Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Rumours of the sonnet's death...and revival

Are greatly exaggerated. The form has been part of poetry fairly consistently since its arrival on the scene--though I would be interested in work around its peaks and valleys. Barbara Carey points out the backward looking anthology recently published in Canada. What I think Carey is responding to is the sameness of the selection. I applaud the impulse for such a collection, and the effort put in (it's a beautiful book), but does it really represent either Canadian poetry or contemporary sonnets? The dynamic range of voices Canada offers in the sonnet form as other forms and formal investigations? Fine to edit an anthology of poems of any kind, but "Canadian sonnets" conjures up a nationalistic gesture where clearly there isn't one. In the end it's an argument (one you can appreciate or not), rather than a resource. Unless one wants to teach only one way of looking at a sonnet.

Over the past few weeks my students and I have looked at a number of sonnets (from traditional to concrete) as we do in every introduction to poetry class. It's still an exciting form, open to endless innovation, and as we see over at Silliman's today, it's constantly being explored reinvented, reinvigorated. The latest anthology, edited by Jeff Hilson and published by Reality Street in England, looks promising enough. To be fair, I should do a reading of the recent Canadian one, the latest Norton, and perhaps this new one--along with Phillis Levins' anthology. But I suspect that what I'm looking for doesn't exist. At least not yet. What is wanted, and what would be extremely useful, is a secular anthology of sonnets focused on the form itself and how the form has been used/misused, grown, and changed over time. Not a singular argument for it one way or another, but a selection of sonnets over time from a variety of sources and inclinations...that's what I'm looking for. Better if it had some readings of the sonnets as well (as the Canadian anthology does offer), and some descriptions of the constraints and procedures. I guess that's why I keep having to use course packets rather than actual texts.

Currently working with Kate Braid & Sandy Shreve's In Fine Form, which for a bare-bones foundation isn't bad so far. It isn't as thorough as Lewis Turco's or Ron Padgett's Handbook of Poetic Forms, but it is Canadian and has at least two departures on the sonnet in an otherwise musty selection (where are the youngsters? where is McCaffery or bp Nichol?). But I love this book if for nothing other than introducing me to Seymour Mayne's Word Sonnets:


And what is the connection between the number of very fine palindromes crafted in Canada and our sense of poetics? Hard to find palindromes being written elsewhere and here we have several great ones including offerings from Fiona Tinwei Lam, Joe Denham and Elizabeth Bachinsky.

In terms of forms in general, that's a different question--and one finds that books either focus on Langpo, or formal poetry, and usually don't let them mix. In that sense, one might be hard pressed to find a text better than the one Annie Finch edited, which offers incredible diversity. I could of course go on to list many many books of poetry and poetics formal and otherwise...would that be useful?

(Note: a wee thorn attached itself to this post below. The editor of Jailbreaks, the anthology of sonnets mentioned briefly above, apparently doesn't like it when anyone else has opinions...there's room for everyone...isn't there?)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Gregory Betts reads derek beaulieu's Flatland

Derek Beaulieu’s Flatland: A Romance of a Crisis in Form

Beaulieu has produced an unreadable book. This raises, to my mind, two immediate questions. First, why produce a book that is unreadable? Second, what makes it unreadable? Well, the latter is the easy question: there are no words to read.

That, though, is not exactly true – this is a book overloaded with paratextual words; words that wrap around the project, defining it, but without being part of its inner chamber. The 98 pages of textual content comes complete with an afterword by Marjorie Perloff, a 165 word blurb on the back, quotes from Kenneth Goldsmith and Marc Boutin, and a 75 word description of the publisher’s series in which the book appears (Information as Material, of York, England).

No doubt, these paratextuals and the literary power of the names put forward to endorse the project are in place to remind us that we have not been swindled into buying an unreadable book with no “content,” even if it looks that way on first glance.

What do they say about Beaulieu’s Flatland? The publisher argues that Beaulieu’s book belongs to a current of art and literature that reworks previous sources rather than attempting to create something new – the world is already “full of objects.” Such projects “generate new meanings” by reusing/reducing/recycling existing material. Boutin argues that Beaulieu’s text actually exists somewhere between form and content; that he manages to recuperate ideas “embedded in writing as communication,” implying that the book exudes a kind of metadiscursive evocation of what it means to be a writing. Goldsmith argues that the book is a perfect reconciliation of mechanical writing (a la his own method of uncreative writing) and the tradition of experimental visual poetry. It is, he notes, a visual translation and creative transcription that is yet “non-illusionistic”: real without realism.

Each of these amounts to being gestures toward the beginning of a theorization of why the project is and what it does without ever addressing what or how it is. But for a project that is devoted to the physical letter as object, and in turn sublimating the physical letters into his diagrammatic representation of the position of the individual letters in E.A. Abbott’s Flatland (1884), the object and the method of creating the object ought to be recognized as intimate with the work’s ultimate significance. This is where Marjorie Perloff steps in.

Perloff’s afterword describes Beaulieu’s system and explains it through its relation to his previous work in experimental writing, including his various campaigns against lyric poetry. Perloff reminds us of Wittgenstein’s distinction between the language of information (in which poetry participates) and the language-game of giving information (from which poetry (often) escapes). Beaulieu’s book, she argues is “an exercise in sameness and difference” that shares in the Oulippean spirit of violation and revelation. She offers nods to the pataphysical tradition, to Gertrude Stein, and even to an oblique quote by Wordsworth about obliqueness in quotable lines. Beaulieu, her short essay seems to imply, is at the centre of the literary tradition rather than blurred on the far horizons of radicalism.

Beaulieu’s text itself is a series of straight lines arranged much like a seismograph shooting left to right, top to bottom. The lines represent tracers of an individual letters movement down the page of the original text, creating constellations of recorded movement. Visually, they look like the discarded gamecards of Joshua’s simulated nuclear wars in War Games. Ignoring the paratextuals for a moment, the book is, literally, a collection of lines jumbled together in an ostensibly meaningful way. The nature and function of their meaningfulness, however, is ambiguous – it’s where Perloff turns to pataphysics, Boutin to metadiscursivity, Goldsmith to uncreative writing, and Beaulieu (in a quote in Perloff’s piece) to Deleuzean rhizomatics. My instinct with a book of this nature is to stay closer to the physical object.

In fact, after the shock of a book of poems that include no letters, the next most noticeable thing is the overwhelming presence of the line. This makes perfect sense: the book he transmogrifies is a wickedly original narrative set in a world of two-dimensional space. Lines in 2D, as anybody who played the original Castle Wolfenstein knows, are the same as walls in 3D. Concrete and visual poetry has thoroughly deconstructed the icon, but here is a book that deconstructs the hegemony of the poetic line. Beaulieu explodes the mundane tyranny of striped poetry for the universal openness of constellated poetry.

This deconstructive agenda also connects to the original text, which was intended as a satire of the constraints of Victorian society. If we read Beaulieu’s text as a satire similar to Abbott’s, his critique is lodged against those practitioners (especially the supposedly experimental practitioners) who never question or challenge or allow for the serious interrogation of this aspect of the poetic apparatus.

However, Beaulieu’s radical disruption of the physical typography of poetry doesn’t strike me as exclusively satirical. Further, it reminds me, less of the early, mid, or late twentieth century poetics swamped in irony, cynicism, and other manifestations of the punk spirit, than of a contemporary to Abbott just on the other side of the English channel – Stephane Mallarmé.

With the Symbolist movement exploding one year after Flatland appeared, Mallarmé was already devoted to his idea of a pure poetry: poetry that escaped rationalism for ecstatic, experiential symbolism. The less rational the symbolic content, the more potent the purity of the symbol. From this line of thought came his extremely enigmatic and hermetic “A Throw of the Dice” – the functional initiator of contemporary visual poetry. Mallarmé’s sense of the crisis of verse (an idea that anticipates Wittgenstein’s language-game, as Kristeva has noted) created an opening for poetry with unlimited potential:
Poetry is the expression, by human language reduced to its essential rhythm, to the mysterious meaning of existence: its gift is the authenticity of our existence and it constitutes the only spiritual task. (Letter to Léo d’Orfur, 27 June 1884)
In many respects, Beaulieu’s non-illusionistic constellated lines fulfill Mallarmé’s attempt to push his own verse into an essential rhythm ruled by mystery and spiritual potential.

Beaulieu’s work participates in the tradition of visual poetry that grows from Mallarmé idealist sense of the libratory and revolutionary potential by physically breaking language open and uncovering a dormant purity. Some today might be tempted to mistakenly call this Romanticism, though it could be characterized as romantic. Indeed, Beaulieu confesses a romanticism, an idealist significance, of a similar nature in a paratextual element I have not already mentioned – on the cover even, in the subtitle. For here he himself, by including Abbott's original subtitle, characterises the book as “a romance of many dimensions.” This romance transcends the satirical aspects of the work (as well as the swindle) by pointing a way out and through the conservatism that binds us to a flat earth and to straight lines.

Beaulieu’s unreadable book synthesizes Abbott’s satirical use of space with Mallarmé’s idealistic rupture of space. It embodies its own romance of the crisis of form.

Gregory Betts is the author of If Language and Haikube. He is the Co-Editor of PRECIPICe literary magazine and curator of the Grey Borders Reading Series. He currently lives in St. Catharines ON where he teaches Avant-Garde and Canadian literature. You can read an interview with Betts here.

Find a previous post on Flatland here.

More on Mallarme:
Un Coup de Des (pdf)
One Toss of the Dice

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Opening Lines: rough notes and thoughts toward an essay

At the launch of Freehand Books here in Montreal on Friday night I picked up Marina Endicott's novel, Good To A Fault, and as she took to the podium, read the first few lines. Actually, it was the first line. That was enough to compel me to buy the novel, which I did, right then. Sadly, this occurs far less frequently than I would like. In fact so many first sentences compel me not to read the book that when one compels me I don't stop to think about it, as in the case of Marina Endicott. Rather, I immediately, and very gratefully, buy the book.

But what is it that compels? There seems to be no real formula--not a certain kind of sentence that leads to a certain kind of text even. What is it about the texture of language that can occur in a single sentence that compels a person forward or not?? The consciousness of the writer? The subject? The wording? What is it about a first line in particular? This is not a poem, this is a novel, there will be hundreds, thousands of words to follow, and yet--so often the energy is caught and crystalized in that first line.

Oddly enough, in yesterday's Globe & Mail, TF Rigelhof started a review of Endicott's novel with the opening paragraph in question:
'Thinking about herself and the state of her soul, Clara Purdy drove to the bank one hot Friday in July. The other car came from nowhere, speeding through on the yellow, going so fast it was almost safely past when Clara's car caught it. She was pushing on the brake, a ballet move, graceful - pulling back on the wheel with both arms as she rose, her foot standing on the brake - and then a terrible crash, a painful extended rending sound, when the metals met."
In a time of conceptual novels and genre bending poetically charged, intellectually rigorous, prose--the kind the Hound prefers to chew on--what is the appeal of such a straightforward opening line? "Thinking about herself..." This is not a grand line, and given my own troubling of the self in contemporary literature, it's surprising that it caught me. "Thinking about herself." There we are, in a singular mind. And next up? Soul. Is that fresh? There is certainly confidence in the voice. And clarity. But for whatever it's worth, whatever I end up thinking about Endicott's novel, it will be scored by that initial introduction and my sense of feeling for one reason or another, inexplicably drawn in. I will have to come to terms with my own relationship to that first line--no need for the second, though the second is great, and leads to the third which increases the stakes considerably. A directness, a sense of urgency. And so on.

The game Ex-Libris (once available at the British Library though apparently not anymore) is based on the question of what makes a good opening and closing line. Players are given the synopsis of a novel and at the toss of a coin must write the first or last line of said book. This is mixed in with the real version and after hearing them all read out loud players must guess which one is the real line. Points are made for guessing the real and writing a convincing enough line that others choose your line.

And what lines usually win? The short and punchy? The long and descriptive parallel structure? The out of left field? The two word surprise? Just to complicate my own position (shaky as it is in any case), it is far too often the less tantalizing lines that are the real first lines. Apparently the power of a good opening line isn't its flash. Though something startling is good. Perhaps the Endicott line struck a cord with me--after all I am enamoured of vehicles. And I admit that the third (of many) drafts of my own first novel (which exists in an entirely different form now), also opened with a crash scene. Mine involved a mother and four children in a remote mountain pass having narrowly missed flying off into a canyon, sliding instead into a hard, snow packed cliff in the Monashees (a range in central BC). It gets at the conflict alright. It gets the story moving, it shows that there will be risks, that there be skid marks, and near misses--in short there will be repercussions.

But I changed that opening, as well as the entire structure of the novel because it seemed too familiar, too novelistic...predictable. Too fiction-world real. And yet we have this very realistic scene given in plain language in Endicott's hands and voila, compelling. Now, I haven't read Endicott's novel, but after hearing her read for five minutes I bought a second copy to give away. There was something vibrant, and clear in the prose, something that promised intellectual and emotional engagement, that was quick moving, but thoughtful, not overly descriptive, but attentive in the right quantity. A novel in the complete opposite tradition of the last novel that made me buy it and think about it and read it compulsively which was Vanessa Place's Dies: A Sentence, a 50,000 word sentence that has much action, much description, much movement, and none of it in the traditional sense. I can't give you Place's opening line because the line doesn't end until the novel ends...but here a slice of the actual opening:
The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there’s no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one, O, we’re knee-deep in this one, you and me, we’re practically puppets, making all sorts of fingers dance above us, what do you say, shall we give it another whirl...
Tension, risk--no sense of narrative. None is wanted in Place's hands. (You can read about the writing of Dies in two interviews linked to the right of this post). And yet that opening compels! Why?

There are of course the celebrated openings, Melville's "Call me Ishmael" from Moby Dick often cited as "best ever." Austen's, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Tolstoy's, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Or Toni Morrison's incredible: "124 was spiteful."

Other favorites: Jeanette Winterson's "It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock," from The Passion. Paul Auster's "It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not," from City of Glass. Of course Beckett: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." (This from Murphy, though I could go on just thinking and praising the opening lines of all Beckett's work.) Joyce of course, "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed," and I am a sucker for the opening of both The Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit...

The immediacy of the "I" when done right makes it difficult not to turn the page. Here's the opening of Russel Hoban's dark dystopian novel Riddley Walker:
"On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen."
The elegantly understated "For a long time, I went to bed early," from Lydia Davis' translation of Proust, and Roth's "She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise," from Portnoy's Complaint. Did the line "For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well" prepare us for the dark meditation on power in Coetzee's Disgrace? Atwood certainly sets up The Handmaid's Tale up well in the short and apt "We slept in what had once been the gymnasium."

But is the role of the first line different in a conceptual novel? Must it compel in a different way? Or is the desire to be compelled the urge that must be quelled? Gail Scott's Heroine begins simply, "Sir." Mary Burger's Sonny is one of the most beautiful and powerful innovative novels I've encountered in the past decade. I "read it" several times (flipping here, there, admiring) before making myself read it straight through as I would a traditional novel (the effect of which was devastating and I'll report on that in another post). That novel, told in shards (sharper than fragments) begins simply, "This boy raised rabbits and kept them in cardboard pens in the yard."

On the other hand, Carol Maso's much talked about Ava, which I've never been able to read straight through, begins "Each holiday celebrated with real extravagance," a line less compelling. It is a novel of great beauty, but not having ever been able to read it through I can't actually describe its successes as a formal experiment. There are first lines that compel, but novels that don't quite compel as compellingly as the first line. Say, Stein's The Making of Americans, for example: "Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard." That line has all the hallmarks of a great novel to come and yet, well, I admit to not making it through Stein's Making either... Though it makes me no less a fan for it.

I can't think of first lines without the now overly familiar, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," and "The sun had not yet risen," from The Waves, and the startling, "He--for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it--was in the act of slicing a the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters," from Orlando. Are these any more successful than the opening of Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out: "As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm." I want to say yes. Partly because although there is movement in the latter, a sense of being funneled undeniably toward one's future (as the novel further explores), there is not the sense of risk, there is not the tension either in the language or the meaning that compels the way one wants, and increasingly needs, to be compelled to read beyond.

Those rabbits in cages that Burger evokes make me shudder. I worry. Feel pent up, vulnerable. Wonder what they are doing there. How they will figure. Rabbits in a cage isn't an astounding opening, but it works very well for Burger's novel. And as they come back again and again, the reader experiences that kind of vulnerability. Powerful.

The sentence is a unit of writing. It is composed of words, and yet, as Silliman points out, "the utterance exists as a unit of speech prior to the acquisition of writing..." Am I searching for the sentences that seem plugged in to that? Or that offer a kind of connective circuitry that effectively takes me elsewhere? Thinking of the way Lydia Davis begins a piece (I'll come back to her next time), or, as Silliman points out rightly, the precise wand-waving of Russell Edson:
A man opens a sardine can and finds a row of tiny cots full of tiny dead people; it is a dormitory flooded with oil.
And what of the short story?? Much to say about that, and the failure, it would seem to sufficiently innovate in that form (or for what is innovative in it to be relegated to the swelling ranks of the prose poem for lack of distinction). And of course now I have to think about first lines of poems. What does one need there? All of the above, only more condensed, more syntactical. Certainly one wants a mind...and if there is none?


Having moved on.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jeanette Lynes

Jeanette Lynes, originally uploaded by johnwmacdonald.

Touring around with a new book. A slender, popped-up volume on the life of Dusty Springfield. It's Hard Being Queen is a lot of fun and of course, it has teeth. From "The Producer's Poem."
She’s the sound of elsewhere, the struck note
you don’t hear every day. The alien trout
that melts your tongue then poisons you.
It would take so little, now, to throw her back
into the stream, walk
away. He wonders when they might graduate
to a whole word, an entire song.

“When it’s right,” she says. “It’s still not right.”

Friday, September 19, 2008

Christian Bök reads Darren Wershler Henry

from The Tapeworm Foundry
by Darren Wershler-Henry
House of Anansi, 2000


andor gather all the equestrian statues from the parks and squares of the world and then place these statues together in a desert in order to depict a calvary charge dedicated to the greatest massacres in history andor write what you do not know andor write a three volume novel in french about a man who falls in love with a cookie andor take everything that is sculpture out of your art because sculpture is simply what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting andor shoot a man in reno just to watch him die andor assume precisely what it is that you must be questioning andor tell it for a thousand and one nights in order to avoid having sex with someone particularly undesirable andor forge a scroll that tells the story of jesus revealing the game of bingo to the apostles and then slip this scroll into a case at the museum housing the nag hammadi manuscripts andor stroll on in whether or not you have studied geometry andor print everything on scraps of paper stolen from the dumpster behind the coach house andor proceed as though edgar rice burroughs not william s burroughs is the author of naked lunch


The Tapeworm Foundry is a volume-length poem that itemizes a series of witty ideas for potential works of art that the author Wershler-Henry has imagined, but has yet to complete, due to a lack of free hours and money, good tools and savvy. Wershler-Henry demonstrates that, for the aesthetic intellect, ideas often accumulate faster than the poet can dispose of them, particularly during a time of economic cutbacks, when the ambition of the poet begins to exceed the resources available. Under such conditions, the work of art must often become more conjectural, finding its resolution not in reality but in thought. The poet must propose a task to be done rather than produce a work to be read.

Wershler-Henry issues a series of orders, each one separated by the conjunction “andor”—a word that makes room in the text for the discretion of the reader, who can at all times decide between two judgements of taste: either eclectic inclusion or cliquish exclusion. The poem responds to the modern milieu of information bombardment by presenting itself as an unimpeded bitstream of data, from which the reader might sample a single phrase of specific interest, while ignoring the remainder. The poem emulates the experience of channel surfing, leaping at random from one cultural fragment to another in an effort to evoke the most diverse variety of argots and epochs, genres and motifs.

Wershler-Henry does not hesitate, for example, to imagine a Merzbau built out of Lego or a Mondrian drawn on an Etch-A-Sketch. In the above excerpt, he invites the reader to respond directly to the innovative precedents set by artists as diverse as Guy Debord, Marcel Proust, Barnett Newman, Johnny Cash, Scheherazade, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and William S. Burroughs. He presumes that, when confronting the immense archive of the Internet, the work of the poet must take on an encyclopedic polyvocality, deriving inspiration from the whole gamut of cultural activity. He imagines a more democratic, conceptual regime, where ideas are so cheap that no artist can monopolize poetic genius.

Poets who discuss imagined projects with their peers often keep secret the most novel ideas, holding such gems in reserve as a kind of mental equity for future writing; however, Wershler-Henry indulges in a literary potlatch, completely exhausting his reservoir of ideas in order to start again from scratch. He gives away his own creative activity as a kind of freeware that readers can utilize or improve for their own poetic agenda. He suggests that all conceptual endeavours thrive upon such parasitic exchanges of information, much like a tapeworm infecting a community of hosts. He hopes that, upon reading his poem, we too might be bitten by his bug and become artists ourselves.
Originally published in the Globe and Mail. Reprinted courtesy of Christian Bök.

Portrait of Christian Bok by Charles Bernstein
Christian Bök is Canada's favourite experimental, sound and conceptual poet. His pataphysical encyclopedia Crystallography (Coach House Books, 1994) was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2002), a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002. Bök is also the author of Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (Northwestern University Press, 2001. He is an internationally recognized performer of his own and classical sound poetry. You can read part of Eunoia here, and listen to Bok read Eunoia, and Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonate".

Darren Wershler Henry is a Toronto poet, writer and author most recently of The Iron Whim, McClelland & Stewart, (2006). A former editor at Coach House Books, he is now Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He recently published, with Bill Kennedy, Apostrophe: The Book, with attendant site.

You can find a pdf of The Tapeworm Foundry here. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Shawna Lemay reads Brenda Schmidt

From Brenda Schmidt’s Cantos from Wolverine Creek


The first few steps into a shed.

Fear, the burst of pigeon

This fear to be the east window, the wood frame,

the last bits of white paint peeling, the orange lichen

on the ledge against the glass, the missing putty, to be

inside, the pale moth wings,

the roll of wire painted by bird,

shit-shaped spots of rust where the shit ate through,

the glass, one of the four panes,

one of the million spots where the egg cases burst, to be

what light hits always

implies a certain darkness.

See the Dewline jacket, size 40, hanging

by the hood in the corner, the mouse-eaten

lining at the hem, the wasp nest,

small and abandoned, clinging to the ceiling,

the box of jars, the metal bowl, insides rusted out.

See the exhaust-stained ceiling.

In the corner, on the bench, it comes to light:

the jaws of a vice, lips a bit apart.

Somewhere a little girl spins the handle,

slipping it back and forth through the hole.

It keeps slipping.


How to read a poem, how to read fear. Listen. See. Listen (there is an ear in fear). Walk into the poem. (The first few steps). Walk into shed. Step. Then – burst. Bird burst, pigeon burst. Cower, crouch, cringe, duck, hands above head (protect yourself from landings, stray feathers, droppings). Chaos, flapping, blink, squint, flinch. Now, straighten up, wary. This fear to be, to be, to be inside. To be shed, shed itself. Shed fear, shed light, the fear to shed light.

Careful description, anatomy of a shed. Listen: paint peeling. Lichen on Ledge. Missing putty, pale moth. Listen: shit-shaped, instead of shipshape. Shit, twice on one line. See: the windows cloud with egg burst. (Again the word burst – the after burst, afterbirth). The room, the shed, dims. Remember other birds in houses, buildings, mead halls. (The Anglo-Saxon story – A bird emerges from darkness and flies through a lighted mead hall where all is merriment and music. In a flash the bird is outside again in perennial darkness. Such is the life of man. A spark of light in the void). What light hits implies a certain darkness.

See. The coat described so precisely. Whose coat? Size 40. Then, wasp nest, abandoned, empty jars, metal bowl (the bowl echoes surgical images in other poems in the collection). But this metal bowl is rusted out. Vessels, garments – empty, abandoned, rusted, chewed, gnawed at.

See the ceiling. The word ceiling, derived from, influenced by, the Latin, heavens. But here there are no clouds, no angels, but exhaust stains. The ceiling, its stains, its exhaust, a line unto itself.

Next, in the corner. We knew there would be a dark corner, waited for the light to become focussed in the very darkest place, to be trained there. In the corner, a bench. (Bachelard: “That most sordid of all havens, the corner, deserves to be examined”). Work bench, vice, open lipped. Somewhere. (Here I leave the poem behind, wander, into memory. I remember playing in a shed like this, in various sheds. Across the road from our farm, was a pheasant farm and we held our breath, squinted our eyes, in the murky shed with the incubators, feathers, egg splat, the dim heavy smell. We ran out lightheaded. Another shed. My father’s work shed. Putting my fingers innocent in the vice, or a small piece of wood, tightening it, dropping the handle, the sound, I remember the sound of metal through metal, the sound, shish, thunk, shish, thunk). Somewhere a little girl. A corner. (Bachelard: “It would be hard to find a more felicitous way of saying that the corner is the chamber of being”).

A little girl (floating in time). Spinning. Slipping. A handle slips back and forth. The jaws of the vice, the lips, the spinning and slipping. The hole. I go back to eggs bursting, burst of pigeon. Vessels, nests, empty, abandoned, rusted out. This fear to be – what is here, what is shed. To shed fear. To fear to be. Look again at the exhaust-stained ceiling. Stained with exhaust. Exhaustion. In the corner, slipping, fear to be. In this place where things have been made, formed, born, birthed, collected – are now empty, soiled, shat upon, stained. The fear to be this place. Light shined into the dark places, shedding light in the corner, see, listen. The poem begins with sound – the burst of a pigeon, and ends with, slipping. Back and forth. Slow. Methodical. Thunk. thunk. thunk. A canto, a song. It comes to light: the jaws of a vice. (It comes to light).

Shawna Lemay has published four books of poetry - All the God-Sized Fruit (winner of the Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the Gerald Lampert Award), Against Paradise, Still and Blue Feast. She has two books forthcoming: Red Velvet Forest (The Muses' Company), a collection of poetry, and Calm Things (Palimpsest Press), a book of essays on still life.

Brenda Schmidt is a writer, painter, birdwatcher, bog walker, author of A Haunting Sun (2001), More Than Three Feet of Ice (2005), and Cantos from Wolverine Creek (2008).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Evie Shockley reads Ed Roberson

from “The Open”


In a flattened sea of housing brick rubble,
a catch of broken glass shoots back the light
that lit its flash, a wave’s facet, sudden
ember through full daylight, pierced afternoon
of vacant block after block
whose lighthouse stare no longer gone looking
for work even as sight to see, flounders
for landing left to its address and on
those work commutes is sailed past unseen as
standing in the last building standing,
in a bare window, barely in his shorts;
his as none of the windows is curtained nor show
any sign but him of habitation—
the doors off the building, panes gone from
the frames—
but him on the upper floor just wakened,
standing there, late foot on the sill as if
balanced on the prow of his ghost ship he
hasn’t even had to take over,
a lone survivor, a squatter keeping it
drifts out into the open

Ed Roberson. City Eclogue (Atelos, 2006). ISBN 1-891190-23-7, $12.95.

I do not think it would be going too far to call City Eclogue Ed Roberson’s masterpiece. This collection, which reads effectively as a long poem, despite its show of individually titled poems, synthesizes and perfects the poetics Roberson has been working with since he began publishing in 1970. His control of language—or his ability to reveal to us the telling elusiveness of language—has never been stronger, though he draws upon syntactic and metaphoric practices that typify his oeuvre. These poems are lyrical, even in their disjunctive sentences; intimately conversational, even in their determined orientation toward the page. He gives us the opportunity to see the cities that have formed his personal landscape through widening lenses that clarify their beauty and their ugliness, lenses that aren’t so much new as newly polished with the soft, insistent cloth of Roberson’s political and aesthetic sensibilities.

He begins with a poem that gives the nod to the poetic genre announced in the book’s title. The eclogue, commonly known as a form of pastoral poem composed of the dialogue of shepherds about the joys of their rural environment, invokes the muse, typically, as the first order of business. City Eclogue’s “Stand-In Invocation” informs us immediately that we cannot count on having a divine guide through the territory we’ll be traversing in this work. Instead, the figure who appears to the poet at the beginning (and reappears at the end) of his journey “testifies / she is not the mouth of anything you wrote.” She is fully of the city, suffering with and from its millennial transformations, not hovering over it from a goddess’s vantage point; though “[s]he knows the form” the eclogue is supposed to take, “her tongue’s just sharp and short of” the traditional role of the muse. The poet is on his own.

But Roberson shows himself to be up to the challenge. He quickly reasserts a proposition made in many of his earlier poems: that there is no coherent boundary between the world of nature and the world of culture—indeed, that no such different worlds exist. There is only the one world, in which we human animals work with and (too often) against the flora and other fauna, in creating our habitats. In “City Eclogue: Words for It,” he compares the way birds incidentally distribute trees by carrying their seeds from one locale to another with the city’s distribution of seedlings from the back of trucks to be planted according to a blueprint—and denies the difference. “[E]veryone is lying,” he writes, “when it’s said” of the latter:
. . . that this shit is not the flowering,
that shit off the truck, and not the gut
bless of bird and animal dropping isn’t somehow

just as natural a distribution
as the wild bloom.
Once we understand the human patterns of interaction with the earth to be just as organic as those of any other creatures, we are ready to contemplate cities like Roberson’s native Pittsburgh or the two he lived nearest for many years, Newark and New York, from the proper vantage point.

What we are prepared to understand better is the total interdependence of those of us who live in ecosystems such as those cities. Roberson traces this phenomenon in historical and contemporary moments that are often strongly racially inflected. For example, “Sit in What City We’re In” takes on that famous form of civil rights protest that took place at lunch counters in numerous U.S. cities, perhaps most famously in Greensboro and Nashville. Roberson’s interest in interdependence is reflected in his description of the mirrors that surrounded the counters and depicted the segregation-era drama to its participants in “infinite regressions”:
locked together in the mirror’s
march from deep caves of long alike march back
into the necessary together
living we are
reflected in the face to face we are
a nation facing ourselves our back turned
on ourselves
The section called “The Open” meditates on urban renewal and gentrification, inviting us to see the complex relationship between loss and gain that is obscured by the rhetoric of “progress” that usually accompanies such projects of transformation. Though none of these pieces are didactic, other poems are less clearly political in the way they address interdependence, such as “Ornithology,” which describes the sounds of pre-digital train schedules clicking through their rotations interchangeably with those of gulls’ wings flapping as the flock takes off; each image recalls the other, aurally and visually, in Roberson’s work.

These interweavings of lived experience are enacted in the poem’s intense and pleasurable aesthetics. One way we see this is in the pressure he places on prepositions in this work. Frequently, he seems to insist upon a layered locational relationship between one thing and another by doubling the prepositions that connect them. In “Idyll,” for example, a city’s population density enables some of us to rise to a point where we can “look out on the view.” This is a common enough phrase, perhaps, except in light of the syntactic construction Roberson uses, two stanzas later, in contrastingly describing the myriad “lives pooled” in the city as forming a mirror that some of us “seem // to look into inside.” The repetition of such constructions throughout the book becomes a rhetorical gloss on the theme of interdependence.

Further, a second reading of City Eclogue confirms what one only intuits the first time through: that Roberson is recycling vocabulary and images as often as he aptly can. And I do mean recycling, rather than simply “reusing,” because the terms and tropes do different kinds of work in each setting, even as they continue to bear the traces of prior functions. Consider the way the word “shit,” in the first passage I quoted, moves quickly from its abstract sense of describing something of little value to its more literal sense of referring to feces (as manure). Or take a look at the way images of jumping, screaming, and breath move from “Height and Deep Song,” in the second section of the book, to the poems “When the Morning Comes” and “Escape Training: Instructor’s Flying Rappel,” which appear in the book’s final pages. The territory covered is temporal, geographic, and catastrophic.

While “Height and Deep Song” speaks to racism in the context of a single city’s metamorphosis or even a disastrous intra-national (U.S.) system of human relations (there are echoes of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath to be heard in that poem’s section), the latter two poems, we realize, reference the bombing of the Twin Towers and the Hobson’s choice faced by some that morning: between “jumping or adjusting to the fire.” We begin to understand that the network of interdependence Roberson perceives not only includes relationships among cities (such as New Orleans and New York), as well as within them, but points ultimately to an all-encompassing philosophy of global interactions. The book’s final poem, “Eclogue,” an elegy for those huge absences in the New York City skyscape, speaks to a whole (and single) world of changes of various sorts: gradual and overnight, managed and uncontrollable, painful and advantageous. Which sort of changes they appear to be, City Eclogue suggests, depends significantly on where one stands—or, as Roberson might say, on those factors that determine whether the transformations are a view one looks out on or a mirror one looks into inside.

Reprinted courtesy of the author and Talisman. Review of /City Eclogue/, by Ed Roberson, /Talisman/, No. 34, Winter/Spring 2007, pp. 60-62.

Evie Shockley is the author of a half-red sea (2006) and two chapbooks, The Gorgon Goddess (2001) and 31 words * prose poems (2007). She is currently co-guest-editing jubilat (with Cathy Park Hong). Her poetry and literary criticism have appeared in such publications as African American Review, nocturnes (re)view, Studio, Hambone, Center, Mixed Blood, The Southern Review, PMS: poemmemoirstory, Rainbow Darkness, No Tell Motel, and HOW2. Shockley, a graduate fellow of Cave Canem, teaches African American literature and creative writing at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is currently completing a critical study of the intersection between race and formal innovation in African American poetry, supported by the ACLS and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. You can find two poems from Evie Shockley here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Vanessa Place, Round 2

This conversation picks up where Round 1 left off. You'll find an introduction and bio, as well as much conversation around Place's novel Dies: A Sentence.

LH: You ended our last discussion with a comment about wanting a language that is "so thick with sound and sense that you can see right through it to the pent little hearts within…" a sentiment I understand completely. For me I want the text to be giving but so firm I can hang it from two Firs and drift of an afternoon. And yet have that give, that netted quality. Is this a quality that can cohabit with "story" in the traditional sense of the word??

VP: Story has a weft and web of its own, don't you think? More than one, if tradition is any gauge. So yes, within whatever version of story you choose (saga, legend, fairy tale, romance, with or without capitalization, detective, discursive or short), good words will out. Of course, you may mean prose versus poetry or something that coddles a narrative. Still, I don't think there's a competition in the conjoining, but rather a kind of ballet between sound, sight, and sense. In the best ballet, there's the engagement of all elements, parts wedded to parts in piled confusion. I suspect here I'm just cheating off Yeats.

LH: You say that there is no split between consciousness and the sack of skin it comes in, which leads me to believe that you see no split in language then, or the sentence, and the body that crafts it…or time and the handling of it? Or is that too literal? And if so, what happens to narrative? Is there a continuous engagement with denouement?

VP: Part of my thesis would seem to include that there can be no being overly literal, just as there can be no being overly conceptual, given one is the other. It's a trivial point, in many ways, because it's both true and doomed to distinction. Without delving into the abyss between language and living, we can note the gape, while agreeing that it's immaterial for our ragged purposes. What can't be said, can't. This makes for desire. Desire makes for form, form is narrative. Denouement is another form of narrative desire, though mostly pleases as a party favor, not unlike the period at the end of the sentence.

(Contrarily, Stein said commas are slavish, and they are, but we Americans adore our service economy.)

(N.b.: You left out the body that reads it, or hears it, or chucks it across the room and decides to order in.)

LH: Do you see your text as architectural?

VP: Yes -- a henge.

LH: What was the last text that knocked you out?

VP: Patrick Greaney sent me a copy of his translation of Heimrad Baecker's /transcript/, to be published by Dalkey Achieves; it's a collection of language about the language of National Socialism, conceived and presented as concrete poetry. It's documentation and citation at the highest degree, sparing nothing including nothing * itself. If I may, I really liked /Lemon Hound/, and have been commending it promiscuously as a terrific example of honest homage. I've also been going through loaves of Pound lately, using slices for a song lyrics for a visual/sound project I'm doing with Stephanie Taylor, and reading a lot of aesthetic/art theory for the conceptual poetry book that Rob Fitterman and I are writing for Ugly Duckling Presse. Though the last absolute knockout was probably Golding's translation of Ovid, which changes everything.

LH: Can you tell me about the text, "A Parable, I suppose," in a recent edition of Western Humanities Review. Is this part of Medusa?

VP: No, it's from the work I'm now working on -- The Gates. The section excerpted there was a rough draft of a small portion of the beginning; the book itself is a gluttonous abomination.

LH: A gluttonous abomination??

VP: It can absorb almost anything without belching; pure hubris on my part to think I could take on The Gates unscathed. The form is suicidal in its consumptions -- Rodin never finished his, Ghiberti's took twenty-seven years to complete. Though there is some comfort in knowing one is engaged in failure.

LH: When is Medusa coming out? Is it conceptual? You said previously that you spent ten years writing that. Can you tell me about it?

VP: Medusa's just in from the printer. Conceptual, yes, perhaps even post-conceptual. Some appropriated bits, chunks of narrative, some poesy. Ur-conceptual in the sense that it began as a documentation project, where I logged thought-shards for 41 days, then built off these broken bits. I had a neuron's belief in impulse, receptors, and emplasticity. I wrote the first draft in a year or so, then worked on the words. The final manuscript was well over 600 pages long, and it took some time to find a publisher both willing and able to handle her.

LH: "I had a neuron's belief in impulse, receptors, and emplasticity..." Intriguing, but I need more. You are working at a very molecular level here, is the sentence the unit of composition? Are you building a narrative? Why "ur-conceptual"?

VP: If by narrative you mean the narrative of the entire oeuvre (as Joyce announces his at the end of Portrait of An Artist and Christian Bok sets out his in his 'pataphysics treatise), perhaps. The Steinean trajectory would be the word to the sentence to the paragraph. I think I might be working backwards in this: the paragraph (Medusa) to the sentence (Dies) to the word (Gates). Image would be next, the point at which language is. "Ur-conceptual" because, like everyone else, I yearn for the primal. The birth of consciousness, the birth of self aware of self. It's terribly romantic.

LH: Is there a project you yearn to do but can't quite fathom?

VP: I would truly like to write a sonnet crown of holocausts.

There is a larger notion buzzing the very back of my brain that I've no form for as yet, but I think I can discern a bit of shadow. Something grasping, something about something I'm frightened of.

LH: The thought of writing a crown of holocausts frightens me—do you mean in the sense of facing the abject? Or facing one’s fears? Or facing the impossible as a literary practice?

VP: Yes.

LH: Changing the subject entirely…Women and the Internet: is there a woman you read daily?

VP: An Internet woman?

LH: Yes, I'm thinking about women and space, women and the way we inhabit space. Women's intellectual discourse, where and how we encounter it. Is there a woman that you read daily then, a woman who offers commentary, who is involved in a political, poetical, public discourse that you connect with?

VP: Like a woman, I confess most of my best exchanges are privatest. I am lucky enough to have very clever friends scattered about who are ongoing correspondants in ongoing conversations; there's a steady stream of smartness publically coming from them, but there's also a great willingness not to know or to probe that is more easily explored via email. There's your blog, of course, and some others, but I've found a funny gendered inclination towards (or alee) public serialized pontification and free-ranging authority. I enjoy it myself, an occupational tic, perhaps.

Did you want me to name names?

LH: No names necessary. This is perhaps just me coming to terms with the absolute genderedness of public space. No wonder women write so much…in private. The idea of the feminist boot camp appeals. I would like see women making grand philosophical and political statements in public, and have them batted down and have to defend and joust. Is this why academic women are so appealing? I wanted to say sexy but I’m not sure that’s it…you are a fan of Simone de Beauvoir though, and other thinking women. Does their publicness come into the picture for you?

VP: Sexy is exactly it. I adore that photo of de Beauvoir nude, fixing her hair in the mirror. If there is an ethical obligation, it would include the obligation of public pronouncement, and the utter willingness to show one's backside.

LH: I know you have a press, which might be the answer to the following question, but perhaps you can address that in the mix. Do you think about community when you write? Or, is writing a kind of social praxis for you? Is it political?

VP: No. I hate community. Community breeds lynch mobs and Hallmark cards. Writing is ethical, which is the smallest unit of the political.

LH: This is a question I asked here on LH recently about compassion fatigue really, and the responsibility of artists to see... Does seeing the problems really make one pessimistic? How to look without getting burned out? Is it better to tune out? What do we do with all this information? Is it useful to know that there are 191 million global migrants. On the other hand what does business see when it looks at a floating island of garbage? Sometimes just picking up one piece is a start, no? Isn't optimism confronting things head on?

VP: These are perspective choices in a pro-choice world. I feel sans choice, or sous chose, I suppose. As you know, I am a criminal appellate attorney; I work for the defense, representing indigent felony sex offenders and sexually violent predators. Poor rapists and child molesters. I do not feel that either my vocation or avocation is about compassion or optimism or even the sanctity of utter damnation. I am by turns confitor and conspirator, guilty as any good bystander. I want to be burnt, out and in, to have seared into my consciousness the consciousnesses surrounding me; I worship at the altar of Sisyphus, and consider myself lucky at that. The beauty of humanity is its feeble insistence on the possibility of transcendence—to pick up one piece of garbage is a ridiculous prayer, made more marvelous by its utter inconsequence. Head on, face first.

LH: I hear you about perspectives, and I guess that’s partly what I’m getting at here. I always remember the story of the man who started picking up garbage in the Don Valley in Toronto. One day on his walk he bent down and picked a piece up. The next time he picked up another. Then he started to make note of what he was taking out. Then he got a cart. Then others took notice, and so on. I hear you, absolutely, but that story above always gives me hope.

VP: This is why the Canadians are better people than we are. Here's a joke that's in Medusa, which I love: The CIA, FBI, and LAPD are each bragging that they're the best law enforcement agency in the world. As a test, the President releases a rabbit in the forest, and tells them to go find it. The CIA goes out first, investigates the terrain, interrogates the other animals, takes some infrared photos, scans all satellites, pays off a snitch, etc. Returns nine months later, saying, "Mr. President, sorry to say, there's no such thing as rabbits." So the FBI goes out, sets up an encampment with armored cars, sharpshooters, media center, etc., waits a week, then sets fire to the forest, burning deer, bear, moose, squirrels, birds and bobcats—and one rabbit. FBI hauls the burnt bunny back and says, "We're sorry about your rabbit, Mr. President, but the motherfucker had it coming." Finally, the LAPD rolls out. Five minutes later they come back dragging a beat-up bloody racoon, who's yelling, "OK! OK! I’m a rabbit!"

LH: I'm a fan of Lisa Robertson, as I've mentioned, and one of the things I like about her work is the sense of it always being created. The thinking seems to be occurring as one is encountering the text. Your work has a similar quality. Is that something you have identified as a need for you? a necessary quality of text in general?

VP: Yes to all. This gets into the conflation of enactment and embodiment, demonstrated by the de Beauvoir nude and the allegorical nature of writing itself, or at least writing that's worth talking about.

LH: The other way in which your text reminds me of LR is the sheer beauty of it. The way you connect words--you mentioned lacing earlier. What I wonder is if beauty is a way to offer solace when there is so little real solace. I mean so much poetry or "fiction" in the mainstream sense of the word seems so delusional because it wants to console. LR suggests at points that the delusional space is perhaps the most ethical...

VP: I don't believe in delusion, but do believe in beauty, and its ethical imparative*. Though I consider beauty, as I've written elsewhere, to be a verb.

LH: Does your conceptual appetite extend to movies or can you abide Woody Allen? Will you see the new one? And do you have a favorite director?

VP: Not him for conceptualism, though one of my favorite films of all time happens to be "The Sorrow and the Pity." I've a number of directors or director's films I quite like -- Lang's "M" is a series of perfect mis en scenes, and I can watch "Army of Shadows" and "Elevator to the Gallows" repeatedly. I've been on a binge of Ozu mixed with Melville and other Nouvelle Vague gangster films for the past couple of years, and have developed some flabby theory that they're about the same thing -- familial disappointment and uncritical fidelity. I realize my film choices are unutterably fey -- Teresa once told me that she didn't realize that part of being with Vanessa meant never seeing a film in English, or in color. (Or sometimes sound: I also really like Buster Keaton, and much Chaplin -- have you seen Monsieur Verdoux? Just great.)

LH: An artist to watch?

VP: Stephanie Taylor, who is merging conceptual writing and conceptual art in excellent and necessary ways; Molly Corey, merging historicity and conceptualism to good effect. There's more works than specific artists; Mary Kelley's recent 1968 dryer lint piece was wonderful, I loved Jenny Saville's Fulcrum painting and Alexandra Grant's wired words. At the moment, I'm reviewing Gillian Waring's Pin Ups, quite inspiring as a manifestation of the endlessly looping subject/object -- what Rob Fitterman & I are calling the "sobject."

LH: What about this business of being a writer and having a body—do you train? It’s an odd question, but I wonder how we of the bent over our screen generation will fare physically. We think about the body in text, but what about the daily.

VP: I grew up in a multi-generational military family: a soldier must be equally trained in mind and body. I'm not as disciplined as I ought should be, but do attempt to move all parts on a regular basis, sometimes strenuously.

LH: Humour. Obviously you have a keen sense of irony, a quick wit. How would you have done at court? Versailles, 1782?

VP: If I were Benjamin Franklin, I imagine quite well. If Marie Antoinette, not so hot.

Friday, September 05, 2008

K. Silem Mohammad Reads Elizabeth Bachinsky

Dawn’s Athlete: Washed Talent? Satan Held Wet Death, Lent Saw, Hated Lawn Set, Stew, And Lathe (Lead the Wants/The Waste Land)

Thanks to Elizabeth Bachinsky for her generous and thoughtful commentary on my Sonnagrams project. It’s my turn now to talk about her Lead the Wants, an anagrammatization of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The Waste Land is an apt object for Bachinsky’s treatment, as it is itself a signature instance of violent modernist experimentation. What Bachinsky’s letter-jumbling does to it is not that far from what it does to the literary sources it pillages. The passage of time has perhaps dulled many contemporary readers’ senses of just how radical Eliot’s experiment was. It may now seem to some like just another dry entry in the Norton Anthology, a “handful of dust”; to many of its contemporary readers, however, it was capable of provoking reactions ranging from puzzlement to moral outrage. These days, no one is likely to be outraged by a poem on account of formal devices and compositional procedures alone, though there is still a great deal of resistance to experimental poetics as such. Eliot’s first hostile readers saw an affront to what had seemed unassailable values grounded in firm beliefs about the legitimate applications of language, whether used in a poem or a political speech or a treatise on natural science. Readers who are unfriendly to poetic innovation now more often than not have no such deep-seated moral convictions about syntactical decorum, but are merely suspicious of what appears to them a confidence game of empty mannerisms and pretentious affectations intended to be intellectually intimidating. In some cases they have good cause for these suspicions.

One can easily imagine one of these wary readers confronting Bachinsky’s Lead the Wants in a state of guardedness approaching high alert. Here are the first few lines:

1. Ribald Teeth Of Bead

Brilliant duel them corset her penis.
A million toxic duds dangle. Get a
Night-rise or day-rites—merge, mend.
Withstand null grip or soir.
We saw murder in it. Veto kept
Slough for wine—a ten cent ring.
Dried, brittle, few fillies that
Murmur homage on Rubens’ trees disperse rug-covers—those
Clowns! What death sheer torpor paid to a waif on
The run. What neon cadet lit nine gone gifts? None.
An anathema of need, our offer lacked
Stamina, snarl. Deadening, the unseen music dug kitsch
Instead. Her brine-randy nukes were arched (whack!)
And look guilty. Who’s she on? Et tu, commie?
It’s a night friend, a washed mare, said e.
E might tow on the wed old air-wand
I tread. Nigh in ten and no one fights worth much.

And for comparison, the corresponding lines in The Waste Land:

1. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

Bachinsky’s method is more constrained than my own* in that she attends closely to the exact letter tally of each separate line in the original, so that for example “April is the cruellest month” becomes “Brilliant duel them corset her penis.” The lines are quantitatively identical except that Bachinsky’s is missing a G, which I believe she carries over to the next line. (When I try to trace her exact procedure, I get confused—even bearing in mind that some of the letters from the dedication to Pound get carried over into the section title, I can’t quite make it all match up—but I’m pretty sure there is some kind of consistent isometry between Eliot’s individual lines and hers.) The sense created by this close correspondence of letters per line is that of a warped mirror-text, a poem that constantly displays recognizable traces of Eliot’s structure but subjects them to extreme deformation.

I’m struck by the similarity between the surface texture of anagrammatic writing and that of homophonic translation. One might even consider homophonic translation a subcategory, or the flip side, of anagramming. Both practices substitute linguistic equivalents for original signs: the difference is that homophonics does it at the sound level of the signifier only, and anagramming proceeds from the visual level (which naturally also always entails a sonic corollary). And both techniques have the effect of rendering language as a conflicted system hovering unstably between reference and self-referral, connotative sensuousness and asemic grotesquery.

It may even be reasonable to suggest that a great percentage of the poetic innovations of the past century, that is, those innovations which have given rise to the designation “innovative” and related terms, have their basis in a general tendency towards the kind of extra-referential application of morphemes and phonemes found in anagrams and homophonic translation. At the extreme poles of this tendency one might locate on the one hand transrational writing such as zaum (nonsense syllables invented by the poet), and on the other truly asemic “pseudowriting” (improvised scrawls and figures that resemble writing but do not adhere to any preset code). Because anagrams and homophonics encroach upon but do not fully extend to these poles, they place us at an ideal vantage to observe both the signifying and non-signifying properties of “poetic language” at work. (I place this phrase in quotes because of course there is no such thing as a uniquely poetic language per se, but only more or less poetic ways of conditioning our response to language in various contextual frames).

What assumptions of value guide a project such as Bachinsky’s, or homophonic translation, or other poetic forms where sense is at best an occasional illusion, one that like as not will flare up in the momentary form of isolated mini-themes or allusive winks before fading back into a jabber of blind mouths? Put another way, how and why is such a work to be read? For a certain type of reader this question needs no answer: the poem provides its own justification as an imaginative stimulant, a tonic barrage of verbal sensations just this side of any conceptual premise or telos. Though I myself may be one of those readers, I nevertheless suspect that this is not a satisfactory stopping point—or if it were, it is the sort of thing that should be a little embarrassing to admit. So if not this, what then? I want to suggest that anagrammatic projects such as Bachinsky’s, and perhaps my own, have as a significant part of their purpose the staging of exactly this question: that is, what are the limits not only of the writable and readable, but of the literarily evaluable? More importantly yet, what determines such limits? What world needs this work, and why?

When I say that works such as Lead the Wants stage this question, I mean at least two things, the second of which follows from the first (ideally if not necessarily). First, most obviously and most superficially, they thematize it. Their difficulties and intractable opacities quite simply point to the problem. They seem to say, here is something it seems like no one could ever really be able to read with any serious attention—let’s see what happens if anyone should try. This is the “experimental” part of experimental writing. It is the equivalent of mixing random chemicals with little or no prior sense of what might happen as a result, and by itself it is just as foolish, except that the chances of real physical injury and damage to property are somewhat lower. But the second thing I mean by staging is an action undertaken with an eye not only to a hypothetical set of results, but to a conscientious examination and testing of one’s materials. The materials in question might encompass a wide range of objects. In Bachinsky’s case, they are Eliot’s original poem, the anagram procedure itself, the convention(s) of the contemporary experimental poem, the community of anticipated readers and their intellectual habits and expectations, and so on. What is being staged, then, is not just a rote avant-garde gesture, but an entire set of cultural conditions in which such gestures might have “meaning.”

I put “meaning” in quotes not to signal some facile relativism, but to indicate my awareness that it would be silly to attempt a critical reading of Lead the Wants in which I argued that some deep psychological or political or other significance was somehow embedded in the poem’s imagistic and linguistic feints, in a way that would not be so silly if I were attempting a reading of, say, Eliot’s own poem, as disjunctive as it is. Where Eliot shores up fragments against his—and Western literary culture’s—ruin, improvising a motivated edifice out of cannily selected fragments, Bachinsky, if I’m not mistaken, has no such ambition in mind. Her staging, unlike his shoring, assumes that ruin is a foregone conclusion, at least the ruin of a particular civilizational formation of aesthetic values in its familiar manifestation as a canon of taste and craft standards. Eliot wrote for those, like himself, who could still appreciate and even partly partake in the grandeur of a mode hurtling towards oblivion. His prosodic fractures and discursive ruptures were more elegaic than ludic, undertaken in a mood more of desperate regret than native instinct. Bachinsky writes for us, the inheritors of a debased estate in which the last elegaic strains are heard chiefly as canned schmaltz piped into the corridors.

This means, inevitably, that Bachinsky’s poem, at the level of utterance, is more trivial than Eliot’s. Any promise it offers of semantic significance is a sham promise, a joy buzzer evident in her palm well before the clasp of the handshake. Its significance, beyond its immediate appeal as a textual party favor, must subsist in the extended context of its circulation between interested parties. It requires, that is, a suspension of sensible objections on the part of the reader in order for its full poetic aura to emerge. Walter Benjamin famously wrote of the aura of a work of art as that quality which inhered in its being the exact physical object it is on account of the precise conditions of its creation, its being located in a particular space and time that attest to this ontological authenticity. He was speaking chiefly of painting and music, of course, but literature since (at least) the invention of mechanical print has for some time anticipated the photo- and phonographic innovations he had in mind, in that it presents a challenge to conceptions of the aesthetically authentic, as it resists the model of an “original,” a material object that bears the traces of the artist’s labor in the three classical dimensions. Whereas the aura as Benjamin described it was a function of what he called the work’s “cult value,” its status as a quasi-religious relic bearing witness to the artist’s unique conversion of direct perception into corporeal form, the aura in our own time (or what has come to replace it) is often a function of the work’s resonance within a specific communal constellation of values. The values that accommodate a work like Lead the Wants are values reflective of a shared willingness to participate in a fiction of significance and readability, with the subtending goal of securing a position of relevance for poetry in a world where the old relevances are in one way or another compromised.

And yet, as they say, words mean things. Content never goes out the window completely. One of the key features of anagrammatic composition, in Bachinsky’s work as well as my own and others, is its inclination towards a curious variety of eroticism—curious in that it works upon the erotic in much the same way that the process itself works upon language. That is, it both reduces eroticism to certain absurdly gauche strokes of arbitrary sexual pseudocontent, and activates a free-ranging libidinous logic of syntactic association, making the text into a sort of total erogenous zone of free linguistic play. Unlike most traditional “erotic literature,” which draws the basis for its eroticism from a core of sexual content treated as though it precedes the text, the anagrammed text starts with nothing but letters, which in themselves are about as sexy as a tax report, and finds in them a latent Metamorphoses of chimeric couplings and bawdy mis-joinings (e.g., “Brilliant duel them corset her penis”). The entire field of signification becomes, if you will, a perpetually excited surface of semiotic erectile tissue, productive of pornographic delirium.

A few more representative passages from Bachinsky:

O Hymen cave a fist. Youth is a gray gear
They chill. That iced hymen. Real.
Tactile. Rome began a feather, waged hymen.
Our tiny new land—sacked. Her, truly warm.


He, the Savanna wind, saw Eve’s ugly Goth coupon
By angel, Barb, amorous of Phil, the thick hen, (e.g.
Lightly feathered, red, nice sort—yet hung.)


He wag her pert tuft, then, word new,
I axe it with a bling bank g riot,
Bling binge, rob houses. I wield it better than hot wives.
World, ma. Thin. Weeks in elf-red male beast scan.
I’ve star-teeth. Violin-teeth. Hear sour hung hot TV.
O, her maw dandles bright—a sense of Roma or him
For them. Metaphysical teeter aghast the bitter kiss: L.A.
Love? Days of sand in nits, Hero. Tout
Peril. How lofty wounds pout. E, I reads
Stein. Hard binds, Mr. toying boy-couch, these lunar stays.
Van hid been reptile other dada thing.
O lips, stop, lips recess, cyan damask stings.
I sold, I rest, wait, wear minks, held dung;
St. an received her there, cold spotted fen.
The two sexed it agape: duet to ice.

I cite the last passage at some length to show how the blatantly sexualized material magnetizes and activates the other language, so that words and phrases which would otherwise be neutral (or neuter) take on some of the charge of the more loaded content. When nothing really means anything, everything sounds dirty. This is a primary tenet of surrealism and absurdist art in general, a fact Bachinsky appears to nod to with her Stein-reading capital vowels, “lunar stays” (a faint echo of Loy’s Lunar Baedeker?), and “other dada thing[s].”

The recurring intrusion of the carnal in what could otherwise be a sterile set of lettristic manipulations is a reminder that it is impossible ever to separate language from its use as a prosthesis, an appendage (or anemone-like array of appendages) whose primary purpose is always the supplementation of some bodily desire or lack. Bachinsky’s title hints at an apprehension of this directive: you can lead the wants to water, but…? The wants in this case are the familiar profane ones, but also perhaps indications of Bachinsky’s desire to shore up a few ruins of her own, to reach across the gulf of time and share a little reciprocal trauma with her predecessor. As she writes toward the end of her first section:

O, Eliot—dead—this wound an offer. Thanks.

I don’t know how Eliot would have received this gesture, but my own response is no, thank you.
-K. Silem Mohammad, 2008


*Bachinsky writes in her post that I occasionally “drop a letter down a line or two for the sake of sense.” In fact, I go much further than that. After the initial process of anagrammatizing each line individually by computer generator, I then shuffle the letters around at will. I make no attempt whatsoever to preserve the letter configurations of the original lines. Letters that were originally in line 3 might end up in lines 2, 7, 8, 10, and 12. And of course there are always leftover letters after the body of the anagrammed sonnet is complete, and those go to make up the title, which explains why so many of the titles are so stupidly bad. The only real constraint governing the poem (aside from the meter, stanza form, and rhyme) is the ultimate letter count. That is, if there are 14 A’s in Shakespeare’s sonnet, there must be 14 in mine, no more and no fewer, and so on through the rest of the alphabet. The only reason I use a computer anagram generator on the individual lines in the first place is to give me a starting field of text that is identical to Shakespeare’s in terms of total letter count, but carries over none of the thematic content.

K. Silem Mohammad is the author of Deer Head Nation (Tougher Disguises, 2003), A Thousand Devils (Combo Books, 2004), and Breathalyzer (Edge Books, 2008). With Anne Boyer, he edits Abraham Lincoln, a magazine of poetry. He is an associate professor in the Department of Language, Literature, and Philosophy at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.