Sunday, April 9, 2017

Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott, 1930- 2017
Of how many can it be said that he or she broke ground
and what does it signify? A metaphor
drawn from the ceremonies of construction
or is something more subtle and enduring intended
as in breaking bread during the vernal equinox?
I mourn the death of a poet whose smile bespoke
generations of gentleness, reaching back through slavery
to the shores of Africa. His smile wrinkled
with watching the waves merge with the sand
and the horizon meld with the sea.
The soft gray hair of his face
signified warmth and love, not sarcasm.
On the roof of a church in the village where I lived,
the American flag was stretched like a target
for aerial bombardment in order to indict
the colonialism of the Vietnam era.
Time is a bleached rag on the clothesline of history.



“That sail which leans on light,” six monosyllabic syllables register a world as percept and as gnomon in the tides of time.


Donald Wellman



Monday, March 20, 2017

What is Philosopy

The expressed, it is claimed, resides solely in the expression – a frightened face like that of a young girl who has heard a bunny rabbit scream. Implied is a world and conceptual person who is an expression of that world. Within the dusty spaces of the barn there is a cage made of slats and wire. There is straw and feeding dishes. A bottle from which water may be siphoned. The bunnies are Plato and Descartes. Melville tried this trick! For one there is a time before time began; for the other time and the cogito are coterminous. For him, there is no before. For the girl with the frightened face, there is only a moment detached from time or history, a “meanwhile.” “The concept is real without being actual” (What Is Philosophy 22). The same is true of the scream, be it hers or Edvard Munch’s. Like Munch art finds its source in a fascination with a prepubescent girl who exists at a limit where the state of innocence can no longer be said to exist, except as a concept or sensation. A plane of immanence has intersected with a plane of composition. Both exist in a chaos of intersections which is the always embryonic human brain. With old age I weary.

See Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy (NY: Columbia, 1993), cited as WIP.

A “meanwhile” according to Deleuze and Guattari, is neither a part of time nor as aspect of the eternal. It exists as a form of becoming. It may be similar to liminality or a threshold experience. The virtual is actualized during such meanwhiles. Is this a paradigm for the actualization of the sacred? “All meanwhiles are superimposed on one another, whereas times succeed one another” (158). A meanwhile is a concept that philosophers produce. In the visual arts and poetry, planes, stacked on top of one another, with variations in degree over overlap, construct the vertical dimensions of a poem that might otherwise be understood as serial in nature, functioning as montage does but without the depth wherein beauty often lies. Beauty is immanent to this concept of the poem. Deleuze and Guattari define “beauty” as “sensation.” They conclude this section of What is Philosophy, subtitled, “Philosophy, Science, Logic, and Art, with this remark, “Philosophy is always meanwhile” (159). Visualize the interface between planes in the work of Pound or Schendel as spatial approximations of the concept of “meanwhile.” Consider what Luce Irigary meant when she wrote, “We need to proceed in such a way that linear reading is no longer possible (80).

See “The Poverty of Psychoanalysis” in The Irigaray Reader, Margaret Whitford, ed. (Oxforf: Basil Blackwell, 1991) 79-104.

In WIP, Deleuze and Guattari also write, “Sensation is not realized in the material without the material passing completely into the sensation, into the percept or affect. All the material becomes expressive” (167).

There’s a leaden feeling to the blue sky, arctic air aloft. The trees have not yet imagined their leaves, “Conceptual becoming is heterogeneity grasped in an absolute form; sensory becoming is otherness caught in a matter of expression” (177). My lines form planes on which otherness may locate itself as if it were a creature, as if it were folds in brain matter. That materials of different orders form the rooms of a house through which the cosmos is able to articulate itself, is this not “conceptual becoming” or is my world never void of sensation and the affects that perception generates? I am an empty jar in which electrolytes swim. I am Matisse’s gold fish in a vase of blue water. My memories of a poet whose hand I once held in mine are not memories of his presence so much as percepts of his giftedness. I’ll continue reading.

Composition is where the horizontal or serial embrace, enclose, or is penetrated by the vertical, like a puncture that inflates and conflates primordial density. In some versions a hand like that of the ur-father, Urizen, with his golden compass reaches down from the clouds; in other versions the roiling seas are more black because of the moonlight than they otherwise would have been. Pierre Boulez wrote (as if he were decoding desire, “to plot a transversal , irreducible to both the harmonic vertical and melodic horizontal, that involves sonorous blocs of variable individuation but that also opens them up or splits them in a space-time that determines their density and their course over the plane” (WIP 191).

Art, science, and philosophy are the three daughters of chaos. Is this sentence, implying as it does a radical difference between the chaotic and the chaoid, a concept? Has his daughter taken Walcott to a plane of immanence?


The three planes may interfere with one another in the brain and form a shadow. The planes are the plane of immanence of philosophy, the plane of composition of art, and the plane of reference or coordination of science. “Nonphilosophy I found where the plane confronts chaos. … Planes are no longer distinct in relation to the chaos into which the brain plunges.” A people to come are extracted from such shadows. Didn’t I once edit a journal called chaos.

Donald Wellman


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Current Goals



I am a poet who reads. I am now making the final edits of my manuscript Expressivity in Modern Poetry. Central to this volume is a poetics in which normative notions of the real are challenged and virtual or immanent planes of experience are inscribed. For these purposes language has use value. Sometimes that value lies solely in the domain of prosody, a musical scansion unique to each line and the energies that pass through the poem. The condition of a sustained and articulated flow is transcendent (not transcendental) and expressive of an immanence that enables the perception of form or rhythm, fleeting though it maybe, if only for a heartbeat. This is the poetics I learned from poets like Ezra Pound, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Though that learning be but a ghost of their physical presence or voice, it is a poetics that I continue to develop through the translation of poetry from several languages and from writing on the topics presented in these two volumes.

The first of three sections, is a discussion of the mechanics of modernism in the arts. Section two, Jarring Effects: Charles Olson and The Poetics of Incommensurable Realities, engages both the topic of interculturality and the topic of expressivity. My intention is to situate Olson in the forefront of American poets who have engaged multiple cultures, decentering the relationship between America and Europe, and folding into the poetic fabric, archaic, indigenous, and philosophical materials derived from the history of science, psychology, linguistics and metaphysics. My goal is to testify to the power of his method and its influence both on the work of his peers and on the work of a large number contemporary poets.

The third section, Baroque Threads, explores those forms of interculturality that are a distinctive aspect of both North American and Latin American poetry. The underpinnings of my explorations are necessarily multicultural. From this vantage point I address the poetry of  William Carlos Williams, and Langston Hughes, as well as that of Aimé Césaire, Nicolás Guillén, and Lezama Lima, as well as works by the visual artist Ana Mendieta, and contemporary poets associated with both language-centered writing and the neobarocco style. To engage this matter, throughout my studies of expressivity and interculturality, I have engaged the philosophy of Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

Paranoia is the engine that drives many texts, including much of my own writing. The very concept of “interculturality,” which I advance, depends on the possibility of a common substance spreading itself through various otherwise distinctive cultural forms. Substance or energy? A field sustained by the energy that generates the field. An energy to which I attach the term, “expressivity.” Coherent syntax fails me. My notion of the immanent relies on the certainty that desire and paranoia will inescapably reveal themselves. Jacques Lacan suggests that there is a moment in which the delusional structure of thought reveals itself. The subject becomes aware that it is thinking what it is thinking and the effect is alienating. “Up to what point can a discourse that seems personal bear, on the level of the signifier alone, a sufficient number of traces of impersonalization for the subject not to recognize it as his own?”[1] In this sense the goal of art and of the commentaries which I have undertaken is an impossible impersonalization in the name clarity and objectivity.

Donald Wellman




[1] I am indebted to Emily Apter for this discussion of paranoia and the mirror effect of self-alienation in the work of Jaques Lacan. Against World Literature (NY: Verso, 2013):78-81.




Sunday, September 25, 2016

Notes from the Center on Public Policy

My subject is Mark Wallace’s Notes from the Center on Public Policy (Altered Scale 2014), but I begin with some reflections of Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book (U. Cal., 2011). I must also note with sadness due to the ephemerality of the web, as Jeff Derkson noted on his blog. In any case, the fine works produced at Altered Scale, even those that took paperback form, are now extremely difficult to find.


For Duncan, to simplify, the work of H.D., E.P., as well as his own, is “making it new.” Make something old and missing again vital, restoring ourselves to ourselves. Poetry is understood as a process of old forms, old forces, and old faces surfacing through the palimpsests that are the multiple surfaces of new work. The perception of immanence, that, by contrast to Duncan, I sometimes seek to articulate, lies among multiple discrete parts, associated by contiguities and discontinuities that reveal rifts and aporias. These gaps may indeed be all or the only stuff of immanence, an articulation of negative space. Otherwise the work product may more nearly resemble Brownian movement in a perpetually transformative swirl, never patterned entelechies.

Duncan writes, “the time of a poem is felt as a recognition of a return in vowel tone and in consonant formations, of pattern in the sequence of syllables, in stress and in pitch of a melody, of images and meanings” (99). Beauty of language aside, the factor of a return is crucial for Duncan, not Wallace. Within the phrasing and semantic drift of Wallace’s unrelenting and convoluted paragraphs, there is little attention to the prosodic features that so delight Duncan and which many today, including myself, often build into poetry as baroque ornamentation, if not evidence of soulfulness. Wallace evokes the anti-humanistic ethos of our corporate and message-driven world of political and consumerist clichés, offering page after page of sculpted but cumulatively directionless paragraphs. For Wallace, it seems then, that there is now no poetry, at least of the identifiable sort dear to Duncan. The book intends primarily, however, to mock the accumulation of human capital that is central to the postmodernism of Pierre Bourdieu. Swirling contradictory and inconclusive utterances test received notions of the real at every turn (15). The role of communication supersedes the value of the subject of communication. “Each official communication existed primarily to cement its relations to the previous communication while doing nothing about what it discussed” (18). Such abstract “cement” is the only perceptible real in this text. “It was impossible not to react. Revenge, retaliation, blame, sadness, seeking, seeking, analysis, cautious tentative balances, organizing, protesting, trading information, looking below or on surfaces, moaning lyricism, personal confessions …”(31). The list is endless, the commas do lend the phrasing a noticeable rhythmic effect. The passage denigrates any lyric value that might be attached to the ego (an expected effect). The long sentence cited above ends “no one was listening.” Language has attained the despairing depths familiar to Duncan’s sometime friend Jack Spicer. The language is not rhapsodic, or seductive contra a Jean Baudrillard. It is the only production that we have, but it has little meaning apart from its function as “cement,” little substance; instead, claims become things (40). The philosophical aporia that bedevils claims to immanence becomes “the brink of a rift” (53), but “drift” supplies a rhyme a few lines down the page. Wallace’s phrasing is impeccable, even at its most tedious. Accidentally, or as a result of dumb association, to my mind, as I read the above passage, I heard the word ”riff,” understood as a take on a melody, ceaselessly and purposefully mundane. With such stuff, poetry may articulate its bare bones?


Donald Wellman

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Cows nostrils are blue: an essay on practice with comments on Barrett Watten’s Questions of Poetics



“Cows nostrils are blue,” the thought came out of nowhere or maybe from a typo while translating a discrete phrase in a line from the poetry of Roberto Echavarren. I claim authorship, however, and want to discuss both the language and the image conveyed by the language. The context is remarks made by Barrett Watten in his recent book, Questions of Poetics. Watten has divided the world of postmodern American poetry into two broad swathes. Poets have now become poet/critics, so the argument runs. Both of these conjoined identities have their origin in William Carlos Williams, specifically, the poetry/prose division or duality inscribed within the text of Spring and All. The poet/critic, it turns out, is a figure, circumscribed between a duality of lyric utterance that is largely subjective and an objective critical persona who performs the duty of declaring that the language and imagery of the poem have universal significance (although Williams’s prose deliberately undercuts poetic seriousness). The “turn toward language,” associated with the figures of Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Carla Harryman, Lynn Hejinian, among others including Watten himself, is understood as transforming a precarious and untenable duality into an embrace of socially-conditioned textuality. One could say that the critical function, rather than being split off, has been absorbed within the empirical functioning of the poet. The “expanded field” of the title comes to be when the poet welds together essayistic critical thought with the bending of syntax at the lyrical level of versification. And that critical function is not always about language, although language is one aspect of the socially constructed world that engages the critical intelligence of the poet; however, rather than being only grammatical, the language also engages, is modified by and modifies, the perception of social reality, its economics and politics. Of course the turn toward language as grammar or etymology is also very present in the work of both Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. These poets may or may not have excavated a radical particularity that deconstructs implicit social facts. “Social facts” is a term I borrow from Berthold Brecht. So the turn toward language in Olson does not perhaps push very far into social implications although his work, Watten acknowledges, also sets the course for the emergence of the postmodern “poet/critic.”

Let’s return to the image of “cows nostrils.” The object-image, does not share the same level or mode of objectivity, as a statement about rampant racism in the hiring practices of academia or about the homosocial milieu of much Black Mountain poetry (that is Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s position). But to the “cow,” I have reason to believe it is a porcelain animal with flared nostrils. Blue because of the glaze or alternatively blue, out there in the pasture where it grazes, blue because of a nasal drip. I imagine a fusty atmosphere whose bric-a-brac require dusting, or a pastoral scene where pollen dust excites allergies. Meaning, if there is any here, would seem to derive from opaque personal associations and fall into the category that Watten associates with the “autonomous monad of lyrical poetry” (103).  Reading requires “envisagement.” The promise of universal meaning has been cut off by severe opacity, lost, betrayed. The reader is unable to envisage meaning and so concocts an envisagement in a game effort to appreciate the image. The concept of envisagement is central to Ron Silliman’s “new sentence,” a sentence with unexpected torqueing of associations that impel the reader to envisage meaning because of an in-built thirst for coherence.[1] One might look at the phrase, “cows nostrils are blue,” as language instead of as an example of a concrete particular. The statement is a fully declarative utterance and also a universalizing utterance, admitting of no challenge to its truth. Perhaps the reader can ingest the declaration and respond with speech acts. The text remains amusingly opaque. A second way of mastering the challenge of the concrete particular, as Watten understands it, would be to ground the work within a social horizon. An example from Silliman’s “toner,” for instance, employs references to the Vietnam War and the Manson murders.
Le Duc Tho. In memory’s slomo,
bullshit monk flickers smoldering,
and goes out.

Up against the all in-inclusive
Fate of what?
                        Charlie Manson look-alike
tried to thumb a ride.
Gears mock
                        industrial song
the way fear makes a long night.[2]
Here the referents exist in socio-historical space, not some imagist nirvana like my cow. Allusion instead of image is primary for establishing “radical” or analytical usage, and that usage is not necessarily objective, although it is tested for what might be called its truth value. Watten continues, “The monolog takes itself apart only to recombine again” (93). This auto-analysis constitutes the turn toward language. Note, however, that unfolding syntax of this order may be associated not only with language writing but also with the American and Latin forms of the Neo-baroque that are central to my current studies. The rhyme of ”gears” and “fears” used here by Silliman for an emphatic closure is not very different from  baroque ornamentation. Indeed my sample phrase can be understood as multiply complex too, a palimpsest of folded forms. A blue cow with blue nostrils is sacred to Krishna for instance. And then there is the folkloric “babe” the blue ox.

The bifurcated allegiance of the expressivist poet who employs objective reference and thereby hopes to register personal affect or subjectivity, on the one hand, and the language poet, on the other hand, who turns to language in order to engage the social constructedness of the text is the subject of Chapter Six, “The Expanded Object in the Poetic Field.” This essay reads as a summative clarification of the rules of the game, hypothetically. The poet no longer suffers from the abyssal failure associated with the particular/universal divide. Watten’s text offers a hypothetical thought game. The example of Olson is used to examine a failure to incorporate truths of a social order; for instance, Olson’s method is said to ignore the relation of gender to production whereas language-centered work is produced in a diversely gendered working group. Social history is referenced in order to support claims of “radical immanence” on behalf of language-associated poets (213). The articulation of a very different “radical immanence,” grounded in the work of Giles Deleuze, is a central aim of my current studies. Olson’s engagement with gender, contra Watten, is the subject of the essay, “Olson and Subjectivity,” where I argue that deeply gendered perceptions of the role of his father and his mother and the loss of his wife, Bette, constitute an engagement with gender that is disturbing because of its effects in the social field of the family and the poem.[3]

Olson’s stance is identified by Watten as one of “antidualist immanence” wherein the poet/critics internal splitting is not recognized by a poetics that claims to engage knowledge through poetic inquiry. The contrast to Olson’s projective method is a concept of “textuality” (214). Watten cites the homosociality” of Olson and his close followers and contrasts it with the multiple ways in which language writing engaged women as social equals within the working group, an oft commented difference.[4] What is the effect of this demographic divide on “textuality”? As an example of “textuality,” Peter Seaton’s “An Example from the Literature” is cited:
There is no text and its pleasures devolve
Upon this tristesse. There’s always a logic
in which the security of the existence of the momentarily
Unimaginable is ignored in the down to earth
Construction of the perfect poem. (cited Watten 215)
Indeed “desire” and “melancholy” are presented here as subjective and resistant to “textuality.” Gender itself is neither marked nor unmarked. In general female language poets address gender-based controversies factually. A delicious catalog of gendered perceptions is the subject of Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harryman’s  The Wide Road. One passage reads, “A milky blue steam rises to the surface of the sky. / Everything overlaps. All that is animate is abstract.”[5] Gender does inform perception. Always, but here the presentation of the image is highly opaque and the entailed commentary is gnomic and universal. The example presents both poles of the of the argument that Watten develops concerning the poet/critic in Questions of Poetics. The universalizing element is figured ironic.
  
Watten’s perceptions will engage the reader who is familiar with the territory cited. They may serve as an introduction to the differences between the poetry of late modernism and the poetry associated with the “turn toward language” in the 70s. He tends to argue from a position that entertains hypothetical assertions whose truth value may be doubtful and which take convoluted, densely packed form. He cites multiple and redundant polarities in intriguing ways, productive for the reader of engaged reflection. Nothing he says can be dismissed as irrelevant to the history of language-centered writing and its potential future influence. The flux of the intellectual force may seem stunted because the negative pole to textuality, the pole associated with immanence, is a too strong attractor possessed of its own uncanny energy. In any case, references to “immanence,” in one form or another, are numerous. Indeterminacy of meaning, falling within different registers, remains a characteristic of both late modernism/postmodernism (the school of Olson) and the work associated with language writing. Abstractions found in the “language-identified” poetry cited in these paragraphs offer no particularly radical constructs…similarly so Olson’s concrete particulars, even Williams’s were no guarantor of coherence. Questions of Poetics nonetheless, offers an occasion for engaging different registers and overlays of the poetics of texturality.



[1] See “The New Sentence” in The New Sentence (NY: Roof, 1985) 63-93.
[2] Ron Silliman, The Alphabet (Alabama 2008) 486.
[3] “Olson and Subjectivity: 'Projective Verse' and The Uncertainties of Sex.” Olson Now: Documents. Electronic Poetry Center. SUNY BuffaloDec. 8, 2005.http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/olson/blog/. A revised version appears in Olson's Prose, Gary Grieve-Carlson editor (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007) 47-61.
[4] Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Purple Passages (Iowa City : Iowa 2012) 129 and 215n14 where my “Olson and Subjectivity” is discussed.
[5] NY: Belladonna, 2011

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Meditative verses, after reflecting on Lowell's stone: My Woods, my Forest, my Grove of Rib Bones



My Woods, my Forest, my Grove of Rib Bones







































Now that I’ve reread again the funereal Moby Dick,
and pondered its display of gallows’ humor, I ask
is it but a catalog of wry, unfounded observation?
Infectious its diction! “I am horror-struck at this antemosaic,
unsourced existence of the unspeakable horrors
of the whale, which, having been before all time,
must needs exist after all human ages are over.”
Or was he before me in distinguishing “the slice
of appearance” from “the being of appearance.”
All my children have loved the Metropolitan Museum
and played upon the steps of the temple of Dendron,
where scholars have discerned early forms of the whale:
like Herman, I measure affect with obscure reference.
Irony affects melancholic wit. American vitriol,
learned from a Hawthorne in the Massachusetts woods.
In my sunken wetlands, shadows replace leviathan
and serve as hooks from which depend the shrouds
or diapering clothes of the deceased and newly fledged
authors who have been cited in my monadologies
and in hymns to the God of Love. There’s Robert Lowell
under his faux puritan gravestone beside his parents
in the Stark cemetery, Dunbarton, but a woodland jog
from my home. Creeley at Mount Auburn displays
commemorative pebbles atop his slab. Poets’ words,
“at one with the peace that we knew in her presence,”
have memorialized deceased mothers, wives and children,
inscribed medallions for antique mementos mori. 

























Whispering “To Celia,” in his baroque,
old Ben Jonson found at Penshurst flattering words
for his Forests and Timbers, epigrams that spice his Woods,
“Arts and Precepts availe nothing, except nature be
beneficiall, and ayding.” On a misty August night
with waning moon, antique trolls in buskin
and slouch hats, capotain with ostrich feather plume,
populate the star-torn wind, mad fellows, exiled dwarves
from a Spanish court in the time of Velasquez or Rubens.
These my woods, not so far from those of Robert Frost, 
a stile separates the graveyard from flood-control lands.
For echo I choose Emily’s house that only wrinkles
an earthen brow, “the Cornice in the Ground.”




















During the Vietnam Era, I sought to avoid the draft.
I wrote a thesis on “Judgement” in Volpone. 
The duplicity of office holders confused
meaning and truth. I desired the death of the symbol
in my personal melodrama of “Fort!” and Da!”
Gardens within gardens, animals within animals,
each fulguration of the monad instantiates eternity.
I prepare through feigned indifference for judgement day.
Nor god-ridden, nor bed ridden, I stand on the roof beam
and survey Cetus between Pisces and Eridanus,
that maps the passage to the South Pole Purgatorium
on whose shores I once encountered a healing vision
of a nurse who sat at a frozen window. A gnomon
divided time past from time to come, itself a sail
that approached the shore and scaled the glass wall of heaven.
Countless numbers of the recently dead from Syria
and the flood plain of the Brahmaputra were stacked
in slabs upon the shore where funeral pyres shuddered
with skyward ascending sparks and the cracking of bones.
How dare the poet write of pastoral woodland tombs
amidst such slaughter? Has the poet all alone
in his house of shadows no children that require
succor and feeding? Ironic melancholy helps him
survive the titanic glare of fate-embossed night skies.
Where does the vision begin or end, thoughts
inscribed upon the waves and echoed in the stars.
He smirks as he has found another tragic metaphor,
readily at hand, another posture to assume
as affected souls leave the room and its acrid air.
He shrugs, poetry never served locally as awakening,
nor universally, in the last two centuries since Edwards
at this pulpit harangued the fearful faithful with visions
of spiders suspended above the pit of hell, a sword descending
through the hollow-hearted dome of recursive dreams
that constitute their own reality, personal paranoia unpoliced
by reason or decorum as it pushes new inventions forth.
From the doldrums of the brain spring fire and ice.
Shrouds that are both lifelines and garments of the soul,
encased in hoarfrost, snap in the Antarctic winds.
Melancholy as Freud asserts knows no end.


Donald Wellman

Monday, July 4, 2016

Nochixtlán, ("Prolog Pages," 2009):

[For news view LiveLeak]

Proud women
La Señora de Soledad
tiene una cara alba
On her altar of gold,
in her gown of gold
Black and white medallions
of her beneficence.
In her house, her son
hangs, dependent from
a vault of coiled gold.

Hyperbole of the cipher
Mayaguel is
The finery of goddesses
an infinity of beings
Torrential rain
softens clay
With four teats
Mother and virgin
Mixtec dress,
basket weavers,
red with gold bars
walking beside the road
toward the cattle pen.

Underlying expressions,
deeply erotic
transforms
Flowers for Angela
Polyangular
Singularly purposive
public insurrections
Badly educated
today’s children want
to think for themselves
Reform travels
from Nochixtlán,
escuela primaria,
in waves that fall away
shy of the plunge
Terrorized

Always a mouth to feed