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

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: A Radio Play by Paul Celan (complete)

Translated from Celan’s German by Pierre Joris

[Reposted as a followup to Pierre Joris’s “Thoughts on Osip Mandelstam’s Birthday,” Jacket2, January 16, 2016.]

1. Speaker: In 1913 a small volume of poetry was published in St. Petersburg, entitled “The Stone.” These poems clearly carry weight; as the poets Georgij Ivanov and Nikolai Gumilev admit, one would like to have written them oneself, and yet ! these poems estrange. “Something,” remembers Sinaida Hippius who was centrally involved in the literary life back then and who had a way with words, “something had gotten into them.”

2. Speaker: Something strange — as various contemporaries report — which also applies to the author of the volume, Osip Mandelstam, born 1891 in Warsaw and who grew up in St. Petersburg and Pawlowsk and about whom it is known, among other things, that he studied philosophy in Heidelberg and is presently enamored of Greek.

1. Speaker: Something strange, somewhat uncanny, slightly absurd. Suddenly you hear him break into laughter ! on occasions where a completely other reaction is expected; he laughs much too often and much too loudly. Mandelstam is oversensitive, impulsive, unforeseeable. He is also nearly indescribably fearful: if, for example, his route leads past a police station, he’ll make a detour.

2. Speaker: And among all the major Russian poets who survive the first post-revolutionary decade — Nikolai Gumilev will be shot in 1921 as a counter-revolutionary; Velimir Khlebnikov, the great utopian of language, will die of starvation in 1922 — this “scarety cat,” anxious Osip Mandelstam will be the only defiant and uncompromising one, “the only one,” as the younger literary historian Vladimir Markov notes, “who never ate humble pie”.

1. Speaker: The twenty poems from the volume “The Stone” strike one as strange. They are not “word-music,” they are not impressionistic “mood poetry” woven together from “timbres,” no “second” reality symbolically inflating the real. Their images resist the concept of the metaphor and the emblem; their character is phenomenal.  These verses, contrary to Futurism’s simultaneous expansion, are free of neologisms, word-concretions, word-destructions; they are not a new “expressive” art.

The poem in this case is the poem of the one who knows that he is speaking under the clinamen of his existence, that the language of his poem is neither “analogy” nor plain language, but language “actualized,” voiceful and voiceless simultaneously, set free under the sign of an indeed radical individuation which, however and at the same time, remains mindful of the limits imposed on it by language and of the possibilities language has opened up.

The place of the poem is a human place, “a place in the cosmos”, yes, but here, down here, in time. The poem – with all its horizons – remains a sublunar, terrestrial, creaturely phenomenon. It is the language of a singular being that has taken on form; it has objectivity and oppositeness, substance and presence.  It stands into time.

2. Speaker: The thoughts of the “acmeists” or, as they also call themselves, the “Adamists,” grouped around Gumilev and his magazines “The Hyperborean” and “Apollo,” move along the same (or similar) orbits.

1. Speaker: The thoughts.  But not, or only rarely, the poems themselves.

1. Speaker: “Acme”, that means the high point, maturity, the fully developed flower.

2. Speaker: Osip Mandelstam’s poem wants to develop what can be perceived and reached with the help of language and make it actual in its truth. In this sense we are permitted to understand this poet’s “Acmeism” as a language that has born fruit.

1. Speaker: These poems are the poems of someone who is perceptive and attentive, someone turned toward what becomes visible, someone addressing and questioning: these poems are a conversation. In the space of this conversation the addressed constitutes itself, becomes present, gathers itself around the I that addresses and names it. But the addressed, through naming, as it were, becomes a you, brings its otherness and strangeness into this present. Yet even in the here and now of the poem, even in this immediacy and nearness it lets its distance have its say too, it guards what is most its own: its time.

2. Speaker: It is this tension of the times, between its own and the foreign, which lends that pained-mute vibrato to a Mandelstam poem by which we recognize it. (This vibrato is everywhere: in the interval between the words and the stanza, in the “courtyards” where rhymes and assonances stand, in the punctuation. All this has semantic relevance.) Things come together, yet even in this togetherness the question of their Wherefrom and Whereto resounds – a question that “remains open,” that “does not come to any conclusion,” and points to the open and cathexable, into the empty and the free.

1. Speaker: This question is realized not only in the “thematics” of the poems; it also takes  shape in the language – and that’s why it becomes a “theme” – : the word  – the name!  – shows a preference for noun-forms, the adjective becomes rare, the “infinitives,” the nominal forms of the verb dominate: the poem remains open to time, time can join in, time participates.

2. Speaker:A poem from the year 1910:

The listening, the finely-tensed sail.
The gaze, wide, empties itself.
The choir of midnight birds,
swimming through silence, unheard.

I have nothing, I resemble the sky.
I am the way nature is: poor.
Thus I am, free: like those midnight
voices, the flocks of birds.

You, sky, whitest of shirts,
you, moon, unsouled, I see you.
And, emptyness, your world, the strange
one, I receive, I take!

1. Speaker: A poem from the year 1911:

Mellow, measured: the horses’ hoofs.
Lantern-light – not much.
Strangers drive me. Who do know
whereto, to what end.

I am cared for, which I enjoy,
I try to sleep, I’m freezing.
Toward the beam we drive, the star,
they turn – all this rattling!

The head, rocked, I feel it burning.
The foreign hand, its soft ice.
The dark outline there, the fir trees
of which I know nothing.

2. Speaker: A poem from the year 1915:

Insomnia. Homer. Sails, taut.
I read the catalog of ships, did not get far:
The flight of cranes, the young brood’s trail
high above Hellas, once, before time and 
     time again.

Like that crane wedge, driven into the most 
      foreign –
The heads, imperial, God’s foam on top, humid –
You hover, you swim – whereto? If Helen 
     wasn’t there,
Acheans, I ask you, what would Troy be worth 
     to you?

Homer, the seas, both: love moves it all.
Who do I listen to, who do I hear? See – 
     Homer falls silent.
The sea, with black eloquence beats this shore,
Ahead I hear it roar, it found its way here.
1. Speaker: In 1922, five years after the October revolution, “Tristia,” Mandelstam’s second volume of poems comes out.

                The poet ! the man for whom language is everything, origin and fate ! is in exile with his language, “among the Scythians.” “He has” ! and the whole cycle is tuned to this, the first line of the title poem ! “he has learned to take leave ! a science”.

                Mandelstam, like most Russian poets – like Blok, Bryusov, Bely, Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, Esenin– welcomed the revolution. His socialism is a socialism with an ethico-religious stamp; it comes via Herzen, Mihkaylovsky, Kropotkin. It is not by chance that in the years before the revolution the poet was involved with the writings of the Chaadaevs, Leontievs, Rozanovs and Gershenzons. Politically he is close to the party of the Left Social Revolutionaries. For him — and this evinces a chiliastic character particular to Russian thought  — revolution is the dawn of the other, the uprising of those below, the exaltation of the creature — an upheaval of downright cosmic proportions. It unhinges the world.

2. Speaker:

Let us praise the freedom dawning here
this great, this dawn-year.
Submerged, the great forest of creels
into waternights, as none had been.
Into darkness, deaf and dense you reel,
you, people, you: sun-and-tribunal.0,05c hoch

The yoke of fate, brothers, sing it
which he who leads the people carries in tears.
The yoke of power and darkenings,
the burden that throws us to the ground.
Who, oh time, has a heart, hears with it, understands:
he hears your ship, time, that founders.

There, battle-ready, the phalanx – there, the swallows!
We linked them together, and – you see it:
The sun – invisible. The elements, all
alive, bird-voiced, underway.
The net, the dusk: dense. Nothing glimmers.
The sun – invisible. The earth swims.0,05c hoch

Well, we’ll try it: turn that rudder around!
It grates, it grinds, you leftists – come on, rip it around!
The earth swims. You men, take courage, once more!
We plough the seas, we break up the seas.
And to think, Lethe, even when your frost pierces us:
To us earth was worth ten heavens.

1. Speaker: The horizons are darkening – leave-taking takes pride of place, expectations wane, memory reigns on the fields of time. For Mandelstam, Jewishness belongs to what is remembered:

This night: unamendable,
with you: light, nonetheless.
Suns, black, that flare up
before Jerusalem.0,05c hoch

Suns, yellow: greater fright –
sleep, hushaby.
Bright Jewish home: they bury
my mother dear.

No longer priesterly,
robbed of grace and salvation,
they sing a woman’s dust
out of the world, in the light.

Jews’ voices, silent they kept not,
mother, how loud it sounded.
I wake up in my cot
by a black sun, surrounded.

2. Speaker: In 1928 a further volume of poems appears – the last one. A new collection joins the two previous ones also gathered here. “No more breath – the firmament swarms with maggots” – : this line opens the cycle. The question about the wherefrom becomes more urgent, more desperate – the poetry – in one of his essays he calls it a plough – tears open the abyssal strata of time, the “black earth of time” appears on the surface. The eye, talking with the perceived, and pained, develops a new ability: it becomes visionary: it accompanies the poem into its underground. The poem writes itself toward an other, a “strangest” time.

1. Speaker: 1 JANUARY1924

Whoever kisses time’s sore brow
will often, like a son, think tenderly
how she, time, laid down to sleep outside
in high heaped wheat drifts, in the corn.

Whoever has raised the century’s eyelid
– both slumber-apples, large and heavy – ,
hears noise, hears the streams roar
the lying times, relentlessly

Imperious century, with loam-beautiful mouth
and two apples, asleep – yet
before it dies: to the son’s hand, so shrunken,
it bends down its lip.

Life’s breath, I know, ebbs away each day,
one more small one, a small one – and
deceased is the song of mortification, loam and plague,
with lead they seal your mouth.

Oh loam-and -life! Oh centrury’s death!
Only to the one, I’m afraid, does its meaning reveal itself,
in whom there was a smile, helpless – to the inheritor,
the man who lost himself.

Oh pain, oh to search for the lost word.
oh lid and lid to raise, sick and weak,
for generations, the strangest, with lime in your blood
to gather the grass and the weed of night!

Time. The lime in the blood of the sick son
turns hard. Moscow, that wooden coffer, sleeps.
Time, the sovereign. And no escape anywhere...
The snow’s apple-scent, as always.

The sill here: I wish I could leave it.
Whereto? The street – darkness.
And, as if it were salt, so white, there on the pavement
lies my conscience, spread out before me.

Through winding lanes, through slipways
the journey goes, somehow:
a bad passenger sits in a sled,
pulls a blanket over the knees.

The lanes, the shimmering lanes, the by-lanes
the runners crunch’s like apples under the tooth.
The strap, I can’t grab it,
it doesn’t want me to, and the hand is clammy.

Night, carwoman, with what scrap and iron
are you rolling through Moscow?
Fish thud here, and there, from pink houses,
it steams toward you – scalegold!

Moscow, anew. Ah, I greet you, once more!
Forgive, excuse – my misery wasn’t very great.
I like to call them, as always, my brethren:
the pike’s saying and the hard frost!

The snow in the pharmacy’s raspberry light...
A clattering, from afar, an Underwood...
The coachman’s back... the roadway, blown away...
What more do you want? They won’t kill you.

Winter – beauty. And skyward the white,
the starmilk – it streams, streams away and blinks.
The horsehair blanket crunches along the icy
runners – the horsehair blanket sings!

The little lanes, smoking, the petroleum, always – :
swallowed by  snow,  raspberry colored.
They hear the Soviet-sonatina jingle,
remember the year twenty.

Does it make me swear and damn?
– The frost’s apple-scent, again –
Oh oath that I swore to the fourth estate!
Oh my promise, heavy with tears!

Oh whom will you kill? Whom will you praise?
And what lie, tell me, are you going to make up?
Tear off this cartilage, the keys of the machine:
the pike’s bones you lay open.

The lime in the blood of the sick son: it fades.
A laughter, blissful, frees itself –
Sonatas, powerful... The little sonatina
of the typewriter – : only its shadow!
2. Speaker: That’s how to escape contingency: through laughter. Through what we know as the poet’s “senseless” laughter – through the absurd. And on the way there what does appear – mankind is absent – has answered: the horsehair blanket has sung.

                Poems are sketches for Being: the poet lives according to them.

                In the thirties Osip Mandelstam is caught in the “purges.” The road leads to Siberia, where we lose his trace.

                In one of his last publications, “Journey to Armenia,” published in 1932 in the Leningrad magazine “Swesda,” we also find notes on the matters of poetry. In one of these notes Mandelstam remembers his preference for the Latin Gerund.

                The Gerund ! that is the present participle of the passive form of the future.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Michael McClure: Songheavy (Last Breath Poem)


After watching human
efforts to save the self-beached
pilot whale at Rockport.
Many times the large dolphin
reversed their efforts and
returned to the strand.


globe head


all being-receptors








every where


slick black
sea edge 



this way




the way








to imagine







to swim


five trillion per nanosecond

neuron linking

in the POD


? ?



we laugh
together in the torch

of wetwave darkness





we are gone












[N.B.  A poem, above, that recalls another, “For the Death of 100 Whales,” performed some sixty years ago at the famed Gallery Six reading in San Francisco – a continuation & advance by a poet still at the height of his powers. J.R.]

Saturday, January 23, 2016

From Technicians of the Sacred (expanded): Six Poems of Desperation by Worker Poet Xu Lizhi

[Originally published in China Labour Bulletin January 6, 2016]

I Swallowed an Iron Moon

I swallowed an iron moon
they called it a screw

I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms
bent over machines, our youth died young

I swallowed labor, I swallowed poverty
swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life

I can’t swallow any more
everything I’ve swallowed roils up in my throat

I spread across my country
a poem of shame

I Know a Day Will Come

I know a day will come
when those I know and don’t know
will enter my room
to collect my remains
and wash away the darkened blood stains I’ve shed across 
    the floor
rearrange the upturned table and chairs
toss out the moldering garbage
take in the clothing from the balcony
someone will help me write the poem I didn’t have time 
    to finish
someone will help me read the book I didn’t have time 
    to finish
someone will help me light the candle I didn’t have 
    time to light
last will be the curtains that haven’t been opened for 
someone will help me open them, and let the sunlight 
    in for a while
they will be closed again, and nailed there deathly 
the whole process will be orderly and solemn
when everything is tidy
they will all line up to leave
and help me quietly shut the door  

Waiting in Line

The packed crowds in this city
crawl up and down the streets
crawl up and down the pedestrian bridges, into 
    the subway
crawl up and down this earth
one lap around is one life
this fire-driven fire-singed species
busy from birth to death
only at the moment of death do they not cut in 
they lower their heads, follow in order
and burrow back into their mothers’ wombs

Single-Dish Menu: Twice-Cooked Meat

Garlic scape twice-cooked meat
Bitter melon twice-cooked meat
Green pepper twice-cooked meat
Dried tofu twice-cooked meat
Potato twice-cooked meat
Cabbage twice-cooked meat
Bamboo shoot twice-cooked meat
Lotus root twice-cooked meat
Onion twice-cooked meat
Smoked tofu twice-cooked meat
Celtuce twice-cooked meat
Celery twice-cooked meat
Carrot twice-cooked meat
Beansprout twice-cooked meat
Green bean twice-cooked meat
Pickled bean twice-cooked meat
Xu Lizhi twice-cooked meat

Obituary for a Peanut

Merchandise Name:  Peanut Butter
Ingredients: Peanuts, Maltose, Sugar, 
    Vegetable Oil, Salt, Food Additives 
    (Potassium sorbate)
Product Number: QB/T1733.4
Consumption Method: Ready to consume after 
    opening the package
Storage Method: Before opening keep in a 
    dry place away from sunlight, after opening 
    please refrigerate
Producer: Shantou City Bear-Note Foodstuff 
    Company, LLC
Factory Site: Factory Building B2, Far East 
    Industrial Park, Brooktown North Village
    Dragon Lake, Shantou City
Telephone: 0754-86203278    85769568
Fax: 0754-86203060
Consume Within: 18 Months          
Place of Production: Shantou, Guangdong 
Production Date: 8.10.2013

My Friend Fa

You’re always holding your lower back with your 
just a young guy
but to the other workers, you look
like a pregnant woman in her tenth month
now that you’ve tasted the migrant worker life
when you talk of the past, you always smile
but the smile doesn’t cover over hardship and misery
seven years ago you came alone
to this part of Shenzhen
high-spirited, full of faith
and what met you was ice,
black nights, temporary residence permits, temporary 
after false starts you came here to the world’s largest 
    equipment factory
and began standing, screwing in screws, doing 
    overtime, working overnight
painting, finishing, polishing, buffing,
packaging and packing, moving finished products
bending down and straightening up a thousand times 
    each day
dragging mountain-sized piles of merchandise across 
    the workshop floor
the seeds of illness were planted and you didn’t know 
until the pain dragged you to the hospital
and that was the first time you heard
the new words “slipped disc in the lumbar vertebra”
and each time you smile when you talk about the 
    pain and the past
we’re moved by your optimism
until at the annual New Years party, you drunkenly
grasped a liquor bottle in your right hand, and held up 
    three fingers with your left,
you sobbed and said:
“I’m not even thirty
I’ve never had a girlfriend
I’m not married, I don’t have a career—
and my whole life is already over.”

     Source: Eleanor Goodman, “Obituary for a Peanut: The creatively cynical world of worker poet Xu Lizhi,” in China Labour Bulletin, January 6, 2016.

     What emerges here is something beyond a state & party controlled “workers poetry” but the continuation & development of a popular literature written in the vernacular & confronting the fullest range of human thoughts & feelings, even the most skeptical, negative & self-destructive.  Of Xu Lixhi (1990-2014), Eleanor Goodman writes as translator: “Xu Lizhi is an excellent example of a modern incarnation of the century-old baihua, or vernacular, poetry tradition. His language comes out of the factory and life lived in the lower rungs of society, and revolves largely around nouns: words like screw and worksheet and twice-cooked meat. He tells the stories of workers, of his immediate world, and of his own psyche in plain but moving terms. The baihua movement began as a revolt against the rarified and largely inaccessible language of traditional Chinese literature. Today, there is no longer a strong division between the Chinese as formally written and as spoken, or between common speech and ‘literary’ speech. Nevertheless, a strong division remains in literature in terms of subject matter and approach. Rather than serving as a removed observer or a sympathizer of the plight of workers, farmers, and the poor in contemporary China, Xu experienced this all first hand. The fact that he could write about it with such eloquence and simplicity is a testament to his skill with the language of everyday life, as well as with poetic technique.”
     And further:  “I first came across Xu Lizhi’s poetry in the film Our Verses, a documentary that follows six different manual laborers who also write highly accomplished poetry. As I translated the poetry and then the subtitles for the film, I was immediately attracted to Xu’s straightforwardness, honesty, and darkness. Although his life was clearly unhappy—indeed, he committed suicide at the age of twenty-four by jumping out of a Foxconn factory dormitory window a little over a year ago—there is very little self-pity evident in his poetry. Rather, he casts a cold eye on the larger society, on the conditions in which he worked, and on himself. His reality was one that millions of other people face across China, but particularly in the south, which has become a center of production and exploitation. His ‘poem of shame’ is not a personal one, but a public and national one.”

[N.B. Eleanor Goodman’s book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni (Zephyr Press, 2014) was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and winner of the 2015 Lucien Stryk Prize. A collection of her own poetry, Nine Dragon Island, which was shortlisted for the Drunken Boat First Book Prize, will be published early next year.]