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Saturday, December 8, 2018

Lyn Hejinian, The Unfollowing

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

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

Donald Wellman

Friday, November 30, 2018

Kate Colby, The Arrangements

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

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

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

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

See, at the beginning of
the painting she cradles

her viscera, a small window
hovering in front of her

head. By the end, this
tentative angle has taken

from her the purpose of
history … (85)

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

Donald Wellman 

Monday, November 12, 2018


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

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

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

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

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


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

Donald Wellman
Nov. 12, 2018

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Manhattan Journal: A Lost Text Recovered

Manhattan Journal: A Lost Text Recovered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Opera Night: Street Scene


On a day in a February, shortly after the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, the holy and the insane, I attended a performance of Street Scene with book by Elmer Rice and music by Kurt Weil, Langton Hughes, lyrics. I sat under the baroque garlands of the box seats in the Teatro Real, before me a stage setting that represented a tenement on the lower East Side, shades of David Belasco, the set both naturalistic and expressionistic. It resembled cages or cates piled on top of one another. A tale is told of, Jews, Irish and Italians in depression era New York City. I won’t rehearse the plot. What is the plural of immigrant Irish, my native tribe? In this same historical period was I conceived. Destiny dealt a desperate and hopeless hand then to mothers and fathers, adolescent children and young children alike. In the denouement, Rose is unable to leave the scene of the tragic murder of her mother and the arrest of her father, who had murdered his wife in a jealous, alcoholic rage. The character of Frank Maurrant is a larger-than-life sized bully, a suitable admonishment for bullish men today in an age like ours. The choral finale spoke to his love for the woman he had murdered, inescapable social realism of a Marxist bent, with incidental comic tableaus, where the genius of Hughes takes on the rhythms of hop-scotch and other sidewalk games. All philosophy is articulated at the level of the comic strips. Ignorance oppresses those with generous hearts. Street Scene  presents a social realism that feeds on the failure of the American Dream. And yet one is compelled to cry. What can be said about the grand choral offered near the conclusion? “He loved her.” The melodrama brought tears to my eyes. I’m such a softy! For me an esthetic problem of interest lay in teaching the different idioms of immigrant NYC around 1940 to a cast whose English seemed largely attuned to the standards of the British Royal Academy, but then stereotype is comical, possibly intentionally so, low relief for those who identify with poverty and desperation. What an undertaking the show was! A cast of hundreds and plot lines at cross purposes. “Heterogeneous” is a relevant descriptor. It's time for a Broadway revival!

Donald Wellman

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Editing Coherence

Editing Coherence in 1981:

Desire in the shadow of first-generation language-centered poetry.

Coherence was the first number of O.ARS, a self-described “gathering of experiments in writing: toward a new poetics.” Two precursor roots are embedded in the subtitle, honorific ancestor projects: “gathering” was meant in homage to the anthologizing projects of Jerome Rothenberg, especially  America a Prophecy coedited with George Quasha; the other Donald Allen’s, The New American Poetics. As the editor of O.ARS (initially with the assistance of Cola Franzen, Richard Waring, and Irene Turner), I saw the undertaking as an anthology in the dada vein, unworried by contradictions, embracing the new with revolutionary fervor and finding glimmers of spiritual transcendence under rubrics like “process,” “perception,” and “method.” In the introduction “forword / forward” [stet], I wrote sentences like “Allowed to run at seeming random, the imagination returns to us the most convincing coherences.” That was my summation of David Antin’s “Radical Coherency,” a talk given over the radio at my invitation to participate in the launching of O.ARS and now the title of his recent book from the University of Chicago Press. Of Ron Silliman’s projects, specifically Rhizome (also included in Coherence), at the time described by Ron as a series of combinations generated from a single set of 169 sentences, the pleasure being in locating sentences that  “Chomsky would see as not possible,” I wrote that I had found, meanings that don’t require explanation.” Then I continued: “A puzzle allows both surprise and understanding. A riddle penetrates the inevitability of suffering.” I think I have now sufficiently unburdened myself of my medievalist and transcendentalist roots. I am suggesting that in 1981 I found “affect” to be palpably present in the work of some figures associated with language poetry although “affect,” “voice” and “expressivity” represent a highly suspicious set of emotions from some language-centered points of view.

 “Strip off the protective gauze of justification” was the watchword of O.ARS in its beginning. The virgule as well as the “running horse: or “gimlet eye” were symbols to me of the poetic process: to cut or slash and to assemble into a vortex of sustained energy. 

What is O.ARS, what does it mean: it is a going forward with the eyes on the past. It is an ironic cry, primal white sound with a pun on “ars” and “arse.”
Coherence, the first number of O.ARS, gathered a variety of “other stream,” as they are now called, poetic practices: the heart of the project lay with the continuing vitality of poets in the Black Mountain College vein, in its total purity, say Robert Creeley, and as inflected by dada, say Jerome Rothenberg. Michael Andre’s at Unmuzzled Ox was also highly inspirational, in terms of contents and the care he took with production. The projected highlighted the ethnographic thread common to both surrealism and the Olson/Creeley tradition. That too was fundamental to my editing posture and remains fundamental to my practice as a poet. It was as a poet that I began to edit, not a scholar. I had ceased to care about the venues that had once been receptive to my work and wanted instead to be associated with work that I admired. I made statements of that sort when soliciting the different voices represented in Coherence, the first number of O.ARS. I have copies of my correspondence with the constellation of authors by which I set my course, from Antler and Armentrout to  Sorrentino and J. Rutherford Willems. Where is he?

Starting with the modernists for whom the page had specific visual properties: Pound, Williams, Olson, it seems logical that the agenda for O.ARS would include concrete or typewriter poetry (Karl Kempton) or visual poetry, poesia visiva as Klaus Peter Dencker, Luciano Ori and others would have it. I cannot reconstruct how it was that I was able to locate and publish works by Bern Porter, maybe it was correspondence with Dick Higgins. Surely I had already written to Mark Melnicove also.  

It was Dencker who introduced me to the visual poet that I still find to be most stunning when I browse the full set of O.ARS publication, the “Speech sheets” of Carlfriedrich Claus.

The different experimental vectors of which I was aware at the time included not only language-centered writing but also  a spectrum of European and Latin American avant-garde work, also what was then called sur-fiction. The later was a gift from Raymond Federman and not a far leap in my mind to the work of Paul Metcalf, another early contributor.

O.ARS was in the vein, you see, of a grand synthesis, a wedding of American pragmatism we will call it (as Don Byrd does) with avant-garde abstraction. I sought a synthesis, instead of making a partisan in support of a particular poetic stance as may have been the editorial stances of Jimmy and Lucy’s House of K or Vanishing Cab, both journals discussed in comparison with O.ARS, at a conference at the National Poetry Foundation (Orono 2012).

My sympathy with language-centered writing remains pronounced even though there might be an elements of parrying and counterthrust in my presentation.  Many poets identified with such language writing were included in the earliest editions of O.ARS. My Bruce Andrews and my Bob Perlman and my Barrett Watten are stunning poets. One of the most interesting letters in the O.ARS archives comes from Charles Bernstein who a bit querulously asked me, to justify my interest in language-writing, a challenge that represented exactly the kind of give-and-take that I had hoped to find when undertaking O.ARS in the first place.

1981 the first year of O.ARS was also the last year L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine. I treasure everything I have shared with Charles and learned from him as if with a brother. He is the most brilliant reader I have yet encountered. Soon he became instrumental in helping to shape O.ARS (like Creeley, Federman, and Fanny Howe, contributing editors). Like many poets at the time,  I was scurrying to catch up with Charles, for I had just begun to read Benjamin and Derrida and Cavell. And these readings were the subject of our correspondence and conversation and of my attempts to create editorial material for O.ARS.

Beyond the avant-garde and beyond philosophy, for me there remained the matter of a poetic address to desire. In many senses I am a one-eyed son of New England, that is haptically, my true poetic angel-spirit is Robert Creeley. What distinguished O.ARS from similar projects at the time was a sense of experiment designed to identify some form of coherence at work in the production of poetry, a transcendence not necessarily existing outside or beyond the poem but nonetheless satisfying in its apprehension.  A similar but not identical goal had already been expressed in Charles Olson’s statement borrowed from Robert Creeley: “form is only an extension of content.” You might in the case of Creeley’s phrase, read “form” as the coefficient of an immanent transcendence. From henceforth coherence would reside in method, but in 1980 such coherence was also expected to produce some glimmer of an uplifting change of consciousness. Our mentors, as well as many of us who came to poetry in the 80s had experimented with the mushroom. In the years after Vietnam, I lived in the forests of Oregon. Addressing the material of language with as much analytical scrutiny as I could muster from that perspective, I sought the visionary moment, almost as the promise that it was, that glimmer or flash was the reward implicit in undertaking unstinting and uncompromising hard work. So puritanical and so unoriginal in the final analysis , but a register of desire in O.ARS that is uniquely palpable.

After Coherence came Perception, its twin, O.ARS 2. Leafing through its pages today what strikes me most is a phrase in a statement of Charles Bernstein “the membrane of consciousness is language.” (137). Here, in response to the irreducible necessity of language for analysis or conceptualization,  I may have been arguing for a form of direct perception” as Pound would have phrased it. The light within the light that Hildegard von Bingen associated with joy and child-like affection. As an aside, I note, that part of the O.ARS formula was to assemble documents from the historic literature related to each of its themes. If we are to talk about perceptions of any order, direct or mystical (and I love the fact that it can be both); nonetheless, it is by attending to the membrane of language, what passes through its permeable surface or barrier as Charles would soon have it in his poem The Artifice of Absorption. Still, in each volume of O.ARS (there were nine), there is a strong commitment to perception as a form of cognition rooted in feelings and shaping a world. I think especially a score by my close friend the composer William Goldberg, a setting of a poem by Theodore Enslin, “A Little Night Music,” not an avant-garde score but surely a visual rendering of feeling and perception that is more graphically immediate than language raw and linear.

The most amazing editorial discovery of Perception is the poem “Lair” by Saúl Yurkievich, translated by my co-editor Cola Franzen. Her attention to the Latin avant-garde was fundamental to the vision and success of O.ARS.

… scored speech to the extreme perhaps.

The commitment to translation as experiments in reading, a three-part series that followed Perception, like the perception to visual space in music and poetry is a commitment to sound as a perceptual and communicative matrix, not filtered by language, or if it is language, it is language “voiced.” I never intended to win every argument with which I engaged. To do the twist or rumba, if I could was my hope.

O.ARS  was looking to challenge boundaries or limits of language while acknowledging how language inflected thought and was also coterminous manner or method of expression. For instance, in calling for “a speaking within hearing” in 1989 (O.ARS 6: Voicing), I was arguing against “a speaking without hearing.” Peter Quartermain cites this phrase in his “Sound Reading” (Bernstein, Poetry and the Performed Word, 1998: 224). My purpose in choosing “voicing” as a theme clearly was not to prioritize individual voicing, cults of personality, or American exceptionalism. I was seeking a crazy weave between voice and vision and my reading of Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. My interest was political and far from subtle, but also an interest in prosody as Quartermain notes. Young poets, published in O.ARS, who had fine ears in this sense included Craig Watson, Gill Ott, and Andrew Levy.

On the political front, the projective sense of “voicing” (O.ARS 6/7) may have been simplistic. And derivative, derivative of my reading of Deleuze. For instance, I wrote, ”voicing, to emphasize process (growth, use) rather than terminal nodes or buds, is a double articulation between heterogeneous planes (different people, values, in fact voices). Perhaps I repeat myself monomaniacally (son of Olson that I appear to be): polis is eyes, yes, and voices (ayes), and the articulation of polis is a matter of prosody. Through studies in translation that I still pursue, as well as investigations of the prosody that marks the lyric or serial poem in English, I have sought and still seek words able to articulate a value for duration, for the desire that can be perceived to shape utterance. That is the justification for this essay’s subtitle, “Desire in the shadow of first-generation language-centered poetry.”
Donald Wellman, 18 Feb. 2018