But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
An epistolary exchange about the poetics of silence, geography, and history.
Michael Palmer to Rosmarie Waldrop, June 19, 2016
So where should we begin? Your initial query gave me the idea that we might begin with beginnings. Two senses, perhaps, to that: first, the rather mysterious ways a poem “begins” for us; and, second, perhaps our own beginnings in this art and life.
Rosmarie Waldrop to Michael Palmer, June 19, 2016
Your suggestion is good. To begin with beginnings: Most of my poems are triggered by words on paper. The last page of an early chapbook read: “I put the words back where I found them.” Reading and writing have become more and more parts of one single process for me. Of course, not everything I read leads to a poem! But I need to be reading, listening to other voices in order to find the word or phrase that begins something. Often the trigger phrase will be erased in the working process, which makes me glad because it shows that something is happening in the text. Even then, after having a beginning, I keep reading in order to collage found phrases with “my own” words (as if words could be owned!). For example, for The Reproduction of Profiles I was reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Kafka’s stories, and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s The Heat Bird (which Burning Deck had just published).
I’ve wondered if you start mostly with dreams. I remember being astonished to learn that you dream lines, even sometimes quote whole stanzas in your dreams (this must have been in one of your essays). Looking at your Notes for Echo Lakeagain, “The Comet” seems to begin with a Bruno Schulz story, as you signal with the epigraph.
MP to RW, June 20, 2016
This morning I awoke from a series of brief, turbulent dreams of which I now remember nothing. Via the Surrealists, Freud, Jung, and countless others, we have been so inundated with dream material as “subject matter” that I’ve always had a mistrust of any recourse to it per se, just as I’ve always been wary of myth put to glib uses. Yet, maybe paradoxically, I fully acknowledge the fount of life information and materia poetica both dreams and myth offer. During my emotionally turbulent childhood, I was plagued by nightmares and insomnia. That fact alone dictated that I not keep any kind of systematic dream notebook, lest the insomnia return. I have pillaged dreams, and I have dreamed lines, but I have also invented dreams. I take them as a field of potentialities, where, for example, languages I have half forgotten return with some apparent fluency.
Today I received an email request from someone asking permission to post a fairly early poem of mine, “Now I See Them,” on her blog. The poem derived from my reading of the great Soviet-era neuropsychologist A. R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory and includes many altered quotations from that work. The work has never been far from my mind over the years in its portrayal of a man “crippled” by his particular form of memory, his inability to forget. It’s typical of a certain kind of reading that acts as a spur for my own investigations of altered consciousness in various forms, the slant view of language that derives from glossolalia, schizophrenia, oneiric events, fragments of speech snatched from the air or the page, and poetry itself in its most revelatory manifestations. I suppose I have always looked for certain forms of disruption of habitual modes of expression. These allow us to find our way into a poem and an alternative life of mutable forms—they are spurs that derail conventional narrativity and linearity. You mention Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which was a primary source, among many, for me, and from which I once stole regularly, along with his Remarks on Colour.
RW to MP, June 21, 2016
Your mention of Luria’s Mnemonist sent me back to Borges’s “Funes the Memorious,” whose central character, by contrast, seems to live very serenely with his monstrous hypertrophic memory, and not only looks like an old man at nineteen, but also clearly drowns in an infinity of particulars, unable to form any kind of concept or abstraction whatsoever. It’s a horror story. We tend to forget it, seeing more commonly the dangers of abstraction. Well, I’ve worked enough with our ambivalent suspension between the abstract and the concrete. I don’t want to repeat my Driven to Abstraction here!
You’ve said you’re not interested in poetry as the exposition of a subject, but need to begin in the stream, in uncertainty. This rings absolutely right to me. We start in uncertainty and may remain in it for a long time while working on the poem, trying to find out where it wants to go. It’s a process of exploring and questioning—a “language of inquiry,” to quote Lyn Hejinian’s title. This may sound like high seriousness, but it’s actually playful, and allows for typos, puns, and all sorts of disruptions to take over. I’m suspicious of the vatic stance, of the poet as seer—or as Sibyl. But I’m not in favor of just any kind of poeta faber, the category usually opposed to the vates. The poet as maker can be the wrong kind of macher. I’d settle for searcher.
RW to MP, June 22, 2016
Regarding Funes the Memorious, it is the serenity that Borges ascribes to him that intrigues me so much, the possibility of being at home in a completely different world that seems like chaos to me, and the impossible language he tries to develop, naming every particular.
RW to MP, June 25, 2016
Re Funes again: it’s funny how I’ve now mentioned Funes twice and still resisted talking about why total recall seems like such a horror to me. Of course, it’s having been born in Nazi Germany. In fall of 1945, at the age of ten, I would have been inducted into the Bund deutscher Mädel, the female part of the Hitler Youth. I was spared the beginning of indoctrination by a mere four months.
In my postwar adolescence, I gradually learned what had gone on. The first book I remember about the camps was Forest of the Dead by the novelist Ernst Wiechert. It recorded his experience in Buchenwald in 1938, where he’d spent four months for publicly protesting the arrest of a priest who had opposed Nazi control of the Protestant church. On Wiechert’s release from the camp, Goebbels threatened that he’d be killed if he ever protested again. His books were proscribed, and new ones were barred from publication. The brutality Wiechert describes was horrifying, even though his experience occured before the worst, before the camps became death camps, and before the mass deportation and murder of Jews. His camp mates were communists, socialists, and other opponents of the regime (many of them no doubt Jewish).
My mother confiscated the book as unfit for a child, so I must have been pretty young, maybe twelve. What my friends and I held onto as we were growing up was twofold: First, we thought it was good that we were not able to say “they.” We had to face the fact that it was our country and our people who had committed this genocide. Second, we took comfort in the idea that this had been so horrible that it could never happen again—which, alas, has proved to be naive. But it was our anchor.
MP to RW, June 27, 2016
At last, I’ve managed to finish rereading this little text about Funes. I should explain the delay. When I received your note, I went downstairs to my library and retrieved my early New Directions edition of Borges’s Labyrinths, where I imagine I first read the tale. I was surprised at how heavily I’d annotated it, and was overwhelmed with a vague emotion of time passing and—yes—memories of holding the volume in my hands as a young person close to the age of Funes himself and meeting Borges when he was delivering the Norton lectures at Harvard in 1967 and ‘68. The notes and underlinings are those of a student remarking on Borgesian themes and doublings, “differences” and “abstractions,” and so on. I read through them, found myself stifled, and put the book aside. Returning to it a day later, I read Borges’s first paragraph: “I remember… I remember…” And I began to wonder whether this had been an inspiration for Joe Brainard’s “I Remember.” I started to think about Joe, who had somewhat abandoned his “career” in art to become an indefatigable reader, a decision I greatly admired. I remembered various meetings with Joe throughout the years, in New York and at Kenward Elmslie’s house in Vermont, and a final time when he was very ill—and I could not continue with “Funes.” I was perhaps experiencing the paralysis of memory, the paralyzing flood that I think I’m more susceptible to at my age, seventy-three, than I used to be. The sadness of the tale itself is indeed profound on many levels.
Before I managed to finish reading and then rereading “Funes,” I received your email of June 25th. The horrors of the Nazi period have never been far from my thoughts, even as the postwar years brought their own unthinkable atrocities, which continue to this day. I have read, at times obsessively, the memoirs and the histories and much of the literature deriving from the years of the Reich without coming any closer to comprehension. I cannot bring myself to imagine the experience of the victims, or, for that matter, of the perpetrators. I cannot imagine life amid the ruins in the aftermath. I recall my first visit to Germany as a sixteen-year-old, and the realization that I was walking the streets of Hamburg and Bremen with many of those who had willingly or passively participated. I have always been haunted by the question of how I might have behaved under the pressure to conform, to do my part for the Homeland, to burn books and people.
Thinking about my recent trip to St. Petersburg, I’ve also always wondered how I would have reacted to the pressures placed upon artists during the period of Stalin, whether I would have acted honorably. There is no assurance from afar. At one point I realized that I could never fully comprehend what Soviet poets had experienced during that time, or even what my friends from the so-called post-Stalinist years had gone through. Aleksandr Skidan, who was my host recently, has talked about the mutual incomprehension (and mutual sympathy) that the writers of my generation experienced during our exchanges with Soviet contemporaries. Translating and being translated, one must acknowledge at once a series of recognitions and inevitable distances. Do the resulting texts then exist on that lawn of the excluded middle?
I should have added, when you invoked the Sibyl and the vatic mode, that I, too, am suspicious of it. However, I am fascinated by modes of speech, for example the Delphic oracles, where the responsibility for interpretation, often with much at risk, was placed in the hands of the receiver. I wonder about their forms, their music, etc.
RW to MP, July 2, 2016
We had a visit from Laynie Browne, and there was much talk about poetry—and about novels by poets. She is editing a book of essays on that phenomenon. You, apparently, have not been tempted, or have you? We also took a trip to Yale to see the Dada exhibition, which was beautiful. Fine examples of the usual suspects, but also more Suzanne Duchamp than I had seen and two fine pieces by a young German woman I had never heard of: Angelika Hoerle. She was part of the Cologne Dada group around Max Ernst, but died at the age of twenty-three. And then, unexpectedly, there were Rauschenbergs and Jim Dines. After the initial surprise it made total sense to me to stress the continuity of questioning what is art from the early twentieth-century avant-gardes to recent work. You’ve drawn this line, too. We never start from zero.
Re Sibyl: your “Classical Study” sequence is a great send-up of the whole oracular genre. But the lines I marked in particular are what the Master says of billiards:
a game where silence matters
above all, or do I mean sound?
This is both funny and very serious (I’d be tempted to say “profound” except that I dislike that word). It goes straight to the center of poetry, its most fundamental tension and paradox. I’d meant to come back to silence ever since you wrote that lovely phrase, “that well of silences beneath language that constitute the poem’s obscure object of desire.” Yes, and also its matrix. To bring in Edmond Jabès (who has been hovering over this exchange from the beginning), in The Book of Shares, he sees writing as a translation from silence (“which has formed the word”) into more silence (“Silence of the book: a page read”). And: “Writing is an act of silence, allowing itself to be read in its entirety.” Because though writing as an actualization of silence can be read, silence as such remains an outer limit—and, in Jabès, part of all that calls the human being into question: God, death, the infinite, pure potentiality, world. A limit that writing must constantly engage with, that we have to read, translate, interpret: “Our lot is to interpret an unreadable world.”
I’ve always connected Edmond’s situating his work between silence and scream with Zukofsky’s “upper limit music, lower limit speech,” and marveled at how radically Edmond widens the limits, without invalidating Zukofsky’s idea. But even on a less metaphysical plane, there is the silence of the white page, which is terrifying before the poem begins, in which it is embedded, and which verse foregrounds at the end of every line. Even the white space between words that allows us to recognize them—and all the other gaps, breaks, interruptions, etc.
MP to RW, July 15, 2016
I’ve been tempted by the novel at various times and for various reasons, but like the Redeemer in the desert I have beaten back the seduction of such fever dreams. For now. Actually, I have completed one or two in my head of momentous cultural consequence, one in particular that would undoubtedly be termed “pornographic,” that is to say, unacceptably pure of heart.
Since my last note we have moved for the month to our mouse-infested barn on Martha’s Vineyard, where we’ve come for most Julys over many years. As usual, when we arrived, the two splendid and ragged catalpas outside our windows on the South Road side were in their final flowering. I cannot look at them without thinking of Ashbery’s “Catalpas,” from Shadow Train. I stopped by our local library and borrowed a copy of his Collected Poems, 1956–1987. Opening six lines:
All around us an extraordinary effort is being
Something is in the air. The tops of trees are trying
To speak to this. The audience for these events is
Can’t believe them, yet is walking in its sleep,
By twos and threes, on the ramparts in the
Understanding must be introduced now, at no
matter what cost.
Of course, I read such lines differently depending on where I happen to be. The poem’s form of address and the nature of “understanding” seem to evolve accordingly. Right now, from “off-mainland,” the madness of the American killing fields seems to daily bring news of new horrors, while yesterday we received the news of the mass slaughter in Nice during the fireworks celebration for Bastille Day.
Meanwhile, a cardinal in the privet bush by the cottage across from our door. A flash and a glimpse.
Yes, Edmond has hovered over this exchange from the beginning. His articulation of silence as poetry’s necessary ground evokes the notion of potentialities I’ve thought about for many years, of what is recoverable from what we have lost, that is, what there is beneath for which we must listen whenever we come to our work. No mystification here, simply the job of letting loose what otherwise we repress in the daily business of communication and exchange, not that that cannot be rich in itself, but it bears with it a very real danger of amnesia and its consolations. If there is any purpose to poetry at all, it has always seemed to me that it must be heuristic, and must suffer the public consequences and, sometimes, opprobrium, of such an undertaking. So much of the instruction in and practice of poetry today, whether “experimental” or “traditional,” or whatever the label might be, seems shadowed by a kind of institutional Fordism that encourages the production of a standard model that will prove itself acceptable, desirable, and modestly durable. For this, restraint is the key.
One thing about this summer environment is that I find myself in the “company of moths,” and that fact always brings me back to your distant relative, W. G. Sebald, and the scene of opening the lamp in the mountains in Austerlitz, which, in turn, always evokes for me Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains.” My bookCompany of Moths really revolves around the confluence of these images and was deeply influenced by my silent times here, though such silence becomes more and more elusive and rare. At least now, at about ten before midnight, things have grown quite quiet. I do forgive the crickets.
MP to RW, July 17, 2016
I also hadn’t heard of Angelika Hoerle. Such a brief life, and then much of her work destroyed by the Nazis as entartete Kunst [degenerate art]. A breath of life, and an honor to be finally so designated. Rauschenberg really did have much of that Dada spirit, as I think about it now, even in person the couple of times I met him over the years. So ebullient and anarchic in the best sense. His work with Merce Cunningham, and his participation in New York happenings, was never less than entirely spirited and engaging, going back even to that brief moment at Black Mountain and the famous event with Olson and others. Cage, too, is ever present for me, with his particular takes on silence, and his early scholarship on Erik Satie, whom some have called a proto-Dadaist. All part of the true information that helped me along the way, as I groped for some possible alternative path among the various arts, never privileging poetry above the others, but always finding myself enmeshed in it. Thus, as I think of it, the title of my early book Without Music.
RW to MP, July 18, 2016
I’m glad you sent me back to Ashbery’s “Catalpas” and Shadow Train. Yes indeed, “understanding” changes. I’ve always admired your “Seven Poems Within a Matrix for War,” and was struck again as I browsed through At Passages. We now seem to live always in a matrix of war and savagery (not to mention the concomitant bigotry, racism, and insanity) and you masterfully hone in on the strange effect of mediated violence:
The images effected a hole
in the approximate center of my body.
I experienced no discomfort
to my somewhat surprise.
I just heard a terrific bird racket and spotted five blue jays in the branches of the holly and on the neighbor’s fence screaming their heads off and gradually flying away. Only then did I notice a cardinal in the tree. Could he have chased off five blue jays? Last year, I observed a fierce aerial battle where a cardinal defeated a blue jay—but five?
It’s curious that you bring up potentiality in connection with Jabès. No doubt prompted by Giorgio Agamben, I have interpreted his cluster of: God and His name, infinite, silence, nothingness, unreadable world, and the “book [that] in its actual state never surrenders” as potentiality that can never be actualized, that our translating, interpreting, reading cannot but narrow down to the merest fraction, and thus betray.
Edmond doesn’t use the word puissance itself in these contexts, but it seems right. As it does for that ground of our poems—except, unlike you, I don’t think it’s what is recoverable—or only very partially. (I am a Jabès-follower!)
Re Company of Moths, I’ve been meaning to ask, why “Apollinaire the Duck”?
MP to RW, July 29, 2016
A little slow getting back to you. I was ill for several days. Nothing serious, but it knocked me out—I took the sleep cure. Astonishing, in fact. I would sleep fitfully through the night, then an hour in late morning, then a couple of hours during the afternoon. This “other state” has always interested me, though in actuality I find it terribly frustrating. Writing was impossible and reading difficult. I managed to finish Benoît Peeters’s biography of Derrida, Luc Sante’s The Other Paris, and Laurent Binet’s HHhH: A Novel, which I found terribly glib in its self-conscious post-modernism. (Perhaps I am being unfair.)
Anyway, today, during a driving rain, we went to the annual West Tisbury Library book sale, a large affair in the Grange Hall with many volumes being practically given away. There, among other things, I found an unread copy of Allen Mandelbaum’s The Metamorphoses of Ovid, which I’ve always thought captured the astonishing flow of the Latin poet’s verse really well. Also a copy of Mrs. Dalloway paired with A Room of One’s Own in a nice hardcover edition.
In an earlier note you asked about the temptations of the novel. During my junior year in high school, a reading of Mrs. Dalloway was transformative for me (as had been Moby Dick the summer before). While we were at the American Academy in Rome in November and December, I found a copy of Mrs. D on the bookshelf in our apartment. I hesitated to pick it up, wondering if it would bring me anything new at this stage, having read it numerous times over the years. I began to read it and was amazed by how fresh it was, almost as if I had never read it before, let alone written about it. I’m used to this when rereading the work of poets I admire (e.g., your “Inserting the Mirror” the second week here), but somewhat less so with the novel. It was a cheap, acid-riddled English paperback, and it began to disintegrate in my hands. The noxious fumes of the old paper became unbearable, and I found myself throwing it in the garbage with enormous regret. Unfinished. I got home to San Francisco and couldn’t find my copy of Mrs. D, stolen by a friend no doubt, the same one, I suspect, who made off with Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory in Robert Hulot-Kentor’s excellent translation, and several other volumes. So today Mrs. D and I are reunited. She still claims that she will buy the flowers herself.
One reason I started thinking about Mrs. Dalloway again was that I was working with the choreographer Margaret Jenkins on some new chamber pieces for a small number of dancers and attempting to create an interior monologue for one of them. Woolf was the presiding spirit, but something of Kafka’s Metamorphosis also found its way into the text after I attended a couple of early rehearsals. I am utterly undone at parties, pathetically incapable of small talk and repartee. I must make the (sometimes) formidably taciturn John Coetzee appear loquacious. And yet here is Woolf, plumbing the nuances, secrets, and echoes, above all the unspoken (the unspeakable?), of just such “communication.” The texts I create for dance come in all sorts of forms, often involving multiple voices, as well as verbal fragmentation, but I suspect that much of my desire to approach narrative, or some facsimile of it, is satisfied by this work. Of course, the novels that I’ve written in my head, and occasionally rewritten, are of a different order. It’s lovely that they don’t need a publisher (or an audience, come to think of it).
As for potentiality, not recoverable, as you say. And yet. There’s a seminar, at least, in this, though I suppose I won’t be teaching it. And I cannot help thinking that the language of the poem, and the theater of Edmond’s pages, in the agonistic sense of that term, may at least unearth and uncover—or surround in certain ways—what would otherwise be unheard, even if the essential silence remains.
As to the “why” of “Apollinaire the Duck,” I’m trying to come up with a suitably gnomic response—perhaps when I get back to San Francisco next week.
RW to MP, July 30, 2016
I had meant to send the note below before we went on our ill-starred trip. Keith fell entering a subway car in NYC. I was trying to hold him up, but the next moment found myself on the floor of the car, my arms under his armpits, but from his chest down he had disappeared into the gap between car and platform. Luckily, people rushed to pull us both up in good time. He had a very nasty scrape along his shinbone but otherwise seemed unhurt—except that it took him a couple of days to just sleep the shock off. After first appearing to heal nicely, the leg got infected, and we’ve come home early. Anyway, here’s the note that was to follow your remarks on Without Music:
What had you eliminated indeed?! Luckily you didn’t succeed in eliminating either words or music!
We saw the Black Mountain show in Boston. We also caught a film of a very early solo by Merce Cunningham as well as a reconstruction of another of his pieces by a Boston dance group. We saw him first in the early ’60s, when we were grad students in Ann Arbor, and our composer friends Bob Ashley, Gordon Mumma, and a few others started the ONCE Group. They brought Cage, too, whom we then were fortunate to see more often at Wesleyan. I actually played the flute in the first ONCE concert—though not altogether adequately, I’m afraid.
Your mention of Merce reminds me to ask about your work with Margaret Jenkins. How did this poetry-dance collaboration actually work? And how did it affect you?
MP to RW, July 31, 2016
It is so utterly shocking, to think of Keith literally slipping into that gap we are told again and again to mind. I’m glad nothing even worse occurred, as easily might have. It must have been terrifying. And yet, of course, I can’t help thinking of the gap in which we garden, at whatever risk, you and Keith so determinedly and lucidly in your particular ways. I have been thinking so much these days about your modes of poetic thought, if I may say it clumsily, as a form of counter-thought to the assertions of received opinion, received expression, agreement to “terms.” And how, from this resistance comes a body of inquiring work that refuses any point of stasis.
I loved the ONCE group, and—once—saw and heard them perform at Harvard, when I was an undergraduate. They were doing exactly what I thought I needed to hear. And Ashley and Mumma went on from there to an amazing body of work. They affirmed a defiant creative possibility.
Back to San Francisco the day after tomorrow. I hope Keith is okay.
RW to MP, August 10, 2016
Thank you. We all garden the gap in our various ways. “We,” that is, “the company,” as Bob Creeley used to say, of poets and writers concerned with inquiry. Now you’ve deftly placed us all on an “Isle of Dogs”! (As you see, The Laughter of the Sphinx has arrived and is making me glad.)
In your poems there seems to be a strong sense of address—to the “company” as much as (or more than?) to private friends. All the dedications, “Letter to…” etc. I also have the sense that it has gotten stronger over the years. Have you been aware of a gradual turn outward, or, rather, of a gradual focusing of the outward thrust? Has it been a deliberate project of naming your company?
Hopscotching back to your email of July 29th.
Not long ago I reread Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and felt similarly amazed and again overwhelmed, especially, like you, by all the unspoken things that accompanied both speech and gestures, but also by the middle section suddenly zooming out into a cosmic perspective where all our human events and concerns, even World War I, happen in brief parentheses while the bulk of the text is given over to how the elements work on slowly dilapidating the house. I must reread The Waves.
I hope you are completely recovered and got back to San Francisco well, without a relapse—
MP to RW, August 22, 2016
You are quite right. The sense of address has grown over the years, the idea of “speaking with.” I’m reminded that in graduate school, I wrote at least one paper concerned with voice and address in Dante’s Divine Comedy, about how Dante hails people and addresses them and enters into conversation, revealing particularity and complexity and emotional resonance, even in Hell. I’ve been aware of this gradual “turn,” as you phrase it, and it is perhaps an outward turn, but it hasn’t been exactly a deliberate project, more an evolution that the work seems to have called for, or even demanded. I recall a late-night conversation many years ago with Edmond Jabès and his wife Arlette, who were staying with us at your suggestion during his brief California reading tour. I had said to him that in writing I had trouble staying beneath the surface, maintaining the depth I felt necessary. He replied something like, “But you must come up to the surface at times in order to breathe and for the poem to breathe, or you will drown.” Perhaps this sense of address is part of an effort to breathe more fully and acknowledge the other in making the work—the role and presence of the other. The dance company I work with from time to time has encouraged this tendency and is constantly reminding me of the role of the physical body, of space itself, in voicing the work.
I found the Derrida biography interesting. It helped me think through his complex relationship to his Algerian-Jewish heritage, intertwined, paradoxically, with his profound engagement with the French language, a relationship in no small part defined by his alterity. It also usefully traces the history of his philosophical battles, both with himself and with others, and his deeply ambivalent relationship to the very institutions that provided him, sometimes grudgingly and sometimes adoringly, with a livelihood. One comes away with the sense of a deeply enigmatic thinker, drawn to a certain poetics of making whose roots can be found in Heidegger and, above all, in Husserlian phenomenology. I’m not really qualified to speak of such things in technical depth, and it would probably be wiser for me to take Beckett’s approach. When asked about philosophy, which he read with great interest, he would simply say, “I don’t understand it,” and deny any engagement. I am not entirely certain of my relationship to philosophy. I started reading it when I was very young. I remember a paperback edition I had of Plato when I was still in grammar school. Philosophy is something I enjoy, even when I can’t understand it. In that regard, I’m what Gilles Deleuze once referred to approvingly as a “non-philosophical reader of philosophy.” But of course, I have always measured “poetic logic” against the limits of formal logic and reveled in that naked lunch on the Lawn of the Excluded Middle.
Since your last letter, we hosted a brilliant young man from St. Petersburg named Ivan Sokoloff and his partner, an engaging poet whose work I’m not yet very familiar with. Ivan was assigned as my translator during our brief time in St. Petersburg last November. During his stay we talked quite a bit about Russian Absurdism, Oberiu, and I thought back to your mention of the Dada exhibition. It goes without saying that I am neither a neo-dadaist nor a neo-absurdist, yet I think my work may well in a certain sense be grounded in absurdity, both logical and existential. That is: grounded in groundlessness. In fact, to be committed to the possibility of poetry in America today, one can only say, “Credo quia absurdum,” and move on. A thought at least. But this brings me back full circle to Derrida: the biography informed me that he was named “Jackie” by his family, after Jackie Coogan, the child actor from Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid; perhaps the master key to Deconstruction lies here.
Well, “Apollinaire the Duck” will have to wait.
RW to MP, August 24, 2016
Your conversation with Edmond about depth reminds me so much of my early striving for depth (my German education!) and gradual discovery of the importance of surface, along with that of the body, as not just a necessary support of but an integral part of Geist, mind. The relation of surface and depth in poetry seems very complex—and mysterious. I’ve come more and more to think that all we can consciously work on is the surface, the form. Depth, to vary Wittgenstein, must look after itself. And yet there is clearly a connection and interaction between the two, but it seems to be part of what is not analyzable in the process.
As I told you, your new book has been giving me much pleasure. It is certainly written, as you say, “with one eye toward dying,” and you unflinchingly accept this eye’s cosmic perspective where we—and all we do—are mere flyspecks (if that!) and nothing means anything. However, your other eye remains on the details of this world and helps fashion those beautiful lines that make us not give a damn and continue to “shape the still air,” which is itself a good image for the glorious futility of what we do. The one time you enumerate details of physical deterioration in a poem, the “tell-tale signs of wear”—with remarkable restraint, given how much our lives are now taken up with illness, ailments, creaky joints!!—you do it with that marvelously absurd (!) scene:
I have removed my heart
and placed it on the deck
the better for all to examine it
And it takes the “three-headed lady” to note that “It is good, good enough” to “sail on.” Lovely irony to title this “Poem Devoid of Meaning.”
The surprise for me is the very short, stripped-down, aphoristic poems. It made me think again of Goethe’s claim that style tends to become abstract with age, that the old Titian no longer painted velvet, but the idea of velvet. But my favorite poem in the volume, “Storm,” immediately contradicts this. As does the fact that you have been cultivating a degree of abstractness for a long time (as I also have). Maybe we’ve been prematurely old!
MP to RW, September 1, 2016
Maybe we have been “prematurely old.” I remember that a couple of decades ago, Margy Jenkins and her dance company were in New York to perform. When she phoned me, I asked Margy where she was staying. Astonishingly, she replied, the Hotel Wentworth on 46th Street, the same hotel in which I lived for most of my childhood (my father was the manager). I told her about this. Ever inquisitive, Margy then sought out anyone there who might remember me. She found a man named Paul Madonna, whom I remembered well. She phoned me again and recounted that she had asked him what I was like as a child. “Oh, he was never a child,” came the reply. I was both amused and chilled by this. I had been taught that I must mind my manners at all times in the hotel lobby and public spaces. And so I mostly did, at least when in sight of guests. Add to that that I was attending a private school and had to wear a jacket and tie to and from school each day. I must have appeared as a strange superannuated homunculus always shaking hands and sayinghowdoyoudo. It could not have been long after that that I began to conceive of myself as a secret agent with a secret life and an inner language that was my own. A few years later, I began to build my personal canon of “rogues and riddlers,” as Daniel Heller-Roazen puts it: the Provençal poets and the Minnesingers, Villon, Catullus, the Greek lyric poets, the Skalds, Emily Dickinson in her fashion, Rimbaud, the various historical avant-gardes, and so on. From there to the discovery of the New American Poetry, among other things, was a natural enough step. And so the fraught dialectic of the inner and outer life—or lives—perhaps no more analyzable than the play, as you note, of surface and depth.
It was certainly poetry and the company of poets and artists in various media that opened the doors and windows and let some air and light in and made some sort of conversation, at times a semi-private conversation, possible. Here, I go back to your observation about the “turn outward” of my more recent work, but also to your own frequent dedications to others, such as your “Letter Box” for Claude Royet-Journoud and your “Jack in the Box” in memory of Jack Hawkes, both under the sign of Joseph Cornell’s “enigma boxes.” Here, it’s as if you are addressing another somewhat conversationally, yet happily acknowledging the richly enigmatic nature of utterance and reference. In the piece for Claude, you write of “A different relation to knowing” where “the pursuit cannot define the object of pursuit.” In a similar spirit, Clark Coolidge once spoke of the poet as a bus driver who cannot read the destination printed on the exterior sign above the windshield. I wonder how exactly we are framing poems such as the dedication to Claude or the memorialization of Hawkes, what in the poem’s nature as address we are pointing toward.
Goethe’s remark on the late Titian: that is it precisely. I think, as with late Monet and others, we are also witnessing the aging of both the hand and the eyesight, and the revised economy, if that is the word, mandated by such changes. And the acknowledgement of the unrepresentable. And the gradual metamorphosis of memory.
RW to MP, September 5, 2016
That’s a funny glimpse of you as a child. No wonder you looked early for rebel-models. I was not at all well-behaved; rather, I was a tomboy climbing trees—though I felt hurt when our baker called me a guttersnipe. Also, as there was no school in my hometown from February 1945 to January 1946, from the age of nine to ten, I was running wild for almost a year except for my time with a traveling theater company in the fall. We drove from village to village in an American army truck. In the afternoons I played a dwarf in Snow White and in the evenings I was the son of a Russian nobleman in Frank Wedekind’s The Love Potion. It was at puberty that I became well-behaved in my turn, in fact shy and, mostly, confused. Ever since, I seem to have proceeded by muddling through—which, according to Robert Musil, is an Austrian national trait, but southern Germany seems to share it.
In writing, it is always afterwars, if then, that I find out what I’ve been doing. It’s definitely a “different relation to knowing” where “the pursuit cannot define the object of pursuit.” In the poem for Claude, this is an allusion to his comparing writing to the investigation of a detective who doesn’t know what he’s investigating. I’ve always loved Paul Valéry’s thought that the poet enters the forest of language with the express purpose of getting lost, and Cervantes’ image of working on the back of a tapestry, stitching patterns of colored threads without knowing what the picture on the front is going to look like. And, of course, there’s Gertrude Stein: “they don’t know where they are going, but they are on their way.” I’m happy to add Clark’s bus driver to the collection!
MP to RW, September 10, 2016
I cannot imagine your experience with the traveling theater company at that age. I envy it in a way, given the repressive nature of my childhood, its relentless fixedness. To wander and play roles, to go from place to place, to be among such company as might have been nurturing or oppressive, or some combination of the two. Fellini comes to mind, that mixture of magic and sadness, dislocation and loss. But at that age, how did you maintain or begin to develop a sense of self, all the while playing roles? Added to that, the devastation of the postwar moment. Were the people of that company sympathetic? Protective? Had they been significantly part of the war? (I guess almost everyone was in some way—sorry for that bêtise.)
Pursuing a little bit that notion of Claude’s detective not knowing what he is investigating and Valéry’s poet entering the forest of language in order to get lost, I am reminded of Luis Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh. In one chapter, speaking of his dreams, he tells of a recurrent one: He is traveling on a train with his luggage, but he doesn’t know what the destination is. The train stops at a station along the way, and he descends briefly to stretch his legs on the platform. Immediately, the train speeds away without him. Though he is interested in his dreams and the relentlessly enigmatic nature of his films, which often incorporate aspects of his dreams, he totally resists explanation, particularly psychoanalytic, while leaving open the field of speculation, always insistent that it remain open. At least, that’s how I remember it.
I must admit to a hopeless romance of train travel that has been with me since early childhood. The actual romance of it is now almost entirely gone, of course, here in the States particularly, but also in Europe as the speed of the Trains à Grande Vitesse replaces lenteur. Lenteur is all, the rhythm of the tracks as you pass through villages and have a little meal and then fall asleep. What is prosody for? Or Eros? And what matter if we don’t know where we’re going? Tony Judt wrote beautifully about this in The Memory Chalet, composed as he was dying painfully and prematurely (and bravely). I’m always drawn to films that take place on trains, whether melodramas or whatever. Somewhere, Anna May Wong is waiting for me to board.
As to the theater as I’ve experienced it, perhaps my favorite part, after the weeks or even months of rehearsal, is the final dress rehearsal, with all the possible mishaps that may or may not attend it. I will often be sitting in the audience seats, moving from one to another to check sound and stage lighting, taking notes. The house is dark, and who knows what could possibly follow?
RW to MP, September 15, 2016
That fall with the traveling theater company was not nearly as romantic as you seem to think. It certainly was better than being with my parents, whose main occupation at that time, besides quarreling, was bicycling from village to village to barter what possessions they had for food. There was, on the one hand, a good deal of freedom within the structure of meals, travel, rehearsal, and performance. On the other hand, there was the boredom of doing the same thing every day and the need for discipline. I was glad when school started again! I remember being reprimanded one night when I wasn’t up to par. It was impressed on me that no matter how bored I was, or how small the audience, one did one’s absolute best every time. The role-playing was fun and seemed natural. A sense of self I don’t think I was concerned with. In fact, I’m not sure I ever had much of that sense. I’ve always felt scattered into whatever I did. When I put my first Selected Poems together I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much continuity there was from one book to the next, that there was unity in what I had thought were totally different, discrete works.
I’m fascinated by your collaboration with Margaret Jenkins and her company, by the way the two parts seem to evolve in the interaction. When I have worked with a painter it has always been the painter reacting to my finished text or me reacting to a painter’s finished piece. Only in the poems of “the 3rd Waldrop” did Keith’s and my contributions have a similar mutual openness and growth. Come to think, to some extent I have that feeling of collaboration when I translate. My translating changes the original text for me. It changes my reading of the text, while, of course, leaving the words on paper as they are! Conversely, going back to the original after working apart from it for a while, I find I’ll have to change the translation again. So there’s a constant mutual transformation of both original (as I read it) and my text, the translation. Of course, in this sense all reading is a collaboration.
MP to RW, September 22, 2016
Our “time” for this little project is growing short. That leaves me with a certain sadness, knowing that in a sense we have only begun to exchange thoughts. Such as: time itself, the way it is manifested in such work as ours; poetry seems to mold and reconfigure time through its measures, to capture it, only inevitably to submit. Translation: the ways in which we are translated while doing such work. I’ve done relatively little translation compared to your heroic contributions, yet I have never failed to be deeply affected and somewhat changed by the texts I have attempted in ways I do not fully understand. At times, I’ve also undertaken translations solely for my own use, so to speak, such as all of Catullus early on, just to come closer to the work, and some Sextus Propertius, for the challenge, and Baudelaire and Rimbaud now and again. One interesting thing is that whenever I’ve translated work I thought I knew well, it’s as if I’d never really read it before. And yes, a tacit sense, as you mention, of collaboration with the author herself, living or dead. “Active form”: I feel that we have both, in our particular ways, interrogated that idea throughout our work, or perhaps have been interrogated by it, as the work itself has mutated under our hands in ways that we could not have foreseen.
I did not assume that the period with the raveling (sorry, “traveling”) theater company was necessarily “romantic,” though I may have given that impression. I also thought it might have been, at least in part, a very unpleasant experience at an extremely difficult and dislocating time in your life. It sounds like a little of both.
Much of my work with Margaret Jenkins does “evolve in the interaction,” as does our work with composers, lighting and set designers, and costumers. At times, we’ve used work of mine that already existed in print, but even then, the placement, the voicing, the interconnectedness with the sound score and the choreography, has always made it new, so to speak. We might take an existing text and break it apart, or modify it electronically, or distribute it among multiple voices in space, or sometimes even dissolve it into pure sound. More often, though, I write as we go along, and as I absorb information from activity in the studio. Often the “texts” that result from that have little interest, at least to me, outside their performance context, disappearing when the lights go out, like the dance itself. I could go on for hours about this. In fact, there’s a lot of information about this online, including an interview conducted by Sarah Riggs some years ago, as well as other interviews in which the subject has come up. Naturally, my sense of voicing and space, measure and duration, have all been influenced by this experience with others, my sense of “company” as well.
Gozo Yoshimasu read and performed two nights ago in San Francisco, with Forrest Gander offering the translations. As always with Gozo, I felt he was exploring a “beyond”: beyond text, beyond language itself, and mapping an unmappable territory, one open to endless mutation and improvisation, such that “text” itself is only a provisional term for a gathering of gestures. Wonderful, really, the depth of his engagement and commitment.
RW to MP, October 2, 2016
Thanks for copying me on your eleven elegies. Their urgency is intense. I’ll send a couple of poems also in the next days.
To come back to translation deeply affecting, even changing us: It’s not really surprising. Even reading a book or a poem may change us—how much more translating, which is so much more intense an encounter. I’ve of course felt it most strongly with translating Edmond over so many years. One traceable change is for me encapsulated in his phrase, je suis le livre. When I first encountered it, I opted for the tamer meaning “I follow the book,” though with regrets for the lost “I am the book.” From cowardice? From anti-metaphysical defensiveness? The phrase haunted me, and I began to see that I needed to open up to that enormous identification of the “I” and the book, which, as you know, held for Edmond all the possible words in the language, much like the Name of God in the Jewish tradition. I had to follow him into that realm of totality and potentiality. It took me still longer, till Reluctant Gravities, to allow some of his ideas into my work, like that of the “non-place.”
Gozo Yoshimasu read here also with Forrest. It was the first time I heard him. It’s as if he wanted to take the words back, across a bridge of gestures, deeper and deeper into the body.
Michael Palmer has lived in San Francisco since 1969. He has collaborated with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company for over forty years, as well as with many composers and visual artists. His most recent poetry collection is The Laughter of the Sphinx (New Directions, 2016). He translates poetry and prose, principally from French, Brazilian Portuguese, and Russian, and has taught at various universities around the world.
Rosmarie Waldrop’s Gap Gardening: Selected Poems came out from New Directions in 2016. She is the author of the novels The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter and A Form/of Taking/It All (Northwestern University Press, 2001), the collected essays Dissonance (if you are interested) (University of Alabama Press, 2005), and a memoir, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès (Wesleyan University Press, 2002). She translates German and French poetry and coedits Burning Deck Press with Keith Waldrop in Providence, Rhode Island.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
Sign up for the BOMB Retrospective newsletter to receive curated selections from each decade of the archive.