Thursday, November 10, 2016

The wheels of the overturned wreck still spinning

(On negative capability)

The wheels of the overturned wreck
still spinning--

I am having trouble seeing how--
some lines trip, now they blare

my head my eye
an old tv, giving up the ghost.

Before horror,  everything.
Beyond horror, nothing.

O scow or barge loose--
should safely be moored. But people, those
people who have power in them?

I don't mean to despair, I mean if we do not--
at least to hear
in the manner of poetry.

Working notes

The second and third stanzas of this poem are taken from a journal entry trying to account for my experience of these last two days, as the reality of a Trump presidency in the US begins to sink in; the rest are citations and modifications of some writings of American poet George Oppen, who fled, with his wife and daughter to Mexico during the early 1950s after being repeatedly harassed by the FBI for his radical politics. Oppen is celebrated as a poet of "negative capability"--Keats' term for a poet who builds work from the capacity to ask questions and to reside in "uncertainty, mystery and doubt," rather than foreclosure or a drive to a preconceived end. For Oppen, and perhaps for all of us, ethics emerges from such confrontations with what seem to us to be situations of crisis.  How do we describe and respond fulsomely to our histories, and to the events that unfold around, before, because of and despite us? Such activities take time, and often, in a crisis, that's exactly what we're sure we do not have. Nevertheless, to take the time to try to think, to hear and to see, in and despite our various states of blindness, deafness and panic, is our truest calling, and something like prayer.

Those lines that begin "the wheels of the overturned wreck..." are taken from Oppen's poem "Route," which recounts his experience, in 1925, of being responsible for a fatal crash. Drunk, and at the wheel, he lost control of his vehicle. I don't mean to despair, I mean if we do not--" also reworks a portion of that poem, which is found in New Collected Poems (2002). (I write: "I don't mean to despair, I mean if we do not--/at least to hear/ in the manner of poetry;" Oppen wrote: "I don't mean he despairs, I mean if he does not/ He sees in the manner of poetry.")

"Before horror..." and "O scow or barge loose..." are lifted from Oppen's "Daybook 1," working notes that seem to have been written between 1963 and 1964, after the Oppens had returned to the US. (Stephen Cope, ed., George Open: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007): 58. In this section, Oppen muses on the latent potential of those who approach situations as bystanders, rather than actors.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Incidents in a Life (Book I--Abridged Version)

 The shadow play, through dirty windows, of morning light on a basement wall

Book I Things Do Happen

(Abridged Version)

--Chapter 0--

(opens in shadows)

What went on before I was or did.

--Chapter 1--

(something flickering)

And then I was born.

--Chapter 2--

(there might be light)

What went on that I can hardly remember.

--Chapter 3--

(certain shapes appear)

I might have learned to read.

--Chapter 4--

(lines, delineations)

Writing doesn't come easily; I'd rather draw a tree.

--Chapter 5--

(a trajectory perhaps)

Things go on happening that I'd like to report; things go on that I'd rather forget.

--Chapter 6--

(the road runs on)

Sometimes, memory fails me, and this, too, becomes something I fear.

--Chapter 7--

(the cliff edge)

Things neglected; things left to happen.

--Chapter 8--

(pebbles scrabble over the edge)

I know I'll die but I'm not dead yet.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Supper or wisdom (spring poem)

The days warm in minor increments now
rain hisses on the pavement, spatters darkened windows,
runs through the gutters at night.

By day I dream I walk through the park,
sit for a moment, my face turned
toward the sun.

In my dream I remember how
last autumn I sat there,
in that red chair

(said as if I were pointing)
rereading Plato's Symposium, city
buses coughing exhaust on my feet.

Were the birds singing?
I don't recall.
Just the clamour of voices

arguing supper or wisdom, and really
who cares? We go on forever
searching for both.


Another "found" draft poem, scribbled out and hidden in my journal, this one dated 2 May 2016.

The photograph of the armchair was not taken in any park, of course, but in the Shelter Island Boat Yard in Richmond, BC in July 2014. Where had it come from? Who knows? But there it was, incongruous, settled in the shade of an old wooden trawler.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

On saying goodbye (when does death arrive?)

The morning arrives still, grey, humid.  Offshore the sea blusters with a coming storm, but here the water is a claude glass, the air full of black flies.  We swat them away as we walk out past the woodpile, up the slight incline to the barn, then along what used to be a fence line to the apple orchard.  The apples aren't any sweeter, but they are redder, and some have begun to fall on the ground.

Past the weedy patch and the mound where the rhubarb grows, past the gangling burr oak with its few clinging brown leaves and then we are there beneath a birch and some spruces: our own private pet cemetery. We stop there briefly to speak to all our gone ones: in 17 years, the litany of names has become very long.  Four dogs and now three cats and the ghost of a fourth haunt this grove, this section of stony earth. Enya, the new dog, who is almost two, sniffs the spot worriedly and then moves on, quickly, down the path to the pond. It is not a good place for living dogs to linger.

We buried our cat Dante there last week, after taking her to the vet for an overdose of sedative. In seconds, her poor stricken body, her paralyzed bent paws and stiff legs, the blind eyes and nictitating membranes that would not close relaxed. She bowed her head as if in sleep and all of the tension drained from her body. Her heart stopped and she was dead.

Sad as we were, as we watched her unfurl into death, we were also relieved, for her pain had become unbearable; despite her paralysis, she had tried again and again to run from what ailed her, only to fall, and her misery to worsen.

We'd had 17 years with her, our "big cat" as I called her, although she had always been small. Still, in the last year, as her kidneys failed, she had become tiny; two weeks ago, her legs weakened and began to stiffen. When I said goodbye to her on my way out the door to work that week, I thought it might be the last time I saw her.

She stopped drinking and eating that day, and because she kept falling, Marike took to carrying her around on a blanket or in her basket. She held Dante all night the Tuesday that I was in Halifax, and then when I came home Wednesday I did the same. We thought she died quite a bit that night, but was clearly still in pain.  Mostly blind, mostly paralyzed, organs failing, her extremities--paws and ears--cold, only her tail still lively, impatient, expressive, switching and twitching, we bundled her in a blanket and took her to the vet, where a needle full of sedative slowly stilled her heart.

But is that when death arrives, when the heart stops or the autonomic nervous system ceases? Or does it settle in by degrees,  as we who are living also let go, and the beloved body cools and stiffens?

I held Dante in my arms and petted her all the way home, speaking softly into that near space where it seemed her spirit, her particular character and being still hovered, touchable, keeping us company. We had not yet released our hold on her singular life, but what had been so lively and so alive without us now remained and shifted inward, circulating as memory and sensation and drifts of kitty fur, sewn through the cushions and corners of our lives.

In this way, she is not yet gone, but nestled into the forms of our gestures and habits. At night, in the dark, I still step carefully, as if she might be nearby, unseen, underfoot--as, in a way, she is. When I wake, I listen for her, sure I'll hear the drop of her paws on the floorboards, her soft purr as she climbs up on the bed, glad to have conscious company in the middle of the night. I put out my hand, curl my fingers around empty space.  Likewise the dog curls on the bench by the fire, nuzzling a stuffed toy, sniffing at it as she did Dante, clearly missing her animal companion.

How does Rilke put it, the character of such missing and the way it shapes our lives? In the Eighth Duino Elegy he writes:

                         Here all is distance;
there it was breath. After that first home,
the second seems ambiguous and drafty...

Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops lingers------,
so we live here, forever taking leave.

So we live here, forever taking leave of our loves--until the days that we, too, will die.

Unlike Rilke, I do not think that we live or die differently from other animals, although he might be right that we tend to busy ourselves with preoccupations, with objects, as he puts it, rather than "that pure space into which flowers endlessly open." But now and then, as death creases us, we too may turn or wake and look, not at life, but at something like being, as its wings beat by our heads. These too are gifts, as if from the dead to the living: look here; see; and hasten not your mourning.

Dante cat died on Thursday 13 October 2016.  She had come to live with us when just a kitten sometime in the fall of 1999, a gift of Nicole Moser, who had heard we needed a mouser. We had two large black dogs at the time, Negrita, a black lab, and Binky, our three-legged wolfdog stray. Dante spent her first three days in the house on top of the kitchen cupboards; on the fourth day she descended, having somehow mesmerized the dogs, and despite her tiny size, whipped them into respect and obedience without ever extending a claw. In fact, that's how she got her name, for as Marike said, she was little, and needed a big name that was easy to hear and to call. Who better than after an exiled poet, who mapped heaven and hell and all of the regions between?

She was wise, scrappy, playful and clever--gave birth to five kittens, instructed Binky how to care for them rather than to eat them, and survived a neighbour's hate and traps, as well as an attack by roaming huskies that killed her daughter and wounded Elisabeth. Until a year ago, she kept the house free of mice and other small critters; she trained all of our dogs to be good to cats, and figured out that if she came and rubbed herself on our computers as we worked, she could be sure of nearly endless petting. She could play good jokes, sticking her paw in our water glasses, or dropping pellets of food in our shoes, and then watching to see how we'd react. And sometimes, when we played ball with a dog, she'd run interference, as if she could catch, but really to interrupt the dog's concentration, and make the ball drop. We'll not soon see her like again.

The Rilke I cite here is from Stephen Mitchell's translation and bilingual edition, Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Random House, 1982): 195, 197.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Public Stories: On Doubt and Debt

These days we write public stories not private ones.

What is the difference?
I say, what is the difference?

A public story is not a private one.
A private story is not a public one.

A public story is when someone wishes to believe--but you withhold, withal, some doubts.
You do not share them.

In other words,
a public story is when debts make doubts unutterable.

A private story is when when doubts are spoken softly,
as if inside a closed book.

Eyes shut, like in a dream.
Perhaps you believe wishes, but will not share them.

In other words,
a private story is when doubts make debts unutterable.

Doubts, debts, what is the difference?

These days we write private stories in public
and bury the public in private, tamping down its grave.


In searching my old journals for some ships' log notes, I came across a short dialogue written in southern Mexico in February of 2006 that began "these days we write public stories not private ones." I'm not sure to what I was referring (how quickly memory fails us!), but I can tell from other nearby entries that all the ship's company were very ill then with salmonella poisoning, and we had not in fact communicated the extent of that to our friends and relatives, so perhaps that's what I was writing about. In any case, I felt a sudden urge, once I had stumbled across these words, to seize and remotivate them, to do something with them.  It seemed as if my 2006 lament was a prefiguration of the crazy mixed-up media and political landscape of the present, in which, at once, both privacy and the commons have become radically eroded, facts a matter of opinion,  public debt irrelevant (and private debt increasingly crippling).

Public, private, what is the difference? So many of us no longer clearly know, and yet this boundary feels crucial, even sustaining, particularly in private, if not in public. Although perhaps it should be.

I reflect that a personal blog, like this one, sits sometimes oddly on the boundary between public and private; it represents a space of limited publication, but within a potentially unlimited public,  like so much of whatever we who post do post on the internet. How limited? How unlimited? How can we know? No wonder we're confused, and cannot keep our accounts straight, our debts and doubts either separated or aligned.

Why have I stopped writing so frequently here? In part because I am publishing in other venues more and they do not like to be scooped by my own blog; in part because I have been working in other media and on other projects; in part because I keep several teaching blogs when I am teaching and just cannot bear to spend too much more time on the computer. Everything seems to flow through these narrow portals, and some days I spend far too many hours sitting at a desk and staring at a screen. In fact I must ask what are you doing here now, peering into that the odd doorway/ mirror of your computer screen? Hurry, get up, push back your chair, step outside and go for a walk! Get your your private in the public, where no one can see you!

Images from a walk at Taylor Head Provincial Park, Nova Scotia, October 15, 2016.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Where we tread

Fog. We are immersed in an unending fog that drifts in and out with the tides. Sometimes the air is warm and still and the water like glass, beaming back reflections of trees and stone with greater clarity and definition than the atmosphere. But then the wind blows, rifling and darkening the surface of the water.  

Dried grasses and lichens loom up out of the mist as if aglow; fiddleheads unfurl, swallows swoop in graceful arcs over the yard, Sometimes, when we're out walking, they bomb by so near and so quick, I feel the air around my face stir. 

The loon calls from an invisible space, and all around songbirds trill. A yellow finch gleams from the upper branches of an apple tree, then flutters away into the mist. Now you see it; now you don't, but the dip of its looping flight resounds in the air.

Water beads tender greens unfurling on every tree, drips from the pines, puddles in the centers of lupin leaves, illuminates spidery filaments webbing the grass. Everywhere the long view is obscured, but whatever is close, tiny, near to the ground, is magnified.

Here the sweet scent of spruce bud, flowering maple, smashed violets smeared where we tread.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Rereading or Practicing Surrealism? Method: short poems from novels. First trial: Andre Breton

If you block out most of the words on the famous first page of Breton's Nadja, you get a question transposed into a statement:

"I am who(m) I haunt."

All of Nadja could be summed up in this phrase, Breton's ode to himself, or to the power to drive an ill woman mad. --At least, that's one possible reading of the story.

One is not inclined to imagine that such a reading is incorrect when face to face with the last image in the book, or rather, its revision:

In the caption to this self-portrait, Breton writes as one who envies himself--and in this way becomes, at once, himself and himself-as-someone else, Nadja, a man of record, a public figure, a writer.

No wonder it also always feels like a trick. "I must admit this last word is misleading." And so, too, those that precede it.

The Fine Print 

I should explain what has occasioned this short excursus on Breton, yet another one, for I've written about him--and Nadja--here before, although arguably stopped just short of the insight that the exercise of literally blocking out bits of his text finally offered me--that when Breton writes, he writes for and of himself; he haunts himself; every other is just a foil. You can judge for yourself: see

This time, which is to say, yesterday, I was thinking about a course that I will teach again in the fall, something I've called Strategic Fictions.  The course is designed to expose visual artists who want to make use of fiction in their work to the techniques of fiction as writers think about them, as well as to a number of contemporary artists and artworks (sometimes called "Superfictions") that make use of various aspects of fiction: for example, Sophie Calle, Joan Fontcuberta, Iris Haeussler, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, and so on. 

I have previously, with many misgivings, made use of Nadja as precursor text in this course, as a way of visibly linking the strategies of the artists we consider back to various modernist exercises, including (auto)biography-as-illustrated-novel (Calle, Haeussler, Fontcuberta, Cardiff and Miller and Duke and Battersby all enact variations on this theme). In fact, my previous piece on Breton and Nadja, "'Something Wrong': Women Who Crash," began as an effort to engage the image-using and citational strategies of Nadja to new ends, and was first drafted as a lecture for the Strategic Fictions class.  

Yesterday, however, I was wondering if I could engage my students in a more direct project of handling Breton's text.  I'd been looking at and thinking about poet Mary Ruefle's "erasure" books--works where she takes an earlier text and blocks out sections of it to make a new text.  See for example, a page from the poem/book, A Little White Shadow, itself constructed from a novella published by Emily Malbone Morgan in 1889 also entitled A Little White Shadow:

Such works-by-erasure are common in poetry, especially contemporary poetry, and repeatedly and knowingly give the lie to various claims to "originality." Poets are constantly writing in the style of, or "after" various others by borrowing from and reworking earlier poetry, often tongue-in-cheek, or building poems from excision, concision and mistranslation.  A cento is, for example, a poem entirely composed from fragments found elsewhere, heretical verse, taking one sort of text and making it say something else. This form, named and exercised by Roman poets of the second or third century, is all about the generative power of mistakes or, more particularly, the capacity of heretics to re-author the Gospels simply by citing select bits of them.  The Latin word harks back to the Greek verb kentron, "to plant slips of trees," as well as, or so the dictionary and various commentators claim, to a later Greek formation, kentrone, or "patchwork garment."  We are all born from someone and somewhere else; little or nothing is new. 

Likewise, Canadian poet Gregory Betts has made much of what he calls "plunderverse"; as with Ruefle's work, he takes a source text and, preserving the order of the words and letters, strikes out until the old text speaks differently, anew.  "We are born into language but a language not our own," Betts writes.  "We can only speak a language not our own." (See Betts' Plunderverse Manifesto here: and a review of his aptly named The Others Raisd in Me, a work of plunderverse here:   

Similarly, artist Tom Phillips makes use of such dadaist-become-surrealist technique in his 1987 A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, one page of which is reproduced here:

Such contemporary poetic or painterly projects are, for the most part, descendants of techniques like those spelled out in Tristan Tzara's 1920 "Dada Manifesto on Feeble and Bitter Love," where he instructs readers to cut words from the newspaper, put them in a bag, shake, and pull them out, one by one, writing them down in the order in which they appear. The resulting "poem will resemble you," Tzara promises.  Still another example may be found in the recyclings of Max Ernst's "collage-novels" of the 1930s, for example La femme 100 tetes or Une semaine de bonte, where Ernst combines drawings on Victorian illustrations into long wordless and surreal tales--as in this weird and textured plate from Une semaine de bonte/ A week of kindness:

 With such examples on my mind then, and wondering about possible exercises I might assign to students grappling with Nadja for the first time (or, as also happens, falling in or out of love with it--what is it about the power of the surrealists to command us with their mad loves and hates?), I opened my copy of Nadja, trans., Richard Howard  ***with this phrase, "trans. Richard Howard," I have been echoing or writing "after" Frank O'Hara's wonderful and breathless poem "The Day Lady Died"*** and began mentally blocking out text, rewriting the first page, and thereby writing a short poem from a novel--if this little exercise can be called a poem. Or perhaps all of these words and every one of these citations is the poem, which can only invite further plunder.

But wait; there is more.

One final note. As I am finishing this text, I open my copy of Breton's L'Amour fou, a(nother) book in his trilogy of novels dedicated to the unfolding of unexpected encounters and coincidences. A ticket falls out on which is printed the following command: "Please read carefully." I do. Or rather, I read that line several times, since I don't have my reading glasses with me, and what follows it is printed in type so painfully small that it devolves into wavering black squiggles, a drawing perhaps, another block of excised text. Definitely not words.  

Everything repeats itself; nothing is new; what is the difference between altering and misreading, and simply not reading? This is not a minor question in an era when Donald Trump is touted as a viable US presidential candidate.

Oddly enough, I have been reading this morning the text of lecture by Mary Ruefle entitled "Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World." There she recounts one day when she was in her forties, "an ordinary day, neither sunny nor overcast," when she could no longer read; the words would simply no longer compose themselves in any sort of sensible order. Ruefle writes:

[T]he words that existed so I might read them sailed away, and I was stranded on a quay while everything I loved was leaving. And then it was I who was leaving: a terror seized me and took me so high up in its talons that I was looking helplessly down on a tiny, unrecognizable city, a city I had loved and lived in but would never see again."

She explains that really, she needed reading glasses, but "before I knew that, I was far far away." The train had left the station. Everything was fraudulent; the landscape had shifted; her sense of reading as some sort of orderly practice in the world had come completely undone. 

But in fact, although we usually don't recognize it, this is where we are when we are reading--on edge, overtaken, helplessly hopelessly behind. We've missed the train; we're on the wrong train, or simply find that where we thought we were is elsewhere. Or nowhere. There is no there there (says Gertrude Stein in the 1930s as she is touring the United States).

Please read carefully. 
We do. And we cannot.

And so we begin again.

We sit and we read and then we set out...reaching town as evening [begins] to fall.*

*These are last words of the English translation of W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, a book about reading, lost memory, extirpation, transportation and death

Reading. Writing.
We think these activities will save us, but really they carry us ever closer to death--even as they put off--still another hour!-- the arrival of that day. 

Maybe this piece should have been called "Someone reading a book is a sign of disorder in the world."