Search This Blog

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The overlay of music and meaning in the translation of poetry:

Donald Wellman, a presentation given at the University of Valencia, 12.03.2019
I have remained true to the pulse of the poems as they unfold. Following Gamoneda’s advice, I have translated, not interpreted the various meanings that the language puts in play.
Gamoneda’s poetry is a form of witness to fascist oppression. The work is conceived and should be read as poetry marked by distinctive compositional values of a musical order, both in terms of its rhythms and interlaced imagery. The same can also be said about the German poet Paul Celan, who raised the important point that beyond the horrors experienced by the witness there is the further question of who is to witness for the witness, or indeed who is to corroborate testimony without simplifying meanings. Inventive language of a musical or compositional order provides access to emotions that resist paraphrase or interpretation. This dynamic in which language escapes meaning through listening to “an intensified soundscape” (Charles Bernstein’s phrase), allows as yet unresolved meanings or feelings to emerge. The poets mentioned in my title: Gamoneda, Celan, Vallejo and Perlongher, activate this ability to listen, each in distinctive ways. This dynamic of listening is an especial challenge for translators who must learn to listen to the original instead of attempting simply to carry meanings from one language to another, as if translation were a vocabulary exercise.

In our “listening” project today we will consider four structural or “musical” aspects typical of free verse:

Short, enjambed lines used for dramatic effect in Vallejo.
Terse, halting line fragments, intensely abstract, Celan.
Extended paragraph-like highly rhythmical verses, Gamoneda.
Long lines or verses with qualities of constructed spontaneity, chanting or refrain, Perlongher

Yo nací un día / que Dios estuvo enfermo. (“Espergesia”) (I was born on a day / when God was sick).
The pun in this title is similar to concretions employed by Celan.

Tief / in der Zeitnschrunde / beim / Wabeneis (Deep / in the time-fissure / near honey-comb ice … )

Mi cuerpo pesa en la serenidad y mi fortaleza está en recordar; en
recordar y despreciar la luz que hubo y descendía y mi amistad
con los suicidas,
(My body sorrow in serentity and my strength is in remembering; in
remembering and spurning the light that was and dimi-
nished and my friendship with the suicides. (Description of the Lie, 22-23)
Note the free movement of the right-hand margin; note vowel rhyming of /a/.

Ya no se puede sostener: el mango / de la pala que clava en la tierra su rosario de musgos 
It can no longer be uphold: the handle / of the shovel that nails into the earth its rosary of moss.
(Cadavers 14-15)
Note running, jazz-like rhythm and visual integrity.

In several senses, Vallejo is a forerunner to Gamoneda, although conditions informing acts of witnessing or testifying differ.  Gamoneda, as a child and a young man, witnessed atrocities including the hanging of resistance fighters and the betrayal and incarceration of friends who opposed the police practices of the Franco regime. As he writes in Description of the Lie, censorship and fear of prosecution kept him silent for 500 weeks after his first publications as a young poet. Responding to censorship, his body suffered an anxious constriction, “Durante quinientas semanas he estado ausente de mis “designios, depositado en nódulos y silencioso hasta la maldición” (90). Fear of torture conspired with silence, “Mientras tanto la tortura ha pactado con las palabras.”
Durante quinientas semanas he estado ausente de mis designios, 
              depositado en nódulos y silencioso hasta la maldición.
              Mientras tanto la tortura ha pactado con las palabras.  

For five hundred weeks I have been absent from my intentions,
              interred in nodules and silent under the curse.
              All the while torture has made a pact with words.  (8-9)

The phrase “depositado en nodulos” requires commentary. The word “depositado” evokes the deposition of a body in the grave and that is the sense evoked on the very first page of Decription, “la rendición de mis huesos depositándose en el descanso.” Hearing this biblical and funereal music, I chose to use interred” in the text above (8-9). In “nodulos” a medical term, I hear the hardening of the lymph nodes, associated with the cancer that lead to the early death of the poet’s father at a time when the boy was only three. Similar clinical images recur throughout Description. Life and death, preconscious currents within the human organism activate these words and their echoes. These currents are one source of the rhizomatic binding which is the underlying structure of this book.

In Lápidas, Gamoneda’s next book, acts of witnessing occupy many pages:

Algunos tenían las mejillas labradas por el grisú. dibujadas con terrible 
     tramas azules; otroscantaban acunando una orfandad oculta. Eran 
     hombres lentos, exasperados por la prohibición y el olor de la muerte.

Some had faces gouged by fire damp, etched with terrible blue threads; 
      others sang to lull a hidden orphanity. They were slow men, exas-
      perated by prohibition and the odor of death. (64-65)

Like Gamoneda, Vallejo witnessed a socially constructed orphanity, but unlike Gamoneda Vallejo suffered in prison in ways that directedly impacted his physical body during a period when he had no immediate prospect of release. His poetry bears witness to that suffering. pronouncing himself a “nuevo impar / potente de orfandad! (a new odd number / potent with orphanhood!) (Trilce XXXVI). He abstracts himself from his situation and becomes a number. Paradoxically being thrown upon his own individual resources he finds strength. Vallejo is a poet of imbricated contraries, like “las islas que van quedando” T I, discussed below.

For both poets, the act of witnessing is an act of anguish as memories surface, clinging as it were, to words whose meaning hovers, almost like an aura, but is never exact. Isolation, associated with the absence of family members, especially the mother is heard in both poets.
For Gamoneda, in the following versicle, the second strophe of the versicle just read:
(Mi madre, con los ojos muy abiertos, temerosa del crujido de las tarimas bajo sus pies, se acercó a mi espalda y, con violencia silenciosa, me retrajo hasta el interior de las habitaciones. Puso el dedo índice de la mano derecha sobre sus labios y cerró las hojas del balcón lentamente.)
(My mother, with her eyes very open, fearful of the creaking of the wooden tiles under her feet, approached my shoulder and, with stealthy violence, pulled me back into the interior of the rooms. She placed the index finger of her right hand over her lips and slowly closed the shutters of the balcony.)

The mother is associated with safety, darkness, silence, and lessons in paranoia. And also the phrase, “violencia silensiosa” that silence that echoes throughout Description, from grave imagery to references to censorship. In the fourth stanza of Vallejo’s Trilce XXIII, the mother, now deceased, is associated with a “crumb,” the memory of her sweet cakes, caught in the poet’s throat.

¡Madre, y ahora! Ahora, en qual alvéolo
quedaría, en que retoño capilar,
cierta migaja que hoy se me ata el cuello
y no quiere pasar.

Mother, and now! Now, in what aveolus
would remain, in what capillary bud,
a certain crumb that now sticks in my throat
and doesn’t want to pass.

An alveolus is an air sack found in the lungs, essential for breathing. The term is also used for the socket at the root of a tooth. Such clinical precision is common to both poets. This verse concludes with references to the eruption of a tooth on a child’s mouth. Like Gamoneda Vallejo medicalizes the body, scanning memories of the “crumb” that is the physical cause of choking. Listening to poetry can involve two voices that transmit on similar frequencies. According to Michael Foucault the medicalized human body is an aspect of the modern condition. I would oppose the medicalized body to raw emotions as both poets do. Stripped of their aura the language for raw emotions now fails us, as perhaps it always did. It is on this frontier that avant-garde poets struggle.

Paul Celan raises the question concerning who bears witness for the witness, for the experiences of the suffering subject. It is a question of haunting immediacy. Who can speak to the agony associated with death, choking, nervous constriction. The poet knows that no paraphrase is adequate to meaning.
zeugt für den

No one
testifies for the

The question relates to the underlying expressivity of the text, its composition and the domain of affect which the poem inhabits. Jacques Derrida probes the concept of bearing witness in Celan’s “Aschenglorie”: “What matters most in the strange limit between what can and cannot be determined or decided in this poem’s bearing witness to bearing witness. For this poem says something about bearing witness. It bears witness to it.” (“Poetics and the Politics of Witnessing,” Albiach / Celan 54). The motif of witnessing is recurrent in Celan’s work:
Strahlenwind deiner Spräche
das bunte Gerede des An-
erlebten –das hundert-
zungige Mein-
gedicht, das Genicht.

den Weg durch den menschen-
gestaltigen Schnee,
den Büserschnee, zu
den gastlichen
Gletscherstuben und -tischen.

in der Zeitenschrunde,
wartet, ein Atemkristall,
dein Unumstössliches

radioactive wind from your speech
the confused talk of worn-
out experience –the hundred-
tongued my-
poem, the denial.

the path through human-
faced snow,
penitents’ snow, to
the cozy
glacier room and -dishes.

in the time-fissure,
near the
honeycomb ice
awaits, a breath-crystal,
your unshakeable

This translation is an improvement over my earlier efforts. No poet divides short lines with breath pauses like these. The number of invented words compounding unexpected compound nouns is another index of the hidden difficulties always to be associated with poetic language. Vallejo has a similar inventive ability in the realm of images, personalized images.

Trilce opens on the theme of testimony and compromise, a matter that is common to the three poets that I  have discussed so far. The difficulty of bearing witness for different witnesses who are also identified as the subject of oppression is a constant that affects the translators art. It is not only empathy that is required but words that engage the unspeakable.

Quién hace tanta bulla, y ni deja
testar las islas que van quedando.

Who’s making all that racket, and not even letting
the islands that linger make a will. (T I)

I quote Clayton Eshleman’s translation. His language raises several issues for me. The concept of  “van quedando” suggests a spinning in place as much as a literal “lingering.” And “testar” is also consonant with the subject of “witnessing,” a common overlay of meanings found in English too. Testimony is thematic to my understanding of Gamoneda’s Description,

Huelo los testimonios de cuanto es sucio sobre la tierra y no me reconcilio

I smell the testimonies of all that is filthy on earth and I do not reconcile myself … (12-13)

To my understanding Trilce serves as testimony about the anguish and loss of personhood that are aspects of imprisonment. The opening lines are thematic. Much has been made also of the concept of “islas.” It is picked up in the next stanza.

Un poco más de consideración
en tanto será tarde, temprano,
ye se aquilatará mejor
el guano, la simple calabrina tesórea
que brindar en querer,
en el insular corazón,
solobre alcatraz, a cada hialóidea

A little more consideration
as soon it will be late, soon,
and it’s easier to assay
the guano, the simple fecapital ponk
that a brackish gannet
unintentionally toasts
in the insular heart, to each hyaloid

Eshleman’s invention “fecapital ponk” serves notice that the guano market is crucial for capitalist revenue production. Bird manure is exported to England for enriching country gardens, if you didn’t know. Dry it is easier to assess than when wet. I’m still stuck on “insular” and “islands.” Islands could be symbolic people, isolated poets, that’s the general consensus. And it is the gannets that scream as the flyover the guano operations. It seems to me that the islands, men or not, are never allowed to rest. There is no consideration for human needs as will be evident later on in Trilce. After all this work, skittering over meanings, I am stopped by “hialóidea.” The English word “hyaloid” means glassy or transparent, and Eshleman has decided not to translate it as. although obscure, it is serviceable English. Often Eshleman will do this, use almost forgotten English expressions, archaic though serviceable. Vallejo seems to have exercised a similar determination. “Grupada”? It is a Mexican word for a fierce and sudden squall. It is also used when horses rear on their hind legs. The image of exhausted horse recurs in Trilce LVIII, where loneliness is sexualized. (Clayton Eshleman, Complete Poetry of César Vallejo, Berkely: UCal P, 2007).

Apéome del caballo jadeante, bufando
líneas de bofetadas y de horizontes;
espumoso pie contra tres cascos.
Y le ayudo: ¡Anda animal!

I dismount the panting horse, snorting
lines of slaps and horizons;
lathered foot against three hoofs.
And I help him: Move, animal!
The walls of the prison, although he only stayed there for 120 days, close around him, always four no matter how often he scans them. They reflect the way the body huddles, a gesture often associated with deep psychological need to return to the womb, clasping the knees to the chest.
Trilce LVIII
En la celda, en lo sólido, también
se acurrucan los rincones.

In the cell, in what’s solid, even
the corners are huddling.

These words reflect his understanding of how his humanity is being stripped away. It is[DW1]  a figure of dissolution.
Se tomaría menos, siempre menos, de lo
que me tocase erogar,
en la celda, en lo liquido
Less could be taken, always less, of that which
I am responsible for distributing,
in the cell, in the liquid.

Michelle Clayton has written, “Vallejo’s contemporary commentators insistently proclaimed that Trilce offered a new set of origins for both lyric and political discourse in Peru. But what is particularly curious about Trilce’s investment in fertile origins is that it tends to pull its power not from the given but from what is lost or rejected, deriving presence and promise from absence and degradation, placing waste at the center of a reflection on value and shifting aesthetics away from considerations of both beauty and utility to focus on what it normally and normatively excludes. That waste is located both inside and outside bodies and landscapes, comprising both their substance and their context, and the significance that is accorded in this poetry shifts the discourse on both local politics and lyric matters as each one enters a new place of modernization. Value here is time and again extracted from depleted or degenerated stocks (guano, worn out language, an exhausted lyric tradition), as well as s from what is conventionally cast as negative or valueless (by-products, popular language, difficult poetry), orienting them toward productivity …” (Michelle Clayton, Poetry in Pieces: César Vallejo and Lyric Modernity, U Cal P: Berkeley, 2011) 109-110).
To make poetry, words with their own beauty, while protesting prison conditions and the depredations of the Peruvian economy, both are central to the feeling that I have for Vallejo’s work.

Gamoneda has the curious ability to evoke prison walls in their absence, the tumbled down stones now mark the landscape outside Léon where he lives.

Coronado de yemas negras, como el fresno en sus días de clamor, 
       ves las murias señaladas con las ventanas del presidio, ves los 
       márgenes de la extinción
y la pureza del error se dibuja con lentitud de alas más transparentes 
       que su propio impulso, con lentitud más líquida que las sustanci-
       as transmitidas en generaciones: sabor de cobre bajo la lengua de 
       los recién nacidos, sabor a fuego bajo la lengua de los hombres m-
       ás tristes.

Crowned with black buds, like the ash tree in its clamoring days, you 
      see rubble barriers and the windows of the prison, you see the edg-
      es of dying and the purity of the mistake is outlined with a languor 
      of wings more transparent than personal impulse, with a languor 
      more livid than the substances transmitted over generations: taste 
      of copper under the tongue of the newborn, taste of fire under the 
      tongue of the saddest men.  (Description 96-97)

The phrase “las murias señaladas” indicates the Stone rubble that marks the deges of different properties. In that sense these walls are famous to the stone walls of New Hampshire where I live. Among our fields are prehistoric remains, stone altars. The prison in its absence, its absent windows, testifies to the very nature of symbols which often are images of that which is absent. 

I will conclude with a brief discussion of the work of Néstor Perlongher, his hospital bed his prison as he lay dying of AIDS. Perlongher was an activist in the cause of gay liberation during the period of Argentina’s “dirty war.” The lines of his with which I began are from his Cadavers which I translated with the help of Francisca González-Arias and Robert Echavarren. They are a reconstruction of the experience of flight to the relative safety of Brazil where he earned a sociology degree and became active in the Sainto Daime, consuming a psychoactive ayahuasca tea for curative purposes.
Ahora, ahora, en este instante digo.

En lo inconstante, en lo inconsciente, en lo fugaz me disemino.
Disperso y fugo. En lo fangial del fango.
Imágenes ateridas bajo la lluvia de película.

Palermas, pelmazos en el ascensor hacia el reloj. 
Grave como una piedra, cierta hiedra traviesa 
juguetea en la tierra mojada del pulmón 
urdimbre gusanesca en lo borroso del retrato.

Nos alejamos (gracias) al olvido. 
Júbilo de las calas, unión juvenil de las violetas. 
Leve la marcha hacia la extinción,
la marca del humo en las cornetas pálidas.

Y las patillas, pura pelusa. 
Un algodón rocía las narinas de amianto. 
Uno reza, no yo, sin ser no créese. 
Descréese del ser en la fatal crecida.

Abajo los pitos, huevos chirles.
Demasiado agujereado el antebrazo.
Del dolor sus efluvios terminales.
Una reseca perfección, aunque apenas marmórea.

Now, now in this instant I say.
In the inconstant, in the unconscious, in fleeting I disseminate myself.
I disperse and flee. In the muddiness of mud.
Frozen images under cinematic rain.

Drudges, bores ride the elevator to the clock.
Heavy like a stone, a certain ivy penetrates
toys in the moist earth of the lungs
wormy weaves in the blurry photograph.

The paired terms, “inconstante, en lo inconsciente” are typical of Perlongher’s art. Some of that can be kept in the rhyming of cognate syllables: “the inconstant, in the unconscious,” a language-based discovery. “disemino” is from diseminar”. scatter, is the force of the imagery lost by using the French cognate made popular by Jaques Derrida? Is it a this register suitable or not for the passionate imagery of the poem. We know that Perlongher’s studies were steeped in postmodern thought. This line bristles with the raw contact of bandage to skin: “Un algodón rocía las narinas de amianto.” An image that resonates with “needle marks” and “a parched perfection,” constructing a realm of affect so raw in its communicative efficacy. For all this mixing of registers, language breaks down the the reduplicative, “lo fangial del fango.” Roberto Echavarren identifies Perlongher, along with Lezama Lima, as one of the first voices in the style of the neobarroco. The line, “urdimbre gusanesca en lo borroso del retrato” can be taken as indicative of the very nature of neobarroco composition, a weaving like worms sliding over one another, in substance both shiny and muddy, “borroso” being in the minds of several poets cognate with barroco.” I suggest that there is more to Perlongher’s verbal density than the drama of images might at first lead one to suspect.

 Donald Wellman

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Lyn Hejinian, The Unfollowing

Fourteen lines on each page, that’s sonnet length. Little rhyme of syllogism employed. No tidy conclusions. Each line as long as it needs to be. Most discontinuous with one another but not necessarily so. It seems there may not be a logic other than method in the construction of Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing (Omnidawn 2016). Nothing follows, no conclusions, the title says it all. Still it takes an act of will to write as Hejinian does. Each line is inventive in its own quirky way. “A woodpecker of wood fastened to a piece of wood by a wire and string pecks when the string is pulled” (24). Documentary perception and constructivist method, still I find it a surrealist image. Perhaps pecking is an aspect of method. The image also reminds me of wooden lumberjacks that bounce and dance on a flat board. The dance rhythms delight children. Hejinian’s lines also dance, sometimes a jig, “I thought I saw an earthworm stirring in the dirt, then I saw it was a sadist, wielding a quirt” (19). Unexpected cruelties flash across the screen of my mind, “Once it was enough to be melodious, when every song was like a nail in the jaw” (62). The matter of what is at stake in poetry is never broached or resolved. At this moment I happen to be listening to motets by Josquin DezPrez (Hilliard Ensemble). Overlaid resonances of different voices in the high registers has the effect thrilling deep regions of my inner ear. Enough for nails!

My observations are not meant to suggest that Hejinian’s art lacks purpose or meaning. In the middle of the collection I find the deeply allegorical poem, “The Eye of the Storm.” The only poem in the collection with a title and a stated purpose, “For Susan Bee. In memory of Emma Bee Bernstein.” She writes, in one breathy line, “Let us take our surrogate selves out and leave them like guinea pigs to sniff and browse on swirls while we sit cross-legged in a sun swept amphitheater” (Poem 35, p. 47). I did this once upon a time,  if I remember correctly, with my son, long ago in the forests of Oregon. Unlike many other poems in this collection, this poem concludes in sonnet fashion with a message, “O child, be contemporary, your soul an ornament of consciousness.” The next poem is equally brilliant and perhaps closer moralizing than is Hejinian’s purpose, “All prancing proud horses sweat milk, and are mothered by low-lying clouds” (48). This surreal and maternal image carries layers to my mind of deepest preconscious meaning, encapsulated, not quite unfollowing upon neighboring lines, where a daughter confesses to her mother, “Mother, mother, I got married and I kept God entirely out of the game.” It may have been unfair of me to choose passages that appeal to my own whimsy and melancholy. You should read this book for yourself.

Donald Wellman

Friday, November 30, 2018

Kate Colby, The Arrangements

Few poems rely so entirely on perception as those of Kate Colby. Her “Shaker /caked with salt” (12) requires no explanation. Colby avoids a generalizing gestures, “humidity” in the next line suggests a cause, but observation for Colby is always momentary. What about her silences? “I can’t speak for / thinking of you” – that from the first lines of the first poem in the new book, Arrangements (Four Way Books 2018). Absence haunts the book. For this poet “matter matters” which was the by-word of Eva Hess. “Sea grapes draped / on split-rail fence” (13). There is a pastoral ambience to that line. The poem “Green Blind” concludes “stone thrown into // otherwise intact / algal mat. In addition to observed matter in dialog with absence, New England melancholy may be the second pole of Colby’s art. In general observations cancel one another out. “My vision excludes me,” she writes  in “The Beholder” (18). The premises that underlie a philosophy of observation are soulless. Thoreau noted the same problem when he admitted, his vision as he stood on a mountaintop excluded his presence even as he attempted to record what he saw, a trenchant version of the frailty of the individual moment. Observation is a species of entrapment. There is no turning away and then it is gone. The effort of remembering is continuous with the experience of the present. No release. “I was once in a room so hot // and crowded that our sweat condense on / the ceiling and rained back down. // I think of this every time / I walk beneath a dripping // window unit.” (“The-wife” 20-21). She finds many watery and humid images with which to surround her sorrows.

Her line breaks are acute and painful. Therein lies the poetry.  These lines from “Burial” are consonant with those U have already cited:
Never to be out done by woods,
where you heard the rain before

feeling it – now is the time
to weaves wreathes from waves
graven matts of marsh weed. (80)

The next line contains the word “pall. The feelings are funereal. A dear one has been lost. It is also cataclysmic. Colby’s “Annunciation,” very unlike the work of Ewa Chrusciel that I recently reviewed holds no space for hope:

See, at the beginning of
the painting she cradles

her viscera, a small window
hovering in front of her

head. By the end, this
tentative angle has taken

from her the purpose of
history … (85)

It is difficult to quote from or truncate this poem. Coby’s apotheosis, in the midst of such loss is to become eyes “turn myself, into eyes.” perception itself, as steady as the effort to see may be, is after all perception, often sadly so. I now have no doubt as to what arrangements are cited in the tittle, “Arrangement.” This is a funereal book.

Donald Wellman 

Monday, November 12, 2018


As I read this book of poems, I am moved by a delicate surrealism that records fleeting moments of birdsong and  lost souls that flounder in the wakes of inflatable boats. These transitory phenomena are associated with the presence of the dybbuk, a dislocated soul that possesses its host body with malicious effect. In the body’s transit between worlds, the dybbuk clings to its host, conflating the life after death and the earthly life of anticipation and hope. A figure from Jewish folklore, it haunts immigrants and exiles, whose experiences are the subject of Ewa Chrusciel’ s Of Annunciations (Omnidawn 2017). Glimmers of transcendence, experiences of annunciation, are found in natural substances, the grain of wood, incisions and ghost rays, so the poem “Of Annunciations” would have it. In healing the blind, the newly sighted see men walking like trees (Mark 8:24). To my mind armies mass on the hills of Dunsinane. Shakespeare’s figure is an omen, a confusion of armies on a frontier For Chrusciel, the most compelling manifestations of the dybbuk are water-born apparitions, “The sea keeps its apparitions, spits out / migrants, walking trees. Branches / conceal seeds without shore or limit.” (25)  

Chrusciel is sensitive to the presences of angel-born but fleeting, , annunciations, moments discovered in highly original perceptions of the meanings behind words, whether those in manuals or those from holy tracts. Currents transect, “Inside the sea the river.” The river carries the detritus of the of the lost souls of contemporary immigrants, “valises, simcards, photos, coats.” (27). Her images possess her and have the power to  possess the engaged reader,
                        In need to be inside you
                        in order to live.
                        In me, you hear whimpering
of drowned children,
they walk in circles. (74)
The archetype of dawning perception within the womb is Mary. The poet is unable to offer us the hope that the Archangel offered her. “What could we offer in exchange for one child?” (74). One note of salvation survives, “”There is an immigrant in our soul.” We discover, facing atrocity, “In each of us the feet of an archangel.”(93). Chrusciel is sensitive to the presence of angel-born annunciation, moments discovered in the meanings behind words. It is a book that tests faith in human goodness, engaging its subject with profound seriousness. Her art examines interconnected threads; she has created a book of apocryphal intent. Ewa Chrusciel lives between two worlds, one Polish, Catholic, and traditional, the other the domain of endless exile and the tragic fates that populate daily news.

In this context, I am lead to remember poetry associated with the haggadah and exile. In his Passing Over (Marsh Hawk 2007),  Norman Finkelstein addresses Jewish mysticism and its polysemic production of rabbinic commentary. It seem that “the shape of an absence” haunts Finkelstein’s commentary (“Mara” 49). Who is Mara, I believe she is a holocaust survivor that Finkelstein met one day in Ohio. Tellingly, in his Inside the Ghost Factory (Marsh Hawk 2010), I find these lines “This is neither from // the ghosts nor about them. Covering /  cherubs, archons. Filthy birds, hovering / above us. Where are the air traffic  // controllers?” (61) Finkelstein’s irony and crafty drollness are very different Chrusciel’ s engaged emotions, but she too is often droll, indeed wry as if squinting, “I watch wild turkeys / feeding on tiny seeds / of my nouns.” Her words are those of the witness. Finkelstein’s are those of a raconteur who understands how devices call attention to themselves..

One more question for both poets: are each of us, in some sense, displaced “jews” as Jean François Lyotard argued in Heidegger and the jews”? I am thinking now about Paul Celan’s “No one / testifies for the / witness.” A survivor must invent language in order to engage prepossessing truths. Of Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn 2014) I wrote of  “a hoopoe nestled in the chest that is the poet’s immigrant heart,” and I cited this line, ‘The hoopoe is the dybbuk messenger chattering under my bra’” (13). Her humor and her seriousness remain constant.

What if dybbuks were subject to production (an idea that I take from Finkelstein’s recent From the Files of the Immanence Foundation (Dos Madres 2018) . Would they have proliferated more easily in an earlier age than this. And yes the drowning of immigrants in transit might well cause a renewal of their unsettled wanderings as Chrusciel intimates.


Immanence is often my true theme. Both poets touch on that realm. “The Abyss awakes and smiles. / Endless depth. Endless extension. / … Ghosts jam the frequencies. “ (“License,” From the Files of the Immanence Foundation 66). This may cast some doubt on Kant’s “immanent sublime,” as it should, but for Finkelstein as for Chrusciel thare are uncalled of presences whose substance is felt..

Donald Wellman
Nov. 12, 2018

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Manhattan Journal: A Lost Text Recovered

Manhattan Journal: A Lost Text Recovered

I am engrossed by the scaly yellow-brick, art-deco facades of midtown and contemplate the numerous wooden rooftop water tanks. These pages will review two performances at Lincoln Center and engage my visit to the renovated Museum of Modern Art. It is Saturday, July 23, 2005.

Shen Wei Dance Arts will perform at the New York State Theater. In 2008, this group will choreograph the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. The setting of tonight’s performance promises to be luminous. The night before, I attended Patrick Ferneyhough and Charles Bernstein's Shadowtime at the Rose Theater. The review of Shadowtime in the New York Times of July 23 is hostile, that of Philadelphia Inquirer "curious." My review of Shadowtime is mixed. The production testifies to one of the kernel truths of the age, America's fatal self-immolation: overproduction, magnificent overproduction in glass, steel, and multi-story aluminum, crystal, chandelier-hung, seven and eight story foyers. Frank Gehry comes to mind as well as ribbons of interlaced eight lane freeways. Some irony attaches to the venue of the production, the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle. The designers of this tower have been commissioned to reimagine what has been lost at the World Trade Center site. My reprise of postmodern architectural clichés is not an incidental aside. The building is a catalog of jargon employing redoubled, reflective surfaces. My response, composed at a Starbucks in Columbus Circle. It is thematic to this book.

I had already suspected that an operatic, as well as a cinematic ambition, was implicit to the activities of some members of the current avant-garde, including language-centered poets who are my friends. The Gesamtkunstwerk is a vision shared by many modern artists: Wagner, the Dada circle, Russian futurists, or Jean Cocteau, even Blaise Cendrars who gave us a libretto for Darius Milhaud’a La Creation du Monde. Ezra Pound wrote three operas. My suspicions of how spectacle might deride spectacle have been confirmed. “Deriding” while “enacting” catches the appropriate ethos. My appreciation cannot detach itself from the grandiosity and grandiloquence of the production values in Shadowtime. A subversive prospectus for a Gesamtkunstwerk is in play.

The staging by Frédéric Fisbach and set design by Emmanuel Clolus provide a highly-amplified range of sensory experiences. Ferneyhough's music too has a supersaturated quality, oracular and specular. The twelve voices of the chorus appear in their various dramatic functions, robed in a workman-like blue. Stagecraft includes the turning bed or chair, pulled by silent ropes, on which a figure of Walter Benjamin or one of his avatars, has collapsed under the weight of history. A stone, in a final moment of commemoration, becomes a transcendent object, the Angel of History. The production values bring up the crucial issue of vision and its realistic or phenomenal components. To what degree can such transcendent matter be attributed in any sense to the historical Walter Benjamin? Would he allow fact to be subsumed by aura? The production a display of the fantasies of the composer and author.

The intelligence of the libretto by Charles Bernstein, with its at times insouciant irreverence, provides an element of refreshment over against what might be thought of as a sententious approach to the death of Walter Benjamin. To my ears Ferneyhough's music displays a witty deployment of too many avant-garde clichés, sometimes brilliant in the fact of performance, but also too much exactly that, a score ridden with glee and showmanship and wit. The music flirted and bubbled with ethereal woodwind notes, dissonant and muzzy images that seemed to have very little to do with the trenchant realism of the author of the Arcades. "Shadows" suggests auras and ghosts as well as a child's game of hand puppets on the wall. Folk material of this later sort informs aspects of the libretto, but I reject the notion that Benjamin sought to retrieve some form of substitute for the aura associated with religious medievalism, Jewish or Christian. For him the lack of the aura was a healthy fact of modern technological society, a freedom.

A reader familiar with Bernstein's personal iconography will note the intelligence and deep resonance with which it is deployed here, freely, in its own right (rite), clever in itself but puzzling as to the relevance of the wit displayed to Benjamin's thought or life. Bernstein’s well known invocation of the Marx brothers (Groucho, Karl, ...) is here, bathed in a red glow. Also are catches from childhood, mangled in a Wittgensteinian language-game that provides the texts for some of the choral moments in the production. For all my mixed mutterings, I want to identify two musical high points, the pivotal piano/recitative identified as a shadow play, Opus contra naturam, and the epilog, a chorale (assigned to the Angel of History) with raspy bass notes attaining a funereal and pensive somberness, providing a felt connection to Benjamin's suicide. At moments like these, the collaboration between composer and poet reaches it's highest degree of concordance, as words and music seemed independently powerful, yet correspondingly reinforcing. The theme of suicide as a form of waste is supplement by the necessary theme of bearing witness in some form to suicide. Is there a gain or profit in the willful termination of life? Desperation is an unyielding nurse to the wounds we bear.

On the following day, I explored the spaces of the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art. My notebook is full of observations about the different presences within different galleries, the conjunctions of these presences eliciting another form of work with shadows.

One of the first images on view, after darting past the surrealistic illusions of Rene Magritte, was Diego Rivera’s Zapata, with a noble white horse, a prancing mount after a Renaissance canvas by Paolo Uccello, the hero’s eyes not focused on the present moment as are the eyes of his companions. Gift of Abigail Rockefeller. In patriarchal atonement for the removal of Rivera’s mural from Radio City Center? I favor surrealistic steeds over surrealism itself. Breton recognized and critiqued the market value of the surrealistic style. Like him I value it most when it emerges in the corners of an expanding modern world. In defiance this perception, the Museum of Modern Art is, hands down, because of wealth and publicity, the center of modernism. The purpose the new hanging is to display that fact. And yet I could not turn my glance aside.

Rivera’s Zapata hangs opposite Otto Dix’s expressionistic doctor. The obesely round doctor with his head lamp, a large reflective mirror frames a head that embodies unjustified smugness. Dr. Mayer-Hermann, represents a dispassionate but well-fed genocide. If chance turns the viewer around, back to the Rivera, there is a disturbing image to its left of a head giving birth to a head by David Siqueiros. These juxtapositions suggest the curator’s  unsettling understanding of the combinations and permutations in service of both display and appreciation. The market value of sensationalism has animated these choice. A turn of the head leads from freak gynecology to screaming parthenogenesis. Other than the series by Jacob Lawrence, no other paintings by African-Americans were on offer in the tenth gallery with the exception of the necessary gesture, a collage by Romaire Beardon which has since been put in storage.

On the fifth floor are the riches of MOMA’s European collection, on the fourth are Americans of the New York School. Ferdinand Léger and Wilfredo Lam gained a new power to draw my attention: Léger because of his association with Blaise Cendrars on whom I am currently writing and Lam because his invention of a pictorial tropical forest that rhymes with other forms of the birth of négritude in the Caribbean. Lam illustrated some of Aimé Césaire’s work.

The conceptual relation between artists and books is well documented, both on the fifth floor and in the graphics gallery: the zaum poet Aleksi Kruchenykh’s suprematist books, like photo albums on blue construction paper with odd bits, squares and filaments, breaking the boundary of the page, as well as an actual copy of Rodchenko’s  design for Mayakofsky’s Pro Eto. I often wish my hand could work in my notebooks in a way that approaches the freshness of design on pages like these. Futurist books like that of Tullio d’Albisola display a raw typography. Similar to my current notebook projects, providing models for possible approaches, are examples of the integration of text with the deconstruction of the visual field in works by Cy Twombley or Joseph Beuys. In Beuy’s Eurasian-Siberian Symphony (1963), a dead rabbit is bound, cruelly to a spear, by multiple coils on the legs. The rabbit’s carcass forms the north of this cosmic-terrestrial map. Of Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, the third is text, the second is a photograph of the actual chair on display, conceptual art manifest. An important  discovery in this vein is the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

My numerous mental excursions today have included a visit to Matisse’s The Red Room, the tonality, a blood burgundy, not a luminescent red. Cézanne’s swatch like brush strokes become Mondrian’s flakes of dried tidal mud from parched and eroded riverbeds. The art of the fragment adjusted for shades of illumination descends from the use of tesserae by Greek muralists. In a similar vein, some of Klee’s work has a quality of rough shingled squares adjacent to other similar squares, for instance, Fire in the Evening (1929). This art of scaling forms with rough textures is my private idiom for nightmares. Joaquin Torres-Garcia from Uruguay uses a similar language. Jesus Rafael-Soto (1923-2005), more stark than any of those mentioned, aesthetically disturbing rather than balanced and proportioned, is his construction of chicken wire, rusted, looped freely like numerous broken musical strings, attached to the rightmost of two vertically disposed beams of aged and worn wood, raspy, unyielding surfaces, all wobbly on little bent nail legs. Balance in overlay here yields to the ephemeral support for an extremely disproportioned super structure. Untitled. 1959-60. Wood, painted wood, metal and nails.

At lunch in the museum, I wrote: “To continue with the theme of overproduction in the USA, the answer I often assume relates to the outsized wealth of the country, a reverential showiness. A museum like MoMA is largely a means for displaying wealth on a suitably outsized, aggrandizing scale. The walls, an unending hit parade, establish market value in the process of selection and rejection. MoMA is thorough in its identification of the state of legal arrangements relative to items of suspect provenance, those involving confiscation by Nazis, for instance. The place of Malevich’s Suprematist Composition is secured by such an evidentiary notice. One can neither censure nor avoid the richness of these acquisition. These riches are more than a supplement to artistic achievement. Apart from individual expressivity these images are all of art that I know. They function as my vocabulary. I learn through engagement all the while suspicious of the road map.

After lunch I choose to  return to view Picasso’s Ma Jolie. I had forgotten that it  is housed at MoMA, surely his most private and most abstract image. It’s scale is far more modest than digitalized projections of its mysteries might suggest. That reassured me. The scale almost homey, but also only a part of the generalized wash of spectacular items on display. The open quadrants or cubes of this paining in their charcoal grays and luminescent creams intersect with my primary nightmare or preconscious imaginary, weathered shakes or shingles in endless, destabilizing overlap.

Somewhere in the raw observations of my notebook is a mediation on slices in a surface. Mieke Bal comments on the baroque fold that is the slit representing the spear wound penetrating Christ’s skin in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601-1602). I had to wonder if the encrusted opening in Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Comment 1960 were not an allusion to the way in which issues of flatness and abstraction fuse throughout the history modern art. Donald Judd’s Relief 1961 forms another wry commentary on the subject, an ordinary bread pan embedded in a thick, rough black square.

Deleuze had commented that Lucio Fontana’s. Spatial Concept: Expectations. 1959 makes space visible by magnifying the very topography of the slit. How space flows through the slices in the canvas. Picasso had sensed even this potentiality. There is a dart of blue that I never before noticed outlining the right thigh and crotch of the woman, second from, the left in Demoiselles d’Avignon. The boy who leads the horse of 1906 has had his penis brushed out. I had assumed there was a loincloth there. The breasts of the pregnant Francois Gilot in Woman Looking in a Mirror, actually seem to swell. The Seated Bather, so skeleton-like, castrating mother image that she is, also has a bit of seashell carapace on the upper part of her spine. It never fails, in the case of  Picasso, that a new observation sets my mind to a skewed spinning. Impossible to order the still persistent impressions, conflated, dissonant. Some reviewers have found the new MOMA to be dully utilitarian. They miss the intimacy provided by niches in the former layout. I found the large spaces elegant, and the contradictions embraced in the passage from object to object to be revelatory.

The sky tonight is the most resplendent blue and the air crisp but also baking hot, a surreal desert air in the city. The performance by Shen Wei Dance Arts consisted of two unrelated pieces. The first, Near the Terrace, Part 1 presents a remarkable series of visual tableaux, modeled on paintings by Paul Delvaux, all dancers seeming to float in a chalky mesmerizing atmosphere of coiled tensions. Only at moments is there a darting release when a body flies, parallel to the floor into the outstretched arms of another. Otherwise motion is extreme slow motion, as if underwater, requiring impossible to imagine levels of athleticism for the dancers to maintain the required poise. The human form, as often in Delvaux’s case is bare breasted, male or female, with long skirts, creating an androgynous rather than an individualized identity. The music was from Fur Alina by Alvo Pärt. Eight, ten, or twelve dancers, in different patterns, crossed the floor or scaled a wall, imperceptible steps or leg-over-leg scuttles. Changing patterns of support (Deleuzian machines) allowed a body to rest on or crawl over or be carried by another, but there was no communication, other than touch, no sense of looking at one another, no sense of a message or urgency, only a trance of graceful forms, hallucinatory coordination in an atmosphere both dense and translucent.

The second piece, Map (2005) is very ambitious, breaking down the choreographers unique vocabulary in six different parts before re-assembling the whole in the seventh segment. Shen Wei is from China and has worked in the USA for ten years now, presenting for each of the last three years at the Lincoln Center Festival. The music for Map (2005) was Steve Reich’s Desert Music, a composition that in turn uses words from William Carlos Williams’ poem The Desert Music. The score in its minimalist insistence on the relation between volume and repetition has only an abstract relation to Williams’s lyrics, the poetry standing at a barely perceptible third degree of correspondence to the choreography. Still, whether Williams’s presence could be felt or not, there is a palpably American idiom in play throughout Map (2005). To a degree the setting and some of the gestures were reminiscent of Westside Story, the felt presence of Leonard Bernstein’s genius, further adding to the impression of an American idiom. According to the programs notes, Desert Music is conceived in a conscious relation to the choreographer’s signature bounces and unwinding spiral forms. Two specific motions that seem distinctive of Shen Wei’s style are a leg over scuttle of the figure prone on the floor, fast here as opposed to ethereally slow in Near the Terrace, Part 1. A second movement makes the body into a very floppy coil. Figures in some early street scenes by John Sloan have a similarly exaggerated plastic feel. Still Map (2005)is relatively uninspired, possibly unoriginal in comparison to Near the Terrace, Part I. Yet rewardingly, for all the opacity of the work, its bouncing and spiraling parts come together in the seventh and final section, which is kaleidoscopic and gritty.

One lovely aspect of my experiences this weekend were random conversations with people that started up when exiting the theater and continued onto the streets, both nights. After Shadowtime I found myself exchanging views with a male dancer from the Netherlands, remarkable the consensus of feeling that we shared. After the performance by Shen Wei Dance Arts, I found myself in conversation with a woman who works in one of the offices at Lincoln Center. Even though she said that she was hard-pressed to get home and feed her infant son, as she wheeled her bicycle with infant carrier down the sidewalks past the garish Time-Warner complex, possibly the new heart of NYC, Trump Tower being diagonally across Broadway, she could not stop expostulating with passion on the subject of the skill of the Shen Wei Dance Arts dancers. My feelings only partially match hers, remarkable though that she would share her passion for this subject with me, a huge orange moon overhead.

Preparing for bed, at home in New Hampshire now, two memories come back from the museum: Rauschenberg’s brilliant colors. Solid primary tones, baroque lighting, tracing the edges in the areas of saturated color in the figurative areas while a more suffused light makes a ghostly wash over the collaged posters. His overpainting transforms collage into a way of painting, distinct from the tectonics of assembling found materials (in Schwitters for instance, who comes closest to the same effect). Each work is a studied and painterly composition. The second impression, detaching itself from the visual wash in my forebrain: Creeley gazes from R. B. Kitaj’s The Ohio Gang (1964), his eye like a light source, follows his green arm and hand, falling on a man in a panama hat who interviews a nude woman whom he holds on his lap as another weaves a yellow ribbon, a second hint of color, into her hair. A red-eyed ghoul pushes a baby carriage. The motion recursive to the matter most central to these pages: words in transformation: Bernstein’s by Ferneyhough,  Williams’s by Reich’s music as interpreted by Shen Wei, and now, thanks to Kitaj, an inscrutable novel, referencing Creeley, in comic, serio-scary collage. The more the poet’s words are dissociated from the schemes that animate the visual artist or choreographer with whom a form of correspondence has come to be  a collaboration, the more then dissociation allows freedom in composition. A similar species of connection between motion and music was the heart of the Cage-Cunningham collaborations. Functioning like a motor at the heart of a crowded New York City intersection, people surge together and filter away, a pursuit of values that emerges in previously non-existent interspaces.