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.