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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.