To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ian & Me: A Collaboration

Ian Tyson, “Three Friendly Warnings,” Realization from the Seneca Indian with Richard Johnny John & Jerome Rothenberg
“Ian Tyson reads us” – or so I wrote a number of years ago when the question first came up.  He is illustrator of the work not as subject or as mood per se but as structure.  The rest comes out of that, a play between the poet & the artist, where the poet’s words are taken, not for what they say at surface but for the directions they imply – the rules or inner structures that are there for him to read & follow, or evade.  I am a poet with some feel for content, for signification, that may sometimes act to hide the structure.  I began to come alive in poetry with a series of polemics arguing the primacy of image (“deep” or “surreal” or otherwise) as a concern to be explored anew in the awakening of the later 1950s.  That part, the image part, had no need for picture as a form of illustration.  And even later, when I used photos & other images to let the physical eye catch a glimpse of a mythical Poland disclosed through words, said photos were sparing & personal, my additions, often ironic, to a work that was proceeding as a whole by means of an already evident collage.
            I was working in the middle 1960s on a group of poems called Sightings – a form of poetry that challenged continuity & organic flow in favor of a rigid demarcation between the fragments or perceptions that composed the poem.  If my images remained “soft,” the structure was no longer flowing but sharply cut (by visual “bullets,” aural silences).  In that sense I was already approaching Tyson’s world, coming to a first meeting circa 1967 & a friendship & sometime collaboration down to the present.  The result for me was an immediate re-cognition of the structural side of my own work.
            The poems of mine to which he first turned his attention were those in Sightings.  As I conceived of them, they made up a single poem divided into nine numbered sections, & each section subdivided into smaller “fragments.”  His translation into abstract visual images bore a close but by no means slavish relation to the structure of the poems, less evidently to their content, tone, etc.  For this his first move was to generalize the numbers in the subsets – or as he later wrote about it: 

Carefully considering the text I found that each section had an average of nine lines so I devised a grid of 3 x 3 large squares subdivided into 12 x 12 alternating black to color.  I used the grid to form the pulse or ground base of the images & as a structure for the typography [the poems printed en face].  The colored squares were thematic relating to each part of the text but once having established it I improvised freely until I arrived at what I  felt to be a satisfactory counterpoint of typographically correct text & page.

From that reading – the best in any sense that my work had had up to that point – & from a feeling for his work, which was then new for me, I made another poem, “Red Easy A Color,” that followed Gertrude Stein’s steps into a common meeting.   And this one he translated into a rich & glowing, almost monumental image that sealed up that book.
            I had begun by then a work in ethnopoetics that would bring me into the experimental translation of American Indian poetry, largely but not exclusively derived from song texts.  The first collaborative piece to emerge from that was a large pamphlet/broadsheet derived from an Aztec description (a lexical definition, in fact) of the ceremonial & private uses of flowers.  The verbal piece, which I in turn had mined from Bernardino de Sahagún’s sixteenth-century Florentine Codex, was a cataloguing of repetitive & parallel declarative sentences that rose at times to crescendo.  In the resultant piece, Offering Flowers, the words on the left are pulled toward the image on the right by cross-bars of a large “F” taken from the title, & the image itself (in orange, black & white), while it’s still composed on the grid, is allowed dramatic bursts, like clusters of squared-off flowers, pathways, stairs, in a manner reminiscent of pre-Columbian design or, as he writes of it, “rather like an embroidery pattern.”
            From the “more explicitly illustrated,” almost fluid flower image, he went in The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell to a group of much more austere, more minimal pieces.  The poems here were “total translations” of four of the seventeen Navajo songs, which I took as sound-poems & to which his images related in a more general way than before – an accompaniment rather than a mapping of the infrastructures.  The principal response to the structure (this time of the songs over-all) was in the choice of color (white & blue) suggested by the alternation of blue & white objects (turquoise, whiteshell [abalone], etc.) in the systematically paired horse songs themselves.  Tyson’s designs kept an American Indian feeling, akin to Navajo sand painting & even closer – as with the Aztec flowers – to native weavings.  And along with this there was also a sense in which the form of his images might be thought to represent, in line with the underlying mythological narrative,  “a ‘going through’ portals to the sky, to obtain and bring back the horses.”
A more extended & more collaborative work was Songs for the Society of the Mystic Animals, a series of poems derived from Seneca Indian ceremonial sources.  I had already translated these into “concrete poems,” transformed them in that instance since the originals were purely oral.  What I now sensed, along with Tyson, was the possibility of driving them still further, incorporating color & significant typography, plus (in line with Tyson’s vision) a greater adherence to the structure of the grid.  This would take us, I thought, toward the creation of a meditative visual field – as the tantrist yantra is the classic visualization of the chanted mantra.  At the heart of that linkage was the fact that the songs – qua mantra – contained not only words but vocables (“meaningless,” non-lexical sounds: highyohoweyehhey, etc.) to which the words related as with figure & ground.  Color & position could both reveal & conceal such distinctions, however we chose to handle them, & this became the basis of much of the collaboration between us.  His own words cover this far better – the care given to each work as an event, an action triggered by the field, the way the words are set before us: 

            The choice of color was determined subjectively where appropriate to the
            elements described; e.g., earth, smoke, fire, water, etc., or objectively to
            separate out the textual changes between the sensible & chant elements
            & to punctuate any accents as they occurred.  The shape of each song
              was indicative of its subject matter [“but in a non-illustrative way,” he points
              out earlier] so that in the Song about a Mole, or Was It a Dead Person? the
              shape became long to support the idea of burrowing or traveling through
whereas in the songs about Acting Like a Crow I kept the format to an
approximate square to engender the notion of performing within a limited

            The Mystic Animals series was done by 1982, & since then we’ve engaged in a range of individual publications, something like half of which involve a process of composition based on a form of traditional Jewish numerology called gematria.  While the texts for these works resemble my earlier Sightings, the process by which they’re composed is much cooler, more hard-edged than what I had allowed myself in the 1960s.  As a form of process-generated poetry, the gematria poems play off the fact that every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is also a number & that words or phrases the sums of whose letters are equal  are at some level meaningfully connected.  For myself – as for Tyson – these coincidences / synchronicities function not as hermeneutic substantiations for religious & ethical doctrines, but as an entry into the kinds of correspondences / constellations that have been central to modernist & postmodernist experiments over the last century and a half.
            Where Mystic Animals had brought us to a place in which the components of the visual image were themselves letters & words, the works thereafter were, as he describes them, “typographically [un]interpretable other than the choice of type face and the careful placing on the page, i.e. they are not translatable into visual poetry.”  What moves the work forward, then, is a mutual interest in numbers (“as opposed,” he points out, “to mathematics”) that can function for both of us as an opening for “specific compositional doors … less as systems than as philosophical speculations.”  In the most complex of these collaborations, Delight/Délices, five gematria-derived poems are set in units that include the English text, a translation into French by Nicole Peyrafitte, & a visual extension that places strikingly colored squares on a black ground, disposed according to their numerical position – determined by the gematria number – on an imagined grid.  In another collaboration, Six Gematria, my selection of poems assures that each will include reference to a primary or secondary color, & Tyson follows with a single image made up of 26 “lozenges” (for the 26 letters of the alphabet), which changes color as he moves from poem to poem.
            In other, still more recent work, the strategy varies from piece to piece, with a tendency for the visual image to attenuate by stages: a series of thin, variously dispersed lines in A Case for Memory, or an arrangement of colorless intaglio squares, embossed so lightly as to hint at their own disappearance, in The Times Are Never Right.  Here, if I read him rightly (& I think I do), he follows my own struggle with time, both personal & cosmic, & with the sense of “loss and desolation” that the struggle implies. “In making the visual corollary to these,” he tells me,  I put forward my own image of time, gained and lost.  A very abstracted conception which I tied together in the general design.
            It is something of this kind that informs our most recent work together: In Memory of Paul Celan: Three Death Poems.  My own contribution to this was to pull together a series of words & phrases drawn from Celan’s poems or reminiscent of his texts or textures.  To meet these, Tyson turns to an image, he writes, that “comes from a gradually developing structure first encountered when I took another (very oblique) look at cubism and started to deconstruct the grids in [a series of his] drawings.”  Working for the first time with computer, he transferred the ideas onto QuarkXPress, “where I could cross reference the text and image on the screen.”  The result, as he saw it was “a gradual seeping away of the colour filigree – there and only just there – paraphrasing the Three Death Poems. …  Perhaps a metaphor for my state of mind although the possibilities it opens up for me are immense.”
            For me as well the openings are now extraordinary.  We may have entered – both of us – into an altenstil or a series of such as a place of reflection – not, I would stress, of rest – that neither of us could earlier have imagined.  Here all possibilities are equal & we can descant, like the ancient figures evoked by Yeats or Duncan, on art & song, or on Stevens’ presentiment, maybe, of “a colossal sun … like / a new knowledge of reality.” (If only the world allows it  … & of course it never does.)   
             For this I will let Tyson have the final word, glancing back like me at our long-shared musings: John Christie has said that my work ‘seems to withstand the vicissitudes of daily life.’  This may be but I can't help thinking that of late there are some undertones of angst creeping in and reflecting themselves, however subtly, in our recent works, which only seems natural given the times.  As for the future, we haven't even started talking of it.

[note. Visiting recently with sculptor & book artist Ian Tyson in the village of Saint Roman de Malegarde in the Vaucluse, I thought again of the nearly fifty years of friendship & collaboration that have bound us together, & I felt that I wanted to reprint this homage to him written a decade ago & included also in Poetics & Polemics, the book of my prose writings published by the University of Alabama Press in 2008.  Ian’s work has been crucial for me, & I mean to reiterate his importance here for anyone who cares to read it – a reminder too that for those of us fortunate enough to share their work as we have, the life of poetry can open up as here to become a work in common. (J.R.)]

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

For David Meltzer, an Old Pre-Face for a New Publication

[Having written it  originally for David’s Copy: Selected Poems (Penguin Books, 2005), I reprint my pre-face here in celebration of the republication by City Lights Books of his classic poetics primer, Two Way Mirror, concerning which I wrote more recently: David Meltzer had set out, when he was very young, to write a long poem called The History of Everything, an ambition that his later poetry brought ever closer to fulfillment.  Here, in Two Way Mirror, he shows us the underpinnings for such an enterprise: a brilliant & wise work as rich in insights & discoveries today as when it was first published in 1977.  I know of no better amalgam of poetry & poetics & no better introduction to the ways in which poetry can emerge for us & lead us beyond ourselves & toward our own fulfillments.  Meltzer’s grace of mind & the life of poetry that surrounds it make the case complete." (J.R.)] 

I first became aware of David Meltzer – as many of us did – with the publication in 1960 of Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry, that celebrated the emergence over the previous decade of a new & radical generation of American poets.  Those included ranged in age from Charles Olson, already fifty, to David Meltzer, then in his early twenties.  Meltzer’s four poems were all short, filling up most of three pages, & displayed a surefooted use of the kind of demotic language & pop referentiality that was cooking up in poetry as much as it was in painting.  His lead-off poem mixed traditional Japanese references with more contemporary ones to Kirin Beer & Havatampa cigars, but  there was otherwise no indication of a wider or deeper field of reference – as in the work, say, of older contemporaries such as Olson & Robert Duncan, or of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams or Louis Zukofsky before them.  Like many of our generation his aim was not to appear too literary; as in the conclusion of his biographical note: “I have decided to work my way thru poetry & find my voice & the stance I must take in order to continue my journey.  Poetry is NOT my life.  It is an essential PART of my life.” 

It took another decade of journeying for Meltzer to emerge as a poet with a “special view” & with a hoard of sources & resources that he would mine tenaciously & would transform into unique poetic configurations.   For me the sense of him had changed & deepened some years before I got to know him as a friend & fellow traveler.  The realization – as happens with poets – came to me through the books that he was writing & publishing & that I was getting to read – on the run, so to speak, like so many others.  In The Dark Continent, a gathering of poems from 1967, I found him moving in a direction that few had moved in – or that few had moved in as he did.  The “transformation,” as I thought of it, appeared about a quarter of the way into the book – a subset of poems called The Golem Wheel, in which the idiom & setting remained beautifully vernacular but the frame of reference opened, authoratatively I thought, into new or untried worlds. 

The most striking of those worlds was that of Jewish lore & mysticism, starting with the Prague-based legend of Rabbi Judah Loew & his Frankensteinian creation (the “golem” as such), incorporating a panoply of specific Hebrew words & names along with kabbalistic & talmudic references & their counterparts in a variety of popular contexts (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Harry Bauer in the 1930s Golem movie, language here & there from comic strips, etc.).  It was clear too that the judaizing here – to call it that – was something that went well beyond any kind of ethnic nostalgia., that he was tapping in fact into an ancient & sometimes occulted stream of poetry, while moving backward & forward between “then” & “now.”   In an accompanyhing subset, Chthonic Fragments, a part of it presented in the present volume, he expanded his view into gnostic, apocryphal Christian, & pagan areas that left their mark, as a kind of catalyst, even when he swung back to the mundane 1960s world: the “dark continent” of wars & riots, the funky sounds of blues & rock & roll, the domestic pull of family & home. 

I mention this as a recollection of my own very personal coming to Meltzer & to the recognition that he was, like any major artist, building a special world: a meltzer-universe in this case that spoke to some of us in terms of our own works & aspirations.   (“The Jew in me is the ghost of me,” began one stanza in The Golem Wheel, & I was smitten.)  His pursuit of origins of all sorts was otherwise relentless – not only in his poems but with a magazine & a press that also took as their point of departure or entry the hidden worlds of Jewish kabbalists & mystics.  The magazine was called Tree (etz hayyim, the tree of life, in Hebrew) & was connected as well to a series of anthologies of his devising (Birth; Death; The Secret Garden: An Anthology of the Kabbalah), alongside chronicles of jazz writing & jazz reading & of poetry – Beat & other – that had emerged or was emerging from the place in California where he lived & worked. 

What was extraordinary here was the lighthearted seriousness of the project – a freewheeling scholarship in the service of poetry – & his ability to cast an esoteric content in a non-academic format & language.  In this he shared ideas & influences with a range of contemporary artists & poets – notably the great west coast collagist Wallace Berman, whose appropriations of the Hebrew alphabet as magic signs & symbols led directly to what Meltzer, borrowing a phrase from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, called Bop Kabbalah.  It was also in that California ambience that he made contact with older poets like Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, & Kenneth Rexroth, & with younger ones like Jack Hirschman, engaged like him in the search for old & new beginnings.  In circumstances where everything suddenly seemed possible, he joined with his wife Tina (as singer) & with fellow poet Clark Coolidge (as drummer) to form a rock performance group called Serpent Power – the name itself an echo of ancient yogic & tantric practice.  

The totality of Meltzer’s work will wait for another occasion – a Meltzer Reader perhaps or a collected Meltzer – in which all of it can be mirrored.  For now – & not for the first time – he has condensed his nearly half century of poetry into the pages of this book.  As such it is a reflection of where he has worked & lived, often with great intensity – first in polyglot New York (Brooklyn to be exact) & later (most of his life in fact) in California.  He has never been a great traveler, in the literal sense, but his mind has traveled, metaphorically, into multiple worlds.  In the process he has drawn from a multiplicty of times & places & set them against his own immediate experience.  His attitude is that of a born collagist, a poet with a taste for “pilfering,” he tells us, or, paraphrasing Robert Duncan: “Poets are like magpies: they grab at anything bright, and they take it back to their nest, and they’ll use it sooner or later.”  And he adds, speaking for himself:  “I use everything, everything that shone for me.” 

The range of the work itself follows from another dictum: “Poems come from everywhere.”  As such, the focus moves from the quotidian, the everyday, to the historical &, where it fits, the transcendental.  The mundane stands out, for example, in a poem like “It’s Simple,” though not without its underlyhing “mystery.”  Thus, in its opening stanza (the whole poem elsewhere in this book): 

It’s simple.
One morning
Wake up ready
For new work.
Pet the dog,
Dog’s not there.
Rise & shine
Sun’s not there.
Take a deep breath.
No air.                                               

If the presentation here gives the appearance of simplicity – something like what Meltzer calls “the casual poem” – we can also remember his warning, that “art clarifies, it doesn’t simplify,” that his intent as a poet is, further, “to write of mysteries in language as translucent and inviting as a mirror.”  

Mystery or “the potential of mystery” is a term that turns up often in Meltzer’s poetics – his talking about the poetry he & others make.  It is no less so where the poem is family chronicle than where it draws on ancient myth or lore: the fearful presence in “The Golem Wheel” 

. . . returning home to a hovel
to find table & a chair
wrecked by the Golem’s fist       

 or the celebration & lamenting of the parents in “The Eyes, the Blood: 

my father was a clown,
my mother a harpist . . . 

There is a twofold process in much of what he does here: a demythologizing & a remythologizing, to use his words for it.  In this sense what is imagined or fabulous is brought into the mundane present, while what is mundane is shown to possess that portion of the marvelous that many of us have been seeking from Blake’s time to our own.

David’s Copy is full of such wonders, many of them excerpts from longer works that show a kind of epic disposition – in the sense at least of the long poem as a gathering of fragments/segments/image-&-data-clusters.  Watch him at work, full blast, in the two excerpts from Chthonic Fragments or in the “Hero” & “Lil” excerpts from what was originally his long poem, “Hero/Lil,” in which he draws the Lil of the poem (= Lilith, Adam’s first wife; later: the mother of demon babes) into the depths of post-exilic life: 

She-demon deity
lies on the sofa
stretching like a cat.
Small hot breasts.
Miles breathes Blackbird.
She accepts
the hash and grass joint.
Cool fingers
Dive under my pants
ka! ka! ka!
Screech of all
Lil’s hungry babies
caged-up next door. 

Or again: 

She wants words only at dawn.
I touch her mouth with language
then afterwards move against her. 

            In other serial works the touch is lighter, where he observes or playfully takes the role – totem-like – of magical yet ordinary animal beings: the dog in Bark: A Polemic, say: 

Bark is what us dogs do here in Dogtown
also shit on sidewalks door mats proches trails
wherever new shoes walk fearless.
Bark is what us dogs do here in Dogtown
it’s a dog’s life
we can’t live without you.
Mirror you we are you.
Beneath your foot or on the garage roof.
You teach us speech bark bark
for biscuits we dance for you.
You push us thru hoops
& see our eyes as your eyes
but you got the guns the gas the poison
all of it.
Bark is what us dogs do here in Dogtown. 

Or the Monkey in the singular poem of that name – both pseudo-orthodox (“bruised before Yahweh”) & quasi-stylish (“suave in my tux”). 

These are the marks of a poet who has worked over a span of time, to pursue interests near & dear to him.  To cite another instance, music – the full range of it for Meltzer – comes into a large portion of the poems, a reflection of his own musical strivings inherited in part from his harpist mother & cellist father, celebrated in the long poem or poem series, Harps, itself a section from a much longer ongoing work called Asaph, one intention of which is to use music, he tells us, “as a form of autobiography.”  Of such musically engaged works the great example is his recent booklength poem for Lester Young, No Eyes,  from which he has generously selected for the present volume.  Add to that another big work, Bolero (also a part of Asaph), & short poems or references to Hank Williams (the “lamentation” for him), Billie Holiday (“Darn that Dream”), & Thelonious Monk, among recurrent others.  Later too, when he becomes a chronicler (Beat Thing the most recent & most telling example), the music of the time, like its poetry & loads of pop debris & rubble, has a place at center. 

I would cite Beat Thing in particular as both his newest book as of this writing & as something more & special: a harbinger perhaps of things to come. As recollection & politics, it is Meltzer’s truly epic poem – an engagement with once recent history (the 1950s) & his own participatory & witnessing presence. If the title at first suggests a nostalgic romp through a 1950s-style “beat scene,” it doesn’t take long before mid-twentieth-century America’s urban pastoralism comes apart in all its phases & merges with the final solutions of death camps & death bombs from the preceding decade. This is collage raised to a higher power – a tough-grained & meticulously detailed poetry – "without check with original energy," as Whitman wrote – & very much what’s needed now.

The reader of David’s Copy will find in the more recent poems that end it a sense of timelines amidst the timelessness that poetry is often said to offer – Beat Thing clearly but also Feds v Reds, Tech, or even Shema 2 with its linking of judaic supplications & koranic language in the wake, I would imagine, of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The political engagement – embedded in the poetry itself – is both real & heedful of his earlier remarks that looked down at the “onedimensionalizing” of so much  political poetry (“a tendency to supply people with conclusions, but you don’t give them process”) in contrast to which “a certain kind of pornography was what I wanted to do as politics.”  And that in fact was something that he also did – a genre of novel writing that he called “agit-smut” and described as “a way for me to vent my rage and politicize … a way of talking about power.” 

Elsewhere, in speaking about himself, he tells us that when he was very young, he wanted to write a long poem called The History of Everything.   It was an ambition shared, maybe unknowingly, with a number of other young poets the sense of what Clayton Eshleman called “a poetry that attempts to become responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world.”  Then as now it ran into a contrary directive: to think small or to write in ignorance of what had come before or in deference to critic-masters who were themselves, most often, non-practitioners & non-seekers.  By contrast, as is evident throughout this book, Meltzer allied himself with those poets of his time & place (Beats & San Francisco Renaissance & others) who were both international in their range & the true carriers or creators of traditions new & old. 

It was at this juncture that I met him, & his companionship added immeasurably to my own work as a poet.  I continue not only to prize him but to read his poems with the greatest pleasure. 

Jerome Rothenberg

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jerome Rothenberg: After Gorky’s “The Betrothal,” Poem & Autovariation, 1966 & 2014

Arshile Gorky, "The Betrothal," 1947
[Using the procedure of “variations” that I began with The Lorca Variations (1993) I turn it again toward my own earlier work & show, below, both a poem from 1966 & the corresponding autovariation from 2014.   In the present instance I’ve gone back to a poem written & published as part of a book called “The Gorky Poems,” and, as in the  “variations” I’ve done from other poets, I systematically remove all nouns from the original & use them as building blocks or what Jackson Mac Low used to call “nuclei” in the construction of an otherwise “original” poem.  For this the directive is from Henri Matisse, in an exchange with Gino Severini: “One should be able to rework an old work at least once – to make sure that one has not fallen victim – to one’s nerves or to fate.  And again: “When you have achieved what you want in a certain area, when you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new.”]

the betrothal (1966)
from The Gorky Poems 

     How they began it.  Dead bodies
     moved in the flowerbed, a finger stopping & turning, showing
     a page & an ocean, a longboard covered with stars.  In the great night
     my heart will go out, will be scooped from me, swept thru the water
     follow the plane’s route, a place
     where boats meet like lovers
     in couples, the heart of the diamond, the cyclotron’s heart, its spaces
     cleaving me, leaving me dead.
     I was dead.
     Who steps from the sea to meet me?
     Another dead body, a heart like a cucumber
     cold, green, in the ice-covered room, receiving my heart
     the taste of my blood in her mouth.
     Her dead mouth.
     The passage into her darkness, a gutter
     a rainpassage
     country of clouds & the blue lips of women.
     A hand slides under his shirt.  He grows hard.  The dancers
     forget where the light is
     & fall, the dancers forget
     they falter
     their hands break the glass
     a finger stopping & turning, showing
     a skull.  Lift the hammer
     & over your head lift the icecap.
     Smash thru the air.  The air freezes &
     freezes against you
     covers your hair & your teeth, slits your gums, draws bile thru your nose.
     To the sound of drums, the cry of walruses, the beating of a heart
     not my own
     to the beating of a heart not my own
     I was turning.
     In the trunk I was turning.
     Among crushed hat I was turning.
     Under a crushed sun I was turning.
     I turned with the sun.  A faucet
     was turning
     black water spilt from a glass.
     Starting & turning, returning
     & starting.  A penny.
     A seal.
     An umbrella.
     An American flag.
     A wishbone.
     A derrick.
     A place.
     We called it a place by subtraction.  

the betrothal (2014)
from The Gorky Variations 

he points a finger
at the stars
a cyclotron of racing bodies
like a plane in flight

a darkness in which
lovers struggle
women’s hands
grow hard

the country hides them
hammers strike the air
blood turns into ice
the way the dead do 

there is more bile in this
than heretofore
the cry of water
when the sun comes out

crushed hats
will suit no head
no heart beat
like a drum

a black umbrella
place determined by
sealed & sold 

the skull has lost
its gums & lips
deprived of air the dancers
search a passage

leading to a passage
where the sea waits
with its boats
a taste for breaking free

leaving his bed behind
to test the water
set the ocean shining
like a diamond

flower for a heart
the places & the spaces
that a heart fills
vacant    heartless

blue cucumber
frozen    rain
that falls so hard
his mouth can’t hold it

ice forms on my shirt
my cap    the beating
of my heart
a feeble sound

teeth clenched
a faucet dripping
pennies clinking in a glass
a trunk half full

where a derrick lifts
the bodies of the dead
abandoned couples
line the route

they watch & wonder
turn a page
that leads them to a room
at night    bewildered 

heart in mouth
& hand aquiver
clouds reflected in a glass
sun in the gutter

the hair atop my head
inside my nose
has come alive
my wish is fatal

wounded    split
a false betrothal
ice invades their bodies
down to the bone

Monday, September 8, 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

Diane Rothenberg: From “The Economic Memories of Harry Watt” (The Setting & the Text)

Harry Watt, right, with Ed Curry
 [To be published in 2015 as part of an expanded & revised edition of Diane Rothenberg’s Mothers of the Nation by Nine Point Publishing in Bridgton, Maine] 

The Setting

We first met Harry Watt in December, 1967.  Stanley Diamond prepared a letter for us to carry along and telephoned ahead to introduce us.  Diamond was interested in the experiments in translation that my husband, Jerome Rothenberg, was doing and thought that a meeting with some of the singers of the Allegany Seneca, a group among whom Diamond had worked, might be conducive to further explorations in translation.  Harry Watt received us in his warm house on a very snowy evening and, because of his fond memories of Diamond, made an effort to acquaint us with the community. We went back several weeks later and the next summer rented a barely converted gas station just outside of the Steamburg relocation area.  During that summer, Jerry engaged in productive translation projects with several of the leading singers and songmakers, and our relations with many people intensified and expanded.  Toward the end of the summer we were honored by clan adoptions in the Longhouse, and Harry Watt became my uncle in the Blue Heron clan. 

We returned regularly to western New York in the following years to visit, to participate in ceremonies and to talk with friends.  Some of the best talk was with Harry Watt.  We would meet at his house, or around his sister’s table, or, in better weather, at the old house, several hundred yards away through the woods, where Harry Watt and his wife had their gardens and where he most liked to be. This was the house that he had preserved when the forced relocation in 1965 caused by the building of the Kinzua Dam required that everyone occupying a house within the flood plain move.  The misery of the time of removal was vividly felt, and the new houses generally resented.  Harry Watt’s old house was the almost singular representative of what had been a very recently transformed way of life and, as such, conveyed layers of meaning and emotion that we could hardly begin to appreciate.  It was located high on a bank overlooking the Allegheny River, with the gardens on one side and the woods all around, and Harry Watt would point to places when he talked about his childhood, about herbal knowledge, about encounters with animals.  He talked about his experiences at the local Indian school and his running away from it for a perceived injustice, about his experiences traveling around the country doing construction work, about the skills and men involved in his work, about his encounters with Indians in other parts of the country, about Indian sovereignty, and about his hopes and fears concerning a retention of Indian identity by those who were losing the Seneca language and ceremonial knowledge.  He talked about schemes for teaching the old ways, about his respect for those who were educated and knowledgeable in those ways, about his own sense of deprivation in having chosen paths which led him away from an early immersion in Seneca language and culture, onto his return in his later years with an eagerness and a sense of responsibility toward a goal of Seneca cultural preservation. Harry Watt’s dedication in these matters was essential to the smooth running of the Longhouse Religion and, most importantly, to the preparation for the annual cycle of Six Nations meetings which preserved and carried the message  of the prophet Handsome Lake throughout the intertribal circuit of believers. He was a model of a traditional Iroquois peace chief (although he did not have such a title): dignified, courteous, reasonable, personally available and generous, highly intelligent, and responsible to the collective.  For these, and many other reasons, strangers were sent to see Harry Watt, and he was accustomed to representing his community to visitors – journalists, scholars, students.  We witnessed many of these encounters and grew familiar with some of the regular turns the interviews would take, so that, over the years, we heard him discourse many times on some of the same subjects.  Two of his favorites were religious epistemology and working, and I began to feel that I could “hum along” when he introduced one of these topics, although I tried not to seem inattentive and not to interrupt. 

In June, 1972, we rented a house In Salamanca – on the Allegany Seneca reservation – for the beginning of a new project, this time the field work toward my dissertation.  We had no clear idea of how long we would stay, but the work was going well and there was no other we needed or wanted more to be, so we stayed for two years and left with great regret.  My own work turned more and more toward historical research and archives and away from a systematic accumulation and recording of fieldwork notes.  I regret now the tapering off of these detailed notes; when I reread them I hardly recognize my own voice, as if I were reading the experiences of some other person.  Our social interactions and participation were intense, but became less instrumental, and the “participant” activity quite assuaged my early 1970’s discomfort with the “observation” part of the anthropological enterprise. 

Harry Watt frequently remarked that “people say I should write a book.”  I had heard that statement often enough to feel some impatience whenever I heard it again, but also to feel that maybe he really should tell the story of his life in writing and that I should help facilitate that ambition. While it also seemed to me that hearing a systematic account of life on the reservation at the turn of the twentieth century might be of use to my research, I was already more focused on the turn of the nineteenth century, so my own goals were of secondary concern in this project. I offered to come around with the tape recorder that I rarely used, to transcribe his dictation, and to collaborate with him on editing it for potential publication.  It seemed like a tidy project.

On November 16, 1972, I sat on the sofa in Harry Watt’s living room, hunkered down for some serious descriptions of his early life on the reservation.  He sat in his rocker, eyes slightly closed in an attitude of remembering and, to my distress, began, “When I was a boy, we really knew how to work.”  I had heard that many times before and I was sure that was not the way to start this project.  I tried to divert him, to suggest he talk about his grandparents, his memories of being a little child, events and people in his family.  He responded briefly to my inquiries, but seemed determined to continue talking, in what seemed to me a platitudinous way, about working.  The tape recorder ran on and he talked on, while I sat enveloped in a cloud of frustration. When he tired of talking, I turned the machine off, went home and transcribed what was on the tope, gave him a carbon of the transcription the next day, and never mentioned the autobiography again.  My copy was filed away, that other filing system in my head contained only a record of my frustration, amended slightly by my feeling of superior wisdom about what a real autobiography should be. 

About five years later, friends who were editing an issue of a conceptual-art magazine, proposed that contributors from various disciplines should consider the subject of memory from the perspective of their own work.  My experience with Harry Watt’s autobiography still rankled, and so I began an essay exploring the generalizing tendency of the elderly in relation to their own pasts and the related problem of using oral history as data.  After I had completed several paragraphs, I remembered that I had the transcript in my files and thought to search it out for relevant examples. 

Harry Watt’s words flew out at me as a reproach both for my incomprehension and for the opportunity I had missed.  The organizing principle of “work” was for him a primary value and a life metaphor.  It was through working that he defined himself and it was through the core of economic behavior that the rest of life was elaborated.  Because I did not open my ears and my mind, as the Seneca invocation directs one to do, I missed the opportunity to know more about it.  The transcript which exists represents in small measure an homage to the man who died in 1986 and is included here in full to convey both the spoken cadences of the oral delivery and the richness of ethnographic detail. 

The Text 

When I got a little bigger I worked, I had things to do.  I always had things to do.  When I got back from school I always had something to do. I started even before I went to school.  I used to bring wood in.  I had a bunch of sticks and carried them in  I piled them higher on my arms when I got bigger. 

I carried wood and I carried water, helping my mother by bringing water. I carried water for her for washing and cooking.  My dad used to tell me,” Always watch the water pail.  If you see it empty, fill it up.” He said, “Always have it full.” 

I always worked.  For instance, milking cows; we had cows.  I went after cows.  And in the summer time, I had to go after cows.  In the winter they didn’t go out. 

But as I grew older, there was more work.  Many times when other kids would come along and ask me to go along with them, go fishing or go somewhere, “I can’t go, I’m too busy.”  There were times when the kids would help me do something to get it done so I could go with them.  Those kids didn’t have the farm like we had.  They didn’t have no stock, and they didn’t have to have chores.  They had to get wood; we all had to do that. We all knew how to cut wood, how to use an axe.  I knew how to use an axe by the time I went to school. 

They all burned wood and they had to go out to cut wood.  The wood near the houses was just brush and wouldn’t last more than a few days.  I went out to cut trees.  Maybe they would be so big I had to cut them three times to get them into the wagon.  I cut maybe seven, eight trees at that, and that is a good wagon load. 

I didn’t have a saw.  We didn’t have power saws in those days.  But there were hand saws that two men used together.  But I went after wood alone with just an axe.  I would hitch the horses to the wagon and used to go up the hill to cut wood.  I would be wasting wood by cutting it and letting it lay there and rot, so we would cut it and then I would get the logs clear down to the foot of the hill, and then get the horses and load it up.  It was work. I don’t think anyone works like that now, today.  One thing though, I had to learn to harness the horses and there was a time I couldn’t do it and when I wanted to use the horses, why the old man had to hitch them up. 

In my family there was three more boys older than me.  They went to school. I had one brother that went to Carlisle, the Indian school.  And then another brother that went to Hampton; that’s in Virginia.  And the oldest one, he graduated that Quaker school.  He graduated the eighth grade.  A lot of them graduated from that school from the eighth grade. 

But I, I didn’t I went to the Quaker school and then I got away from there.  I ran away from there, after about three years.  What happened to me, some time ago I met a Quaker.  He had my records, and he said, “Oh, it’s you, Harry watt.  You ran away from school.”  I said,  “Yes, I ran away from school; I didn’t like the idea.”  I said, “I had to work all day and after that I was hungry and I was punished for something I didn’t do and I was kept out until I was late.  I was late and they didn’t feed me.  And I was hungry and I didn’t like that.  So I said to myself and four other boys, we got ready and we took off. And I never went back.  I was sorry I didn’t go back.  Maybe I could have learned a little bit more.  But instead I went to work.”  I came home and I told them what had happened.  Well, my dad wasn’t too much about going to school and I suppose he thought if I went to work, why it would be that much less on his hands.  So I went to work.

I was fifteen years old when I went to work.  It was about this time of year, in the fall, when I ran away.  And just abut that time there was a man going around.  He was looking for me to go to work.  They were laying railroad tracks down to below our city.  Petroleum Center is the name of the little town.  They were laying railroad track there going down to Titusville. So I went over there looking for that man.  I found that man and he said, “Yeah.  How old are you?”  “Oh, nineteen.”  Yeah, I lied four, five years.  He looked at me.  “Yup. You big enough.  You be ready Monday morning when we start to go, your pay begins. 

Oh, I was all for it.  When we got there, you had to work.   It wasn’t too  hard work, but I worked hard.  My job was men’s work and that is everything.  I pick up rails and I had to learn how to drive spikes and I didn’t know how to work with my hands with tools and I had to learn. But it didn’t take too long.  I knew how to chop with an axe, and use a hammer, and that helped me a lot. 

We worked all winter and we lived in a camp.  I often thought of that. Just the other day I said, “There’s something I’m hungry for.  We used to have at the camp, we used to have a man cook.  He used to fry potatoes and bread crumbs and fish, canned fish.  He would empty that fish in a great skillet where the potatoes were cut up and add some bread crumbs and cover it and let it fry.  He had to turn it over.  And the bread got kind of brown, toasted like and everything is brown and the fish got all mixed with the other things. Oh, I used to like that.  I looked for that in the morning, for breakfast. You had to eat to work.  In a place like that you don’t get fat.  You eat all you can; you wear it out.  We come back for dinner.  But when we had to go out, they had lunches in bags.  They generally had a place, a shanty or two shanties, where we put our tools and they had a stove in there. 

There was about thirty men from here. We had about three hundred men.  I met a boy, he was a Mexican.  There was a big store and we used to all go there.  They had ice cream and all that and some of that candy.  But this guy, he was about my age.  He must have been, but I never asked him.  He kind of liked me and he would try to talk to me and he couldn’t because he couldn’t talk English.  There was a bridge close by there and we used to go to the bridge and just sit down and let our feet hang down.  And we’d talk.  We tried to learn each other’s language.  I talked English and I taught him what to say, the meaning of different things, the names of things in the store.  He ask me, “Como se llama?”  I got so I could understand too.  I could understand his language.  I used to know quite a bit, but since that time I lost interest of it and I didn’t see anybody I could talk to. But when I was talking to him, I could almost talk right along.  He learned finally. 

There were about one hundred Mexicans. And also Italians, pretty near a hundred of them too.  And about a hundred Indians.  Each group stayed apart and didn’t mix.  Oh, they had fights.  There was two killings down there.  The Mexicans had two or three and the Italians, they had some too.  They killed each other inside the groups.  In our group, there was two, killed in a fight.  One of them was the cook.  He was stabbed.  The other guy, he was beat up and I think the train run over him. 

I worked down there all winter and I got me some nice warm clothes, because I bought them myself.  I always wanted some clothes, some warm clothes.  I got my own money and when I got back I gave some to my mother. “Oh,” she said, “I’ll keep it for you.” 

After I came back from there I had cows and I had young stock and I had a horse.  I kept the cows on my father’s land; didn’t have to [ay him for it, but he used the milk.  My first calf was given to me.  My grandmother on my mother’s side gave me one when I was about eight years old.  When I first went to school I had a horse, a little horse.  I used to ride.  The horse got bad after a while, but he lived quite a while.  I consider myself a good rider.  For a long time I didn’t have a saddle, so I rode bareback.  Finally I got an old saddle I bought myself.  My father and mother, they saved their money and they worked hard.  My father, he never went out to work for day’s wages.  He’s working on the farm and what money he got, he went to work for others for a day or so at a time.  But he had milk and from the milk he had an income.  I remember when he had about thirty cows.  We all milked.  My mother used to milk, my sisters, my brother, myself.  At first I had one cow I used to milk.  That one cow, my sisters started in to milk that cow; my brothers started in to milk that cow.  It was easy.  After a while when you grab the teats, the hand gets strong from milking cows all the time.  It’s a lot of exercise.  We used to have some hard milkers. 

I had some cows.  Oh, she was a good cow.  I sold that cow and I got horses for it. I sold that cow and two yearlings and I got big horses out of that.  They weighed thirty-two hundred pounds, about sixteen hundred pounds apiece.  So they were pretty big horses.  I worked them horses.  I wanted them because if I had big horses I could do this and that.  If I had big horses I could go and skin logs, go and haul lumber; I could go and haul wood.  So the old man said, “You get yourself horses and a harness, and I’ll buy the wagon.”  So one day I went shopping for horses.  I bought this heavy pair of horses, made a trade.  I got a good price on this cow because it was good.  I told the man how much she give and he didn’t quite believe it. So I said, ”You come down in the evening and I’ll show you.”  She used to milk two milk pans full of milk in one milking.  I sold the cow to a guy named Underwood.  He was a farmer and he was a dealer too.  You have to watch how you dealed with them guys.  I got a good deal.  I told him that one the heifers was coming in and it didn’t come so he told me, “You got me.”  So I said, “It’ll still come.” 

In those days I stayed home for a while after I came back from working and did a lot of things then.  That was the year they started to pick up the track.  There used to be a railroad track down to the park and when they got through with it and there was no more lumber, they tore up the tracks.  And I worker there.  And that was work.  We used to pick up the rails and put it on the railroad car. After you got one up there, you give it a good push into the car.  I used to get so tired; I slept at noon.  There was an old man there I knew well, and wherever he said I should go I went there and I said, “Wake me up about quarter to one.”  Then I’d go to sleep.  I’d wake up, hurry up and eat, get through and get back to work.  To get to work I had to walk several miles. I wasn’t the only one who had to walk.  Every day walk down there, work ten hours, walk back.  When I got back, eat, sit around a little bit, then go to bed.  That job lasted all summer and they shut down after it started to snow.

After that I worked on the railroad.  I worked there quite a few years.  I can’t describe exactly railroad work.  Railroad work is a certain kind of work.  When you work on the railroad you don’t do that on the farm.  Railroad work is its own work.  It’s railroad work.  We laid the rails, and then we spiked them.  Gauged them, then spiked them.  Sometimes we had to put down plates on the ties, and sometimes we put them every other tie.  And there was times we had to put them on every tie, that’s around a curve mostly.  It’s all heavy work.  Sometimes we laid new tracks, sometimes maintenance.  Sometimes maybe a broken rail. They get that rail out and put a new piece in there.  Or else when just a piece off the end is broke off, then they cut it off, and fit one in there.  I’ve done that.  I’ve stood on the railroad tracks and just pound, swing that pounder all day long.  The first day you get awful tired, just don’t want to get up the next day.  It hurts, hurts to move.  My back hurt. But two, three days, maybe four days, you feel better.  Finally it’s gone.  In the morning you wake up, and why, you feel just as good.  You might feel a little tighter. 

I worked uptown as a carpenter’s helper and mason and I poured concrete and worked around concrete.  And I did plastering.  And that’s hard work.  The first day I thought my neck was broke.  Sometimes when I get through with a job, by the next day I’d have another job.  I’d heard about them by going around and different men would say, “There’s a job over there.”  I’d keep that in mind and when I’d get a chance I’d run over there and, “Sure, some to work tomorrow.”  They were building houses quite a bit in Salamanca in 1917, 1918. 

The old bridge went down in Quaker Bridge in 1917/  That year we had a cold, cold winter.  We had zero weather for about two weeks continually.  One day it was about 35 below.  I had a Model A Ford, a roadster, and the starter couldn’t turn over.  I had to crank, tup, tup, tup.  It got started, warmed up and I went down the road.  The people, some had cars, and they were cranking.  The ice was four, five, six feet thick, and when it came down the river it hit the bridge.  It hit that bridge and the bridge lay on the ice and it carried it to an island down below, down to the point of that island and that’s where it stopped. They got most  of that iron.  The bridge was built around 1878.  The same company built the new one.  The old one was wide enough for automobiles, but the iron that laid in there weren’t bolted down and even the boards were not tied down. So when the cars came, the boards would loosen and slide one way and the other and finally they had to fasten them down.  And the floor beams began to slide off one way and the other and drop off.  With the new bridge we put up, it was all concrete floor so it was solid.  So that was my first bridge job.  I worked with it until it got through.  We finished it about the last of August 1920. 

I worked the last day on that, and the next day I had a job over at the Quaker School.  I painted the roof.  They had a tin roof and they wanted that painted before it got too cold.  I went and got a partner for myself and we painted the roof for about two weeks.  There was a lot of roof there. 

My father told me I should go into farming, but it’s that payday.  The railroad, they paid every two weeks, and the farmers they paid once a month.  Only a few jobs paid once a week.  There used to be a tannery in Salamanca and they paid every week. 

In those days, after I came back from the railroad, I had horses.  And I got a course from a school for horse trainers.  I wrote for instruction and I studied and finally I graduated.  I was a horseman, I could train horses, break horses to work.  One time I had nine horses. I bought some, I traded some.  In those days there were quite a few horse traders.  I got into that a bit.  I had two teams.  My Dad used to use them but he had his own too.  He always had his own. 

Then I raised young stock.  I raised bulls.  One time I had four of them and they got to be a good size, about two years old.  There was one of them that you just couldn’t hold him in a fence.  I was feeding them for meat and I sold them.  I had to feed them at night and in the morning before I went to work. 

In those days I used to watch the first automobiles came around, when I was eight years old.  We used to see a truck come by.  We used to hear that coming way down the road.  Maybe two cylinders—chug chug, chug chug.  And then we’d go down to the road and watch that thing go by.  It had high wheels, same size front and back.  And the motor was cross ways and it had a crank and a heavy chain in there.  It made me think, standing there watching that car go by and I’d think, “Someday I’m going to have one of those.  Someday I’m going to learn exactly how that thing runs.”  And I stand there and I’d think that, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do that.”  Everybody’d say, “Harry Watt can fix that.”  I used to have that in mind.  Finally I bought a car when I was about seventeen years old.  When I was working on the bridge I got pretty good pay.  On this bridge here I got about 60 cents an hour while the others were getting about 30 cents, 35 cents.  Then when I worked for American Bridge Company made $1.00 an hour.  The railroads were paying around 30 cents, that was good pay.  I remember before I went to work, my brother was going to work on the highway, working for a contractor.  It was good wages, $2.00 a day. 

I was about the only one around here to go into iron work.  Later on they did.   Before the 1930’s there were some from the other reservations who were iron workers.  They were down there putting up a new bridge, just this side of where the Kinzua Dam is now, a railroad Bridge.  About four Indians worked there and that’s about all the iron workers there were in them days. I would be the only Indian that worked on iron in some places. 

[Originally published in Dialectical Anthropology : Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, edited by Christine Ward Gailey, Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 1992. Diane Rothenberg's own book, Mothers of the Nation, in which this essay also appeared, was published by Pierre Joris's Ta’wil Books in the same year, & a newly revised & expanded edition is scheduled from Nine Point Publishing in 2015.  Of this & other of her essays, David Antin writes: “To each of these essays Diane Rothenberg brings a tough minded rationality and precision of regard that assumes for the ‘others’ who are the subjects of the essays a similar rationality in the pursuit of their interests as they perceive them.  Setting the actors in the specific economic, social and political situations in which their actions are embedded, she shows us with great clarity and perhaps a certain implicit black humor how intelligently they have all played their previously bad hands.” The final section of the Harry Watt essay (“the commentary”) can be found here on Poems and Poetics.]