Tag Archives: Winter 2015

Life Upon the Wicked Stage: A Memoir

lifeuponwickedstageGrace Cavalieri
Scarith / New Academia Publishing ($24)

by Daniela Gioseffi

In the prelude to her new memoir, Grace Cavalieri says “I love reviewing other people’s books. I love interviewing others on the radio about their work. I love transforming words into poetry. Yet this personal writing seems hard. For some reason when Ken said this book had to be written, it became a favor to him. Since his death . . . .” Cavalieri’s late husband Kenneth Flynn, a retired Captain of the U.S. Navy and a noted sculptor of large metal works, is often mentioned in this memoir: the couple knew each other since Cavalieri was in high school, and they raised four daughters together over the span of their lives.

Early in her career, Cavalieri served as Assistant Director of Daytime Children’s Programming for PBS, and was involved with the production of the long-lived show Sesame Street. She once produced a skit with the beloved character Big Bird at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other adventures while at PBS. The many anecdotes in her memoir make for interesting reading, often full of humorous happenings.

An articulate and graceful writer of nearly thirty books and twenty-six plays, Cavalieri has also interviewed nearly every contemporary American poet of note on her Library of Congress radio show, The Poet and the Poem. She’s interviewed every Poet Laureate of the country, as well as reviewed hundreds of poetry books in her column in the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her memoir, therefore, chronicles a career in literary arts and media by one of America's most knowledgeable and involved literary figures. Cavalieri has made a significant contribution to disseminating American letters to the public, and this book is the story of her life in literary art. It contains amusing tales of her encounters with poets as well as theatrical personalities that have peopled her life.

Several chapters tell of her own plays, which have been produced in Baltimore, North and South Carolina, San Francisco, Colorado, New York, and at many other off-Broadway theatres of the country. She explains her play Pinecrest Rest Haven, concerning an old folks' home where “Mr. and Mrs. P were married and shared the same memories but did not remember each other; and so, fell in love and hate, every day, again and again. That sort of ironic wit permeates the memoir.

The memoir takes its title from a lyric in a comic song by Jerome Kern in the musical Show Boat, which ends: “If some gentleman would talk with reason / I would cancel all next season. / Life upon the wicked stage / Ain't nothin' for a girl!” The playwright has certainly had her successes with her twenty-six works for the stage, and some surprisingly fateful tribulations caused by feckless fate—as, for example, the New York opening of her play Anna Nicole: Blond Glory, based on the sensational and tragic life of Anna Nicole Smith, which failed to complete its run because of Hurricane Sandy. Or the time a terrorist bomber caused a huge traffic snarl in Washington, D.C. the night her play Quilting the Sun, about the life of African American quilt artist Harriet Powers, opened at The Smithsonian.

Much of the life of the poet and playwright was inspired by her husband’s belief in her and his encouragement of her art. Ken figures greatly in this memoir written after his passing, and it’s much because of his presence in her memory that this book of her adventurous life in art was written. No doubt her beloved husband would be proud of the memoir he inspired.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Into the Depths of Human Soul-Making: an interview with Clayton Eshleman


photo by Tom Wallace

by Stuart Kendall

For many readers of contemporary American poetry, Clayton Eshleman needs no introduction. His poetry, essays, and translations have been a fixture of the postmodern sensibility in leading poetry magazines nationally and internationally for more than five decades. It’s been honored with the National Book Award in Translation, a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Rockefeller Study Center residency in Bellagio, Italy, and other awards, including the Landon Translation prize from the Academy of American Poets, which he has won twice.
The two magazines Clayton Eshleman founded and edited–Caterpillar and Sulfur–provided crucial outlets for both emerging and established poets that shaped discussions of poetry, the arts, and politics, over these same decades. Taken together, they provide a vital prehistory to our poetic and cultural present. A Sulfur Anthology (Wesleyan University Press, $27.95), edited by Eshleman, skims the cream from 11,000 pages of poetry, prose, and archival materials.

essentialpoetryEshleman’s own work, however, continues to unfold. His most recent collection is a gargantuan gathering of fifty-five years of writing entitled The Essential Poetry (Black Widow Press, $29.95). As deeply personal—and indeed intimate in detail—as it is political in its human sensitivity and occasional wrath, Eshleman’s writing resists both easy categorization and easy consumption. The poet’s sensibility serves as an open site for a restless and shifting investigation of identity that transcends, via translation, the comforting borders of a national language and ultimately descends, through layers of historical and cultural formation, into the depths of human soul-making, in particular as chronicled in Eshleman’s book Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld (Wesleyan University Press, 2003). Eshleman’s entire corpus can be read as an extraordinarily complex, poetic “anatomy” of life, art, and politics in our times, combining poetry, prose, translations, and edited works, original writing and research, subjective and objective forms, all coiled together as multiple perspectives on and reflections of one another and of our world.

Stuart Kendall: From the very beginning of your career, or even from the beginning of your interest in poetry, you have been deeply engaged with translation and editing alongside your own writing. As a translator you’ve worked extensively with Spanish, French, Hungarian, and, to a lesser extent, Chinese language poetries. Your editorial work has been even more wide ranging. At the same time, your writing is deeply American, deeply concerned with your formation as a North American white male, and deeply concerned with the United States as a political entity, however flawed. In light of this, I’m wondering whether you might consider yourself a kind of transnational poet or, put differently and considering translation and editing is a kind of border-crossing gesture, whether you think this kind of border crossing is important for poets or poetry, either individually or collectively, outside of your own personal practice.

Clayton Eshleman: To your language list, I would add Czech, as I worked with Frantisek Galan for some six months on Vladimir Holan’s thirty-one-page masterpiece, “A Night with Hamlet.” We ended up with a few dozen problems we could not solve, so Michael Heim and I flew out to Austin TX where Frantisek lived in 1984 for a week and the three of us went through the poem word by word. Our final version with a note on Holan is in the 2005 edition of Conductors of the Pit.

Back in 1987, I entitled my first collection of prose writings Antiphonal Swing, based on the last line of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge:” “whispers antiphonal in azure swing.” At that time, I identified the “swing” as being between the erotic and the artistic, as well as between prose and poetry. I also drew upon the word “anatomy” (after Northrop Frye’s referring to Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” as an “anatomy”). Frye wrote that Blake’s poem was less a dissection than a composite work that included as its “members” many of the forms and strategies of the art of writing. I think, then, that my “transnationality” as you put it, or “border-crossing,” in an attempt to avoid the conventional pieties that inform so much of contemporary American poetry, involves a number of strategies:  civil obligation (I prefer “civil” to “political), ekphrastic explorations, probings of the feminine as source and power (Barbara Walker’s A Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets was a wonderful fount of information in this regard), and my twenty-five year investigation of what I came to call “Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld.” As I wrote in the Introduction to Juniper Fuse, “To follow poetry back to Cro-Magnon metaphors not only hits real bedrock—a genuine back wall—but gains a connection to the continuum during which imagination first flourished.”

In regards to civil obligations: given what the American government has been doing throughout the world from the end of World War II on, the American mind, into which news spatters daily, is now, more than ever, a roily swamp, at once chaotic and irrationally organized. The fate of American Indians and African-Americans is entangled with this complex. There is a whole new poetry to be written by Americans that pits our present-day national and international situation against these poisoned historical cores.

SK: Is it too much to say that there is a double movement here: a movement away from those forces of restriction and disarticulation—the conventional pieties, the predictable and the aesthetically acceptable—and simultaneously a movement toward something else? I’m reminded of your take on Charles Olson’s “istorin, to find out for oneself” where you “put the stress on ‘out’ or exit for the self,” in the introduction to Juniper Fuse. As well as your remarks on Olson and Antonin Artaud in the first chapter of Novices: A Study of Poetic Apprenticeship, where your point is that the poet is always “stuffed as well as empty,” stuffed with stories and figures, “all the initiations and stories of imaginative art,” as you put it, but also empty, unformed, in Olson’s term “zero.” On the one hand the poet’s project, as you describe it, is self-consciously critical—an act of disobedience—and on the other its goal is the emancipation of the self. How do you balance these tendencies, if in fact they are in competition with one another?

CE: The dichotomy that you appear to be addressing can also be proposed as ego vs self. I think of the ego as the chauffeur of the self, the conscious mind vs the subconscious (possibly activated in the process of artistic creation) and the unconscious, which most of us only experience, and then usually in a confused way, in dreams.  Northrop Frye has written, around 1990, that “What is needed for creation is a new bicameral mind in which something else supplants consciousness.” I am not sure what he had in mind as this “something else” but it must involve some form of visionary activity, which could include hallucination, and might be a way of dreaming awake, or a mingling of the unconscious and the subconscious minds. There are aspects of the poetry of Antonin Artaud, Aimé Césaire, and Robert Kelly, for example, that engage what I think Frye has in mind here.

My Novice comments concerning the poet being “stuffed but empty” probably are more relevant when applied to apprenticeship than to the work of mature poets. “Stuffed” at least in my case was the situation I found myself in while living in Kyoto in the early 1960s when the full weight of what seemed to be involved in becoming a poet swept over me. I was “stuffed” with the unexamined first twenty-seven years of my life, and facing for the first time the sexism, prejudice, rule following and acting out of what Indianapolis had proposed that I was. The weight of all of this sealed me up when I tried to write poetry. Thus “stuffed” got reprogramed as “empty,” or blocked. In desperation, my being cried out for a vision, or some indication that my poetic apprenticeship (which I had decided by early 1962 was to be a translation of Vallejo’s Poemas humanos) meant anything at all.

As some readers will know, I had a vision at this time: that autumn I was in the habit of reading in the backyard of our Kyoto residence by the web of a large red, green and yellow garden spider. After one stormy night, I went to the persimmon tree with the web to find it torn, and the spider gone. I had a very peculiar reaction to this “loss”: for several days I felt nauseous and absurd. A week later, after having tea with Joanne Kyger north of Kyoto where she lived with Gary Snyder, I got on my motorcycle and headed back into the city. As I described in Novices (in greater detail than I will do here), I suddenly began to hallucinate and, terrified that I would have an accident, pulled into the parking lot for Nijo Castle tourist buses, got off the motorcycle and began to circumambulate the castle. At the northwest corner I felt commanded to look up, which I did to see, some 30 feet above my head, the spider which was now life-sized and completely red flexing in her web. After maybe a half minute the vision began to fade. The next day I realized that I had been given a totemic gift that would direct my relation to poetry.

As I continued to struggle to get Vallejo’s complex and complicated Spanish into English, I increasingly had the feeling that I was struggling more with a man than with a text and that the struggle was a matter of my becoming or failing to become a poet.

During this period I translated every afternoon in a downtown Kyoto coffee shop called Yorunomado (= Night Window). In “The Duende” section of “The Book of Yorunomado” (the only poem I completed to any real satisfaction while living in Japan), I envisioned myself as a kind of angel-less Jacob wrestling with a figure who possessed a language the meaning of which I was attempting to wrest away. I lose the struggle and find myself on a seppuku platform in medieval Japan, being commanded by Vallejo (now playing the role of an overlord) to disembowel myself. I do so, cutting the ties to my “given life” and releasing a daemon named Yorunomado who, until that point (my vision told me) had been chained to an altar in my solar plexus. Thus at this point the fruits of my struggle with Vallejo were not a successful literary translation but an imaginative advance in which a third figure emerged from my intercourse with the text. Thus death and regeneration = seppuku and the birth of Yorunomado, or a breakthrough into what might be called sacramental existence. Years later, I noted Hans Peter Duerr writing in Dreamtime: “Only a person who had seen his ‘animal part’; who had ‘died’, could consciously live in culture.”

In “Self As Selva,” a poem from a new manuscript called “Penetralia,” I write: “Self as engine as well as brimming circumference. Self as one’s mind after & before birth: differentiated identity & the undifferentiated lower levels where specters from humanity’s past still dwell. . . . Self as selva, a liana matrix of twintwisted lingo.”

SK: Shifting the movement I proposed into a psychological topography is helpful, I think, in drawing it into conversation with a wider range of ideas. Partly here I’m interested in the extent to which a poet’s work might remain confined to a self-conscious criticality, positively or negatively, without descending into the undifferentiated lower levels of the self, or conversely, a poet’s work might be entirely devoted to such a descent, without situating that descent in relation to a social reality. I’m interested in the mechanisms by which you remain committed and keep yourself committed to or attentive to both of these realms. This is, I think, ultimately a question about your creative practice. In the example you’ve just mentioned, your engagement with Vallejo’s work as a translator, alongside your poetic attempts to write your way out of Indiana, seems to have provoked a visionary experience, which itself became foundational in your ongoing work. I don’t want to reduce this complex moment and experience to some kind of formula for poetry, but I’m wondering to what extent this kind of priming is necessary for sustaining a creative life in poetry. I’d also like to hear more about what you mean by the phrase “sacramental existence”?

CE: I find your first question, asking the extent to which a poet might confine his work to self-conscious criticality without engaging the self, impossible to answer. “The extent to which” is the rub, and without a particular poet (or dimension of my own work) to look at, I don’t know how to take on your question. If you have a poet you feel is an example of this situation, I will try to respond, assuming I am familiar with the work. You then wonder about the mechanisms by which I engage both realms. I draw a blank with the word “mechanisms.” Finally you ask another “to what extent” question regarding my spider vision followed by my self-destruction and the birthing of Yorunomado. As I think I wrote, these two events are foundational to what I have been able to accomplish as a poet over the decades. Invented mythical figures like Yorunomado and Niemonjima that are embroiled in the action in my book Coils (1973) complexed some of the autobiographical consternation in that book.

The crucial event in my development after leaving Japan in 1964 was my 1974 discovery of Cro-Magnon cave art in southwestern France. Suddenly, in the spring of 1974 I was completely caught up in the deep past and what possibly was the origin of art as we know it today. This grand transpersonal realm (without a remaining history or language) was about as far away from my Indianapolis adolescence as could be, and as I researched and revisited the painted caves throughout the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, this focus released me from my preoccupations with my background as well as my working with Blakean mythic strategies. In many ways, Juniper Fuse is the key book of my career.

By “sacramental existence” I mean to suggest that the birth of Yorunomado enabled me to escape from the tyranny of time into a “spontaneous” creation of myth making. For an instant I was the master of my own death and regeneration and released from the stuffed/empty impasse of the Indiana background. I was in touch with one of the essential functions of myth: the re-entry into Great Time, or sacred Time.

SK: I take your point about the phrase “to what extent.” I’m tiptoeing around a problem in poetry and poetic vocation. I think it’s fair to say that not all poets have a visionary experience of initiation into or confirmation of poetic vocation. In an interview published a few years ago in The Wolf, you remarked: “nearly all of the poetry reviewed, lauded, and prized today, is not the real thing.” Is visionary experience or confirmation required for poetry to be real poetry, as you understand it? Beyond that, could you say a little bit more about the relationship between the foundation of your work in your visionary experiences in Japan and the ways that your research into the painted caves built upon or extended that foundation?

CE: My comments that you quote from The Wolf interview refer mainly to the extent to which “creative writing” (child of the university degree writing programs) is replacing poetry.  Of course there is no ultimate criteria for what makes a poet engaging, but my experience has been that with a few marvelous exceptions like Rimbaud or Lautréamont it involves a self-taught apprenticeship based on a study of a few chosen masters in American poetry and hopefully a few masters in international poetries. My fantasy is that the young writer would learn more crouched by the banks of the Amazon with a knapsack full of books than he would in creative writing workshops.

The kind of experiences I had in Kyoto in the early ’60s are not a requirement for someone becoming a poet. They were a product of my own background and fix, and everyone has a unique situation in this regard. I think you know that my range of interest in contemporary poetry is wide and varied. I published Charles Simic and Jorie Graham in Sulfur magazine as well as Charles Bernstein and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. I suppose a careful reader could find links between the poetries of the poets I have translated, but poets such as Vladimir Holan, Bei Dao, César Vallejo and Antonin Artaud represent as many differences as things in common.

My crucial perception concerning the origin and elaboration of Upper Paleolithic cave imagery is carefully set forth on p. xvi in Juniper Fuse.  Briefly, it concerns my intuition (underscored by my reading of James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld) that such images were motivated by a crisis in which Cro-Magnon people began to separate the animal out of their about-to-be human heads and to project it onto cave walls (as well as onto a variety of portable tools and weapons made out of the animals themselves).

There is a ten-year interval between my initial Yorunomado transformation and my perception concerning the separating out of the animal as a formative function of Cro-Magnon imagination. In both of these cases, separated by thousands of years of culture dynamics, a mysterious intuitive projection involved the need to transform one’s present situation into a larger, more mind-engaging possibility. I transformed a Kyoto coffee-shop into an imaginal daemon; in the Cro-Magnon situation (which goes back as far as 32,000 years), and in a way that can be considered proto-shamanic (another link), a blank cave wall, under minimal lighting, became a kind of dancing ground for a hand gripping a piece of charcoal.

SK: I love your fantasy of a poet on the banks of the Amazon with a backpack full of books. You’ve also mentioned the reading and research that guided and informed your writing on the painted caves in particular. I also know that you read other types of research materials when working on your translations. How does research feed your work? Is it essential to it or supplemental to it?

CE: As the first poet to do what Charles Olson referred to as “a saturation job” on Upper Paleolithic cave art, I was really starting from scratch, I had to make myself responsible for much of what archeologists had written about them as well as to study other thinkers who might help me support my own evolving point of view. Thus I not only read the work of the Abbes Breuil and Glory, Annette Laming, Andre and Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, S. Giedion, Max Raphael, Paolo Graziosi, Alexander Marshack, Jean Clottes, Margaret W. Conkey, and Paul Bahn, I also read C.G. Jung, Sandor Ferenczi, Geza Roheim, Mikhail Bakhtin, Weston La Barre, Charles Olson, N.O. Brown, Kenneth Grant, James Hillman, Hans Peter Duerr, Barbara MacLeod, and Maxine Sheets-Johnstone. I also sought to match my pluralistic approach with varying styles. Juniper Fuse is of poetry, prose poetry, essays, lectures, notes, dreams and visual reproductions.

Translation, research-wise, was a different matter. The two years that I lived in Kyoto (1962-1964) I visited the poet, editor, and translator, Cid Corman, at The Muse Coffee Shop, in downtown Kyoto, in the evening once a week. Corman was then editing the third series of his magazine origin, and he already had an impressive track record as a translator of Catullus, Rimbaud, Basho, Rilke, Ungaretti, Char, Montale, Daumal, Daive, Ponge, Celan, and Artaud. Corman is one of the great poetry translators of our time. Before talking at The Muse with Cid about translation, I thought the goal was to take a literal draft and interpret everything that was not acceptable English. By interpret I mean: to monkey with words, phrases, punctuation, line breaks, even stanza breaks, turning the literal into something that was not an original poem in English but—and here is the rub—something that because of the liberties taken was also not faithful to the original itself. Ben Belitt’s Neruda versions or Robert Lowell’s Imitations come to mind as interpretative translations. Corman taught me to respect the original at every point, to check everything (including words I thought I knew), to research arcane and archaic words, and to invent English words for coined words—in other words, to aim for a translation that was absolutely accurate and up to the performance level of the original. Corman’s translation information was so valuable that I have never felt a need to seek out translation theories.

I began to translate Vallejo while a student at Indiana University in the late 1950s and completed The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo (University of California Press, 2007), some 45 years later. During this nearly life-long saga, given the difficulties in rendering Vallejo accurately, certain co-translators were invaluable in my work: I owe an enormous gratitude to Maureen Ahern, Americo Ferrari, Jose Rubia Barcia, Efrain Kristal, and Jose Cerna-Bazan.

The current collection of my Essential Poetry includes 223 poems from over 1000 published poems from this fifty-year period. There are seventy pages of notes following the poems and reading these notes will give the reader a sense of the research I have done in writing some of my own poems. In particular I would like to point out the four pages of notes, based on Weston La Barre’s Muelos: A Stone Age Superstition about Sexuality, for the poem “Navel of the Moon,” and the 4 pages of notes, based on Sandor Ferenczi’s Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality, for the poem “Thalassa Variations.” James Hillman’s writings have been especially valuable for my poetry. In A Sulfur Anthology, based on the magazine I founded and edited from 1981 to 2000, published in the fall 2015 by Wesleyan University Press, the reader will find my interview discussion with Hillman on psychology and poetry.

SK: In your “triadic dialogue with Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff” published in The Price of Experience, you remark that, “working on poems is mainly working on self, the subconscious as warp, consciousness as woof, while keeping self positioned in the actual world.” How is your research related to this notion of poetry as work on the self?

CE: Good question. Here is one example of the way my research can relate to writing poems that relate to the self.

Over the years I have pondered Sandor Ferenczi’s Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality, and wondered how his unique argument might shed light on the origin of image-making. In brief, Ferenczi proposes that the whole of life is determined by a tendency to return to the womb. Equating the process of birth with the transition of animal life from water to land, he links coitus to what he calls “thalassal regression”: “the longing for sea-life from which man emerged in primeval times.” He explains what he means by an “attempt to return to the mother’s womb”—and thus to the oceanic womb of life itself—in the following way:

If we now survey the evolution of sexuality from the thumb-sucking of the infant through the self-love of genital onanism to the heterosexual act of coitus, and keep in mind the complicated identifications of the ego with the penis and with the sexual secretion, we arrive at the conclusion that the purpose of this whole evolution, therefore the purpose likewise of the sex act, can be none other than an attempt at the beginning clumsy and fumbling, then more consciously purposive, and finally in part successful—to return to the mother’s womb, where there is no painful disharmony between ego and environment as characterize existence in the external world. The sex act achieves this transitory regression in a three-fold manner: the whole organism attains the goal by purely hallucinatory means, somewhat as in sleep; the penis, with which the organism as a whole has identified itself, attains it partially or symbolically, while only the sexual secretion possesses the prerogative, as representative of the ego and its narcissistic double, the genital, of attaining in reality to the womb of the mother.

In one respect, “Thalassa Variations” is a compression of, and variation on, Ferenczi’s argument.
To my knowledge, N.O. Brown is the only writer to have heretofore assimilated Ferenczi’s theory of genitality into a larger dimension including creativity. In Love’s Body, Brown even acknowledges the Upper Paleolithic caves as the places in which history begins. Like Ferenczi, Brown is a Freudian, and while he views the Upper Paleolithic caves as the first labyrinths, he fails to reflect on what seems to be their most distinctive characteristic: they were not merely wandering places, or even dancing enclosures, but the sites for some of the earliest image-making. Following Ferenczi, Brown views genitality as ultimately ungratifying, in effect a trap. Ferenczi’s proposal that we desire to return to the womb and obviously cannot, in Brown’s terms, becomes the limitation he calls “genital organization.”

Since Brown also draws upon William Blake’s vision of four mental states potentially operative in humanity, it may be useful to point out that from a Blakean viewpoint, to be confined to “genital organization” is to be arrested at the third level of mental expansion (see the poem, “The Crystal Cabinet”), or to be in the State of Beulah. In other words, Blake appears to mean that those who settle for sexual gratification alone are not fully, in his terms, “human.” For Blake, there is a fourth state, the State of Eden, in which imagination is engaged and realized, and in which art that we might call great is created. Blake’s image for this state is fire in love with fire (from which Yeats undoubtedly got his image of creative unity: the dancer as unidentifiable apart from the dance). While there may be a temporary “gratification of desire” between two people in the State of Beulah, in the State of Eden the other vanishes, and for the individual to avoid plunging into the lowest State—the State of Ulro, in which one is simply unimaginatively stuck with oneself—one must practice a sort of imaginative androgynity called art. While Brown does not include cave art in his discussion of the labyrinth, he does view coitus as a fallen metaphor for poetry.

Were Blake alive today, I am confident that he would make the connection I am about to make: the womb that cannot be returned to à la Ferenczi was imaginatively re-entered when Cro-Magnon crawled into a cave and drew, painted or sculpted an image. I conjecture that one impulse for going into the cave was orgasm itself, which flooded the mind with fantasy material that sought a fulfillment beyond survival concerns. Image-making, then, can be seen as the attempt to unblock the paradoxical male impasse of genital expression, or, in my poem, it is what the belling deer image “says” to its Cro-Magnon maker on his back in that cul-de-sac in Le Portel: “Image is / the imprint of uncontainable omega, / life’s twin.” In the same stanza, I attempted to draw upon the Freudian/Ferenczian theory of the sexual stages of development, working with the possibility that from childhood on, oral, anal, and genital formations are incorporated in image-making, which for the creative individual becomes a kind of fourth dimension (or State à la Blake) that includes the earlier three and pushes beyond.

SK: Great example. The poem in this case is a variation on motifs and ideas drawn from Ferenczi, Brown, and Blake, in dialogue with images from Le Portel as well as your personal—in fact intimate—life with Caryl. It’s psychoanalysis, poetry, the Paleolithic record, and personal experience fused together. I also recall that the word variation carries musical reference for you as well: from the impact of your discovery of variations on melody in jazz music. And then too I know that “Thalassa Variations” is a kind of variation on a theme you explored in a previous poem, “This I Call Holding You” (published in What She Means, 1978). Can you talk about the persistence of themes or topics in your work? Is there a difference for you between a recurrent theme and a re-written one?

CE: In a poem called “The Tjurunga” (Anticline, p. 17; see the Note on pp. 75-76 for the meaning of this word), I propose a kind of complex mobile made up of the authors, mythological figures and acts, whose shifting combinations undermined and reoriented my life during my poetic apprenticeship in Kyoto in the early 1960s. At a remove now of some fifty years I also see these forces as a kind of GPS constantly “recalculating” as they closed and opened door after door. Making up the mobile in this poem were: Coatlicue (the Aztec idol with the sacrificed woman Coatlicue inside her), sub-incision (the primeval rite conferring androgynity upon its male participant), Bud Powell, César Vallejo, and the bird-headed man (from the Shaft in Lascaux). After this list of powers, I wrote:

These nouns are also nodes in a constellation called
Clayton’s Tjurunga. The struts are threads
in a web. There is a life blood flowing through
these threads. Coatlicue flows into Bud Powell,
César Vallejo into sub-incision. The bird-headed man
floats right below
the pregnant spider
centered in the Tjurunga

When I was sixteen years old, I taped two quarters to an order form in Downbeat magazine and mailed it off for a 45 RPM recording with Lennie Tristano’s “I Surrender Dear” on one side, Bud Powell’s “Tea for Two” on the other. I listened to the Powell piece again and again trying to grasp the difference between the song line and what Powell was doing to and with it. Somehow an idea vaguely made its way through: you don’t have to play somebody else’s melody—you can improvise (how?), make up your own tune! WOW—really? You mean I don’t have to repeat my parents? I don’t have to “play their melody” for the rest of my life?

You ask if there is, for me, a difference between a recurrent theme and a re-written one. There is, but both are operative in my body of work: early inspirational figures such as Powell, Hart Crane, and Chaim Soutine return in poems from time to time (there are three pieces on Powell, six on Crane, and six on Soutine). As they do so, they are recast into current preoccupations and challenges. Crane’s metaphoric shifts evoke improvisational moves in bebop or strokes in a de Kooning painting of the 1960s. Reading Crane is like watching colored fragments in a turned kaleidoscope slip into new symmetries, then rearrange again. “New thresholds, new anatomies!” indeed!

I saw my first Soutine in 1963 in the Ohara Museum of Art, Kurushiki, Japan, Hanging Duck, painted in Paris around 1925. Seeing this painting was so riveting that I recall nothing else in the museum. It was a hybrid fusion, at once a flayed man hung from a pulpy wrist and flailing, with gorgeous white wings attached to his leg stumps—and a gem-like putrescent bird, snagged by one leg, in an underworld filled with bird-beaked monsters and zooming gushes of blood color and sky-blue paint.

My life has been blessed with a number of dear painter friends including William Paden, Leon Golub, and Nora Jaffe. Over the decades I have written pieces about all of them, and with Paden (Brother Stones, 1968) and Jaffe (Realignment, 1974) I co-authored books. Over a period of some 35 years I composed seven poems, reviews and essays on the paintings of Leon Golub. The most ambitious piece is a poem called “Monumental,” which I assembled for Leon’s public memorial program at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall in NYC, 2005.

Including the pieces based on Ice Age cave art, I have written over 150 poems on art and artists. In a 2005 statement for deep THERMAL, a book I co-authored with the painter Mary Heebner, I wrote: “I am interested in what I see in paintings as well as what the paintings see in me. I found in certain Mary Heebner watercolors a resonating psychic stimulation and attempted to improvise on the words, narrative nodes and associational “chains” they flushed forth.”  For many years, the following words of Baudelaire, from “the Salon of 1846,” have inspired such workings: “I sincerely believe that the best criticism is that which is both amusing and poetic: not a cold, mathematical criticism which, on the pretext of explaining everything, has neither love nor hate, and voluntarily strips itself of every shred of temperament. But, seeing that a fine picture is nature reflected by an artist, the criticism which I approve will be that picture reflected by an intelligent and sensitive mind. Thus the best account of a picture may well be a sonnet or an elegy.”

At the base of these recurrent workings on and with musicians and painters are some thoughts elaborated in a 2009 poem “Inner Parliaments” (published in Anticline):

is an arm with a hand.
How did I first announce self?
In the Upper Paleolithic, it placed its hand on a cave wall,
spat red ochre around the hand, withdrew the hand,
leaving an I-negative on the wall.
Is what we now call art an elaboration of this I-negative,
Kafka’s “What is laid upon us to accomplish is the negative,
the positive is already given”?

SK: Considering this, another phrase of yours springs to mind: “the name encanyoned river.” Your body of work reads as an extended and shifting kaleidoscope of dialogues, considerations, encounters, and engagements with words, ideas, images, places, objects and experiences. Aside from the remark from Baudelaire that you mention, are there other poets or writers whose ekphrastic writing particularly inspired your ongoing engagement with the visual arts? I suppose I’m thinking in particular of Artaud and Henri Michaux as two poets whose poetry has been meaningful to you and who also wrote compellingly about the visual arts.

CE: My earliest recollections of involvement with the visual arts goes back to reading the “funnies” in daily Indianapolis newspapers, collecting comic books, and drawing my own cartoon strips. When I was around ten years old, my mother offered an art student from John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis a free dinner and a couple of dollars to give me and my pal Jack Wilson weekly cartoon lessons. I vaguely recall one of my cartoons winning a prize at some contest in a downtown department store. In my junior and senior years at Shortridge High School I took some figure drawing classes and did quite well in them. I sketched a drawing of a hobo who had been paid to pose that my mother put up on our living room wall for many years. I think I might have become a painter had there been a more intense local art atmosphere to inspire me at the time.

My mother also arranged for me to take piano lessons from a neighborhood piano teacher when I was six years old and the lessons continued up through my teenage years when I studied with the concert pianist Ozan Marsh.  I was playing Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” on one hand, and on the other, starting to hang out at local blues and jazz clubs, such as The Surf Club on West 16th Street where one Saturday afternoon Wes Montgomery invited me to sit in with his band.  In my last response to your queries, I cited my discovery of Bud Powell when I was sixteen, and a couple years later, in the summer of 1953, I rode out to Los Angeles with a friend and studied briefly with Bud’s brother Richie, and Marty Paitch. A few years later, while studying Philosophy at Indiana University I discovered poetry moreorless on my own, and through my meeting Jack and Ruth Hirschman and Mary Ellen Solt was put in touch with the writings of the Beats and Black Mountain-associated poets, as well as many of the great 20th century European poets.

You ask if there were any particular poets who inspired my now lifelong involvement with ekphrastic writing. My earliest memory of writing a poem about a painting was an occasion in one of Sam Yellen’s creative writing classes when he assigned us to compose a poem about a painting. I chose Picasso’s “Guernica” and went ahead to write a second poem on Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”  The Bosch poem was published in The College Art Journal, one of my first publications. Earlier, I mentioned my discovery of Soutine in Japan in 1963, and I think it was his paintings that made me really want to engage paintings and artists in poetry.  None of the poets I was reading in the ’60s and ’70s had a compelling ekphrastic focus, or if they did, I was not aware of it.

Michaux and Artaud: I have written two pieces on Michaux, and I will let my opening salvo at the beginning of “Michaux. 1956” (1956 was his big mescaline-oriented year) represent that connection:

There is in Michaux an emergent face/non-face always in formation. Call it “face before birth.” Call it our thingness making faces. Call it tree bole or toadstool spirits, anima mundi snout, awash in ephemerality, anti-anatomical, the mask of absence, watercolor by a blind child, half-disintegrated faces of souls in Hades pressing about the painter Ulysses-Michaux as, over his blood trench of ink, he converses with his hermaphroditic muse . . .

Artaud is an even more complex figure. I was introduced to him in 1965 in the Hirschman Artaud Anthology which Jack sent me when Barbara and I were living in Lima, Peru. Over the decades I have written nine pieces on Artaud, or out of, into, Artaud.  For someone who has yet to meet Artaud, I highly recommend the four books, all in print, that the English essayist/novelist Stephen Barber has written on this writer. Antonin Artaud is one of the greatest examples in art of the imaginative retrieval of a life that was beyond repair. What he ultimately accomplished should bear a torch through the dark nights of all our souls. Given the new perspectives on his writings and drawings that he created in what may now be considered his second major period—from his regeneration in the Rodez asylum in 1945 to his death outside of Paris in 1948—I have focused on that second period in the translations that I have done of his poetry and prose: Watchfiends & Rack Screams, unfortunately published by Exact Change Press in 1995 which has not paid me royalties for a number of years and refuses to release rights to my translation so that it can be republished with new translations in an even more ample presentation of Artaud’s accomplishments during this late period.

SK: Earlier in this conversation you observed that the most crucial event for your development as a poet after leaving Japan was your discovery of the Paleolithic painted caves. I don’t want to argue with that observation. We’ve also just been talking about your wider engagement with the visual arts and music. I know that civic engagement is also important to you. When did you first become civically or politically aware and engaged?

CE: I began to become politically aware in Lima, Peru, 1965. I was shocked by the extent of terrible poverty there and began to wander the barriadas (slum neighborhoods) in an attempt to really get what they were under my skin. In my book Walks, published in 1967, “Walk VI” focuses on one of these excursions. At the same time, I was working for the Peruvian North American Culture Institute, editing a new bilingual magazine I called Quena (after the one-holed Peruvian flute). I had gone to the Institute looking for work teaching English as a second language as my wife (who was quite pregnant) and I had no money when we arrived. We had gone to Lima because I wanted to inspect the worksheets for Vallejo’s never-completed Poemas humanos which were in the Vallejo widow’s possession there.

Anyway, I included in the first some 300 page first issue of the magazine, five poems by Javier Heraud (translated by Paul Blackburn) that he had written before going to Cuba several years earlier. Before that trip, Heraud was apolitical and the poems Paul translated were old-fashioned nature poems. However, while in Cuba, Heraud became politicized and when he returned to Peru in 1963 as a member of the Ejercito de Liberacion National, he was shot by local police while drifting in a dugout near Puerto Maldonado. His death as a would-be guerilla created a scandal in Lima and because the Institute, it turned out, was receiving funding from the USIS, the American Ambassador in Lima (who had been shown the Quena manuscript by my concerned boss at the Institute) said that the Heraud translations could not appear in a publication sponsored by the Institute. I refused to remove the Heraud poems and was fired.

While all of this was going on, I discovered that a number of Peruvian poets who I had become acquainted with thought I was an American spy because I was employed by the Institute. So I guess you could say that I was thrust into a new and complex political situation through going to Peru and through assembling this first issue of Quena with Heraud in it.

When Barbara, the recently-born Matthew, and I moved to NYC in 1966 I discovered that my old painter friends Leon Golub and Irving Petlin were directors of an ad hoc organization “Artists Against the War” and I quickly became in charge of the poets participating in demonstrations throughout the city.

SK: Picking up the notion of a “constellation” from the passage you quoted a moment ago from your poem The Tjurunga, wherein the “nouns are also nodes in a constellation called / Clayton’s Tjurunga.” A constellation is distinct from a series or some other form of linear or logical arrangement. I see the notion as being related to your take on the “anatomy” in Blake via Northrop Frye. Are you self-conscious in your approach to assembling or arranging the constellation of materials at the level of the poem or at the level of a collection of poems? A piece like Notes from a Visit to Le Tuc D’Audoubert, for example, shifts registers in one way, while, on the other hand, Juniper Fuse, as a book, constellates elements in, it seems to me, a different way.

CE: “Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc d’Audoubert” is an anatomy, in Northrop Frye’s sense, in as much as it is, let us say, a structural make-up of a poetic organism with contrasting parts, such as poetry, prose poetry, paragraphs, and visual “punctuation.”  In my note on this poem in Juniper Fuse, I mention that years later I realized that these “Notes” were the nuclear form for a book that would become an amplification of its multiple genres. Included in this amplification would be photographs, drawings, extensive commentary, chronologies, and such invented daemons as Kashkaniraqmi, Atlementheneira, and Savolathersilonighcock, joining the earlier Yorunomado and Niemonjima.

Juniper Fuse is also a constellation, or an assemblage, that is loosely chronological with the earliest pieces written in 1978 and final sections composed in 2002. I say “loosely” because this chronological arrangement is not always followed. When I was working out the final Table of Contents I saw that certain pieces written in different periods belonged together so I broke up a strict chronological order to take that sense of the book into consideration.

All of my books, over the decades, are, in general, chronological, allowing the above-described exception various degrees of play.

While living in Kyoto (1962-1964) I spent a great deal of time breaking my head over Blake’s “Prophetic Books.” Titles such as “The Book of Yorunomado” are based on Blake having called his shorter Prophecies “Books,” like “The Book of Ahania” and “The Book of Los.”  Gary Snyder writes somewhere that when he came unannounced to visit me one afternoon he found me asleep on the tatami in my workroom and left after deciding not to wake me up. I had actually passed out that day while reading Blake’s “Book of Urizen.”

These “books” that I was composing in Kyoto (and later in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1964-65), were sections of a Blake-inspired long poem to be called “The Tsuruginomiya Regeneration” (the title coming from the name of the Shinto shrine across the road from the Ibuki home where Barbara and I were living in 1963-64). I started this poem initially as a marriage celebration for Paul and Sara Blackburn but given the extent to which I was confused and lost finding my way in poetry (and attempting to translate Vallejo’s Poemas humanos) the “Regeneration” quickly became a Blakean-nuanced quagmire.  In the early 1970s I put several of the most coherent “Regeneration” “books” together with some recent poems to compose Coils (1973).

SK: As a long-time reader of your work, I find the relationship between The Tsuruginomiya Regeneration and Coils a compelling conundrum. You’ve mentioned that you published a great deal of the Regeneration in journals and chapbooks. Was there something about attempting to bring the pieces together into a single collection that brought out aspects of the individual sections that you felt didn’t work or what it something related to the collection as such? I guess I’m wondering about the difference between writing a successful poem and bringing poems together as a successful collection. In this context though, I also recall a remark of yours from an interview originally published in Atropos, later collected in Antiphonal Swing, wherein you said that you didn’t like much of what you wrote between 1966 and 1970, citing a shift in your habits of editing and revising your work before during and after that period.

CE: Each “Book” or section of “The Tsuruginomiya Regeneration” seemed to be the beginning of a new long poem. I was lost, and unable to discover an all-over plan I could write into. I was way too haunted by Blake’s abandoned manuscript of “The Four Zoas” (originally called “Vala”), and my attempts to ingest his long poems (or “Prophecies”) at that time was probably a mistake as their mythic turmoil mainly muddled my personal turmoil rather than suggesting a way that I might proceed in coming to terms with my poetic apprenticeship. Two of the “Books” that I kept as part of Coils, “The Book of Yorunomado,” and “The Book of Niemonjima” have some very good writing in them with the Blakean influence helping me to go beyond what I would otherwise been able to write.

I never again attempted a long poem, or epic. I have done a few extended pieces, like “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe” (forty-two pages), my imaginative investigation of the great and profoundly mysterious “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch, “Anatomy of the Night” (fifty-six pages), an anatomy of sorts, made up poetry, prose, and quoted passages from the work of Roheim, Reich, Hillman, Alvarez, Cioran, Djuna Barnes, and James Hamilton-Paterson, as well as some material from my own writing between 1983 and 2011, and “The Moistinsplendor” (forty-eight pages), an LSD-inspired rant, about which I have written: “On one level the poem is a struggle to think against erasure. At the moment I would seem to focus on something, the drug kicked it into a kaleidoscopic maze. My experience with LSD was that it operated mentally like the amusement park ride called the loop-the-loop. I found myself constantly wildly swinging between what appeared to be an imaginative insight and having the insight pulled inside out and being slapped in the face with it. When a line suddenly looked peculiar or dumb I would immediately write down the next thing that came to mind. There was no revision. I had the feeling, as peculiar as it may sound, that by drinking wine while I wrote that I was grounding myself and keeping the LSD from whirling me into a lockjaw abyss.”

As for the period between 1966 and 1970: including translations and chapbooks I published twelve books during this period. I think the best of my own work are probably Walks, The House of Okumura, Indiana, and The House of Ibuki.  I have included twenty-two poems from these four collections in The Essential Poetry 1960-2015 (Black Widow Press). That is not much, in my case, for four years of work, and it mainly shows that at that time I was often unable to edit my poems into precise, imaginative structures or, from a present point of view, to determine between a poem that worked and one that did not. The first book in which I hit the stride that I like to think I have maintained with increasing acuity ever since is the 1981 Hades In Manganese.

SK: Some of your most recent poetry strikes me as among the strongest of your career. I’m particularly thinking of An Anatomy of the Night and The Jointure, among other recent pieces. And I’m thinking in particular of the fluidity with which you shift directions, depths, and registers in these writings, covering an enormous range of thought and human feeling. Despite the range of content, the writing is, I think, unmistakably yours not only because it represents your ongoing thought but also because of the way that the materials come together or perhaps rather intersect with or overlay and impact one another. The work seems to have inverted the figure you advanced a moment ago: if the early epic failed to come together for lack of a structure into which you could write, the current work seems to emerge from a core of concern that is all of a piece. All or nearly all of your more recent work seems to be part of an unfolding, expansive epic.

From reading other interviews and remarks you’ve made about your writing process, I know that your relationship to editing has changed over the course of your career. How large an impact has your editing process had on your work and on your recent work in particular?

CE: Over the past few years it has become increasingly difficult for me to engage material for a possible poem and then to realize the evolution of this material in a way that I find satisfactory. Most of the sixty-six poems in my latest completed manuscript, “Penetralia” (to be published by Black Widow Press in 2016) were completed between 2008 and 2015 and the last half-dozen, which include “The Jointure,” required many drafts to realize. I think the sixteen-page “The Jointure” must have close to 150 worksheets.

Such difficulties lead me to the following considerations: In my 40s, 50s, and 60s, I often found myself in a contrapuntal relationship to what occurred in writing: I would begin a poem with an idea of an impulse to engage particular material and the writing proceeded via thematic perceptions as well as spontaneous dream-like input which thematic material appeared to flush out. Such was not like dreaming awake. Rather, it was as if my intentions in a poem beckoned to my subconscious which like a helpful handmaiden offered to contribute material that sometimes contradicted, sometimes improvised, upon what my conscious mind thought the poem was about. A good example of what I am attempting to identify here is the 1989 “At the Speed of Wine,” an 11 page descriptive vision of drinking in a New York City bar with Hart Crane. I got the idea for writing such a poem by reflecting on my co-translation of Vladimir Holan’s magnificent “A Night with Hamlet” in which the speaker (Holan) imaginatively engages a special night visitor (a phantasmagoric one-armed crazed Hamlet who appears to the poet in his Prague apartment). My poem is also shadowed by Ulysses’ conversation with Tiresias in Book XIII of The Odyssey. I mention these influences as background stimulation; I don’t think most readers would read my poem and think of Holan or Homer.

Anyway, there is only one draft for “At the Speed of Wine.” I sat down after a nice dinner with some good red wine and wrote the poem in about three hours without stopping. I showed it to Caryl the next morning who “edited” it. She eliminated a few repetitions and clarified some images, thus sharpening the focus without doing much rewriting.

I can’t compose like that anymore. Maybe all poets have an arsenal which is a combination of the given and the developed and which finally feels almost cleaned out. I say “almost” because as I approached what felt like an emptying in 2012-2014 I moved into a kind of summational “old age” voicing in which I attempted to wrest from my situation material that could be thought of as imagined while standing in my own smoking gate.

SK: “At the Speed of Wine” is a rather astonishing precipitate of three hours writing! Set beside “An Anatomy of the Night” it does demonstrate a certain internalization and condensation of its wide-ranging materials: the dialogue with Crane compacting engagements with Holan, Homer, Hamlet, Artaud, Van Gogh, Caravaggio, etc. In the later work, following some of the language we’ve been using, the materials are constellated more loosely, though no less pointedly. Perhaps this is consistent with a kind of “late style.”

There’s a line in “At the Speed of Wine” that stands out for me in this context: “The book is always late; the book is, in fact, belatedness.” You’ve been writing poetry for more than fifty years, translating poetry that reaches back to the beginnings of modern verse, and writing through the visual arts, including most significantly your writing on the painted caves, that, in your phrase for Juniper Fuse, “includes the earliest nights and days of soul-making.” I’m wondering how you think of time in your writing—in the act of writing but also in the process of editing your poetry and books of poetry. For example, some of your poems carry indications of dates and places related, presumably, to their composition, others do not. Is poetry bound to the moment in which it is written or does it have some other relationship to time?

CE: The appearance, in 1963, of Yorunomado, birthed out of my gut in seppuku, was my initial thrust into sacramental existence. It was also a furtive attempt to recover what might be called Great Time, or mythic time, not only a break with profane duration but the attempt to engage the paradisiac, primordial situation: time without a past.

However, most of my early writing, given the thoughtlessness in my adolescence and initial manhood, was involved with my own personal history. Here I am thinking of such pieces as “Letter to Cesar Calvo,” “Hand,” “Sunday Afternoon,” “The Bridge at the Mayan Pass,” “Still-life with Fraternity” and “Tomb of Donald Duck.” Today I am uncomfortable with all of those pieces but I included them in The Essential Poetry because they show me attempting to realize my own provincial, family history.

The poems I have written on Western art and Western artists seem to me today to be a mix of striving in time and release into some of the aspects of Great Time e.g., “Soutine’s Lapis” is on one level very engrossed with Chaim Soutine’s painting the stinking hanging fowl he secured from Paris slaughterhouses and the extraordinary otherworldly creatures he turned them into on some of his canvases. On one level, regardless of the subject matter, artistic creation (including poetry) evokes, regardless of the subject (or in the case of a Pollock, the non-subject), the attempt to overcome time. Relative to creation, publication (and exhibition) is always belated, though I guess one could argue that at the very point the poem or painting is completed, it becomes belated to the creative act itself.

As you note in your most appropriate question here, the discovery of the Ice Age painted caves of southwestern France, in the spring of 1974, was huge and very lucky for me, for suddenly I was confronted with an art that had no accessible historical basis including any access to the language of the makers. And to call it “art” is tricky, for surely it is imbedded with utilitarian, magical, and occult prototypes that, primitive art aside, historical art has for the most part never engaged. As someone considerably concerned with my own background I was suddenly faced with a making, the context of which was nearly completely inaccessible. And to put it this way is not to complain! It was the biggest gift in my life, for it put me in touch with a genuine back wall, the earliest days and nights of soul-making. And that feeling of having been put in contact with something that might be called the original of art was extraordinarily encouraging and gave me the sense that I could possibly be part of something beyond what modern poetry with at best a hazy sense of a Greek “back wall” had envisioned.

SK: Does this engagement with the paradisiac, primordial situation—time without a past—figure in your creative practice as a translator or in your prose writing?

CE: As for poets who I have translated: Aimé Césaire’s poetry in the 1948 Solar Throat Slashed is permeated by elements of a cosmological myth, involving a self-immolating solar divinity who generates the processes of destruction and renewal. As the speaker says in the powerful “At the Locks of the Void,”

It is I who sing with a voice still caught up in the babbling of elements. It is sweet to be a piece of wood a cork a drop of water in the torrential waters of the end and of the new beginning. It is sweet to doze off in the shattered heart of things.

Or in the same poem:

I await the boiling. I await the baptism of sperm. I await the wingbeat of the great seminal albatross supposed to make a new man of me. I await the immense tap, the vertiginous slap that shall consecrate me as a knight of a plutonian order. I await in the depths of my pores the sacred intrusion of the benediction.

While Antonin Artaud cannot be called a shaman proper, there is a shamanic resemblance binding his life and work. When I hold up Artaud’s image, I see shamanic elements in it, like a black root-work suspended, coagulated yet unstable, in liquid. For example, while in the asylum of Rodez in 1945-46, he bore, out of his heart, a new progeny of warrior-daughters who became his assaulted messengers and saviors. He used the block of wood that Dr. Delmas placed in his room like a drum. He also had a “bridge” which he wrote was located between his anus and sex, and it was upon that bridge that he claimed he was murdered by God who pounced on him in order to sack his poetry. Spitting and a falsetto voice were also present. Of course what is missing in such a shamanic scenario is a community. Artaud is a Kafka man, put through a profound and transfiguring ritual while finding out, stage by stage, that it no longer counts. He is a shaman in a nightmare in which all the supporting input from a community that appreciates the shaman’s death and transformation as an aspect of its own wholeness is, instead, handed over to mockers who revile the novice at each stage of his initiation.

Juniper Fuse is of course my attempt to link poetry to what may be its origin, or back wall, in the some two dozen or so hybrid figures to be found in Upper Paleolithic cave imagery. Since over half of the writing in this book is in prose, or prose poetry, such would constitute a positive response to your question. I think that some of the strongest support for such thinking is to be found in the five-part “Cosmogonic Collage” that concludes the book. Section One, “The Dive,” examines a myth that several scholars have proposed can be traced back to the last Ice Age. I link a shaman-creator diving to the bottom of the sea as an animal or bird in order to bring up creational material to a Cro-Magnon artist descending to the depths of a cave and mixing cave water with red ochre or black manganese to draw animals on stone walls, very ancient indications of what we today call the creative act.  In Section Two I describe what I call a Black Goddess stone tree only partially emerged from stalactites, fissures and folds. Possibly as early as 25,000 B.P. Cro-Magnon people identified and marked this proto-World Tree. And in Section Five, I describe a forked blade from Le Placard dated roughly between 18,000 and 16,000 B.P. that has a woman’s groin carved in the base that appears to be projecting an ithyphallic blade. To put it idiomatically, this is a hole that grows into a pole. These three examples strike me as some of the most unique and cogent examples of very early imaginal workings of time without a past.

SK: These are extremely potent examples of this problematic. However in posing the question I was wondering more specifically about the act of translation or the act of writing prose, as to whether or not you could access this primordial experience through translation or through writing prose, or if, on the other hand, translation and prose writing function in distinct ways for you in terms of your creative practice.

CE: In my response to your fifth question I commented on my approach to translation via time spent with Cid Corman in Kyoto in the early 1960s.  While translating writers like Vallejo, Artaud, and Césaire is a challenging linguistic adventure and the deepest way I know of to read them, since I do not take creative liberties in this work I don’t think my practice engages anything like primordial experience. I think the closest thing to imaginal depth in this case would be some poems I have written off Artaud in which his mind stirred my mind in one example to engage what I called “black paradise.”

That poem is in Anticline.

I included only a few prose poems in the Essential Poetry because most of them do not show me at my best. The prose I am most satisfied with involves pieces on writers or painters I admire (Paul Blackburn, Gary Snyder, Charles Olson, Artaud, Leon Golub, Chaim Soutine, Paul Celan, Allen Ginsberg, Ron Padgett, Judith Scott, Nancy Spero, and Hart Crane, for example) or on aspects of Upper Paleolithic cave art (which of course unlike writing on contemporary poets drops me into the abyss of origins and Great Time). Some of the prose on Blackburn, Soutine and Crane engages creative imagination (in contrast to critically examining what a particular author has written). The Olson dream presented on p. 262 of Juniper Fuse portrays the poet passing from personal consciousness into collective consciousness or the realm of creature souls.

It occurs to me that some of the Horrah Pornoff “Homunula” workings, in exploring an invented mind, might be thought of as spontaneous creations with an invented temporal duration, though they of course are presented as poems.

Perhaps you have something in mind here that I have not picked up. If so, please write about this and I will try to respond.

SK: This gets to the notion I had in mind—essentially about the difference between writing poetry and translating poetry in your creative life. In my own experience as a translator, the confrontation with the text of another, across the chasms of time, place and cultural context, has often been quite a challenging and humbling psychological experience, akin to being lost in a forest. We’ve already spoken of your early struggles to bring Vallejo’s voice in particular over into English. We didn’t mention the fact that the process was ongoing, after your initial publications of his work in the late 1960s, through several new versions of the work, culminating in the publication of the Complete Poetry in 2007. You’re involved in a similar exercise now with Aimé Césaire’s poetry, which you’ve also been translating since the mid-1960s. Do you get closer to the core of the text with each subsequent translation? Do you find that there any certainties in translation?

CE: In regard to the first part of your question concerning getting closer to the core of a text: over a period of thirty-nine years (1968-2007), I completed three published versions of César Vallejo’s Human Poems, his most substantial collection. During this period, while writing my own poetry on a nearly daily basis, and editing two literary magazines (for a total of twenty-four years), I became an increasingly focused writer.  I think that each new version I did of this Vallejo book became more accurate and precise than earlier ones, and if this is so, the reasons for such involve not only my own growth as a writer, my increasing familiarity with Vallejo’s psyche and the Spanish language, but my improved agility to process the help I received from two co-translators (Octavio Corvalan with Vallejo’s Spanish Civil War poems and Jose Rubia Barcia with the Human Poems) along with the half dozen other people who made useful suggestions to my versions that we went over together.

Other than a little collection of early Aimé Césaire poems I translated with my old friend Denis Kelly in Bloomington, 1966, I have again had two splendid co-translators with my ongoing attention to his writing: Annette Smith who I worked with off and on for a decade (our collaboration producing translations of the 1956 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire, and Lyric & Narrative Poetry (1946-1982) and A. James Arnold who I began to work with around 2008. Arnold and I have published two Césaire collections (Solar Throat Slashed and The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land), and have recently completed a version of The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire which Wesleyan University Press will publish in 2016. While I still respect Annette’s and my Césaire work I have become a better translator than when I worked with her in the 1980s and James Arnold is the leading Césaire scholar most probably in the world. Thus it has made sense for Arnold and I to retranslate the earlier Eshleman/Smith versions as well as the rest of Césaire’s poetry.

It is also important to note that I began to translate Vallejo during my poetic apprenticeship, and I often worked on him in Kyoto when I was lost or blocked with my own poems. By the time I began to work on Césaire, I had fifteen years with Vallejo under my belt and a pretty good sense of what I wanted to accomplish in my own poetry.

As for certainties in translation: That is a slippery question!  One reason that I have worked with co-translators is that as a translator-poet I have had to undermine my impulse to embellish or simply alter the original when it seemed flat or, especially in Vallejo’s case, when it was densely ambiguous. Working with the people I mention above has brought me as close to certainty as I could come. When one is translating a living author who is available for questioning (I made three trips to Paris to ask Césaire questions about arcane and coined words in the early 1980s), the chances of certainty in the work theoretically improve. However, here I must acknowledge that when I was translating the poetry of Michel Deguy, with Deguy, daily, in Paris in the early 1980s, I discovered that from time to time he would make up a meaning for a word we were discussing that, were I to accept it, would appear simply as a mistranslation! So maybe it is better here to say that while a translator can court certainty he can never fall asleep with complete satisfaction in her arms.

SK: Working with these co-translators to bring the voices of other poets into the reservoirs of English suggests a kind of creative community at work that seems to transcend any kind of “anxiety of influence” in Harold Bloom’s sense of that phrase. The notion also evokes for me the dedication of The Price of Experience to Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg, as “fellow Argonauts,” which I take to suggest reference to a creative community among you. Aside from the co-translators you’ve mentioned, who have been your closest collaborators?

CE: While I do not think you could call her a collaborator in the sense that we wrote poems together, Caryl, my wife, who edited my work from roughly 1973 to 2008, is the closest to a collaborator. I acknowledge her work at the beginning of the seventy-two pages of notes that end The Essential Poetry. I would show Caryl drafts of poems and she would make comments that often led to rewriting or rethinking particular moves. All in all, she sharpened my focus and caught a number of clichés and repetitions. What I have been able to accomplish as a poet is profoundly in debt to her.

In 1996 I sent a copy of Nora’s Roar to Adrienne Rich who I had not had any contact with for decades (I had a brief acquaintance with her in NYC in the late 1960s but lost contact with her in the early 1970s after her husband committed suicide and she became a lesbian who for some years had little or no contact with men). I got a wonderful letter from her after she read my elegy for Nora (who had been one of her oldest friends), and this started up a regular correspondence that ended a few weeks before Adrienne’s death in 2012. We must have exchanged around 300 letters and many of them contain, on both our parts, poems in progress that the other poet would comment on. Adrienne had a very sharp eye and her criticisms of my work mainly entailed objections to what she felt were rhetorical flourishes. I suspect in this regard she helped me more than I helped her as the poems she sent me I think had already been through some revision.

Several author friends have made useful comments on aspects of my work: Cid Corman on early Vallejo versions in Kyoto; Paul Blackburn on some poems in the late 1960s, and Ron Padgett, whose recent comments on drafts of An Anatomy of the Night and “Velmar’s Lemon” (still unpublished) were extremely useful in helping me to finish this work.

I should also acknowledge your comments on certain poems to include in The Essential Poetry that I had, at the time you wrote me, left out of this evolving manuscript. I reread the poems you listed and put some of them in.

But in terms of real collaboration, a one-to-one writing relationship, I think I have only experienced this with Annette Smith, José Rubia Barcia, and James Arnold in Césaire and Vallejo translating.

I referred to Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg as “fellow Argonauts” because we have been friends in poetry and in our personal lives since the early 1960s. And also because I feel that our three bodies of work are one of the most original and accomplished artistic contributions of our generation. The territory that our three bodies of work covers is, in my opinion, spectacular. I feel that the three of us have continued to push on and out, beyond those who influenced us, into the previously uncharted.

SK: That push, on and out, as you say, beyond your—and Kelly’s and Rothenberg’s—influences, itself strikes me as a defining, even constitutive element of all three bodies of work, and of others’ besides, but of your moment, if that word can be allowed, in poetry and really in thought and ethics as well. There’s this engagement with language and life in the work that is personal and historical, psychological and cultural, and profoundly restless and searching, probing. For all the politically correct lip service to “diversity” in contemporary writing, my sense is that that search, that push on and out, has become all too rare in poetry today. Perhaps I am missing something, but I am reminded of the beginning of the foreword Adrienne Rich wrote for your book Companion Spider, where she wrote: “There is very little around today . . . that possesses the depth and substance of this book . . . the accumulated prose-work of a poet and translator who has gone more deeply into his art, its process and demands, than any modern American poet since Robert Duncan or Muriel Rukeyser.” It’s a marvelous encomium, of course but also true. Perhaps poetry as the scholar’s art (Wallace Stevens’ remark that you have quoted at times) seems out of fashion today. Do you share this sense of contemporary poetry? Are you aware of poets today whose writing continues this approach to poetry?

CE: If Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry (the second edition, 2013) is representative of the new, I would say that the university degree writing programs have had a very detrimental effect on a number of aspects of poetry as I know and respect it. Flarf is simply mediocre writing and Conceptualism is aestheticized plagiarism. As I have mentioned or at least implied earlier in our interview, I do not think one learns how to become a poet in a degree writing workshop where one spends most of one’s attention listening to the opinions of other students who are also, at best, novices. Academically speaking, I think one builds up one’s literary arsenal by discovering for oneself, on one’s own, the essential American poets to study, of the past and of one’s own generation and then by reading all of their writing. Such research must be amplified by learning reading skills in at least one foreign language along with reading some of the poets of that language in the original, and reading translations of them, with the aim of teaching oneself how to critique translations.

I should add that besides Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg, I think that Michael McClure, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Andrew Joron, Rae Armantrout, Will Alexander, John Olson, and Sarah Fox (to name the poets who first come to mind) are doing genuinely innovative writing today.

As for the Wallace Steven’s statement on poetry as the scholar’s art (from his book Adagia), I understand it to mean two possible things: that poetry may be the art that appeals most to scholars, and that poets can incorporate scholarly research without lessening the intuitive drive it takes to write commanding poetry. Basho, André Breton, Octavio Paz, and José Lezama Lima are four non-American poets who come to mind here.  I think of translation as on one level scholarly activity, and I think one can make a similar case for editing a literary journal.

SK: Do you think that the digital revolution (the internet but also digital printing) has had any meaningful impact on the ways that poetry is written and read today? Have “little” magazines, broadsides and chapbooks been replaced by digital forms of publication?

CE: There is a curious comparable increase in graduate degree writing programs and internet blogs and e-zines. I don’t have any exact figures here but one explanation for this double increase may be the following: an e-zine is much easier to set up and to operate than, say, a magazine like Sulfur which cost near the end of its run in 2000, around $6000 per issue to produce, pay contributors, and mail, with roughly 800 subscribers. Over the magazine’s eighteen-year run, we had various distributors, none of which really made any money for the magazine (and one, Truck, when it went bankrupt owed the magazine $2400 none of which we ever received). Jacket, an e-zine from Australia, other than the cost of computer equipment and monthly server fees, had no other costs that I am aware of, and must be read by thousands of people online. I once submitted to Jacket a trilogue with Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff about the various magazines the three of us had edited, and it appeared the next day. Thus for young writers with Masters or PHD Degrees in creative writing it is much, much simpler, and inexpensive, to start up a e-zine or blog than a 250 page magazine like Sulfur.

While I imagine that an e-zine with Sulfur’s range and depth could be produced, I am not aware of any. Nor am I aware of any print magazines today that can be compared to Sulfur.

You ask if the digital revolution has had any impact on the way that poetry is written today. Hard to really tell, but I suspect that given its tie-in with the degree writing programs it has. Both Flarf and Conceptual Poetry are primarily 21st century phenomena, along with other cyberpoetries. And I must acknowledge that were I a senior at Indiana University today, knowing no more than I knew then, I might be tempted to enroll in a Masters or PHD creative writing program. Thus educating myself on my own, with a lot of books and a few correspondents (and getting out of USA to experience the foreign cultures of Mexico, Japan, and Peru) can be seen as my response to the young writer’s situation in my era.

On the other hand, for all I know (since at eighty I have more-or-less stopped reading first collections of poetry and hardly read any magazines online or off) there may be young writers out there doing what I did in the late 1950s. From time to time a young poet who does not appear to be in a writing degree program, sends me some poems to read. Some of them are genuinely interesting. The poets I mentioned in the last post as doing innovative writing today, while for the most part several generations younger than me, came into poetry in the non-digital world.

SK: Can you say a little bit about what you mean by the word “negation” in the last paragraph of the essay “An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire” where you wrote: “I continue to regard poetry as a form in which the realities of the spirit can be tested by critical intelligence, a form in which the blackness of the heart of man can be confronted, in which affirmation is only viable when it survives repeated immersions in negation—in short, a form that can be made responsible for all that the poet knows about himself as his world.”

CE: My comment on “negation” is derived from a statement by Paul Tillich: “A life process is the more powerful, the more non-being it can include in its self-affirmation without being destroyed by it.”  As well as from the Kafka quotation I mentioned earlier. In contrast to the kind of research I did on Ice Age cave imagery which I thought of as affirming the oldest creative core of humankind, a civil or political focus turns the writer into a kind of moving target in evasion of those forces society uses to disarticulate him: self-censorship as well as editorial censorship: the shying away from materials that disturb a predictable and aesthetically-acceptable response.

In my poem “The Assault,” I wanted to get the possible government conspiracy on 9/11 into the poetic record. I seek to build an atmosphere of political awareness into much of what I write—to write a civil poetry as a citizen-writer. I want a sense of my own times, on a national/international register, to permeate my language. It would be simplistic to claim that all political material is negative. However positive political acts do not call out to me to be addressed in poetry. I use the word “civil” here to complex the word “political” and to remove from my use of it the agit-prop implications attached to traditional political poetry. In my writing, I want to protect an imaginative openness to spontaneity and free-association in image choice. If I am going to use a politician in a poem, I have to figure out ways to imagine him and absorb him into my sensibility. This is close to thinking of him as a text to be translated.

Over the years, I have written a number of poems testing my sense of the negative political, such as “Basra Highway” (the American invasion of Iraq), “Hardball” (the LA police beating of Rodney King), “El Mozote” (the massacre of some eight hundred villagers by the American government-supported Salvadoran Army), “Minor Drag” (a poem proposing that the 9/11 destruction of the three towers involved a controlled demolition), and “Monumental” (a tribute to my dear friend, the political-activist painter, Leon Golub).

In the fall of 2004, Caryl & I spent a month at the Rockefeller Study Center on Lake Como, Italy, where I daily studied a large reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. My sixty-page improvisation on the triptych, in poetry and prose, tips it, at points, into the 21st century so that, for example, the American assault on Fallujah is there as a disaster in Bosch’s Apocalypse. In one section, I sense the presence of Bush and Rumsfeld in the apocalyptic mayhem to be found in Bosch’s right-hand panel:

The intoxications of immortality light up the switchboards when
someone is murdered.
The furnaces of immortality are fed with the bodies of people
who look a little different than us.
How does this work, Donald Rumsfeld?

Does your Reaper retreat an inch for each sixteen-year-old Iraqi boy
snipered while out looking for food?
Men with political power are living pyramids of slaughtered others.
Bush is a Babelesque pyramid of blood-scummed steps.
The discrepancy
between the literal suit and psychic veracity is nasty to contemplate.
Imagine a flea with a howitzer shadow
or a worm whose shade is a nuclear blaze.

Stuart Kendall is a writer, editor, and translator working at the intersections of poetics, visual culture, and design. His books include Gilgamesh, Georges Bataille, The Ends of Art and Design, and many other edited or translated volumes. Black Widow Press published his edited volume, Clayton Eshleman: The Whole Art, in 2014. He lives in Oakland, California, where he teaches at the California College of the Arts.

Click here to purchase The Essential Poetry at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

K: A 21st Century Canzoniere

KcanzoniereI Goldfarb
BlazeVox Books ($22)

by Michael Boughn

I Goldfarb’s K: A 21st Century Canzoniere is a marvel, with all the deep roots of that word (“to wonder at, be astonished”) still living there, squirming around. For one thing, there hasn’t been a book like this in quite a while—it contains 590 love poems, many of them classic Petrarchan sonnets dedicated to a student a good fifty years younger than the poet. Modeled on Petrarch’s Canzoniere, which was written almost 700 years ago, Goldfarb’s 21st Century update is an epic spiritual love poem in the age of online dating and televised courting, an age in which the cynicism about love grows exponentially in relation to its commodification and use. It is “a chocolate paradise of two” that leaves us marveling at its extraordinary accomplishment.

Petrarch’s book was unique. Often identified as the “father of Humanism,” Petrarch approached his relation to Laura, the object of his poetry, as a man in love caught between carnal desire and awe at her purity. No divine vision, a la his predecessor Dante, flowed from that. Instead Petrarch gave us the anxiety of mortal love and desire, the human drive/capacity that was first seen as ennobling and defining and has gone on to become a major, if not the major, commodity in late capitalism, the stuff of every pop song ever written as well as the most powerful marketing tool ever invented.

But there has always been more to it. Commenting on Dante, Giorgio Agamben proposed that “Beatrice is the name of the amorous experience of the event of language at play in the poetic text itself.” That is exactly what Goldfarb gives us; written at the other end of that 700 year run of humanism, K: A 21st Century Canzoniere introduces a different order of thinking/music to an old order of poetry and thought. It is the difference, say, between a world that accepts a poet’s erotic dedication to a thirteen-year-old and a world that would throw him in jail for it. Goldfarb’s Canzoniere implicates us in its measure of that difference through the continuous production of modulating sound, prosodic compositions which soar from the banal to the sublime. The poems vary between iambic pentameter, iambic tetrameter, common measure, fourteeners, and occasional eruptions of free verse. Canto 14 is an example of the strangeness of the tetrameter which ought to be trite but manages to propel us through a consideration of Agamben’s “poetic text” to an experience of “paradise”:

I’ve no brief for their quality
or their publishability
or for their readability
or minimal utility

if you should come to question them
you’d likely find expressed in them
laments of lost virility
harbingers of senility

yet an imperative divine
bids me extol the tender soul
your body helps me to divine

more than for Platonists of old
the earthly beauty that I see
embodies paradise to be

Goldfarb gives himself over to the energy of this unlikely relation, which leads to a kaleidoscopic “language event” formed out of successive arrangements of moods arising from the formal provocation of the tradition and the impetus of the emotional rollercoaster as it catapults toward its inevitable end through laughter, awe, and tears.

Through it all, Goldfarb maintains a constant recognition of the complexity of the mystery of writing that goes hand in hand with the complexity and mystery of this unlikely love, even in the midst of his reclamation of forms that are no longer active in most poets’ toolbox. But it is 2015, and sublimity is catch as catch can these days, a fact Goldfarb notes in often self-deprecating humor, at once both ruthless and tender in its seeming naiveté. Canto 21 begins, “If I had my druthers / I’d write for no others / writing in adoration / is my Bronxian vocation.” Rhyming “druthers” and “others,” and shifting from two six-syllable lines to a seven-syllable line to an eight-syllable line creates an experience at once awkward and honest. “Druthers,” drawn from comic strip dialogue, locates us a world of the common that ought to be the antithesis of love’s kingdom, but turns out to be our genuine measure. To then go on to rhyme “Petrarch” with “ballpark” is above and beyond the call of any poem, but Goldfarb does it with panache, as he weaves his marvelous love poem to its conclusion.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Deco Punk: The Spirit of the Age

decopunkEdited by Thomas A. Easton
and Judith K. Dial

Pink Narcissus ($15)

by Kelsey Irving Beson

In their feisty introduction to the short story collection Deco Punk: The Spirit of the Age, editors Thomas A. Easton and Judith K. Dial outline their vision for a new literary movement of science-driven fiction chronologically situated between the two World Wars. While the editors cite steampunk as an influence, they ultimately frame deco punk as opposed to the popular genre, which is “past its prime . . . static and antiprogressive.” They assert that deco punk, with its focus on technological rather than fantastic elements, is “more in tune with the 21st century.” To support this claim, they cite steampunk’s improbable and ahistorical conventions, both the funny (such as top hats worn while piloting dirigibles) and the not-so-funny (such as the glossing over of the Victorian era’s oppressive gender roles and marginalization of the poor). As the first story in the collection serendipitously states, “The age of steam is done, however strong it now appears.”

In addition to steampunk, the writing displays the influence of a multitude of other genres, to varying effect. At its strongest, this pastiche feels loving and organic—Golden Age comics characters fit seamlessly into a plot straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs in Paul Di Filippo’s “Airboy and Vooda Visit the Jungles of the Moon”; William Racicot’s improbably endearing “Berenice Bobs Your Hair” reimagines F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age would-be social climber as a witchy hairdresser. Inevitably, some of the stories are less nimble as they hop across narrative tropes. For example, the initially promising “Quicksilver” goes from Thieves Like Us to The Boys From Brazil fast enough to give the reader whiplash. Similarly, the collection’s first entry, “Silver Passing in Sunlight,” wants to be both an Exorcist-tinged possession tale and a tech-driven, historically-grounded narrative, but the supernatural element feels tacked-on and, ultimately, the most compelling character is a train. While it’s an intriguing conceit, unfortunately, the end result isn’t exactly two great tastes that taste great together. However, even when things don’t quite turn out, Deco Punk’s willingness to explore different tropes and tones works in the book’s favor—each story stands out from the others, no mean feat in genre fiction.

Similarly, several of the stories have both paranormal and scientific overtones, with the former occasionally outweighing the latter. Readers interested in the more fantastic or character-centric elements of genre fiction will find things to like here, in spite of the fact that the collection’s theme is nominally technology-driven. In others, progress and discovery are the true heroes, in all their shiny, Gernsbackesque glory. Optimism isn’t the only thing that these works have in common with early science fiction: like the speculative stories of the between-the-wars milieu that inspired them, occasionally the plots can feel like mere contraptions on which to hang the science. Fortunately, these moments are relatively rare, and the best stories manage to integrate science, character, and narrative in a way that is satisfying, even poignant—such as Shariann Lewitt’s “Symmetry,” whose heroine, living in a Weimar Berlin circumscribed by starvation and sexism, finds comfort in math, which “has shown me the clear, safe place where knowledge is true and eternal.” In addition, many readers will appreciate the fact that the collection prominently features women authors and sympathetic, fully-realized female and gender-bending characters.

Deco Punk’s greatest strength lies in its granularity—in terms of genre, narrative strategy, and tone, each of these stories is distinct and memorable. There’s also enough similarity here for the collection to feel satisfying and cohesive, warts and all. While fans of speculative and fantastic fiction can probably find room on their shelves and in their hearts for both deco and steam, Easton and Dial make a strong case for the relevance of their (ostensibly) more down-to-earth brainchild over its fanciful predecessor.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

M Train

mtrainPatti Smith
Knopf ($25)

by Christopher Luna

M Train, Patti Smith’s follow-up to the National Book Award-winning Just Kids, is an elegiac exploration of loss, the mystical power of objects that hold sentimental value, the joy to be taken from a good detective story, and the inexorable pull of place. Our narrator travels in an eternal search for good coffee, following clues left behind in the work of cultural elders such as Arthur Rimbaud, Frida Kahlo, Jean Genet, and Paul Bowles. This leads her on a journey that serves as a kind of divination born of the fan’s devotion and the artist’s hunger for answers. While hers is no traditional memoir, we are treated to poetic ruminations on the nature of time and deep knowledge on arcane subject matter such as the exact worth of a hill of beans. At a book launch event at Portland’s Newmark Theater in November, Smith explained that her previous memoir was written because it was her friend Robert Mapplethorpe’s dying wish that she tell their story. Therefore, Just Kids had a design, and she felt a sense of responsibility to New York City, the culture, Mapplethorpe, and the other people in the book. She enjoyed being free of that burden as she worked on the new book, one that she “never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards.”

When Smith arrived in New York City from New Jersey in 1965 “just to roam around . . . nothing seemed more romantic than just to sit and write poetry in a Greenwich Village café.” She eventually found Caffe Dante, near Bleecker Street, and later, Café ‘Ino on Bedford Street, a daily stop that inspires many of the ruminations in the memoir. Fans will love acquiring a sense of her daily routine and the insight into her thought process. However, those seeking the straightforward trajectory of linear narrative won’t find it here. Smith’s recollections wander back and forth between past and present, and her stories can leap suddenly from one continent to another without warning. How tolerant one is of her many digressions may be a reflection of one’s love for her work; the writing is exquisitely vulnerable and inquisitive, but the story does not follow anything resembling a narrative arc. It is best just to go with it, keeping in mind that our own memories can be similarly disjointed and incomplete.

Smith loves cafes so much that she was preparing to open one when she met Fred “Sonic” Smith, the fellow musician who became her husband and the father of her two children. Soon after they fell in love, the couple moved to Detroit. Despite the lack of coffee shops, Smith describes these years living “in an old stone country house on a canal that emptied into the Saint Clair River” in Michigan as “mystical times. An era of small pleasures.” One inspiring aspect of Smith’s approach to life is her willingness to accept the unexpected detours. Before their children were born, she and Fred traveled, made plans to buy a lighthouse, and he attempted to obtain a pilot’s license. Although they did not complete all the projects they discussed, Smith is quite philosophical about it all:

Not all dreams need to be realized. That was what Fred used to say. We accomplished things that no one would ever know. . . . For a time we considered buying an abandoned lighthouse or a shrimp trawler. But when I found I was pregnant we headed back home to Detroit, trading one set of dreams for another.
Fred finally achieved his pilot’s license but couldn’t afford to fly a plane. I wrote incessantly but published nothing. Through it all we held fast to the concept of the clock with no hands. . . . Looking back, long after his death, our way of living seems a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of a common mind.

Like Just Kids, which contained many stories of time the author spent with artists such as Harry Smith and Sam Shepard, M Train also features many memorable encounters. Smith comments that her opportunity to meet chess champion Bobby Fischer while visiting Iceland was proof “that without a doubt we sometimes eclipse our own dreams with reality.” Fischer asked Smith to sing Buddy Holly for him, and then the two of them sang popular songs together as Fischer’s bodyguards stood nearby.

We are also allowed to sit in on her conversations with writers such as William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles, and tag along on several trips to the homes and gravesites of thinkers and artists including Bertolt Brecht, Akira Kurosawa, and Sylvia Plath. While many of these stories are brief, they are densely packed with Smith’s insight, wit, and imagination, as in the moment when a chance meeting with actor Robbie Coltrane in London is followed by a brief conversation with the floral bedspread in her hotel room.

Her last visit with Burroughs included a viewing of “a print of William Blake’s miniature of The Ghost of a Flea,” which depicts “a reptilian being with a curved yet powerful spine enhanced with scales of gold.” When Burroughs told her that he identifies with the creature, she failed to ask him to elaborate. Her curiosity lead to the following inspiring passage:

William the exterminator, drawn to a singular insect whose consciousness is so highly concentrated that it conquers his own.
The flea draws blood, depositing it as well. But this is no ordinary blood. What the pathologist calls blood is also a substance of release. A pathologist examines it in a scientific way, but what of the writer, the visualization detective, who sees not only blood but the spattering of words? Oh, the activity in that blood, and the observations lost to God. But what would God do with them? Would they be filed away in some hallowed library? Volumes illustrated with obscure shots taken with a dusty box camera. A revolving system of stills indistinct yet familiar projecting in all directions: a fading drummer boy in white costume, sepia stations, starched shirts, bits of whimsy, rolls of faded scarlet, close-ups of doughboys laid out on the damp earth curling like phosphorescent leaves around the stem of a Chinese pipe.

Another theme of the book is the love of literature. While Smith confesses that there have been times when she has read entire books and been unable to retain anything, what she is able to recall is quite remarkable. We learn of her lifelong obsession with books and the impact that writers such as Haruki Murakami and W.G. Sebald have had on her life and her own work. Writers will be able to relate to a passage in which she makes use of lists, which she compares to “small anchors in the swirl of transmitted waves, reverie, and saxophone solos.”

Along with her obsession with books and coffee, Smith also ascribes spiritual qualities to objects that once belonged to her idols, such as Herman Hesse’s typewriter and Virginia Woolf’s walking stick. Her love of books often led to quests, such as the journey she took to Casa Azul in Mexico in 1971 after reading The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. Not only had the book gifted to her by her mother when she turned sixteen captured her imagination, but “William Burroughs had told me the best coffee in the world was grown in the mountains surrounding Veracruz.” While in Casa Azul, Smith visited “the house where Trotsky was murdered,” and not only gained permission to photograph Frida Kahlo’s dresses, but was even invited to “rest in Diego’s bedroom” when she began to feel lightheaded.

An air of nostalgia and mystery pervades the memoir, as when Smith longs for the days when it was tokens rather than MetroCards that one used to gain admission to the New York City subway. She also delves into the emotions evoked by lost possessions. She wonders, “Do our lost possessions mourn us?” She laments the loss of a raggedy black coat, a moth-ridden birthday gift from a poet who had given the garment she had “secretly coveted” to her right off his back. Wearing the coat she “felt like myself.” Misplacing it leads her to this poignant realization: “Lost things. They claw through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday. Words tumble in endless disorder. The dead speak. We have forgotten how to listen. Have you seen my coat? It is black and absent of detail, with frayed sleeves and a tattered hem. Have you seen my coat? It is the dead speak coat.”

The book includes 55 haunting photos by the author, such as an image of the “oval table where Goethe and Schiller once spent hours conversing,” an “innately powerful” object which Smith sees as “a valuable element for comprehending the concept of portal-hopping.” Just as she eventually returned to New York to pick up right where she had left off as a cultural shaman and a punk rock force of nature, she also revisited her dream of opening a coffee shop. Some of the most powerful writing in the book appears in her description of New York during and after Hurricane Sandy, a natural disaster that temporarily prevented her from having access to the small bungalow she purchased on Rockaway Beach in the hopes of fulfilling her youthful dram of opening a café. The chaos and destruction caused by Sandy reminded Smith of her husband’s death, which had occurred many years prior during a “raging thunderstorm” in Detroit: “Fred, fighting for his life, could be felt in the howling wind. A great branch from our oak tree fell across the driveway, a message from him, my quiet man.” Fred died alone in a hospital while her family worked together to get through the storm.

Loss is an inescapable part of life, and one of the major themes that runs through M Train. Smith has endured her share; just one month after losing her husband, her brother died suddenly of a “massive stroke.” Who among us cannot relate to her wish to have it all back: “We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.” M Train is a raw, witty, melancholy reverie, a collection of memories and wishes that speaks directly to our collective humanity. We are fortunate to have Patti Smith to lead us on this investigation of love, loss, compassion, and wide-eyed wonder.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

A Roll of the Dice

rollofthediceStéphane Mallarmé
Translated by Robert Bononno
and Jeff Clark
Wave Books ($25)

by Richard Henry

Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark's A Roll of the Dice is the latest in a slew of recent translations of Stephane Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'Abolira Le Hasard and it brings a different aesthetic approach to this challenging poem. For nearly half a century, Daisy Aldan's 1956 A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance has been the canonical translation into English. It was later reprinted (1992) in a boxed, limited edition with eleven black and white and four color lithographs by minimalist Ellsworth Kelley. Several translations followed, including Brian Coffey’s awkwardly titled Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance (1967, Dufour Editions). Marcel Broodthaers offered a version in 1969 with all of the text blacked out, leaving clear the ideogramic underpinnings of the poem and its layout.

Stéphane Mallarmé's original manuscript was published in 1897 in the journal Cosmopolis. The editors did not honor Mallarmé's fundamental spatial intention, which was to print the poem across two pages; that break in tradition, one that forces different reading behaviors, was one of the revolutionary features of a new aesthetic that opened up any number of experiments through the 20th century. Cosmopolis did honor the expansive white space and different fonts that Mallarmé intended. Page spreads aside, Mallarmé was not satisfied with Un Coup de Dés, and immediately began revising the poem, revisions intended to be published in 1898 with illustrations by Odilon Redon. Mallarmé died in 1898 and the project was abandoned, but not before Redon completed several lithographs. Sixteen years later, the 1898 manuscript was reconstructed and published, sans illustrations, by La Nouvelle Review Française. This 1914 edition followed the poet's intentions with respect to space and to the variations in typeface and size, both of which were used to exploit the poet's interest in subordination, but also to highlight the poet's interested in the poem embracing "subjects of the pure and complex imagination or intellect" (from Mallarmé's preface, variously translated). As such, one can see the subordination of one after another gesture of imagination, set to modify higher-level ideations, and, ultimately, the words and phrases therein of the predicate jamais n'abolira le hasard. Significantly, the subject of the title/sentence, un coup de dés, has no modifications, subordinate or otherwise. Of equal importance to the 1914 publication and subsequent translations have been his extensive notes (see the pdf noted below) as well as his preface to both the Cosmopolis and La Nouvelle Review Française publications.

The past ten years have seen multiple translations into English, all working from differing approaches to what counts as fidelity to the original poem and to Mallarmé's intentions, most taking Mallarmé's prefatory comments to heart, some also informed by his extended notes from 1897-98. All approximate the layout of the 1914 edition; web-published translations honor the size of the page spreads without, obviously, the gutter found in a bound book. Among those published in the past ten years: Basil Cleveland's A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance (2005); E.H. and A.M. Blackmore's A Dice Throw At Any Time Never Will Abolish Chance (2006); A.S. Kline's A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance (2007), with a supplemental translation into a single-page, 'compressed and punctuated,' a rendering that helps readers trace the subordinations; and Robin Mackay's A Throw of Dice Will Never Abolish Chance (2012). We might add to this, Chris Edwards's "mistranslation" A Fluke (2005), with its own sense of fidelity driven by parody and other aesthetics of re-presentation. Clearly, there has been a renewed and growing interest in the work.

Bononno and Clark have emphasized the transformative power of their “roll” in the title as opposed to the long standard “throw” of dice, which they mark as more English. “Roll,” however, sets into play a slightly different set of possibilities guiding the translation of the imagination or intellect. Simply put, “roll” invites softer, less aggressive, translations of words, phrases, lines, and spreads.

Among the aesthetic principles informing Bononno and Clark is, in the words of Clark, paying attention to the poem's music; he claims that this is the "first [translation] that is symphonic in its clarity," picking up on a metaphor used by Mallarmé in his preface: "like the symphony compared to the monody." Earlier translations "gave you an idea of what the poem was like but they weren't poems in their own right," says Bononno. Indeed, Bononno and Clark pay acute attention to sound and phrasing, both for their poetic affects as well as to foreground the “clarity” of the poem's metaphor structures. This isn’t to say other translations ignored the poem’s symphonic, structures and thematic patterns. Aldan, for example, invokes the primacy of the symphony in her translator's note: "The four themes, introduced by the title, according to Mallarmé, are equivalent to the four phrase movement of a symphony." Aldan focuses, however, on the multiple thematic variations, their intersections and movement. Bononno and Clark pay extended attention to sound—the symphony as music. For the musical quality of A Roll of the Dice, compare translations of two phrasings taken at random:

Mallarmé: et en berce le vierge indice

Daisy Aldan: and rocks therein the virgin symbol

Basil Cleveland: and thereof cradles the virgin sign

Bononno and Clark: and so soothes the virgin sign

Or Mallarmé's cascading: Choit / la plume / rythmique suspens du sinistre

Aldan: Falls / the plume / rhythmic suspense of the disaster

Cleveland: Falls / the feather / rhythmic foreboding suspense

Bononno and Clark: Falls / the feather / rhythmic suspense of the sinister

This attention to rhythm and sound extends beyond individual lines to the varied themes and the spread-based layout.

Clark's design of the poem itself faithfully follows the 1914 edition. He emphasizes Mallarmé's interest in the material aspect of book and space by creating a nine-page spread for the title pages, with the type at times exceeding the page, moving off the outer margins or into the gutters. This design further extends Mallarmé's intentions manifested in the poem without violating their fidelity to the layout of the poem itself. Finally, and bringing us full bore into the 21st century, Clark offers in the interstices of the book twelve full spreads of "randomly-lit, burst-mode photographs of black-and-white laserprints."

All in all, it is a pleasure reading a new interpretation of Mallarmé's most influential poem, an interpretation which excites both the imagination and the intellect.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Further Reading

Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'Abolira Le Hasard:

Cosmopolis (1897): http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k309916/f119.image

La Nouvelle Review Française / L'Imprimerie Sainte Catherine (1914): https://math.dartmouth.edu/~doyle/docs/coup/scan/coup.pdf, and

Mallarmé's 1897-98 draft revisions with his extensive notes, entitled Jamais un Coup de Dés n'abolira le Hazard: http://monoskop.org/images/9/98/Mallarme_Stephane_1897_Jamais_un_Coup_de_Des_nabolira_le_Hasard_manuscript.pdf

• • •

Interview with translators Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark:

Daisy Aldan translation:
A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance. Folder 4, Tiber Press. 1956. (New York, NY)

Selected other translations available on-line:

A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance (English, trans. Basil Cleveland, 2005, from UbuWeb): http://www.ubu.com/historical/mallarme/un_coup.pdf/

A Fluke (English, a mistranslation by Chris Edwards, 2005, HTML, from Jacket2):

One Toss of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance (English, trans. Christopher Mulrooney, undated, HTML, from UbuWeb): http://www.ubu.com/historical/mallarme/dice.html

A Dice Throw At Any Time Never Will Abolish Chance (English, trans. E.H. and A.M. Blackmore, 2006): http://monoskop.org/images/e/e9/Mallarme_Stephane_1897_2006_A_Dice_Thrown_at_Any_Time_Never_Will_Abolish_Chance.pdf/

A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance (English, trans. A.S. Kline, 2007, multiple formats):

A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance (English, trans. Robin Mackay, 2012)

Adaptations to other media:

John King's musical opera A Dice Thrown:
Michalis Picheler's adaptations of Broothaer's edition on translucent paper and on glass plates:

Eric M. Zboya's 'rendition':

The Creator

thecreatorSalomo Friedlaender (Mynona)
Translated by Peter Wortsman
Wakefield Press ($13.95)

by Jesse Freedman

At once a philosophical study of dreams and a fabulist rendering of free will, The Creator is a novella unlike any I can remember reading. Its author, the German intellectual Salomo Friedlaender, designated it a “grotesque,” intending it as a magical, almost phantasmagorical meditation on the quest for self-determination. The result is a penetrating, often prescient work of fiction, one that unfolds as a parable might, delivering a clear moral message: embrace the human capacity for imagination, or risk a reality defined by a crippling allegiance to objectivity.

Published in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, and reproduced for the first time in English by Wakefield Press, The Creator takes as its subject the intellectual exchange between the philosophizing figure Gumprecht Weiss and Baron von Böckel, the uncle to Weiss’s love interest, Elvira. Friedlaender, whose work appeared under the pseudonym Mynona (the German word for “anonymous,” spelled backwards), positions the relationship between the men as an extended dialogue focused around the idea of action. He returns repeatedly to this idea, insisting in the dialogue between Weiss and von Böckel that “there can be no creation of something out of nothing.” Humanity, he argues, must engage the will to create; it must act with “absolute freedom.”

This will to create—this ability to activate what Weiss calls “true will”—serves for Friedlaender as the bridge between intellectualism and reality; without it, his characters are reduced to a nightmarish state of inactivity, one in which history slows to a crawl. Like Nietzsche (whose influence is evident throughout the novella), Friedlaender identifies action as core to human potential, going so far as to invoke the idea of the “ubermensch,” the Nietzschean superman. In creativity, too, Friedlaender locates a vital impulse: indeed, both Weiss and von Böckel implore Elvira to create, to exercise an “inner omnipotent strength.” Weiss, in particular, is tempted by the desire to grab this omnipotence, to follow the path of his dreams.

Underlying this impulse is the distinction between “creatures” and “creators,” one Friedlaender constructs using the mirror as his guide: in it, he argues, “creatures” identify reflections of themselves; they approach the mirror objectively, with an eye toward a single truth. By contrast, “creators” locate shades of themselves; they process their image aware of subjectivity, mindful of contrasts lurking below the surface. “Whoever lacks the primordial impulse to tear himself free of the world and inhabit his innermost self,” declares von Böckel, “is only a creature, not a creator.” It is in this way that Friedlaender’s book becomes an homage to subjectivity itself, to a world in which free will navigates a path to its own realization. Without action, as Sartre might have had it, we are nothing.

The Creator is about more, however, than individual will. Friedlaender dedicates a considerable portion of his novella to the subconscious—writing, for instance, of the need for a reality “infused with the ether of the imagined.” In his love for Elvira, Weiss manifests this need most, maintaining that dreams provide “a double face, twice the senses.” It is during a dream sequence, after all, that Weiss first encounters Elvira: later, he learns (or imagines?) that she, too, has dreamed of him, raising the very real question about whether two individuals can dream of one another without first having met. No doubt, Elvira serves as a figment of Weiss’s imagination; and yet, in the surreal universe carved by Friedlaender, where Weiss slips from one reality to the next, Elvira is very much alive. We are the masters of our dreams, the proprietors of their content, Friedlaender argues. This ownership is unwavering.

Ultimately, Friedlaender positions the relationship between Weiss and Elvira in such a way that the two become one: they manifest what he calls the “ideal union,” the space between the “waking world and the world of sleep.” It is here, in this fabulist zone, that Weiss makes his final plea for action, reminding von Böckel that death is more than the lack of action; it is an endless dream state, imagined by the living. And thus as Elvira fades away, Weiss proclaims: “I was pregnant with the world. The objects all around me were nothing but the spawn of my fantasy.” From Weiss, however, there is no apology; to create is to act, and to act is to experience “dream-delight.” This, in the end, is the gift bestowed by this forgotten German master. Life itself must be created.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

On One: The Writings of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte


Roger Gilbert-Lecomte

The Book is a Ghost
Thoughts & Paroxysms for Going Beyond
Roger Gilbert-Lecomte
Translated by Michael Tweed
Solar Luxuriance ($13)

Theory of the Great Game 
Writings from "Le Grand Jeu"
René Daumal & Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, et al.
Edited and translated by Dennis Duncan
Atlas Press ($29.95)

by Garrett Caples

In 1929, during one of the Paris surrealist movement’s periodic crises, André Breton called for a meeting between his group and the various dissident figures working along similar lines to discuss “the possibilities of common action,” as the letter of invitation read. To say that this meeting was a failure is an understatement, and indeed it served as a prelude to the further fragmentation of Breton’s group documented in his “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” (1929). Far from encouraging “common action,” Breton opened the meeting with an extensive list of accusations against Le Grand Jeu, the group behind the magazine of the same name that ran for three issues between 1928 and 1930. Le Grand Jeu was denounced for everything from its use of the reactionary word “god” to one member’s pseudonymous article in Paris-Midi in support of Paris’s right-wing chief of police. This last accusation stuck, however, for it was true, and led to Le Grand Jeu’s eventual splintering. A pyrrhic victory for Breton.

What is curious about this affair is how seriously Breton took Le Grand Jeu, the core of which was three high-school buddies from Reims. At the time of the meeting, René Daumal, already a successful avant-garde poet, was about to turn twenty-one while his friends Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and Roger Vailland (author of the Paris-Midi article) would only turn twenty-two later that year. The members of Le Grand Jeu were admitted admirers of surrealism, and Breton had even unsuccessfully lobbied Daumal and Gilbert-Lecomte to join his group. Some of Breton’s rancor here might be attributed to this rebuff, as well as Le Grand Jeu’s willingness to collaborate with former members of his group, like Robert Desnos, André Masson, and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes.

theoryofthegreatgameOf the founders of Le Grand Jeu, Daumal has been the only one with much presence in the Anglophone world, both as the author of two novels, A Night of Serious Drinking (1938) and the unfinished, posthumous Mount Analogue (1952), and as a Sanskrit-translating devotee of Gurdjieff. As far as I know, Vailland, later a Stalinist and a Prix Goncourt-winning novelist, has never been translated. But the most intriguing figure of the entire Grand Jeu remains Roger Gilbert-Lecomte (1907-1943), a poet whose work elicited Antonin Artaud’s only review of a contemporary book of poems. Most of what American readers know about this poet stems from the efforts of Artaud translator David Rattray, whose translation of selected Gilbert-Lecomte poems, Black Mirror, appeared from Station Hill in 1991 and whose book of selected prose How I Became One of the Invisible (Semiotexte, 1993) included the biographical essay “Roger Gilbert-Lecomte.” Thus I’ve taken the simultaneous publication of two books—Theory of the Grand Game: Writings from “Le Grand Jeu” edited and translated by Dennis Duncan from London’s venerable publisher of the European modernist avant-garde, Atlas Press, and The Book Is a Ghost: Thoughts and Paroxysms for Going Beyond by Roger Gilbert-Lecomte edited and translated by Michael Tweed from San Francisco’s ultra-indie Solar Luxuriance—as an opportunity to get acquainted with the wider current of the poet’s work.

Le Grand Jeu was essentially a parasurrealist group influenced by theosophy and mysticism, whose researches focused on such activities as meditation and derangement of the senses through the use of drugs, with the goal of achieving a revolution in human consciousness. If such activities could be considered poles of the group’s spectrum, the future Gurdjieff follower Daumal clearly represents the former, while the morphine-addicted Gilbert-Lecomte—who infamously died from an infection brought on by shooting up through a dirty pantleg—embodies the latter. The reality is of course more complicated, as Daumal only survived Gilbert-Lecomte by a matter of months before dying of tuberculosis, possibly exacerbated by his own youthful experiments with the highly toxic chemical carbon tetrachloride, but you get the idea. From surrealism, in addition to a pantheon of heroes like Rimbaud and Saint-Pol-Roux, Le Grand Jeu borrowed its rejection of the conventional divide between subjective experience and the objective world, between dream and reality, a rejection that in Breton’s work would culminate in the theory of objective chance put forward in Mad Love (1937). In his essay “The Power of Renunciation,” published in Le Grand Jeu 1 and translated in Theory of the Great Game, Gilbert-Lecomte states his position thusly:

The revolt of the individual against himself, by means of any regimen of specific ecstasy (use of intoxicants, auto-hypnotism, paralysis of the nerve centers, vascular disturbances, syphilis, dedifferentiation of the senses, and all the contrivances a superficial mind might adopt out of a simple appetite for destruction), taught him his first lesson. He has perceived that the apparent coherence of the external world—the same world that should, it seems, be differentiated from the world of dreams—collapses at the slightest shock. This coherence is only verifiable by the senses; thus it varies with the state of these senses; it is solely a function of the individual himself and everything happens as if projected from the depths of his consciousness on to the outside world. . . . The first step towards unity is to discover within oneself the same chaos as that which surrounds us all.

This is all well and good, but it brings us up against a certain limitation of Gilbert-Lecomte as psychological theorist. When Breton wants to make such a point, he seldom fails to do so without an extensive briefing of evidence based on his own anecdotal experience, subsequently drawing on the insights of previous thinkers and fellow surrealists in order to argue his position. But Gilbert-Lecomte generally doesn’t mount arguments so much as make declarations of belief, as befitting Le Grand Jeu’s more religious sensibility; he begins with his conclusions and proceeds from there. This is not to complain that his conclusions are less hard-won than Breton’s—though this is undoubtedly the case—but simply that they are less compelling when divorced from the lived experience Breton always brings to bear on his essays.

thebookisaghostGilbert-Lecomte seems strangely aware of his limitations as an essayist. As he writes in “The Evolution of the Human Mind” (in The Book Is a Ghost), “Throughout my life, I have only presented anew, as many times as possible, the same work.” Gilbert-Lecomte has his set of ideas and each essay provides an occasion to mull them over anew. Chief among his tenets is a philosophical and religious monism, a belief in the essential oneness of the universe. His “philosophical system,” as he writes in the “Notes & Fragments” section of The Book Is a Ghost, “can be defined as the monotonous affirmation of unity through the reflections of phenomenal multiplicity.” “Monotonous” is not a label most essayists would willingly self-apply, but Gilbert-Lecomte is superbly indifferent to anything outside of his chosen theme. “Art is not a goal,” he insists in “The Value of Art,” “it cannot be a goal for only one goal exists: the return to primordial unity. Art will be one means among others—for some people—for reaching this goal.” Still later, in “Lizard, Crack,” whose French title is an untranslatable portmanteau of both those words, he laments: “Nothing proceeds from Diversity to Oneness anymore. All primordial sense of Unity has been lost. Reduced to dead ritual, to the utility of moral precepts, religions have even forgotten the mystic passions that they once employed to their own material ends.” But the limitations of his approach make themselves felt whenever he tries to push toward a larger conclusion. Again, from “Lizard, Crack”:

If man wants to account for the era that he is living in, he requires one postulate and only one: the universality of human consciousness. That is, the historical human mind, sum of all individual consciousnesses, possesses a unity, a personality, an essential difference, neither more nor less demonstrable than that of each individual consciousness. Thus the laws governing the evolution of the human mind, according to the vast mirrors bearing countless reflections of the great analogy, are those of the microcosm (individual human consciousness) as well as those of the macrocosm (biological processes, laws of nature).

The trouble with such conclusions is that ordinary experience gives us far more evidence to the contrary, that the macrocosm and the microcosm such as he’s delineated them here are essentially discontinuous, that there is little universality to human consciousness, that different things really are different. In the absence of any demonstration otherwise, such assertions feel much like those of Evangelical Christians claiming they’ve been saved by Jesus. They’re not convincing because they give you no reason to believe.

In any case, let it not be supposed by such a comparison that I’m knocking Gilbert-Lecomte or Le Grand Jeu. Theory of the Great Game and The Book Is a Ghost are both valuable contributions to a fuller understanding of the historical surrealist movement, and there are many splendid contributions by other hands in the former I haven’t addressed here. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, Gilbert-Lecomte is most engaging in the latter book’s “Notes & Fragments” section, where, freed from discursive pressure, he can give free rein to his poetic facility. “A man is given, and the flickering lookouts of his senses fix themselves upon a sensible world—an extension of himself,” he writes in “Problem and Parabola.” “Containing within himself all that lies beyond he is contained in the closed vessel of the horizon.” While there’s little to distinguish this thematically from the “monotonous affirmation of unity” running through his work, the expression here is far happier; “the closed vessel of the horizon” is a particularly compelling phrase, above and beyond what it might mean, raising the question of whether expressions of pure belief are more suited to poetry than prose.

Click here to purchase Theory of the Great Game at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015/2016

Winter 2015


Writerly Friendship: An interview with Jill Alexander Essbaum and Jessica Piazza
For these two writers, friendship supersedes competition and instead grows the relationship as they share their appreciation, adoration, and respect for each other. Interviewed by Sarah Suzor

Into The Depths Of Human Soul-Making: An Interview With Clayton Eshleman
In this extended conversation, Eshleman discusses the trajectory of his career and the recent releases of two meaty tomes, A Sulfur Anthology and his Essential Poems (1960-2015). Interviewed by Stuart Kendall


On One: The Writings of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte
Theory of the Great Game & The Book is A Ghost
Two new books of writings illustrate the wider current of poet Gilbert-Lecomte, one of the members of the notorious parasurrealist group Le Grand Jeu. Reviewed by Garrett Caples


Killing and Dying
Adrian Tomine
With his penetrating new collection of short stories, Tomine explores the ebb and flow that makes up the daily surge of human endeavor. Reviewed by Steve Matuszak


Anders Carlson-Wee
In the winning chapbook of the 2015 Frost Place Competition, Carlson-Wee pulls us into the poem’s universe and makes us accept its laws. Reviewed by J.G. McClure


Troy, Michigan
Wendy S. Walters
In Troy, Michigan, Wendy S. Walters turns sonnets into maps that document the terrain of racial oppression. Reviewed by Ashleigh Lambert

Two Seagull Books:
Collected Poems by Rainer Brambach and Seasonal Time Change by Michael Kruger

Michael Kruger and Rainer Brambach are both German-speaking poets, and though born a generation apart, they share a sensibility toward their craft that is remarkably concise, unadorned, and bitingly candid. Reviewed by Peter McDonald

Directory of the Vulnerable
Fabiano Alborghetti
Italian poet Alborghetti’s collection of 43 cantos—his first to appear in English—feeds on the experiences of his fellow citizens affected by a murder case.  Reviewed by Graziano Krätli

K: A 21st Century Canzoniere
I Goldfarb
Modeled on Petrach’s 700-year-old Canzoniere, Goldfarb’s 21st-century update is an epic spiritual love poem for the age of online dating and televised courting. Reviewed by Michael Boughn

A Roll of the Dice
Stéphane Mallarmé
In their new translation, Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark emphasizes the musicality of Mallarmé’s classic poem. Reviewed By Richard Henry


Surrealism in Belgium: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Xavier Canonne
This exhibition catalog from the first major American survey show of Belgian Surrealism amply illustrates the range of visual art produced over 75 years. Reviewed by M. Kasper

Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age
Sven Birkerts
Changing the Subject embodies and performs its central claim that art is a necessary antidote to information.  Reviewed by Scott F. Parker

Destruction Was My Beatrice:
Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century

Jed Rasula
Rasula’s expansive work keeps the reader in a liminal state, a participant and an observer in a constant inside/outside look into Dada. Reviewed by Laura Winton

Life Upon the Wicked Stage: A Memoir
Grace Cavalieri
This new memoir by poet and playwright Cavalieri chronicles a career in literary arts and media by one of America's most knowledgeable and involved literary figures. Reviewed by Daniela Gioseffi

M Train
Patti Smith
M Train is an elegiac exploration of loss, the mystical power of objects that hold sentimental value, the joy to be taken from a good detective story, and the inexorable pull of place. Reviewed by Christopher Luna


Weird Girl and What’s His Name
Meagan Brothers
Brothers’s compassionate novel for young adults explores the ins and outs of love and identity. Reviewed by Jay Besemer


The Drug and Other Stories
Aleister Crowley
The best parts of The Drug offer traces of the bombast and wit so evident in Crowley’s other works. Reviewed By Spencer Dew

The Sellout
Paul Beatty
Beatty’s satirical novel sends up institutionalized racism and political correctness with glee, irritation, and resignation. Reviewed by Calista McRae

A Gothic Soul
Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic
First published in 1900 and hailed as a fundamental work of Czech Decadence, A Gothic Soul presents anxiety-riddled philosophy as told by a nihilistic protagonist. Reviewed by Jeff Alford

Deco Punk: The Spirit of the Age
Edited by Thomas A. Easton and Judith K. Dial
This anthology envisions replacing steampunk with a new literary movement of science-driven fiction set between the two World Wars. Reviewed by Kelsey Irving Beson 

The Creator
Salomo Friedlaender (Mynona)
This novella unfolds as a parable might, delivering a clear moral message: embrace the human capacity for imagination, or risk a reality defined by a crippling allegiance to objectivity. Reviewed by Jesse Freedman

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2015/2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016