Dumuzi the meta-poem

Realized last night that the table of contents to Dumuzi, the book I’ve been at work on since, I don’t know, late in the Sumerian era, is itself somewhat a poem. So here, in the spirit of self-composting, and also to celebrate my having once more called the damn thing done, and for reals this time, no really, it is.


DUMUZI

At Leaf
Dumuzi
His Spaces
(T)error
White Teeth
O [Sumer],
A Loud Water
A Map in the Brush
Atonement
Pastoral
I stroll w/ him
Lascaux
Orchard
And a boy
Agora
K so fire
Rain in nature
Terror of the tall trees
I thought I
Blue Mountains Walking
Fast
Clay to eat
Thou
Dawns
A thorn of
Spring Snow
They find
Moriah
Imago
The Friend
In Rain
Deal is
A Path Down It
“Spring Snow” (detail)
Mind, Eurydice
At Anchor
Omnia Quae Sunt, Lumina Sunt
Shouts heard
“… of the tall trees” (detail)
Galla fat and thin
Pest
Q.E.D.
At Moor
(C)lear
Nooo
A Room
Weeds
An inner governor
Rest Stop
Head Is All Ought
Crossing the bar
They are fences
Red Ink
Sez flies
In Ruin
Root Mind Sight
Hands bound
Eorðgrap
One Night Pound
No room for
One leans down
A Stone
Terro(i)r
Through the Morning
Is You Is or Is You Ain’t
And their life is orchard.
Eyes not scornful
Union Square
Yarrow

paperwhites, for Elise


Not strong on narrative, okay, but there’s a sort of arc in it, a greeny rainbow.

Inanna Scient

Recently had a breakthrough with Dumuzi. Realized the embedded chapbook telling Inanna’s story – descent to the underworld and return here – had to bust out and become a freestanding being. So I’ve been at work on that …

But, in a funk these last couple of days. So instead of making poems I’ve been updating  web pages. Vanity 1 art 0. Here’s some new stuff I wrote about the goddess project, now called Inanna Scient, because her undertaking all is to know.


Goddess Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Devastatrix of the Lands. Her story cuts through Dumuzi’s at every point at a right angle. I thought she was part of his book, but just now she broke out to become her own text – electronic and multi-modal, I think. The first panel:

“When they tire of riding the holy hard-on, Inanna gathers up her me for a road trip.”     “Those are her powers.”

I know the text sounds crude. The source is way pre-Christian, open to sacred profanity, in ways post-Christian we, split between prudery and porn, can but long for.

I’d like, if I can learn the right software, for the image to be multiply responsive to a touch (tablet) or mouse-over (computer). Brush the aasemic text and a voice reads it to you. Poke a demon and a crow barks. Stroke a barcode and rain in the trees. The next panel:

Won from
“Won from her drunken father Sweetwater back in the day”

I imagine the text as a “posthuman hymn.” We’ve created, if not artificial, then unnatural intelligence, and outsourced a good chunk of our thinking to it – our sorting and analyzing, our remembering and feeling. The nets we’ve trained in these human works are clunky at it but quickly getting better. By now the images of us they reflect back to us are coloured by notes not our own. It’s that uncanniness I’m after.

Inanna
“Inanna”     “Her faithful friend”

Inanna Scient imagines what it is to be our thoughts in exile from us. Informed by our fears and longings, drawn out of our bodies, made remote to us as data. Inanna and her faithful friend (Ninshubur) are those codes the P.O. prints on our mail to sort it. The backgrounds are security envelope linings. The blocky little creatures, galla from the kur, underworld demons, are postal meter codes blown way up.

Mail because commerce. Inanna and Dumuzi are grain deities, and from the roots of the grain springs trade, flowers writing, spread cities, all our gorgeous disasters.

 

America again

And now our government has made the abandonment of children an instrument of policy and a means of gaining political leverage. As if those children had not already had more bravery asked of them than most of our leaders have ever shown.

Exhibit A: toddlers in wire cages with no idea where their mothers or fathers are.

Exhibit B: bone spurs.

On and off all day today, listening to the radio as I weeded the patio, made some lunch, napped through a migraine, tears of anger and grief for these kids, also for the men and women they’ll become. They’ll carry the injuries, many of them in silence probably, all their lives.

I don’t get to say “not my president.” I’ve never thought I do, I belong to the body that elected him and am part of this unconscionable mess, I’m implicated, we all are.

I’m appalled to be an American. “Make America Great Again.” You assholes.

I made a bumper sticker – see top of post. In Bellingham, where I live, it’s how you change the world. Want one? Contact me (leave a comment, or through FB) and I’ll send you one. It’s on me.

Ancestral White Interiors

First couple paragraphs of my intro to the translations I’ll be reading on Saturday at the Canadian Writers Summit.


One morning last summer, as I was trying to start the intro to my book of translations from Old English, Unlikeness Is Us—it’s a mistranslation of a line, ungelīc is ūs, meaning something like “it’s different for us,” or “we are set apart”—I found myself thinking instead about white supremacy. White nationalists had just marched in Charlottesville, VA, and forest fires to the north of me in BC had obscured the sun in thick white smoke. Just think about those names for a second. A town named for Princess Charlotte, of England. A state named for a Virgin Queen, of England. Don’t get me started on British Columbia? And that Columbia doesn’t refer to a dove, or a wildflower. Anyway, part of the white nationalist schtick is to say poems like the ones I’d translated belong to a superior Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage. And the smoke was rising from a fire that “superior heritage” had fed—five centuries of colonial and industrial rapacity. Now a beetle overwinters more widely and up go the trees. White nationalism, a sky white with smoke, my white screen. What was I going to make of that. I typed out the first lines of the song of a woman caught between dread of her lover’s return and her longing for it:

Lēodum is mīnum          swylce him mon lāc gife.
Willað hȳ hine āþecgan          gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
     Ungelīc is ūs.

As if one had made the people an offering.
They will receive him if he comes in violence.
     Unlikeness is us.

Below it I tried to explain my title:

Ungelīc is ūs. It means something like “it’s different between us,” or maybe, “we are set apart.” To write instead “unlikeness is us” is to dive under the surface after something uncanny in it. Something familiar-strange, at once near and far, in all these poems, a thing not scary quite; unnerving. Freud’s word for it was unheimlich, “unhomelike.”


Rereading it now, I’m struck by how indirect and circumspect it is. Probably an expression of my unease – how confused and ignorant I feel when I try to speak to these questions. Too, though, there’s something to be said for nonlinearity. I’m reminded of the poet Will Alexander, for whom composing not lines of argument but lightning fields –

By thinking in an inclement register, I am prone to sigils, to poetic inveiglement, to what Deleuze and Guattari would call a minor register, an experiment fueled by anti-codification. I agree with them, that poetry is the philosophy of the present age, potent in its ability to inhabit Rhizomes, to de-fuel territorial hardening. Language by not functioning as a claimed dimension, where every iota of its motion opens itself to simultaneous openings, not claimed by a sovereign or a single opening. (Towards the Primeval Lightning Field iii)

– is an act, the activity, of resistance, in form.


With me will be Stephanie Bolster, reading from her wonderful manuscript-in-progress, Long Exposure, about, among many other things, the human catastrophe in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and images of same and their consumption, and Barbara Nickel, reading brand new poems about the draining of Sumas Lake in Southwestern BC, with devastating consequences for the Stó:lō Nation.

 

“Constructions of Whiteness”

Next week I’m moderating a reading and discussion called “Constructions of Whiteness” with the brilliant and talented poets Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel at the Canadian Writers Summit in Toronto. What little I mean to say by way of introduction, follows.


Hello, and welcome to our reading and discussion, “Constructions of Whiteness.” Before we say more we should say that we are meeting on traditional indigenous territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit. Land also with a deep history of use and care by the Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat nations. We are grateful to be able to gather here.

I’m not going to say much by way of introduction. Just that we have taken as our starting point, as invitation and provocation, a passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

[R]ace is the child of racism, not the father…. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.

But for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)

He’s talking about his son’s body and his own there, and the African-American body more generally, and the American body politic, including American whiteness, and we’re here in Canada, and our national experience is different. But maybe not altogether different. We each, the three of us, Stephanie Bolster, Barbara Nickel, and myself, Christopher Patton, want to share with you projects that examine the invention of whiteness, its construction, and some of its attendant destructions, examine them in ways we hope are morally alert, if fallible.

I’ll read first, followed by Barb, then Steph, with some time for discussion after. Each reader will introduce the next one, though since I’m going first, I’ll introduce myself, even if it feels a bit weird.


Curious to hear more? If you’re attending the CWS, join us in Toronto!

Saturday, June 16
2:00–3:15
Loft 1, Harbourfront Centre

Occam’s Razor volume 8

Yesterday the journal I advise, Occam’s Razor, had the release party for its eighth volume. I was sad to be kept from attending by a wandering kidney stone. Here’s what I’d thought to say as the event got underway.


I’m delighted to welcome you to the release party for the eighth volume of Occam’s Razor, Western’s cross-disciplinary journal for undergraduate scholarship. Written by students, edited by students, also, you should know this, funded by students. Be sure to take one. You own it.

Eight years ago two undergrads were sad that all the work they put into a seminar paper or a research project went to getting an A and then – nowhere. Done, gone, forgotten. So they started this journal, to publish the work of their peers and those who came after, so they wouldn’t be sad in the same way.

At first it was held together with string and chewing gum. No office, no equipment, no budget except what they could beg each year. Year by year, things steadied out, and now, thanks to the good folks at the Student Publications Committee, we have a budget we can count on, and thanks to the kind hospitality of the Jeopardy staff, we have some office space we can use. And thanks to you, the students and faculty of Western, we’re getting more and better submissions every year.

I’ve only just got my hands on this year’s issue, but what I can tell you is, it has the highbrow ambition to take on Deleuze and Guattari, the bravado to look at law enforcement reform in the age of Trump. It ventures into the wilderness of ecocriticism and some bewildering press coverage of #metoo. It examines links between international adoption and trauma, and maps out styles of white racial socialization.

Some hard topics. It’s not an accident the cover is a rockface. Ezra Pound liked to say that beauty is difficult. This cover, and the contents too, argue that difficulty is beautiful.

I’ll let those who speak next introduce the authors to you. But please join me now in congratulating the Editor-in-Chief, Paola Merrill, and her Associate Editors, Cassie Bartlett, Chris Horton, and Grace Dunbar-Miller. And also please help me welcome Grace into the role of next year’s Editor-in-Chief.

Close reading Paterson’s line

Another bit of heavy lifting for my Pound and Williams students. I give as example more than I can realistically expect. But I want them to see what sustained close reading, in itself and for its own sake, looks like, to aspire to.


Did a spiel on Thursday, about the difference between writing deductively (state your claim then go about finding evidence for it) and inductively (explore the evidence and learn from it what your argument is).

Said, if you already know the material thoroughly, down to the details and textures, and out to the overarching themes – go ahead and write deductively. But if the material, you’re still learning your way into it, your main discoveries are ahead of you, and really in your schoolwork that should always be the case, forget deductive, do it inductively. Don’t start with a thesis. Start with an interest or question. Then go to the text, places in it that will further your interest, sharpen your question. Ask further questions of the text to learn how it works. This assignment and the allusion chart are just that sort of attention. As insights come about how the poem is put together they may bear towards your initial question or some other more illuminating where. Follow your line of inquiry until you have some insight into the text with heft, more than local. Now you’re in a position to draft an opening paragraph and a working thesis statement. Cuz how can you know what you think till you see what you’ve said?

And they were like, Why didn’t anyone tell us this?

And I was like, I’m telling you now?

And, working it inductively is “no ideas but in things,” in practice.

Fin digression. Follows, the close reading assignment.


The poetic line is what Hugh Kenner called a “patterned integrity.” The lines of the Cantos give off clear energy signatures—we can tell whether we’re in hell or paradise, myth or history, Greece or Provence, smiley face or frowny face, by the musical qualities of the line (stress and duration patterns), by the way it casts an image on the mind’s eye, and by how it plumbs the meanings of its words (diction and syntax). In other words, melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia. The energy signature changes line by line, but as we grow attuned to the Cantos, we learn to recognize some characteristic patterns, and may then be a bit less lost.

In Paterson, too, the style of patterning often changes line by line. But we’ve an added challenge: those patterns don’t settle into distinct types we can become familiar with. Each line real­ly is a new world, with new terms—sonic, rhythmic, sensory, semantic, syntactic—on which it asks to be read.

One way to face that challenge is to isolate the line as a unit of perception. This assignment asks you to do that. Pick a passage you enjoy in Paterson. Isolate one line—

(1) There is no direction. Whither? I

Close read it, without reference to lines before or after, for its qualities of sound, image, and sense, as here:

Sonically, the line seems, at first, directionless. There is no alliteration, and no obvious consonance or assonance; in fact, the values of the vowels are all over the map, as if to create directionlessness in the mouth that speaks the line. Perhaps the line’s sonic variety is part of its point. The consonants are a mixture of voiced ([ð]) and unvoiced fricatives ([ʃ]), voiced plosives ([d], [k]), approximants ([r], [w]), and nasals ([n]); the vowels range from the front middle ([ɛ]) and the near-close near-front ([i]), to the mid-central ([ə]), to the near-close near-back ([ʊ]) and the close-mid back rounded ([o]), culminating in the diphthong [ai], which joins the open near-front [a] to the near-close near-front [i]. Sonically, the sequence seems thoroughly unpoetic, if poetry is understood as shapely speech. At any rate, the line seems to want to bring the whole mouth into play. Only after a few passes do recurrent sounds emerge—the [r] sound repeats in “There,” “direction,” and “whither”; there’s something like assonance between “direction ”and “There”; a common [ð] binds “There” and “whither, while a common [i] binds “is” and “whither”; and that [i] is transformed, in the line’s final thought, into the first person singular pronoun, by the addition of the sound also made by the indefinite article [a]. What at first seems chaos may turn out to be an argument for variety.

[If you’re not fluent in IPA, use the pronunciation key found in a standard dictionary.]

Rhythmically, the line is metrical, iambic pentameter without the initial unaccented syllable—a curious way to begin for a poet wedded to free verse. All the syllables are short except “There” and “Whith-,” both at the start of their phrases, giving the sense that the phrase begins at a fixed point, then rushes or springs forward.

Imagistically, the line is almost empty—curious for a poet who proclaims, “no ideas but in things.” The opening, “There is,” suggests we will be presented with an object, a locale, something that is—but instead we are offered a negation, what is not, and what is not is an abstraction anyway—“direction.” No wonder the next thought is “Whither?” No ideas but in things, and no sense, without things, where to go next. This is the first line of the section—the poet seems to wonder where to go next—suggesting that, as with the Cantos, the crisis of how to make the poem is one of the subjects of the poem. What traces of image or activity remain in the line are etymological: “direction” comes from the Latin dirigere, “to set straight,” from dis- “apart” and regere “to guide,” cognate with regal; the derivation of “whither” is unclear. And that brings us to semantics.

Semantically, the two words connected by the ligature [ð], “There” and “whither,” are a bit at odds: “there,” taken in itself, is an indication of location, as in “there it is,” while “whither” expresses a failure of orientation. The word “direction,” which sits between them, on its own tends toward the former sense, but negated  here by “no,” enforces the latter. (And yet to say “no direction” brings direction to mind as a possibility. As telling someone not to think of pink elephants ensures they will think of pink elephants.)

The first-per­son singular pronoun, “I,” is isolated sonically (there’s no other vowel like it in the line), visually (it’s stranded at the line end), semantically (only a general sense of directionlessness ties the “I” into a framework of meaning), and syntactically: it’s the start of a third sentence. The first sentence is four words long and includes a subject and a verb. The second is one word long and includes neither subject nor verb—if a sentence at all, it is radically elided, stripped down to a raw interrogative. And the third is, as said, barely begun before it is aborted by the line end. On the level of syntax as well, then, the line is committed to asymmetry and disorder, to upending any balance, harmony, or stasis. If these attributions seem too much, consider how much would be lost, sonically, semantically, and syntactically, if “There is” were omitted from the line, or if “I” were moved down to the next.

And repeat. Continue line-by-line for about five double-spaced pages (essay format). Conclude your analysis with a paragraph that addresses this question: What expressive features of the passage has this process revealed? (Avoid using the first person here. Imagine this paragraph is part of a formal essay, in which you are drawing together findings from a sustained close reading, which you can put to work somewhere else.) Please identify, in your title, by page number, the passage you are working with. And … enjoy?