At the Accent Weekly bilingual poetry series & Open Mic

It’s rare and special when I get to share my work in public, and I’m grateful for this latest opportunity.

credit Brian Campbell

credit Brian Campbell

I’ll be one of two featured readers (with Derek Webster) at the next Accent reading series event:

Monday 29 July
at ‘La Marche a Cote’ 5043 St. Denis, Montreal, Quebec.

Officially things get underway at 19h00, but the real fit hits the shan around 20H00!

I’m working on my fifteen-minute set, now:  at present, I’ll either be reading poems pertinent to the moment from my first two books, or, since we’ll all be stuck in town, maybe a selection of poems about anywhere other than Montreal!

You can read more about the series, here.

 

A theme with vista: food

An Australian acquaintance I know through our shared admiration for the poetry and political writing of Peter Dale Scott is fast becoming a shadow co-editor for Poeta Doctus. She weekly or so will share poems on-line, one of which has already prompted my sharing one of my own.

Today, she shared Daniel Nyikos’ poem about making Hungarian potato soup. This resonated with me for numerous reasons: food is a persistent theme in my own work, and my father’s family are Hungarian immigrants (my sister holds in her possession my grandmother’s handwritten recipe for potato soup). I share below, therefore, two (!) poems, from Ladonian Magnitudes.

The first, “Marmitako“, is similar to Nyikos’ (though it never made it into the pages of Poetry), about a traditional, Portuguese fish stew. Things have changed since it was written, as to eat tuna, today, is both to dose yourself with mercury and to contribute to the extinction of the fish. The second, “Horizontal Gold Noble Mercury”, concerns mercury, too—explicitly, but in a more rarefied sense—and, consequently, sustenance in a more sophisticated manner. Bon appetit!

 

Marmitako

They cut the tail section off some

Of the tuna, bonito, and mackerel

They caught, skinned and boned it,

Cleaned it up in buckets, chopped it

Up and threw it in the iron stewpot

On top of the onions, garlic, tomatoes,

And dried red peppers, cleaned and chopped,

Simmering there, oil bubbling through,

Shared loaves and some good red wine,

That Friday of all days still offshore.

 

Horizontal Gold Noble Mercury

1/2 grapefruit, red or white, sliced banana on bowl muesli w/ 2% milk or 1% yoghurt, brown toast w/ jam or honey on peanutbutter, 1 espresso

Piece sprouted unleavened Manna Bread, 1 espresso

Sandwich, russet apple or pear, 1 espresso

2 nights now, stir fry of Spanish onion, Hungarian pepper, bean sprouts, broccoli, tofu;  1 espresso

4500 mg vitamin C daily until cold is gone

There stands a house under the mountain of the world

Be thou the happy subject of my books, a brave craft

Dash’d all to pieces, my tongue, this air,

Born here of parents born here of parents

The same, hoping to cease not, till death

alchemymountain-granger

 

 

Bradford & Rad on House House Press

Back when David Bradford published his chapbook Call Out back in 2017, he was kind enough to answer a few questions concerning the book and his art and life.

Now, you can read, here, he and collaborator Anahita Jamali Rad answer some more queries concerning their House House Press, a publisher of

poetry chapbooks, pamphlets and ephemera  that seeks out rigorous politics of peripherality, scaffoldings for debris, studies of mess, and everything in between, with a primary focus on radical BIPOC writing practices.

house house

Budapest on my mind

A friend of mine recently shared Anya Silver’s poem “Doing Laundry in Budapest”, which brought to mind a thematically-related poem of my own, from my first chapbook Budapest Suites (Montreal:  Pneuma, 1993) and first trade edition, Grand Gnostic Central and other poems. I share it here for my friend’s, and anyone else’s, pleasure.

 

_Vaci_utca_street_sign-

 

“Apply what you know to what you feel that’s more than enough”

 

On Váci utca, mongrel pigeons, flapping,

Mount American-style shopfront windows.

 

Grey cops in pairs or trios patrol;

Country people bag handiwork, whistling.

 

At the end of Vörösmárty tér, a blind man begs fillérs at tables in Gerbaud—

A blond father yells No! at a Gypsy girl and daughter.

 

Behind me a woman asks for directions:

Bocsanat.  Nem magyar.  “Nem Magyar?!”

 

NOTES:

Váci utca is a famous commercial street in Budapest; Vörösmárty tér is a square at the end of the street; fillérs at the time (1991) were pennies; Gerbaud is a famous café on, I believe, the square; the Hungarian that ends the poem can be translated roughly as “Pardon me. I’m not Hungarian.” “You’re not Hungarian?!”

I am aware that the racial designation of the girl and daughter in line 6 might, today, be read as an epithet; I retain it here as an index of the time of the poem’s composition; its use, innocent at that time, was also prompted by the alliteration with ‘Gerbeaud’….

 

 

“We’re doomed.”

….or, as the refrain of another “Dark Mountain” climate change jeremiad would put it, “It’s worse than that.”

It is, surely, rationally difficult not to deny the gravity of global warming and environmental degradation in general and not to fall prey to anxiety or even despair. It is not irrational, however, to maintain an open, critical mind and culture hope.

For instance, even fairly responsible media sources distort the findings of ecological researchers. For example, two recent studies of declines in insect biomass inspired copy such as “insect apocalypse,” “global ecosystem collapse,” “loss of all insects within 100 years,” and “collapse of entire food webs.” However,  learned reflection reveals the matter is less dramatic, far more complex, though hardly without concern. The same can be said for headlines about how humans have wiped out 60% of all animals on Earth in the last 30 to 40 years.

Much more could be said in this vein, but not quite eight months back, similar, dire and final pronouncements from Mayer Hillman prompted a number of poetic responses, of which the tersest and most direct was this:

 

Replies to Mayer Hillman

“We’re doomed.”

 

Your therapist would guide you

gently to see you’re fortune telling.

 

The dialectician would unfold the thought

that determination does not

 

foreclose unforeseen developments

being the condition of its own negation.

 

A happy chance slip of memory recalls

“What is real now was only once imagined”.

 

relax-nothing-is-in-control-quote-1

 

Jason Kenney rides UCP wave to majority government in Alberta

 

When I read this headline this morning, I was immediately reminded of my friends’ reactions to the election of Rob Ford last summer, whose social media postings I collaged into a kind of poem as they threaded their way to me then.

You can read “Ontario Election Results 2018 in real time“, changing the names and places as needed to make it about this most recent electoral development.

I’ve poetically expressed my own political leanings here, in a long poem from Ladonian Magnitudes (2006).

All I can say is, Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg!

https _c2.staticflickr.com_6_5532_10495374104_1e3d4869a3_b

Reflections on James Dunnigan’s ‘The Stained Glass Sequence’

I had the chance recently to discuss how James Dunnigan’s The Stained Glass Sequence sequence-thumbjust out from Frog Hollow Press might be received. It’s a weird poem in the context of present-day English-language poetry, with gestures and stances more reminiscent of High Modernism, intricate and allusive, than anything you might read on a visit to, say, the Poetry website….

It was the refractory complexities of just the suite’s title that made me think “How someone who reads poetry can review it is just beyond me….” which I posted on social media, which, in turn, received (among others) a telling reply:  “It is a form of reading, at best.”

Taken by itself (the thread did wind on…), this response can be taken to be representative in several ways. First, it assumes the spontaneous authority of the vulgar usage of the verb ‘to read’, an authority that in certain regards is beyond reproach but which is also constantly in danger of asymptoting to the thoughtless. More significantly it enacts precisely what my original post found problematic, since it seems either to refuse or fail to register the stress on ‘reads‘ indicated by the italics (to suggest the word twists in some way from the ordinary sense) and the claim made in the predicate (which further torques the notion of reading from its accepted sense); that is, it doesn’t read or try to understand the original post, seeming more concerned to leave everything the way it is, its complacency disturbed just enough to defend the status quo and defer reflection.

In the same way, many readers will no doubt pass over the implications of the title. If there’s one dogged misperception that has persisted since the late Eighteenth Century it’s the Baconian idea that the word is or should function as a transparent medium, a window onto the world, a notion the title troubles doubly, for stained, unlike transparent, glass, though translucent, colours what might be viewed through it, and, more importantly, its pieces are a medium to compose a design or picture the window frames rather than a view through it. To borrow a two centuries’ old terminology, the title suggests the sequence’s language not so much represents but presents. Any reading, let alone evaluation, of the sequence that fails to assiduously and consistently treat the language as refractory rather than transparent will fail to appreciate it in the first place.

Of course, such reflexivity, a gesture that goes back to Homer, is only a start to the title’s formal sophistication. Its grammar, likewise, throws light on the poem: it is composed of a substantive (‘sequence’) preceded by three modifiers (‘The Stained Glass’…). If one considers the middle two words in themselves, in the etymology that roots their adjectival function, they, too, possess the same syntax, a substantive ‘glass’ modified by ‘stained’. This is to say, the syntax of the title, in a way, is nested, or, better, framed, the way the implications of the title arguably frame, or should, the reception of the poem.

And reading the sequence, the attentive reader will remark how little stained glass or stained-glass windows actually appear in the poem. The sequence opens ekphrastically, describing a painting by Chagall, stained glass is mentioned as such in the second part, the fourth section is in four “panels”, and Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel are remarked in the fifth. That the poem makes far more consistent reference to painting than stained glass suggests all the more the formal reflexivity of the title than its naming “an important theme” that the sequence takes up and develops.

A careful, thoughtful reader may well mark, too, another complication. The title is, in a way, paradoxical, modifying a temporal noun (‘sequence’, a pattern than unfolds linearly in time) with a spatial modifier (‘stained glass’, a translucent medium that either colours light or is itself used in the composition of a design or picture, a work of art perceived spatially). There is then a tension, as the sequence is, perhaps, a series of spaces arranged in time, though the title names the sequence as a sequence, as a temporal form, as language itself is.

Any reading of Dunnigan’s book that fails to read (in the most emphatic sense) even the title will likewise falter in understanding the sequence the title frames and thereby governs. And if so much is at work even before the first word of the poem is read, let alone on every line, if this reader is a reviewer, how little weight will their judgement carry if they fail to register these first—preliminary, guiding, essential—aspects of the poem?

Another Poetic Elder Gone Silent: Joe Rosenblatt (1933-2019)

Canada has lost another poet, Joe Rosenblatt.

Rosenblatt, though I knew him even less than Patrick Lane, played a more important role in my poetic development. He was the judge for the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild Ninth Annual Literary Awards (1981), Junior Poetry Category, and awarded my high school self honorary mention for a poem whose title I now mercifully forget.

I remember being told by people however seriously who knew him that he was a “misanthrope”, which kept me at a respectful distance during the awards ceremony and writers conference it was a part of. Nevertheless, the award cultured my confidence in my own budding talent not so much by his having chosen the poem, but by the musicality of his own poetry, an aspect of the art I valued very highly at the time, and still do, though hopefully in a more seasoned way.

Such a small blessing, nothing to him at the time, I’m sure, meant a world of affirmation to apprentice me. For that I remember him now, with an enduring gratitude.

 

“To praise–that’s it!”

Canadian poet Patrick Lane passed away today at the relatively young age of 79.

Though I never knew him personally, he was an eminent figure in Saskatchewan during my years as an apprentice poet, along with his partner Lorna Crozier, John Newlove, Andrew Suknaski (all three of whom I was lucky enough to learn from personally), Barbara Sapergia, and Geoff Ursell, among others, and I heard him read on a number of occasions.

What strikes me now is how quickly many have expressed their shock, grief, and appreciation for the man and his writing, which is as it should be. However, it seems to me that such praise shouldn’t have waited until it was too late for him to have heard or read it and appreciated it (though he did receive many accolades during his lifetime).

If you read a poem that knocks your socks off, or a book of poems, or a book-length poem, these days you can tell the poet how much you appreciate their work at the speed of light (depending on your data package). I’d encourage you to do so. The poet will appreciate it more, now, than wreaths of belated praise heaped upon their legacy once they’re gone.

Patrick Lane 1939 - 2019

 

Becoming Anthropocentric: Enkidu, Shamhat, and The Epic of Gilgamesh

It’s almost a cliché in deep ecological thought to point to the Abrahamic creation story in the Bible’s book of Genesis, where man is made in God’s own image and given dominion over the earth, as the root of Western anthropocentrism and the ecological problems that branch out from it. However, despite the rhetoric of divine inspiration that governs the reception of the holy scriptures, the biblical creation story hardly fell from the sky. Like the story of Noah and the Flood whose source is an older, Babylonian one encountered by the Hebrews during the Babylonian exile, so, too, the anthropocentrism found in Genesis is likely not unrelated, at least, to older, local narrative traditions, as a recent article about a newly-translated fragment from the Epic of Gilgamesh seems to suggest.

As the article’s author, Sophus Helle, reminds us

 The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Babylonian poem composed in ancient Iraq, millennia before Homer. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk. To curb his restless and destructive energy, the gods create a friend for him, Enkidu, who grows up among the animals of the steppe. When Gilgamesh hears about this wild man, he orders that a woman named Shamhat be brought out to find him. Shamhat seduces Enkidu, and the two make love for six days and seven nights, transforming Enkidu from beast to man. His strength is diminished, but his intellect is expanded, and he becomes able to think and speak like a human being. Shamhat and Enkidu travel together to a camp of shepherds, where Enkidu learns the ways of humanity. Eventually, Enkidu goes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh’s abuse of power, and the two heroes wrestle with one another, only to form a passionate friendship.

The newly-translated fragment, however, modifies the present version of the epic in one small detail:

Shamhat seduces Enkidu, they have sex for a week, and Shamhat invites Enkidu to come to Uruk. The two of them then talk about Gilgamesh and his prophetic dreams. Then, it turns out, they had sex for another week, and Shamhat again invites Enkidu to Uruk.

The first time that Shamhat invites Enkidu to Uruk, she describes Gilgamesh as a hero of great strength, comparing him to a wild bull. Enkidu replies that he will indeed come to Uruk, but not to befriend Gilgamesh: he will challenge him and usurp his power. Shamhat is dismayed, urging Enkidu to forget his plan, and instead describes the pleasures of city life: music, parties and beautiful women.

After they have sex for a second week, Shamhat invites Enkidu to Uruk again, but with a different emphasis. This time she dwells not on the king’s bullish strength, but on Uruk’s civic life: ‘Where men are engaged in labours of skill, you, too, like a true man, will make a place for yourself.’ Shamhat tells Enkidu that he is to integrate himself in society and find his place within a wider social fabric. Enkidu agrees: ‘the woman’s counsel struck home in his heart’.

So far, so good. Helle’s argument is that “The episodes represent two stages of the same narrative arc, giving us a surprising insight into what it meant to become human in the ancient world.”

It is clear that Enkidu has changed between the two scenes. The first week of sex might have given him the intellect to converse with Shamhat, but he still thinks in animal terms: he sees Gilgamesh as an alpha male to be challenged. After the second week, he has become ready to accept a different vision of society. Social life is not about raw strength and assertions of power, but also about communal duties and responsibility.

Placed in this gradual development, Enkidu’s first reaction becomes all the more interesting, as a kind of intermediary step on the way to humanity. In a nutshell, what we see here is a Babylonian poet looking at society through Enkidu’s still-feral eyes. It is a not-fully-human perspective on city life, which is seen as a place of power and pride rather than skill and cooperation.

What does this tell us? We learn two main things. First, that humanity for the Babylonians was defined through society. To be human was a distinctly social affair. And not just any kind of society: it was the social life of cities that made you a ‘true man’. Babylonian culture was, at heart, an urban culture. Cities such as Uruk, Babylon or Ur were the building blocks of civilisation, and the world outside the city walls was seen as a dangerous and uncultured wasteland.

Second, we learn that humanity is a sliding scale. After a week of sex, Enkidu has not become fully human. There is an intermediary stage, where he speaks like a human but thinks like an animal. Even after the second week, he still has to learn how to eat bread, drink beer and put on clothes. In short, becoming human is a step-by-step process, not an either/or binary.

…One is not simply born human…

That final formulation possesses a telling, unconscious irony, most charitably an instance of that “blindness and insight” that characterizes language, thought, and even perception (i.e., as the philosopher Edmund Husserl so forcefully reminded us, we only ever see one side of an object), a blindness symptomatically evident at several points.

The first is a linguistic insensitivity, in a howler of a mixed metaphor. Like the Bible and the Homeric epics, the Epic of Gilgamesh as we read it is the result of centuries of editing. As Helle puts it

Not only does Gilgamesh exist in a number of different versions, each version is in turn made up of many different fragments. There is no single manuscript that carries the entire story from beginning to end. Rather, Gilgamesh has to be recreated from hundreds of clay tablets that have become fragmentary over millennia. The story comes to us as a tapestry of shards, pieced together by philologists to create a roughly coherent narrative… (my emphasis)

A second, deeper blindness is ideological (in a Marxian sense). In Helle’s reading, this newest iteration of the seduction of Enkidu shows that, “[t]o be human was a distinctly social affair. And not just any kind of society: it was the social life of cities that made you a ‘true man’. Babylonian culture was, at heart, an urban culture.” That the epic should identify being human with being civilized should be unsurprising, given the conditions of its production, the labour of scribes in a hierarchical, urban society, whose social relations were rooted in the settled agriculture whose surplus of food underwrote the division of labour that freed bodies and hands to sit, learn to read and write, and reproduce clay tablets retelling a cultural epic whose values unsurprisingly reproduce those of the society that tells it to itself.

Finally, there is that most fateful of unexamined distinctions, that between the human and animal. What goes unremarked is just how Enkidu is tamed:  being seduced by Shamhat with whom he copulates for one or two weeks. On the one hand, Helle’s graduate school buddies might chuckle that Enkidu is “tamed” when he goes from being a single, unattached male to one half of a couple. Not only does the role, function or importance of Shamhat’s gender go unexamined (…), Helle also, on the other hand, fails to register that Enkidu is made human by that act human beings share with all other sexually-reproducing animals, mammals and otherwise, an act as biologically primal as eating and defecating.

That “no one is born human” is surely the case, just not in the sense Helle seems to draw from the epic. As he remarks “becoming human is a step-by-step process, not an either/or binary.” However, more profoundly, it is also a process that sidesteps the animal/human binary it pretends to bridge, in however many steps. The seduction of Enkidu seems not so much to make Enkidu human as to convert him from one kind of herd animal, running wild on the steps, to another, that has learned “to eat bread, drink beer and put on clothes.”

I leave unremarked Helle’s curious wording at the end of his summary of the pertinent part of the epic, concerning how, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh finally meet, “the two heroes wrestle with one another, only to form a passionate friendship.”