Between Myth and Modernity

Lee Maracle, an eminent Sto:Loh nation author recently shared a brief story on Facebook in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As it has been widely and freely shared there, I trust I am not overstepping by sharing it here:

I think we should talk to this virus. Once upon a time the viruses ruled the [earth] and the trees walked. Raven and eagle called a gathering what can we do the fragile ones are dying. Cedar stepped forward and said we will be still the invisible beings (bacteria and viruses[)] can live in the dark in our roots. And the tree stood still and the bacteria and viruses lived underground. But now clearcutting is letting them loose. We can send them back. Let us talk to this virus and ask it to return to the tree roots. Asking with a pipe to talk [to] the virus!!!!

I was moved to respond to Maracle’s story and wrote the poem (below in PDF format), all the while painfully cognizant of certain complications I want to address explicitly.

First, a white settler man writing a response to something a First Nations woman writer has written is fraught with complications (such a simple word, for all its syllables!). For this reason, I sought to answer her story with a story or account of my own, rather than writing, e.g., a critique couched in the language and epistemic and social stance of epidemiology. Moreover, I was careful not to pretend to be correcting her error with my truth:  my poem’s third line, “…from what I’ve heard”; I place two stories side by side, rather than try to replace one with the other (however much they disagree). In ancient Greece, for example, competing stories about the gods existed concurrently, peacefully, because the Hellenes understood, as Herodotus tells us, the poets created their gods.

More fundamentally my writing this poem and thinking about and over it the way I have is motivated by my concern (not position on) over the relation of myth and modernity. Maracle shares what to European settler ears is a mythic, premodern mode of apprehending the world. But it wasn’t that long ago, only centuries, that Europe itself underwent what has become known as the Enlightenment, itself only a moment in a process of “modernization” beginning with the Scientific Revolution when mythic modes of thought were slowly and painfully replaced by rational, scientific modes and the world (in Max Weber’s words) disenchanted.

virus infection

This relation between what I call here myth and modernity is far from simple. On the one hand, mythic ways of understanding what is are forced into having to come to terms with this new, undoubtedly powerful way of grasping Nature. On the other hand, if the two are understood as being in opposition, then that opposition is one that self-deconstructs (in the rigorous sense):  painstaking reflection can reveal how each term is a species of the other (as Lévi-Strauss shows at length, myth is a mode of thought every bit as rigorous and possessed of truth as the natural sciences, while the work of Adorno and others reveals the mythological character of Reason…), while not collapsing the two into each other or into a higher, truer unity (sublate them, in Hegel’s word). They remain in fraternal conflict and, ideally, dialogue. Anyone familiar with my poetic or critical work will know this problem is an active and ongoing concern…

How, then, to modernize myth, as it were, so the mythic and scientific can come into conversation? This is what I attempt in my own very small-scale way with my poem:  to answer a story with a story, as a story rather than critique, and in a manner that echoes that of the story being answered, the style of a folk or fairy tale (hers begins “Once upon a time…”).

If only the matter were so simple. After strenuous conversations with friends about the poem and no little rumination on my part, I’m forced to conclude the poem faces a very great danger of being misconstrued (which it is likely to be, anyway) if it’s read apart from Maracle’s story, let alone this blog post. Therefore, I post below the final version of the poem (which underwent countless revisions and incremental emendations) in the context here of Maracle’s text and the preceding apologia. Here, then, seems to be the poem’s final home.

Virus talk (final)

 

 

 

from The Massinahican by Louis Riel

Today, Antoine Malette and I are happy to share with you the first English-language translations from Louis Riel’s Système philosophico-théologique, part of a larger, incomplete work, the Massinahican.

In May 2018 I was lucky enough to be in Regina for the launch of Tim Lilburn’s The House of Charlemagne. He shared with me his enthusiasm for this obscure work, parts of which he had worked into his latest book. As Jerome Rothenberg had just recently put out a call for contributions to his latest project, an assemblage of poetry and poetics from the Americas, pre-contact to the present, Lilburn and I heartily agreed Riel’s Système should be represented.

You can read some of what we translated, selected by Jerome Rothenberg as part of his project, with a very brief commentary, at Jacket2.

What follows are some reflections on the task of the translators, then our original draft of a commentary, lengthier than is practicable for the forthcoming anthology, with a short selection from Tim Lilburn’s The House of Charlemagne.

This particular text poses challenges both general to Riel and particular to the Système. LouisRielPortrait2Apart from those we remark (below), Riel’s French is, first, that of Nineteenth century Manitoba and Québec. It is, as well, formed by Riel’s education in Montreal:  he studied, for example, no French literature past Racine, and his vocabulary and thought rest, in part, on the technicalities of the philosophy (e.g., Leibniz) and theology he read, as well as his understanding of the natural sciences (including electromagnetism) and arguably even the Theosophy of his day. Clearly, a ready acquaintance with this discursive field (which we admittedly lack) would go a long way to both comprehending Riel’s meaning and then attempting to render it in English (which, would, in turn, demand an acquaintance with the parallel literary, philosophical, theological, scientific, and Theosophical vocabulary in English). Finally, Riel’s was an idiosyncratic mind, both because of his universally-acknowledged intelligence and his equally acknowledged religious mania. Thus, the discourses named above were submitted to a stylistic pressure that resulted in the provisional, often highly-elliptical and truncated fragments (however original) that make up the Système. No less importantly, the Métis dimension in his thinking and expression remains extremely obscure, even for scholars of the man and his work.

We outline these philological challenges to highlight the radical provisionality of our own efforts here. Just as the sheets collated by Riel’s editor are “a draft of a draft of a draft” (Melville)(a characteristic this text shares with, among others, Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick, the writings of Marx, and many Twentieth-century poets and philosophers), so, too, our versions lay no claim to finality, but, rather, are offered as an invitation to readers, writers, and scholars and translators more informed and talented than us to engage with Riel’s Système so that it might begin to take its rightful place in the cultural inheritance and life of Turtle Island.

 

 

Notes toward a Commentary…

 

Source:  The Collected Writings of Louis Riel, Vol. II, ed. Gilles Martel, University of Alberta Press, 1985, pp. 387-99. Translated by Antoine Malette and Bryan Sentes.

Poet, politician, rebel, prophet, Louis Riel is as much an inspiration for anti-colonial struggle on Turtle Island, politically and artistically, as a real man, the facts of whose life are easily summarized. Born of Métis parents in present-day Manitoba, Canada, the precocious Louis was sent to study for the priesthood in Montreal from 1858-1865, where he received a rigorous education in Greek, Latin, theology, philosophy, and literature. Choosing a secular life, however, he abandoned his studies and returned home, where he participated in the Red River Resistance (1869-70), as the head of the provisional government and overseeing the short-lived regime’s one execution. Following the insurrection, he was thrice elected to a seat in the Canadian Parliament but denied entry because of his revolutionary activities. Undergoing a profound religious experience that inaugurated his prophetic vision and project, his subsequent erratic behavior (reminiscent of “Kit” Smart’s) caused him to be institutionalized between March 1876 and January 1878. He eventually settled in Montana, where he became an American citizen. In 1885, however, the Métis enticed him across the border to lead them again in what became known as “the Northwest Rebellion”, which was summarily crushed, and Riel captured, tried, and hanged.

Riel’s editor writes concerning the Système philosophico-théologique:

There is good reason to think that this philosophico-theological synthesis was destined to be part of the Massinahican [Cree for ‘book’ or ‘bible’]. Regrettably, a number of pages are lost, and it is impossible to reconstruct with certainty the plan of this synthesis, which is why we have opted to present the few pages of this document thematically. The order of the texts that follows is intended to facilitate reading and does not pretend to reconstruct Riel’s intended order.

These pages were likely composed in Montana between 1881 and 1884. On many pages of the manuscript the paragraphs are numbered, but regrettably numbers 1 to 30 are lost; moreover, when there are several versions of the same paragraph, they do not have the same number; finally, there exist different paragraphs with the same number. There are therefore several series of numbers and one cannot trust that these numbers reconstruct with certainty the general order of the text.

In these pages, Riel uses above all the term ‘essence’ and more rarely the term ‘monad’ to designate the elements that constitute all reality. In God, the essences are all active; it is only in humankind that a mixture of active and passive essences is found. During his time in prison in 1885, Riel returned to his reflections on essences and monads…

The Massinahican, for all its truncated and fragmented brevity, is a startlingly syncretic, synthetic, and original work. Unlike Riel’s more identifiably prophetic, millenarian revision of (Roman Catholic) Christianity (as reminiscent of William Miller’s or Joseph Smith’s as that of the Ghost Dance religion), the Massinahican draws on Roman Catholicism and Leibniz’s Monadology, as well as coeval psychology, physics (electromagnetism), and, arguably, even Theosophy, sketching a broad, philosophical vision with affinities to Neoplatonism and Taoism, at least. Formally, arguably modelled in the first instance on Allan Kardec’s Le Livre des esprits (1857), the writing prefigures Wittgenstein’s argument-by-remark as much as it resembles the German Romantic Fragment (and, perhaps, even its ironies). As Tim Lilburn puts it in his own poetic explorations of Riel’s unfinished work: “Riel’s book Massinahican was an attempt to render old Rupert’s Land…into philosophy, interiority, and politics” and “We could be in a text by Proclus or Damascius”.

[A note on the translation. Riel’s notes were composed under various pressures, of inspiration and material conditions. They are, therefore, often orthographically and grammatically compressed to the point of obscurity, an obscurity further complicated by Riel’s own idiosyncratic inspiration and expression. We have often attempted to reproduce these ambiguities and difficulties in the English rather than present an artificially smooth and clear version of Riel’s thoughts.]

 

Addendum.

 

Tim Lilburn, from The House of Charlemagne (University of Regina Press, 2018)

 

SECOND FIGURE (Honoré Jaxon)

And, as you’ve said: “The prodigious concentration of the infinite essences in the loving man would have created for him the gift of subtle spirit. Cette concentration prodigeuse des essences infinies dans l’homme eût constitué pour lui don de le subtilité.” It’s all there in that single sentence. The human individual in the world’s birth canal.

Jaxon moves with great speed.

                HONORÉ JAXON

Thus, swamped with the explosive throw, soaked with battling light, we, pneuma packets, breath bearded, harden (concress, vanish, anneal, zig but do not zag) into ever-fleet dots (he makes a gesture indicating the monadic shape), which Canadian grapeshot does not recognize and so misses.

Yes.

He shifts quickly fours steps, then stops.

Their instruments lack this precision.

I have heard you on this, this spirito-physics. What you scratched with care on pieces of elk hide and paper scraps deep in Montana, far in winters, 1881 to 1884. Many pages of this philosophical-théologique synthesis now lost, blown away in snow or raised in random fires. Your voice sways in me. Canadian bullets do not recognize me. We swim in a band below their apparatus’s range. Nor can the prime minister’s lit cigars cruise forward, drop as arrow-fall to press red circles on the skin of our arms when we are in this clenched, robed state of the active essences.

                LOUIS RIEL

Snider Enfield rifles snuff and break twigs near.

Concerning the late Ernesto Cardenal, the Communist Hypothesis, and related matters…

Social media (in this case, Facebook) for everything disturbingly evil about it can provide gist for no little cogitation.

The Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal died Sunday 1 March 2020 at 95. His work (which 680px-Ernesto_Cardenal_a_la_ChasconaI first read in that brick of an anthology Poems for the Millennium, Volume II  (UCP, 1998)) is exemplary for me, because of its development of an “objectist” sensibility (a poetry of bald statement shorn of metaphor or ornament) wedded to a (religiously!) profound social sensibility that extends to all living creatures.

Understandably, when I learned of his passing (on Facebook), I shared the news with my vast friends list of 374. Things got interesting, however, when I followed a link to the news of his death at one of my favourite poetry sites, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, which quoted a passage from The New York Times obituary it had shared, which passage I shared in turn:

“Christ led me to Marx,” Father Cardenal said in an interview in 1984. “I don’t think the pope understands Marxism. For me, the four gospels are all equally communist. I’m a Marxist who believes in God, follows Christ, and is a revolutionary for the sake of his kingdom.”

The identification of socialist tendencies in Christianity (unsurprising for those not unacquainted with Liberation Theology, the German Peasant Rebellions during the Reformation, or radical social movements from around the time of the English Civil War, let alone jokes about a certain socialist Jew…) and the very evocation of “communism” elicited rapid responses happy to affirm Cardenal’s artistic gifts but quick to condemn (as “nuts” in the first case and in the second as an example of “some crazy idea of ‘sharing’ that millennials, with a social media-fed knowledge of history, may lean towards”) his embracing what French philosopher Alain Badiou and others have called The Communist Hypothesis.

Now as interesting as it would be to take up the twin topics of Liberation Theology or the Communist Hypothesis (regarding the latter, a good read is this article by the inimitable Slavoj Zizek from 2009) what’s more curious is how those critical of Cardenal’s politics can at the same time respect his poetry whose nearly every line is imbued with his own “communist” perspective. On the one hand, I am the first to maintain a distinction can be made and maintained between a poet’s poetry and their politics, even when that politics rears an ugly head in the work; an even earlier and more important influence on my poetry is the figure of Ezra Pound, a poet who famously went very “wrong / thinking of rightness”. But in Pound’s Cantos, for instance, the author’s “fascism” (arguably as idiosyncratic as Cardenal’s Christian Marxism) and suburban anti-semitism appear only sporadically, while Cardenal’s socialist sympathies are ambient throughout.

Ironically, the critical commenters, above, react to neither the specific synthesis of Christ and Marx and the related, resulting “communism” nor Cardenal’s poetry, for the former finds its sustained and complex articulation in the latter. Cardenal’s “liberation theology”  is an ecosocialism avant le lettre, concerned not only with class struggle and the metabolic rift that underwrites it, but with the relations, oppression and liberation of all organisms and the environment that sustains them. Cardenal’s sensibility opposes to  the Abrahamic legacy that believes God bestowed dominion over the earth and its creatures to Man a vision more akin to the animistic, Hindu, or Buddhist, or, in the Christian tradition, to that of Saint Francis of Assisi, for whom all Creation forms a family, composed of all the children of God. Likewise, Cardenal’s politics finds echoes and support in the thought of Herbert Marcuse, for whom the liberation of human beings is inextricably bound up with the liberation of nature from human exploitation.

Cardenal, being the poet he was, can speak for himself. As he writes in his poem “New Ecology” (a portion of which in English translation can be read, here):

Not only humans longed for liberation.
All ecology groaned for it also. The revolution
is also one of lakes, rivers, trees, animals.

With him, we can only imagine, long for, and work toward the day when “The armadillos are very happy with this government.”

 

 

 

A (post-secular) poem for Ash Wednesday

However much I was raised Catholic (and really enjoy Paolo Sorrentino’s gorgeous series The Young Pope and The New Pope), the Christian calendar orients me more mythopoetically than devotionally. Nor is the poem below as reverent (however elusively, allusively, and ironically) as Eliot’s canonical one, being more light-hearted and spontaneously post-secular. Nevertheless, I post below an Ash Wednesday poem from March End Prill (Book*hug, 2011).

 

Lift the flame

Luciferous hissing

blue out the lighter

Light the incenc

uous resins

crackle in the bowl

Father

Son &

Holy Ghost

Each cardinal direction

dawn morning sun

in branches

orientation

sinister

Southern Cross

Antepod

Abendland

Ol’ Rope-a

accidental occident

all that’s left’s

True North

“I believe”

Lichen yellows

Shady bark

A Timely Re-release: Peter Dale Scott reading from Minding the Darkness

Twenty years ago I got wind that Peter Dale Scott would be reading in the McGill University Library’s Rare Books Room. I had only recently discovered his work, in an excerpt from Minding the Darkness in Conjunctions, a poetry whose engagement with history and politics by means of an unabashedly citational poetics harmonized with my concerns and practice at the time, so I went.

When Scott solicited questions after his reading, I asked something like: “You have three books: the first [Coming to Jakarta] that begins by invoking three desks, at one Virgil’s Nekyia, an Inferno; then Listening to the Candle, a Purgatorio; now an old man’s Paradiso: all weaving historical, luminous details, personages modern and historical, autobiography, taking up the Tradition, all written in tercets: is there a Dantescan intertext?” to which he answered, “You, don’t go anywhere!”, an invitation to speak once all the other questions had been asked and answered. That was a fateful meeting, as Scott, the man and his work, have maintained an important place in my life and work, happily, since.

John Bertucci has now done us all the favour of uploading a video of Scott reading from that ultimate volume of his Seculum trilogy only a year after the one I attended. You can recapture an experience of Scott reading in the wake of the release of Minding the Darkness, here:

OULIPO now and then

1-LUTygRS_E5EI_AOvFTHaaw

“Oulipo turns 60, but given how much we hear about it these days, it feels more like 150″ says George Murray at Bookninja. To some of us, it seems much older.

For my part, I learned about the OULIPO and composition by means of a generative device in the early nineties, thanks to Joseph Conte’s goldmine of a study, Infinite Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry. Not that long after (or so it seems this morning), Christian Bök’s Eunoia appeared to equal acclaim and, well, annoyance (a book, for those who don’t know, is composed by means of a generative device, after the OULIPO).

For me, the controversy was tiresome, having read Conte’s work and, more importantly, Ernst Robert Curtius’s classic oeuvre, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, which details ancient and medieval modes of composition which quickly dispel any illusions the OULIPO and its epigones are avant garde. (Though I do know that matter is more complex than I allow for here).

I expressed my impatience with the whole matter, boiling Curtius’ excurses into the following poem from Ladonian Magnitudes, one among several that got up the nose of that book’s most notorious reviewer. The poem is four quatrains and a concluding line, despite WordPress’ formatting constraints…

 

Liposuction & Related Procedures in Antiquity

 

Lasus Pindar’s master made a poem sans σ and a millennium later

Nestor of Laranda in Lycia wrote an Iliad each book less a letter Tryphrodorus Aegyptus did the Odyssey

So from Baroque Spain via Peter Rega

From Fabius Planciades Fulgentius’ De aetatibus mundi et hominis λειπoγραμματoς

 

Hucbald’s Charles the Bald eclogue beginning every word with C one-hundred and forty six lines

Late Roman grammarians’ παρόμoιoν

O Tite, tute, Tati, tibi tanta, tyranne, tulisti a scolia for a Caracalla’s Banquet

where as Aelius Spartianus has it from his brother Geta every dish alliterated

 

The so-called “figure poems” τεχνoπαίγνια in the Greek Anthology

Porfyrius Optatianus rendered in Constantine’s Latin

Alcuin, Raban Maur, Sixteenth Century Hellenism followed

Pre-Alexandrian Persian lines in trees and parasols

 

Eusonius follows Plato’s for the Sophists logodaedalia in his Technopaegnion

Each line of one poem starting and finishing with one syllable and the last word’s the next’s first

Catalogues of single syllable limbs, gods, foods, questions “yes” or “no”

A myth crib every line turning on one syllable

Grammatomastix’s monosyllables amputated prefixes lifted from Ennius and Virgil

 

The “versos de cabo roto” Urganda chants before “…a certain village in La Mancha…”

James Dunnigan: new chapbook & interview

wine and fire

Design: Bianca Cuffaro

 

James Dunnigan launches his second chapbook Wine and Fire (Cactus Press, 2020) Tuesday 18 February 2020, 20h00 at the Accent Open Mic Vol. 25—Cactus Press launch, La Marche à côté, 5043 St-Denis, Montreal, Quebec. (Facebook Event page, here).

Dunnigan is also the author of The Stained Glass Sequence (Frog Hollow Chapbook Award, 2019) and was shortlisted for the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Prize in 2018. His work has also appeared in CV2, Maisonneuve Magazine, and Montreal Writes. He writes in English and French, reads Latin and sells fish for a living.

JD

You can read a series of five mini-interviews with him, here.

You can see and hear a recent reading, here.

Dunnigan is a singularly gifted young poet. If you’re in Montreal, this launch and this chapbook are not to be missed.

 

Critical Fragment

Sikhote-Alin_meteorite,_shrapnel

If we judge a writer’s worth in the first instance on their identity or character, we avoid, evade, or void the work (and, arguably, reward) of reading (which is trouble enough) and engaging the work, which is to short circuit the critical task.

Writing on and conversations with Bruce Andrews and Amiri Baraka

IMG_2950Back in  2008 (!), I had the good fortune to meet (among others) a then-younger scholar of Amerikanistik, Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich.

Now, the rest of us are lucky enough to get to know his work:  the Electronic Poetry Center has made available as a PDF download his dissertation on American post-avant poet Bruce Andrews, Dissensual Operations:  Bruce Andrews and the Problem of Political Subjectivity in Post-Avant-Garde Aesthetic Politics and Praxis, you can download and read, here.

Admittedly, reading through a theoretically state-of-the-art dissertation on a notoriously difficult poet can be a challenge. Interested readers can jump straight to a wide-ranging and penetrating interview that is appended to the dissertation, here.

Büscher-Ulbrich also conducted one the last interviews with Amiri Baraka, one no less lively, you can read, here.

 

“Apology for Absence”

A Prairie Horizon - Saskatchewan, Canada

At a reading I attended at the end of last year, a poet friend (very supportive of my work) asked if I’d retired.

I understood her to be referring to my not having worked the past three years. I was in chemotherapy the last half of 2016, and I’ve been recovering ever since. My vitality and acuity are presently too volatile for me to commit to teaching fifteen weeks at a go. I tried in the fall of 2018, but had to surrender the single class I was teaching mid-November…

I was more than a little disturbed when through my mental fog it appeared to me she hadn’t been asking about my job status but my writing and publication record. (That it took me so long to pick up on her meaning is an index of my state). My last trade publication was March End Prill (Book*Hug, 2011), a long poem that, itself, had been composed almost a decade before it appeared in print.

Lately, I’ve taken to joking I have the creative metabolism of a pop star:  about twelve poems a year, which, were I pop singer, would be enough for a new album. Given that many poetry presses prefer manuscripts of over eighty pages or so, that pace of production would ideally result in a new book every seven years or so. Were it only so simple.

Even for someone with three trade editions under his belt, every new manuscript is a new challenge to get published. Indeed, the last two collections I’ve collated have failed to find a publisher. On the one hand, I’m no networker. On another, the work has always been against the grain. Tellingly, the last editor to turn down my latest manuscript did so on the basis of an understanding of its poetics the opposite of my own.

Moreover, I eschew a practice increasingly common, to compose “a book”. Often a poet will pick up and follow the thread of a theme or as often crank a generative device. Sometimes such efforts are successful, and I can appreciate the urge and sentiment that goes into this approach, when it’s not the result of the pressures of reigning expectations. However, as my earliest mentor once quipped concerning the composition of a collection:  “A book is a box.”

Which brings me to the title of this post. Apology for Absence is the title of John Newlove’s a for aselected poems (Porcupine’s Quill, 1993), a famously laconic poet, known, among other things, for his diminishing productivity over the years. But Newlove holds a more profound importance for me, personally. As I write in a poem from Ladonian Magnitudes:

Because John Newlove the Regina Public Library’s writer-in-residence gave me his Fatman and reading it in the shade on the white picnic table on the patio in our backyard thought “I can do that!” and wrote my first three poems

I like to think that happened when I was fourteen, but a little research proves I must have been a year or two older. At any rate, however much I admire and envy the productivity of a  D. H. Lawrence or Thomas Bernhard, I seem to have followed Newlove’s example in this regard. (It’s a long story). Poetically, there are worse models.

No, I haven’t retired. Nor am I absent, MIA. I’m hard at work, at my own work, going my own direction at my own pace, trusting some will be intrigued if not charmed enough to tarry along.