Archive for the ‘poetry’ Tag

Condensation as Recomposition

Like many these days, I’ve been passing the time enjoying various televisual entertainments, most notably very carefully rationing out my viewing of Paolo Sorrentino‘s The Young Pope and The New Pope. Among these series’ many pleasures is the soundtrack, which introduced me to the British cellist and composer Peter Gregson.

Gregson, along with Max Richter, have both written what they term “recompositions”, Gregson recomposing Bach’s cello suites and Richter Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Gregson’s and Richter’s reworkings are not without precedent:  it’s an old compositional trick to take a phrase or theme from another composer’s music as an element for a new work of one’s own. These recompositions are, however, admittedly more radical and thorough reworkings of the original material.

In my own way, I’ve been writing recompositions for a long while. 779px-Electret_condenser_microphone_capsulesOne form, inspired by Pound’s found dictum that “dichten = condesare” (roughly, to write poetry is to condense), I termed “condensations”. The simplest compositional procedure, a manner of erasure avant le lettre, was to reduce a given text according to a rule.

The example I share below compresses H.D.’s book Sea Garden into a single poem, rendering each of the volume’s poems as a couplet made of the poem’s first and last line. I retained H.D.’s original capitalization and punctuation as a tacit way of  indicating my recomposition was in a no way a unified, straight-ahead lyric poem. The results of this poetic compositional procedure strike me now as being very aesthetically similar to Gregson’s and Richter’s musical recompositions, which is why I share the poem “Sea Garden” from Ladonian Magnitudes, below.

 

 

Sea Garden

after H.D.

 

Rose, harsh rose,

hardened in a leaf?

 

Are your rocks shelter for ships—

from the splendour of your ragged coast.

 

The light beats upon me.

among the crevices of the rocks.

 

What do I care

in the larch-cones and the underbrush.

 

Your stature is modelled

for their breadth.

 

Reed,

To cover you with froth.

 

Whiter

Discords.

 

Instead of pearls—a wrought clasp—

no bracelet—accept this.

 

The light passes

and leaf-shadow are lost.

 

I have had enough.

Wind-tortured place.

 

Amber husk

as your bright leaf?

 

The sea called—

The gods wanted you back.

 

Come, blunt your spear with us,

And drop exhausted at our feet.

 

You are clear

of your path.

 

The white violet

frost, a star edges with its fire.

 

Great, bright portal,

still further on another cliff.

 

I saw the first pear

I bring you as an offering.

 

They say there is no hope—

and cherish and shelter us.

 

Bear me to Dictaeus

and frail-headed poppies.

 

The night has cut

to perish on the branch.

 

It is strange that I should want

as the horsemen passed.

 

You crash over the trees,

a green stone.

 

Weed, moss-weed,

stained among the salt weeds.

 

The hard sand breaks,

Shore-grass.

 

Silver dust

in their purple hearts.

 

Can we believe—by an effort

their beauty, your life.

 

A Sonot at Easter: “Come out of the cave…”

Back in the early Nineties of last century (!) when I wrote this poem, the fashion among many Canadian (at least) poets was to write sonnet sequences. By chance, one day, I wrote a poem (“I know the Aurora Borealis” in Grand Gnostic Central) that happened to have fourteen lines. That chance (which to my ear happily rhymes with ‘chants’) occurrence began an ongoing, half-satirical series of accidentally-fourteen-line poems I called variously over the years “soughknots” (literally “air-knots”) and here “sonots” (so not sonnets!).

Its being Easter Sunday brought to mind the opening line and title of another sonot from Ladonian Magnitudes, “Come out of the cave…”, a poem marked by if not marking the emergence of sociality with the warmer days of spring. Of course, now, with the social distancing imposed by Covid-19, getting out into the warmer sunshine is more delayed than it was in 1992, but, then, the poem wanders through art and memory, too, where we can all sojourn until we emerge from this present staid-of-emergency.

 

“Come out of the cave…”

 

Come out of the cave

Spring’s first cold night

After an afternoon on the Thing with George

Embryons desséchés and six Gnosiennes, followed by Sonatine bureaucratique and Le Picadilly in the air

This time the third

I think of the natural periodical ecstasy

We call sleep

And consequently dream

Washing and drying the dishes

After the red cabbage, letcho, and potatoes sour-style

Everything put away in place for tomorrow

I pour the hot milk into the yoghurt jars

Remembering measuring solutions in Chemistry

Certain of the results

For the love of Dante

Every Easter I read through Dante’s Divine Comedy, and when I’m teaching, the Inferno holds centre spot in a course I try to give every Winter term, “Go to Hell!”.

That love for Dante and the Commedia Dante_Lucamakes its way into my poetry, too. A reader sensitized to this fact will fill a big basket of easter eggs reading through my books, published and unpublished.

Rarely, my love for his work is expressed outright, like in this short poem, “The book I can’t read closed beside me…”, that you can hear, here:

 

Of course, you’ll get even greater pleasure reading through the Commedia outloud over Easter week:  the Inferno, Good Friday through to Easter Sunday morning; the Purgatory, from Easter Sunday to Easter Wednesday; then begin the Paradiso Easter Thursday and ascend at your leisure!

You can hear the Commedia in Italian and English translation, at the Princeton Dante Project, here.

 

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)

 

 

 

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.

 

Corpus Sample: the poetic Wittgenstein

A friend recently got a hold of the first and only book published during philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I don’t know what prompted my friend to order in a copy, but he was understandably perplexed; even Bertrand Russell famously failed to understand his student’s work. Philosophically, despite its immediate fame among the Logical Positivists, the Tractatus is, today, a “dead dog”, repudiated most famously by the author’s own reflections, published posthumously as the Philosophical Investigations. Nevertheless, a friend of my friend sought to console him, assuring him “the Tractatus is pure poetry.” Creative writers have tended to agree:  Jerome Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman included sections from Philosophical Investigations in their assemblage of outsider poetry, Barbaric Vast & Wild, dramatist and novelist Thomas Bernhard published Wittgenstein’s Nephew in 1982, and Canadian poet-philosopher Jan Zwicky’s first book Wittgenstein Elegies appeared in 1986.

I don’t remember when I first encountered Wittgenstein, but it was surely before beginning my undergraduate studies. Those (eventually) were devoted to philosophy, and I wrote my honours paper on the private language argument in the Philosophical Investigations. To pass the time (four days) driving from Regina to Montreal, where we were going to study, a friend and I read through the Tractatus, doing our damnedest to make what sense of it we could. And my graduate studies resulted in a number of poetic texts, all engaging in various ways with the early and late Wittgenstein. Even more recently, a compositional method shared here takes an ironic inspiration from his remark that “meaning is use”.

I post below, then, two poems now included in my first trade edition Grand Gnostic Central. The first is a prose poem, borrowing liberally from Norman Malcolm’s memoir; the second is a poem that tries to come to terms with the Tractatus.

 

Wittgenstein

 

[from “Grand Gnostic Central”]

 

The walls are bare and the floor scrupulously clean.  In the living-room, two canvas chairs and a plain wooden one around an iron heating-stove.  In the other room, a cot and card-table, books, papers and pen.  A man sits at the card table.  His face is lean and tanned.  He wears a flannel shirt and light grey flannel trousers.  His shoes are highly polished.  He looks concentrated and severe, striking out as if arguing.  He stops, sits still.  He remembers swimming—a small boy, the ease of floating, the sun and water in his eyes, closing them tight.  He remembers how hard it was forcing himself down, down deep to the mud at the bottom, the water always pushing him back to the surface, his needing air pushing him back to the surface.  He has written a treatise on logic.  He knows those who do not know him think him an old man, irritable and obscure.  He remembers writing his thoughts for the book in small notebooks he carried around.  He remembers writing “If `the watch is shiny’ has sense…”  He remembers the flash on the watch-face that gave him the example.  It had rained and only now the sun cut through red clouds.  The field’s mud is soupy and slick.  He crouches down in the water at trench-bottom, once almost standing to keep his balance in the muck.  He hears the sharp tiny ticking at his wrist.  He dates the entry 16.6.15.

 

Holy Crow Channels LW

 

We know no sensations

give these propositions sense.  Questions

that exact innocence free from naivete

demand a rigorous ignorance of the evident

apparent given as the one condition

for their initial

stuttered utterance.

The long tautology that bends say

the blade of a jet engine

to just the angle of most force

turns on this

when the need for further thrust

draws inertia from the potential

for doubt, unbinding concepts and arguments

and baffling mathematicians

just this side of mathematics.

We need our end to be

the final determination

of the rule that keeps stasis

appearing repeatedly, that blesses with some semblance

of regularity frequently enough

to let us see this

and hear that

completely unsurprised.  These things we know

are hardly thought, for the common

is the category entered most

easily.  We can count, yet,

to ask what numbers are

reveals the path that eases

the passage everywhere but where

the answer you expect to desire lies

and leads you to question

again the writings that made you

conclude the first proposition

that defined one doubtfully.  For them

a mere analysis, for you

something more that flails you

to what is truly necessary.  The clear thought

expressed as clearly as the fabric of language

will strain it

fascinates you with its immaculate muteness

that finally becomes a song so mythic

you are bound from it, fast,

and your hearing is filled

with what is spoken

in innocence, naively.