Thursday, December 22, 2011


David Antin's well-known remark about anthologies and zoos notwithstanding, one of the more astounding postwar electromagnetic containment fields published after Donald Allen's 1961 New American Poetry is, at least for me, the 1969 double issue of George Quasha's Stony Brook magazine, a strange publication that resides somewhere between formal magazine and ambitious anthology. The issue opens, albeit somewhat eerily, with an imposing facsimile reproduction of Blake's America: A Prophecy, which seems to stand as an anterior index of the magazine's transhistorical and broad geographical reach. The number is then split into a series of sections that include a section on Objectivist writing (Pound's note on Oppen, Niedecker, Bunting, Rakosi and Creeley on Bunting), a section titled "the universe as environment" (David Antin, Eleanor Antin, Oppen's note on Armand Schwerner, Diane Wakoski, Clayton Eshleman, Jackson Mac Low, George Bowering and others), a feature on William Carlos Williams with reproduced images of letters and a letter from Hugh Kenner to David Antin, a section evidently on song and scoring (Helen Adam, Robert Duncan, Creeley, Levertov and James Laughlin) and a section on Ethnopoetics following one on Chinese poetry.

The construction of the journal is unquestionably messy, but excitingly so, and every engagement with it feels something like falling into a pool of unprocessed archival materials. In any case, the recent occasion of Jerome Rothenberg's 80th birthday reminded me of his "Total Translation," an essay included in the Ethnopoetics section of Stony Brook. Concerned with the translation of Native American poetries, particularly Navaho and Seneca — the latter of whom Rothenberg spent a considerable amount of time living among — Rothenberg writes: "Translation is carry-over. It is a means of delivery & a bringing to life. It begins with a forced change of language, but a change too that opens up the possibility of greater understanding. Everything in these song-poems is finally translatable: words, sounds, voice, melody, gesture, event, etc., in the reconstitution of a unity that would be shattered by approaching each element in isolation. A full & total experience begins it, which only a total translation can fully bring across." Speaking specifically to Seneca poetry and the question of totality a little earlier in the essay, Rothenberg says:

Seneca poetry, when it uses words at all, works in sets of short songs, minimal realizations colliding with each other in marvelous ways, a very light, very pointed play-of-the-mind, nearly always just a step away from the comic (even as their masks are), the words set out in clear relief against the ground of the ("meaningless") refrain. Clowns stomp & grunt through the longhouse, but in subtler ways too the encouragement to "play" is always a presence. Said the leader of the longhouse at Allegany, explaining why the seasonal ceremonies ended with a gambling game: the idea of a religion was to reflect the total order of the universe while providing an outlet for all human needs, the need for play not least among them. Although it pretty clearly doesn't work out as well nowadays as that makes it sound — the orgiastic past & the "doings" (happenings) in which men were free to live-out their dreams dimming from generation to generation — still the resonance, the ancestral permission, keeps being felt in many ways.   

Rothenberg's interest in the historically specific but recombinatory permutations of the past as they are repeatedly, necessarily and often strategically invoked in a persistently unfolding present (now as event), in conjunction with his phenomenological imagining of experience as a sovereign totality, is an essential interest. And this question of "ancestral permission," that a particular historical event might allow itself to extend outward beyond the sovereignty of its moment, seems everywhere writ large in Rothenberg's writing at the time. In Poland / 1931, a strangely constructed "book" of poems published by Unicorn Press in 1970, just a year after "Total Translation" appeared in Stony Brook, Rothenberg notes, "The poems presented here are the first installment of an ongoing series of ancestral poems begun in 1956." Set by Christopher Lee and printed by Noel Young on twelve separate leaves of handmade Japanese paper (Hosho) collected in a hardboard cover that also contains a photomontage by Eleanor Antin, the selection begins with an italicized epigraph from Edward Dahlberg: ".... And I said, 'O defiled flock, take a harp, & chant to the ancient relics, lest understanding perish."

Eleanor Antin's photomontage for Jerome Rothenberg's Poland \ 1931

Most of the poems appear to address, among other things, Semitic culture in Poland, but the second from last poem, "A Poem for the Christians," masterfully performs the mystical transformation of the fetish commodity which, for Rothenberg, appears to correspond with the degradation, if not annihilation, of a much older and far more affirmative mysticism:

the skull, the air, the fire
the holy name
but destitute of good works
in a land that was not sown for us
& on the sabbath day
two buicks of the previous year
without blemish
& two tenth parts rubber
for a meal offering
mingled with gasoline
& chrome
this is the burnt offering of
every sabbath
for which rabbi yosi
left us
& rabbi abba came in his place
to praise the president
our mouths are full of songs
our hands hold offerings
the grieving bear, the moth
the leopard
the seven kinds of quantity & six kinds of motion
& on the sabbath day
black bodies &
bodies green with oil
& bodies gone for a burnt offering
two tenth parts for the buick
& one tenth part for the rambler
& one tenth part
for every lamb of the seven lambs
& for their jewish god

Here a Buick and a Rambler are invested with the qualities of living beings and the burnt offerings given them, the "black bodies" and "bodies green with oil," suggest not only the oil industry itself but also self-immolation as a gesture of protest against the Christian Diem regime installed by the US in Vietnam. As such, the poem seems to suggest that, even if and when we ignore the necessity of imagining totality, global capital will at all times assert its own perverse and destructive tendency toward totality. The other poems in the selection are no less extraordinary, but this poem registers a shattering sadness, a recognition, that arguably compels the ambitiously transhistorical, interdisciplinary and global scale of Rothenberg's work in and beyond Ethnopoetics. And strangely now I notice that The Game of Silence (New Directions 1971), which includes in its final section almost all of the poems from the Unicorn Press edition of Poland / 1931, does not include "Poem for the Christians," an interesting gesture given the force of this astounding poem.          

Friday, December 09, 2011


Buffalo-based poet and collator Edric Mesmer — who I was surprised and thrilled to see contributed an engaging comment on Harriet Tarlo's anthology of contemporary landscape poetry The Ground Aslant (Shearsman 2011) to the Dec/Jan issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter —  has recently brought out the fourth issue of Yellow Field, a large-format (8.5" x 11") mimeo-style print journal of Anglophone poetry. This fourth number is astounding and what most immediately strikes me is the broad reach of the thing. The ambitiously catholic constellation of geographically dispersed contributors include: Adachi Tomomi (Japan), Siobhan Hodge (Australia), KG Price (Chicago), Andy Spragg (UK), Jeremy Balius (Dallas), Scott McCarney (Rochester, NY), Anne Reed (Buffalo), Tyrone Williams (Cincinnati), Drew Milne (UK), Eric Selland (San Francisco), Mark Dickinson (the Orkney Islands), Eva Shockley (New Brunswick, NJ), Rachel Blau DuPlessis (formerly Philly, now I believe NC), Amy Pence (Atlanta, GA), Jo Cook (undisclosed) and Mesmer (Buffalo). But against, or more likely through, the generosity of such a wide net, the whole of the journal has a clear and no doubt carefully curated shape.              

My crude gut sense of the thing may be wrong, but this fourth number of Yellow Field seems somehow dominated by right angles. From the cover image (rigidly arranged silhouetted profiles of student and faculty heads drawn from a 1934 issue of The Lafayette Oracle, Lafayette High School in Buffalo), to a series of stunningly immaculate, delicate and precise graphic scores from Japanese composer Adachi Tomomi to Drew Milne's visually oriented "Embrasures" and so on, throughout the whole of the number. But this sense is wrong. The number is dominated by music, or at least visual scoring. KG Price, who performs with the Chicago Scratch Orchestra (named, I suppose, after the ensemble Cornelius Cardew collaborated with) offers a musical score titled "Departure" which looks strikingly similar to the scores Cardew produced during his "avant-garde" period (i.e. Treatise), but unlike Cardew's scores which were characterized by mechanical precision, Price's are rough in appearance, clearly hand drawn with text for voice appearing at various points throughout (i.e. "to a car she now owns").

Adachi Tomomi | Score for Tenor Sax | 4th of 5 in "Chinese Character for Instrument"

Adachi's scores, on the other hand, maintain all the mechanical precision that might be found in Cardew's earlier work, but none of the fluidity or contingency. The work is instead mercilessly rigid. And in this series of five visual scores offered by Adachi, the most rigid is the final score, which is characterized by a terrifying inflexibility. The sequence is titled "Chinese Character for Instrument" and, according to Adachi's prefatory note to the work, "All elements of scores consist of zoomed, reversed and/or superimposed Chinese characters (Mincho-tai font), which only expresses the instrumentation as their titles describe. If the title is 'For Piano,' the word 'Piano' is translated in our understandings about the instrumentation/instrument visually because a Chinese character is an ideogram." Unlike Japanese, which has a distinct set of characters for phonetic inscription, the various modalities of Chinese text are ideographic — but not entirely or at least not in the way a cultural complex like the Pound-Fenollosa Consortium imagined it (cf. Yunte Huang's or Jonathan Stalling's work on Pound and the Chinese). And so I find it difficult to take Adachi's prefatory introduction to his scores at face value and I suspect there may be a critique of Western imaginings of East Asian culture implicit in the work. Whether or not this is the case, the sequence moves through five individual scores: the first for flute, the second for harmonica, radio and stone, the third for trumpet, the fourth for tenor saxophone, and the fifth for orchestra. As the sequence progresses it does so in a gradated sweep, from a single instrument to an entire orchestra such that the scoring on the first of the series (for flute) is the sparsest score and offers the most negative space on the page while the final score in the sequence (for orchestra) is the densest, leaving the least white space on the page. In any event, as the sequence progresses there is a sense of "crowd out," an increasing and somewhat ominous occupation of space that may demonstrate a form of overaccumulation, something I've been thinking a lot about lately. But crowd out, in the financial sense, as a reduction in private spending effected by a rise in interest rates, is not likely during moments of unusually high unemployment. Maybe, instead of crowd out, just blackout, as the final score in Adachi's sequence suggests. Here the negative space, the silences, become precious and incredibly desirable, because there are so few of them. In this final score they become the stars that steer through what one can only imagine is an unbearable cacophony, a manic racket motivated by overwhelming conditions.

The first of Drew Milne's five "Embrasures"

Here Mesmer's editorial juxtapositioning, what he would insist is more appropriately understood as collating, is masterful. Immediately following the last of Adachi's five scores are five of Drew Milne's "Embrasures." Their visual construction reminds me at first of Eugen Gomringer's "Silencio" or "Schweigen." The text in the upper part of the page is arranged with an interior cube, the outer shape of which looks something like a cross (more like the symbol identified with the Red Cross than a crucifix). The topmost text in the first of the five "Embrasures" begins, "here an almshouse there | a palladian disability unit." The text on the interior of the cube in this first piece is aligned left and reads, "care | shed | tree | folly." At bottom, arranged as something of a footnote appended to the text above, is the following passage:

Cushion Capital. A cubical capital, also block capital, sculpted to suggest a cushion weighed down by its entablature. A name given to Romanesque church capitals cut away on four sides leaving vertical faces. Bank vernacular for the buffer of liquid assets set off against the haircut value of securities at risk of delay in the realisation of liabilities. 

The polyvalence of the term "Cushion Capital" seems to offer something of a nodal point here, articulating the contemporary (financialized) world with the ancient, language (the authority of capital letters inscribed in stone) with political economy, all of it more an almshouse rather than a prison house, or at one and the same time both imagined as a cushion. And so, while visually these "Embrasures" may remind us, somewhat lazily, of Gomringer or Brazillian concrete poetry, their construction and the labor they perform refuses any pretense toward minimalism or simplicity; but these pieces do, however, seem to insist on rigidity, or the rigidities embedded in financial, political and cultural flexibility.

This fourth issue of Yellow Field closes with an incredibly perceptive comment from Mesmer on Susan Howe's September 2011 performance in Buffalo with composer David Grubbs, with whom Howe has been reading Souls of the Labadie Tract. The whole of Mesmer's comment on the performance is wonderfully constructed, split into two parts, and two passages in particular strike me. The first:

A "path": colony shares its root with culture, cult, couture. The space of sound is assuaging the blank indifference between the ghost of text and text — an invented or reinvented ghost, now embodied in fragmented, spirit of reconnoitering tracts. The titanium plated keys, our evidence of modernity, are adjusting alphanumerically, justifying voice in flective nonaccompaniment: "this place shields". At times the reader's voice is echoed: a traipsing technology — a knowledgeable deployment in the diphthong of time. 

And the second passage:

Architecture inhabited as though by a haunting, Howe's text [Labadie Tract], as mentioned, largely comes from actual collages of [Hannah Edwards] Wetmore's diaries, composed visually on the page; thus the reading as chirpings of sound, staccato. And whisperings: "and was ready!" When asked how to read such collaged pages, the poet answers "It made itself sound." The aurality of the visual is something Howe herself claims "isn't even me," confessing that she felt the text was a channeling of Wetmore, though she hates "to sound hokey."  

I recall here Sean Bonney's essay on Geraldine Monk (the one included in the Salt Companion) that situates Noctivigations (West House 2001) as a book that, through its interest in witchcraft and the occult, offers one among many modes of response to a common source of violence generated and reproduced by and through a very specific set of material conditions that cut across the centuries, however much they might change. Thinking along these lines, I sense Howe's future-oriented gaze toward the enduring specters of long lost congregations or the ghosts of violently transgressed figures isn't "hokey" at all. In any case, by documenting and commenting on Howe's performance, Mesmer has provided something I find incredibly valuable. And the overriding theme of scoring, an effort toward thinking the otherwise intractable relationship between the visual and aurality, the text and orality, lends to the whole of the journal an extraordinary shape.

Yellow Field. 1217 Delaware Avenue, Apt. 802, Buffalo, NY 14209. 

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


There can be no question that the occupation — the collective seizure and reclamation — of foreclosed properties is one of, if not the, single most important action happening now. I say this with absolute certainty. The turn from occupying "public" spaces to the seizure of "private" bank-owned properties marks a tidal shift in this moment of occupation and, regardless of whether this change in strategy was motivated by the mass eviction of activists from public spaces or increasingly cold weather, it radically alters the shape of the moment, extending it well beyond the widespread misrecognition that what occupy activists pursuing economic justice most desire is merely to be recognized, assuaged and thrown a bone. For my own part, I'm awed and humbled by these actions, honored to bear witness, and hope only that these actions can be sustained.

I'm not sure how to even begin the search for information that might offer a sense of how many foreclosed homes were occupied today, or how these seizures were responded to by authorities, but today's actions bring to mind the recently leaked photos of the 2010 "Homeless Halloween" party hosted by Steven J. Baum P.C., a New York based foreclosure firm. Held at an office decorated to resemble a tent city, 89 employees attended the party costumed as homeless evictees. 

Not surprisingly the New York Times failed to adequately address today's occupation of foreclosed properties in East New York and other locations across the US. But The Guardian, an ocean away, did.