadows continue and recent experience of the meadows already has a decline in species, probably to do with agricultural practice adjacent to the River Lugg upstream. Environmental concerns do have a stronger attention in the parts after Brixton Fractals and partly because of the extemporary elements in the work’s vocabulary, that is to say that the conditions of facture directly influence the selective process.
Work on No Longer Alone, a sequence after Gravity as a consequence of shape, left me thinking that there was no way out. I have vacillated since.
Collings: I think this shift towards a more, shall we say, pessimistic outlook is evident in the later sections in Gravity as a consequence of shape. If we look at ‘Banda’ from the opening of the work and ‘Winging Step’, which mirrors it, we see this fairly clearly. ‘Banda’ was written when you were living in Brixton in the early 1980s, a time of considerable social tension. The poem makes numerous oblique references to this — the police presence, piled up cars, a fireman calling in ‘for the situation report’. Yet despite this the final sections of the poem suggest that a different sort of society might come out of this. I’m thinking particularly of the lines:
In the distance a man sings
accompanied by his own hands and feet it
brings sighs of enjoyment.
An apple stew secretes into it,
smells of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
And then a little further on:
If the rebuilt city is resistant
it opens to those who strengthens it welcomes
the travellers on the ways to themselves
‘Winging Step’ on the other hand begins with a kind of summary of ‘Banda’, ending with the lines: ‘memory of self in the image / trapped in London commerce / with a sense of helplessness.’ So the memory of that time in Brixton becomes, retrospectively, one of ‘helplessness’. The rest of the poem is concerned, amongst other things, with the culling of badgers, which connects back to ‘Dog’ and the other poems we were just discussing. The ‘riflemen’ here seem unstoppable.
As one would expect there are significant entanglements between the two poems. Music features in both poems, so do preoccupations with the nature of perception, they have a ‘muller’ (Müller yoghurt?) in common. William Blake appears in both, in ‘Banda’ he is at work on his notebook, but in ‘Winging Step’ the riflemen ‘walk their rounds / binding with briars / Blake’s joys and desires’. So there are continuities in the kinds of issues with which the text is contending, but a more sombre tone. Is the work then characterised by a growing disillusionment? Is building a Golgonooza, even a modest one, still an imaginable project? Or is the vacillation between hope and doubt a necessary part of the complexity of engagement? Perhaps this is a question the reader is called on to answer.
Fisher: Again, thank you for focussed attention. At the outset, I think I had better pick up the müller reference.
In ‘Banda’ the sentence refers to my process of paint-making (I make my own oil paint from pigments and oil. The pigment is put on a sheet of glass and oil is added as tempera and then I use a müller to combine the pigment and oil using a figure of eight motion over the surface of the glass. That figure has also connotations of infinity in mathematical signage. So in ‘Banda’: ‘A figure of eight with a müller to / slurry tempera on the glass.’ (24) and thus as you note, in ‘Winging Step’, a rhyming in: ‘… ideas of eternity or / the movement of a müller over glass …’ (545). (And incidentally in ‘Slooing’: ‘In windless her müller bus / As eternity mirror gas trapped in the rebus pane.’ (440)
It is very useful to recognise what you read as ‘a growing disillusionment’, even if I think that building a modest Golgonooza is still an imaginative, thus I guess ‘imaginable project’. The vacillation between hope and doubt is, in the poem’s view, a necessary part of the complexity of engagement. Thank you for that. It helps give me some clarity about what happened with the subsequent project after Gravity as a consequence of shape, particularly by the time I got to No Longer Alone in 2014 or 2015.
Collings: Thanks for the clarification about ‘müller’ — that makes a lot more sense! It links then with the image at the beginning of ‘Banda’ of the mathematician David Hilbert cycling in a figure of eight in his garden as he works on a problem. It also connects with the very last poem in Gravity as a consequence of shape, ‘ZIP’, a sound file available online, which reworks the text of ‘African boog’. Both poems end with: ‘Jump on bike, figure of eight around rose beds, to the blackboard.’ As you say the figure of eight has connotations of infinity in mathematics.
Your comment on Golgonooza is also very useful. Our discussion of environmental issues led to me think about changes in society. But of course, in Blake, Golgonooza is a city of the imagination. It’s also a city which has a three-dimensional geometric shape, marked by regularities and symmetries. Blake was influenced by Neo-Platonist ideas. I hadn’t made this connection before, but given what you said earlier about number symbolism in Sidney and Spenser, I assume we can also view Gravity as a consequence of shape, as a ‘positive critique’ of Blake’s Jerusalem. Blake has clearly been an important figure for you over many years. How would you describe his significance for Gravity as a consequence of shape?
Fisher: I think you are right about my attention to Blake. I am still working with the significance of his work through a positive critique, but still haven’t read it all.
I have been recently writing a revised talk ‘Shifting Liberties and Other Consequences’ this week in preparation for a Magna Carta-in-Hereford 1217 celebration in September and have used pages from Blake’s Jerusalem as well as Europe a prophecy. (His image of the Bellman from Milton which Palmer repeats, and the image of the jailer in Europe and his subject of the scaled figure of pestilence seen repeated in The Ghost of a Flea), and this includes working with Blake’s visual work over the last few years, recently his paintings Newton and Ghost of a Flea. I was using his etching God Judging Adam for developments of the Frenzy and Self-Control series over the last four years or so. I engaged with much of Blake’s Notebook for Gravity. Blake’s work continues to be important for me.
Above, Frenzy and Self Control second series #2, After William Blake’s Newton, 2013, black ink, watercolour and graphite on laid paper glazed and framed, 66 × 77 cm (26 × 30 inches).
Above, Frenzy and Self Control third series #1, After William Blake’s Judgement of Adam, 2014, watercolour and graphite on laid paper, glazed and ash framed, overall 44 × 60 cm (17 × 24 inches).
Simon Collings lives in Oxford, UK. His poems, stories and essays have appeared in various journals including Stride, Tears in the Fence, the Journal of Poetics Research, Long Poem Magazine, PN Review, The Interpreter’s House, Lighthouse, Brittle Star, New Walk, East of the Web, and Ink, Sweat and Tears. A chapbook Out West will be published by Albion Beatnik Press in November 2017. simoncollings.wordpress.com
Allen Fisher is a poet, painter and art historian, lives in Hereford, UK. He is Emeritus Professor of Poetry and Art at Manchester Metropolitan University.
He has exhibited in many shows from Tate Britain to King’s Gallery York to Hereford Museum and Art Gallery. Examples of his work are in the Tate Collection, the King’s Archive London, the Living Museum, Iceland and various international private collections. His last single-artist show was at the Apple Store Gallery, Hereford, in 2013.
He has over 150 single-author publications to his name. In 2016 new publications were: Imperfect Fit: Aesthetics, Facture and Perception (University of Alabama), the complete poetry of Gravity as a consequence of shape and a second edition of the collected PLACE books of poetry (Reality Street Editions), and a reprint of Ideas of the culture dreamed of was published (The Literary Pocket Book). Shearsman Books plan to publish a Companion to his work this fall and an Allen Fisher Reader in the new year. www.allenfisher.co.uk
 The version of Gravity as a consequence of shape published by Reality Street does not include the descriptions from Ideas on the culture dreamed of, which originally appeared as a book in 1983 and parts of which appeared in the Salt and The Gig volumes. The 1983 edition was reprinted in 2016 in a new edition by The Literary Pocket Book, https://literarypocketblog.wordpress.com/books/
 F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, composed between 1883 and 1885, and published in four parts between 1883 and 1891.
 Fisher is referring to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1647, and to the declaration of rights passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789.
 ‘The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment’, published in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987. During the course of this essay Habermas discusses non-instrumental practices within the sciences, ‘the universalistic foundations of law’, and then goes on: ‘I have in mind, finally, the productivity and explosive power of basic aesthetic experiences that a subjectivity liberated from the imperatives of purposive activity and from conventions of quotidian perception gains from its own decentering — experiences that are presented in works of avant-garde art, that are articulated in the discourses of art criticism, and that also achieve a certain measure of illuminating effect (or at least contrast effects that are instructive) in the innovatively enriched range of values proper to self-realization.’
 In On the Aesthetic Education of Man Schiller argues that the fascination with patterns, form and harmony in early humans — i.e. the perception of ‘beauty’ — led to the emergence of consciousness and the development of abstract reasoning. Schiller saw rationality divorced from an ability to delight in sensual experience as barbarous, and he believed that the development of the aesthetic sensibilities held the key to bridging the divide between reason and the world of the senses. Humans needed, he believed, to be capable of aesthetic appreciation if they were to be truly ‘civilised’.
 See for example: P. Bishop and R. Stephenson, Friedrich Nietzsche and Weimar Classicism. Series: Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture. Camden House: Rochester, NY, 2005.
 F. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 1887.
 See Alastair Fowler, Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1970, for an analysis of number symbolism in the work of these poets.
 A. Fisher, Imperfect Fit, University of Alabama Press, 2016.
 R. Omnès, Understanding Quantum Mechanics, University of Princeton, 1999.
 ‘Play is unproductive and useless precisely because it cancels the repressive and exploitative traits of labor…’ Marcuse quoted in Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production, 1973.
 The poems in ‘Fizz’ include a number of references to the way early humans portrayed themselves in their art in part-animal form. Stanza 21 of ‘Dog’ refers to ‘animal paintings’ and ‘skilled hunter artists’, and stanza 22 includes ‘a young man with an elephant’s head’. The poems in ‘Fizz’ pick up on this. ‘Grind’ begins with ‘Parrot-head starts move in Pleistocene spring’,
line three ‘Maize Man contrast Bat Man’ (presumably an ironic reference to Batman.) There is a link here to Schiller’s ‘middle disposition’ discussed earlier. ‘Fish-Tail’ suggests the relationship early hunters may have had with their environment has been lost:
the Hunter scoffs at hints of shrines
and ritual pits of votive wells and
sacred precincts from behind
a screen of artistic and ethical standards
traditions at once alien and incomprehensible
more than 2000 years ago
the Hunter begins to wear heavier boots.
The Hunter here sounds like a modern-day developer — the archetypal ‘barbarian’. At the same time references to human sacrifice in the poem deflect us from notions of a lost Eden.
 Sections of ‘NO LONGER ALONE’ were published on datableed 1 and 3, and 5 also on the International Times site, in VLAK 2015 and on the x-peri site. Sections 1, 5 and 8 appeared in TIP REGARD published by Spanner Editons 2014.
Reviewing: King, Basil. History Now.
New York: Marsh Hawk Press. 2017.
160 pages. $15. ISBN 978-0-9964275-7-9.
Available from Small Press Distribution
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The world of Basil King is a world in which one painting, one poem, one idea, is always interrelated with others — no matter how seemingly disparate those relations may appear. Throughout King’s acclaimed career as an artist, writer, and historian (if one can make such distinctions now), the interconnections have posed a difficulty in comprehension not only for the critics, the markets, and his fellow poets and painters, but also for the artist himself.
I have interviewed King extensively in an attempt to ‘connect the dots’ and shed some light on his new opus, History Now. The first thing I realised was that to understand the work, and moreover the postmodern praxis that presupposed it, one would have to understand his intellectual kinship with the poet Charles Olson.
Having first enrolled at Black Mountain College in the fall of 1951 during Olson’s charge as Rector, King attended periodically over the institution’s last anarchical years.
When asked about his writing classes with Olson and others, Basil responded ‘Heck, you could have had classes with Picasso, and that’s not going to make you a painter. What made me a writer was internalizing what those men had taught me, and that didn’t come until later, but it did.’
King stressed the importance of understanding that this internalising process ‘which can take years’ is integral to apprehending one of the key facets that propels his historical flights of imagination: namely, that it ‘isn’t planned out,’ the work itself is not linear, because he himself is not: ‘I just think differently, I’m not a linear man.’
When King states he has a ‘hard time keeping things out’ and that ‘they all come knocking at the door at the same time,’ he alludes to a historical presence that is not corrupted by the distance of a systemic abstraction. Indeed, King’s credence has never been orthodoxy; he projects a primacy on the moment that breaks the distance of any ‘universal discourse;’his oeuvre imposes no domineering ideology: it is ‘OPEN.’
In his sharing a sense for non-linear ‘origins’ akin with Olson, I contend that King internalised more from those late postmodern figures at Black Mountain than he claims to have. Forever finding the genesis, yet without the ‘purity’ of a delimiting linearity, these origins always ‘divide up.’ ‘The nature of the beast is that the primary similarity between Olson and me is that we both start with the origin, and when somebody sees that, they start seeing what I’m doing.
If Olson taught me anything, he taught me that if you don’t have the division, you’re lumped in one place. ’These origins are principally divided, and in their elucidation Basil’s work manifests — hence, the perplexity — ‘When one puts all the seemingly disparate together, it confuses people; however, what I do is show that it isn’t really disparate at all, at least not how I see it.’ Thus explaining his conception of ‘HISTORY NOW,’ King’s work removes the binary betweenmythos and logos, story and fact. He tells tales, we follow them. In these allegories, King becomes a ‘Herodotean explorer of reality.’
When I asked whether there was an ‘essential Basil King,’ what I received back was a chuckling New York ‘No’ relayed as if thought over for years and laughed away in seconds. Basil recalled a time gone by when he saw a psychiatrist upon the recommendation of a friend. He hoped to get to the root of why he was not being taken on by the commercial galleries; was he deliberately sabotaging himself?
The psychiatrist asked Basil how many people constituted himself, and he replied with hesitation: ‘Three.’
She replied, ‘No, you’re seven — and perhaps even more — and you’re going to have to work with each one of them every day to get to where you’re going.’
‘No,’ Basil replied, ‘there is no essential Basil King,there never has been, and I doubt there ever will be — or even can be.’
I am one of seven […]
every one of us asks
Which one is going to do the division […]
It has taken us
To take a fork in the road
And find a table
Wide enough to accommodate
8, 9 and 10
Muscles and Triangles
The physical and the abstract.
‘Autobiography has more than one ambiguity:’ like the artist situated between ‘the physical and the abstract,’ whom unseats the unit ‘I,’ one cannot diacritically explain his work that so illustratively exemplifies Olson’s ontological plea for an indeterminate Negative Capability. Indeed, to do so is to miss that very binding relation which is key to understanding — though paradoxically — what that unifying force in his oeuvre is that elides the ‘essence’ of unification. King’s work, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, ‘quotes without quotation marks;’ it transfigures the historical field, his poetry, prose and painting coalesce with the political, and — non-internal — they intermingle freely with that which is external to them: they are inter-Textual.
‘Shift gears, arm yourself. The dark and the unforgiving can be corrected by the text; history and poetry, politics; language is everything.’ The multiplicity of signification becomes undeniably apparent — one cannot escape history in these allegories, one cannot escape its presence, culture becomes immediate, the signs: immanent. ‘In politics as it is in art it is necessary to bring disparate things together. Language has the capacity to have more than one voice, more than one line, no border needs a wall,’ King, like Olson before him, illustrates our situation without prescribing it; his artistry is polyvocal and thus his works are desirable in so far as they disperse our minds instead of concentrating them; his oeuvre explores a reality in flux and somehow makes profound the uneasy disparity of subjective experience.
A postmodern in continual process, King, like his predecessor, attests to an ontology of Becoming, one that suspends the duplicitous presentation of reality and conversely explores its disparate plurality. To quote from his epic Learning to Draw / A History saga:
What comes first
fantasy or reality
measure the distance the need
to draw and paint
the need to recognize something
that is not you
I paint and I draw and I
follow in the footsteps of all the painters
that came before me
fantasy / reality
the imagination and the abstract rock
History, one could argue, is of the morning. And it is in this vein that King joins Olson as an ‘archaeologist of the morning,’ one who not only records but also makes history in his explorations of it. A living extension of the Black Mountain legacy, King, that always shifting identity, flicks between people and mediums in moments, and poets, painters, historians — let alone the several Basil Kings — come knocking. From one moment to the next, ‘he’ struggles keeping them out; from what was a disparity, what is left is a profusion: amythology. History, now.
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 Joshua A. Gardner, Basil King Interviews: Joshua A. Gardner Black Mountain College Research Collection, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina. The approximately twelve conducted hours of taped phone interviews are currently in the process of transcription at the Western Regional Archives; hence I have cited the respective tape numbers (t. x.) accordingly.  Gardner, Basil King Interviews, t.1. Basil recalled the physical poverty of the College often, whilst reinforcing the ‘intensity’ of its communal vigor. With the closure of the dining hall in 1952, Basil remembered learning how to cook so he could use this skill as a trade for the food he prepared for others.  Ibidem., t. 2.  Ibidem.  Ibidem., t.9.  Ibidem., t.6.  Ibidem., t.4.  Ibidem., t.6.  Ibidem., t.9.  Basil King, History Now (New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2017), x. Indeed, the back cover of this book illustrates the word ‘STORY’ derived from ‘HISTORY ‘NOW’ on the front cover (my emphases).  Charles Olson, The Special View of History (Berkeley: Oyez, 1970), 2.  Gardner, Basil King Interviews, t.5.  King, History Now, 136-137.  Ibidem., 150. See also: Olson, The Special View of History, 43. Olson deems the Negative Capability (taken from Keats) to be ‘crucial for post-Modern man,’ for it will render him ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,’ therefore opening his Symbolic lens to the indeterminacy of existence, the historically contingent ‘or what we would call today relative’ and thus to the ‘right now, as it is happening:’ the embodied event itself — the dialectic of the physical and the abstract.  Barthes, Image Music Text, 160.  King, History Now, 92.  Ibidem., 124.  Gardner, Basil King Interviews, t.12.  Basil King, The Spoken Word / the Painted Hand (New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2014), 97.  Charles Olson, Archaeologist of the Morning (London: Cape Golliard Grossman Press, 1970).
Joshua Gardner has been a visiting art historian from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, concurrently working as both a scholar and Gallerist. He is the first recipient of UNC-Asheville’s Black Mountain College Legacy Research Internship in 2016 where he has worked with the Legacy Fellow, Mary Emma Harris. Joshua was the Assistant Curator of the exhibition Basil King: Between Painting and Writing with Co Curators Vincent Katz and Brian Butler at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.