Student work – Scrap elegy

The exercise, upon reading Anne Carson’s Nox:

Build an elegy out of scraps, fragments, parts. At least some of its text should be found text.

Nox a text I admit to some mixed feelings re. Gorgeous seductive reproductions of crinkled scraps. You can see the shadow where the slip lifts off the ground it rests on. The tears and stains are palpable. The thing ages afore your eyes. A sepia principle squared and resquared perhaps. Apotheosis of mimesis.

Nox - CI

First day discussing it, a tenth or thirteenth point threeth muse came down upon me, and I held the faltering accordion o’er my head, and cried out, “is document porn, people, document porn.”

I meant, it promises all the satisfactions of actual cotton fibre, passionate tears, coffee stains or such under your fingertips, but it’s mere dissembly. A 2D picture plane w/ a pretence to texture.

Yeah, I know, book’s an elegy, and first and last elegy for itself, and eros is longing for what’s gone missing, yadda. Porn knows it’s porn’s still porn.

Not, in the words of a comedian or three, that there’s anything wrong with that. But there are other options.

My students, bless’em, haven’t the production budget of a New Direction behind them, but their work on this exercise’s been wonderful. All sorts of elegy, acknowledgement of lack and loss and longing, and done without making their scraps into fetishes. (Admire Carson lots. Lots structural in Nox I love. But not its slick mimesis which makes me sort of sick.)

Herewith a gallery of their deft encounters.

One interrogates the torn edge without making a fetish of the tear.

Ex 6 no 1

One abrades the boundary between beauty and ugly in a way only plastics and the postmodern can.

Ex 6 no 2

One applies a mathematic of the shell to arrange swatches cut it might be from a Louis Quatorze drawing room.

Ex 6 no 3

Click on this one to get some sense how it shone. Also it had a warm shaggy waft of tobacco which made me want to smoke which I’ve never (almost). It was, that is to say, multi-modal. Okay now I’m doing the nostalgia I got on Carson’s case for. O mimesis. O Plato.

Ex 6 no 4

Been on this student’s case to get his thinking into his fingertips. He broke through and big.

Ex 6 no 5

And this one, my goodness, click on it too, the layers! the textures! the heart! (all of them, the heart)

Ex 6 no 6

Elise Partridge – Launch of The Exiles’ Gallery

Oh late, oh night, and here are give or take some words I said at the Vancouver launch for Elise Partridge’s The Exiles’ Gallery, now out from House of Anansi Press, you can find one here.

So we’re here to celebrate a new book of poems by Elise Partridge. Elise can’t be here with us in a bodily form. After her struggle with cancer she has gone what some faith traditions like to call home. Not her tradition, as far as I know, or mine, but the word, “home,” gives me a comfort when it shares a sentence with her name. Too, it gets me thinking about her title. It’s an odd title. The Exiles’ Gallery. The sounds in it hardly touch each other. THE EXILES’ GALLERY. It’s as if our mouths were to be acrobats, temporarily. Or as if all the phonemes in there were jonesing to get the eff out of there. I hope that way of putting it wouldn’t, doesn’t, displease her.

You might even say the sounds are exiled from each other. And something like that’s true with all her book titles. FIELDER’S CHOICE. CHAMELEON HOURS. The phonemes are oddly at odds. I say “oddly” because she can sure as hell do euphony when she pleases to

 some small donations from these golden trees

 Now we welcome the widening water

The, not dissonance of her titles, their refusal to euphonize, she’s up to something.

Quick check, everyone raise their hand who’s not exiled in some way or other from something. Thought so. (Two guys raised their hands here. Really? Really?)

To be at home isn’t a given, and it isn’t that common, and maybe it isn’t even a right, to judge by how mostly we treat each other. It’s a lot more common for us to be in exile of one sort or another. Exile from your country or your spouse or your own sadness or the soil in your hands planting a flowerbed.

And there are so many things that a girl outside a country dance staring up at the planet Mars, and the parents who last danced grudgingly on their wedding day, and a homeless man under the Burrard Street Bridge living out of a shopping cart, and for that matter Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar in leaky fishing boats and wanted not anywhere, don’t have in common.

A thing they do have in common, and all us with them also, and her poems point us to it, their attention is a lighthouse on it, is such home as they do have, at a given moment, they’ve made it for themselves. For sure there are gifts, a look, a drink of water, no life without those. But home’s made through one’s own activity, dogged or desperate, out of what a moment offers, whether that’s ample, or it’s meagre, or it’s barely anything at all.

And that’s what I’ve been finding most lately in the poems. In their sounds, the extraordinary heterogeneity of them, which I’m embarrassed to be only now hearing. Sometimes the mixture heightens anxiety. Sometimes it darkens satire. Sometimes it’s pure praise for sheer mixed-up-ed-ness of this world.

             [W]e strode
back to our avenues,
jaunty, just nineteen,
to troll like rowdy gods.

My neighbour’s daughter claps
as they lurch right

Praise for the sweet various flowershot dungheap of our world. Only world, her poems say, we get. Read them.

Then some beautiful readers reading some beautiful poems in beauty. I can’t give you those so here instead my beautiful friend.


(I was the last reader and told this little story and read this poem.)

For around a decade Elise and Steve were regulars on the property I owned on Salt Spring Island. While I was away they would tend to a plumbing system Byzantine in its complexities—clean up nightly prezzies from my cat—and once endured a plague of tent caterpillars I have to admit I thought they were exaggerating to call Biblical, till I got back, and had confirmation from the locals.

They did good work there, despite the distractions, Steve on his articles, Elise her poems, and this is one such of hers, “Invitation.” I read the poem, as not a last poem, but a leave-taking poem, full to the brim and then some with the love of life I loved and love still in her.


The stag and doe
lift their heads
in the brush

ears raised
as if
attuned to our tears

The grass reaches through chairs
by the shed
as if to thatch cushions
for the pair of us

The gate that won’t quite shut
with its scruff of lichen
invites us into the orchard

to pick “till time and times are done”
our choice of the bursting plums.

Exercises – Working it (out) (of order)

A pair of exercises that come right of our encounter with Robert Grenier’s Sentences, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

A first –

Write five micro-poems on five 3 x 5 index cards. No longer than the longer poems in Sentences. Take note – this exercise is easy to do and hard to do well.

And a second –

Compose a text that can be read in several different orders. Web-based texts are welcome. If you can write HTML – awesome, go to work. Or you can sign up for an account at and create a small network of wiki pages, interestingly linked to each other. Alternatively, a bag full of scraps of paper can work nicely.

My vis po kids did some way cool work in answer to the second. Not, unfortunately, easily reproducible on this blog, mostly, so I made a bullet list. Then I made the list a paragraph. Then, in the spirit of compost, I took out most of the punctuation, and got this prose po.

An orange construction paper buckyball inscribed with US states and states of feeling they induced a prescription bottle on each of whose curled up paper slips (pills, slips) was writ a glaring bit of clickbaitery a shirt box made proscenium in whose shallows cards hung mystical amid thin thick strips of pink tissue paper oh so many scraps of different size thickness mode of inscription containment scrapitude an assemblage that altogether beat my meagre imagination down and included, let’s see, a CD case a rubik’s cube a tape measure an invented alphabet and other various and sundry also a monkey I think but amn’t sure he was hero.

One only admits of posting, an homage to Grenier hisself, and you might check them out side by side, compare. As Pliny the Elder said to the fire eating his air – Interesting!

It’s here.

Grenier - STB

Stray thought

What I aspire to, a poem with no trace of untruth in it, and’s still poem and golden, and who’d have thought it, one in the New Yorker of all GD places gets me to the thought of it, and by an old friend no less, long lost touch with, but remembered in gladness.

Let’s see if I can link to it online, spare us all me retyping it … yes! Mónica de la Torre, “View from a Folding Chair.” Do please enjoy. I haven’t followed Mónica’s work, must now, on this evidence an inheritor to Oppen, lowly things recuperated, & a secular holiness.

On playing well w/ others (II)

The other live collaboration is teaching. My vis po group delights me yet with their attention and good cheer. I love spending time with them; they’re a twenty-one-person friend; I’m going to miss her him them when we’re done.

One thing happening, new for me, is what I’ve been calling co-teaching. Instead of breaking up the class period – student presents then I teach – I’ve let the presentations go long and tried to weave my teaching into their teaching. That’s made for challenges. I can’t wholly recede into the role of just-one-more-student. There are lines of inquiry I’m best positioned as teacher to introduce. If I just chill and let the conversation go wherever it wants to then I’m not really doing my job.

How to do my work then? My best work has always been done Socratically. But it’s been hard to work Socratically in this new context. Turns out there may be space for only one Socrates in the room. Is that what Athens meant by the hemlock?

Gist of my last post was, look how strong these friendships are, that they can withstand some sore tension, be hardly shaken. Here my gist is, look how strong this class is, its esprit de corps, that they can let me learn along with them, so exposedly.

No question I feel exposed – they see me fuck up half a dozen times a day – but some mix of apology teasing and good cheer keeps me persistent. The fabric feels not injured by my error.

Half a dozen times a class, I need to make a call, do I step in here, redirect our line of inquiry, and if so, by two degrees, or twenty? (How does anyone teach who’s not OMG a martial artist of the mind? What all factors are in play that moment? My sense of the presenter’s confidence level. Of her command of the material. Of the chances she was headed there anyway. Of the class’s interest and engagement. Of who does and doesn’t have the text. Of X’s irritation at not being called on five minutes ago. Mirror neuron overload. Also I need to pee.)

Let’s say I do, I step in. I want several things at once. I want to model, for the presenter, the Socratic method – how to use questioning to lead your charges down a path of inquiry. (Coupla troubles with that I see now. One’s time frame – I’m wanting to deliver in seconds a lesson that may need weeks months years to offer. Another’s ego – why should my given method be template for another?) I also want the class to taste the fruits of Socratic method in action – if we can get there that way then someone has been actively making connections. And I want maybe also to sustain the arc momentum substance of the class.

I wonder why I’m tired after a two-hour class and ravenous? Surely my brain has burned a burrito’s worth of blood sugar.

In practice, as often as not, stepping in, I knock the presenter off his game. He feels interrupted, disrupted, not I hope corrupted. And I do my Socratic thing, pursue a line of questioning, maybe get to an answer, maybe also model the process in the way I’ve meant to. Then awkwardly hand the presentation back, perhaps with apologies, and we laugh, but it’s awkward.

I often don’t know where I’m headed with a blog post when I start one. That’s what makes these worth writing – what makes them live, long I, the way poems are live. The reason I’ve spent hours on this one (yeah, believe it, hours) is that I’ve slowly come to see, in my own internalized Socratic process, that I’ve been headed for something all along. It’s this.

It’s this. Though it’s been awkward, though students have felt off-put, though I’ve felt sorely mixed about the move I’ve made, these may have been the most important moments in our time together.

I’ll say it again. It may be that exactly in these most awkward moments we’ve done our best learning and our best teaching.

One thing that happens in such a moment – I’m exposed as not in charge and not not in charge. That’s not nothing. Another thing that happens – the presenter’s been challenged without being told she’s doing it right or told she’s doing it wrong. That’s huge. (She’s doing it a perfect that’s other than right or wrong.) Another – everyone in the room has been witness to these aporias, these insoluble knots, and that’s gotta shake your head.

Any of this can only be done, sorry to go all dharma on y’all, this can only be done in a context of perfect and complete, one bright pearl. That is to say, the joy I’m feeling in this company is the joy of sangha, like minds gathered in.

Most focally, sangha means, community of fellow practitioners, meditators, followers of the eight-fold path. Most widely it means all sentient beings, and maybe some mosses too, rocks and stones, broke girders. Somewhere between those two it means hanging out with some folk who get some sides of you as they are.

I fell out of formal Buddhist practice a while ago but seem to keep stumbling into it informally and here I see’s been one way.

Have I gone on long enough? I think so! Wanted last to say though, these have been good teaching days, both classes. My intro to Brit Lit, we hung out with Billy Blakefish today, I don’t know why I call him by that. They seemed to get quite quickly that this prodding


is invite to wander out of the lockbox of the senses, enter a life of imagination, of Imagination, the world-making faculty of mind, which for Blake was undifferentiable from God. Before we were done one offered, prompted by nought but irritation & consequent inquiry, that this Proverb of Hell

Where man is not, nature is barren

(which pissed me the hell off, too, when I first read it, and it still can) made sense in that light. Nature is made to be nature by human mind. Not anthropocentrism – phenomenology in embryo.

On playing well with others (I)

Hard to be a person. Hard to be one with other people. And yet how rich and how rich. I’m sounding like a self help book back cover. Kill me now? Or not. I’m thinking this, after a hard mother’s day (not having one of those right now) as I reflect on a couple of recent collaborations that have me (lord let me always write from just here) at the edge of my game.

One, a three-way conversation to be published in honour of a close friend who has passed. With me in it my two dearest friends in the world. And we have made each other nuts in the doing of it. E-mail conversations about our e-mail conversations about how to draft our draft of our rough draft. They all deferral and demurral, and I (this is deeply gendered of course) all irritation and eruption.

No one’s fault and no one’s foul. We each have a lovely fluid friendship with each the other. And those rare times we three are together, it takes an hour to choose a restaurant for dinner, and sitting there we are more three two-way friendships at one table, than one threesome.

So take three writers, each with their own way of working, each on their own arc of mourning, each vexed by the tricky work of plucking, from their private grief, what they’re ready to risk to say publicly. And each has well worn paths to the doors of each the other – ways of speaking and being together – shared language gesture and understanding – to which the third’s not privy, nor need she or he be.

The project could have been done by any one pair of us with some hardness and some tears and many walks back and forth along one of those footpaths. But we are three and every passage from one door to another has had to be done in the gaze of and for the understanding of a third. What were we thinking when we said yes to this?

Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, intemperate ventings (that would be me), bendings over backwards not to offend, lost gists, broken threads. Tensions, bumps, bruises, gaps. And always our unfinished work of mourning ready to gush hotly up through the fissures.

And yet – this is the point I’ve been headed for – no worry ever that the friendship was in danger. That ground has felt solid as a sky of stars.

The fruit of our work, of being our lumpy selves together, it’s going to be quite something. A lot more true honest real and fierce an honouring of our friend than the usual celebratory fluff you see at about this point after someone’s passed. If I do say so ourselves.

We find in good friends the parents our parents however they may have wished to couldn’t be for us. The “good enough mother” I read about in Winnicott I found in the flesh in these two. They’ve raised me up – what Pound said, m’elevasti. Much of what’s good in me, they’re to thank for.

89R scrap 1

One, lovelykind, wrote after I apologized for another grump. “Chris, no wonder Mother’s Day’s hard. A friend posted on FB yesterday, ‘Hugging everyone for whom today is a kick in the face.’”

After a day I couldn’t cry it’s that that gets me. My heart feels kicked in the face. Though I know “heart” is a dumbass metaphor and “Mother’s Day” a marketing contraption.

I wanted to write about collaboration in teaching, as well, but this post feels full, so I’ll save that for another.

The image atop is, leaves from from my red osier dogwood yesterday afternoon – thank you red osier dogwood god – plucked and scanned, for I said I was about total translation here, and that means translate the moment of translation, and one moment as I made some marks that afternoon was, leaves blowing out back there blowing into mind. So I went out and picked some fer yehs.

On total translation

A foolish notion. What would it be to translate not only for meaning, what we usually mean by “meaning,” reference, signification, the pointy ends of words, but also for everything else about, within, around them: their loops and curls, textures of their paper, sleepiness of the scribe, slips in the book’s stitching, burn marks at the edges of pages, how a sequence of ascenders and descenders read as skyline or script for a roller coaster.

Crazy yeah. But if (1) you’ve come to feel translation’s originary no matter what, and (2) your semantic translation of a poem has sucked no matter what, and (3) you’re not done with said poem, and (4) you have a decorative itch – well, you might come round to a like crazy. You might start to wonder if þine heortan geþohtas, the force of your heart’s thought, might be most truly got not via narrowly focused semantic emissions, but through a sprawling heterogeneous relation of potentially everything in the nexus of poet poem scribe translator reader annotator and medium.

Semantic reference is a span of human meaning about as sliver as visible light is to the electromagnetic spectrum.

88vMy guiding thought in Overject has become, assume you know nothing about what should or shouldn’t be translated. 88V post-it 1Feel like translating handwriting? Translate handwriting. Feel like transmitting hesitation? Transmit hesitation. Anything honest in the encounter between old damaged minor text and ignorant inexpert minor reader’s fair game.

Now if at every point everything is open to translation – how do you decide? I’ve found me guided by intuition and accident.

Gut, and happenstance. Who have led me to handwriting. My work with which in Dumuzi had drawn me to more exuberant organic loops and sweeps than the hell scraps there could suit. Into Overject went the overflow. And the self-indulgence of translating nothing but handwriting pushed up in me little spikelets of self-doubt. And one of those has made it to a post-it.

88V card 1And the possibility of annotating my translations bloomed hard and fast in my head and the next flower was a notecard on which I found a bit of semantic translation wanted (musewise, it wasn’t I who wanted, but just who let it) to burst in. And these three – transcription, post-it, notecard – plus a ghost face who poked in from a later page, became assemblage.

88v p1

The next major adventure is homophonic translation, of which I’ve written before. Here too annotation and anima. (The abrupt edge on the right is a scanner error. Not all accident is welcome.)

88v p2

“D.P.” = Dramatis Personae. One way I hope to make this work a little less esoteric in the end is, draw names out of the sonic surround, faces out of the visual noise, and see what storylines they hint at (no more, dear hearts, than that).

Oh now the lure of semiosis. Not from the meanings of the “original poem.” Rather from the nexus formed when that poem’s meanings intersect with recent homophonic accidents and my momentary interior weather and demonic images yet to be actualized. An ambivalent compound arises.

88v p3

Comes now a grave move. So much is lost in this moment! The haecceity, the suchness, of each t, each l, each g, unlike any other anywhere in existence, all now made to be of a same sameness.

I take the manuscript page and I type it up.

I try to make up the loss. I follow the leads of ascenders and descenders. After selecting some text, à la Phillips, I black out the remainder with a Sharpie. The thickness of the erasure line is governed by the heights and depths to which the line (or portion thereof) reaches. No ascender? It thins. No descender either? That thins it further. One et (⁊) and it goes down a long way. One thorn (þ) and it reaches both high and low.

88v p4

The whole of the rest of the design, mouths and eyes, windows and doors, lions and tigers and heroes and hydras, or here a school bus climbing a hill, is begun from the thicks and thins of the bars, and the white slits left between.

The chosen text has the quality of a code. As if a minor character in Beowulf had got his hands on an Enigma machine. Crypto-crisis. So I put on my tinfoil Turing cap and coughed up this.

88v p5

And when I got to that, I felt I was an inch or two closer, maybe not more, to a true translation of folio 88V of the Exeter Book.

Closer anyway than my semantic translation of that folio, which I did some years ago, and goes like this.

Ask me straight out. Don’t hide your whole life
what only you know. I won’t tell you what matters
if you hold the force of the heart of your thought back.

The wise work in riddles, praise God foremost,
our Father who said of His Creation we could
live here a while, a gift he’d remind us of.

In glory Measurer, on earth humankind,
young here is old, God is eternal with us,
events don’t touch Him, illness

You can hear the strain in it. Couldn’t care less about these pieties. Why’s the poem compel me at all? Nothing in its answers speaks to me. The pressure I hear in its questions – in the failure of its answers to relieve the pressure – that moves me.

Around here I realized two things. One, my epigraph, it spoke to me out of Job, “Where shall wisdom be found?” Is that what I’m translating, the Exeter poet asking it, into me asking it?

Other is, the work has to be in earnest. I can fuck around as much as I like, goof off, poke fun, mess shit up, that’s fine, but the asking has to be in earnest, otherwise this’ll be a dumb game I’m sick of real soon. Flip side, as long as it’s for heartfelt for me, it can be totally way goofball, and still live, short I and long.