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



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