Sunday, January 11, 2015

Immanence, Melancholy, and Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood

Immanence, Melancholy, and Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood (Graywolf 2014).

Let’s assume that truth prior to any act of naming follows emotions induced by trauma, perhaps in infancy, perhaps after the accident that sends you skidding down the mountain on your face. Perhaps a baby babbles. Freud argues she is unable to discover her clitoris, Melanie Klein proved otherwise. None of this indicates that she has a name for her sex organs until she is taught and applies such vocabulary retrospectively: that is nachtraglichkeit. Such preverbal experience are the grounds of foreclosure.

A melancholy view. Trauma, not bliss, lies at the root of the tree of knowledge. The same old eschatology: In Adam’s Fall we Sinned All. Alethia discloses a world in its unfolding, a knowledge neither transcendental or material. The melancholic Ben Friedlander wrote, “Truly I // Can think truth / Only as a / Sink, down whose // Drain all clarity / Streams to keep / The filthy clean” (One Hundred Etudes, 79, 232-33; Edge 2012). For the drain like the gnostic well of light (its inverse) is a sink whose depths are both obscure and foundational. Oddly this passage from One Hundred Etudes is one of the few where the verses come to a full stop with a period. Most lines form chains of no more than five syllables, arranged in tercets that enjamb swiftly and irregularly. Number 79 is an exception in that lines, tercets, periods, and etude come together in a single punctum, highly dramatic in context.

Patrick Pritchett, in an essay whose subject is Fanny Howe’s Gnosticism identifies spirit with an “interiority that is both autopoetic and self-reflexive” (“The Failure of Logos and the Fate of Spirit: Fanny Howe’s Gnostic Angel” 2, Spoke 2013). With these words he describes an awareness of a process whose unfolding is a matter of energies internal to language and not willed in order to conform to some aesthetic or outside ideal. About Howe’s poetry itself he writes of “a desire to be both distressed and astonished,” citing Howe’s “Bewilderment” from her The Wedding Dress (10). Bewilderment at the loss of “a spiritual horizon” animates her creative processes. Kenosis a process identified with the evacuation of meaning as the self in prayerfulness loses its sense of its own identity is associated with the metaphorical use of zero in lines like the following, “Zero built a nest / In my navel. Incurable / Longing. Blood too // – From violent actions / It’s a nest belonging to one / But zero uses it /And its pleasure is its own (SP 141). As in kenosis the self is evacuated from its language. Whatever its internal and systemic processes, is language or poetry ever as immediate as sex or trance, for that matter?

 Following on this introduction, I am not able to conjugate my reading of Howe’s recent, Second Childhood with the above observations, not easily. The book appears to explore “blessedness” in opposition to the melancholy shadow-world I have sketched above. In the poem that serves as proem, she speaks of a desire for a place or a language “to surmise/ blessedness.” Is there a place that enables a glimmer or glimpse? O must the body founder? Words are so much after or ahead of experience, rarely do they keep time with perception. Even loneliness would seem to be potentially redemptive for Howe until it morphs into shame. “Loneliness feels so much like shame. It always seems to need a little more time on its own” (from “Loneliness”). And yet a close reading suggests that it is the need that is shameful and that loneliness or solitude as Meister Eckhardt would have it, remains in its pure state a blessing.  But these are reflections upon experience, not the raw reality, bliss or trauma, that first engaged the mind and activated consciousness.

The recovery of lost childhood, originary trauma would seem to be the subject of the next poem, the longest in Howe’s book. In “The Monk and her Seaside Dreams” are images of an intertidal zone: Newfoundland Shore, Boston Harbor, Ireland and of a language that evokes both blessedness and trauma, “So I ran with it in my hands / a kind of eucharist.” It? the eucharist derives from a history of women’s work, running and sewing, transmitted through generations and sacred until the arrival of doom’s day, here stated with a surrealistic twist: “No break in its material from the first day on earth / to the Sabbath where all are equal / and the cows covered in sackcloth.” A salvation that is democratic and shrouded in penitence is central to the imagery of blessedness offered here and to the horror,  “You may have noticed I am naked / and sliced by glass.” If Howe is right, to return to my subject, then blessedness and trauma are an imbricated pair at the root of my immanentism. A dream of an ocean voyage at night with a Trappist monk, the boat being inundated, “By night-water one means fear. / So the refilling is adding a sting to the salt.” Her crushing existence leads to the conclusion, “You can’t empty the space you occupy anymore / expecting to see another opening” (“Progress”). Perhaps an image of kenosis, but without hint of redemption. I’m reading from a kindle edition without page numbers and I don’t like. One poem raises the possibility of empathy, “Hölderlin.” The book ends with a mundane image, “Clothes in the washer / Clapping all night.”

My Larger conclusion concerns the melancholy that is endemic to lyric poetry in so far as it always seems to project a reaching back to the other side of trauma. One solution to my problem is to see the writing of the book itself as an act of prayer, rather than as an examination of conscience, also a laudable Catholic custom (vide Ignatius of Loyola and the influence of that tradition on Donne and Herbert). Is it possible to see writing as Dodie Bellamy does, as a sex act, rather than a depiction of sex (“Can’t we Just Call it Sex: In Memory of David Wojnarowicz”).

Monday, January 5, 2015

Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012, Pierre Joris

Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012, Pierre Joris, Black Widow: Boston 2014

Barzakh is largely constructed from the poet’s work over the first decade of the new millennium, much of it biographical in nature. Like Louis Zukofsky, Pierre Joris interrogates “the overtly complex semantic unit we call ‘life.’’ I am following Mark Scroggins in this phrasing. Several structural conceptual elements shape the collection, among them the notion of ‘barzakh’ (from the Arabic, an isthmus, also associated with limbo).  As used in the teachings of Ibn Arabi, ‘barzakh’ is an in-between space that both separates corporeal from incorporeal realms of existence and allows communication through the barrier or limbo like margin that separates the two. ‘Barzakh’ both articulates the two realms and instantiates the possibility of their parallel if partially overlapping existence. When I read “margin” in this context I think of Derrida’s use of the term. Joris’s use of the term also reminds me of Victor Turner’s concept of liminality. Ritual, language and ecology are recurring, complementary themes throughout his text. The everyday touches the spiritual in many of the most “lyrical” moments in the collection: “love is / what tenses / across the/ space between. // Love this / morning is / me writing / at Friendly’s” (210). Concern with for aesthetic structure manifests itself from insanely perceptive rhyming couplets like that of “is” and “tenses” to the macro level of the architecture of the whole.

Barzakh culminates with a multivocal, polyphonic libretto to human agency with respect to environmental degradation, “The Gulf.” The trigger to this recitation is, of course the Deep Water Horizon Disaster of April 20, 2010. “The Gulf”, with its hymn-like elements, is not only capstone of the collection, but an unfurling of concerns that form the moral fiber of poetry and its social responsibilities. “The Gulf” in its first and second sections is a loose trans-creation of the first truly modernist poem, Mallarme’s, “A Throw of the Dice.” The second element of “The Gulf” is also made from found materials that serve as solo and choral testimony to the destruction wrought by the oil spill. The final section includes a mantra-like recitation of the various etymological meanings of “gulf,” bringing it through chasms and swallowings to a near synonymy that is also an antimony with “barzakh.” The complex of interwoven allusions and references pulses with a beautiful energy. The poet’s mindfulness addresses language and poetry, the root material of our shared reality. These concerns are embedded throughout and announced from the first pages of the poem, where we find a bilingual ode, largely in French, addressed to Jack Kerouac, a necessary gesture in the direction of America’s multi-lingual and immigrant heritage. The poem acknowledges the forces the propel travel across landscapes, a central concept of Joris’s ‘nomad’ poetics. In Joris’s case both his adopted home and American citizenry, combined with his European heritage as a native Luxembourg, have impelled global, multinational travels, most notably his engagement the literature of the Maghreb. Kerouac’s French, joual, placed him as an outsider, and that outsider stance has been crucial in the development of the poetic personality of many of the writers whom I most admire, including Joris, himself. In “Canto Diurnal #5” we learn that “no one returns from exile” (215). This is the spiritual truth of pilgrimage, of being “on the road.” Americans in this sense are children of Hagar, as Melville earlier had noted. Wandering dislocation, estrangement and new angles of vision surface for Joris in his Sufi studies (as they did for Olson and Duncan). “Hajara” is the condition of exile for Mohammed and his followers as they leave Mecca for Medina, the foundational act of Islam. The contents of Barzakh point toward a possible syntheses of spiritual and ecological interests. The book offers a useful construction in a time of national obsession with the fanatical forms of Islam that have spawned a malignant paranoia.

Seriality and the lyrical forms that often inhabit such pages are the norm for poetry generally associated with the influences of Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and N.Y. School poetry. For the underlying purposes of this blog, Immanent Occasions, I will make a short excursus into the history of form as found in the modernist lyric.  Some wonder if there is an organic necessity for forms of spontaneity that appear to scatter themselves over the surface of the page. Let’s call that the projective page of Olson or the sentences of bop prosody generally, texts constructed on the pulse perhaps for truly spontaneous writing may only be capable of leaving a scrawl. These mime a breath or breathing that transmit emotion in a raw form to some degree. I find few of pages of this order in Barzakh, despite Joris’s obvious indebtedness to Olson. The dominant form encountered is columns of lines stacked tightly against the left margin, lines generally of eight syllables or less. That form can be traced through Zukofsky and Creeley. It’s use of enjambment as a means of lacing the parts into larger wholes is distinctive. Prosody is wedded to meaning in this way on many of the pages of Barzakh:

a twisted zigzag geometry

where the only fix is the

line left by receding water

on house in house on

mind in mind through soul a

watermark, scumline … (“The Scumline” 183).

Some lines are far shorter than eight syllable and some longer. Modes may be mixed. There is often an objectivist quality to the most condensed lines:

the dead corn plant

didn’t make it through

winter, cat’s urine

killed its roots.

I wonder about the variety of first lines and titles. As opposed to a title in bold followed by a carriage return, first lines on pages 30-41 are in all caps. The device may derive from the poet’s reading of Celan. I find similarly constructed first lines in the poetry of Antonio Gamoneda:


invisible the eyes
a thousand
on the snow (30)

 I also see Zukofsy here and feel Basho as translated by Cid Corman. I find the limbo aspect of Arabi’s “Barzakh” in this same sequence, “exile is when you are not / yet dead” (32). Clearly one effect of the devices examined so far is to great groups or sequences nested within the whole. One result is a highly attractive book inviting appreciation of the page in its various guises. Furthermore, the value of the poet’s deeply allusive reading habits cannot be discounted. Here is a stanza reminiscent of Mallarme’s page and also to my eye, in its inventiveness, similar to the stanza of a Horatian ode.

A SHIPWRECK at the heart that the

gulf widens

between water & oil, you & me

            fish & water, me & you

                        that the


between water & water, you & you

                        me & me, oil & fish

widened then whitened

                                    there is slack growing

                        raging underwater in the heart

                                                underheart in the water

            on the brain (260).

The panoply of devices, caps. enjambment of short lines, reversals and reversals, mime drowning. Footnote: “water on the brain” or hydrocephaly, a build-up of cerebral spinal fluid, was noticed by the Egyptians and effectively treated, though not to modern standards, by Galen. The first clinical description of an operative procedure for hydrocephalus appears in the Al-Tasrif (1000 AD) by the Arab surgeon, Abulcasis.

The weavings of the line, like the weavings of old and new knowledges are proving beneficial to the grasp of a situation where the effects of environmental damage are all too apparent. Barzakh is testimony to this order of reality. It is meant to inspire action.

Donald Wellman