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Monday, October 28, 2013

Three Books: Finkelstein, Kimmelman, Murphy

Norman Finkelstein, Track, Shearsman Books, 2012.
Track is a big work, a metaphysical poem, twelve or more years in development, that situates the material word, if the word is ever in any sense material, as the spring to love or the hinge between love and the abyss. Abyssal space is populated by conceptual ghosts: “Guest Ghost Host / three figures with one face” (219). The ghost enters in the first of the three books that form Track and continues as the emergent bass; “Still a stranger / here at home” (219). A study in zero-sum gaming, perhaps the word is materially most present when it is found in text or framed by poetry. Elements remind me of Borges and Mackey, of Spicer and Duncan, Ronald Johnson. “Illusory power / real but illusory / phantoms of our making / and not our making” (195). Finkelstein lives in a ghost-ridden world that is also an author-haunted world as if seeking reunion with a lost father, not at rest. The text invokes generations of scribes; it is replete with strangeness. The convolutions and repetitions of his logic lead Finkelstein to seek allies, “To free oneself of sententious platitudes / music the ally / silence the ally” (226). His words at their most lyrical fuse boundaries, “Between the living and the dead / the past and the present // The dead make a present / of their future presence // In and out of time” (282). The couplets read like hemistiches, especially “The dead make a present / of their future presence” – chiastic prosody embodies the convolutions of argument, beautifully.

Burt Kimmelman, Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, Blazevox Books, 2012.

I find snapshots as incisive as any In William Carlos Williams, “The mother, father and grown / daughter sit in overcoats, / bending over their soup and” (“Early March Afternoon,” 205). Kimmelman forces enjambments, using the short line as a unit of attention. This volume, enigmatically illustrated by Basil King, has a relation to the visual arts that is to me draughtsman-like: “the hair line / across // the eye, the red sun, these // are the creatures of the air” (“Miro at the Guggenheim, 8.13.87,” 60). It is good that these poems are not lost, that we have a collection with this range. What interests me are the profound emotions that animate his lines. Seeming diffidence yields grief:

Purple asters fall

on the walk after

rain – wet leaves, too, have

dropped, bereft of home,

stuck to stone, to dirt

                             “After Rain October” 43

Out by my rural mailbox purple asters, sprays of goldenrod, and whisps of red-orange bittersweet, remind, as does Kimmelman’s work, of the relation between perishable nature and the arts of composition.


Robert Murphy, From Behind the Blind, Dos Madres, 2013

“Bodies like sticks of butter in the refrigerator” (34) he writes. Later he invokes stacked cordwood (36) and cuts of meat (47). The prose harbors intimacies that resembles a near-death experience (as others would have it), visionary and desperate and haunting. Such are our immanent realities (as I put it) but Robert Murphy’s are also akin to a magical realism that some will find dated. Emersonian perhaps in his imaginative embrace of both the living and the dead. There is much death here for an apparently pastoral exercise. “For who, / or whatever sleeps in me tonight / sleeps dead (“At Age 60”). His words intend a comforting realism, “the return of the bison” (43).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

An Apologia Addressed to Ammiel Alcalay

An Apologia Addressed to Ammiel Alcalay

Dear Ammiel, I’ve just read your A Little History.[1] I envy your intense political passion, As you write essential memories have been erased from the public discourse. I share your moral outrage at the consequences. Part One of A little History, “If All the World Were Paper,” drew my overwhelming emotional support. I had not suspected your connection to Gil Ott and his Paper Air previously. I worked with Gil myself on several fronts in the first years of editing the O.ARS anthologies (Coherence, Perception, Translations: Experiments in Reading, etc.). Gil’s deliberate and quiet gentleness allowed him to serve as the interlocutor you required in completing your Cairo Notebook. Gil’s presence in anyone’s life was invaluable. For me, his presence cut through the static of my world and allowed true listening for the time and then came his unfortunate early passing. I will summarize what I hear in your book as best as I can. Your theme would seem to be how “our cultural borders are ever more heavily policed, as mop-up operations to consolidate official versions of history move into high gear… [for purposes of] American cultural domination” (23). The personal and very human element underlying your political experience as author and translator adds credibility and passion to the pages of your book. It’s often said that the victor writes history but seldom have victories been so embarrassing and sickening, so sapping of a peoples’ integrity as in Vietnam or Iraq. And your recitation of evidence of the misuse of history leaves little doubt as to the importance of the resistance that has motivated figures like Olson, Rukeyser, Dorn, Duncan, Baraka, and di Prima, some of the leading figures of your tale, persons who opted for truth-telling rather than assimilation into available power structures.
In particular, I have thought about your portrayal of “the enormous stakes in memory” that affects our understanding of the Vietnam experience in the 1960s. Here lies, you argue, clear evidence for the origins and operations of the “national security state” (92). Such stimulus has led you to follow Olson back to sources and documents in order to recover understandings and memories that have been lost. Olson crucially coined the term “post-modern” (now “postmodern”) as a way to the future by means of a return to origins and methods of reporting that require individual verification. I am impelled to borrow a term that Heriberto Yépez has introduced into our collective discourse: “neo-memory,” the remanufacturing of history to serve the immediate interests of power elites. How similar your take and Heriberto’s are, although you and he differ greatly on how to measure Olson on the scale that implicates imperialism and self-interest, as twins in the realm of poetry and its ambitions and hopes. At least the three of us, including myself, take poetry seriously enough to engage the question of its fundamental social value. You both have “outsider” eyes that allow you to measure the effects of the Americanization of peoples not already assimilated to globalized modernism. I too have “outsider” eyes but they have been compromised by complicity. My residence in Germany (for as long as five years before I reached thirty) occurred in relation to the US Armed forces occupation of that country. My other foreign residencies have been brief and I was usually perceived as identifiably alien to those among whom I lived. I think this was Olson’s situation too. As sympathetic as he may well have been to Mayan peoples and experience, he necessarily remained a “big man” from the North.
Considering the evidence that you cite throughout A Little History, it is impossible to disagree with you on the import of our diplomatic missteps in North Africa and the Middle East. I take deeply to heart the lessons of Vietnam, over which any consensus is the product of manufactured history. Yes, as you argue, in his run for the Presidency, Kerry had to reframe his anti-war history if he hoped to win the election. He failed and I have to regret the outcome that we have endured. But, as the Vietnam war wound down, Kerry seemed to me at the time (around 1971) already to be guilty of parlaying a species of anti-war resentment into political power. He did not speak for me or my experiences as a veteran. I had a similar problem with the film, The Deer Hunter(1978), starring Robert De Niro, a Hollywood generated daddy-hero figure.  One aspect of what bothered me then and still bothers me is the betrayal of so many beautiful young men and women by the American government that we served. I attribute my brother’s death through the lingering after-effects of Agent Orange exposure to that betrayal. Remember the scurrilous rhetoric of “love it or leave it”? That rhetoric is a right-wing precursor to tea-party proclamations whose grounding principle seems to be to blame the weak and unfortunate for any and all social ills. Support for my disgust with American duplicity with respect to “our” military history comes in the form of two new books, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and their Country by Andrew Bacevich and Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel, reviewed in the current BookForum (Fall 2013) by Jeff Stein. Take it as a fact that, in a seeming reversal of the ignominy that greeted returning Vietnam vets, patriotic spectacles presented during major league baseball games and the like, having been staged supposedly to honor vets, often strike the vets themselves as a toxic brew of hollow 2pageantry and posturing. Such posturing is a sickening fact of American spectacle. I hear another form of such posturing when I hear Kerry justify the use of force in American diplomacy today, justifying the recent Navy Seal strike in Libya, for instance. I admit, my middle has often been to the left of what is practicable, tinged with a spice of delight in anarchy when it abrupts upon tidy minds.
                It was during the Vietnam Era that I first read Olson, in a U. S. Army snack bar in Germany. It was the nonconformist aspect of his page that most delighted me. I wore rumpled fatigues and scuffed boots. Because of protest and disgruntlement within the ranks, the military then was not a regime that insisted as heavily on conformity as the all-volunteer army does. Also at this time I was reading Beowulf in Old English, memorizing chunks of what I heard to be swells and sweeps of a tide under the accentual beat. What distinguishes the character of Beowulf, so the poem itself declares, is his earnestness. I recognized Olson to be an earnest individual also. I liked the tenor of his verse. I felt my own duplicity keenly: serving and yet mistrusting the motives for war. I began to read difficult texts, Olson or Zukofsky, partially from a desire to obscure and to distinguish myself. I embraced an elitism that my own working class background did not support in any measure, without material measure or spiritual conviction. Of course, I read these texts also purely for pleasure. That USCGS map of Gloucester Harbor on the Jargon/Corinth edition of Maximus brought waves of homesickness for my own Cranberry Island, a simple trigger. My academic plans, delayed and interfered with by that unwanted war, were being redirected by engaging Olson’s Maximus.
You site the discussion of Olson as a “cult figure.” This matter requires a gingerly precise examination. I agree with you that when academia or the mainstream press like the New York Times identifies Olson as a cult figure the effect of the labelling is to obscure or silence any assessment of his true historical and cultural importance (109). And by “him” I mean his work and its influence, not always or necessarily the man for he is subject to moods. It is also clear from the final pages of A Little History that for you Olson has been and remains a deeply emotional presence of transformative importance. I have known artists in ways that have been personally transformative also. I rank Bertolt Brecht among these although I did not know him personally. His views on social fact mesh well with the views of activist scholars whom I have loved. His antiheroic views on “cult figures” and “heroes” are foundational for a poetics of “social fact.” One statement from his Galileo reads “unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” Attempting to elucidate the true nature of fascism for students, I have quoted this remark endlessly. We live among corporate fascists, I have argued. There is the unfortunate case of Ezra Pound. I join with Thersites to condemn all the heroes of the Illiad in their self-seeking vanity. I choose the subversive position for multiple reasons and I will be subversive with respect to the adulation of both main stream and counter-cultural heroes. The persons who taught me to hold dearly to this view were civil rights activists and pacifists during the struggle to end the war in Vietnam. They were also a tribe of self-identified faggots.
It’s vain for me to attempt to take the measure of Charles Olson in this context. Your arguments largely underwrite my own less perfectly informed assessments. In one case, you write, “Despite recent critiques that would see Olson as the imperial outsider projecting the white world’s fantasy upon non-white peoples, it is well nigh impossible to assimilate such readings into either his lacerating critiques of North American imperial domination or his own actions in decidedly removing himself from access to power structures that were available to him”(202). The first part of this claim is addressed to Heriberto Yépez, but it also encapsulate a critique that several anthropologists have made about Olson’s Rousseauian language when he writes, “It is so very beautiful how animals human eyes are when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes” (“Human Universe” (57). The second element concerning Olson’s removal of himself from locations of power is extolled throughout A Little History. You argue persuasively that removal of the self from mainstream co-optation, seeing for one’s self (‘istorin’), and a kinetics of a writing that is true to perception and as quick as breathing are the guiding lights of Olson’s ethics. These virtues are abundantly exemplified throughout the text of A Little History. These are virtues I share and admire but putting ideas into action involves a degree of compromise. Shameful compromises, I admit. A distorted Puritan ethics consoles me. “It’s your work that matters,” intones the melancholy spirit of Hawthorne or Melville and Olson himself even though it often happens that your best effort is swallowed by a cosmic silence. Ammiel, you have stepped forth as one who is passionately resistant to silence. You extol Olson’s actions and those of the many members of Olson’s tribe, embracing their adherence to outsider standards for ethical living. The importance of these values and positions vis-a-vis mainstream political and social history is undeniable. You present the value of this history and the need to embed it in living memory with surges of passion, surges capable of withering oppositional positions that are identified often with academia understood now finally to be  the servant of corporate capitalism in the different forms that it has taken since WW II. The implications of your theses are vast, identifying distorted and suppressed histories of liberation struggles in North Africa, the Middle East and other regions as the unseen bedrock of American policies that operate to cover-up and contain resistance in the name of securing a specious freedom. Let’s acknowledge that this is the context for poetry and that this context makes careful and earnest modes of expression invaluable.

[1] Los Angeles and NY: re: public / UpSet Press, 2013.

About this blog: I write about the poetry and related materials when I desire to express myself. I hope my observations have an audience. I do not consider what I am doing to be book reviews although I make careful readings and study the sources of the subjects that interest me. I have no sponsors and few allegiances beyond what is evident from my words. --Donald Wellman

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Michael Heller, Introduction to his Poetry

Gloucester Writers Center, Sept. 25, 2013
MICHAEL HELLER is a poet, essayist, and critic. He is often associated with objectivist poets, such as Carl Rakosi and George Oppen, whose work he has explicated and continues to emulate. His book of essays, Convictions Net of Branches, now holds a classic status in the history of American objectivism. But such labelling sells his poetic genius short and misses its perceptive and magical charm. His first published poems were composed after a short visit to Nerja on the coast of Spain in 1966, an area that I know well. He and I share many common reference points, both as persons and poets: conversations in multiple venues over the last 30 years or so, poetry readings in and around NYC, and importantly in Orono, Maine, years ago, we shared fascinating conversations with Armand Schwerner, author of The Tablets, a foundational text of contemporary gnostic poetry. We have crossed paths so often because of the influences we share and the commitments that underlie our writing. I especially remember a brief essay of his where a sympathy for Louis Zukofsky’s moral ethos is the dominant theme. You may know that when I edited the O.ARS anthologies that beautiful conundrum that weds ethics and the measures in which poetics delight was foremost among the concepts that then intrigued me. This has been true also of Michael Heller in his highly distinguished career, now culminating with This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010, Nightboat, 2012 (CP below).

In his Zukofsky essay, Heller warns us to be cautious about “the aleatory free-wheeling” that seems all too common in today’s poetry. At the same time, his poetry is not by any means a constructed thing in the formalist sense associated with some language-centered poets or the new conceptualist poets; instead his work is open to processes of perception following upon perception and is rooted in largely quotidian realities. Perhaps the possibility of form as immanent within true perception identifies a faith to which Heller and I both adhere. What you must do, if you are so inclined, is to listen to the world that impinges upon the senses. Sometimes abruptly:

“The language falls, / a chunk of disembodied sound through space.” ( CP 235, from In the Builded Place 1989).
Often more subtly:

“One heard the sound, in my case, muffled piano chords which
set up a slight saw-edged vibration as though beneath the skin”
There is a hint of violence, a startle effect in both of these responses to the phenomenal world. At the edge of perception, the identity of objects and their forms is at stake,

“and suddenly an identity was losing base, as if a yearning

not to be form barely shimmered through those veiled processions

of chords” (CP 438, from Eschaton 2009)

Heller’s poems are obsessive about the form of words and have titles like “At Word Brink” (CP 411). For me one the most brilliant poems in Eschaton, the volume from which I have been quoting most often, is “The Chronicle Poet.” A chronicle, as you may remember, is a registration of events, very linear in form, hewing to the order of perception. In this poem he writes, “One tries pulling syllables clean, like freeing / old nails from plaster.” (CP 401). 

A search for language that is freeing but rooted, or “embedded” in a friable substance like plaster as those nails are, together with an attentive and caring response to the mundane or ordinary, for me, that is Michael practice at its best and I think it is also true of Michael Heller’s sense of himself, even from the first unwinding of words and syllables in infancy.

Listening only prompts continued efforts at listening and can lead to an existential despair:
“The word's ring deflected

“in the baffles of the city into space, echo bounced from storefront to tower,
fading toward soundlessness--ear cupped to catch emptiness, translation

“to Paradise from which speech fled.”

This is Michael Heller at his most mystical, a response to Jewish liturgy that concludes “and underneath, as though one sensed through flesh, the delicate structure // of beths and vavs on parchment, the inner and outer of secrets. (CP 374, from Exigent Futures, 2003). The cited structure is a matter of subtle differences in the sound stream, nothing more. Materialism subverts gnosticsm and we have that quality that above I identified as “a perceptive and magical charm.”

Welcome Michael to the Gloucester Writers Center

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review of the Empire of Neomemory [Re-posted]

In 2010, I published my response to The Empire of Neomemory, in the Worcester Review. My thoughts were first delivered during the Olson Centennial in Worcester. With the English-language release of this important work, I'd like to repost that response now.

Review: Heriberto Yépez, El imperio de la neomemoria (Oaxaca: Almadía, 2007)

Donald Wellman, May 17, 2010

In his recent study of Charles Olson’s poetics, El imperio de la neomemoria (Oaxaca: Almadía, 2007), HeribertoYépez finds Olson’s personality and his work to be symbolic of North American imperialism. Yépez’s insights deserve a degree of credence, although much of what he says may initially seem over the top, thin with respect to textual support for his arguments and replete with inscrutable neologism and unfounded claims. But there is passion in the exposition, a charged sincerity; and, after all, Yépez is writing as a Mexican on Olson’s appropriation of Mexican material, among other subjects. Troublesome for some readers will be those claims that link an unresolved Oedipal complex with the motive force of American imperial expansion, making Olson the emblematic American monster who seeks to devour a mother who is identified with Mexico, with the land and its indigenous people. Others, including myself, have commented on Olson’s subjectivity. The linkage between Oedipus and post-World War Two imperialism is also worth pursuing, as, notably, Deleuze and Guattari have done.


Another argument made by Yépez qualifies Olson’s postmodern desire to turn time into space, as emblematic of fascism in its reordering of history for self-serving and autocratic purposes (such reordering is the meaning of neomemoria in Yépez’s title). In this reading, all of Maximus becomes, kitsch and simulacrum, a manufactured reality that replaces the historical world with a spatial plenum of fragments, arranged in paratactic fusillades that are overwhelming in their onslaught, replacing lived experience with artificially constructed experience, turning night into day, as often Olson, in fact, did. For Yépez, a return to Sumer under the sign of the postmodern does not obviate the social responsibilities generated by modern history: genocide and nuclear holocaust. Of course this is my summary, but I think a fair representations of the assertions that will be too quickly dismissed by readers who see Olson differently.


It strikes me as necessary to learn to see ourselves from the point of view of the other, especially scholars and poets in other cultures who have chosen to study what America now offers her neighbors. And I will accept the claim made by Yépez that Olson was unable to see himself in other than solipsistic terms. This is likely a failure of perception or observation on the part of millions of Americans who have visited Mexico. Olson may in fact have a different ethos of observation than these many tourists. He famously expresses his admiration for how the Mayans carry themselves with no false modesty and a level of openness to contact with others, and yet this same Olson does not consider how others may see him or feel about his behavior or claims. This blindness, this one-sided openness, motivates many of the arguments advanced by Yépez. El imperio de la neomemoria may, if you have patience with the exposition, offer a corrective to Olson’s partial vision of Mexico, but this correction is also animated by a justified animosity for American imperialism; it was perhaps too convenient to fuse Olson’s self-centeredness with the American monomania to consume and shape the newly emerging world of global capitalism, founded as it is on consumption, the genocide of indigenous and African peoples, slavery, and environmental degradation. Again this is not an original argument. José Martí made a similar point about North American imperialism in 1891. The degree to which Olson’s poetics is emblematic of such imperialism is the disturbing question that Yépez places before the reader.


The passage below captures some of the strength that is at the heart of Yépez’s argument:

Olson confluía con el otro. Fundía el saber del otro en le suyo. De Dahlberg, Pound y Cagli pasaría, poco después, a Frances Boldereff y Robert Creeley. Si la obra de Olson se refiere, centralmente, a la expansión hacia lo otro, hacia la fusión y apropiación de ello, esta incorporación también opera en los limites de su propia existencia personal. Olson devora al otro, lo traga por su propia vida y, al mismo tiempo, es devorado por su presa. Ballena que devora Jobs. Olson es, fundamentalmente, un antropófago. Y es también lo canibalizado. (73)


[Olson mixes himself with the other. He bases his knowledge of the other in his own self-knowledge. From Dahlberg, Pound and Cagli, he went on, shortly after to, Frances Boldereff and Robert Creeley. If the work of Olson refers centrally to expansion in the direction of the other, toward the fusion and appropriation of it, this incorporation also works at the limits of his own personal existence. Olson devours the other, he consumes it to support his own life and, at the same time, he is devoured by his catch. The whale who devours Job. Olson is fundamentally, a cannibal. And he is also the cannibalized.]

In this instance, Yépez offers a recognizable version of Olson’s self-projection. In the next passage that I cite, the theme is the Americanization of the world; Yépez responds to a passage in Call me Ishmael that reads, “For the American has the Roman feeling about the world. It is his, to dispose of. He strides it, with possession of it. His property. Has he not conquered it with his machines? He bends its resources to his will. The pax of legions? the Americanization of the world. Who else is lord? (Collected Prose 66). Yépez responds:

Olson, como puede verse, no es critica de esta “Americanización del mundo.” Fanático del New Deal, triunfalista Democrática, Olson se volvió un vocero, muchas veces implícito; otras, demasiado abierto, del imperialismo. A la vez, Olson es consciente de que tal “señorío,” el del Capitán Ahab, el de América, conduce al naufragio, como Melville lo supo también. “El colapso de un héroe a través del solipsismo que echa un mundo abajo” (CP 66). El solipsismo—todo solipsismo es pantópico—es lo que derriba al mundo, al imperio y, a asimismo, es su primer motor.  Olson, sin embargo, es conquistado por la belleza del solipsismo. Le parece sublime el intento. Le parece trágicamente bello, bellamente trágico, la muerte por hipertrofia, la fragmentación sobreviviente. Sus restos en el fondo del mar.” (83)


[Olson as can be seen is no critic of this “Americanization of the world.” A New Deal fanatic, Democratic Party braggart, Olson became a spokesperson for imperialism, often implicit; other times, excessively open. At the same time, Olson is conscious that such sovereign arrogance as that of Ahab, that of America, lead to shipwreck, as Melville also recognized. “A collapse of a hero through solipsism which brings down a world” (CP 66). Solipsism—all solipsism is pantopico—is that which brings down the world, the imperium and, at the same time, it is its prime mover. Olson, without doubt, is conquered by the beauty of solipsism. To him its purpose is sublime. It is tragically beautiful to him, beautifully tragic, death by hypertrophy, the surviving fragmentation. Its remains on the bottom of the sea.]

Talk about melancholy, a theme that sometimes haunts Olson’s poetry.


Olson sought, from his post in Lerma, to map the proportions of the human universe. He blends two facets of the same reality, that of the ego or self awareness and that of the cosmos. For him, the Mayan glyph captures this two fold sense of reality; it is an equal to the projective.


Olson’s experiences in Mexico do not figure as largely into Yépez’s account as one might expect. The “Human Universe” and “The Mayan Letters” are presented as evidence of solipsism, not as documents of intrinsic historical or literary interest. In citations to this material, or to correspondence with Creeley, he sometimes plays fast and loose in his juxtaposition of references, for instance quoting from a letter to Creeley from April 16th that contains a derogatory reference to Mayan culture as embodying his feelings just prior to his departure in July and therefore as representing his attitude in general toward the Mayan people (172). Nonetheless, there are useful presentations of the Mayan calendrical system, on the sense of time in Native American grammars, and on the multivalent identity of Quetzalcoatl.


Let me indicate the proportions of the Olson that I love and Yépez excoriates: Olson’s take on language, which is what excited him about the glyphs that he encountered, derives as much from Emerson as it does from Pound. For Olson, the image is not only glyph but also physical fragment of a constructed reality. This view is similar to that of both Miguel Covarrubias and Diego Rivera. The idea is that expression can be built from repeated blocks with a certain formulaic set of properties running through those blocks as design. Importantly, in this regard, we are not talking about the construction of an abstraction free floating from the hard reality of sweat and unremitting sun. We are talking about physical encounters with the stone. Envision here, Olson laboring on a small hill overlooking the sea salvaging talismanic fragments found in an unregistered site from the machines that were grinding the limestone into cement products. True Olson tends toward abstraction and his imagination works often at a theoretical distance from the subject. Aren’t texts objects too? Olson work is clearly instrumental in the postmodern treatment of language as a factual and core level of experience. Discovering the drawings of Hipólito Sánchez served to charge Olson’s level of theoretical excitement and in that sense helped him to read what he could of the Mayan record. I underscore that much of what Olson encountered in Mexico generated both a physical response and an act of the active intelligence. Olson suffered multiple insecurities but he expresses his bodily and psychic reality in a holistic way, one penetrating the other, not as detached layers floating free of one another. Inside and outside merge continually for Olson, frequently in The Mayan Letters and consistently from early poems like “The Moebius Strip” to the Maximus text that begins “Outer Darkness – Inner Schoodic” (589), among others that I might cite.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Olson's Gift

Olson’s gifts: quite obviously includes his intelligence, his ear, among other powers. Charles Olson has also given us a method: a method of applying the ear, as if were an intuitive force, to the creation of poetry. His method and his works then constitute his gift to his readers. There is the subjective genitive to be associated with his talents and the objective genitive: “Projective Verse” and Maximus. These are the subjects of my work as commentator and theorist. To add a twist: subjective properties also tie in with visionary and shamanic forces. There is an interface between an individual’s subjectivity and the place in the world from which he sees and acts upon his fellows. From Olson’s troubled subjectivity, poetic power springs, especially his tropes and images. In the literature of curing and healing a similar connection is often seen. The patient becomes an adept in the cult that has helped him or her heal. For all his consciousness of what ails the polis as it has struggled to manifest itself on this continent after European contact, Olson’s diagnosis remains at best speculative. I do not see him as a community organizer although those committed to such hope often cite Olson’s example. He is Herodotus not Jane Adams and that may be enough. The ability to see and identify poison and antidote is the most problematic of the shamanic gifts. We have not yet found the therapies for which Olson foresaw the need. The polis is subject to supra-personal even global forces. The individual is an Ishmael adrift on a journey that tests collective human powers. It would be fatally messianic to say that Olson is both the gift and the giver. I may well be done with my meditations on this topic. Utilitarian for a paragraph but too solipsistic. In his reading of Ahab (or perhaps Ezra Pound), Olson sensed the dangers that stem from size. Today the ability to alienate that comes with size and intelligence marks the work of even the smallest poet. A strategy to resist the stroking of the ego, a negative capability that silences that voice within and allows us to listen, remains Olson’s most valuable gift.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Reading Erín Moure's The Unmemntioable [including notes on conceptualism and lyric poetry]

Erín Moure. The Unmemntioable. Toronto: Anansi, 2012

Reading Erín Moure’s The Unmemntioable, I sense a delicacy of vision: “shaking the shadow of soil” (90). The language holds a tenderness for her deceased mother, for the soil of her mother’s earth, for her mother’s native village near or on the borderland between Poland and the Ukraine. Threnody and love poem, The Unmemntioable, is a poem of courage, “îndrăzneşte.” Moure’s language, that of the book’s title, for example, fails to resolve within normative expectations for orthography. Different character sets (Ukrainian, Romanian) coexist with the Roman alphabet. I would like to argue that her language finds sound before meaning, sound that is meaning of a subjective rather than a conceptual order, but I also hope to resist an argument on poetry and subjectivity, one that I am often too wont to make. My voice sounds shrill to me when I do so. Yet Moure invites meditation on the borders between subjectivity and material reality. Her page invites contemplation of its physical nature, the relation of bold face to a grayed out face, for instance. With respect to meaning, she situates the axis of vision with subtitles, reproductions of manuscript pages, and citations. Quotations from Celan, Adorno, Agamben illustrate her awareness of complexities that invite subjective meditation. Often she changes voices and persona, another of her characteristic  tendencies, allowing perspectives to suggest presences. Her poetry evokes the lyricism of medieval, Galician “cantigas” with which she has worked before (O caidoro). It is that quality of cathexis within the heart of imagery that draws me into her world of careful listening.


The postmodern condition is to have no history, to come from a border that has been erased. Does my thought only echo Lyotard’s umbrella? Subjectivity too is erased. Perception slips into uncertainty when holding your dying mother in your arms. Identity is a shifting construct: “mom, you are this horse / we are this calf / I am this girl boy” (96). The history of genocide and erasure is always with those whose lives have been touched by loss. Loss, a present that haunts, but unmentionable? The postmodern condition may require more than one language. ErÍn Moure is multi-lingual. Her father’s language Galician, her mother’s censured in Stalinist purges. When the daughter visits the site of ancestral graves, she is watched and spied upon by her alter-ego. Elsewhere she haunts the polyglot barrios of Bucharest. Observed again, continuously. That might be the human condition. It is the condition of the poet that I translate from Spanish, Antonio Gamoneda. Moure writes, “As for me I am better off without either” (57), “either” meaning history or language, in a passage attributed to one Elisa Sampedrin, the E.S. who studies and advises E.M. (ErÍn Moure) on the value of forgetting. But remembering is also ennabling.


The emotions that most shape the Unmemntioable express a necessary discrimination between the thinking subject and her realities. The object of thought is exterior to the self and lies in the past: “Knowing anything requires this breaking–a movement toward the exterior” (59). And that exterior has taken the form of a promise made in a time prior to the present of the poem. The daughter has promised the mother that she would carry the ashes to the homeland that no longer exists. It strikes me now that a promise is a speech act that has a unique role in the transformation of material reality. E.M.’s promise is realized on a palpable and material border, as abstract as borders are conceptually. Writing the terrain of memory and space, Moure opens the path to an unexpected form of surrealism. The word is “expelled.” “It occurs to me,” writes E. S., “that I must write E. M.’s poems, since I can write none of my own” (71). Reading The Unmemntioable generates loops of recursive text, a  poly-perspective. Personalities bearing different names generate emotions: love, nostalgia. “The rest weep from we, who emerge” “(78). That is how love in its eruptive way joins persons into a “we” of many parts. “It was when she realized on Matei Voievod, amid the hats and lumber, that experience = not just the proximity of death, but love” (111). That proximity I see manifest in ErÍn’s mother’s cancer hat, worn against the radiation treatment for an aneurism. The task is to discriminate the facts of the soul as if we were reading the Timaeus. Multiple and differing perspectives are the impetus to feelings of love, understanding, inclusion.


I have likened my own work to the peregrinations of a pilgrim soul even as I resist seductive webs of “other-world wantingness,” Moure’s phrase for the edgy ache of the sublime. That was the subject of my A North Atlantic Wall. In Moure’s images “presence excludes ultimately, all infinity and all transcendence” (113). As I argue in the pages of this blog, immanence is felt at the edges where realities intersect.



I wrote the above while following a tempest on Facebook and elsewhere over the relation of conceptual poetry to the status of the contemporary lyric. “Status,” I know is a word to which accrues dividends reflective of social capital. I am no longer apologetic about the lyric of the lyric as a mode of expression and impose no restraints on how it puts itself forward. The lyric always bears a relation to desire, even ad famouslya s a “negative capability.” Additionally a certain physicality, when present, charges my sense of myself. That presence for me is the soul of prosody. I write and, in my reading, seek antidotes to a charmless present. I use “charm” intentionally here and yet find I disagree with the use the term, recently made by Robert Archambeau, for whom “charm” is the sensual extreme to arid conceptualism. I distrust all judgments buried in adjectival constructions: “sensual” and “arid” are two such terms and neither applies exclusively to lyric poetry written under the regime of postmodern capitalism. Vanessa Place has written that “the ‘I’ of poetry is the distilled ‘I’ of capital, its rarest essence, its singular flower.” Shades of Baudelaire, I suppose. Hers is an argument of interest that doesn’t rule out other forms of auto-ego-message or other contexts for the evaluation of poetry. Her statement is not a proscription. The core risk it seems to me is to risk being charming even when the stakes are felt to be stifling. ErÍn Moure’s poetry, as much as it recirculates conceptual commentary that may be ascribed to Celan or Agamben or Lévinas is not a repetition so much as a re-articulation of conceptual material. Nor is Moure’s a work of “lyric conceptualism” as that concept has been presented by Sina Queyras:  “Lyric Conceptualism indulges in the excess of language while appreciating the clean lines of the minimal.” Moure’s work has a delicacy of tone, affecting each of its registers. That ability to listen is core to the function of poetry.


Robert Archambeau. “Charmless and Interesting: What Conceptual Poetry Lacks and hat Its Got.”

Vanessa Place. Part 3 of 5. Harriet: A Poetry Blog, August 1, 2013. Harriet: A Poetry Blog, August 1, 2013.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Peter O’Leary, Luminous Epinoia

Peter O’Leary. Luminous Epinoia, Cultural Society, 2010

A garish cover that simulates hammered silver, inscrutable symbols, titles in a Gothic script as difficult to read as German Fraktur. I hold the book up to my eyes as if near-sighted. To my understanding, the passage, “What if we had begun by executing our consciousness / with feeling instead of reason? We would / be standing vertiginously now in the chambers where / our logic sounds out. The roar in that cavern inspiring our art” (39) maps the epistemological dynamics of Luminous Epinoia. The volume both mocks and is inspirited by gnostic doctrines of divinity. In the cited lines, I sense a whirling of dervish-like bodies in a cave, listening to the echoes of a hollow logic. A parody of the modernist yearning for spiritual illumination? Too much language of hollow logic haloes this collection. Still I appreciate the notion that comes to me here of vertiginous corporality (proprioceptive flailing) as primary to art; but now I appear to be reading my own yearnings into O’Leary’s work and that capacity is one of the strengths of Luminous Epinoia. I am also led to ask, and I am far from the first to do so, what distinguishes art from babbling? from speaking in tongues?  

                                                Licking the old brass key

                        of your boyhood, tenderly shove it in the memory socket.

                        The thrum is a pain from a dream

                        in a circumference–that’s where the saintly nimbus comes from; it amplifies

                        the God–signal. (51)

                                                Some dreams have their information

                        replicated in a vital mind–cell until some trigger–usually a psychic trauma–

causes the lysogenic cycle

to begin … (53)

It’s God’s thin venomy quitter,

a virulence, a blooming, a radiolucency, a blessing. (53)


Cleverly and possibly truthfully, dreams during viral infection, especially among boys, produce god–speak. The reference may be to the key of a brass lock or a wind-up toy. Anthropologists have claimed as much about the relation between viral fevers and visionary powers. I too remember the taste of that metal. Victor Turner has argued that being subject to an infection and participating in its cure makes one a neophyte in the curative cult, but why boys? Why do females in some cults only ascend to the level of shaman–helper? Catholics do not admit women into the priestly orders although the Cathars did (the last clause is not an argument raised in the cited matter). The citations referenced in O’Leary’s text are meant to divert and amuse. These lines play on possibilities of “transmission” from a poem entitled “Transmit.” The motif of “venomy” runs back through Freudian nachträglichkeit (a slippage in relation to the psychological scars left by trauma) to a brass key. On these I sucked as a boy and the key is also a symbol of the wisdom locked away, undoubtedly phallic also. The concatenation of images underscores the condition of riddle as itself of greater interest than answers.

The O’Leary’s text is brilliantly but also prototypically flat, a mélange of gnostic lore, unmoored from history, “Coal dust smears the hands silence like cooked gold / ashes over” from “Chemical” (75). Is the citation alchemical or a new reading of Paul Celan’s  experience of Nazi death camps. For O’Leary, moral integrity is a property of his source. Celans “Chymisch.” Celan’s poem draws on the same holocaustal landscape as “Todesfuge.” In “Death Fugue,” Celan fuses the figures of Gretchen with her golden tresses and Sulamith with her ashen hair. O’Leary continues, “All the names, all / the seared–together names aflame, a flared coherence shook from” (75). The poet is free to conjure alternate realities “soul rings rising skyward” like “smoke rings” without the burden of moral  interrogation.

The book is a pastiche of esoteric and learned citations, unmoored from their contexts. The breadth of learning itself compels a degree of wonder. The collection contains an ample glossary. Like eccentrically hung architraves on a glass tower, the style participates in a postmodern species of assemblage. A throwback to the gothic dimensions of romanticism, fantasy is the language (68), and flatness with respect to meaning creates an effect of advance and withdrawal, going only so far as to assert that spiritual knowledge is a category best not dismissed too swiftly. Having it both ways without faith, only wisdom: in a section of a poem entitled “The Dancing Sorcerer” and subtitled “’The Devil’s Epileptic,’” the source of knowledge is identified again as affliction, “Not from God’s word miraculously inlibrate. // But from a seizure. From affliction … disorder commoner to imbeciles than / the inspired” (74). And this affliction is also put to work to code by analogy real world tensions, “Mohammed’s epilepsy was an injury Europe gave him” (74).  The notes clarify that the attribution of epilepsy to Mohammed was a common nineteenth century coinage. It may seem that the art of the poem can be identified as knowledge withdrawn from the realm of meaning and then recirculated.

The final sections evoking a dream of the poet’s may however be understood as bearing the personal import of sickness in relation to the quest for understanding. Dream analysis of this personal material derived from a repeated and haunting quality concludes, “Sometimes, I wish I weren’t a shaman.” Learned and obscurantist, the wheeling assemblage of referents, mimes the images that affliction deposits in the mind: the result of the giddy process is both to validate and debunk shamanism or spiritualism. The most interesting question for me after these investigations is: where does the need arise for such language as O’Leary offers? This last observation is meant as an endorsement of the pleasures and quandaries that arise in reading Luminous Epinoia.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Reading Keith Tuma's On Leave

I had reached the end of recorded history.

Fragments of faces floated on the churning goat milk seas,

acquaintances, smokers, their lips thin. Others committed suicide,

the test of fascism so acrid. No way to deny

my mentor’s complicity. Nor that of

the Captain of the Green Police

who stocked local bars with contraband.

My face purple under the flaring fluorescent light

after swilling Cognac mit sprudel

to please, I thought, my Father.

No image of self-loathing has matched

my perception then of my adolescent face

in that yellow century where the coffee was cut with chicory.

Always withdrawn, diffident, I was nonetheless

an actor with a role to play. The eiron,

Jacques or Hamlet, dismissive

of the value of multiple, passionate insights

into the nature of things, all leaden

to me, as I climbed my personal mountain.

Fellow pilgrims spoke of distant lands

and entertaining anecdotes, uttered by luminaries.

No doubt gossip helps ease quotidian boredom,

the utter flatness of the staged plateaus.

The hills of northern Minnesota can make a person giddy, she said,

the car climbing a slope and all were short of breath. We sought

the northern most clime, the aurora borealis,

windmilling through the night sky.

I’ve never really been anywhere I’ve been.

Is this the common fate of poets?

In all directions the horizontal plane swallows

the vertical axis once associated with destiny.

Drones returning from their forays

no longer find the hive. Field mice

have nested in the flooded tunnels.

Torrents had uprooted their bodies and sent

them and their swollen bellies

to their historical doom under the cellar

of the floating house, scudding across flatlands and ice floes.
A response to Keith Tuma’s On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes, Salt, 2011.


Monday, June 10, 2013


When he reached out to receive me, I recognized

his hands as mine. Short fingers and square palms.

I had seen similar hands in a photo of a mestiza mother by Tina Modotti.

The woman cradled her brown skinned child’s bottom,

chunky quadrilaterals

as if elements

of a Mayan glyph.

Oblong breasts pillowed his face.

I’ve slept on the lawn at Tulum

and heard the drone of Ah Muzen Cab.

Fermented honey inspired the poets of Heorot

and the poets of the Talamanca and Penobscot.

In a crevice within a garden wall

in Liberia, Melipone costarricense produce

treasured miel de jicote.

Beekeeper gods sing to a honey pot, held like a bass drum, Mol Ko Chi’.

Of bearded jaguars, it is said, many ancestors display

a pencil thin mustache. Of native American square hands, she wrote

in her ethnography of California Mission Indians:

bad Indians who beat their children,

tender Indians who cried from fear,

seeking a source in caves and mountain tops.

They fled to survive, as I have, inwardly, across the river bottom.

A cloud, melanin pigmentation on the retina is also common.

Written in response to Bad Indians by Deborah A. Miranda, Heyday, 2013.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Susan Howe, That This, New Directions, 2010

Words found among piecemeal fragments, useful to me in my work: “soft,” “shadow,” “melancholy.” Here is a book that as its subject has a shadow of a shadow that embodies the loss of a loved one. A shadow of a shadow that does not appear in the light and is not detectable at night. These words from “Frolic Architecture” are clues to the mindscape of Susan Howe’s That This. Sense skips over line endings and falls between verses, as it does in the first lines of the sequence that gives the poem and the book its title, “That This.”

Does a type when visible

objects change then put 


on form but the anti-type

That thing not shadowed

 A shadow not shadowed insisting as before, but the words that most call attention to themselves now are “type” and antitype.” The careful reader of “Frolic Architecture” has just navigated 58 pages of broken type, much silence and static. “Anti-type” appears as if it were an antidote, among other possibilities, an antidote to sorrow, the death of the beloved so exquisitely parsed in the prose of the first pages of the collection, “The Disappearance Approach.” In “Frolic Architecture,” enigmatic fragments, polyvalent in the extreme, emerge from the clutter of clippings that have been borrowed from the “private writings” of Hannah Edwards Wetmore and pasted as if to form an acrostic or some other word-puzzle in the shambling architecture of mourning. Hannah is the sister of Jonathan Edwards. Reading and research  of this order, as is Howe’s wont, registers interference patterns, later to be embodied in the muted electronic and digital clicks and burrs of David Grubbs’ electronic transformation of Howe’s work: Words leap out, from the 17th century source into echoing consciousness. Static and shadow suspend sounds. Mysteries, the drone reaching a crescendo, are particles in an insectivorous Brownian motion. Comfort emerges from these depths, “comfort” as a word. Howe’s voice, when performing, is mellifluous. I am soothed as I wander through meditations on my losses.