Saturday, May 9, 2015

Celan / Joris

Paul Celan, Breathturn into Timestead: the Collected Later Poetry, translated by Pierre Joris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014)

In reading Paul Celan, more so than other poets with the possible exception of Louis Zukofsky, the reader is confronted by the slipperiness of individual words. Unnaming undercuts naming. Reading requires the burrowing form of patience associated with translation. Celan’s poetry demolishes borders. Individual words and phrases layer densities of  private meanings. Whose? His or yours or mine? Individual verses consume swathes of literary history. With the publication of Pierre Joris’s translation of Paul Celan, Breathturn into Timestead: the Collected Later Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014), a new appraisal of the work of the translator has become necessary. A new thesis offers itself, survival maps a translingual consciousness that is integral to poetry in all of its guises.

In Celan’s late poetry, multivalent noun phrases serve as nodes where the breath is able to unravel complex meanings. “Schwermuts­schnelllen” (6) is one such marker, translated by Joris as “melancholy’s rapids.” The difficult challenge of translation resolves itself when the poem and its prosody become identified with breathing, as if rhythm and perception were inborn. Breath poetics like those of Celan and Charles Olson activate innate capacities. Joris’s deep feel for both German and English underlie the extraordinary felicity of his translation. Another example of both Celan's and his translator’s wordart is “metaphergestöber,” rendered “metaphor-flurry,” a sense rhyme with “snow flurry.” (“Ein Dröhnen” 86-89). 

The rush of conceptual images being channeled through short compact lines is the distinctive mark of Celan’s late poetry. The concentrated packets of kenning-like neologisms underscore momentary glints of meaning. The lyric “Wer herscht?”, [Who rules?] concludes:

Der erkämpfte Umlaut in Unwort:
die Abglanz; die Grabschild
eines der Denkschatten
[The hard-won umlaut in the unword:
your reflection: the tombshield
of one of the wordshadows
here.] (112-115)

Translation, it is said, enriches the receiving language. Here, in the fact of translation, are several compound nouns new to English. Equally important is a necessary melding of semantics and syntax. The concept of a vowel nesting within a row of consonants (the unword) is a deeply studied aspect of Jewish mysticism. And yet, it is the translator’s almost transparent understanding of the connective tissue within these lines that mark Joris’s  English text.

Celan’s poems are energy-gems of a complex array. “…Auch keinerlei” [… Though no kind of peace] is one of the final poems in Threadsuns [Fadensonnen], the second of the five books collected and translated here. It enacts “gray nights” of unbearable stimulus coursing through the “gravel” of “memory-vesicles.” To a psychoanalytical understanding the subject is “repetition-compulsion.”  “Eine halblust” [half pleasure] is stirred, “cathexed.” The German reads “Bewegtes, Besetztes.” The ordinary literal translation is “stirred, occupied or preoccupied.” The reading that Joris offers “cathexed” is brilliant. In “Tenebrae’d” [Eingedunkelt], the title poem of the third book, the word choice may it first seem infelicitous. “Tenebrae” is the evening service on Maundy Thursday of Easter Week. Simply, “cast into darkness” might have served better and allowed the light of a large number of allusions to filter in upon the stone cited in the poem (228-231).  That stone is identified as the stone before the tomb in which Jesus was buried but it is also a “contested stone” embedded within references to the huckstering in the market. Words resonant with the many appellations of the oft cited abyss appear, “memory fissures” [Gedächtnisschlüchen], for instance. Lines near the conclusion of Tenebrae’d read:
FÜLL DIE ÖDNIS in die Augensäcke,
den Opferruf, die Salzflut,

komm mit mir zu Atem
und früber hinaus.

[SHOVEL THE VOID into the eyebags,
the sacrificecall, the saltflood,

come with me to breathe
out and beyond. (230-31).
Joris’s language, like Celan’s, registers of concretions of implicate meanings, very unlike sentences or even poetic lines. Language comes to exist that did not previously exist. This language is riddled with memory bits, cathexed agony-pangs that derive from suppressed and re-enkindled trauma located in what we can now call the timecrevasse [Zeitenschrunde] cited in “WEGGEBEIST (18-19).

Both Joris and Celan are deeply translingual figures, writing in languages other than their first languages and invoking translation practices that draw on experience with multiple languages. Celan with Romanian heritage, translated from Russian and English but chose to write in German, the language of a people that embraced fascism and whose history remains fearsome to contemplate. Joris, a native of Luxemburg, spoke French in elementary school and chose to undertake doctoral studies in English, writing a dissertation of the work of Charles Olson. Celan and Olson, and the semantics of breath poetics, core to each, are here melded by the art of the translator.

Donald Wellman

Poetics Journal Reprised

 Poetics Journal Reprised

What after all is “poetics?  This question Is raised by Barrett Watten in his introduction to the recently published A Guide to Poetics Journal: Writing in the Expanded Field, 1982-1998 (Wesleyan 2013). Here’s my effort to handle the query: poetics is the study of form in that which identifies itself as poetry. Often, in print culture, it’s simply the arrangement of marks on the page that identifies a work as poetry. Earlier it may have been the beat or rhyme. There’s a relation to dance that subsists in the written text. Dance derived-devices are also precious and various: “formal” versus “open.” It is time to both celebrate and query the theoretical work associated with language-centered writing. This collection serves as an “active anthology” and provides some retrospective salve.

 Lyn Hejinian makes two statements of particular interest to me in her essay, “Rejection of Closure.” First, “Form is not a fixture but an activity” (91). This represents a reconfiguration of processural poetics as understood to be a central feature of language-centered writing. This understanding stems from a range of glosses on Creeley’s “form is never more than an extension of content” as understood by Olson and extended into analogies with performance by Olson himself and by others including Nate Mackie in his theorization of “othering” in “Other: From Noun to Verb,” not reprinted here, but to be found in Discrepant Engagement (Cambridge UP 1993). Hejinian’s second statement that attracts me comes earlier and serves as her thesis, “the conjuncture of form with radical openness may be a version of the “paradise” for which the poem yearns (87). Key words, whose meaning will be resolved or has as of this date already been resolved are presented here in italics and quotation marks. I am drawn to the particular notion, that the poem “yearns.” That yearning would be the subject of poetics as I understand the discipline (and poetics is a discipline and an art much like medicine). I understand this with reference to the philosophy of Giles Deleuze, among others, we live then in a world of “desiring production.” Prosody then occupies an extended space. It is the mapping yearning as it subsists in structure, open or closed.

In another of the reprinted essays, Bruce Andrews, recognizing that “all experience is socially constructed” speaks to the need for language to recognize that fact and participate then in social practices. Less theoretical than an engagement in poetics or the poetics of envisagement (Ron Silliman), this activism, I am reminded, was, in its time, the most compelling force of language-centered writing, its mobilization of desire. Were those times, inconceivably, more innocent than ours?

Silliman’s “Migratory Meaning: The Parsimony Principle in the Poem” is helpfully reprinted here, along with a variety of now classic material. In “Hey Man, My Wave! The Authority of Private Language,” Michael Davidson investigates how it is that private language subverts public discourse. After presenting a range of examples, including intriguingly, from sociolinguistics, the case of the private language used by the Kennedy twins in San Diego to subvert the authority of their father, he concludes with an analysis of the use of private language in lyric poetry. He queries “the individual’s presumed access to a language of unmediated expressivity” (208). While the lyric may be an unredeemed instance of monologic utterance (as followers of Adorno or Bakhtin might have it), mobilizing a no longer relevant ethos of self-expression, lyrics that deploy socially conventional rhetorics against themselves, like those of Emily Dickinson, may create breathing room for desires like those expressed famously in her poem, “My Life It Stood an Empty Gun. Happily, Susan Howe’s discussion of that poem is also included here. For me A Guide to Poetics Journal provides both moments of theoretical nostalgia and the flashes of insight that follow upon rereading already presumably “known” texts.



Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mark Weiss, As Luck Would Have It

Mark Weiss, As Luck Would Have It (Shearsman 2015)

I’m not as politically engaged as some of my friends. I no longer sign petitions. What I do helps to keep my brain alive, though why I’m unsure. My hips and shoulders seem shredded by the usual wear and tear. I’ve just read Mark Weiss’s As Luck Would Have It (Shearsman 2015). It’s a memorable, melancholy, gloom-haunted tome. Of no help to one struggling with the detritus left in his yard by the worst historical winter of record, “To be alone / is salt itself,” writes Mark (11). His garden is haunted by death or the near edge of death. Only in a world of past prismatic colors do tomatoes fully ripen and sustain a remembered life, “they made a sauce / to last the winter,” a consolation in a period of death, father and friends, “strangled on their own fluids” (12). So was the case of my brother, drowning on his own saliva, his breath confined within the ventilator mask. The mortal agony of the poet’s memories mixes melancholy and hope for his own release from the weight of necessary, unavoidable recognitions. The question motivating the collection is “how did I get here?” from the title poem, “As Luck Would Have It,” where the landscape is irrevocably polluted and horses die from ingesting the clover (16).

Nonetheless a quiet brilliance is at work in parts I, II, and III of As Luck Would Have It, “we call it luck to die by increments” from the gem-like, “Horse Sense” (29). This collection is built with a purpose and deliberately avoids consolation. The most sustained element, Part IV, Different Birds, is organized by location, following an itinerary that begins in San Diego and catalogs by location the bird-life encountered by the poet during an extensive Australian expedition. In this we have a descendant text that resembles those of naturalists: Darwin, Thoreau’ or Roger Tory Peterson, supplemented with unrelenting macabre observations. At the outset in San Diego, “the rain a hammer-blow / to a hummingbird” (51). Undeniable lyricism here, and elsewhere in the collection, rendered with jeweler’s precision. Among observations of cockatoos, magpies, gallahs, ravens, minahs, and junkies, the poet displays a tonal range that blends ephemeral joy and withering darkness. “Like a white rag / cockatoo flutters down the canyon. … the merest lint in the shape of a bird” (52). More macabre or surrealist in tone, “Eucharist / of humiliation? Delicious and tender, / with an avocado chutney” (54). This observation follows a dinner of Jew-fish, not the first of troubling observations in a world where death has tipped the scales of life irrevocably, with no apparent justice. From an airplane between Alice and Darwin, “vegetation in the lee of red dunes / marks the pattern of ancient sea beds. … Mountains like mud pies / brown amidst the red” (75). This a detailed rendering of a post-apocalyptic world, I’ve begun to treasure such moments, bleak as they are. Death on an unimaginable scale inhabits a text that reads like an aboriginal creation myth:

What the dog told him. Marrawati,
the eagle,
the transport of souls.
And here on the rock at the edge of the flood plain, the girl
had eaten flesh of barramundi at her time of the month,
and the people of that place had beaten her, and her
own people came with spears and a world
ended in conflict. A rock
that could be Ilion, how an argument over a woman
ruined everything. In the river
endless bodies for the sisters who had learned,
for their unbridled hunger, to transform themselves
to crocodiles.” (80)

The text fades to  reverie evoking the poet’s fondness for “a girl from Guantanamo.” Section IV ends “Sometimes the ship has truly sailed” (81). These final lines speak to the condition of a poet adjusting to his own old age and the ferocity of the world in which he finds himself. There is a misogynistic vein when Weiss recounts the transformation of women into crocodiles, as in much folklore haunted by the powers of women over both life-giving and death. I see myself thrashing and gasping for air in a blood reddened pool. There is also a nostalgia for gentler passions, emotions not unknown to me either. It is what it is. Forces and passions, expressed in Part V, Dark Season, impel the poet to his conclusion. As Luck would Have It is a thoughtfully constructed collection leading us to the poet’s most enigmatic vision.

One suggested strategy for finding a resolution is to “sow the ground with salt, / leave nothing for longing, / no stone on stone” (85). Through the means of radical destruction, self-sorrow as registered in the first section of the book, “to be alone / is salt itself” (11) becomes a renewed competence. The poet has found a measure of peace by choosing to inhabit “the end of time, when cattle become aurochs” (87). Viewed from Chaucer’s cloud, violence becomes “harmonious” and “small beings / reduced to consequence  … leave no footprint” (88). The poet’s moral message, if there is one, “from a set of gestures / one constructs a life” (106). John Frum (a cargo cult figure) is summoned from the astral plane by an aircraft, “as if / the god could be tricked / by the appearance of things” (106). Mark is teasing us. Did I not say that earlier? He is also trenchant: history “has teeth,” “has teeth,” repeated, are among the last words of As Luck Would Have it.
Donald Wellman

Review: Katy Bohinc, Dear Alain

Katy Bohinc is a poet who, in this instance, Dear Alain (Tender Buttons 2014), doesn’t write poems so much as deeply coherent, explosive prose, a mad epistolary approximation of uncensored speech. She embraces contradiction with erotic flamboyance. She loves math and she loves and is aggravated by Alain’s love of philosophy, especially set theory. Her book makes the case that  math is the soul of poetry and also poetry’s reciprocal opposite. Love deconstructs this precarious entente. Philosophy forms a lattice work laid over a non-existent abyss. Katy is a more perspicacious guide to the philosophy of Alain Badiou than I could hope to be. Her book is replete with quotations, qualifications, and contradictions of the most astute order.

I would not have undertaken a reading of Badiou’s Being and Event (which I only recently began to attempt) were not for Katy Bohinc’s passionate love for Alain. And now that I have begun to read his text I am disoriented by structured opacities that wash in droning waves over my uncomprehending brain. Meanwhile, thanks to Katy, sparks of understanding sometimes dazzle my cerebral cortex. I stumble into the deepest reverie, a reverie that I associate with a profound abyss where being in its most monstrous form eats the souls of children. Alain writes, “Ontology … is faithful to the non-being of the one, so as to unfold, without specific nomination, the regulated game of the multiple such that it is none other than the absolute form of presentation, thus the mode in which being proposes  itself to any access” (30). A beloved teacher cautioned me to walk in fear of abstraction. “Absolutely,” as used here, awakens a primal screech. I also find a suppressed “only.” I thought I had come to understand “nomination” through my readings in Jonathan Swift and Ezra Pound. Nomination is the poet’s power and also not. And tell me please about that “regulated game”? What does it mean to “propose … access”?  Seduce the void?

I’ll have to read more deeply. “Dear Alain,” Katy writes, “philosophers and poets, we’re both trying to reach God, you the form, we the content, we the light” (29). Charles Olson proposed seeing, as I remember, the face of God; but then to him the form/content polarity was too dichotomous, too duplicitous. “Dear Alain, Your shoulder blades the shimmer of molten silver” (as if he were a winged and godly messenger) (45). “Oh Alain! It’s trust dripping down to the ground, or where the ground used to exist” (46). It’s liquid as Thales said (Thoreau’s favorite philosopher). I glimpse the poet’s orgasmic effusion, draining away and finding a ground that is not a ground. Take this as a solution to the problem of the chora as presented by Judith Butler, “This naming of what cannot be named is itself a penetration into this receptacle which is at once a violent erasure, one which establishes it as an impossible yet necessary site for all further inscriptions” (Bodies That Matter, NY: Routledge, 1993: 44). The chora can be thought of as unbound receptacle where being or the being of being is housed before its presentation. Are “abyss” and “chora” (consult Plato, Timaeus) only differently gendered faces of one another, or inescapably female?

I note that I’ve returned to the subject of nomination. In “the name of the father,” proposed Jacques Lacan in his revision of psychoanalytic theory. Badiou, once Lacan’s chosen son, proceeded, during the revolts of 68, to outrage the father. For Katy, as I read her, fucking is a physical fact producing a heated and undisciplined affect beyond presentation, not an ontological construct. “Dear Alain, And I think the only world view worth having is the spinning madness of the hangover. The swirling heaving breathing panic attack.” She continues berating philosophy, “And I’m not fucking your right now Alain. You’re nothing but a dead object to me. … You don’t open me up to the insane whirlwinds of life, you put them in a box, and I can’t see them there and I must leave. The poet is not in the philosophy and I’m going I am going I am gone. Democracy. Me.” (183) The conclusion fits with Katy’s political commitment to the “Occupy Movement,” another level within this book as is the use of astrology for understanding form and templates, implicating Badiou’s commitment to set theory as the philosopher’s way to master being and multiplicity. The range of references to containers like systems or boxes or even the abyss viewed as a cavity speaks to my imagination. Relations between containers and things contained speaks to my poetics, but I am forced by that move back into the realm of set theory as well as poetry. That’s Bohinc’s conundrum. Here’s the conclusion, “Dear Alain, I went to bed in the soft folds of ego submitted to the logic of nothingness and it felt so much better than you … your hands on my hair and there would be nothing but a harmonic hu9m there would be no word better there would be no thought whatsoever. You. You. Dear Badiou” (185). Eroticism, hints of masochism, philosophical argument included, this is a serious book that elicits and repays attentive reading.

Donald Wellman