Dumuzi redux

Updating the pages on this blog. That’s meant writing a new account of Dumuzi, which comes out next spring.


Dumuzi, my second book of poems, will be published in 2020 by Gaspereau Press.

It began two decades ago on Gabriola Island, BC, in a summer cottage I had rented for cheap in the off-season to finish my first book. I woke one rainy morning from a dream in which I was a child standing in the wings of a great stage. Onstage was a market and the market was the world. My parents held my hands at the entry – one on each side. Then they were gone. Everywhere I went in the rush of it, the stalls receding to the horizon, throngs of people, clouds blowing by overhead, I could feel them with me, holding it up, making sure it went on.

Twenty years! And more titles, forms, angles of approach than I can remember. It sprawled, got visual, spun off other projects, danced tarantella to a verbal-visual polyrhythmic syncopation. It busted every damn frame I gave it.

Now it’s real simple, 40 spare lyrics enacting my struggle to have faith in being.

At Leaf

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

That’s the first, and the title poem comes next

Dumuzi

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
rained.

Deer come
out of th
hill.

Dumuzi – a Sumerian god of the vegetation, fertility, ongoing spring. The poems invoke his deathless earth energy for aid. There’s very little about Dumuzi in the poems, so I give this by way of a note at the back

Out of Sumer, Dumuzi, fertility god, crushed king. His other’s Inanna, she of increase, who’s been down in their underworld for fun and profit; why for real’s a hard story to tell. On her way up & out, guided by hyperathletic postal demons, she’s told one’s got to take her place, divine rule of bloodless metamorphosis sez flies, and who’s her eye land on but her arrogant lovely benighted D. Take this one says and game afoot. Flees. Caught. Ta’en in chains. His butter churn’s broke & that empty windy sheepfold. Sumerian cuneiform same glyph for sheepfold & vulva; both have place in the formless field of his shining care. Little later they find his body in a roadside cessfield outside the city. Lover Inanna mourns. Mother Sirtur she mourns him oh she do. Their story’s very not yet over.

A more conventional accounting of their story here.

Making Dumuzi, I started making visual poems on the photocopier. This one spoke to Dumuzi’s trip to hell, in the clasp of annoying little demons called galla

crossing-bar-detail-fig1.jpg
Crossing the Bar

I know it’s crude, but I’m fond of it as an early effort.

For a long time, I was trying to work in the story of Dumuzi and Inanna in handwritten fragments. One form they took is these aasemic panels (what’s that? read here)

1. And their life

A bunch of these were published in Asymptote but they got dropped from the book.

It wasn’t easy to strip the book down. I wanted mess multiplicity & sprawl – a whole as unrehearsed as a vacant lot gone to weeds in an ugly corner of New Jersey, yet shapely also, each note in its suited place, like a late Baroque symphony.

It’s what comes of taking Spring and All as your, not model, your own insight.

Several times, thought I had it. No press agreed; the book was not getting picked up. So, I surrendered my intention for it, scaled it back. And I like it in this new form – as a lance not a labyrinth – though I mourn the book that could have been.


The image up top, a Sumerian cylinder seal impression, depicting Dumuzi imprisoned in the underworld, the Kur. He’s surrounded by galla, demons of that place.

Red Black & Blues – A proposal

Draft of a proposal for an upcoming conference nearby.


Red Black & Blues is a transgressive translation of a text by Donald Trump – specifically, a tweet that defends his administration’s family separation policy and enjoins followers to “vote ‘R.’” I render it, one parcel at a time, as a serial asemic visual poem, in the colours of the American electoral map.

Working asemically, I can’t directly critique a policy I find monstrous, but I can disclose the monsters I find there. The work is thick with gargantuan bugs, ambulatory phalli, apostolic patriarchs, rageful fertility goddesses – figures the text suggests haunt the author’s psyche. These cohabit with forms that recall women in burqas, children on a playground in a live-shooter drill. As if demons and innocents were caught in the same inclemency. No one wants to hear that.

Asemic translation makes meaning a mutual creation even more than usual of author, translator, audience. Here be monsters, but whose monsters be they? Would I have found them in the text, if they weren’t also in me, to be found? Would a viewer find them who wasn’t able to finish them? It’s easy to demonize Trump, I do it hourly. Harder to say we belong to the body that made him.

This project uses the indeterminacies of asemic writing and a somewhat aleatory practice to touch on our complicity in the mess we’re in. The academy has terms for that mess, “patriarchy,” “institutional racism,” but those term have hardened some by now, become preconceived notions, and, for many, sites of shame and recrimination.

The notions I’m working from are the paramitas of Mahayana Buddhist practice: generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, wisdom. Any asshole, no matter how stupid, destructive, beyond remedy, or you-know-who world-powerful, has these perfections, intrinsically. This project starts from that premise, though I too find it hard to swallow.


Addendum. Here’s a better way of saying it. Our complicity. Also our possibility, each of us, from before we were born.

Screen Shot 2019-07-28 at 11.35.57 AM

“Only connect”

Just finished a portfolio, 150 lean & sleek pages, and as many more of student evals, for a teaching award I’m up for, and grateful to be. Maybe I shd just upload the whole GD pedagogical novel, if that’s a genre yet, w/ its doubtful protagonist & his supportive cast of 1,000s, and bellow – HERE. YA. GO.

Instead, just the teaching statement. The only important sentence is the last one.

In my Editing & Publishing class, we were asking about clickbait, and attention as saleable commodity – a vantage that fries my Buddhist ass. Attention is what we live in and offer each other it should be freely, as love. Where’d we be without it? Rocks.

Well, trying to describe an approach that hands some responsibility for the course, its content and character, to my students. I won’t say “flipped classroom,” because bromide, and if I were given such directives, I’d probably do it wrong.

What I do, I have some chance to do right, cuz I stumbled on it, myself.


Teaching Statement

In my pedagogy, as in my aesthetics, I value the concrete over the general, so I’ll try to convey my teaching by way of example. I teach the advanced poetry workshop at Western as “Poetics of the Rhizome.” Taken from De­leuze and Guattari, the rhizome is a way of seeing that emphasizes multiplicity, con­nectedness, interbeing. Diversity, robustly. Or Indra’s Net, but contorted, because Western thought. Ranging among William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Coral Bracho’s selected poems, and Will Alexander’s Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, to name a few of our texts, students face several challenges: (1) Poetry and poetics texts from an outsider Western tradition and from way outside the Anglo-Amer­ican tradition. (2) An arranging idea, the rhizome, it’s hard to wrap your head around. (3) A student-centred pedagogy that has evolved, as my Socratic teaching style has matured, into a collaborative form of co-teaching. (4) Creative exercises simple on the surface but hard to accomplish: Write a poem that enacts spring. Write a poem that taps into myth consciousness. Write a poem that disputes with itself.

The first half of a class is given to student presentations, which are actually improvisations in co-teaching. Each pair presenting meets with me ahead of time to discuss angles of approach. I pay close attention to the design of their lesson plan – it should be fluid, I tell them, responsive to the moment in the room. I orient them to Socratic method, suggesting they should have, with each question they ask, an issue they want to bring to the fore, and a feeling for how to get there. But they should also know our responses might propose alternative ways there, or open a wholly new line of inquiry. “You’ll be thinking on your feet. When do you stay on track, when do you let a digression keep going? when do you reflect and extend a comment? when do you lean into a term or an idea and interrogate it? when do you leap to something seemingly unrelated, and how can you eventually tie it in?” And of course, I’m modelling Socratic method all quarter long myself. This meta-teaching keeps me on my own toes. In class, at any given moment, I need to decide whether to let be, or raise my hand as a discussant, or help out as one of the co-teachers, or step in as teacher of the co-teachers. The goal here is to democratize Socrates: to hand the role of teacher over to every interlocutor. Evidence of success? Start of the quarter, discussions are hesitant, needing lots of help from me. By the end, they’re running themselves, question, point, follow-up question, counterpoint, dialogue. Scruffy, unpredictable, co-teaching is a surrender of control and dispersal of authority – very much in the spirit of the rhizome.

The second half of each class is given to peer critique. In these sessions, I emphasize non-eval­uative feedback, finding peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when observations take the place of praise and advice. The approach has a downside – the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not – but most students come to prefer it before long. Teaching process, I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae” – the tingle of excitement, sparkle, or charge, or the weight of irritation or dismay, you feel rereading your own work. I believe everyone has these subtle responses and is perfectly equipped to perceive them. But self-doubt, anxiety, or distraction can make it difficult to attend to them, trust them, work with them. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel.

For their final projects, students construct rhizomes of their own. I set some parameters and then work with each, one-on-one, on the forms their rhizomes will take. The parameters: The rhizome needs (1) to do self-reflection; (2) to include finished poetry of their own; to engage with at least (3) one of the poetry texts and (4) one of the poetics texts we’ve read; and (5) to have a non-textual dimension. I also encourage but don’t require them (6) to engage with Deleuze and Guattari’s essay. These parameters, while they appear formal and procedural, foster rhizome values of anarchy, interconnection, and polyphony. And while the resulting project can be close to a conventional portfolio, I urge them towards bolder ventures, and we take time to brainstorm possible rhizome forms: a hypertext, a conspiracy board, a spoken word set uploaded to You­Tube, a keepsake box of typewritten scraps. The rhizome needs to build difference into its own body, by talking with or about one of the poets we’ve read, and one of the poetics texts we’ve read, and also by having a non-textual aspect, something pictorial or tactile or auditory about it. Diversity of culture, genre, medium, discourse. For by now we’ve come, with the help of Négritude, Sufism, the Haida Mythworld, Spanish Surrealism, Language Poetry, and John Cage’s screwy Black Mountain take on Sunyata, as well as cheerful scepticism about all these thought-boxes, to see the rhizome as an organism taking difference in without effacing its differentness.

My work in “Poetics of the Rhizome” expresses a pedagogy that’s been years in the making, one I’m ready to drop, any part or the whole damn thing, if it looks to be unhelpful. The last time I taught the course, a student came in to talk about her rhizome, because she’d changed her idea. She wanted now to do a rhizome “about” life and death, or maybe death and rebirth. Was that specific enough? I checked in with my sense of this student, her liking for arranging schemes – her book proposal in my Editing and Publishing course had been for an encyclopedia of all pagan faiths – and compared that to the sharp little momentary poems she’d started making, with no grand designs, just edgy perception and a brave unfinishedness. This assignment could be bad for her. I said, maybe you should just drop the whole rhizome thing. Make five to eight poems, like the ones you’ve been doing. And write something about them and a couple of the readings, you know, but no big deal. She said, I like the sound of that. I said, then you could look at the poems you’ve made, see what they have to tell you, maybe there’s an idea for a rhizome in them. But trust their intelligence; don’t push them around. She looked relieved. My teaching philosophy is, only connect.


Coda

The only meaningful thing I have to give, most of the time, is my attention. Which fixes nothing but is not nothing. I know cuz the gaps I find in me, the grievous gaping ones, most have been left by someone’s inattention; my own or another’s. Most of the rest are attentions I couldn’t say no to, and really, that’s inattention of a sort, too. And now we’ve made attention, which is the kindness that binds us – ensconcing a child’s eyes in its mother’s & settling them both in the body of unassailable & enduring love – now we’ve worked out how to make it fungible on the open market. That’s what to #Resist.


Postscript. Even as I was writing, Stephen Colbert was making the same point, in his own adorable way.

Illogical Operators

A few alt takes from Red Black & Blues just published in The New Post-Literate.

screen shot 2019-01-05 at 4.16.22 pm
Click to go to ’em

The base text is taken, as all in this project are, from a single tweet by you know who.

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 8.08.41 PM

The phrase for this one, “or not – and.” The pages before they got all shook up:

 

The finished pages are, as said, on Michael Jacobson’s site, here. Just finished a page describing the project, it’s here. Thanks for wreading!

Three collaborations

Thinking about authority, the fiction of it. I visited my father over Christmas and his authority is both gone (dementia) and intact (father). To raise the stakes, he’s an emotional tyrant, bossing, judging, huffing, storming. With his memory going and his reason close behind, his displays are imposing and ridiculous in equal measure. To me as his son they are. To one more or differently outside, maybe they’re just absurd.

Beside this, the fun of teaching, and getting beat at, five-card draw by hyper & precocious eight- & ten-year-year-olds. It’s a joy to be defeated by children. Their green outdoes me. Watching my father go replays my loss of him in childhood and predicts my own losses to come, aging body, faltering mind. Watching these kids, no relation to me, knowing their minds are taking in what I say and do at a lightning rate – amazing.

No one’s in charge. White supremacy, patriarchy, unitary self – the delusion is someone or thing’s in charge. Teacher & student isn’t any of these, but it’s an asymmetry, and best not to reify it. A girl can be a teacher and an old man can be a child.

While in California, I worked at redesigning a course I’m to teach this winter, ENG 459 Editing and Publishing. I’m creating modules, collaborative and solo projects, for the students to choose among, and leaving more than usual to be figured out by the students, or among us all.

I don’t talk a lot about “diversity.” It’s too cramped a construct for the revolution of perception asked of us, though we’re fixed on it right now because of accidents of American jurisprudence. But these projects are an effort to diversify viewpoint and redistribute authority. They may look less radical than other such efforts. But you become what you hate by inverting it. I’m trying here for a pedagogical madhyamaka, a middle way.


Module A: Collaborative projects

There are three collaborative projects in this course. You’ll each be assigned to one of them – your first choice, I hope, at worst your second. All three ask for a lot of independence and self-direction. I give you goals, parameters, and grading criteria, and ask you to work out, as a group, how to get from here (aspiration) to there (accomplishment). Why so hands-off? The more you figure out for yourselves, the more you learn.

And, these are works-in-progress. I’ve taught the course before, but not in this form, and I’ll be learning how this modular design works. Students maybe don’t like to hear their teachers are learning alongside them, but we are, or should be, and it’s good to acknowledge the fact at the outset, or I think so anyway. Be ready for me to make adjustments as we proceed. Maybe in response to feedback from you, and maybe, apologies, if later I see dodges I want to block I don’t see now.

Each group will hand in a portfolio that represents their preparatory work and final product. We’ll work out its contents together as the projects take shape.

Webzine

This group will produce one issue of an online literary journal – soliciting, evaluating, editing, and publishing creative content in a form that’s on a par with professionally edited online literary journals.

I’ll give you examples of online literary journals, some produced entirely by creative writing students, and you’ll have in-class time to formulate an action plan. How do you get from here to there? What tasks need to be accomplished, in what order? How should responsibilities be assigned? What can you learn from the online examples about how they were created? Don’t be shy about looking for further examples.

Goal. One issue of an online literary journal, of professional quality in both content and presentation.

Parameters. Content may be partially or wholly by Western students, but no content from students in this class, and I encourage you to think beyond Western, and to solicit work from established writers. Content may be poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or multimedia, including visual work. Literary values count here – no light verse, no genre fiction, no self-help prose. The platform should be a website, not a blog.

Grading criteria. Literary quality of content. Expressive range of content. Creative vision as manifest in both content and form. Attention to zine as a web object – design and navigation. Mechanics – format consistency, editorial correctness.

Chapbook series

This group will produce and distribute a series of chapbooks, soliciting, evaluating, and publishing creative work by a diverse range of authors.

I’ll give you a few examples, and suggest how you might find more. You’ll have in-class time to formulate an action plan. How do you get from here to there? What tasks need to be accomplished and in what order? How should responsibilities be assigned? What can you learn from the examples about how they were made? Are there ways you might do better than the examples on offer?

We’ll figure out the number of issues (three to five seems reasonable) and the print runs (I’m thinking 50-75 copies) as the logistics clarify. I think we’ll be able to coordinate the printing without cost to us. Remember that effective distribution is part of this project.

Goal. Production and distribution of a short series of chapbooks containing literary work by a diverse range of authors.

Parameters. Content may be partially or wholly by Western students, but no content from students in this class. Chapbooks are an ideal venue for emerging writers, so I encourage you to think as editors giving new writers a helping hand. Content may be poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or cross-genre. Literary values count here – no light verse, no genre fiction, no self-help prose.

Grading criteria. Literary integrity and quality of each chapbook. Diversity across chapbook series. Creative vision of series as manifest in both content and form. Attention to chapbook as a physical object – design, materiality. Mechanics – format consistency, editorial correctness.

Reading series

This group will curate (organize and promote) a reading series (at least three occasions) off campus involving both student and non-student writers.

I’ll fill you in on reading series in town, and student-run reading series I know of elsewhere. You’ll have in-class time to formulate an action plan. How do you get from here to there? What tasks need to be accomplished and in what order? How should responsibilities be assigned? What can you learn from the examples about how they were made? Are there ways you might do better than the examples on offer?

Goal. A well-attended off-campus reading series involving both student and non-student writers on at least three occasions.

Parameters. Readings must be at a venue or venues off campus. Some readers may be Western students but some must be unaffiliated with Western (not students or faculty). Readings should be promoted. Readers should be introduced by one or more MC’s.

Grading criteria. Appropriateness of venue. Effectiveness of promotion. Size and engagement of audience (best-effort basis). Quality of readers’ work and presentation (best-effort basis). Fluency of MCs’ framing.


That’s what I got. Joy to you at the turning of this year. May the new one bring succor to all those in need of it.

 

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.

Vagrant intro, first para

First para of the introduction to Unlikeness Is Us, a draft of it. Or could be the start of a mystical diversity statement; to my odd way of thinking, anyway.


Ungelīc is ūs. Enigmatic, in the Old English, but it means something like “it’s different for us,” or maybe, “we are set apart.” To say rather “unlikeness is us” is to go after something uncanny in it – and in the poem it comes from and in all these poems – rather than the surface sense. By “uncanny” I mean something both familiar and strange, near and far, about these poems, that makes them, not scary, unsettling. Freud’s word for it was unheimlich, “unhomelike,” and he meant something intimately known, then by choice forgotten, and now it’s come back to be known again, and there’s an inner shiver. Something true of you you’ve become absent or alien to and here it is at the door. It’s how these poems meet me anyway. They’ve always been with us but have we known how to read them? Unlikeness has always been us but do we how to be it? I sit writing in a whitish corner of America, 2017, summer, no clouds and no sun either. Corner of Canada adjacent, where I grew up, is burning. America is burning too, literally,[1] allegorically,[2] morally,[3] anagogically.[4]


[1]. Reading according to the letter. Record-breaking heat this summer, again, and a terrible wildfire season, again.

[2]. Reading for the “truth hidden under a beautiful fiction” (Dante, Il Convivio).

[3]. Reading for the teaching or instruction implied.

[4]. Reading oriented toward the future, eschatology, end times. Note the vanishing of the sun without clouds or night or an eclipse to explain it. Apocalyptic.


I have ADHD. Confirmed last week. Don’t know whether to cry or be glad. A lot of things fall into place. Including why this leap and not knowing whether it’s an overshare, how to tell.[5] I guess, if you can’t spill too much on a blog, where can you.

To everyone I’ve ever talked over, interrupted, I’m sorry. God but I am.


[5]. Good example of unlikeness though whatever else it is.


Image atop is from this article here, about adoption as dissimilitude, and the love of humans and God. Have only scanned it but looks intelligent, and moving, and pertinent to the next paragraph of my intro, which isn’t ready to post yet.

But here’s the bit from Augustine:

When I first knew you, you took me up, so that I might see that there was something to see, but that I was not yet one able to see it. You beat back my feeble sight, sending down your beams most powerfully upon me, and I trembled with love and awe. I found myself to be far from you in a region of unlikeness, as though I heard your voice from on high: “I am the food of grown men. Grow, and you shall feed upon me….” I said, “Is truth nothing, because it is diffused neither through finite nor through infinite space?” From afar you cried to me, “I am who am.” I heard, as one hears in his heart; there was no further place for doubt.”

I hate his theology, as it seems to have come out to be as a whole, but love his writing, as I find it in its concrete instants. And yes I’m playing around w/ ADHD as a form, have been a good long while, apparently, it’s one of the upsides. Thanks for reading.

On “The Seafarer”

My commentary on The Seafarer for Unlikeness. Long cause I went to Pound. Here’s his Seafarer for you. At the bottom of the post, a special mp3 treat.


For literary translators of OE – for scholars not so much – Ezra Pound’s version of this poem is a watershed moment. His Seafarer in fact is a bearing point for any poet who translates into English; along with the Zukofskys’ Catullus and a couple of other seminal modern works of translation, Pound’s version, first published in Ripostes in 1912, makes later adventurous aberrant projects like Jerome Rothenberg’s “total translations” of Frank Mitchell and David Melnick’s Men in Aida conceivable. This book is nothing like those, but a brief look at Pound’s venture seems fitting, for any translation that comes after must contend with his garrulous and maddening astonishingly rightly-wrong one.

Pound spoke of three ways to freight words with poetic meaning: melopoeia, handling sounds; phanopoeia, throwing an image to the mind’s eye; and logopoeia, setting a word in a special relation to its usage.[1] Three worksites, ear, eye, mind. The trick with Pound’s Seafarer is that he translates faithfully for sound, opportunistically for image, and licentiously with thought. In setting these at the time somewhat scandalous priorities, Pound composed a translation of The Seafarer more objectivist than any heretofore, or probably since, though there have been sorry mimicries many.

As a patterned arrangement of sounds, Pound’s Seafarer is fidelity itself:

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 8.31.21 PM(x = primary stress)

He does far more than catch the feel of the AS cadence – often he keeps the rhythmic form specific to the verse. Where a verse in the source front-loads its stresses, as in bitre brēostceare, Pound’s verse does too, “Bitter breast-cares.” When the source spreads the stresses evenly across the verse, as in gecunnad in cēole, Pound does likewise, “Known on my keel.” When the OE verse reserves the stresses for the end, as in atol ȳþa gewealc, Pound’s verse does that too, “And dire sea-surge.” In this way he captures distinctive effects of the original, as in how the run of lightly stressed syllables before clifum mimes the rush of water towards the cliff. With alliteration, again, not only is the pattern preserved; in most lines the specific sound in the OE poem is kept. Pound translates the internal structure, what Hugh Kenner calls the “patterned integrity” (145), of the AS line; in that given pattern, all its variances, a specific intelligence is to be found, by which articulations of value not otherwise possible, are. Later he’ll speak of the rose magnetic forces shape in steel dust. That insight’s outside our purview, except that the AS poet, his line and his Seafarer’s exile, were clerestory to it.

Phanopoeia – an image thrown to the mind’s eye – means immediacy. In its speed of arrival is the image’s power. In The Seafarer Pound saw an accretive syntax that threw one image then another with minimal interruption:

Stormas þǣr stænclifu bēotan,          þǣr him stearn oncwæð,
īsigfeþera;          ful oft þæt earn bigeal
ūrigfeþra. (23–25)

Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.

An image is cast on the mind’s eye, another succeeds it, and in their likeness contrast and interpenetration, a new perception arises. Storms beat on the stone cliffs – they fall on the stern – as the former image presses through the latter, the force bearing down on the cliff-face becomes focused on the fragile hull of the boat. Then “In icy feathers” lays, over the brute force of the storm, a sense of something animate, almost delicate; then the feathers of spray, overlaid by an eagle’s cry, become eagle feathers, dimly heard;and then the storm throws its icy-feathered spray on the eagle’s wing, a sort of completion, storm-wing meets eagle-wing, as the sequence comes to rest.

He’s doing Vorticism, a short-lived movement in which he readied himself for The Cantos, in part by conceiving his ideogrammic method, which assayed in words the sort of montage Sergei Eisenstein accomplished in pictures. Both were incited by Ernest Fenollosa’s misapprehensions of the Chinese written character, but like Kenner I think Pound got some of his first stirrings from the Seafarer poet. Either way, it’s a gorgeous montage, one of many in his version, and it arrived as a new possibility for poetry in English. It came though at the cost of turning a bird (stearn “tern”) into the butt of a ship (“stern”).

Later, again using the AS poet’s accretive syntax to cast images in quick succession, Pound shrinks byrig “cities” into berries.

Bearwas blōstmum nimað,          byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað,          woruld ōnetteð (48-49)

Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker

Faithful as a pup to sound, brilliant opportunist with image, Pound looks kind of slobby with what the words “actually mean.” And though in the abstract we may agree a poem’s meaning lies mostly outside its words’ denotations, we’re like to cry foul when dictionary sense is just forgot.

“reckon” (1) from wrecan, “recite”
“shelter” (61) for scēatas, “surfaces” or “corners”
“on loan” (66) from læne, “fleeting”
“twain” (69) for twēon, “doubt”
“English” (78) for englum, “angels”

One or two are felicitous; more look like gaffes; did he really just write in the ModE word the OE word reminded him of? We can maybe find justification for any given departure. This one was made to preserve the rhythmic or the alliterative fabric; that one refuses the connec­tive tissue that would set images in logical or causal arrangements; angels are demoted for the same reason the devil is erased later, to draw the poem back to what Pound thought were its pre-Christian origins. But the glary errors, taken together, suggest Pound didn’t care so much for the semantic values of the poem’s words – not as he cared for the sound matrix they were in, or for the image cascades they composed.

He sacrificed sense to hold a sonic form, or to sharpen an image sequence. He valued those most so he translated them foremost. Or, is it that word, image, sense were on an equal footing, another unwobbling stool, but loss of sense stands out most to us because symbolist reading habits make us meaning junkies? We may be as eager for a semantic meaning as the Seafarer is for a transcendent one, as ready to travel off in mōd from our embodiment, ear’s wonder, eye’s honey, to an abstract immaterial construction elsewhere. That was the temptation Pound spent his long cracked terrible beauty of a poetic life arguing tangibly against.[2]

The poem calls its abstract immaterial construction “Heaven.” The moment the poem commits to it fully, it also happens to turn a page – and Pound stops right here. Cuts the last 23 lines of the poem. He was sure they were the work of some later pious other. And he wasn’t alone in wanting to save an ostensibly pagan original from a later Christian overlay. His and others’ evidence: Right where folio 82v ends, the sentence ends too, and also the larger thought. Start of the next folio, hypermetric lines set in; pious commonplaces start to pile up; arguably, poetic invention falls off. And so more than Pound only have concluded The Seafarer is cut off by the loss of one or more folios, and what picks up on what’s now 83r is the middle some other, less interesting poem.

But the sudden shift to an earnestly Christian homiletic register would not have jarred an AS audience the way it does a modern reader. A lot of the impetus to break the poem in two came in the late 19th C. from scholars who wanted to recover a heroic pagan Germanic literature in its “pure” condition. While that drive has long since thankfully died, the case that the poem is interrupted, a chimera, has not yet quite. Pope and Fulk:

[T]he shift at this place from the specifics of a retainer’s sad condition – the approach of decrepitude, the loss of a lord, the futility of burying gold with the dead – to a passage of mostly devotional generalities, in conjunction with a sudden change to hypermetric form, raises the possibility that The Seafarer is not one poem but fragments of two. It is not necessary to read the text this way … but unity of design is by no means assured. (102)

They like the question for displaying a sort of indeterminacy special, they say, to OE studies, with its single copies of poems handwritten by error-prone scribes in frangible manuscripts. And I’m not one not to cheer twice for indeterminacy. Still, I see a single poem, a single author. The shift to hypermetric (six-stress) lines doesn’t last long, and such lines come and go in a number of the Exeter poems. The switch to a homiletic register fits the dramatic, emotional, and spiritual arcs of the poem, and is consonant with other poems of its ilk. And the closing lines do have poetic force, something in places quite majestic. Yes, the last few lines are sententious, but other OE poems of the first order have like passages; and as I note below, the scribe does quietly set them a bit apart. I see nothing out of fit here, just ordinary variousness.

The seam at the end of the folio (l. 103) is just one of the aporiae that have thrown the poem’s unity into doubt. Another is that its sea voyage seems literal at the outset, full of material details that resist the calculus of allegory mind—an ice-clotted beard, a mew gull’s cries; and yet misfires in the Seafarer’s discourse around the voyage start to invite figurative reading and to load the journey with allegorical freight; and yet, as one ventures into allegory, the voyage itself disappears from view, not to be seen again. How to reconcile these signals and keep the poem one poem? Whitelock has argued (Pope and Fulk 100) that the journey is literal from start to end; religious self-exile and pilgrimage were actual AS cultural practices, and this is a composite account of such a journey. Conversely, for Marsden, the journey stands from the start for the Augustinian pilgrim’s passage from the earthly to the heavenly city; the Seafarer’s exile is not from the towns of men, but from Heaven, whence he also is bound (221). I take a middle position, feeling the poem morphs from literal to allegorical: the journey begins as an actual journey, full of resistant earthly textures, and gradually, thanks in no small part to the misfires around forþon crying there’s more here than meets the eye, metamorphoses into journey as allegory. The journey journeys. It’s subtle, there being no one point where we can say the journey has changed its nature, from literal to figurative. The transformation is as mysterious, imperceptible, and I think maybe undeniable as the metamorphosis the pilgrim aspires to.

A third aporia is the speaker’s ambivalence towards sea voyaging. He hates it, loves it, loves to hate it. At sea he longs for the delights of human company. Among men and women he thirsts for his cold hard life at sea. His ambivalence, and especially the pressure he puts on the word forþon “therefore” – which seems sometimes to mean just that, and sometimes about the opposite, “even so” or “just the same” – have vexed readers who want a unitary speaker, leading some to treat the poem as a dialogue. Frankly, as a poet who makes his living off mixed feelings, I have trouble seeing the problem. Keats, Negative Capability, solved. More interesting is that it’s been an interpretive problem in the first place. Belonging to print and internet cultures, we’re attuned to certain ways of rendering mixed feelings – synchronic ways, mostly, particularly irony, where one attitude is layered over another, with gaps for the underlayer to show through. Think George Eliot, Jordan Abel, a well-crafted tweet. In The Seafarer oral storytelling conventions persist, and oral traditions don’t, to my knowledge, use irony to create interiority. Some, though, convey mixed feelings diachronically. In The Odyssey, the consummate seafaring story as it happens, when Telemachus expresses two conflicting feelings adjacently, it’s not a contradiction or a change of heart, but a two-step account of an inner conflict: the poet describes one feeling, then the other, and his audience knows they cohabit in the young man’s mind. Some of what seems like self-contradiction in The Seafarer may be the work of unfamiliar narrative conventions. And some of it is the AS poet’s use of logopoeia in putting forþon in a torqued relation to its ordinary usage.

There are two capital letters in the MS, both near the end of the poem, and I’ve broken the OE transcription into verse paragraphs accordingly. I don’t posit a new speaker for the final lines, let alone for the closing “Amen,” but rather the same speaker putting on the new voice he has aspired to the whole poem.


Phew. Thanks for hanging in there. Just the first lines of mine …

THE SEAFARER

I can from myself call forth the song,
speak truth of travels, of how, toiling
in hardship, hauling a freight of care,
I have found at sea a hold of trouble
awful rolling waves have, too often,
through long anxious nightwatches
at the prow, thrown me to the cliffs.
My feet, ice-shackled, cold-fettered,
froze, even as cares swirled hot about
my heart and inner hungers tore at
my sea-weary spirit. You can’t know
to whom on land all comes with ease
how I, sorrow-wracked on an icy sea
wandered all winter the way of exile,
far from kinsmen, my hair and beard
hung with ice, as hail fell in showers.
I heard nothing there but sea-surge
and icy surf, swan song sometimes,
took the gannet’s cry and the voices
of curlews for human laughter, made
the call of a mew gull my honeymead;
storms beat at stone cliffs, icy-feathered
the tern answers, a dew-winged eagle
screeches; no sheltering kinsman here
who might console a desolate spirit.

And, special treat! Ezra Pound reading his translation (with drums).


[1]. You can still charge words with meaning mainly in three ways, phanopoeia, melopoiea, logopoeia. You use a word to throw a visual image on to the reader’s imagination, or you charge it by sound, or you use groups of words to do this. Thirdly, you take the greater risk of using the word in some special relation to “usage,” that is, to the kind of context in which the reader expects, or is accustomed, to find it. – ABC of Reading (37)

[2]. I have tried to write Paradise // Do not move / Let the wind speak / that is paradise. – The Cantos (822)

A clutter of starlings

Another riddle for yehs. Birds? Or maybe it’s unsolvable & that’s the solution.


Clutter of Starlings

Đeos lyft byreð          lytle wihte
ofer beorghleoþa,          þā sind blace° swīþe,
swearte, salopāde.          Sanges rōpe,°
hēapum fēraþ,          hlūde cirmað. ⬩°
Tredað bearonæssas,          hwīlum burgsalo
niþþa bearna°          nemnað hȳ sylfe.° :⁊

Clutter of Starlings

Nightair carries little creatures over
the hillside, they are black, very black,
their coats are dark. Singing profusely
they spread out in bands, call out loudly –
treading wooded headlands, sometimes
in halls of men they name themselves.

Commentary

Though the birds are full of articulate noise, and cross at the end the verge of human dwelling, the poem is not in their voice, but that of a human riddler. Their flight habits seem those of starlings, which travel in great clouds, following the contour of the countryside, sometimes at twilight. Muir, however, sees swallows, which have dark backs and pale underparts; if you read blace (2) with a long vowel, blāce, it goes from “black” to “bright,” and you can get to a sort of swallowy look:

Little creatures ride the air
over the hillside, flashing brightly
black, dark-coated. Singing profusely
they go in flocks

Also, swallows are more likely than most to swoop into a human dwelling. But a group of them is not quite a hēap (4) “band, multitude,” and no way can they be said to tredað (5) “tread” the earth; while starlings come in crowds and are conspicuous walkers.

More birds than these two have been proposed; it’s one of the Exeter riddles more resistant of answer. Niles likes the crow, crāwe, as the bird most likely to name itself with an onomatopoeic call. Crows do gather in flocks, and they tread the earth, but they’re even less songful than starlings, and not so little neither. Other birds posited: swifts, jackdaws, house martins. Some readers go onward to bees, hailstones, raindrops, storm clouds, musical notes, damned souls, demons – but a bird does seem most likely, even if the thought of musical notes tromping the countryside in black coats is awfully surreally lovely.

In The Riddle Ages, a smart multi-authored blog devoted to the riddle poems, Michael Warren notes that all birds in the Exeter riddles elude naming to some degree. Transecting earth and heaven, betimes kissing-distance from human beings, betimes flyspeck-far in the sky, they are liminal to us, coming as they go, going as they come. So many of them, in such variety, and they flew off so fast, how could language catch them?

[S]cholars across the medieval period stress that what is most birdy about birds is their transformative abilities. Or to put it another way, what most defines birds is their habit of avoiding definition – they’re intrinsically unknowable in some respects, escapologists.

Medieval encyclopaedists like Bartholomew the Englishman and Saint Isidore of Seville found in birds, Warren adds, a locus for some of their more general anxieties about naming. Words are themselves birdy, keeping escaping us, and these bird riddles, with their soundplay and wordplay and the pressure they put on acts of naming, delight in linguistic mischief. Fugitive moments roost in them, small and large, chirping, singing, flitting, shitting – puns, innuendoes, ambiguities, runes, misfires. They like the unlikenesses.

In this one, the clues point akimbo, like jayfeathers after their bird fell into a bath and scrambled out. With the change of a vowel value black turns to bright. They may be named either to or in human halls. The crowning ambiguity’s in the last verse, nemnað hy sylfe, which can be read as either an imperative, “name them yourselves,” or a declarative, “they name themselves.” Read it one way, we’re told what to do, but we can’t, with the clues pointing this way and that. Read it the other way, we maybe get another clue – is their call onomatopoeic? – but it taunts us with the birds’ apartness: they call themselves a name we’re not told.

Reading this aporia, Warren suggests the riddle may be unanswerable, or even that its answer may be unanswerableness. We hold an object that’s also a subject, it remains nameless or polyonymous; empty, many-natured. The birds invite us, as Warren puts it, to

inhabit a space somewhere between knowledge and ignorance, just as the birds themselves sometimes dwell with niþþa bearna “the sons of men” and sometimes move beyond our boundaries to the bearonæssas “woody headlands.”

Or, if we must know, be holy fools in what we know. Isidore in his Etymologies writes of birds: “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways.” Let this riddle and that sentence put to rest any thought that wordplay of the sort seen in Perec’s La Disparition or Alan Davies’s a an av es is new in the world. We’ve been switching letters to make new meanings for as long as we’ve been swapping nucleotides in codons under our rubric as sapiens, the wise ones, the percipient.

Notes

2     blace. Usually read with a short vowel, as “black,” so that the sequence blace swiþe, / swearte, salopāde translates as “very black, black, dark-coated.” The redundancy is its own little puzzle.

3     Sanges rōpe. “Bountiful of song.” The phrase, which somewhat inhibits a reading of “starlings” or “crows,” doesn’t especially point towards “swallows” either.

4     The punctum puts the poem’s turn here. If it’s taken seriously, then tredað bearonæssas “tread wooded headlands” belongs to the closing verses and the final sentence, and the birds’ walking is kin to the human activity of these lines, hall building, meadjoys. It is almost as if they become human visitants.

5–6   hwīlum burgsalo / niþþa bearna. It is either to or in the burgsalo “city-dwellings” of niþþa bearna the “sons of men” the birds are named. Whether or not they set wing in a hall, a call penetrates, makes present.

6     nemnað hȳ sylfe. Either “name them yourselves” or “they name themselves.” Traditionally editors have preferred the former – it’s often seen at the end of riddles – but according to Warren the latter has recently gained favour.


P.S. [after checking out images of starling clouds] Maybe their song is synaesthetic – goes to eye not ear – astonishing chord of their synchronic flight. See Pound’s Canto LXXV.

starling cloud