Friday, October 30, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Around Goose Island

The Nellie, a hunting skiff, swung to her anchor with a sputter of the Evinrude, and was at rest. Around Goose Island, gray fog hung like cling wrap over a glass bowl of green beans in creamy mushroom soup. The blue-gray-green water, which only occasionally evinced the temerity to slip-slap wistfully at the gunwales, had the uncanny glare of a badly decoupaged brick. A crisp cold front had passed overnight; the air was filled with the calls of migrating ducks and geese; the waters surely abounded also with schooling bass, frisky now, finally, following their corpulent summer. One cormorant, then ten, then one hundred passed in wavering lines, like oil-stains across the November sky. The only thing for it was to come to with our thermoses of Celebes Kalossi coffee (black, neither cream nor sugar), and wait for some unseen flock of geese to escape the fog's greedy palms and pass near our reach . . .

I'm hoping to win the 2010 Federal Duck Stamp competition with this entry:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Louis Zukofsky and the Hidden Dangers of Haiku

Everyone is mad at Paul Zukofsky (links stolen from a list posted October 27, 2009 on Ron Silliman's blog, an author who many people are mad at all the time).

I've never been interested in writing about Louis Zukofsky*, although I like his work a lot. The American Poets Project volume Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems, edited by Charles Bernstein, served as my first real introduction to Zukofsky's work, though I'd read bits and pieces over the years. The Zukofsky Selected fits perfectly in a coat pocket and I read it a lot while waiting around for car repairs and doctor visits, surreptitiously killing time during boring church services, etc. The larger volume Louis Zukofsky: Complete Short Poetry seems, unfortunately, to be out of print, but I bought a used copy last year. It's not as portable as the Selected, but it's worth reading. I'd quote from some of my favorite Zukofsky poems here, but I fear getting sued, so I won't.

A few days ago, while flipping open pages of the Complete Short Poetry, I wrote down a word that leaped out at me from any random page I turned to until I had a list of eighty-seven words. I stopped at eighty-seven words because I became bored with the exercise. I typed out all the words in order and then got the great idea that I could separate them by "threes," mostly, though there are some twos and fours, as well as a couple ones, and create little haiku (I don't dare write "Hi, Kuh"). I didn't mix and match words; that is, I didn't think "word twenty-four would be better with word fifty-eight." Instead, twenty-four follows twenty-three and precedes twenty-five. The only place I fudged my system was switching the words "spider" and "grass" because I'm interested in spiders, and I thought the reference to Agelenopsis spiders was simply too good to pass up.

Haiku are dangerous things to write. They're like popcorn shrimp; easy to eat a lot of, but surprisingly hard to digest once you've eaten so many, after which you wonder, "why did I eat all that crap?" (replace "write" and "written" for "eat" and "eaten" and you'll get a sense of the dangers of haiku). It's also easy to make any banal observation seem intensely prophetic or sublime if one twists it into a haiku. And many will note that you don't even have to follow the general rules everyone learns, or used to learn, in fourth grade English, that a haiku has three lines of five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables, respectively; the poems typically have a seasonal specific element, etc. etc. So there! (I flatter myself to imagine I would receive angry comments in response to my jokes about haiku; it is, indeed, a beautiful form and there are many great examples, collections, and varieties. However, it's an oft-abused form as well, such that sometimes haiku seems to be to poetry what pornography is to the internet: so widespread [pardon the pun] that hardly anyone pays it much attention anymore. It's everywhere and always there and never going away.)

The eighty-seven words I found in Louis Zukofsky: Complete Short Poetry are words that could appear and have appeared countless times anywhere English is written. I happened to find them in a collection of poems by Louis Zukofsky. I don't think that means anything. Have I stolen Zukofsky's ideas or poems? I don't think so. Nor do I think this exercise means anything, really. Randomly generated haiku and poems are not novelties, but some of the haiku cobbled together from the eighty-seven words found in the Louis Zukofsky work are uncannily coherent as haiku. In some of the haiku, semi-intelligible statements and images crawl out of the pile like a pill bug from a rotting log despite the fact that the words were selected more or less at random. I didn't write the haiku, but nether did Louis Zukofsky. His stuff is much better, but you'll have to read it for yourself--and keep it to yourself! We mustn't let anyone know about Louis Zukofsky . . .

Louis Zukofsky and the Hidden Dangers of Haiku

A the beginning
in Thyme semblance--
wakes towing chicory

who happily gave
us mother Bach
horses time kisses

cinquefoil grass spider
sleepily lioness exalted:
five cradle ducks

winter snows fuzzed:
fall wood love--
Lascaux barely Valentine

breath potato ticks
body float

shadow villages
stonelike honeysuckle;
goldenrod epic

frigid her ray tomb . . .
Vesper Libra.
poet sabers window

clear cigarette birds
march music

sparrows paradise
blue barefoot flowers

bride flags love:
moist hush sea.
how sweet passion!

translucent Buddhist piping:
shall mind's economic mantis
butterfly foam?

(That's a very good question!)

*And I'm not mad at his son, Paul. I hope he makes a million bucks.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Apostrophe Flies

Here is an excerpt from a peculiar volume of natural history found in a used book and records store in Boston, near Fenway Park, in September 1998, on the day of Mo Vaughn's last regular season game as a member of the Red Sox. The original volume consists of 2500, unnumbered, beautifully hand-illustrated pages encased in a hand-sewn vellum binding and cover with velour accents stretched over mahogany boards. It was published in a limited edition of 257 copies, intended for subscribers, of which there seems to have been none. A number of pages are missing from the "Boston copy" (presumably dealers and collectors cut the plates from the book in order to sell them separately), but the following excerpt gives some sense of the scope of the ambitious multi-volume natural history of the Parenthesis. (Larger versions of the plates can be seen by "clicking" on the images, below).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Essential Bird

The Cincinnati Tablet was discovered during an excavation of an Adena mound in downtown Cincinnati in 1841, along with several skeletons and other artifacts. It was initially thought to be a hoax, but eventually similar tablets were found in Ohio and other parts of the Adena culture's range.

Many of the tablets from Ohio share similar engraved designs or motifs, which are sometimes doubled or mirrored or seemingly purposely abstracted from already abstracted sources. The designs have been variously interpreted as representing Aztec-style horned serpents, "raptorial birds" (as opposed to "birdy birds?"), constellations, human skulls, assorted anthropomorphic figures including gods, shamans (if it's old, mysterious, and we don't understand it, it must be the work of shamans, after all), etc.

The designs are idiosyncratic and the meanings or messages perhaps impossibly inscrutable to anyone other than the Adena who made them or used them. Some of the tablets have grooves on the reverse side. What are those for? The tablets are generally the size of a postcard, maybe a little larger. Were they tattoo or body art kits, some have wondered? (Duncan Caldwell's "Two Undescribed Adena Tablets and Some Speculations as to their Significance" is a well-illustrated account of a number of Adena tablets, including the Cincinnati Tablet, and presents some theories on how the tablets were used and what they meant. The Cincinnati Tablet illustration below is from Caldwell's article, but I think it's a reproduction of an illustration from yet another source).

The discovery of the Berlin Tablet, which seems rather clearly to depict a bird, albeit a fanciful and stylized one, led many researchers to see similar bird motifs in a number of other known Adena tablets. If you look at the Berlin Tablet and compare it to the Wilmington Tablet, you can see a similarity in the basic "bird" shape--"The Essential Bird" as I read in Robert N. Converse's account of Ohio Adena tablets in his book The Archaeology of Ohio--although the design in the Wilmington Tablet is doubled or mirrored. It's harder to see the bird(s) in the mirrored, abstract images engraved on the Cincinnati Tablet:

but maybe they're there.

(You can see the Cincinnati Tablet or a copy of it, at least, at the Cincinnati Museum Center).

Can the basic attributes of the essential bird--head, wings, talons, tail--be depicted in a language we might use and know in a stylized manner similar to an Adena tablet, but without poaching whatever it is they intended the tablets to signify or represent? Does such an attempt merely look like graffiti? Should it be scratched into asphalt or concrete--the materials we're surrounded by--rather than sandstone, which the Adena often used? Can "the essential bird," whatever that might mean, exist today when we prefer our images of birds to be accurate to the last barbule and filtered through expensive lenses straight into our eyeballs or onto powerful memory cards or trapped in nylon nets and cataloged and marked like trophies? (Not that there's anything wrong with those approaches . . . who am I to say? I've taken part in all of them).

Maybe this is our best example of The Essential Bird:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Two Bugs

Two damselflies from 2008. They're not around anymore, but others that look just like them were this summer.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Unfortunately, English is the only language in which I'm fluent, and that is often arguable in itself. But I read a lot of poetry that has been translated into English. I'm particularly interested in Chinese poetry, particularly wilderness poetry, sometimes called rivers-and-mountains poetry, which has a rich tradition among Chinese poets and visual artists. Or so I've read. Not being able to read even a single Chinese character, I often wonder, though, if I really like Chinese poetry or if what I actually like is the modern sensibility of these poems as they've been translated by the likes of Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton, to name just a few of the prominent translators of the past fifty-plus years.

Each translator has his or her own style, and there are different approaches a translator can employ that radically or subtly change the way a poem comes across to a reader. When you're reading a poem in translation, particularly if it was written originally in a language you can't read, you are totally in the hands of the translator: he or she becomes the surrogate for the poet. So in the case of David Hinton's translations, is it Hinton's voice that I enjoy or is it the voices of the poets he's translated? I don't know. But I do know I like Hinton's work.

Here as an example is a piece written by Chia Tao (779-843) and translated by David Hinton in his excellent book Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (2005, New Directions, New York, New York).

Sent to a Master of Silence on
White-Tower Mountain

Knowing you've returned to White-Tower,
I gaze into mountain distances, late skies

clearing. Mind tranquil in a stone house,
moon-shadow lingers across frozen lakes.

Thin cloud feathers into scraps and away.
Ancient trees fall and dry into firewood.

Past midnight, who hears stone chimes?
The cragged summit on West Peak is cold.

Lean, concise, compact lines. A subtle enjambment between the first and second couplets, which creates a pleasing, soothing flow; the simple, direct pacing of the lines throughout the poem express the sense of an enlightened individual's "tranquil mind" as a part of the greater, wilder, ancient and ever-changing world. It's very much a modern poem, to our eyes and ears and perhaps even our sensibilities. Yet it was written over 1000 years ago. How modern the "ancient" Chinese poets were!

A few years ago, I became aware of the work of an interesting group of poets collectively called "The Moth Wing Cold Book Poets." These anonymous poets are part of a tradition that is perhaps 500 years old. I quote here from a limited-edition booklet titled Selected Translations From Moth Wing Cold Book, which served as my introduction to this interesting poetic collective:

"We know little about the group of poets who created the poems of Moth Wing Cold Book . . . . We know this much: some of the Moth Wing Cold Book poets are Chinese; some are not; all have chosen to work anonymously, allowing various translator-interpreters of their poems to be closely identified with the 'content' of the poems.


We believe that the [Moth Wing Cold Book] poems were initially written in Chinese, translated by the poets into other languages--French, English, Arabic, and Latin (?!) [sic] are among those identified as source languages for the poems--and then translated back, literally word-for-word into Chinese. Thus, the current English translations are at least fourth-level interpretations of the source material. It is not clear why the Moth Wing Cold Book poets work in this unconventional manner--writing, translating, retranslating, then giving away their work for additional translation and publication--but it is a group tradition that goes back an estimated five hundred years!"

I was surprised recently to stumble upon a Moth Wing Cold Book poet's translation or interpretation of the Chia Tao poem, "Sent to a Master of Silence on White-Tower Mountain." This poem has apparently been floating around, as it were, but has not yet been formally collected into the body of known Moth Wing Cold Book poems. This poem was translated approximately five years ago by Maggie "Robert" Nice, a well-known Moth Wing Cold Book translator. It goes without saying that the poet who originally wrote or translated this piece in the first place did so anonymously, as is the long-standing convention for Moth Wing Cold Book poets:

Sent to Master Silicone at White Castle

Knowing you've returned to White Castle,
your booth in the west corner;

the shade drawn to protect yourself
from the sun; to drink your coffee black,

eat your sack of Slyders and
French fries dunked in those little white cups

of ketchup, I gaze across the valley:
the bright sprawl feathered in purple

light; restaurants and gas stations,
strip malls and auto dealers.

All of tranquil mind. Does the boy
who looks like Travis Bickle

still work at White Castle?
The darkness surrounds us, Master Silicone.

I see men who resemble Mohamed Atta
everywhere I go. I am afraid

to eat oranges. T.V. and movies are all about death:
teen-age gunmen; suicide bombers; erectile dysfunction.

What is to be done? My identity was stolen.
Some third cousin of the deceased surgeon general of Nigeria.

He seemed sincere.
Airplane travel has its risks.

Have you completed your napkin commentaries
on Pound's Cantos? If so,

do you have a publisher?
Past midnight, who hears ambulance siren chimes?

The rim of your Styrofoam cup is cragged.
The coffee cold. The moon a white crescent sheening.

This is a fascinating piece on a number of different levels, and indicates, assuming it will be accepted by scholars as a genuine article, that the Moth Wing Cold Book poets are still active today. The tradition continues!