Archive for the ‘The Brouillon’ Category

Why the title, “Bread & Pearls”?

It has some pleasant affinities with the title of Roland Barthes’ magisterial study S/Z.

The conjoined substantives are, first, singular and plural. The initial phonemes of each are in opposition:  /b/ voiced, /p/ unvoiced. Orthographically, the consonant-vowel pattern ‘r-ea’ in ‘bread’ is reversed in ‘pearls’, ‘ea-r’. Like the initial consonants, the more-or-less terminal consonants of the pair seem to me again in phonological opposition: both /d/ and /l/ are formed by placing the tongue-tip to the palate, but the former releases the flow of breath, removing the tongue from the palate, while the latter does not.

Semantically, in one regard, the first substantive denotes something edible, while the latter does not; bread is artificial, while pearls are natural (if susceptible to being cultured); however, one sense of ‘bread’ (money) makes both terms media of exchange. The substantives allude, too, to two bible verses not without a certain rhetorical significance.

Much more, of course, could be said….

New on the Video Page: Accent Poetry series 29 July 2019

New on the Video Page!

Thanks to Devon Gallant for the invite; and a pleasure to have read with that evening’s other featured reader, Derek Webster.

As I have the creative metabolism of a pop star (i.e., roughly a dozen new poems a year), new volumes of work are slow to appear. Four of the seven poems I perform here are therefore “new”.

Play list:
1. Budapest Suites I (from Grand Gnostic Central)
2.”European Decadence in medias res” (from Ladonian Magnitudes)
3. Hamburg & Kassel sections from “Made in Germany”
4. Toronto Suite
5. “By Mullet River”
6. “Flying Saucers” (from Grand Gnostic Central)
7. “A sonnet is a moment’s &c.”

R&Ra

“Mile End est mort…”

For the more than three decades I’ve lived in Montreal, I’ve lived in the quarter known generally as The Plateau and more specifically and recently (to my ears, anyway) Mile End, most notably at “Grand Gnostic Central” on the corner of Rachel and St. Urbain (scenes from the cinematic version of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz were filmed just up the block), a couple of locations on Hutchison and Parc Avenue south of Bernard, and, since 1996 (for the time being) on the corner of St Joseph and Parc in what our landlady calls her Chateau du Parc.

mile end est mort

Credit: Mary Shelley

Montreal, like any number of cities on earth, is suffering a process of gentrification. In  my area, it’s been underway for years, but it’s picked up since a number of software companies (Ubisoft and Softimage) have moved in. When it all began, I reflected that more affordable if less “desirable” neighborhoods attract those who can afford to live in them, which will often include creatives, writers, painters, artists, and so forth. Their creative energies, by a cruel dialectic, make the neighborhood more beautiful, pleasant and lively, attracting more residents and businesses, beginning a process of, well, gentrification. The creatives and others who made the place attractive in the first place are forced to move out, to some other quarter, sometimes in some other city, where the process can begin all over again.

A poem in Ladonian Magnitudes, “The Intersection” remarks this process. I share it below as a manner of memorial.

 

The Intersection

 

where l’Esplanade

meets Villeneuve

 

that spring dusk

the air’s first

 

breathable classic

sunlit redbrick

 

the unique quaint

three-storey walkups

 

characteristic of

the quarter’s charm

 

are almost all

so made up

 

like new the one

run down white tshirt

 

underarm stain yellow

building with muddy

 

white frames peeling

around cracked panes

 

stands out like

never among

 

those other fronts

kept up for years

 

without a thought

of what they’d go for

 

 

 

 

Set List: Accent Reading Series: Monday 29 July 2019

20190715_140503Having settled on poems that have to do with travel for my upcoming reading, I post here the set list and link poems on-line that are among those I’ll perform, for interested parties.

“European Decadence in medias res” (from Ladonian Magnitudes)

Budapest Suites I (from Grand Gnostic Central)

Two poems from Made in Germany, (“In Berlin, at the Mehringdamm U-Bahn station…” and “Cabbie on Documenta13”)

Toronto Suite (early versions of two of three poems in the suite can be read here and here)

“À Québec” (from Grand Gnostic Central)

“The Intersection” (from Ladonian Magnitudes)

“By Mullet River”

“A Sonnet is a moments, &tc.”

 

 

 

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.

 

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

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

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.

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.