Into the visual wild

Cometh spring, a new quarter, and our entry, I with 20 brave souls, to the wilderness of visual poetry. Typographic cows at leap over sans-serif moons. Overflowering word gardens. Poems with no words in them.

I’ll post some exercises, and I hope some student work, in weeks to come. Inly the shift from intense poem-making to what may be intense poet-teaching is feeling a bit rocky. But I think once I’m at one with the rocks it’ll be smooth going.

Living Writers: Word and/as Image

The written word is always embodied, on paper or in stone, on bone, among electrons. That means it is both visible and tangible. In addition to writing or reading it, we can trace it, paint on it, rough it up, sand it smooth, stretch it, shrink it, erase or deface it. Meanwhile, the visual image often reaches for the sort of meaning words have, asking us to treat it as legible. No one knows what these figures in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell mean—

Blake strip - MHH

—but most will feel that they mean. In the word-image nexus, meaning is often fugitive in this way, just beyond the reach of your eyes’ fingertips. In this course, we’ll study poems in which signs keep sliding toward picture, and pictures keep morphing into signs. Our primary texts will be those of living writers, many of them Canadian, but we’ll also dip into earlier works, from Egyptian rebuses to Anglican concrete poems to early Romantic prophetic watercolours. Get ready for a wild ride.

Dumuzi at an end

I finished Dumuzi this morning. There are tweaks to come, but he’s ready to start going out, muddy face sheepish grin and all.

The first poem in the book is

At Leaf

A son of my
first mind, was
at leaf, wind on
raw skin, fist
of one thirst
snowmelt where
hemlocks over-
hanging shiver
round of what
no one had
made, made
of what no

The title poem is


Let no state be
enemy. Wet, dry, agon.
Work an inmost first
flower mutedly.

Wind blows light about
the life (hemlocks) from
which art is not apart

nor of a part. What a
rock thought to do
was rain and it

Deer come
out of th

The oldest lines date back to Nov. 1999. A conversation I mis-overheard on the M.V. Quinsam, a ferry plying the route from Gabriola, an island pinched between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland, where I lived in a summer cottage in the off-season

—they thought they had it all but they didn’t
—oh, once you have that you don’t get rid of it
—Monday she goes, an ontologist,
                     that’s the specialist

The newest lines date back to last night. An uptight but not incorrect galla reminds Inanna of the terms of her release from the underworld.There's gots The last poem in the book is elegy.


And the image atop is Tammuz by Ardon Mordecai. Sent me years ago by fellow poet and University of Utah alum Timothy O’Keefe. Thank you Tim. I aspire to it as a cover.

And now it’s time to start catching up on what seem years, though are just days, of dishes, laundry, bills. Oh and I believe I have two new courses to teach starting Tuesday. (Really I’m about to start compiling a list of contest deadlines and open reading periods . . . ) Thanks, all, for the kindness of your words, those who have sent some, or of your attending upon these words, which somehow I have felt you doing, I have, and it sustains me, it does.

Into the life of things

Wandering on Google+ came to a brief sensitive reading of George Oppen by Anil Bawa-Cavia, of whom I haven’t heard, relayed by Miggy Angel, of whom ditto.

That’s my bad, head in Sumerian sands and all. Hope to read more of both as we seem to have some in common. It begins —

George Oppen was a poet of matter. Of stuff itself. Dealing in the opacity of things, the impenetrability of materials, the tangible complexity of the world.

Omission as an expression of the unresolved. The conflicts to be admitted in objects.

— and completes here. There’s Heidegger in there, and Merleau-Ponty, but worn lightly, thankfully.

What if thing were not a dirty word.

What if matter were, as its etymology implies, mother of us all.

Which, duh, it is, but what if we took that to heart.

That beautiful man, made light, made matter, made light —


Interstellar addendum

Near the end of Interstellar there’s a bit I find transcendent (when I picture it) and really kinda cheesy (when I think about it). Though in another galaxy and at the heart of a black hole qui s’appelle Gargantua our hero finds himself in his daughter’s bedroom behind the bookshelf.

A bedroom a bit altered. Imagine turning the book in your hands inside out and finding it contained a tesselated library. A still –

interstellarBig debt to Borges, yes, but the visual feels alive to me. And apparently it sunk in to where I could thieve from it. A bit after first seeing the movie, with no sense of debt to anyone or thing, I made this one out of bar codes, for the death and dragging under of Dumuzi –

Crossing bar (detail) - figThe debt I was aware of was to Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” a poem I don’t much like, but I had in mind the recent passing of a favourite English teacher, in whose company I first met the poem. And so called it,

Crossing bar (detail) - titleAnyway, all this is to say, debts to others are so many, truly new thoughts so vanishingly few. Oh Ezra. Make it new – if it isn’t already altogether new, how could I, you, we, they, make it be.

P.S. The slantwise rough strokes are bits of woodgrain from my desk picked up by scotch tape splayed there. I want to write, soon soon, about woodgrain and accident, Martians Jack Spicer and Stephen Burt, and proprioception, but the moment is not quite yet – not quite yet – .

P.P.S. The bar code is from if I remember aright the paper that came long with my flu shot. And my dismemberment of it my vengeance upon it b/c it protected me not one whit, not one.

Now goth Inanna under wode

There’s an old quatrain from out the middle ages I first met as epigraph to Robert Hass’s Sun Under Wood.

Now goth sonne under wode —
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre —
Me reweth, Marie, thi sonne and thee.

A book and a poet that’ve always resounded for me for how tenderly they assay the harms to which the mother-son bond is prone. Terrain I work in too as uncrampedly as I can.

What sat me down to write though were a father and a daughter. Watched Interstellar a second time last night and was moved (again) by all it did well and dismayed (again) at all it did poorly. And what I felt most (again) wasn’t the admittedly spectacular black hole wrung with light, or the rungs of sooty frozen clouds the astronauts clamber among, but the intimate distance of father and daughter the astonishing otherness of those sights makes visual.

It kinda broke me. I suddenly got I’m almost for sure not going to have that in my life. I’m a bit too broken to have a kid or have taken a bit too long to get me whole enough to do it. I’d probably do okay at it now but the window’s closing or closed.

A bit later the okay-voices came to say there’s plenty else to make a life meaningful, and they’re right, but for a bit it broke me.

You see why I go to junk mail. It gets dark fast around here sometimes. A few galla for you — one’s trying to hide behind a bit of beachwrack. (Goeth galla under driftwood.)At Troy

If I’m more open here than I’ve been, I thank Hass a little, my students a lot, who’ve braved to write about trials and disorders known by name but not plumbed for real in the halls of DSM V. To write and make beautiful and indeed sublime sentences out of. (Therapy prose: the more honest it is the more you cringe. Transformative prose: the more honest the more you soar.)

I do have to say, a joy of teaching is, the wish in me to father is met, not as it would be by a child, I know, but still, it is, and meaningfully. That’s for a different post — maybe a different blog — but it’s probably the most meaningful thing about teaching for me, equalled maybe only by the creative incitement the most happy arrangements have had to offer me.

Thought on the way to the grocery store yesterday evening: if at the end of my life I’ve touched more people as a teacher than as a poet, that’ll be okay, I guess.

So, Inanna goth under wode, and I’ve had to go with her, goddammher. No point putting it off, let’s get this road trip started.

She takes

The text’s a bit hard to read (working on that) so —

She takes the road no one turns on to the kur where our names go to die.

The kur is the Sumerian underworld — ruled by her sad sister Ereshkigal. Her snazzy feather is the Bank of America logo. The terrain she and her trusty friend navigate at some peril is a treacherous assemblage of security envelope linings.

From a later (Akkadian) text, “The Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World” (just for funs):

To the Land of no Return, the realm of [Ereshkigal],
Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, [set] her mind.
Yea, the daughter of Sin set [her] mind
To the dark house, the abode of Irkal[la],
To the house from which none leave who have entered it,
To the road from which there is no way back,
To the house wherein the entrants are bereft of li[ght],
Where dust is their fare and clay their food …

Don’t make too much of the pun on Sin. But think about it — a road you can only go one way on. Really, there’s no such thing as a one-way street, you can always go the other way when no one’s looking. Anyway, this passage has always been striking to me, for how through its stiffness it still haunts and shudders.

In my version anyway Inanna grows smaller as the scope of her task dawns on her.

Her way crosses

Her faithful friend at a remove now, unable to follow any further, Inanna’s entered the weave of one of the earth’s textures, her feather guttering smokily, some sort of torch.

Inanna, her powers

Inanna is that we are here together at all. Among the powers she connived from her father early in her life in a drinking game and stole away with by boat and brought to the docks of the great Sumerian cities were —

dagger and sword
black garment
colourful garment
loosening of the hair
binding of the hair

art of the hero
art of power
art of treachery
art of straightforwardness
plundering of cities
setting up of lamentations
rejoicing of the heart

She’s how a meal is more than feeding a hole and sex more than rutting and shelter more than reeds against the wind. She’s all the powers of civilization including the power to pull down a civilization. Not good or bad but bigger and smaller than that. The voice from the whirlwind when the voice is in roughly equal measures Leviathan and Coyote and they who made them.

As she readies for her trip the underworld she gathers the powers (me) drawn to the fore of her by good times with her shepherd king Dumuzi. An array likely to make her nether sister Ereshkigal (sexually voracious apparently and intensely lonely) more rageful than welcoming.

She placed the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, on her head.
She arranged the locks of hair across her forehead.
She tied the small lapis beads around her neck,
Let the double strand of beads fall to her breast,
And wrapped the royal robe around her body.
She daubed her eyes with ointment called “Let him come, Let him come,”
Bound the breastplate called “Come, man, come!” around her chest,
Slipped the gold ring over her wrist,
And took the lapis measuring rod and line in her hand.

Archaic but still kind of hot. I picture her with a hardhat and an orange safety vest carrying a surveyor’s tripod.

For this point in the book I need a broader account of her powers — need to say how great a disaster her departure is — so I’ve gone back to the survey of her me in her drinking game with her father. I’ve posted this once before but here it is again, somewhat improved. The first page —

7. Her me (1)

And the second —

8. Her me (2)

Why junk mail. A fertility myth tells how grain gets from the ground to your table to your belly. At some point it invokes sex (and not metaphorically, what those grasses are doing in the wind is fucking) and at some point it acknowledges the marketplace — grain’s not going to get from the ground to your gut without being bought and sold as a commodity, not anymore, not by the time such a myth as this comes about.

Junk mail is one mark of the marketplace in our day. It is somehow all at once ephemeral (who stops to read this shit before tossing it in the recycling?) and archaic (print? in envelopes? in my mailbox? really?) and omniscient (how on earth did they find me?) and omnipresent (day in, day out, my lord). So, that, and, too, if I can comedically resacralize the peacock by turning the Comcast logo into a funny hat, well, that’s a small whee for me.