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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blurring the senses of ‘vision’: a review of Neil Rushton’s Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Neil Rushton’s Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a timely and accomplished first novel.

The book is timely, in the first instance, because of the character of the narrator-scfthotsprotagonist’s life. He is a broken soul, depressed and suffering a kind of PTSD following the sudden death of his mother and sister in a car crash. His unresolved grief culminates in a psychotic break while waiting in line in a shop landing him in a psychiatric ward. When the story proper begins, we find him released and living alone and friendless, eking out his life on a combination of government assistance and freelance webdesign, self-medicating with cannabis and, most importantly, psychedelics, given him by a shadowy, semi-official figure, Ober. Despite the extremity of his condition, the narrator is a Millenial type, depressed, medicated, and living precariously, whose typicality is reinforced by his remaining anonymous.

The novel is germane, further, because of its thematic concerns:  psychedelia and entheogens, transhumanism, nonhuman intelligences, and, more traditionally, because of their inescapability, suffering and mortality. Without giving too much away, the novel plots the narrator’s treatment with increasingly experimental psychedelics under Ober’s, and soon his colleagues’, care. As one might well imagine, as the treatment progresses, what is real becomes more precarious and amorphous. The deftness and delicacy with which this aspect of the narrative is dealt is one of the novel’s stylistic accomplishments.

The narrator’s treatment and attendant visionary experiences introduce another timely topic, transhumanism. But, unlike the simpleminded, techno-utopian version of Ray Kurzweil, Rushton envisions, or so it seems, given neither the reader nor the narrator are sure of what is real or not at any given time, a transcendence via entheogenically-driven evolution. The plot is haunted, too, not only by visions of the posthuman, but of the non-human. Weird, protean intelligences appear throughout, impish, defamiliarized versions of the folkloric Faery, here turned to a more modern or postmodern significance. Rushton’s uncanny re-imagined Little People bring to mind David Lynch’s unsettling, daemonic inhabitants of the Black Lodge. And anyone acquainted with the evergrowing body of entheogenic literature will be reminded of the entity reports that compose one part of it.

In more conventional, literary terms, the emotional heart of the book is the narrator’s unresolved grief and the attendant need to come to terms with mortality. Beneath the theatrical trappings remarked above (nevertheless, a not unimportant part of the novel’s architecture) is the process of the narrator’s painful and harrowing exploration of the painful frailty of human connection, familial and otherwise. One risk the novel takes is in its attempts to employ the extremes of the plot as a means to defamiliarize and so make new its heady thematic and emotional content.

And it’s just here in how ably this otherwise apparently unassuming novel carries off this difficult task that its more literary artistic achievements shine. Despite being a novel of first-person introspection and profound experience, psychedelic and emotional, the plot never bogs down, an accomplishment in its own right. The growing disorientation of the narrator over the reality of his experiences is deftly handled so that that confusion is vividly represented but without ever confusing or frustrating the reader. Despite the gravity and complexity of its concerns, the novel is constructed with a sly, intertextual irony, drawing on Shakespeare, Byron, Lewis Carroll, pop culture, folklore ancient and modern, and other sources to weave the plot’s materials, which, as they are slowly revealed, complicate, intensify, and lighten the reading experience.

In the wake of the French Revolution’s descent into the Terror, trust and hope in Progress or the sudden advent of a new world or age both faded. Writers, then, struggled to understand and render this new, obscure relation to time, history, and endings, composing in answer works without a clear ending or even, sometimes, beginning, novels and poems where reality and imagination, realistic prose, fairy tale, and dream, all served to blur the meanings of ‘vision’, most notably in those works of Romantic Irony, such as Novalis’ unfinished and unfinishable novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, forerunners of those forays into postmodern undecidability, such as the novels of Thomas Pynchon.

Rushton’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a deceptively unassuming participant in this tradition, equally our condition. It combines the perennially, personally urgent matters of death and grief, the real material conditions of millenial life under neoliberal capitalism, a more overarching concern with the fate of humankind, and speculations about knowledge and reality all within a narrative equally introspective and plot-driven, woven of an ambivalent tissue of the present moment and the literary inheritance. Rushton’s book finds a home on the bookshelf, beside titles by William Burroughs, Terrence McKenna, and their fellow travellers.

Neil Rushton. Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun. London:  Austin MaCauley, 2016. 289 pp.

 

Neil Rushton is an archaeologist and freelance writer who has published on a wide rushtonvariety of topics from castle fortifications to folklore. Recently he has been exploring the confluence between consciousness, insanity and reality and how they are affected through the use of a wide variety of psychotropic drugs. His first novel, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, explores these issues to the backdrop of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd. He also writes a blog-site devoted to the mythology and reality of the faeries:  https://deadbutdreaming.wordpress.com/

 

 

The Year in Review, or The Latest Album

gull bouyUnlike some poets, who seem able to compose and publish a new book every year, I learned long ago my creative metabolism is more like that of a pop musician, about twelve new pieces, or a new album, annually.

Here’s what I’ve produced this year, with early versions of poems shared here hyperlinked; italicized titles are sequences, while those in quotation marks are individual poems:

Cyberian Vistas (one of which can be read here)

Replies to Mayer Hillman (an early version of one of which can be read here)

Toronto Suite (two of which can be read here and here)

“Standard Eyes I Shun”

Pasqua Lake Elegies

“A Portrait of the Artist”

“A book I can’t read closed”

“I’m told you’re disappointed”

“Brief von München”

There are some miscellaneous “one-offs” here, too:  “Two [more!] for Mayer Hillman”, “Ontario Election Results in Real Time 2018”, and a little poem on the eve of the provincial elections in Quebec, here.

Happily, too, I delivered a talk on the poetry of Peter Dale Scott and the Postsecular at what used to be called the Learneds in May, while the end of summer saw my collaborator Antoine Malette and myself translating passages of Louis Riel’s Massinahican, which will hopefully appear in an anthology forthcoming from University of California Press in 2019 or 2020.

 

 

A Further Serendipity: Concerning Having Nothing to Write

DH readingI doubt there’s a writer who doesn’t experience times when there seems to be nothing to write. I’d wager, though, that that block or absence of inspiration often isn’t so much a lack of some subject as much as the result of some paralyzing judgement by that tyrannical Inner Editor every writer has that this or that matter isn’t worth writing about or that the writer, for whatever reason, just isn’t up to doing it justice.

Yesterday, the late Donald Hall‘s last poem in his notebook popped up in my newsfeed:

DH The Last Poem

Here, Hall turns the Inner Critic’s answer to the question of what’s worth writing about around, a witty if somewhat bitter solution to the problem.

Then, today, I chanced to read these remarks of Allen Ginsberg on William Carlos wcw15Williams facing the same void:

He’s almost dying, he’s got one foot in the grave (at that time, actually, he was saying, “I’ve got one foot in the grave”). And he thought he had cancer of the anus, actually, at that point. He was very sick, and he was also morbidly fantasizing, and he thought he didn’t have much to write about. (Around that time, I went to see him and he said he had nothing to write about – what can he write about? the cancer of his behind? – I think I mentioned this before). And I said, “Oh, there’s hundreds of young poets in America who would be interested in your behind! – Yes, of course, write about cancer in your behind, anything you can”.

Here, I’d argue, is a different response to the Inner Critic, one that tosses out its conventional, aesthetic criteria for some that are more radical, more ontological:  what’s there to write about? Whatever there is to write about.

 

Poeticritical Serendipity

Gloria_Graham_Lyn_HejinianDonald Wellman reviews Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing, describing it as follows:

Fourteen lines on each page, that’s sonnet length. Little rhyme [or] syllogism employed. No tidy conclusions. Each line as long as it needs to be. Most discontinuous with one another but not necessarily so. It seems there may not be a logic other than method in the construction of Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing (Omnidawn 2016). Nothing follows, no conclusions, the title says it all.

The well-read might be circumspect about a book composed in this manner, sections riming with a sonnet’s length, parataxis the lines’ principle of arrangement, by a poet long-associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (Hejinian is included in both Silliman’s In the American Tree (1986) and Messerli’s “Language” Poetries (1987)), published in 2016.

Such readers might be prompted to further reflection over the implications of these guendercompositional characteristics of Hejinian’s book when they read in Alice A. Kuzniar’s Delayed Endings: Nonclosure in Novalis and Hölderlin about Karoline von Günderrode’s fifteen-verse “Ein apokalyptisches Fragment” (published in 1804), that “…each verse appears as a disjointed fragment in an unconnected, nonteleological series”.

I leave this juxtaposition to speak for itself, for readers with ears to hear and hearts that care to.

 

“Rothenberg’s concept of ethnopoetics works as a brilliant counter to the dominant literary regime of tight ass Brits and their Yankee counterparts.”

I’ve said to anyone who will listen that any understanding of poetry—what it has been, Technicians of the Sacredis, and can be—ignorant of Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics is rootless and perverse.

Here’s an appreciation of his project I happened on by chance. Poets, ignore it at your peril!

Rothenberg Poetry University

The writing life

Insights, like poems, sometimes just fall on your path, like the leaves from the trees thisIMG_3124 time of year.

A friend wrote me, and his experience so paralleled mine, and many others’, it was light work lineating his letter into the following poem. If you’re a thinker, writer, or artist, I imagine you might well agree.

 

Brief aus München

 

Yesterday I had a day

sitting for hours at my desk

playing internet-chess, thinking,

 

“this novel that’s kept me

from doing anything useful

a year now will never work”

 

and it was all my fault: I

chose this way, I

was sticking to this

 

idea, I was thinking

I could be not only a

writer but a novelist,

 

my father was right,

I left the right path

when I went to Berlin…

 

This morning, I got the idea,

I don’t know from where,

how it could work. Sun

 

shining on my balcony,

and I think: “Best choice ever,

to live and work like this.”

“The poetry wars never ended.”

DftPWChicago Review has just posted a lively, provocative conversation with Kent Johnson and Michael Boughn about the motivations driving that equally lively web-journal Dispatches from the Poetry Wars.

At a time when Instapoets are lionized as The Big New Thing (because of their sales numbers) and the art is otherwise domesticated (in the MFA program and English class), I know of few more vital, critical, and necessary sites of resistance than Dispatches.