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Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Tucson. I drove out to Tucson, crossing the flatlands in Kansas, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle and much of New Mexico, a forty hour trek of 2,608 miles. Agave and creosote bushes are roadside features in the desert southwest. On my way back to New Hampshire, I visited Bruce Holsapple in Magdalena. He lives in an isolated location, eleven miles up an unpaved slope to a spectacular retreat among piñons and black and blue grama grasses. Bruce is a William Carlos Williams scholar, fascinated by evidence of the influence of decadence in Williams’s early poetry. Like me his feeling for his own work is indebted to the support and example of Burton Hatlen, who should not be forgotten. I also stopped in Albuquerque, after that Taos. The ride along state highway 518 threads snowclad peaks and yellow grasslands, vistas of alpine valleys where cattle graze and elk browse. In Norman, Oklahoma, a hard days push to the east, over high desert flatlands, I read from my poetry, both Roman Exercises and the translation of Yvan Goll’s Neila. Crag Hill, my host his living room the venue, my odyssey informed by the impulse to share work.  

In Tucson, city of arrival and departure, I read from my translation of Antonio Gamoneda’s Description of the Lie, a book whose cynicism conjures suffering under Spanish fascism. Many translators had gathered, myself and my emotions, an asterisk among luminaries. Face to face with others, I vacillate between anxiety and depression. Tucson for all of its cosmopolitan panache, as evidenced by dining alternatives is also the city of Lesly Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead. That deep vision, like the vision of Mexico profundo, wherein tribes seek to restore their integrity though a revolution that has not yet ended, haunts real estate developments, nightclubs, and other marks of corruption and speculation. I could not shake her vision, my eyes remained clouded, in brightest sunshine. For all my nervous pessimism, I was warmly received in the Arizona Poetry Center. I conclude that my compulsive social life requires excursions to sites of poetry and poetry in translation, driving the miles my therapy. In the embrace of friends I find comfort (Peter, Cynthia, Giancarlo, Lucina, Mark, Margaret) although I also embrace isolation.

I have constructed itineraries that involve grueling hours of lonely travel. On the way out, at the home of Robert and Elizabeth Murphy in Loveland, Ohio, I felt the generosity of feeling that characterizes the lives of my hosts in their agricultural retreat on the banks of the Little Miami, surrounded as they are by encroaching suburban developments and hundreds of acres of malls with identical shops and chain restaurants, repeating themselves until they breach the desert horizon. In Loveland friends gathered for a bounteous feast. I had been invited to share my recent work. After Loveland, I drove out to Lawrence, Kansas, the televisions there tuned to the triumphs of the Kansas City Royals over the New York Mets. I learned from Jonathan Mayhew who had invited me to  address his Spanish classes that both Langston Hughes and William Burroughs were familiar with Lawrence in their time. Jonathan and I that evening dined in a bank building that had been converted to a restaurant. Is this conversion underway everywhere? It has happened to the Nashua Trust Company granite temple of my childhood. The students were engaged by Gamoneda’s acrid lyricism, or so I was told. Memories of trauma do not weave the mantel that I would fold around my spirit.

It’s a long way from Lawrence to Tucson, with nights spent in the interchangeable motels that cluster around each interchange and vary only in the quality of linen and toilet paper. Few use the swimming pools for relaxation. It’s a nervous nation. My way was mostly along U. S. Highway 54. The freight trains to El Paso, descending from Great Lakes ports, follow the same route. On the way out I discovered Hatch as I sought an alternative route to Interstate 10, blocked by an apocalyptic truck fire. On the way home, I also visited Hatch at the suggestion of Mark Weiss. Mark has at his command intimate knowledge of many secrets of the Southwest as well as the wider world. I purchased a five pound cluster of chiles, requiring yet some drying, according to the shopkeeper. These I gave to Bruce in Magdalena. Finishing these notes implies that I have settled in at home again in Weare, New Hampshire. I have my souvenirs, a Navajo mother with three babies in her puppet arms and some pottery from Jemez Pueblo.

Donald Wellman

Monday, October 19, 2015

Gender and the Poetry of Roberto Echavarren

Gender and the Poetry of Roberto Echavarren

Is there a creature for whom gender is not a transformative conundrum? Consider the adolescent who wishes never to grow up. Many harbor a secret Peter Pan. Wendy too? Still the age of polymorphic bliss may prove to have been an adult projection. Peter, after all, is circumscribed by certain male attributes, his attraction to sword play and feats of prowess that excite other boys. Still, like any eight-year old, he is sexless. In performance he is often she flying on guywires over the arena. When did the use of weapons become gendered? Kristeva writes about this somewhere. Is Joan of Arc a transgender figure or a girl who saw herself as unconstrained by gender?

Roberto Echavarren, is absorbed by images that originate in the celebrated androgyny of the 70s. He’s in love with boys who are girls. He has written of “we, men by definition / but not from taste or comportment” (“Inquest” in El expreso entre el sueño y la vigilia, Montevideo 2009, my translation). These men refuse sexual assignment at the level of genitalia and stage androgynous performances, Jim Harrison or David Bowie. The tribal and Dionysian excesses of the 70s stimulated the ambiguities of my own sexuality. Yet no one will doubt my gender, even as I beg to suck the cock of the golden boy of my dreams, glorious abjection!

I asked a poet friend, younger than myself, about the cis / transsexual divide. I speculate now that to aspire to realize a gender identification, transsexual-male or transsexual female, innate as each position maybe, is to aspire to a set of restraints. For some it is to fetishize the hemline or the breasts, for others a ghost penis or an inverted vagina are sacred and esteemed.  At the level of sexuality I get it. Glorious release of stifled inhibitions! At the level of gender I am suspicious. Gendered norms homogenize diversity and censor the individual. This is an argument often repeated in the essays of Echavarren’s Fuera de genero. This was the lesson of my feminist and anti-masculinist apprenticeship upon attaining adulthood. I must ask is there a gender free reality for anyone given materialistic conditions and habits of consumption? Bern Porter at my age (70 or so) wore pantyhose as a practical necessity for coping with the artic winds of coastal Maine. He had floppy breasts like Tiresias. Wrap me in my shawl, for love’s sake! I honor the hedonism of the 70s and the paranoia a trans-woman may feel regarding her hemline. Gender remains to me personally a matter of performance and rules. Maddeningly, nonetheless, within the constructs of my anthropology, on carnival nights, there are no rules.

Compulsions of a private and personal order have led me to make translations of Echavarren’s passionate, surreal, and multivalent work, each level caught in a species of frottage, planes that slide over other planes, liquids that ooze among planes of differing consistencies. Infiltrations and plasticities that affect performance and cherish liminalities. This the seedbed of a wildly vegetative baroque sensibility, a species of inundation and physical contortion at the heart of his poetry, characteristic also of the work of other Latin, Neo-baroque poets.

Inspired then to imagine a difficult liminality, an in-between marked by compromise and bizarre, even demoniacal transgressions of corporeal space, I turn to images from carnival, perhaps the underlying plenum of these lines from, “Inquest.”

The kerchief that you liked inside your dress:
we, men by definition
but not from taste or comportment,
held up by a grand throne of air
that collapses each minute,
equal by definition, but undefined,
we hold up the grand throne of air
before it collapses.
The throne depends on what you decide, or accede to.

The horses go down the empty street.
It’s early morning and I wake up.
Some birds begin the samba, batucada,
a wreathe of whistles
ringlets like leaves.
The grand throne is here
but within the hour that peels the chirping
there’s nothing.
The hour is here and afterwards nothing:
insistent jeering of doves
and rapid wings, unexpected.

We are other by definition
and the state in which we find ourselves
is neither good nor bad.

A carnival float traverses an avenue in my mind, floating on waves of intoxication and music. The troupe dances in uniforms, breastplates and thigh-high plastic boots, with the Roman cingulum covering the genitals. The “batucada” is insistent, a highly percussive form of samba, played by an ensemble of percussion instruments. An example is "El Matador" from the Argentine band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. The rhythm is inspired by the Samba-reggae style from Bahia, Brazil, home of ritual candomblé. The track contains choral shouting with some qualities of flamenco. Encrypted multicultural constructs, the development is condensed and sparsely rendered. This complex referentiality reminds me that multiculturalism need not be an Anglo-centric or Euro-centric cultural construct. When the music stops, I hear the nothing of morning, littered streets. Imagined thrones have collapsed and the street must be swept. I hear pigeons, “jeering.” “The hour is here and afterwards nothing: / insistent jeering of doves / and rapid wings, unexpected,” a return to quotidian reality after the excess of carnival and its heady release and renewal. That’s how Victor Turner reads Carnival. Speaking of performativity, following Turner, Richard Schechner claims that “Once bits are freed from their attachment to larger schemes of action, they can be rearranged—almost as the frames of a film being edited are rearranged to make new actions” (Schechner, By Means of Performance, Cambridge 1990: 41). In Echavarren’s poetry these frames or actions represent only themselves, becoming moments and images, inversions of liminality, invested with transgendered intimacies and celebration. The stream of allusions troubles the surface, neutralizing gendered codes while celebrating phallic and androgynous excess. Call it bacchanalian. I’m the paunchy melancholic in the corner. Silenus, John Falstaff.

Donald Wellman

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Poetry and Poetics of Antonio Gamoneda

Antonio Gamoneda, Program Note, 2015                                      
In 2006, Antonio Gamoneda, born 1931, received both the Cervantes Prize and the Premio Reina Sofía, acknowledging the unique excellence of his poetry. Gamoneda’s work is deeply marked by the dark years of the Franco dictatorship and by the early loss of his father, also a poet although not well-known, who died when Antonio was less than a year old. In 1934, mother and son moved from Oviedo to a working class neigh­borhood of León, near the rail yards, an area where the city merges with the agricultural countryside. These locations are fundamental to the poet’s imaginary. His language, inflected by childhood illness, testifies to atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War. Lines of prisoners marched at dawn from the city outskirts, passing directly below the boy’s balcony to the cellars or depositories in the ancient monastery of Saint Marcos where many met their end.

The fabric of the poetry, the images that feel ordinary on the surface, the walls of poplars that border a watercourse, or a market day in the center of the city are interspersed with trau­matic memories, the body of a dead horse or a widow screaming in her grief, naked on the street. In some senses the poetry is the verbal analog to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, cast as a continual living nightmare.

Poetically speaking, Gamoneda claims not to have “rational con­trol” over the development of his poems. When the language appears to him it carries an insistence requiring elaboration and development; as with music, themes announce themselves and dictate aspects of composition. Gravestones is a deeply sonorous book in its development, obscurely precise in the exactitude with which observa­tions are drawn from landscape and local culture, and in the ways in which it grapples with the trauma of a silenced and suffering people. 
            ASEDIADOS por ángeles y ceniza cárdena
enmudecéis hasta advertir la inexistencia

y el viento entra en vuestro espíritu.

Respiráis el desprecio, la ebriedad del hinojo
bajo la lluvia: blancos en la demencia como
los ojos de los asnos en el instante de la muerte,

ah desconocidos semejantes a mi corazón.
BESIEGED by angels and blue ash you grow
dumb until warned by nonexistence

and the wind penetrates your spirit.

You inhale the scorn, the intoxication of fennel
In the rain: blank with dementia like the
eyes of donkeys at the instant of death,

oh, fellow strangers to my heart.          (20-1)
The poet Antonio Gamoneda broke the silence that confined him in censorship, a silence that he endured for 500 weeks as he describes it, until the publication of the Description of the Lie (Descripción de la mentira), León 1977. Of that volume. the novelist, Julio Llamazares has has written:
Cuando apareció ese libro, Antonio Gamoneda llevaba 17 años sin publicar. Así que, para los jóvenes como yo era, como para la mayoría de los que lo leyeron, Descripción de la mentira supuso todo un descubrimiento. Se trataba de una poesía distinta, her­mética, pero bellísima, y, sobre todo, llena de interpretaciones. No hace falta que yo diga que para mí aquel libro sería funda­mental.
[When this book appeared Gamoneda hadn’t published for 17 years. So for young people like myself then, and for the majority of those who read it, Description of the Lie ap­peared as a complete surprise. It spoke with a distinctive poetry, hermetic but beautiful and, above all, full of meaning. It goes without saying that for me the book was fundamental.] (05/25/2007).

The silence of self-censorship was broken by sleepless nights and visitations from the spirits of lost companions, many of whom had been silenced by depression and suicide. Some had participated in sporadic guerilla attacks during the first years of the Franco regime. Gamoneda left the clerical job with which he had sustained his family and retreated to the mountains of León where he wrote his Descripción.
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.

Ahora un rostro sonríe y su sonrisa se deposita en mis labios,

y la advertencia de su música explica todas las pérdidas y me acompaña.

Habla de mí como una vibración de pájaros que hubiesen desaparecido y retornasen;

habla de mí con labios que todavía responden a la dulzura de unos párpados.


For five hundred weeks I have been out of touch with my intentions,

interred in nodules and silent under the curse.

All the while torture has conspired with words.

Now a face smiles and its smile is deposited upon my lips,

and the warning in his music explains all of the losses and keeps me company.

He speaks about me like a murmuring of birds that had disappeared and returned;

he speaks about me with lips that still respond to the sweetness of eyelids.

Gamoneda’s poetry is haunted by the vocabulary and the imagery first found in Descripción. Signally it employs innovations in poetic language and prosody that distinguish Gamoneda’s treatment of his difficult subject. He uses long winding prose-like lines (first em­ployed in Description), combined with the chiseled lyric frag­ments, that speak to the monumental aspect of his theme. The poems also address the tender themes of love and grief at the loss of loved ones. Descripción and Gravestones (Lápidas) unlock a body of poetry that continues through the icy cold reaches and burning passions of Book of the Cold Libro del frío and Losses Burn Arden las pérdidas, volumes crucial to the understand­ing of a healing process that still today is vital for contemporary Spanish culture and incomplete.

This passage from Libro del frío  use the image of the “armario,” “wardrobe” or “cuboard” which is associated in Gamoneda’s poetry with the physical presence and reserve of his mother, a womb/tomb images perhaps. “Armario” is also used in the poet’s recently released autobiograph. I quote from Libro del frío.

OYES la destrucción de la madera (los termes ciegos en sus venas), ves las agujas y los
armarios llenos de sombra.

Es la siesta mortal. ¡Cuánta niñez bajo los párpados!
Como el tábano triste en el verano, apartas de tu rostro la sarga negra de tu madre. Vas

a despertar en el olvido.

YOU HEAR the destruction of wood (the blind termites in its veins), you see needles and
wardrobes full of shadow.

It is the mortal nap. So much childhood under the eyelids!

Like the sad horsefly of summer, you take from your face, your mother’s black serge. You’re going to

awaken in oblivion. (80-81)

In my translation I try to remain true to the pulse of the poem as it presents itself. I have attempted to translate, not in­terpret the various meanings that the language puts in play. Of­ten Gamoneda’s language speaks to me in ways that stir some pre-conscious part of my brain, awakening feelings that look through personal associations of my own toward compelling immediacies. This is not a mystical nor is it a surreal doctrine. I believe it enacts pro­cesses that place perception before meaning and in that sense it is similar to the rhizomatics of Giles Deleuze, reaching back in all likelihood to Spinoza.

I have generally followed the texts to be found in Esta luz: Poesia re­unida, 1947-2004  (Galaxia Gutenberg, Círculo de Lectores, Barcelona 2004). Julian Jiménez Heffernan, ed. Descripción de la mentira: De Líquenes inevitables, un glosario (Madrid: Abada, 2006) provides the approved text of Descripción, as well as a glossary deeply influenced by postmodern concepts in an intriguing overlay with Gamoneda’s text.

Donald Wellman

Description of the Lie. Talisman House Publishers (Northfield, 2014).

Gravestones / Lápidas. U of New Orleans Press (New Orleans, 2009). 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Dated Poem of Grief

March 2009

Why have I been routed through Nebraska?
In March there are no cornfields

Intense sunshine and a prairie wind bake
the tarmac. In Denver, wasteland
at the junction

of Colfax and Laramie, I traced
ghosts of lost poets.
Oxford Hotel 

at the corner of Wazee, near the new
ballpark. Does the Windsor
where Neal

sought his father and slept with a dwarf
stand. Pope Benedict is being
taken to task

for sheltering child molesters, pastor fides.
In four years he will

sanctimonious me? No, I report what I find
in the New York Times:
normalcy evolves

through bricolage to construct the world
historical stage. Poland

in March 2009, all of her ministers, almost.
The plane fell from the air into woods
near Smolensk

where the Soviets had executed 20,000
soldiers of the elite officer corps,
1940. Also, Iran,

today, urged a Sunni and Shiite alliance in Iraq.
Apparently, there’s less poverty, this March
in Bihar state and Charles

has won the Nobel Prize. I’m fading
into a half-comatose
dream state,

allegory and fact replace
suffocating reality.
My rhythm

is dated, New York School. My listening
includes tubas and horns,
Calle 13,

Residente and Visitante, who support
macheteros and praise

A thread binds my mental fatigue
and my daughter’s

She studies the role of women in constructing
Iranian identity, ash-e anar. Some
hint of consequent terror.

Interrogations by schizophrenic police in Shiraz,
who mock old Marxists. O mourn the loss
of imaginary companions,

Benjamin at Portbou! and celebrate the music
of brothers from Puerto Rico!
But why am I

abandoned in Lincoln with its shorn fields
and how is anyone able to suffer
the loss of a daughter?

Donald Wellman, from Roman Exercises

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Celan / Joris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

komm mit mir zu Atem
und früber hinaus.

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

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

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

Donald Wellman

Poetics Journal Reprised

 Poetics Journal Reprised

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

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

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

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



Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mark Weiss, As Luck Would Have It

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

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

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

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

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

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