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December 22, 2011

Mother was never prepared for Christmas. We would drive around in the old car on Christmas eve looking for a tree. Most of the tree lots would be empty or closed. But finally, beside some gas station, in the dark, a sign would loom, “TREES” and a light would be on. “There’s one! Stop! See? I see a tree…Mother, pull over!” one of my sisters would say. We would all run over to the last straggly tree, pay for it, stuff it in the backseat with me, and head home back to whatever apartment or house we were in that year. Mother would have done all her Christmas shopping earlier that day or maybe the day before, and would stay up all night wrapping and trimming the tree. She never remembered to buy Scotch tape or wrapping paper though, so our presents were often wrapped in newspaper and masking tape. We moved so often that there was never a last years supply of anything. In fact, in ten years we moved twenty-seven times. From one university to another, from one chair to another honorary position, we traveled with the car full of poetry and pets, plants, and daughters. And now it is nearly Christmas, the first without my mother. But she continues to speak. “The eggplant is silent. We put our heads together. You are so smooth and cool and purple, I say. Which of us will it be?”

Mother dearest, don’t slam the door of his rented hacienda in my head today. I suffer too much over you and need a rest. You knew that exhaustion….on your crying jag with Mr. Tempesta or thrown into hell without a trial.

Mother was a lousy Christmas shopper. “Did you shop?” I’d ask as it neared the holiday.
“Oh, I will. Don’t let the cat out…Do you want hear a poem?”
“Yes, but did you buy anything yet?”
On Christmas a person was apt to get an odd selection of gifts from her… It is not to say she was not generous. She would give a person anything and everything, but she just didn’t shop well for holidays. I remember being annoyed at 22 when I opened an old book from her. “It’s The Bat Poet by Randall Jarrell,” she said.
“It was on the shelf in the living room!” I said.
“But it’s still a wonderful book,” she told me.

There was that Christmas when someone tried to burn all the wrapping paper at once in the fireplace, and the chimney caught on fire. All of us women in our pajama’s. The panic. The firemen tromping around among the presents.

We never threw away a single to and from note. Even now, 56 years of Christmas notes float from drawer to drawer through out my house. Mother believed that writing was sacred. Precious.

Mother here it is nearly Christmas and you are 33 days dead. Yet still I hear you teaching a class. I hear you giving a reading. I hear you laughing. How you used to lie in bed in the middle of the night reading and laughing. “I love Thurber,” you’d say when I would come downstairs to find out what was so funny.

Your poetry runs on a tape in my brain when I wake myself crying in my sleep. Fragments repeat themselves over and over.

“There is no choice among the voices of love”.
“and mirrored in the dark, the manikin.”
“In the silence between us, that is despair.”

And when I am not whimpering, I am half torn in two, and pulled like something stubborn from that life and thrust into this bleak freak world where it will have to do…staring out at nothing while you go on reciting in my head…

“Forgotten in a dream of forgetting as pain falls away into no pain.”
“This is the way it is. This is the way it is.”

__________________________________________________________
Abigail Stone is the youngest daughter of the poet Ruth Stone (1915-2011). She is a novelist and songwriter. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Included in this piece are brief quotes from Ruth Stone’s collections In an Iridescent Time, Topography, and Cheap.

Who to Tell

Who to tell no one cares when no one cares
No one takes the time to care for a monster

I care for monsters
But only because I am one

I go in the dark house
With the ghosts
And the ghosts take my coat off
The junkies

The other man sits slumped in the chair
Is he dead yet?
I do not know

I know that no one cares about anything
I do know that the dressing room
Is drab and grey

And my pink patterned dress
Looks ridiculous against something so truthful

Wildness is not sadness
The wilderness is not sad
It is naked

I am not
If only because
Decomposition is
Not nudity

Who to tell this?
Who do I tell when no one cares

I did not expect them to
I did not expect them to care
I am not mad

I’m not mad any longer
People eat tomatoes
People eat bread

I am a monster
I eat life

But only because I am losing mine
Into a horrible void
That for you is only an idea

I once felt better about things
I once felt better about things
When the blankness was just an idea
Like the way you still think of it

Still I don’t think love is an idea
I don’t think compassion is an idea
I don’t think babies are born out of loneliness
I don’t think the sea is cold

I only think it is cool
Cool cool sea
Blue-green mystery
Mysterious fish

If only I had been born
A fish
Instead of a monster

If only the water were my only home
I would swim so quietly
I would not say hello to you
I would no longer be sad

I would still be me though
And I would not let you catch me
For your dinner

And when you wanted to eat me for your dinner
I would disappear


________________________________________________________
Dorothea Lasky is the author of AWE, Black Life, and the forthcoming Thunderbird, all from Wave Books. She is also the author of several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). She currently lives in NYC and can be found online here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence Schwartzwald

What I love about Paul K. Tunis’s work is how brilliantly he melds traditional comic-book style with the experimental. “Toddlers & Tiaras & Vermin” uses three elements I find very interesting when creating a poetry comic: the poem itself, dialogue, and interpretive image (the latter as it differs slightly from the literal text of the poem). It works so well as a poetry comic because we see an absurd, strange elucidation of the poem through the images. However, Tunis never forces too much on the reader; there is always the sense that the images are only part of the story, and it creates a separate component. There’s mysteriousness in the image/text information given, allowing the reader space to create meaning on their own–what great poetry does. The poetry comic is straight forward, the arc, as seen through the images, eloquently executed, with the elements of the humorously (tragically) grotesque. Be sure to keep an eye out for more of Paul K. Tunis’s wonderful work!


 

LINKS
Paul’s Website
OuBaPo
Putty Eating Magnets
Raccoon Thief

__________________________

Paul K. Tunis is a graphic-poet. His work has been featured in BateauDrunken BoatThe Daily CrosshatchPaper Darts, and elsewhere. A fan of both OuLiPo and OuBaPo, much of his work employs writing/drawing constraints and experiments. His collaboration with Matthea Harvey is included in Loaded Bicycle. He’s from the desert and has floppy, red hair.

We can simplify imagery by saying it is that aspect of writing which appeals to the five senses; but that would be incorrect without the qualifier “sensual.” If we want to be more expansive, but not make the term entirely meaningless (and definitions that insist imagery is anything evoked by words are meaningless) we can use the following qualifiers:

1. Sensual imagery: any evocation of the senses–tactile, auditory, visual, aural, and olfactory in their strict sense as descriptive
2. Intuitive imagery: images that seem scattered and incongruous, non-linear, and perhaps surreal that travel somewhere between concrete detail and abstractions or fantastical combinations of things, places, concepts, things
3. Kinetic imagery: any word or group of words evoking action
4. Abstract or conceptual imagery: forms of synecdoche, metonymy, figurative speech, sensual imagery used to evoke ideas to which one of the five senses or kinesis still clings in ghostly form
5. Conceptual imagery: mere abstraction
6. Evocative/feeling imagery: where any of the preceding forms of imagery are put toward creating a feeling or emotional atmosphere

Poems before the Modernist era tend not to stress “show/don’t tell.” This was a revolutionary concept, partly wrought as a reaction against romanticism, influenced by the simplicity of realism and journalism, and the influence of Japanese and Chinese modes of poetry (misunderstood, of course). Modernist imagist work is also heavily indebted to the dominance of prose. Before Modernism, most poetry told, with showing as merely a form of decoration. Either that, or poetry sought a synthesis between showing and telling where the showing told and the telling showed. When Shakespeare writes, “Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” he is using a form of conceptual or abstract imagery known as synecdoche in which a part stands for the whole: true minds stands for the whole.

Or later: “No. it is an ever fixed mark!” Here, Shakespeare is using imagery in a figurative, not literal way. He is not describing. Instead, he is suggesting a sort of analogy between steadfastness in love and a star that remains fixed in its position. This is very different than a haiku:

Along the river’s edge
ice. And a dead bee deep
in the brown hydrangea.

Here the images need not be taken as implying anything, but one may read winter into them, or the approach of winter. One could see this as both sensual and feeling imagery. Sensually, not one line is without a concrete visual image. In terms of feeling, it may evoke a mood of sadness (though this may not be the case depending on whether you’re the type open to suggestions of feeling states, or somewhat literalist and immune to feeling atmosphere). Someone, especially people that need poetry to have a theme or idea might say: “dead bees… so what?”

Evocation is a risky game, but, for the past 100 years, poets have been told not to preach, or tell, or pontificate, but to show, suggest, and evoke. So evocation and suggestion have been the “ideal” and have become standard. When you look at each poems, you should be aware of what sort of imagery is being employed and whether or not this is the most effective type for the writer’s purposes.

Here’s a writing exercise:
Consider the forms of imagery in the following poems: Hardy’s “To A Darkling Thrush,” Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” Stephen Dunn’s “Happiness,” Paul Eluard’s “Blazon,” Moore’s “The Fish,” Lucille Clifton’s “Hips.” Note what sort of imagery each poet favors. How does their choice of images effect style and tone? Imitate two of the styles. If Clifton, do a poem extolling (or condemning) a body part; if Dunn, take an abstraction like sadness or boredom, and visualize it. Good luck.

River 2

They thought themselves too much
Acquainted with their seasonal
Removal from the wet industry,
Or rather placed beside it,
Two picnickers blessed by them
And losing the thought carefully
Like a scientist in the river sent
To be their blind guest
As the center keeps forming
Only to the situation
That knows it and to no other
Abstraction suggesting, “Things have gotten
Too soon.” All things should be
Sent back—except the hawks—
Without us to the city.


__________________________________________
Paul Legault is the author of The Madeleine Poems (Omnidawn, 2010), The Other Poems (Fence, 2011) and The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney’s, forthcoming). He is co-editor of the translation journal, Telephone, and he works at the Academy of American Poets.

PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence Schwartzwald

Maybe my mom was right.

I have an older brain damaged brother, Peter. In 1953, a small pox vaccination failed to localize and shot up to his brain. Encephalitus (swelling of the brain tissue) and a high fever ensued. They were not able to get the swelling or the fever down in time to prevent extensive brain damage. The convulsions Peter went through afterwards were damaging his brain further so, in 1955 , Peter underwent a hemispheral removal of most of the left side of his brain. This was done in an attempt to stop the convulsions and with the hope that his right brain would assume and compensate for his left. He was one of the first people to undergo this operation. For a time it was successful, but then the convulsions returned, each convulsion wreaking havoc, and, in the 1970’s, Peter suffered encephalitis again. This time, he went into a three year light coma. When he woke from the coma, he could no longer sing our family.

Sing our family? Yes. Peter, could only say a few words: “What” was his name for my mother (because she was always calling out to him : “what, Peter?”). Water was close to “what” but distinct enough. After that, he did not speak accept through songs. Peter loved bright lights, loud sounds, and most of all, music. He loved when my parents yelled, and unlike us, would laugh and sing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” My mother played records to calm him, and he could sing the words. More importantly, he could modify words.

We all kow the parts of the brain that sing and those that speak aloud are not the same. There are hundreds of stories about stammers and stutterers with the voice of angels. But Peter took this difference one step further. He changed the lyrics slightly to identify me, showing some sort of brain function that could recognize syllable counts and accents. He had a different song for everyone in the family.

“Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, How you can love,” for my brother John.

“All day, all night Mary Ann,” for my sister Mary .

He had a song for different behaviors: “Why do fools fall in Love?” for when my parents fought.

“It’s another be good to mommy day”, for when he threw dinner plates, or ripped down curtains (he was hyperactive).

But perhaps the most interesting song was the one he modified for me: “Daisy, Daisy.” The song lyrics:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.
I’m half crazy over the love of you.

He changed Daisy to Joseph. This meant his brain was capable of substitution, even of improvisation (they say he has the mind of a six month old). He would sing this on occasion, belting it from the hopsital bed we had set up for him in the bedroom. He sang these songs through out the day. it was his way of station identification. It was his family. For the dog he sang “How much is that doggy in the window.” Our dog, Peppy, was wonderful with Peter, always understanding, even when Peter would be rough with him. Peppy saved my brother’s life by waking my mother up while Peter was in the midst of a terrible convulsion.

So my mom thought about all this, and until the day she died, she believed that certain great abilities, even certain forms of genius, might be the result of a re-routing of the brain from an accident/disability.In short, she thought all genius was a form of brain damage. She thought genius and creativity were compensatory or re-routed adjustments of a broken self. She said: “your brother is a marvel. You should remember that at the same time you remember he is brain damaged. You should remember how amazing he is.”

Here is an excerpt from an article in a Harvard Medical Journal on how many great artists might have suffered from an ocular disability of depth perception often known as lazy or wandering eye causing “stereo blindness”, and how the lack of one form of depth perception might have been an advantage to their use of other forms of persepective, shading, and three dimentionality. I just think this stuff is interesting. We want to fix everyone and reform everything–especially if it works in a way we don’t approve. We say we love mystery, but we persecute and taunt those who come to greater truths by defective means. This article ought to make us at least consider that what we disparage, may hide a remakable gift. The stones the builders reject might become the cornerstone:

Sleight of Sight

It seems logical that artists, like baseball players, would find any visual defect detrimental to their work. Yet, when we looked at photographic portraits and compared the position of the light reflex in the eyes of 53 famous artists, we found a surprising proportion—28 percent—with misaligned eyes, which would suggest stereoblindness. The artists with ocular misalignment included Marc Chagall, Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Man Ray, Chuck Close, Thomas Moran, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and perhaps even Pablo Picasso.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

The Dog in the Garage

The dog in the garage,
The hound that wanders around
Snapping at flies, with an infected ear —

Suddenly starts to run
Across the street at an angle.
He must have remembered something

Mixed with the odors of dust
And car-grease — a delirious
Fragrance of sexual life.

I just started reading Kayak—the poetry magazine George Hitchcock ran almost single-handedly from 1964-84. It’s a wonderful zine brought to life with Hitchcock’s visual collages. The magazine serves as a portal into the surrealist and deep image poetry of the period. Andrew Joron cites it as “the most sustained, and most visible, interact between deep-image and surrealist poetry.” This is good and bad, however, since deep imagism, for many, is a tamed, domesticated pseudo-surrealism—surrealism without teeth. A pertinent quote from Joron:

Such notions [of the deep image], in spite of their superficial affinities with Surrealism, fall short Surrealism’s radical demand for the dialectical Aufhebung of dream and reality. The deep imagists tended to rely on “intensification of intuition” (citing Jung) rather than on the intensification of contradiction; theirs was essentially an affirmative art, devoid of the surrealist appetite for negation and otherness (as exemplified by Breton’s phrase “Existence is elsewhere”).

Joron’s evocation of Hegel’s term, aufhebung, is very interesting. The contradictory meanings of the word (“lift,” “abolish,” “sublate”) make it an intriguing choice for surrealism (which is, to a great extent, Hegelian). The word suggests more than synthesis, as thesis and antithesis are “preserved and changed” simultaneously. In aufhebung, objects remains open and distinct while, simultaneously, merging with the other.

I wonder if a useful dividing line can be drawn between epiphany-centered poems (those written in the spirit of Bly and James Wright) and the “non-epiphanic” deep image poems that gesture, much less conspicuously, toward sublation. There are many poems in Kayak modeled closely on Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock.” Take this poem by David P. Etter:

HOLLYHOCKS

Hollyhocks are swaying gently
under the blue branches of an elm.

I watch 82 freight cars
sink into the corn leaves
and over the rim of the prairie.

On my back now, I watch the sky
make wool pictures of mothers.

Two blackbirds fly toward the river:
the muddy river of endless regret.

I could lie here forever
and look up at these hollyhocks.

I will never get on in the world.

The same pattern of the meditative, nature-conscious Wordsworthian speaker builds up to an implied epiphany, which is expressed through a “gap” or “leap” into a profound thought, usually in the final line. This is a wonderful way to express the powers of intuition and deep interconnection of man and nature. It is “affirmative,” finding resonance and basic goodness in nature and consciousness.

Such a vision and expression is successful in many ways, but it is different, as Joron notes, from one of the more important characteristics of surrealism. And it’s not that the surrealists are dour pessimists who take the same experience and draw opposite, nihilistic, conclusions. Rather, the difference is one of discursion. The “Lying in a Hammock” poem draws a final statement from the experience, whether good or bad (usually good). Their experience of the world is epiphanic, even mystical. The surrealists are more skeptical epistemologically. Epiphanies, by their nature, are conclusive.

But what about Simpson’s poem? Epiphanies seem to be a matter of subjective judgment. His poem doesn’t seem to contain an epiphany. If there is one, it is so minor that it is almost inconsequential. The speaker interprets the dog: “He must have remembered something.” This could be an epiphany (or become one), but the statement is speculative (“he must have”), whereas Etter’s and Wright’s interpretive statements are declarative: “I have wasted my life” and “I will neverget on in the world.” What the dog remembered might be epiphanic—for the dog—or, the fact that the speaker sees this in the dog might be epiphanic for the speaker. But since what the dog must have remembered isn’t stated. Behind the statement is a potential epiphany, but it is gestured toward from a distance and remains hidden. This lends the poem a sense of openness.

Surrealist aufhebung required openness. The surrealists achieve this by eschewing conclusions (and hence, epiphanies). The simplest way to do this is to stick to images and juxtapositions. The implicative nature of juxtaposition seems to do most of the dialectical work automatically for the surrealist. Yet, only when sublation goes unstated can the paradoxical nature of aufhebung be fully realized.

Simpson’s poem walks the line between surrealist openness and deep-imagist closure. This poem is affirmative—of animal life and the power of the unconscious—and the resonance of “delirious fragrance” pushes the poem toward closure. On the other hand, the poem’s basic maneuver (and its success) comes through contradiction and contrast (infection/virility, memory/delirium, industrialism/sexuality).

Most importantly, the sublation is hidden within the world itself and is not a product of the speaker’s consciousness—the dog itself is aufhebung. It (gender unknown) is a living animal that bundles together energies of disparity, disorder, and disjunction. Yet that bundle of attributes achieves a tenuous cohesion—it is a thing capable of following scents (and sense), and of crossing the street successfully (albeit without efficiency or grace). That awkward hodgepodge, the dog, is the paradox of sublation. Simpson both does and does not suggest that miracle for the reader. Undoubtedly he perceives the mystery, and yet, he’s “just reporting” the dog’s actions and psychology. The poem is surreal because the dog in itself is surreal. The poem is deep image because our experience of the dog carries resonance and (potentially) closure. The line between closed/open, epiphany/non-epiphany, intuition/contradiction, or sublation/deposition can be quite elusive. More importantly, Simpson reveals the surreality, theaufhebung, lying hidden within experience itself. (In that sense, the poem points to something I am growing increasingly aware of: surrealism is fundamentally mimetic.)

A

On my entire obscene face
there is something I’m trying
to achieve. It is colorless. It
is self-published. It is inner

fatigue. It is so superfluous!
It is part of an addiction I hate
and depend on. It naturally
enters into conversations.

It will induce a kind of slow
intuition. It will be sloppy
and corrugated. It will smell
pleasant. It will be animals

playing on a farm. It will be
completely alone. It will not
be so bad. It will be missing
out. It will have a vague sense

of relief. It will be committing
without action. It will be floating
on the surface of everything.
It will be an amorphous tedium.

It will be sleep. It will be a party.
It will be a good lunch and supper.
It will be a whole day and night.
It will be an indefinite field full of

universal life. It will be a giant lack
of noise. It will look like the cult
of humanity. It will look like it is
“only a manuscript” in a Johnny-

come-lately style. It will be hunched
over an illustration. It won’t tell.
It, strictly speaking, won’t exist,
full like a thing full of feeling.

___________________________________________
Simone Kearney’s poems can be found in Ragazine (forthcoming), Bridge Journal (forthcoming), Post Road Magazine, Elimae, Maggy, Sal Mimeo and Supermachine. She was a recipient of the Amy Awards from Poets & Writers Magazine in the fall of 2010. She works as a lecturer at Rutgers and Pace University, and writes for the Thierry-Goldberg Projects gallery in the Lower East Side. She is also a visual artist, and lives in Brooklyn.

Certain sections of broca’s area of the brain are involved both in how words are given syntactical order and how gestures, physical movements are interpreted as flow, as arc, as coherent actions. We know that broca lights up like a pin ball machine when shadow puppets are introduced before the eye. My theory of narrative is that it is arc, gesture, syntactical force the most common of which is what we call a story, but not exclusive to story. We have difficulty seeing narrative as lyrical because it seems more “rule” bound than what we consider lyrical–thus, my students tendency to resist turning their gerunds and participles into active verbs, as if adding “ing” to the verb kept the language safe from being overdetermined and definite. This use of gerunds and participles creates a lot of syntactic ambiguity and I think the brain recognizes this as somehow more “lyrical” because it does not activate the broca region to the degree that a syntactically definite sentence (or concrete sequential gesture/action) would. I have often been called a n intensely narrative poet. Truth is, hardly any of my poems use story as their main agent. There are antidotes or gestures toward action in my poems, but very little plot or tale. If I think of four of my most well-known poems, only “Elegy for Sue Repeezi” is a true narrative. “Ode to Elizabeth,” while using antidotes, is truly an ode–a poem of praise and its narratives (I never have one narrative in any of my poems) are illustrative of a panoramic attitude toward a place rather than telling the story of that place. My poem “Fists” is also without a plot. There are actions and memories, but nothing happens that could be construed as a plot. “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” is not at all a strict narrative.

So if this is true, why do I have a reputation for narrative rather than lyrical poetry? First, with the exception of Whitman, I loath floating or ambiguous syntax. I find blunt sentences, strong verbs, and concrete gestures to be far more aesthetically appealing than ambiguity. Floating is not a desire of mine. Words with no definite position are active principle tend to be inert and uninteresting to me. I also am not a big fan of conventional plot, or linear progression. I like quick bursts of energy, the voice strong and moving between different registers of speech. this does not fit the groove of what we currently recognize as lyrical poetry. It also is outside the groove of what we call narrative poetry proper (which I often find pedestrian and boring). I am far more interested and turned on by affective–narrative, poetry that excites with many gestures and strong movements. My poems are too cognitive for many contemporary poetic tastes, yet, among the narrative poets, or those more conventionally anchored to narrative, I am considered too lacking in progression and the nuance of progression. What many contemporary poets admire I often find inert and faux-lyrical. I also have no love or particular patience with neutral registers of speech and much of what passes for lyrical shares this very middle brow way of uttering–a sort of ongoing equivocation and mincing around nuances that may or may not exist. No thanks.

So if narrative poetry is not story, or linear progression, or antidote, what is it? It seems to be that form of poetry that engages the syntax of gesture,of action, that lights up the part of the brain that wishes to create an arc, to make sense of an action or series of actions. I write poetry in this manner because, while prose can relay information or story well enough, it can not come close to poetry and line in terms of creating the vital tension and speed of gestures, and it cannot isolate single lines, or rhythmic gestures as well as free verse. Prose, except in its more experimental forms, insists as an ordering agent that is closer to logical progression and priority of information, and its stories then are never pure modes of action. They are set up by exposition. Poetry allows me to dump exposition and cut to the chase. Poetry allows me to move between the ordering of the Broca region (syntax and gestures) and the isolate, monolithic qualities of single words as words–language as a form of pure sound and vocality without locality. Poetry for me is the realm of affective action. line moves, line itself is narrative. It makes sense that much language and experimental poetry, getting rid of coherent meaning or story, would start skewing and playing the line in a far more dramatic way. Why? Because the line is a gesture! The line itself then becomes the story or story arc.And gestures also stimulate the formal, narrative impulses. Narrative does not go away, it simply is transformed into the actions of the lines. As for prose poems like those of James Tate, much of Tate’s work is hyper narrative, a series of gestures that may add up to something very different than a coherent story, but which activates the sense of kinesis, and verbal action I think we need to stop seeing narrative as antithetical to poetry. Lyricism in its manifestation of divine possession and afflatus and ecstasy (thus closer to speech as the gift of tongues, and steeped in mystification) made an unholy marriage with prose a while back. Most of what we now call lyrical poetry is merely neutral middle class equivocation complete with line breaks, and the absence of any strongly gestural speech. In short, little of our current poetry talks with its hands. I believe both the greatest narrative and lyrical poetry is gestural, in infinite process of gesture and flux. My poetry is not so much anchored in the understandable as making a dance out of the understandable and the obvious. I like to set the overt dancing. And the most rhapsodic, non-cognitive poetry which we tend to think is lyrical does the same–only from a covert position that must be careful it is not simply a species of class identification. True lyrical poetry moves. It has its being in movement. Both the genuinely narrative and the genuinely lyrical speak with their hands. Poetry speaks with its hands.


Here’s a story right up my blogging alley. I’ve written quite a bit in the past on translation (about Horace and ESL/film), as well as bit on technology and language. I wrote about how Google used the insights of Wittgenstein to overcome the problem of polysemy in search, but ended questioning whether Google could ever overcome the complexities of poetry. Turns out Google has been laboring away at creating a machine translator of poetry.

If I understand it correctly, the poetry translator basically layers several poetic constraints on top of the standard translator: line length, rhyme, meter, etc. Google’s translator uses what Jaron Lanier calls a “brute force” approach to translation. That is, it doesn’t know the rules of grammar—it doesn’t even really have a dictionary. Rather, it scours its database and determines statistical correlation between translations of pages. Put another way, it imitates by means of statistical analysis.

Meta-lord of the cloud-lords of meta of!

Questions of quality aside (i.e., let’s assume Google can be completely successful and create passable—even good poetry translations), would you really prefer Google’s translations Rimbaud over, say, Ashbery’s? Aside from needing a translation in a pinch, I can only imagine an interest in Google’s translation that is analogous to the Turing test: an interest that asks the question “If I didn’t know—could I tell the difference between the results of computer and human translation?”

I have been reading Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget over the last few weeks. He makes a convincing point that Turing’s test is essentially the wrong question. Part of the function of asking “can it fool us?” is a desire to find a computer that can. As a result, we’re essentially willing to dumb down our expectations of what it means to be human in hopes we’ve created machines that think. Ironically, it’s our very human desires that make the Turing test fail. The real judge of the Turing test should be a computer with a merciless set of criteria. No doubt somebody, somewhere has already realized this, and there is a computer slaving away at creating and judging its own intelligence.

Which brings me back to the question: why do we want to read Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud? I see two motivations: the first is to read Rimbaud without learning French; the second is to read Ashbery reading Rimbaud. Google doesn’t read. To say that it does would actually change the definition of reading, wouldn’t it? Reading implies not a functional end (e.g., Ashbery produces a translation of Rimbaud), since it can exist without a functional end (e.g., Ashbery reads Rimbaud in French).

Perhaps more importantly, Google doesn’t even use language in a way that we recognize as language. Some animals use what we would rightly be called protolanguage. They can acquire a vocabulary, and perhaps even use it in creative ways (I heard a story once about an ape that put two words together to ask for a watermelon: “candy water” or something along those lines). At best, though, animals can only mash together vocabulary, without what we could refer to as “syntax.” Syntax is the ability not only to acquire vocabulary, but to manipulate it according to a deeper intelligence that categorizes vocabulary. It’s the difference between “Micah smile” and “Micah smiles.” The latter indicates not only the fact that I have associated one thing with another (the action of smiling with the word “smile”), but that I can categorize it as a verb and thus deploy it in a sentence (oh the difference an “s” makes). This syntactic ability expands when we think about relative clauses, which nest and hierarchize ideas. We even have words for pure functions of language (e.g., articles). Animals are unable to do this (unless, of course, you’re teaching a gorilla that it will die someday—perhaps death is the motivator of syntax!). Google uses statistical analysis to achieve a kind of protolanguage at best. At best, it “learns” (a word also worth an essay) to associate certain phrases with one another. But, unlike animals, it has no will to use them.

All this is to say that there is something uniquely motivating about a person doing something. A Google poetry translation will never make me reconsider my life, except in a purely serendipitous (i.e., accidental) way.

I suppose deep down I am a personalist, believing there is something utterly unique and irreducible about persons. And I worry sometimes that the whole preoccupation with AI actually takes away from the real achievements of Google’s poetry translator: we clever people have found a way to essentially use an on-off switch (0s and 1s) to do something as complex as creating a passable translation of a poem. But as we are humans wont to do, we get distracted, venerating our creation rather than marveling at the deep mystery inside us which motivated us to create it in the first place.

Here’s a quick overview of the project if you’re interested in reading more about it. Here’s an interview about the project from CBC radio (scroll down to “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Digital Night”—below that one, there’s also another very interesting interview with a Canadian student who created a computer program to analyze rap lyrics).

Pissing

What part of life is in the weirdness
spreading illimitably around
what fits? At face level, as he
stood there, glaucous light was caught
in the clear plastic shower curtain.
This light came from the sun
by an obscure but direct path
through the airshaft. Look at it!
The body of the slender man slouched
forward like a bow. And his hand
pinched his cock over the trouser notch.
He hadn’t turned the light on, because, of course, he knew
where the gleam-smudge of the commode cupped its shadowed pool.
What a limp arrow and what an idle, slouching cupid!
Whom does he hope to transpierce? He touched
the plummeting fireflies of urine with his gaze and with thought.
Would he ever choose to pass this moment
if this were heaven where every action flows
in simple purposefulness from desire? However absurd and embarrassing,
he thought of love. All right…I did. The cloudy light
got into the curtain so slyly
it looked inherent, and it made the acid drippings
of penis gleam. A pelting or dropping of mad flies
against the flimsy shanty of purpose. Plains, weird vistas
ran from every wall of that shanty of thought,
and the crazed plastic over the windows crepitated.

What part of life retires into the ghostly regions around
each thing we think and do? I loved him, no doubt of it,
but something couldn’t be resolved. I’ll never forget
the way, when teased, I reddened and blew up:
“Shut up! Leave me alone! How can you be so cruel?
You’re playing with me. Are you? Playing with me?”
But I felt a sort of strength like, in olden days,
entrails strung on a line to cure. Weird, weird, the silence between us
ran out like plains. And his expression was as fathomable
as plastic alit. Would it now
be worth anything merely to pretend
to see his cloudy face in the blur of light
the plastic shower curtain caught?

What part of life have they hit on when they say
the rules of understanding sparsen and break off at the edges?
That the weirdness of the light might as well be his
ghost, because it may be too awful to speak of
if not called that? This is too much. I came to “do my duty”
and found “Shanty,” “Cupid,” penis. In the kitchen
I left stolid life behind. I left water on the stove top.
No boyfriend, teasing or otherwise, rattles the kettle,
though I hear its tinseled, pre-boil popping.
Mere crepitation? Or the sound from across vast plains of a love spell being cast
in a hail of mad, glinting darts?

Damn. Now I don’t want more coffee. That was a false start.
How scary that your actions will only approximate your desires!
It means your whole life history could be more shallow than you meant: coffee
when you also feel like something else, you’re not sure what.
In heaven it’s not that way. There, everything is wanted,
known and done in a bold stroke. No weird plains isolate
purpose. He will not be there. Nor love. All right and I?

____________________________________________________________
David McConnell is the author of the novels The Silver Hearted (2010) and The Firebrat (2003). His short fiction and journalism have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. He lives in New York City.

In the beginning of “Ode To A Nightingale,” Keats writes “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk.” Some ninety years later, Eliot begins the “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

Eliot begins with the imperative: “Let us go.” Yet “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, is the antithesis of the imperative. Eliot’s mock epic tone is further compounded by the speaker’s knowledge of his inconsequence. He is so inconsequential that he can not even fully rise to the occasion of a clown. Keats, for all the passivity of the speaker (he lies in drowsy numbness, listening to the immortal bird) is about the mystical oxymoron of passivity as pure action—to die into eternal life, to sleep in the immortal song. A lot changed in those 90 years between these two wonderful poems.

Hemlock is a poison, the one Socrates drank. Ether, in 1909, was the anesthesia used to prepare patients for surgery. The romantics were fascinated with states of torpor, the irrationality of dream states, with trance, altered consciousness, the whole itinerary of being out of one’s rational mind–all reason suspended for the sake of the sublime. The modernists do not escape this fascination, but, for them, torpor is expressed in the anti-mystical tropes of keeping busy at inconsequence. Man is not asleep in order to receive divinity. Rather, divinity has become etherized, and man lives under the scenic terms of this enervation.

Keats is willing to die in order to enter into communion with the nightingale. In point of fact, he makes no secret that he must die in order to be born into the world of night–the poesis of the Nightingale’s voice. He must drink the dull o[iate “to the drains.” This nightingale is timeless, the same bird Ruth listened to over two thousand years before “amid the alien corn.”To journey into the underworld “lethe-wards,” to hold covenant with the immortal, one must “die.” Abraham, when he receives the covenant from Yahweh, is put into a trance state, and the power of Yahweh moves through the severed animal parts, and ignites the holocaust. Abraham takes no active part.

This is standard operating procedure in matters of the transcendent, and the sublime. Something happens—some aspect of the supernatural or immortal visits and is “received”
Passively–in a state of trance, of “drowsy numbness.” (think the limp hand of Adam receiving the divine spark of God the father in Michelangelo’s painting of the creation). One becomes inanimate, dead in the mortal sense, for the purpose of being reanimated as it were into the sublime. As Kenneth Burke pointed out, heaven and the eternal can be viewed as laudatory terms for death—a state of stasis, an end to history and movement. Using the Benthamite tri-partite registers we can express it as such:

Laudatory: Heaven, eternity, the immortal, the sublime, all breathing human passion far above
Neutral: death, stasis, suspension
Dislogistic: decadence, listlessness, decay, rot, uselessness, super fluidity, seediness

In the presence of the sublime, one mimics the death-like quality of the eternal. One becomes a fitting scene for the entrance of the gods. Prufrock, on the other hand, is anything if not busy. The roles are reversed. God (the pervasive presence of evening) is asleep, and Prufrock is loathe to wake him. After all, that would be impolite, wouldn’t it? The poem is full of frenetic activities that have almost a Marx Brothers mania to them: the women come and go, there are countless visions and revisions, possible seductions that do not take place, self conscious concerns with thinning hair, a sort of manic pettiness. Even when Prufrock receives the vision and song of the mermaids, it is the one time he is almost sure of something: “I do not think that they will sing to me”( he has heard them sing to each other–a sort of mythic upgrade of the women coming and going and chatting about Michelangelo, a mythic upgrade that fails to raise the stakes, and, rather, transforms the mermaids into a bunch of self-involved society women) He has eavesdropped on the mermaids and they are no more concerned with him than the women who come and go. When he lingers in the chambers of the sea, he is not awaked by the voice of gods, but by human voices: “Till human voices wake us and we drowned.”

In Prufrock’s universe then, meaningless social acts, the art of keeping busy has taken the place of a truly relational myth–a myth by which the eternal can fully infect the mortal with an aspect of consequence, and the terms of the mortal be raised to the level of eternity. The future is full of possibility which never comes to fruition: “In a minute there is time/for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Eliot alludes to Macbeth’s “There would have been time for words such as these.” He also implies: “all sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but, in this case, fury has become niggling complaint and fretting, in short, the bangless whimper of the superfluous man, a man who knows he is superfluous (I am no Hamlet) and yet is loathe to change.

To be nothing is no barrier to mystical experience. Keats’s speaker is brought to nothing so that eternity may enter. In point of fact, it is necessary in mystical terms to become “nothing.” To be “a little something, but not really that at all” is, in a sense, far worse a fate than nothing: to be the lukewarm, the tepid modern man. In 90 years, a reversal has transpired: one goes to sleep by ceaseless activity, none of which has consequence. For Keats, “sleep” is the true activity of human consciousness. Sleep is the laudatory and transcendent, the pure “act” of man, and in his poem, “Sleep and Poetry,” Keats, by going to sleep, eats his peach:

And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees;
To woo sweet kisses from averted faces–
Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white
Into a pretty shrinking with a bite.

Both Eliot and Keats play with the mystical oxymoron of sleep as wakefulness, and wakefulness as sleep, but Eliot’s Prufrock wakens only to drown. The speaker in “Ode To A Nightingale” asks: “Do I wake or sleep?” But whereas “Ode To A Nightingale” is a poem in which the mortal tastes of the immortal, and permanence/impermanence share true relation, Love Song” is a poem of very social non-relation. Stuff happens ( or is always on the verge of happening), but it is not even enough to amount to nothing. It is, rather, a little something, but not even exactly that: “That is not it at all.” One thing and then another happens, or almost happens, and none of it is of consequence. The evening which lies inert, enervated, put to sleep, can no more infect the speaker with cosmic import, then ‘talk of Michelangelo can raise the women above the level of social chit chat: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock is not only an attempt at anti-romanticism, but anti-mysticism as well. Prufrock can not sit still, but he can not move either—except through all the petty tropes of the social construct .Both poems begin with a simulation of death, of a state of numbness. To enter night is to enter a sort of living death, a state of unconsciousness, of altered consciousness. But the speaker in Prufrock remains fully awake to the trivial, and even his fear of being trivial becomes a fashionable fear of inconsequence. No mystical union of the mortal and the eternal takes place. There is no covenant except with distraction and inconsequence. Eliot projects this numbness then onto the cosmos itself. It is the scenic ground zero of all that occurs. If the evening is etherized, it invokes the sense of an impending surgical procedure. Although this procedure would seem to take place upon a living evening, it is, in reality a post mortem—an autopsy. The romanticism of night and death is muted, blasphemed against by turning away from the romantic tropes of night toward a sort of clinical image repertoire. This blaspheming against the romantic via the clinical is furthered during the whole of the poem by the sense that, whatever the operation is, it is most certainly botched.

Keats’s poem is relational: mortal poet and immortal bird, each infecting the other with their own qualities—the bird becoming poetry, and the poet becoming the sublime forlorn. Eliot’s poem, for all its insistence on a “you and I” is non-relational. It is all about the failure to enter into true relationship, to receive a covenant. Worse still, Prufrock clings to his inconsequence since it is the one thing he can be sure of. Forlorn in his case becomes always a dividend and mild sense of disappointment.

Eliot would seek many years later to remedy the impossibility of the modern sublime by returning to a sort of arch-conservative faith, yet, even in his late poems of faith, there is a contingent sense of alienation. One may be social, seedy, indulge in the questions of whether or not to eat a peach, but no true relation is possible. Eliot’s “love song” is all about emotional paralysis—the impossibility of “forcing the moment to its crisis.” Keats’s Nightingale is all about entering fully into the crisis of the mortal creature who can intuit immortality, but who must remain tied to the ephemeral. The mystical oxymoron of the immortal within the transient, and the transient within the immortal is still valid. Lament still has its significance. The great crisis in Eliot’s poem is that there is no crisis, only the awful, soul enervating experience of a trivial and seedy urbanity. The voice of the poem insists “there will be time” (an allusion to Macbeth’s: “There would have been time for words such as these: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace)” This is not a statement of hope, but of ennui.

What draws these poems together is simulation of death-states in relation to the afflatus of night and song—of rising or sinking to the occasion. In Keats’s universe, the sublime is still possible. In Eliot’s, the sublime has become a form of Bovarism. Keats’s speaker can enter the apostrophic absurd. The poet can address an immortal bird. Absurdity maintains its gravitas. By the time of Prufrock, the absurd has been reduced to a sort of radical and self-aware ineffectuality. Eliot’s mastery of pastiche, of irony, of the anti-romantic and anti-mystical left succeeding poets in a bind. Prufrock is a great poem, but Eliot’s great poem is based on the tropes of greatness being dead. Williams saw Eliot as retrograde, a mere rehash of late 19th century agnosticism, and the British stanzas. Hart Crane, a worshipper of Eliot’s technique, rebelled against the loss of the sublime, against the nihilism of Eliot by answering with his long poem, “The Bridge.” In Benthamite terms, Keats raises the absurd to sublimity. If the neutral term is the absurd, Eliot lowers the absurd to the level of the pedestrian and vapid. Lament becomes pathos. This may have been useful as a corrective to bad remakes of “Dover Beach,” but as a fashion, it had no staying power, and for a good thirty years it did become the fashion. Auden was saturated with it. Once you have torn down all the idols, being comfortably inane and sad over your tea and toast makes for a dangerous poetics. In the hands of lesser writers it led to a sort of witty and gimmicky sense of enervation and despair. The seediness of Eliot’s industrial landscape gives way to the hard boiled detective novel and, worse, the “my aren’t we empty? Tennis anyone?” Sort of drawing room comedy. Still A great poem can not be faulted for having a destructive effect. But if Samuel Johnson is right, Keats’s great poem is the greater for its moral force. To attack the tired tropes of transcendence is of great value. To affirm the core truths of existence is greater still. I admire both poems and count them among my favorites, but, if forced to choose, I choose Keats.

The retrospective sayings of the mystic become the regurgitated maxims of the pedant.

The mystical experience is ineffable, by definition, and yet mystics are invariably compelled to write. What the mystic writes after the fact is not meant to be systematic, comprehensive, or even an accurate representation of his mysticism. But leave it to the gate keepers to ruin the words of another. Pendants pilfer from the mystic’s coffers and reduce those marvelous and contradictory emotions to dogmatic maxims.

A verbal articulation of an entirely non-verbal experience necessarily falls short. What pedants do to the mystic, they also do to the poet. In both cases, clinging to footnotes, journals, and excessive psychoanalysis, the original experience (mystic or poetic) is concealed within a labyrinth of pseudo-intellectual criticism.

An excellent poem appears simple in its complexity, and above all easy in its difficulty. A poem appearing strained or artificial (though it is regularly both) is a failure.

While we marvel at the final product, any thought of the artist is secondary to the immediate experience of excellence. There seems to be something wrong with what so many critics do: reconstructing the scaffolding around the living poem, presenting the sketches and precursory plans for it until the life of the poem is altogether extinguished.

The problem is not what kind of followers performs the investigation, but the mere fact that they are following and not being their own leaders.  Here the singular and spontaneous sayings of the sage are reduced to religion.

Sages like Confucius spoke not absolute maxims but rather what the unique moment demanded, never to be repeated.  King Solomon did not mean for every child to be cut in two, or even for any child to be cut in two. And this is what made him wise: knowing what the present moment demanded and answering its call. What pedantic followers do is corrupt the original spontaneity of saints and sages to magico-mechanical maxims, a readymade “cure” for any situation.

Joe Weil wrote about these asinine “keepers” of a poet’s legacy in his piece The Inward Soul: Dickinson and St. Theresa of Avila:

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins….To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus.

What Christians do now – conservative and liberal – is to obsess over historical fact and both ignore the admonition to unconditional Love. I hope Ananda Coomaraswamy proves right: “Most likely Christianity also in the near future will succeed in breaking the ‘entangling alliance’ of religion and history, from which the mystics have already long emerged. There cannot be an absolute truth which is not accessible to direct experience.” We do not need the mediation of history or criticism to encounter what is omnipresent.

The “gate keepers” of religion and of poetry are one and the same.  The pedantic critic is blind, leading others into a pit of his own creation. The pedant (since he cannot see) ensures that no one else can see. The critic gouges out the eyes of the other. Similarly, Jesus condemned the false knowledge of the Pharisees: “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”

Followers soften the ferocious words of the ones they follow into palatable household sayings – comfortable, no longer feral, no longer dangerous, no longer potent.  Civilized critics attempt to tame the God/Beast in the poet, saint, or prophet. It is the domestication of the saints which gnaws at the heart of this household idolatry. Their vitiated words may be present in a home, but their spirit is long absent.  No longer appalled, we are encouraged. By making these words ordinary and robbing them of all strangeness, we are robbed of actually encountering those words at all.

Daniel Silliman’s excellent blog captures this very spirit:

[R]ather than easy adoration, the first response to St. Francis would be to feel appalled, threatened and offended. It would mean wanting to tell St. Francis he’s wrong, wanting to disagree, wanting to fight.

What the sage says is not immediately tasteful. In fact, if you are not offended, you are probably no longer reading what that sage is saying. When Jesus is reduced to a comfortable position thanks to extensive speculative theology, we cease to hear his revolutionary sayings. In the same way, Siddhartha too is reduced to a God-man by lay buddhists and clergy alike – Jesus, Siddhartha, and Dickinson are all worshiped, but none are taken seriously.

Who actually hears the words of Jesus anymore? Perhaps it’s only those who have never heard all the retrospective explanations of Jesus who can hear him authentically.

Those who bastardize the spontaneous sayings of saints into comfortable maxims for coffee mugs make me want to kick them in the shins. I want to kick worshipers precisely because they make me not want to kick saints in the shins.

It’s not just others who do this (though it is, also) it’s always that clinging ego that is always mine which prevents me from encountering the words in front of me.  That egoic character might be in an Other, but that ego is always “mine” and solution is found in the spirit of the saints and sages.  To blame someone else for preventing me from entering the Kingdom of Heaven is for me to prevent myself. The best science occurs when ego is suspended (when “I” am removed from the equation). The most difficult thing to do is simply to let things be as they are.

When Jesus addresses the “rich young man” (in possessions, in knowledge, in morality), it is not simply physical possessions but the very sense of “mineness” which prevents the man from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. It is only by dying to self that we can enter heaven or enter a poem.

“For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” It is always only the “least of these” who can enter the kingdom of heaven. The weak, the ignorant, the poor – these are those who, because they have so little in terms of worldly possessions, can suspend their everyday sense of self and encounter the world as it really is: they can see Jesus, and they can read a poem.

If I suspend my ego, I can, at times, be transported into the work before me – despite the residue of criticism. It’s not easy to do the simplest of things.

And then Jesus is criticizing me and no one else, St. Francis provokes the self-defensive urge to kick his shins, and Dickinson I forget as long as I read her poems.

The last installment of this month’s Poem of the Week is a special one: three poems by Paul Violi—poems originally published in his first full-length collection In Baltic Circles by Kulchur Foundation in 1973 and now reissued by H_NGM_N Books.

When choosing poems these last three weeks, I had Paul in mind, and it wasn’t hard to cull from the multitudes of former Paul Violi students whose work (and lives) have been influenced by him. I could fill a whole year of Poem[s] of the Week with Violi-inspired verse. Which isn’t to say Paul encouraged his students to imitate his style (you can’t ape wit, charm, and unrelenting curiosity) nor that he had a heavy hand when editing his students’ poems (on the contrary, he knew just how to nudge you in the right direction—your direction).

Before Paul passed away suddenly in April 2011 of pancreatic cancer, he was working on the reissue of In Baltic Circles with H_NGM_N. Recently released, the new volume includes an introduction by Nate Pritts and an afterword by Matt Hart, with the original 1973 cover portrait by Paula North.

“It is my hope,” says Pritts in his introduction to the reissued 192-page-volume, “that by making this book available again, new and return readers can joyously remember that the antidote to indifference is zany generosity, to counter detachment with a limitless range of feeling.” It is that “limitless range” that makes reading Paul Violi so exhilarating, perhaps most inspiring—and for which I’m most thankful.

–Allison Power, November 2011

(Special thanks to Ann Violi, Charles and Paula North, Tony Towle, Matt Hart, and H_NGM_N Books.)

***Paul Violi Memorial Reading: Friday, December 2, 6:30 PM, The New School

Theresa Lang Community and Student Center,
Arnhold Hall, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor.

***In Baltic Circles can be purchased here and here.

 

ON THE RISE

__East on 7th Street
like portraits, dusty oils, an old immigrant
sitting behind each window

White monster garbage truck
grinds up yesterday

____grim tramp in the alley
____rummaging through cans
_____drops a scrap into his burlap bag
_______and totters away

____________Sway-back Pegasus
moseying over toward the park
_________and a few spades
bopping locomotive
motherfucker-motherfucker-motherfucker

But the street a stream
_____________Mira! Mira!
kids dragging their girlfriends
into the open priapic hydrants

__Fast clouds over the hot day
smell of moisture in the air
and suddenly trees
anxious and lively
__________below the imminent rain

include girls dancing
and a muffled rock beat

_____long hair tossing

___________saying climb on me

___________saying
_____________welcome to the sky


EXCERPTS FROM THE CHRONICLES

My tooth aches and a drowsy numbness pains
__my head; the gas the dentist gave me
sent me soaring through a pinhole in the sky
__It was, to my estimation, Zero Hour

___________________****

Throwing books out of high windows
________only to see them descend again
later, as I sit under the lamp
____and the wasted moths fall into my lap

It’s a difficult habit to break

___________________****

Planes lost in the fog, monotonous lullabies,
They’ll drone on for a while, they’ll sputter
and crash and briefly disturb the crickets

but then, my white hour, we will finally sleep

___________________****

A housing development continues its glacial
movement through the hills
Impossibilities flounder on the opposite horizon

. . . yank the paper out of the typewriter, crumple
it up, toss it on the floor
The cat pounces, struts away triumphantly holding
the paper in its mouth like a bird

___________________****

In a large, unfurnished sunlit room
a man nails an extraordinary book to the floor

___________________****

I went to my favorite restaurant
and ordered a typewriter
While I typed I watched this typewriter
eat corn off the cob

___________________****

O hollow autumn skies rusty madness
fumes of red voyages down wooden streets

Your clowns bore me
The exhausted women in the willow trees
have thrown their costumes under the setting sun
I don’t believe in the benefits of an eight hour sleep
I will prolong this fatigue as long as possible
Chaos will wear my composure like a wound
The wind will polish my nose

___________________****

There is a fly in the room
with a reward on its head
Heinrich Himmler looked like a fly
No, Joseph Goebbels looked like a fly
Heinrich Himmler looked like a bookworm

___________________****

You klutz, you can’t scribble without drawing a pile of rope

___________________****

The radio announcer finished playing his selection
and addressed the panel.
___Dr. Sandler was convinced the music was an early
___concerto by Haydn.
___Dr. Salmaggio doubted this very much but tended
___to agree.
___Dr. Winetz scoffed at these speculations: “All
of what you say is mere words, he protested, I have
no respect for them whatsoever, they are much
too subservient to your thoughts!”
___I, myself, found the discussion worthwhile
but couldn’t give it the attention it undoubtedly
deserved and continued shuffling through the house,
pants down around my ankles, searching for toilet paper.

___________________****

The nights were as black as carbon paper
and the days
were exact copies of all the rest.

___________________****

_____Notice

This elevator is not working today.
Just consider it an anonymous eulogy.
Please use the 53rd Street entrance.
Thank you for your cooperation—

_______________The Management


APPROACHING URANUS

Will everyone have a front row seat
Do our eyes appear as headlights
Does the glow increase while we think
Explain these nipples on my chest
Where was the Land of Cockaigne
What about the face of Charlemagne
Why warts
Did someone discover the wheel by stepping
_on his fingers at the brink of a hill
Can you appreciate the modulations of a vicious belch
Where are the plays of Menander
Does the Loch Ness Monster ring a bell
Do impure souls lend color to the flames
Do you find these myths entertaining
Or superfluous
Am I a Calvinist
Whither Martin Bormann
Has someone already asked you these questions
Have I already asked you these questions
How will I know you’re not lying
How will you know you’re not lying
Is perfection comforting
What if it isn’t


Photo: Paul Violi and daughter, Helen, ca. 1973. Courtesy of Ann Violi.

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Paul Violi wrote eleven books of poetry during his lifetime, including Overnight, Fracas, The Curious Builder, and Likewise, from Hanging Loose Press, and a selection of his longer poems, Breakers, from Coffee House Press. Widely published and anthologized both here and abroad, he received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in poetry, as well as grants from the Ingram Merrrill Foundation, The New York Foundation for the Arts, the Fund for Poetry, The Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and a John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001 he received The Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Violi was born in New York in 1944. He grew up in Greenlawn, Long Island, and graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in English and a minor in Art History. After a stint in the Peace Corps doing map completion and survey work in northern Nigeria, Violi traveled extensively through Africa, Europe and Asia. Upon returning to New York he worked for WCBS-TV, then for various newspapers and magazines. He was managing editor of The Architectural Forum from 1972—1974 and worked on free-lance projects at Universal Limited Art Editions, researching correspondence of poets and artists and assisting Bucky Fuller while he wrote the text to Tetrascroll. As chairman of the Associate Council Poetry Committee, Violi organized a series of readings at the Museum of Modern Art from 1974 to 1983. He also co-founded Swollen Magpie Press, which produced poetry chapbooks, the poets and painters anthology Broadway edited by James Schuyler and Charles North, and a poetry magazine called New York Times.

Waterworks, a short selection of his early poems from Toothpaste Press, appeared in 1972, and Kulchur Press published In Baltic Circles the following year. Bill Zavatsky’s Sun Press published two of Violi’s books, Harmatan, a long poem set in Nigeria, in 1977 and Splurge in 1981. In 1993 he curated an exhibit “Kenneth Koch: Collaborations with Artists” for Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, U.K., and his art book collaborations with Dale Devereux Barker, most recently Envoy; Life is Completely Interesting, have been acquired by many libraries and museums. The expanded text of their first collaboration, Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes, a collection of non-fiction prose, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2002.

Violi taught at colleges and universities, public and private institutions—New York University, The Dalton School, Sing-Sing, Stevens Institute of Technology, Bloomfield College, State University of New York at Purchase, Scarsdale Teachers Insititute. At the time of his death, he was teaching in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and in the graduate writing program at New School University.

Zone One is not a zombie novel.

Sure, there are plenty of lurching, chomping, and chewing “creatures,” the plagued dead who are affectionately titled “skels” by survivors who shoot, stab, and firebomb them. In this sense the novel certainly conforms to a generic paradigm. But the titillating idea of Colson Whitehead’s gripping book is that there really is no such thing as a zombie novel. There are zombie graphic novels, which, for all their literary dexterity, are closer in form (and content) to films like Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later, television series like The Walking Dead (adapted from a series of graphic novels with the same title), and video games like those of the Resident Evil and Fallout series. But this paradigm – which cuts to the core of popular fears of literal and figurative contamination – has not found sufficient articulation in the novel form, until now.

Whitehead’s brilliance resides in his ability, though, to slash through generic expectations, all the while tipping his cap to them. At his reading at Politics and Prose recently, he admitted that some zombie puritans have complained that this novel is some sort of an impostor, because it consists of “a bunch of sitting around and thinking.” That is, it lacks a requisite amount of horror and action commensurate to the genre. Yes and no. There’s plenty of warfare and stomach-fulls of the generally visceral, but Whitehead is too conscious of those moments as generic to dwell on them. Rather, as any “literary” (Whitehead was smart enough to put this word in air quotes through his talk) author should do, he places a compelling protagonist at the center of this dystopian milieu, providing a meditation on just what apocalypse means for the individual.

This character is Mark Spitz (this is a nickname, so consistent reference to him by this full moniker adds some humor), a decidedly mediocre man who struggled to make it in a formerly perfect world. But now, the narrator points out, that the world is suddenly mediocre, his skills ensure his survival. “He just couldn’t die.” He, along with other members of Omega Unit, aid “reconstruction,” or what the new government operating out of Buffalo refers to as “The American Phoenix” (whose loyalists are called “pheenies”). Specifically, he is a sweeper – he combs empty Manhattan for the dead, “putting them down” and leaving them in body bags for Disposal teams to collect and, eventually, incinerate (the snowing ash from the incinerator complex is a morose reference to 9/11 Manhattan, not to mention the Holocaust). The novel opens in an office building, and Mark Spitz is reminiscing about childhood visits to his Uncle Lloyd, who lived in the city, his apartment enticing Mark Spitz, a Long Islander, to fantasies of Manhattan living. These memories are quickly interrupted by the novel’s first skel sighting. The subsequent sequence allows Whitehead to flex his considerable stylistic muscles:

He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore. Two of them had lost their high heels at some point during the long years of bumping around the room looking for an exit. One of them wore the same brand of panties his last two girlfriends had favored, with the distinctive frilled red edges. They were grimed and torn. He couldn’t help but notice the thong, current demands on his attention aside. He’d made a host of necessary recalibrations but the old self made noises from time to time. Then that new self stepped in. He had to put them down.

Not without an admittedly thrilling scuffle. But note the dual movement in the above passage. Mark Spitz has a habit of seeing people from his past in the grotesque forms of the dead (he even names one of the adversaries in this scene Miss Alcott, because of whose “bushy eyebrows, the whisper of a mustache – it was hard to avoid recognizing in this one his sixth-grade English teacher”). But in order to carry out his duty, he has to cultivate a “new self,” capable of capping a former human, but, more dramatically, annihilating his memories.

These metamorphoses provide the emotional core of the novel. The most obvious type are the (and this terminology has some eerily apt timing) ninety-nine percent, who, like their famous predecessors, nosh on our flesh.  But Whitehead reserves a privileged position for the one percent, known as “stragglers.” The difference:

There were your standard-issue skels, and then there were the stragglers. Most skels, they moved. They came to eat you – not all of you, but a nice chomp here or there, enough to pass on the plague…The stragglers, on the other hand, did not move, and that’s what made them a suitable objective for civilian units. They were a succession of imponderable tableaux, the malfunctioning stragglers and the places they chose to haunt throughout the Zone and beyond. An army of mannequins, limbs adjusted by an inscrutable hand. The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late…The pock-faced assistant manager of the shoe store crouched before the foot-measuring instrument…The vitamin-store clerk stalled out among the aisles, depleted among the plenty…The owner of the plant store dipped her fingers into the soil of a pot earmarked for a city plant…A woman cradled a wedding dress in the dressing room’s murk, reenacting without end a primal moment of expectation. A man lifted the hood of a copy machine. They did not move when you happened on them. They didn’t know you were there. They kept watching their movies.

Brian McHale has labeled genres such as these the “ontological genre par excellence” because of their clear allegorical function. In the case of the skels, populist fears of cultural mixing, contamination, plague, apocalypse, starvation and poverty immediately arise. In the case of stragglers, we move beyond allegory to a more empathic state. Consider the trigger-happy Lieutenant, an unlikely voice for the following sentiment:

They’ve been studying this thing, squinting at the microbe, cutting it up, and all the British guys can come up with is that the stragglers are mistakes. Nobody knows anything…Personally, I like them. Not supposed to say it out loud, but I think they’ve got it right and we’re the ninety-nine percent that have it all wrong…They know what they’re doing. Verve and sense of purpose. What do we have? Fear and danger. The memories of all the ones you’ve lost. The regular skels, they’re all messed up. But your straggler, your straggler doesn’t have any of that. It’s always inhabiting its perfect moment. They’ve found it – where they belong.

The stragglers’ existence, in other words, brings the existential agony of surviving an apocalypse into clear focus. Frequent scenes of straggler abuse recall Abu Ghraib and succeed in garnering genuine pity for these poor “wretches.” But it’s not a case of certain human qualities persisting post-contamination, but a case of a positive evolution, a zombie Nirvana that humans in this dark future, Mark Spitz being the prime example, struggle to achieve.  If the ninety-nine percent symbolize the stupefied bourgeois masses, the stragglers point to an enlightened state of being.

This state is directly linked to nostalgia, the “forbidden thought” that Mark Spitz’s new self strives to efface. He’s done well to quell his memories, but the irruption of those very memories into his rounds of skel popping characterizes his plight by the end of the novel.

And we become privy to plenty of them. Whitehead’s narrative, like his nonfiction prose (including his talk at Politics and Prose) is exquisitely digressive. In fact, beyond the routine sweeps, there isn’t a primary plot to speak of here. Rather, we follow Mark Spitz through his memories of how he came to work for Omega Unit. Two days surrounded in a farm house here, weeks holed up in a toy store there (falling in love with its other inhabitant). We see how he developed his “new self” who is able to let go of his attachments when they disappear as swiftly and effortlessly as they materialize. But the locus of memory for many of the novel’s characters is Last Night, that collective Where-Were-You-When-You-Realized-The-World-Was-Ending question that occupies late nights around campfires with rationed whiskey. They tend to be gruesome and devastating, and Mark Spitz’s is no exception. It is the point at which everyone took on a new self, but the tragic irony resides in the fact that the main aim of these survivors is to access physical (and, we see, emotional and spiritual) remnants of the past and “carry them across” into a reconstructed future.

This interplay of cutting losses and preserving “the good old days, which we are having right now” pulls Mark Spitz in multiple directions, but eventually things come to a head. Consider a pithy exchange between Mark Spitz and the Lieutenant in which the former asserts, “I’m here because there’s something worth bringing back.” “That’s straggler thinking,” replies the Lieutenant. Mark Spitz eventually recognizes his inner straggler when he comes across the old restaurant his family used to frequent. He pauses and reminisces at length, frozen in an otherwise discardable moment. He finds his happy place. The enlightenment, the brief recovery of his humanity, is, of course, short-lived, as he is swept up in the mad dash to the novel’s conclusion. It doesn’t end like a zombie narrative would, but rather as one should. It is the apocalypse, after all.

And this subversion of generic expectations constitutes Whitehead’s singular achievement. The last fifth of the novel is loaded with aphoristic meditations on what is really happening here. Ultimately, it’s not the mindless skels that terrify us, but the fact that after the destruction of society and its norms, “I’m more me” – I can become the monster I always wanted to be. Because really “It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been.” Survival is a curse, and the stragglers, “they’ve got it right.” But we quickly learn the fallacious nature of nostalgia in the face of survival. The allegorical, symbolic, and emotional cores of the novel are bleak through and through.  The problem, and the sad beauty of Zone One, is that we don’t need a plague-apocalypse to see the monster within. The world crumbles around us, one moral disaster at a time.

I can never hate the Susquehanna, not if it took my last dollar, not if it made me look like a grade z version of some extra who got lost on his lunch break from a remake of The Grapes of Wrath and ended up standing poised against the wrong unforgiving sky. I spent my whole summer fishing, swimming, or mostly just watching the Susquehanna flow by, learned all its browns, and blacks, and greens, and those rare days when it was teal. I took the biggest brown bullhead I’ve ever laid eyes on out of this river, and a blue gill over a pound, and carp over 30. I watched the latterns of John boats pass in the dark and smelled the ghost of my father standing next to me, his old pack of chesterfield kings rolled up in his t shirt, smoke rising from his fresh lit cig, boxer’s muscles flexing as he casted into a long ago river. I cryed out to him through the dark to forgive me for not knowing what it meant to be a father. I told him I failed at everything, and the answer that came back to me on the river was his hand rubbing my red hair for good luck, and his raspy voice saying: “kid, we all fail at everything.”

I have become my father in every way: generous, paranoid, argumentative, quick to get angry, quick to forgive, at ease with children, at war with most of my contemporaries, a story teller, a bull shit artist,in love with the moon and the hours of dusk and dawn, unhappy yet joyous, full of life without ever forgetting or living beyond the sense of death. More hardened by labor, I would look like my dad except his voice box was cut out by my age, and I remember his stoma, and how I had nightmares that someone poured water down his throat and drowned him. When he was younger, and I was a little boy, he had a beautiful voice and he would sing to me Kevin Barry or You’ll Never Walk Alone. He told me stories about snagging suckers at the bottoms of the falls as a kid. it was the dperession and suckers weren’t too bad to eat if you stewed them until their many bones disolved. I guess I think of him whenever I look at a river. The first time he took me fishing, he woke me at 4:30 in the morning. It was also my first full cup of coffee, and we went down to a diner where all the working men ate– steel workers, long shoremen, some guys who worked at GM, my uncle pete from the chem plant. My father was on strike, and it was not his day to picket so he took me fishing. Strikes caused families to go belly up: no money coming in, the men restless and sometimes, if the strike went on too long, listeless, the women rising to take up the slack, my mom suddenly all dressed up to work a department store, or as a secretary. I couldn’t eat my pan cakes and sausage: too excited. First cast I got my line tangled in a big Maple tree, and my dad spent the next half hour untangling the snarl in the reel. I caught a bull head that day–ugly, beautiful slimey fish, its fin cutting me in my thumb and drawing blood. My dad had warned me: “watch his fin kid…he’ll get you good.” My dad rubbed the slime of the fish on my wound, and some cool mud. it took the slight poison out of it and it stopped itching. “The cure for the cat is the cat” he said. Later, he put peroxide and a band aid on the wound, and told me I did good. “You did good, kid.” If my mother had been there, she’d have said: “WELL Rocky, he did well.” And my father would have winked at her and said: ” You did good and well kid.”

All summer I was remembering and forgiving and asking forgiveness of my father. He was on my mind daily. The more I went to the river, the more I thought of him– all those little catfish and carp we caught in the poluted Rahway river of the late 60’s and early 70’s… then the white cats and small stripers on the Hudson river when we visited grandmom Weil, and, finally, after my mother’s death, how my father no longer wanted to go fishing. Fishing made him remember my mother. There was no wife to come home to, to have his grammar and cursing corrected by, no one to admire our fish. I did not know then that mothers are also girlfriends, and lovers, and companions, and my father had been abandoned as a child, raised by his aunt and uncle. My mom was his only real family. When he lost her, we must have reminded him of his loss–how she was gone. Having grown passed my 50 th year, I can forgive him for wanting to die after my mother went into the ground because a part of every one in my family died with my mother. She was what held us together, and although we still loved each other, we stopped being family after the cancer took her.

What can a river take? Everything. Everything will be swept away. The river is an ongoing reclamation and demolition project. It remains by efacing itself every second of every hour. It abraids, erodes, washes, absolves, dooms, drowns, destroys, and gives life to all that surrounds it. it is in us–the memory of our cells. It tells us the loss is in– not of– the loss in things. It is in us, or we are not truly alive. Those who can ignore a river can’t possibly live in the sense I mean. To be truly alive, is to keep one hand on the wheel of death, to see that there is a fall to all to this, a fall we must endure, and before you go over that, you may as well take note of the heron, and the kingfisher, and you ought to love the child wounding his thumb on the bullhead’s fin, and you ought to love the father who takes the cig out of his mouth, and blows one perfect circle of smoke into the night’s air, and says: ” Hey kid, nice fish.”