Leslie Scalapino 1944-2010

Leslie Scalapino died May 28th 2010 in Berkeley, California.  When I first heard this news, I didn't believe it. Call it denial. Call it, I don't know what. The news finally became concrete when it was confirmed by my friend and fellow blogger Kathy Lou Schultz as our two families ate sushi last night.  The news has left me speechless.

This morning at yoga I realized I hadn't asked Leslie some of the questions I'd wanted to and should have asked her about poetry goings-on from the 80s on and her participation in them. That opportunity is lost.

We do have her work and this morning I flipped through That They Were at the Beach and the book opened, strangely, here:

The thought that
I'd then be dead
---This wouldn't
be a good
time for it to occur
---having had the feeling of being depressed then.

---Though now
has passed since that.

photo: Charles Bernstein, 2006


More on Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture

Chris Nagler, Yours Truly, and Charles Bernstein Respond

In response to my blog post on Charles Bernstein and Norman Fischer's talk at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, Chris Nagler, who was also present that night, made the following important comment:

This is a great summary of that interesting evening, Robin. I just want to mention one moment that stayed with me from the conversation. I'm talking about the moment when Bernstein quoted the Israeli writer Amos Oz (this quote also appears in Loss Pequeño Glazier's interview with Bernstein, collected in the book of essays and interviews, My Way):

"Now suppose a new Kafka is growing up right now, here in San Francisco, California. Suppose he is fourteen years old right now. Let's call him Chuck Bernstein. Let's assume that he is every bit of a genius as Kafka was in his time. His future must, as I see it, depend on an uncle in Jerusalem or an experience by the Dead Sea, or a cousin in a kibbutz or something inspired by the Israeli live drama. Otherwise, with the exception of the possibility that he is growing up among the ultra-Orthodox, he will be an American writer of Jewish origin--not a Jewish American writer. He may become a new Faulkner, but not a new Kafka."

Bernstein's comment on this idea was that it was "repugnant," though he didn't explain precisely why. In the Q & A, the young woman employed by the JCC to host the event asked Bernstein why he had such strong feelings about Oz's statement. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it had something to do with how "reductive" an idea of Jewishness it is. What I remembered so vividly was the questioner's clear uncomprehendingness juxtaposed with Bernstein's strong condemnatory language. It felt to me like a moment that stood in for some issues that could not quite be addressed in that setting.

Note: The Oz quote is from his essay "Imagining the Other: 1."

I responded:


Thanks for this comment and the reference, and yes that was a memorable moment. And while Morris's reference in the intro to Radical Poetics clearly outlines the problematic and reductive vision of Jewish American Writing articulated in the Telling and Remembering anthology for example, that background was not offered in so clear a format in the JCC discussion though I think Norman Fischer's comment about his own experience in NY with his book Opening to You and the stories and anecdotes that both offered were suggestive, including Bernstein's comment about his own experience of and interest in Jewish writing and its lineage not so much deriving from Israel but rather Europe. He said something to that effect. At the talk, I was not sure how to interpret Bernstein's performance with the Oz piece because I didn't know who Oz is. It wasn't until Jocelyn [Saidenberg]outlined Oz and then I had a chance to read the remark (rather than just hear it at the talk) that I could get a handle on it. That is probably NOT the case with the questioner....or maybe there was something about the performativity of that piece that made it challenging to the questioner? What is the politics or the poetics? Where the line between?

I then wrote to Charles who kindly responded even though he is in Coimbra, Portugal. Charles gave me permission to post this from his email:


I very much appreciated your post about the JCCSF event and the book. On the Amos Oz quote, my reply to Joanna Steinhahardt is on the unedited version of the talk, now up at PennSound – think it’s the first comment in the discussion period. Eric Sellinger originally sent me that quote and I used it earlier in an autobiographical interview in My Way. What do you think about it?

If would be as if I wrote:

Now suppose a new Kafka is growing up right now, in Tel Aviv. Suppose he is fourteen years old right now. Let’s call him Amachi Oz. Let’s assume that he is every bit of a genius as Kafka was in his time. His future must, as I see it, depend on an uncle in Miami or an experience learning Yiddish in the Catskills or the complete DVD set of Curb Your Enthusiasm and all Mel Brooks’ movies, or something inspired by Bob Dylan or Jerry Lewis. Otherwise, with the exception of the possibility that he is growing up among transplanted upper West siders who have memorized Gershwin, Berlin, and Sondheim, he will be an Middle Eastern writer of Jewish origin—not a Jewish writer. He may become a new Darwish, but not a new Kafka.

No one would accept this except as a spoof; but is the Oz quote any less problematic? In the absence of the European secular Jewish culture in the wake of the Extermination Process, the U.S. has developed its own Jewish secular culture that doesn’t play second fiddle to Israel, which has over this time, cultivated its own distinct brands of Jewishness, no more or less authentic than ours. Israeli writers don’t get to dictate who’s Jewish or what’s Jewish (and neither do Israeli rabbis). The Jews who thought they were excommunicating Spinoza really just cut themselves off

I responded:


Thanks for your note. And, thanks again for the talk at the JCC.

I think the confusion for me lay in the fact that at the talk I had no idea who Oz is, wasn't sure if that was his quote or whether you had revised it. I did just read the portion of Oz's "Imagining the Other: 1" (and I'll post some quotes from it--see below) that is accessible via Google Books and it is completely clear to me where he is coming from and the problems with what he says. Israel is the only site of "live drama" and all depends, in Oz's vision, on Israel. It was hard to interpret the Oz quote in the context of the talk at the JCC because I had no context for it. I am assuming that the questioner knows of Oz's work, but can't say for sure. It would be interesting to ask her more about this.

Here are the quotes from the Oz essay. They clearly locate his position:

Now, my point is that in all exiles, including America, Jewish culture is essentially in danger of becoming a museum where the only proposition that parents can make to their children is, Please do not assimilate. Please go on running the show--the museum. Please be impressed by the richness of our inheritance.
The other option, as I said is live drama. And live drama is no rose garden, nor is it ever pure. It is a perpetual struggle; sound and fury. Sometimes even bloodshed. But Israel is the only place in the Jewish world now, where there is live drama on a large scale at work(119).

[note: section below immediately follows the quote about chuck bernstein that Charles read and is included in Chris's comment above.]

In other words, I am suggesting that even individual creation in the future, to the extent that it is going to be Jewish, will depend on Israel to some extent. This is not the end of the world, by the way. As I maintain that in the long run individual creation springs from the fertile ground of collective creation, and as I maintain that perhaps there is no collective creation in the present Diaspora, the only choice for Jews is either to turn to Israel or maybe despair(122).

from Amos Oz's contribution "Imagining the Other:1" in
The Writer in the Jewish Community: an Israeli-North American Dialogue Edited by Richard Siegel, Tamar Sofer. Cranbury NJ and London: Associated University Press, 1993.

You can read the piece online here:

Here is the question about Oz from the SF JCC talk and the first part of Charles' response. This is from PennSound. Click here to hear the whole thing yourself:

Steinhardt: Why did the Amos Oz quote offend you?

Bernstein: Because he's defining, He's choosing to speak for defining what Jews are. One reaction I have as someone who grew up here in the US....is that he doesn't get to define or tell me what I am. To me, the crisis for Jewish life, for all Jews is the extermination of the European Jews by Nazis which is predicated on the idea of defining who is Jewish or not.....I certainly think he is entitled to his views but his views exclude in a way that does not allow for an understanding of what American Jewishness is so it is important for other people to speak up to make that point.....

For more on Radical Poetics and Secular Culture, check out A Big Jewish Blog


Charles Bernstein and Norman Fischer :Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture

At the San Francisco Jewish Cultural Center, co-sponsored by the Taube Center and Small Press Traffic, on Tuesday May 11, 2010, Charles Bernstein and Norman Fischer talked about and read poetry and writing from the newly published Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture edited by Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris and published as part of The University of Alabama Press's Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series.

I was eager for this evening's discussion and reading because for me the question of identity and radical poetics is both fascinating and problematic. It seems to be so for all of the writers included in this anthology. Charles and Norman explained a bit about the project's emergence out of just this fascination and problematic.

In the Introduction to the anthology Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, Daniel Morris explains that this anthology grew out of a poetry event held in 2003 at the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History in New York. The Center had asked Stephen Paul Miller to host the event and when Miller spoke to Charles Bernstein, he found that Bernstein had a project in mind. He "seemed to have seen a need and was responding to it," writes Morris. He explains:

Conservative and fundamentalist coalitions were dominating the religious institutional and political terrain, and Bernstein proposed an alternative that would facilitate the public life of imaginative and interpretive, as opposed to fundamentalist, forms of religious life and support. Bernstein also stressed the 'secular,' which significantly underscores practical realities of religious life and culture and its relations with culture at large.

Out of this emerged the event,"Secular Jewish Culture/ Radical Poetic Practice: on September 21, 2004," as part of which, Morris explains,

Bernstein asked: What are the innovations and inventions of American Jewish poets over the past century? Can we say that there is a distinctly Jewish component to radical modernist and contemporary poetry? What is the relation of Jewish modernist and contemporary poets to the historical avant-garde and to contemporary innovative poetry? How do Jewish cultural life and ethnic and religious forms and traditions manifest themselves in the forms, styles, and approaches to radical American poetry? What role does a distinctly secular approach to Jewishness by poets and other Jewish artists mean for 'racial Jewish culture'? (1-2)

Miller also noted that:

This volume contrasts with Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry (1997), in which the editor Steven J. Rubin presented the first anthology devoted to Jewish American poetry. In his introduction, Rubin writes that his 'purpose throughout this collection is to present the best and the most representative work of those writers who can properly be classified as American Jewish poets' (11). He goes on to state that he has 'not included those poets who, although nominally Jewish, do not deal significantly with the American Jewish experience.' how did he define 'best' or 'representative?' What does he mean when he says that certain 'nominally Jewish' poets 'do not deal significantly with the American Jewish experience?' Does Rubin consider a test such as 'The Artifice of Absorption,' an eighty-plus-page 'essay' in the form of lineated verse by Charles Bernstein, an insignificant expression of American Jewish experience? Although his poem does not focus overtly on Jewish themes (such as the Holocaust, immigrant experience, Diaspora, anti-Semitism, the family, the place of Yiddish in American poetry, or the Bible), Bernstein seems to express his Jewishness in many ways, especially through the poem's half-serious / half-comic scholarly tone, the concern with the issues of 'absorption' and 'exclusion,' the way he tests the borders between genres, and argues for the instability of the relationship between 'content' and 'style.' ....Rubin's project is commendable, but his anthology fails to offer a sustained critical apparatus or theoretical perspective through which readers could evaluate how his selections were made. We mention the critical lacunae and theoretical shortfalls of Rubin's anthology because it is precisely in such gaps and silences that our collection would like to lay stress (2-3).

The anthology expands upon the New York event and includes writing by:
Paul Auster
Merle L. Bachman
Charles Bernstein
Charlie Bertsch
Maria Damon
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Amy Feinstein
Thomas Fink
Norman Finkelstein
Norman Fischer
Benjamin Friedlander
Michael Heller
Dr. Kathryn Hellerstein
Bob Holman
Adeena Karasick
Hank Lazer
Stephen Paul Miller
Daniel Morris
Ranen Omer-Sherman
Alicia Ostriker
Bob Perelman
Marjorie Perloff
Jerome Rothenberg
Meg Schoerke
Joshua Schuster
Eric Murphy Selinger

In San Francisco at the JCC, Bernstein opened the discussion with the observation that you would think that there would be a great deal written about secular Jewish culture since it is an important tradition and foundational for radical poetics in the U.S. in the 20th century; yet, for a number of reasons, it is not the subject of much discussion. Secular Jewish culture is elided in discussions of Jewishness in Jewish organizations in the U.S. Many of the people asked to participate in the New York event, like Melville's Bartelby, "preferred not to" talk about being Jewish in relation to their writing projects. So, the event brought people together to talk about what they did not want to talk about, what they preferred not to do.

Bernstein noted that while in California, he happened to meet one of the editors of the Nortan Anthology of Jewish American Literature and asked what Gertrude Stein work the anthology would include; the editor told Bernstein that he did not think they were going to include Stein. Bernstein was shocked by the omission of perhaps one of the most important Jewish (though she didn't necessarily identify as such) Twentieth-Century American authors. The editors eventually did include Stein, apparently (given a framework that demanded readily identifiable Jewish content--I'm extrapolating here) because they were able to link something from the Making of Americans to Jewish culture. Bernstein cited another example of omission and silence around radical writing projects and the Jewish writer: he spoke of the recent and amazing conference on Zukofsky which included almost no framing of Zukofsky's work in relation to Jewish culture. Bernstein found the great aversion to identify as Jewish a valuable incitement to conversation.

Norman Fischer agreed: He noted that inside synagogues, people don't like to talk about the secular Jewish culture that doesn't identify as Jewish; if you are in the secular culture, outside of synagogue, there is reluctance to talk about a possible Jewish dimension to what you do. Fischer said that it is all very confusing!

Fischer elaborated. It is all not clear: What does Jewish mean? Religion, culture? What is culture, secular, religious? Fischer noted that the more he has thought about this, the less clear the distinctions between them become. Fischer mentioned that some would wonder why, Fischer, a Zen Buddhist priest and poet, who is involved in religious life, could having something to do with radical Jewish secular poetics!

[Note that these proceedings were accompanied by an ongoing playful banter between our two speakers.]

Fischer told several stories. First: Many years ago, he brought his pregnant, non-Jewish wife to Brooklyn to meet for the first time his Jewish family. They all met at the apartment of Fischer's cousin, a kosher butcher. Fischer looks over and sees his wife has a stricken look on her face. Fischer asks her if she is ok, and she says she needs to go outside:

She: Can't you see what's going on here? These people-- they are all talking at the same time and they are shrieking, they are yelling.

Fischer: No, they're not. It is a normal conversation.

They go inside. He listens, and, yes, he realizes they were all talking at once.

For Fischer, the deep point in this is: This is the nature of Jewish discourse, everyone talking at once at the top of their voices. It makes a beautiful music and is inherently self-contradictory and confusing. This is, Fischer said, the essence of what we are dealing with here.

Another anecdote: Fischer talked about reading from his book Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms. In the mostly Jewish audience in New York, a guy begins attacking Fischer vehemently. At the event, Rabbi Jonathan Slater says that in Judaism there is no pope. No body gets to say what Judaism is. Judaism is whatever a person who defines him/her self as Jewish says it is.

Fischer then read from Bernstein's piece entitled "Radical Jewish Culture/ Secular Jewish Practice":

Remember Kafka's question: 'What have I in common with Jews? I don't know what I have in common with myself.' Or, in a recent translation, I wouldn't want to have an ethnicity that would automatically count me in its number...when the saints go marching in...

Am I Jewish? Is this Jewish? I am no more Jewish then when I set my Jewishness adrift from fundamentalist religious practice. I am no more Jewish than when I refuse imposed definitions of what Jewishness means. I am no more Jewish than when I attend to how such Jewishness lives itself out, plays tunes not yet played. Jewishness can, even must, in one of its multiple manifestations, be an aversion of identification--as a practice of dialogue and as an openness to the unfolding performance of the everyday. Call it the civic practice of Jewishness (13).

and then, Norman Fischer read a piece from his own contribution to the anthology. This is from "Light (silence) word."

The Kabbalists were obsessed with language. They were not interested merely in analysis, contemplation, and interpretation. Study for them was not an intellectual act. Instead, every word of text masked hidden depths that revealed operations crucial to the salvation of the world on a moment-to-moment basis; and every word was related not only to every other word of text but to everything else throughout the whole of the mundane and supernal realms. Things of the world were, in their essence also 'words' (in Hebrew devar means both word and thing), because God had after all, in the most hidden of all parts of the Bible, Bereshit ('In the beginning,' the Jewish name for Genesis, and the main subject of the Zohar) created the physical universe exactly by uttering words. What was the nature of God-speech, God-word? And how did it relate to human speech, in which it lay hidden?

The Torah, it was said, was written in light. Every letter was light. And within this light all mysteries were contained. The book was the world, the world was the book. To those who then and now complain that the Torah is a primitive text, full of violence and vindictiveness of a terrified people and a terrible God, the Kabbalists had little to say; they knew otherwise, but how could one explain, for without faith, spiritual practice, and intimate knowledge, what could be understood? They knew that certainly the Torah was not saying only what it seemed to be saying, what the black letters on white seemed to indicate, it was saying that and everything else, in multifaceted, ineffable ways. The words, the letters, were fire; the page was burning. (In an essay on Buber's vision of Chasidism, Kenneth Rexroth, who felt that the Bible was the most destructive text ever written, said that the Chasidism had manage to read the Bible in such a way that is said exactly the opposite of what it actually did say; Rexroth was seemingly both right and wrong about this.) Behind every letter of the text, every infinite pinpoint of light, lay universe upon universe (61-62).

Fischer makes the link between "a key Kabbalistic theme, concealment, hiddenness" and "the germs of nearly all avant-garde writing's chief themes: revolt against the polite, rational, Aristotelian order of things; focus on language not as a conduit of communication but as infinitely suggestible medium that writes the world; concealment, hiddenness, obscurity, exile; intertextuality; resistance to closure and the univocal interpreting self. The world is hidden within language, words conceal rather than reveal meaning, meaning as meaning being essentially concealed, the not said, the written writing the unwritten etc, (65).

from Norman Finkelstein's essay "Secular Jewish Culture and Its Radical Poetic Discontents," Fischer read:

We think of innovative writing as providing a liberating perspective on reality--otherwise, why "Make it New?" In his discussion of Rabi Nachman's contribution to Jewish hermeneutics, Ouaknin focuses on Nachman's interpretation of the concept of divine tsimtsum (contraction or withdrawal) that is fundamental to Isaac Luria's kabbalistic theory of creation. According to Ouaknin, Nachman's concern is with the process of textual innovation, how it is possible and how it may be encouraged, since in Talmudic interpretation, 'the plural speech of Mahloket, room is left for each person to create his own world' (284). Nachman associates innovation with tsimtsum:'When someone wishes to innovate new words (new meanings), he should limit his knowledge (literally: accomplish the Tsimtsum in his mind), that is to say, evacuate, not hurry into the known preliminary considerations that confuse his mind and are not necessary for innovating. He should act like someone who does not know and only then can he progressively, and in order, innovate new meanings' (285). The rationale for this procedure implies a critique of institutional thinking and of the status quo. As Ouaknin puts it, 'Man has to withdraw from 'himself' in order to attain himself. The first 'self is not the real one; it is constructed, prefabricatd by institutions' (285). Tsimtsum is thus a process of designification; the innovative reader (or writer) 'attacks the semantic actuality of speech, or, in other words, rediscovers for himself the power of words through their 'designifying'(287). Withdrawal from conventional signification transforms one into a 'simple man,' one who says, ' I know nothing'--a notion that I cannot help but see as analogous to Keats's negative capability, which went on to inspire ideas of open form composition in poetry over a century later (228).

Fischer and Bernstein then discussed Ben Friedlander's astonishing essay which reads Paul, suggesting that Paul probably was just a Jew who said I'm a Reformist, and I'm going to do this whole thing differently, but it is Jewish. Friedlander's argument is that our reading of Paul now is an anachronistic one. When Paul wrote, he was writing as a Jew.

from Friedlander's essay "Letter to Romans":

If 'secular Jewish culture" is a form of antinomianism, then it follows that this culture is also a part of the religious history of Judaism, and not, as is ordinarily conceived, the nonreligious extract of that history. A further corollary is that problems faced by this culture will often be translatable into Pauline terms. Ethics without adherence to the law? 'Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law' (Romans 13:10). Compatability of traditions within mixed groups or families? 'Practice hospitality....Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgement on him who eats....None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself' (12:13, 14:3, 14:7). Hostility among Jews of divergent beliefs? 'Do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you' (11:18). Paul's entire discourse concerns the continuation of Judaism in a new form (430).

Importantly, during the evening's discussion Bernstein mentioned what innovative writer Leslie Scalapino asked them when they had had dinner with her the night before: why bother then with the Jewish framework?

Bernstein replied: because it is an important part of American history...and important for opening up discourse and practices to contest the rigid and singular.

At some point in the evening at the JCC Bernstein quipped that he is starting a new movement called Midrashic Antinomianism, or Bent Studies, the motto for which is: See the Crookedness in the Straight. I am an observant Jew. I look closely at the things around me as if they were foreign!

The discussion at the JCC didn't get around to a detailed discussion of the intersection between radical poetics and secular Jewish Culture; there just wasn't time and the questions from the audience took us elsewhere. I am looking forward to reading more of the book as I'm wondering if the anthology suggests what its editors found lacking in Telling and Remembering. That is, if one were evaluating the success of Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, one would have to ask if this anthology offers a sustained critical apparatus or theoretical perspective. In my cursory reading thus far, it does indeed offer an array of differences, locating and examining the histories of various writers and practices while suggesting continuing possibilities for multiplying perspectives, voices, and textual strategies, for opening rather than restricting, for delinking identity from boundaries and borders and enforcement, for emphasizing an ongoing daily, lived and textual practice. Can the resulting historically specific and rich engagement be extended to other so-called identity and poetic categories? Certainly, African American poets, women poets, queer writers, a wide variety of Asian American poets and any number of other poets and writers categorized by identity have encountered similar though historically distinct problematics and possibilities. One question seems to be: How to make contingent use of categories--whether identitarian or genre-based--and simultaneously to subvert them. Or deform them all together. An ongoing rumination. Antinomian poetics? Against the law. Retaining the law to mark it in all its complex history and then to make many and much out of it.

You can listen to this program via the podcasts available at the San Francisco Jewish Center HERE.

Here are Charles and Norman's bios from Small Press Traffic:

Charles Bernstein is the author of 40 books, ranging from large-scale collections of poetry and essays to pamphlets, libretti, translations, and collaborations. All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems ( 2010) from Farrar, Straus, Giroux. Recent full-lengtht works of poetry include Girly Man (University of Chicago Press, 2006), With Strings (University of Chicago Press, 2001), and Republics of Reality: 1975-1995 (Sun & Moon Press, 2000). He has published two books of essays and one essay/poem collection: My Way: Speeches and Poems (University of Chicago Press, 1999); A Poetics (Harvard University Press, 1992); Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Sun & Moon Press, 1986, 1994; reprinted by Northwestern University Press, 2001). Shadowtime (Green Integer, 2005) is the libretto he wrote for Brian Ferneyhough's opera and Blind Witness (Factory School, 2008) collects the libretti he wrote for Ben Yarmolinsky.

Bernstein is Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania.

He is the co-founder and co-editor, with Al Filreis, of PENNsound (writing.upenn.edu/pennsund); and editor, and co-founder, with Loss Pequenño Glazier, of The Electronic Poetry Center (epc.buffalo.edu). He is coeditor, with Hank Lazer, of Modern and Contemporary Poetics, a book series from the University of Alabama Press (1998 - ). He has been host and co-producer of LINEbreak and Close Listening, two radio poetry series.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Norman Fischer has been publishing poetry since 1979. Loosely associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets of the seventies and eighties, he maintains close creative and personal relationships with many writers from that movement. Fischer spent five years living at Tassajara Zen Monastery in monastic Buddhist practice where poets Jane Hirshfield and Phillip Whalen were fellow students. He enjoyed a particularly close relationship to Phillip Whalen whom Norman describes in the dedication of his book Slowly But Dearly as a fellow “poet, Zen priest, teacher, friend.” Norman is Philip Whalen’s literary executor.


The Swerve and Sting of Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip

Soon, I want to tell you about the reading and conversation between Charles Bernstein and Norman Fischer I attended at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco last Tuesday, May 11th. First, I feel compelled to tell you a bit about a book that has made a breach in that plan. Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip, published by Toronto's Coach House Books, is an elegant volume in every sense. It is a sleek 7 ¾ by 4 ¾ inches, covered in chartreuse paper with silver embossed lettering. On the front: LISA ROBERTSON’S MAGENTA SOUL WHIP and on the back, a line from one of the poems, MY FIDELITY IS MY OWN DISASTER. 101 pages. The writing inside is a mix of lineated poems and prose pieces, some of them entitled “essays.” Some of these pieces –“Wooden Houses,” “About 1836,” “A Modest Treatise”—were commissioned by various art galleries.

Lisa Robertson's writing astonishes. She is an exquisite fabricator. Her tools are numerous and baroque and startlingly contemporary. The book's frontispiece, the little pencil illustration of a sword entering a wound, is precise and accurate. The wound is embedded in the page. And the selves and worlds we fantasize and experience there. Elaborate torture chamber of language and being’s pleasures and excruciations. Robertson has used this sword to unhook the clasps of the fragment, self, origin, eros, gender, language. Or she lifts a flap of skin so that a moment later the absence of the sharp slice of pain is experienced as a pleasure…..or, is it the slice that is the pleasure? So many sensations at once and then each is disarticulated.

The result: “All method is a/ demonstration of history.” Robertson writes simultaneously of metaphysics, Epicureanism, aesthetics, history, rhetoric, the visual, debates in contemporary poetics, the body, mortality.

Epicurus and Lucretius haunt this text. In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius writes:

“…that while the first bodies are being carried downwards by their own weight in a straight line through the void, at times quite uncertain and uncertain places, they swerve a little from their course, just so much as you might call a change of motion. For if they were not apt to incline, all would fall downwards like raindrops through the profound void, no collision would take place and no blow would be caused amongst the first-beginnings: thus nature would never have produced anything…….

…..Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order invariable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this free will in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? For undoubtedly it is his [sic] own will in each that begins these things, and from the will movements go rippling through the limbs.” (“Book II.” De Rerum Natura. 1924. Trans. W.H.D. Rouse. Cambridge, MA:: Harvard University Press, 1997.)

Robertson writes:

“Lucretius said that to flourish we must absorb more than we exude
Of elements, minerals and so forth.
We call this food, and it fabricates us
From the inside. But much does drip and escape
From the corporeal tissues and we use this
Excess to make belief.
It is normal therefore for the body to perish
From incessancy of belief. In the meantime
How about a milky pablum, nutmeats
Quickened with liquor, the iron
Our blood sucks from roots, the delicate
And ingenious bodies we call pastries
Or most intimate aspects of animals
Honey, sap and other lucky seepage
Various salts and the slightly bitter textures of leaves:
From a fortuitous concourse of atoms
Blond foams, dripping vineyards, these curved
Spontaneously out of the pleasurable earth.
Clots of rubbish washed up on shore became us.”

--from “First Spontaneous Horizontal Restaurant” (34)

There is hunger and eating and animals and atoms and melancholy and ornament. The swerve is a delight and productive. Change is frequent and who doth frequent with it shall be here a woman or women. Lucretius as a girl.

“Frankly, even our genders stutter and
Choke. Please believe that I myself claim no
Innocence from vigorous paroxysms
Of excretion: I pine for the body’s
Nice parataxis, the heart’s inestimable
Syntax and the good grace of your gaze; but
Here my enunciative platform borrows
A diction from judicial surfaces, which
Are also points of rest.
--from “Coda: The Device” (85-86).

The body as house. Subjectivity shimmers. Another ornament: “I’ll solicit nothing/ But ornament, that spacious edifice--/Kinds of ornament are change/Because it will change anyway” (20). The world around an animal’s throat. Somewhere in the distance, architecture. Darkness. Dazzlement.

Utopia is so emotional.
I’m speaking of the pure sexual curves
Of utopia, the rotation
Of its shadows against the blundering
In civitas. History does not respond
To this project—History, who has disappeared into
Architecture and into the
Generosity of the dead. This states
The big problem of poetry…
--from “A Hotel” (19).

Robertson’s book is capacious. Her diction, syntax, images—all continually surprise and move in unexpected directions. Hers is a meditative, intellectually expansive, melancholic, and scintillating language. The experience of reading the book recalls a scene from John Schlesinger’s 1967 film Far From the Madding Crowd which I recently saw again. While the film is dated, its slow camerawork (Nicholas Roeg) and the pleasures of looking at Julie Christie prevail. In the middle of nowhere in England, in a landscape of rolling, yellowed hills, Christie as Bathsheba Everdine is dazzled by the dangerous and sexual swordplay of Terence Stamp as Captain Troy. The blade comes so close; it glints in the sun; it undoes her. The danger is real.

from “On Painting”

The question of the origin of painting is obscure, or Egyptian.
Pliny says it had to do with combat
and victory
also known as war and triumph.
Such was its beauty
that a crow
would attempt to enter the tableau
to peck at the corpses (69).

Let me leave you with one of the final pieces from Lisa’s book:

Report 1624: The House

The House is humble and commodious. Here it is always fluent. Here we listen to voices. Here also are solid things. The House is a mould. The common division of the House is into three principal tiers—vegetal, sensitive and rational. The souls inhabiting the House migrate among levels. The inferior may be alone, but the superior cannot subsist without the other. Let this epitome suffice: the rational cannot subsist without the vegetal. The House is build from this complicated love really. Repeatedly we meet its surfaces. We see the House against the long scroll of politics, which is landscape, but also the House itself is a furled scroll. In the scroll of the House we are compelled to preserve what elsewhere we desire abolished.

Ten things are framed by the House.

The first, the proportions of a young child. The second, proportions of a grown man. The third, proportions of a woman. The fourth, proportions of an animal. The fifth, something about architecture. The sixth, about an apparatus through which it can be shown that all things may be traced. The seventh, about light and shadow. The eighth, about colours, which are like nature. The ninth, about the order of the mind. The tenth, about something free, which is alone without any help from the understanding.

These are the ten things.

There is no House that does not introject its landscape of doubt. There is no House that is not a clock. We manipulate memory to make it or we dreamed its downward sloping ceilings as percussive surfaces for the sonic augmentation of rain. We wrote each of the tawdry brownish wallpapers. We dreamed the silent harms. When the porch rots we dream its decay and when the kitchen sags with the weight of our appetites it is an extremely beautiful curve. With particularity we dreamed the dry sound of pigeons’ feet on the asphalt roof in summer. The clicking and grinding of the House in wind is so lively the animals won’t rest. Sometimes in the House we let our outward senses sink. This is sometimes called sleep and sometimes called thought and it has to do with the economy of the House.

When asked if the House is natural or non-natural we reply: The House is strange, wayward, arcane, pedantic economics, or the House is an organ of melancholy. How are we to know if it is cause or effect, a symptom or an unease? The House is a ladder. The House has a mirror. The apple tree lifting with sparrows. Does the form of desire change? If we dilate the House the tiers of habitual emotion will be dissolved in its vastness. There will be gestures that don’t complete us. There will be surfaces. When we leave the House we are light-footed (94-95).

You can find links to numerous reviews and interviews with Lisa Robertson at Coach House Books web site here.


Susan Gevirtz and Eileen Tabios: Starry Messengers, Tornadoes, and the Children Who Pop Up

Susan Gevirtz

Eileen Tabios

A week ago on Friday night May 7th Susan Gevirtz and Eileen Tabios read as part of Small Press Traffic's reading series. It was the night of an end-of-year fashion show at the California College of the Arts. There was a huge white party tent and young people in snazzy youthful outfits milling about. There was music.

In Timken Hall we were dazzled by Susan and Eileen. In her reading, each poet addressed current events; Susan mentioned she was thinking a lot about Greece and their economic and social crises and Eileen, as you'll read below, wrote and spoke about the recent adoption return case involving an American family and a child adopted from Russia.

Susan Gevirtz's reading was expansive and I wanted a copy of AERODROME ORION & STARRY MESSENGER right then and there! Sadly, for various reasons, author boks were not availble on this evening. I particularly liked the pieces I heard from Starry Messenger. Susan didn't read the piece below, but since I haven't a copy of her book on hand, let me share this excerpt from elsewhere online:

Brief History of the Sky: A Manual for Air Traffic Controllers

It is well known that brevity is essential to any discussion of the sky. Thus for the
sake of brevity we will divide the sky into its fractions: the Ptolemaic sky, the
afternoon sky, the weatherless sky, the seared sky of summer, the skewered sky of winter tree tops, brother to the Titian sky, sister to the drawn-out sky, Father of the perspectival sky, Mother to the smoke-stacked skyline of London in 1870. All of these skies require further divisions into many more skies that can only briefly be mentioned or barely even motioned at, here. The drenched sky whose light withers seeing, skies of insomniacs plastered with sleep, little-known night skies for the sake of pollination, navigating by fluorescent light the daunted night sky under which urban cleaning occurs, Athena's sky palace, the sky whose character alters according to the ages of ice. This is to divide the sky into some of its many halves, some of which contain a moon, and some of which understand the moon as a lamp lit by the night-candler. The night sky as we now know it in major urban electrical centers, is an infant sky. It has only watched us sleep, lorded over us, posed at dark, for a mere century and a half, in a futile attempt to persuade its inhabitants to buy the concept of rest. It is perhaps the briefest of all the brief skies in the history of skies. Why is any of this important to air traffic controllers? Because air traffic controllers navigate many skies at once. There is the sky on the screen and that is the fastest sky ever to burn --strung up by an umbilicus of connected dots: one dot is the pilot's voice, another the pilot's eyes, another the air traffic controller's voice and fourth leg is the air traffic controller's eyes. All of these, far more than the jet engine shoving air out of its path at such high speed that the plane creates its own slipstream into which it proceeds forward, keep the plane up. And the sky is kept up by the same means.
There is no other time in history that the sky has been kept up over the earth in this fashion.

You can read more of Susan's work and a translation of it into Greek by Vassilis Manoussakis at the Paros Symposium web site. Founded by Susan and Siarita Kouka in 2004 to foster translation and exchange between Greek and Anglophone poets, translators and scholars, the Paros Symposium meets annually.

Here's what Robert Kocik writes about Gevirtz's work:

It's not possible to be more phenomenologically direct than the poetry on these pages. This is removal of the obstacles of perception, beginning with perception, often by means of the obstacles themselves. This is what the sky is. All other skies in this one. There is a host of impossibilities to be found in AERODROME ORION & STARRY MESSENGER. Susan Gevirtz's page is both an inclusion of a scale too vast for inclusion and a selection of the minutiae that includes it. Someone might say 'air.' She has said 'astro stage.' I'd introduce the Sanskrit term 'akasa' (akasa is free or open space--the most primary and pervasive of elements--medium of life and sound). What is all over the place is normally not only beyond our grasp, it's not even noticeable. A path is usually cut or carved. Yet her paths are melted into the medium that is itself the way. This is incredibly accurate with regard to consciousness when we are indeed conscious. Terribly limited terms are not only not obstacles, they're instrumental and indispensable in opening the view--like little portals. Like latches. Like Lockheed's P3 Orion 4 engine aircraft. Hers is a prosody that responds to the physical forces of flight. She measures in leap seconds (again, not possible). Just as she has asked of a feather, I can with like awe and admiration ask of each page of this work: 'how can there be such a thing as'"
--Robert Kocik.

The Kocik quote comes from the Small Press Distribution web site where you can purchase Susan and Eileen's books.

You can read Susan's poem "Orion" from Aerodrome here.

Eileen followed Susan and captivated the audience with recent work reflecting on the catastrophic situtation of orphans. She prefaced her reading by citing the news stories about the American family who returned their 7 year old adopted child to Russia by putting the child alone on a plane to be picked up at the airport in Russia by someone the family had contacted through the interent. Eileen spoke about the "boneheaded" act of putting a 7 year old on a plane alone but noted that she did not blame the mother for returning the child as many in the adoption and world at large have. The work she read provided an explanation why.

On The Children I Couldn’t Bring Home

It is Mother’s Day 2010 as I write this, and it’s been just over a year now since I and my husband adopted our son Michael from Colombia, where he had been living in an orphanage for about seven years. Today, Michael gave me the best Mother’s Day present: a drawing of some Terminator-type character upon which he’d collaged a tiny booklet of poems I’d written for a Haiti relief fundraiser called “Hay(na)ku for Haiti” (http://meritagepress.blogspot.com/2010/02/haynaku-for-haiti.html). On his drawing, Michael features the strange Terminator character as saying, “I heart your book.” Well, what a wonderful gift for a child to give a writer-mom!

But prior to Michael joining our family, there was an earlier attempt to adopt another boy, a ten-year-old I will call “M”. That failed adoption—a “disruption”, in adoption lingo…and what an understatement!—occurred due to M.’s failure to attach to us as new parents. Older children (and I’ve seen “older” in the adoption world to be defined as low as four years or older) are asked for their consent prior to being placed with adoptive parents. After spending time together, M. chose not to continue with his adoption. Because of the way his life had unfolded through abuse and neglect, M. found it difficult to attach to anybody and, given a choice, ultimately chose not to take on the uncertainties of another family. Since this occurred after nearly a year of communicating with M. who expressed interest all along in joining our family, the disruption during what was supposed to be the final phase of adoption was extremely difficult. During the plane ride back to San Francisco, I ended up trying to write about the experience (mostly to deal with the anguished result) through poems, the last of which became

Ars Poetica at Age 47

the world
cannot become fitted

the poem.
Even the “Poem.”

What I wrote in that plane ride came to be a haybun (a combination of prose and hay(na)ku poems) that would be published in my book The Blind Chatelaine’s Keys . But since that time—since the above poem—three years ago and until very recently, I barely wrote any new poems. My lack of creativity was masked by the release of new books and chapbooks (including The Thorn Rosary which also includes the haybun among its Selected Prose Poems), but such merely reflected the time lag between writing poems and seeing them published in book form.

My experience with M. returned to haunt me again recently when the news broke out in April over the incident of a Tennessee woman, Torry-Ann Hansen sending her adopted 7-year-old son Artem Saveliev back home to Russia by himself with a note demanding that the adoption be annulled; supposedly, Artem suffered severe psychopathic issues which were not revealed by Russian authorities to the Hansen family. For the record, the Russian authorities dispute Hansen’s assessment.

Like many adoptive parents—especially those waiting to adopt Russian children and whose cases would come to be affected by the Hansen situation—I was pained by this incident. On my part, I’ve seen estimates range from 37 to 200 million for orphans worldwide, and the most difficult category for its members to get adopted are "older boys." There is a lot of fear over adopting older children, and especially older boys, and my own experience with M. makes me empathize with such fears. But spurred by the recent Hansen incident, I decided to talk more about my son Michael with the hope that my experience will offset the media coverage of adoption failures. Most adoptions do succeed, but they are not the ones garnering headlines.

And I suppose, as a poet, I also didn’t want my poem “Ars Poetica at Age 47” to be my last word on the subject, or any subject. Thus, at my recent SPT reading and in some recent writings elsewhere, I’ve been doing something that comes very easily to me: I’ve been insufferable… as I boast about my son Michael. So let me share about Michael:

He lived in an orphanage for about seven years. At the time of his adoption, he was 13 years old, but only in 4th grade, though the grade level was by that orphanage’s terms. At the time of his adoption, he could add but barely subtract. But just six months later, he was slotted into 7th grade (because of his age) in one of California's top public schools. There, with vigilant tutoring on my part and with his huge work ethic, he swiftly became honor roll. Last quarter, he received three top-of-his class certificates in addition to his A-average Honor Roll certificate. This quarter, so far it looks like he’ll be a straight-A student.

In sports, he was on a championship soccer team, and does well in other sports new to him, from skiing to tennis to swimming. He also just received an awards certificate in P.E.--he can run a mile in just over six minutes. This is a child, by the way, who is small for his age because of past neglect and malnutrition—he is 14 years old today, but could pass for ten. Fortunately, he’s growing swiftly—he grew more in the past year within our family than he did from about six to eight years old in an orphanage.

His hobbies today include building model rockets, photography, drawing (he's an excellent artist), bee-keeping, skateboarding, movies and exploring the night-sky through telescopes. I’m delighted to share that he’s also developed into a reader—he reads himself to sleep every night.

He knows his manners, is engaged with people, and has developed a humorous wit. He is also sensitive and compassionate—recently, he told me about seeing a group of drivers from a Ferrari rally, and thinking that those drivers need to have spent all the money acquiring their cars for "better" reasons, like solving the plight of poor people. When he's helped bring food to the local food pantry, I can see his eyes observing, assessing, and ... caring, even as it also bolsters his fortitude for making something of himself (whatever that may mean)

Of course, he’s been taking English-as-a-Second-Language class. And in that class he also just wrote his first English-language poem, an acrostic entitled “Tornados”, and you are about to be blessed with this brilliant (!) poem by my son Michael

Oh no!
Run, run for your life
Nobody is safe
All the houses are
Down, televisions crashing into cars
Oh my god, my
Son is safe!

A close reading of this superb (!) poem reveals the expansiveness of this 14-year-old’s world view—this poem is not written from the personal “I” which often afflicts teenagers. That last couplet, “Oh my god, my Son is safe” relates to a parent’s point of view. I like to think that the lines “my / Son is safe!” is him extrapolating from the loving care he receives at home. A sense of safety, after all, is ever made more precious by a history that resulted in bringing him to an orphanage, and then having to leave for a new home in a new country with a new language.

So that is my son Michael—a scholar, athlete, philanthropist (he puts coins whenever he can in the charity bottles by supermarkets’ cash registers), artist (whose drawings have been shared now with such art world luminaries as the artist Eve Aschheim as well as the poet-art critic John Yau), and now budding poet. This is my son Michael—who for many years was neglected by those who were supposed to take care of him. This is my son Michael who, in terms of possible adoption, was once considered to be “a lost cause.” This is my son Michael—who needed that against-all-odds alternative of finding an adoptive family in order to thrive.

As for my poems, to my own surprise, I don’t write much about Michael. The children who pop up in my poems so far are the ones I met during our two-year international adoption process—the children to whom I couldn’t give a home and are still waiting for a so-called “forever family.” Some samples available online are “The Blue Mule: An Ad(o)aption Triptych” and “from Orphaned Algebra”.

If these poems, as well as my sharing about my son Michael’s life, can help spread the word about the global humanitarian catastrophe posed by orphans, I can think of no better use for my writings.

Last but not least, our family met Michael through a wonderful organization, Kidsave. One of its programs is to bring over older children to the U.S. for a five-week summer break. While here, host families and Kidsave contacts explore the possibility of finding them adoptive parents. It's a great arrangement as it enables folks interested in adopting "older" children as well as the children to get to know each other over a prolonged period of time (longer than the time usually given in most adopting processes). Kidsave is now preparing for this year's "Summer Miracles" program; information is their site, or directly at this link: http://kidsave.org/summer.shtml Please pass the word -- if even one child gets adopted by someone learning about Kidsave (which is what happened with us), that result is a Home Run!

Thanks to Susan and Eileen for outperforming the fashionable goings-on outside!

Bios from Small Press Traffic:

Susan Gevirtz's recent books include Aerodrome Orion & Starry Messenger (forthcoming from Kelsey Street Press), Broadcast, and Without Event: Introductory Notes (forthcoming). Along with teaching locally at various Bay Area institutions, she runs with Greek poet Siarita Kouka The Paros Symposium, on Paros island, an annual meeting of poets and translators from Greece and the United States.

Eileen R. Tabios has released 15 print, four electronic and 1 CD poetry collections, an art essay collection, a poetry essay/interview anthology, and a short story collection. Her most recent book is Rosary of Thorns: Selected Prose Poems 1998-2009.