Curator as author as curator

While on leave from my program at the University of Toronto, I’m taking a course at the Node Center called the International Curator Program. Enjoying it very much. The first assignment in our first module (Key Moments in the History of Curating):

Choose an exhibition from your country (either birth or residence) that you consider expresses the notion of curator-as-author in the spirit of Szeemann.

Harald Szeemann’s Live in Your Head (1969) and Documenta 5 (1972) have come to exemplify curation as authorship. That’s when a curator treats their exhibition as a composite language of things and words and images in which to express a sensibility or chase an argument. To think about the curator as author, I chose three authors who’ve curated – specifically, a show at MOCA Toronto that moved and provoked me when I happened on it.

Age of You
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Toronto
September 5, 2019 – January 5, 2020

1. The concept

Age of You, curated by Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Shumon Basar, was a didactic exhibition, developing an argument about the fate of the self in the age of social media. The self has been made “extreme,” they proposed, by the connectivity and instantaneity of our new media environment, and this deracinated self only feels real when packaging itself for consumption by a crowd.

Whatever delight the curators might have felt at this astonishingly creative media moment was eclipsed by their sense that it’s controlled out of view by forces bent on quantifying our every experience and harvesting the data generated for profit. “Guess what this century’s most valuable resource is,” they ask. “It’s you – and all of your online behaviours, enriched data sets and millions of meta-data points.”

In this process, a large part of you is extracted from you, and now exists everywhere and nowhere, independently of your five senses. Are you really built for so much change so quickly? And what if individuality is in fact morphing into something else?

The exhibition, with work by seventy artists, designers, filmmakers, photographers, performers, and composers from around the world, was really a single sustained essay. The curators’ text described the situation, the artworks exemplified and critiqued it. Every artwork was subsumed, as several reviewers noted, to an overriding curatorial intent.

I assented to the exhibition’s thesis. I was impressed by how deftly it used works of art to advance an argument about culture. And I was disquieted by the submission of individual works to an overriding curatorial vision. The show was a translation into museum language of the curators’ forthcoming book, The Extreme Self, which I’m keen to read – and doubt I’ll have the same issues with. Am I more forgiving of top-down control when I see it in a book than when I meet it in an museum? Why?

Installation view, Age of You, MOCA Toronto. Photo: Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Source: Pin-Up.

2. The curator as author

(a) Book

The exhibition was maybe the most bookish I’ve ever seen. It consisted mostly of text and images interspersed on rec­tangular panels. Black text on white ground evoked printed pages – pages large enough to warrant the regard you usually give a painting. Hung from the ceiling to create ad hoc walls, the panels suggested a book that had exploded into architecture. Arrows marked a path through the chambers and passageways, implying a single correct reading order.

Installation view, Age of You, MOCA Toronto. Photo: Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Source: Pin-Up.

The design seemed to me a spatial translation of the act of immersing yourself in a book – a sort of immersion the show said is fast becoming impossible. Others found it more like scrolling through an Instagram feed. As a chimaera of different genres – printed page, hung painting, online feed – this show about the costs of the attention economy was aware of, and often witty about, how it deployed your attention.

(b) Writer

The show asked for more careful reading than wall text or a curatorial essay typically does. The text was intensely writerly, moving through degrees of irony, multiple standpoints, and shades of ambiguity to establish a fragmented, multiple, postmodern narrative voice. Strangely, reviewers I’m sure are more internet-savvy than I am – alert to tonal nuances of acronyms and emoticons – took all the statements at face value, and saw a more dogmatic, monolithic show than I did.

Text: Basar/Coupland/Obrist. Image: Peter Saville by Yoso Mouri, 2016.
From The Extreme Self (forthcoming). Source:

(c) Author function

The leveling treatment of text and image nicely mimicked the samey-sameness of social media and subsumed the various materials to a single vision you could call authorial. There was more top-down command than Harald Szeemann maybe ever exercised. In other ways, though, the exhibition disclosed the author to be what Michel Foucault calls an “author function.” The corporate (three-in-one) authorship, the narrative voice with its multiple standpoints and shifting ambiguous tones, dispersed authorship broadly, cast it everywhere and nowhere – much as social media, as the curators argue, disperses the extreme self.

Whatever concerns I had about the exhibition’s overbearing unity, the subtlety with which it mimicked, undermined, and sardonically WTF’d, in its form, method and materials, its terrifying invisible omnipresent subject, was a thing to behold.

The image up top: Installation view, Satoshi Fujiwara, Crowd Landscape. Photo by Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Though I’ve de-emphasized them here, the exhibition also had works that were less flat page, more rounded object.

The gaze is made out of sight

A piece I wrote for a class this fall on museums & cultural heritage. We were asked to respond to a performance piece by Deborah de Robertis called Mirror of Origin – her rejoinder to Gustav Corbet’s L’Origine du monde.

The Gaze Is Made Out Of Sight

Ishtar Vase ca. 2000–1600 BCE. Louvre.

I have in mind an exhibition on the history of looking. One object in it would be a terracotta vase with the goddess Ishtar incised on its face. Her wings look like pubic hair gone mad and mean astral power. The notched tri­angle where her legs meet, from which the Sumerian cu­nei­form fig­ure for wo­man is ab­stracted Woman sequence, means a coitus so holy it turns the earth. Around her are spokes­animals of the wetlands – fish, tur­tles, ducks, bits of world she’s ori­gin to. La­ter a diluvian patri­arch will set them out in pairs and rows. After some ad­ventures (my wall text explains) he’ll find a jewel­led necklace in the sky – the god­dess set it there in re­morse for drown­ing the people (Gilga­mesh XI) – and mis­take it for a rain­bow say­ing The crea­tures are all yours now (Genesis 9:1–3). In de­noue­ment, a son sees him drunk and na­ked, Dad gets pretty pissed (Gen. 9:20–25), banishes his seed.

Noah’s story is a parable of the birth of pat­riarchy from the morning star’s reces­sion, Ish­tar’s clay flower fading. The vase is borrowed from the Louvre where it lives behind glass and alarms. It wants to be held, filled, poured from! though I too must guard it. If seeing it nonetheless feels almost like touching it – as if your eyes had finger­tips you could brush against its face – that’s because our sense experience just is man­y­stranded.

[A] raven soaring in the distance is not, for me, a mere visual image; as I follow it with my eyes, I inevitably feel the stretch and flex of its wings with my own muscles, and its sudden swoop toward the nearby trees is a visceral as well as a visual experience for me. The raven’s loud, guttural cry, as it swerves overhead, is not circumscribed within a strictly audible field – it echoes through the visible, immediately animating the visible landscape.

That’s David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous, giving voice to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who took our everyday perceptions to be both synaesthetic and participatory.

My senses connect up with each other in the things I perceive, or rather each perceived thing gathers my senses together in a coherent way, and it is this that enables me to experience the thing itself as a center of forces, as another nexus of experience, as an Other.

Setting outer creatures in or­der, Noah set the inner creatures in order. The recession of the morn­ing star is among other things a strait­ening and sorting of percep­tion. Think of an exhibition that has only one right order of encounter.

Before Ishtar was Inanna, god­dess of Sumer of every­thing hu­man. An impression obtained from the Oriental Institute:

Inanna-Ishtar with morning star. Akkadian cylinder-seal ca. 2254–2193 BCE. Oriental Institute.

She took by guile the me, the gifts of civiliz­ation – blade­work, la­men­t­ation, carpentry – from her father Enki, god of the flood­waters, to give to her peo­ple. The story of her world-onsetting theft begins:

She leaned back against the apple tree.
When she leaned against the apple tree, her vulva was wondrous to behold.
Rejoicing at her wondrous vulva, the young woman Inanna applauded herself.
                     (“Inanna and the God of Wisdom”)

That notch is origin of lifeworlds.

Clay Halaf figure ca. 6000–5100 BCE. Louvre.

Inanna is the sharp edge of a stone tool most of whose facets are lost to us. A Neolithic figure, filched from the Louvre, hints at how they angled. Its apparently distorted features, bulging breasts and thighs, tapered head and feet – a “lozenge form” – has led its owners and handlers to take it for a fertility idol. But these ubiquitous figures from the late Stone Age are only “distorted” when seen from out­side. See them with their own eyes and they’re wholly naturalistic. According to Catherine Hodge McCoid and Leroy D. McDermott, they’re simply a woman’s body as “seen by a wo­man looking down on herself.” One figure joins multiple perspectives: looking down (your belly looms large), bending forward to look down (your thighs are foreshortened, feet furthest off), turning to look at your backside (the top of your buttock is foreshortened). The face is indistinct because without a mirror – recall de Robertis’s title – you can’t see your head with your own eyes, any more than a pen can write on itself.

The apparent misrepresentation of height and width in the figurines results from the visual experience of [the] anatomical necessity [of bending forwards to see her toes]. The location of the eyes means that for an expectant mother the upper half of the body visually expands toward the abdomen, whereas the lower half presents a narrow, tapering form.

These figures are objective offerings of one or more women’s self-relation: from her sight of her own body, she made an object she could hand to another, to think about with their own hands. Or reflect on herself – McCoid and McDermott propose the figures had pragmatic use, maybe as obstetrical aids, “the relative sizes of the abdomens helping women to calculate the progress of their pregnancies.” Their work suggests that, long before Picasso or Gris, Neolithic women were assembling, out of divergent viewpoints, a perspective that is coherent, singular, and relational. (Picasso had to break women up to get his perspective to cohere.) They made a perspective as novel as the retreating lines of an aristocrat’s lands converging on an abstract horizon, or a Cubist collage breaking things apart to return to the eye its multiplicity.

In another room, Europe, stung by Noah’s rebuke, is revisiting the human form it got from Greece, working out, with the aid of oil paint and linear perspective, how to clothe a naked figure in the seeing of it. Nude women you can touch with your eyes become a cottage industry. Most of them look like merchandise. John Berger: “What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can get your hands on.” The European nude confirms the male gaze in its patrimony. Oil paint, exploiting the synaesthesia of vision, and linear perspective, confirming the landowning individual as sovereign viewpoint, together clothe the naked form in a form of looking.

Sir Peter Lely, Nell Gwynne, mid-1600s. Private collection.

Berger uses a painting by Sir Peter Lely, most likely of Nell Gwynne, lover of Charles II, to make the case. Two gazes can be seen here and a third cannot. The child, ostensibly Cupid, looks down in reverence or mischief toward a corner of the white silk bedclothes draped over the woman’s sex. Gwynne, thrust into the role of Venus, looks with a languid, unfocussed gaze toward the viewer. It could be dreamy interiority, but her pose, reclining, passive, unclothed and turned near-frontal, suggests her inner gaze is self-surveyal on behalf of an owner-spectator she’ll never meet. In other words her inside is not hers. Berger again:

Whilst [a woman] is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually…. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

I would add that the erotic power of her look depends on being both available and not. So Gwynne’s head turns to the left as her eyes look forward and a little down, as if she were a bit too shy, or just coquettish enough, to meet your gaze. The fabric across her pelvis achieves the same effect, withholding something also promised. The man’s gaze is the third here and is set out of sight. Just as you can’t see light, only what it lands on, the gaze is invisible, known only by its evidences. And while evidence of the woman’s gaze and the child’s may be found in the painting, that of the man lives outside the frame, where history is.

The wo­man’s looking and the child’s looking are fixed realities, nounal, paintable, while his looking acts, verbally, as it were. It would take a form that moves in time, a book or a piece of performance art, to make such looking palpable.

Gustav Courbet intervened in the tradition of the nude when he painted L’Origine du monde. His model has no hands she could work with, nor feet to walk off with, nor mouth to speak, nor eyes to convey an interior or create resonance with a viewer. The frame only takes in enough to define her by her sexual attributes, breasts and vagina. In another context, the bedclothes that frame her might look like tissue paper round a gift just now unwrapped, but here they are at least half a shroud.

Gustav Courbet, L’Origine du monde, 1866. Musée d’Orsay.

Whatever the critics have said, the painting is in no way erotic, having dispensed with the illusion of a mental interior. I was relieved to learn I’m not the only one to find it deathly:

The pallidness of the skin and the mortuary gauze surrounding the body suggest death. This body … cannot see us and never will.  Whosoever buries their head “there” is implicated in a game of necrophiliac orality that ignores the violence and the optical objectification laid out in the painting. (Uparella & Jauregui)

Going down here really is going down. Inanna, at her journey’s nadir, is made a corpse and hung on her sister’s kingdom’s wall, and this is pretty much that.

In Courbet’s intervention, all the erotic possibility that the European nude has, for centuries, mobilized by arranging in pigmented oil illusions of an in/accessible interior, is transferred to the title. The Origin of the World. It’s magnificent, grandiose, risible, sublime. You cannot say for sure whether it’s earnest or ironic, truth or hyperbole, mythological or anthropological or satirical. Does this title, an invisible frame hovering between the painter and all viewers, make the truncated form of Courbet’s model, Joanna Hiffernan, who herself painted and drew, though she never showed her work (Jiminez), a goddess of stone or earth, or an avatar of Inanna, or an anatomy poster, or a capitalist meat machine? The painting is celebrated for its realism – finally a thatch of pubic hair true to life! But the ambiguity Courbet’s realism has drained from the painting has filled the title up.

On May 29, 2014, an artist named Deborah de Robertis enters the gallery of the Musée d’Orsay where The Origin is hung. Wearing a gold-sequined cocktail dress, she walks briskly to the painting, sits down below it, and spreads her legs to show her va­gina, holding her labia apart with her hands. Her pubic hair is the colour of Hiffernan’s; her dress matches the gilding of the frame. Her videographer holds the camera’s gaze shakily – it’s the video of an amateur, such as anyone there might make. Within seconds, guards arrive. They engage her in discussion, sometimes blocking the camera’s view of her. We hear the other visitors begin to applaud. The camera swings to take them in. Once in clumps of private contemplation, they stand now in an arc focused on her. The camera pans back to her. One of the guards has taken up a position in front of her, hiding her from view: a shin in the role once given to diaphanous fabric. Another guard comes to consult. All the guards thus far are women. They are affronted by this violation to museum decorum, but they also seem a little protective of the violator. There on the floor, artist and model at once, de Robertis has the placid expression of models before her, but her eyes blink and rove as they please. The guards begin to try to escort the audience out. Soon there are more guards in the gallery than visitors, one or two of them men. Someone has fetched a screen the colour of Courbet’s bedsheets. By the five-minute mark the energy in the room has begun to falter. Scattered applause. The camera starts to have trouble finding her. The performance peters out indefinitely.

The task of controlling access has passed from the Musée d’Orsay to the disembodied gallery of YouTube.

No – it disperses, leaving the gallery as its participants do, in twos and threes. The piece includes the museumgoers who applaud her and the guards who obstruct her, and it spreads ever more broadly, to include the video made of the performance, the interviews and reviews, the lawsuit two guards later file against her for “sexual exhibitionism.” De Robertis does not break persona for any of it – she continues to perform herself for the papers, in the courts, and on social media platforms. The piece includes its aftermath. She has torn a page here from Fluxus, whose artists incorporated into their work happenings “outside” the work: chance elements, audience responses. And I’m reminded of John Cage, for whom the audience shifting in their seats, the street sounds through cracked windows, may be the composition – though for Cage, the aleatory is a formal occasion, for de Robertis, a political one.

A stilled object on the wall becomes, as our eyes travel down from the painting to the floor, a living subject, autonomous, with agency. Then the gaze disperses without dissolving: the work reaches out into the public sphere, dismantling the erotic mechanism the tradition of the European nude had built. The artist’s self-exposure is an act of aggression (against the male gaze), of transgression (against museum rules and decorum), and of commonality (with all the female models and artists before her). It has none of the come-close–stay-back of Lely’s portrait, or the countless nudes it keeps company with, or the French lingerie and Superbowl beer ads that have followed in their delicate footsteps.

It might seem de Robertis wants to demythologize the vagina. And yet, having launched her work from Courbet’s, subverting it, rebuking him, she takes his most grandiose claims and doubles down on them. Her account of her work in the press implies a metaphysical scope that eclipses Courbet’s:

The painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin. (Sutton)

The realist who painted is not realistic enough (in fact the painting is not so accurate anatomically), the artist who titled, not metaphysical enough. Is she trolling Courbet? Her look in the video is as placid as Inanna’s on the vase across the street across the room. One of its three audio tracks confirms the work’s mythological dimension:

I am the origin.
I am all women.
You haven’t seen me.
I want you to recognize me.
Virgin like water.
Creator of sperm.

Like Inanna, gambling with her drunk uncle, de Robertis fools the hoarder of power into handing it over. In turn, she gives it to other people, and in being given, it grows larger.

The holy me were being unloaded.
As the me which Inanna had received from Enki were unloaded,
They were announced and presented to the people of Sumer.

Then more me appeared – more me than Enki had given Inanna.
And these, too, were announced,
And these, too, were presented to the people of Uruk.
            (“Inanna and the God of Wisdom”)

Inanna claims and shares and adds to the powers of culture. De Robertis, her daughter, claims and shares and furthers the power of looking. Our senses cohere in her, the way the me cohere, sitting on the pier.

Cohere and disperse, the way light does on a gold-sequined dress. Gold holds light – why it’s called illumination in old books – while sequins scatter it. The artist, likewise, has drawn and held then scattered our gaze. The camera movements (jerky, handheld, amateur), the dispersal of the museumgoers (each in their own shell of looking), the continuation of the artwork across locales and discursive genres (video, interview, legal filing), they all scatter our looking, while holding it whole. Against the monolith of the singular “male gaze” washes this dispersed and democratized looking. Is it going too far to think de Robertis has, with her Fluxus compeers, created a new perspective? A perspective scattered and broken like the Cubist one, but coherent and whole when taken for that of a crowd. It’s a strange, tenuous whole, but we recognize it: in the internet age, a thought or a conversation is whole in the same way, though spread out in time and housed by servers on several continents. Like her Neolithic forbears, she makes a coherent form for the autochthonous gaze. In those figures, the gaze is compact, discreet, singular, and solid across time. Today being what it is, de Robertis’s is dispersed, multiple, collaborative, and fluid over time, changing forms as it ripples outward from a gallery in the Musée d’Orsay and spills into the streets.

Print works referred to

Ishtar’s eight-pointed star ca. 1180 BCE.
From the stele of King Melishipak I.
Wikimedia Commons.

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. Pantheon, 1996.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin, 1973.

Cuneiform for “woman.” Nicholas Fay, T. Mark Ellison, and Simon Garrod, “Iconicity: From Sign to System in Human Communication and Language.” Pragmatics & Cognition, vol. 22, no. 2 (Dec. 2013), pp. 243–62.

“Inanna and the God of Wisdom.” Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, edited and translated by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer. Harper & Row, 1983.

McCoid, Catherine Hodge, and Leroy D. McDermott. “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Paleolithic.” American Anthropologist, New Series, vol. 98, no. 2 (June 1996), pp. 319–326.

Jiminez, Jill Berk, editor. “Joanna Hiffernan.” Dictionary of Artists’ Models. Routledge, 2001, pp. 275–78.

Uparella, Paola, and Carlos A. Jauregui. “The Vagina and the Eye of Power (Essay on Genitalia and Visual Sovereignty).” H-ART. Revista de historia, teoría y crítica de arte, no. 3 (2018), pp. 79–114.

Some questions for Inanna & Dumuzi

One more voice note on Inanna’s story – for my mythology and literature class.

If you’d like to hear it in my halting voice:

“The Descent of Inanna”

The story of Inanna’s descent has correlates in other mythologies you may be more familiar with. The descent of Persephone to the underworld and her mother Demeter’s search for her. Also the death of Eurydice and her lover Orpheus’s effort to rescue her from the underworld. Both of those Greek myths, of course, that had elaborate cultic practices surrounding them.

Dumuzi has many correlates as well. He is what the Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer called “the dying-and-rising god.” Figures to whom Dumuzi bears at least a passing resemblance include the Green Knight, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dionysus, the god of wine, associated with the grape stock. If you’ve seen a grapevine, you can cut the vine all the way back down to a stump in the earth, and in spring it will spring forth with new green, and soon grow so luxuriantly that it covers and buries your fence, your other plantings, your car, your driveway. I say this having watched the behavior of my neighbours’.

Dumuzi in the underworld, flanked by snakes & surrounded by galla demons, who bear implements for breaking & flaying him (British Museum).

Dumuzi’s most surprising cousin though is Jesus Christ. We just celebrated, or saw others celebrate, the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Consider that Christ comes among us with a proposal of new and renewed spiritual life; is put to death; and, in the early spring, He is, by divine power, brought back to life. One understanding of the figure of Jesus Christ is that He is a descendant of the dying-and-rising gods with which the Ancient Near East was full to overflowing.

If that sounds outlandish to you, like I’m just making too much of a coincidental resemblance, consider as well that Jesus Christ, in the three days between his death and his resurrection, journeys, according to Catholic theology, to Hell – a part of His story known as the Harrowing of Hell. He’s reputed while down there to have saved the souls of those who died righteous but could not journey to Heaven, being unbaptized. So – death, a hell journey, then rebirth in the spring. And the period Christ spends in the underworld, the Harrowing of Hell, is named for an agricultural implement: a harrow is used in the cultivation of a field.

The galla climbed the reed fence.
The first galla struck Dumuzi on the cheek with a piercing nail,
The second galla struck Dumuzi on the other cheek with the shepherd’s crook,
The third galla smashed the bottom of the churn,
The fourth galla threw the drinking cup down from its peg,
The fifth galla shattered the urn,
The sixth galla shattered the cup,
The seventh galla cried:

“Rise, Dumuzi!
Husband of Inanna, son of Sirtur, brother of Geshtinanna!
Rise from your false sleep!
Your ewes are seized! Your lambs are seized!
Your goats are seized! Your kids are seized! …

Galla beat Dumuzi
Dumuzi, attacked by the galla, beseeches the sun god, Utu (source unknown).

The galla seized Dumuzi.
They surrounded him.
They bound his hands. They bound his neck.

The churn was silent. No milk was poured.
The cup was shattered. Dumuzi was no more.
The sheepfold was given to the winds.

(He’s broken up like wheat getting threshed. Reading it, I feel the way I think Christians are meant to on Good Friday about the Crucifixion. Oh and “Easter” appears to come from “Ishtar” – Inanna’s successor in the Fertile Crescent.)

Turning to the poem itself. One question here is why. Why does Inanna “open her ear” to the Great Below? Why does she decide to leave everything she knows and is queen of behind, to journey to this place that is hostile to her, inimical to her? She gives an explanation to Neti the gatekeeper to be passed on to her sister. Oh, I’m here to observe the funeral rites for your husband, the Bull of Heaven. I don’t think that goes too far as an explanation. It may or may not be true. It could be a feint, a dodge. It could be legit, but even if it’s a reason that she’s headed there, it’s not the reason that she’s headed there.

How might we read into the deeper layers of the myth, to learn what motivates this harrowing journey into the unknown and the unformed? One hint may be in the first three lines

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her ear to the Great Below.

“Ear” in Sumerian also means “wisdom.” The ear is the seat of wisdom. How does the poem change if we read “wisdom” where “ear” is printed?

From the Great Above she opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her wisdom to the Great Below.

I think it’s also important that she adorns herself, or protects herself, or prepares herself, by donning seven of the me, which in this poem are garments; remembering that the me are the powers of civilization. Can we infer more about what her motive is, what her mission is, from these acts of preparation? And I’ll leave it to you, what other moments in this poem can we look to for hints, clues, cues, keys, to what is going on for Inanna, beyond her stated reason for this road trip.

Having just read you the intensely repetitive opening three lines, I’m brought back to the question, What is up with all the repetition? What is it here for? A listener’s just not trusted to get it the first time? or even the second time? or is there some meaning or purpose behind all of these reiterations? Remember, these poems, which we read on the page in a literature classroom, were not originally intended for silent solitary reading and literary appreciation. These were poems that didn’t just say something, but did something. These were liturgies, hymns but in story form, meant to make contact with the divine figures whose stories they were relating.

So there’s a religious purpose to them, a spiritual purpose. Having such a purpose, the work needs and wants to affect, you could say alter, the consciousness, the form of awareness, of the listener, the participant in the rite. As you encounter the repetitions, take them in, read them out loud to yourself, and see how they sound in your ear, see how they resonate in your body as you articulate the sounds. There’s not a lot of new meaning in a repeated line, the words don’t change much. But something may happen on a non-verbal, physiological plane, important to the effect of the poem.

The poem probably wants for us to identify with Inanna, so that we’re not just reading about her journey to the underworld, but participating in her journey to the underworld. We in a sense become Inanna. The whole time I’ve been recording this voice note there has been a doe and her fawn in my backyard, munching away at the flowers on my blackcurrant bush. What that has to do with Inanna, I don’t know, but it seems like it signifies.

All right, so, Inanna’s motivation, and the role of the repetition in inducing states of mind or consciousness in a reader or participants in the poem. The last thing I want to draw your attention to is the minor characters in the poem – the figures of the galatur, and the kurgarra, and the galla demons.

We get certain details about them that set them at a distance or a remove from ordinary human social interaction. The galla have no mothers or fathers, or brothers or sisters or children, they eat no food, they take no drink, they accept no libations. They do not participate in the usual give-and-take between the human realm and the divine realm. And the kurgarra and the galatur, what details do we have about them? They are created from gunk scraped from underneath the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters, Enki.

Created with GIMP
A fly, from CP’s Dumuzi (Gaspereau 2020).

What do we make of that? What is the gunk under the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters? Why would that be good raw material for these mysterious creatures? They are creatures neither male nor female, so they don’t participate in the usual Sumerian gender binary, and that seems to give them unusual powers. They can enter the underworld “like flies,” and they have a capacity for – empathy? deceit? both? – depending on how genuine you think their commiseration with Ereshkigal is. But they get the job done, and they get it done well. They play her: they play the Queen of the Underworld, which is not a safe game to play, or an easy game to win.

Last thing I’ll note then, is that these two are like flies, and they are essential to the rescue of Inanna. An actual fly is crucial to the rescue, or the discovery, the recovery of Dumuzi. So what’s up with the little pesky buglike creatures, showing up at these crucial moments in this sequence? What do you associate a fly with, and what’s a fly got to do with a fertility myth?

Inanna and Dumuzi get it on

Another voice note for my Mythology and Literature class, on the goddess Inanna’s choice of a mate, and the meaning of their meeting. Lightly edited, like the last one. If you’d rather listen than read, here you are:

“The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”

A thought first more generally about what myth is, what our relationship to myth is.

It’s tempting to think of myth as something other people in other times have done and made, in order to give order and structure to their world. We might think that, given now to a scientific worldview, to empirical procedures for understanding how human beings work, how human societies work, how the cosmos at large works, on the greatest possible scale of stars and galaxies, the minutest possible scale of subatomic particles, that we’re no longer doing mythology – that mythology is something that we can see from the outside, from a remove, and gaze upon with interest, maybe some amusement, maybe a bit of condescension or admiration or nostalgia, depending on our disposition.

I want to suggest to you a different perspective though. That perspective begins from the notion that it’s only other people’s myths that look like myths. Your own myths don’t look like myths to you, they look like axioms. Let me note for you a couple of things that are very much part of our worldview, and that, if we see them from bit of a remove, may look more myth-like than we have been given to think.

The past. The future. Neither the past nor the future has any objective existence. Nowhere will you find the past, not even the instant that just passed. Nowhere will you find and be able to present the future; it does not exist anywhere. The past and the future are constructs of human mind. Our belief in them is so foundational that most of the rest of our beliefs depend upon them to even make sense at all.

I submit to you, the past and future, along a linear timeline as we conceive of them, are mythic, in that they are foundational, and they are collaborative constructs – nobody can make a myth on their own – collaborative constructs of our cultural imagination. And one mark that it’s myth is that we recoil from the suggestion that it’s “just a myth.”

So, if a myth is a world-arranging story, and the figures in the myths we’re looking at are animate, they’re characters, how then do we think about this reading for today, “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”? It’s more than just a boy and a girl meeting, flirting, fighting, and then getting it on. That’s just the surface.

We can ask what it is in the world of the Sumerians that this myth has the power to arrange, to put in order. Inanna is the goddess of love, of war, though I don’t think she’s prominent in that function here, of love and fecundity and increase. Also she has at her disposal the me, the gifts or powers of civilization. Dumuzi is the god of the vegetation, of the spring, of rebirth. He’s the classical dying-and-rising god; and in some contexts he was also the god of shepherds, a pastoral god, which explains his epithet, “the shepherd.” So what does it mean that the goddess of increase, herself, and the god of vegetation, himself, are getting it on?

Well, we can look at the terms in which their getting-it-on is expressed. You may have noticed the abundance of nature imagery, of agricultural metaphor. Fortunately this is just audio, so you can’t see me blushing as I read. Inanna is speaking:

My vulva, the horn,
The boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.

So there’s the agricultural dimension.

As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva,
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?

It’s all thoroughly subsumed to this agricultural metaphor, of the sexual act as an act of well, farming, of planting seed that will then grow. The word “semen” is from the Latin word for “seed,” by the way. A little further on, we’re hearing from the narrator again:

At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar.
Plants grew high by their side.
Grains grew high by their side.
Gardens flourished luxuriantly.

Dumuzi and Inanna - cropped
Lovers embracing. Clay plaque, Mesopotamia, Isin-Larsa-Old Babylonian period, ca. 2000-1600 BCE. Baked clay. Basel, Erlenmeyer Collection.

Almost as if their sexual union either causes new abundance and growth in the natural world, or is one in the same as the abundance of spring, new growth, in the natural world – the world of nature that surrounds them, and the agricultural world, the fields that sustain the cities of Mesopotamia, the fields in which the natural world has been domesticated, put to human use. The fruit of their union is the whole of the green earth.

Putting natural increase in terms of sexual union allows human beings to participate in natural and cosmic processes, and not just to participate in them, but in fact to influence them. The world-arranging story that is a myth has a place in it for the human teller of the story. And in fact one thing to watch for as we encounter the myths of a number of different cultures over this course is, what kind of place does the myth give to the human participants? Are human beings made focal and central, or are they one presence co-equal among many? The Haida term for human being, according to Robert Bringhurst, the translator of Ghandl, whom we’ll be reading some weeks from now, is “ordinary surface bird.” Puncturing perhaps human pretensions to a special role in the cosmos.

A passage from a book called The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, on ceremonial observances around Inanna and Dumuzi’s marriage, I think sheds further light on the role this myth played in the cultural life of at least one of the Sumerian city-states. This is about the city of Isin:

[The City] celebrated yearly the marriage of the goddess Inanna to the god Dumuzi or Tammuz…. Since the goddess is an incarnation of the fertility of nature, and her husband, the shepherd-god Dumuzi, incarnates the creative powers of spring, it is understandable that this annual union of god and goddess signifies and is the reawakening of nature in spring.

Notice that dual verb – it signifies the reawakening of nature in spring, it also is the reawakening of nature in spring. The author, Thorkild Jacobsen, continues:

In the marriage of these deities the fertility and the creative powers of nature themselves become manifest. But why, we may ask, should human servants of the gods, the human ruler and – so it seems – a priestess, transcend their human status, take on the identity of the deities Dumuzi and Inanna, and go through their marriage? For this is what took place in the rites.

You got that? Every year, early spring, the king of the city takes on the role of Dumuzi, the high priestess of the temple takes on the role of Inanna, and in a ritual I believe most of whose details are lost to us, they, in those roles as god and goddess, consummated the marriage that ensured the return of natural abundance in spring.

Why does it make sense to them to do this? Jacobsen speculates:

The answer to that question lies back … in a remote prehistoric age when the gods were not yet anthropomorphic rulers of states and cities but were still directly the phenomena of nature. In those days man’s attitude was not merely one of passive obedience; it called for active intervention, as it does among many [quote unquote] primitives today. It is one of the tenets of mythopoetic logic that similarity and identity merge: “to be like” is as good as “to be.” Therefore, by being like, by enacting the role of, a force in nature, a god, man could in the cult enter into and clothe himself with the identity of these powers, with the identity of the gods, and through his own actions … cause the powers involved to act as he would have them act. By identifying himself with Dumuzi, the king is Dumuzi; and similarly the priestess is Inanna – our texts clearly state this. Their marriage is the marriage of the creative powers of spring. Thus through a willed act of man is achieved a divine union wherein is the all-pervading, life-giving re-creative potency upon which depends, as our texts tell us, “the life of all lands.” (198–99)

Okay, that’s a lot. All that is to say, the sexy bits are not just to make readers or listeners hot and bothered. They have a profound cosmological function: they make human beings participants in the generative powers of nature and the cosmos.

The image atop, left to right, like in a news photo, where protestors are:

Inanna, winged, with arrows for shoulders
Utu, sun god, he comes bladed out of the hill
Enki, god of the fresh waters, his shoulders running with fish
Isimud, Enki’s vizier, two-faced

Pound read myth as if it were the morning paper (Don Revell). Remember papers? The colour in it, Inanna’s joy, is from a pot I left on the hot stove & it cooked dry.

Inanna comes into her powers

In twenty years of teaching I never really learned to lecture. I prefer to learn what I think in the moment in collaboration with my students. Even in large courses, meant to be lecture classes, I work mostly by Socratic discussion. But Zoom and the like are too slow and rigid for that sort of work. So, in this pandemic spring, I’ve had to broaden my game.

Every week or two, I’ve posted for my students a “voice note” – a mini-lecture, basically, that I record off the cuff, or from a few lines of notes, and upload. With the quarter winding down, and these materials vanishing in the rearview mirror, I thought I’d transcribe and post them here.

This is the first voice note for my ENG 339 Mythology and Literature class – on two texts in Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. In transcribing, I’ve edited very lightly, and added in some of the primary text.

You’ll see that my goal is less to provide answers than to stir questions. Here is the note if you would rather listen.

“The Huluppu-Tree”
“Inanna and the God of Wisdom”

I should say at the outset I’m not going to try to define myth or mythology for you. I would like rather for us to arrive at definitions gradually as the evidence of our perceptions accumulates. Any definition I give you now is bound to be partial and incomplete and is likely to shortchange you by reducing the scope of your possible readings.

I’ll say just one thing, maybe it’s two things, to characterize myth. A myth is a supercharged story – a story that radiates meaning, radiates meaningfulness. And in part that’s because a myth is a story that has the power of explanation to it. It has the power, for its adherents, to explain how something came to be, or how certain arrangements in the world came to be the way they are. So a myth is not for entertainment, though we may find them entertaining when they become literature, or movies. A myth in its original context is an act of worldmaking.

So, looking at Inanna’s first text, “The Huluppu-Tree.” Inanna is the Sumerian goddess of love, and of war, and in some contexts of increase, of fertility. In this poem, we have her as a young woman, and we see some of the characteristic features of Sumerian myth right from the outset. The opening lines:

In the first days, in the very first days,
In the first nights, in the very first nights,
In the first years, in the very first years,

In the first days when everything needed was brought into being,
In the first days when everything needed was properly nourished,

If you read them aloud yourself, what you cannot help but hear is the intensity of the patterning and repetition. And it might seem hard to move the story forward, when the language is so bent on circling back on itself and saying itself over again with the slightest of modifications. Hold that in mind – the question of what the myth is, the mythology is up to, with these repetitions, these circlings back.

Relief vessel. North Syria, Mari. Early Dynastic period, ca. 2500 BCE. From Wolkstein and Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth

And those repetitions have a graceful resemblance, if you look at the image on the facing page, it looks like a fragment of an image of somebody attending to a sapling, or two saplings, at the base of what’s probably a date palm. And see how the representation of date palm and of the waters under the surface of the Earth are both patterns that gain their force and intensity by taking a motif – crosshatching on the tree trunk, a sort of sinuous curve in the water under the earth’s surface – taking a single simple motif and repeating it ad nauseam. There’s a visual equivalence there to what we’re seeing in the repetition of the language.

That water under the earth, under that thin crust of earth, that’s the god Enki. Enki is the god of the sweetwaters, and in the Mesopotamian worldview, the sweetwaters, the freshwater, lives just below the surface of the earth. If you think about what happens digging a well, you dig a certain way into the earth, and water, when you hit the water table, water starts to flow through the soil into the hole that you’ve made. That’s the power of Enki. Enki is closer than some of the other gods, An, Enlil, to the underworld of Ereshkigal, because he abides under the surface of the earth. That’s not a coincidence. It’s significant to this journey of his that’s being described as he sets sail for the underworld. The underworld is adjacent to his territory, unlike for the other gods.

He set sail; the Father set sail,
Enki, the God of Wisdom, set sail for the underworld.
Small windstones were tossed up against him;
Large hailstones were hurled up against him;
. . .
The waters of the sea devoured the bow of his boat like wolves;
The waters of the sea struck the stern of his boat like lions.

Now it’s a curious thing that his journey to the underworld seems – incidental. The story of his journey ends with the waters of the sea striking the stern of his boat “like lions.” And then – story over. Scene switch. Suddenly we’re being told about a tree planted by the banks of the Euphrates.

At that time, a tree, a single tree, a huluppu-tree
Was planted by the banks of the Euphrates.
The tree was nurtured by the waters of the Euphrates.
The whirling South Wind rose, pulling at its roots . . .

Bad editing? Fragmentary tablet? Missing text? Is “At that time” a thin patch over a gaping hole? It’s more likely that the phrase hints at a cause-and-effect relationship that we need to suss out for ourselves. Two things are put adjacent, Enki’s trip to the underworld, with the near-swamping of his boat, it’s a contentious, agonistic journey, and then, adjacent to that, the growing of a tree by the banks of the Euphrates. The implication is, in one being beside the other, is that the one causes the other. Enki, the God of Wisdom, voyaging into the territory of the Queen of the Underworld, gives birth to something, makes a new being possible. And that new being is this huluppu-tree.

So that’s something to watch for in these myths. They very often won’t explain the most important aspects of their explanations. You need to work that out for yourself. What does it signify that it is the God of Wisdom, and not any other, who makes this journey, for instance?

So, I’m not going to walk you through the whole text, that would take us forever. But I wanted to look at those opening lines to articulate two kinds of thing to look for. One, the repetition. It’s possible to just skip over it as an annoying or tedious feature of another time’s sensibility. I encourage you instead to really sink into it, allow it to be a kind of musical cadence that’s not getting in the way of the storytelling but actually belongs to the storytelling. And then see what the felt experience of those repetitions is for you.

The other point, then, is that often the deepest significance of the story is unstated, is left implied, and it’s for us to make the inference. Sometimes the inference depends upon cultural knowledge that we don’t have, unless any of us are Sumerian, and I doubt anyone here is. Some of that cultural knowledge will be given to us in the notes, so be sure not to skip the notes at the back of the book that annotate the poem. And some of it doesn’t depend on cultural knowledge and we can think and feel through for ourselves.

With those thoughts in mind, I encourage you to spend a little time with the serpent, the Anzu-bird, and the “dark maid” Lilith, who make their home in the tree.

Then a serpent who could not be charmed
Made its nest in the roots of the huluppu-tree.
The Anzu-bird set his young in the branches of the tree.
And the dark maid Lilith built her home in the tree.

Nobody knows what an Anzu-bird is! That’s why it’s left untranslated. Whatever cultural knowledge we need there is lost to us. But the maid Lilith, we get a little cultural context from the note at the back of the book:

In Hebrew legend, she was the first bride of Adam; but insisting on her own equality, she refused to copulate with him, for she did not want to be underneath him. She fled from Adam and remained forever outside human relationship or regulation, possessed by an avid, insatiable sexuality.

Think through, feel through, what it is for Inanna, this young woman, teenager really, coming into her womanhood, to encounter the figure Lilith in this tree that is supposed to be made into Inanna’s bridal bed. And, what might a snake be or stand for? You’ll probably hear an echo from Genesis, and that’s not accidental, this text is a lot older than the story in Genesis, and probably influential on it. What else is a snake? The snake is something that sheds its skin, the snake is commonly a phallic symbol, this in particular is a snake that cannot be charmed – how do the different qualities of these creatures suggest the conflicts, the struggle, the nature of the struggle, that lnanna is in right now?

Turning to “Inanna and the God of Wisdom.” Again, I don’t want to overdetermine your reading. I want just to point to a few things maybe to dwell with, because they may help open up the poem to you.

One in this one is the notion of the me, pronounced “may.” What do you think the me are? I mean, we get long lists of them, we see what they are each individually. What does the word me mean, what is a me, what are the me, such that they can be treated as physical objects, loaded in a boat and taken from the stronghold of one city, Eridu, and brought by a somewhat fraught and dangerous journey, chased by demons of various different shapes, to the docks of another city, Uruk, Inanna’s city?

Inanna and Enki
Plate XV, source of the poem, is the obverse of a large six-column tablet, no. 15283 in the Nippur collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

“My father has given me the me:

He gave me the high priesthood.
He gave me godship.
He gave me the noble, enduring crown.
He gave me the throne of kingship. . . .

He gave me the dagger and sword.
He gave me the black garment.
He gave me the colorful garment.
He gave me the loosening of the hair.
He gave me the binding of the hair. . . .

He gave me the standard.
He gave me the quiver.
He gave me the art of lovemaking.
He gave me the kissing of the phallus.
He gave me the art of prostitution. . . .”

All of the major gods of Sumer are associated with one of the cities of what we now call Mesopotamia. When the me have successfully been brought to the city of Uruk, and given to the people of Uruk, and it seems to give birth to more me, violating laws of conservation of matter and energy. . . . When all of these me are now in the hands of the people of Uruk, what does it mean for Uruk? And does this mean Enki and the people of Eridu are now without the me? Are the me like coins and dollar bills that if you grab them up, and take them from one place to another, the place you took them from no longer has them? Or are the me more like love, of which it is said, the more you give away the more you receive – it’s not a fixed quantity.

And if the me are not a fixed quantity, and Inanna can take them from Enki, bring them to her people, without depriving Enki of them, then two questions. One, why are they represented as physical objects? And two, why does Enki work so hard to get them back from Inanna, when he has nothing to lose from her possession of them?

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

The course where it unbegan

This fall I’m teaching The Art of Compost, the course that hatched this blog, for the first time in three years. Thought I’d share with you the page that greets students when they go to the course’s online platform. Meant to open them to a composty way of thinking about word objects.

Welcome to 

ENG 460: The Art of Compost

“Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!”
What does one do with all this crap?
–Jack Spicer

In the beginning, there was compost.

Crumb – Genesis 1 – sized
R. Crumb, The Illustrated Genesis

The Bible is a compost pile.

The story of the Flood is floodwrack of a Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh.

The Song of Solomon, proclaiming the devotion of the Hebrews to their God in really quite erotic terms, is a compost of Canaanite love poetry.

The New Testament cannibalizes the Old to make Jesus make more sense.


Sappho - Papyrus
Sappho, a fragment

A bit of poem by Sappho.

The fragment only survives
because the poem was torn to strips,

and the strips (papyrus)
used to wrap a mummy.


A novel digested yields
precious rare verse nutrients.

Phillips – Humument – sized
Tom Phillips, A Humument (fifth edition)

Tom Phillips found a bad Victorian novel in a London bookstore in 1966 and bought it on a dare.

He’s spent the last 48 years releasing the eye poems he finds in it.

Its protagonist, Toge, carved out of the words together, altogether.

Its human meaning, here and there uttered and everywhere embodied: “only connect.”


A composted mass of poems
becomes a lettery soil.

Screenshot - Spicer.png
Jack Spicer, After Lorca

Jack Spicer didn’t write his poems.

Some were dictated to him by Martians.

Others came to him over the radio. The poet is a radio, he said, a counter-punching radio.


You can compost something as impromptu
as an envelope jotting . . .

Bervin – Gorgeous – sized
Emily Dickinson, Jen Bervin, & Marta Werner, The Gorgeous Nothings

Jen Bervin and Marta Werner have found, in diplomatic transcriptions of the envelope jottings of Emily Dickinson, a curious new sort of visual poem.

. . . or grandiose as an extinct civilization
extant only in mind

Schwerner – Tablet X – sized 2Armand Schwerner imagines the discovery of tablets left behind by a hitherto unknown ancient culture.

The brackets and ellipses scholars use to transcribe broken ancient texts become the building blocks for visual poems elucidating

perception illumination annihilation enlightenment dissolution regeneration
sex birth death irrigation animal husbandry


Compost will be our trope
for how writers take extant works
and break them down to pieces they can
use to make new works that will be
broken down in turn to
make new works

Whew. That took longer than you’d think to format. As you can see, it raises more questions than it answers. Our primary texts, w/ links:

Compost as trope, as topos, as practice. It’s a way of digging intertextuality and materiality without going all theory. It’s also ecopoetics as I myself feel it, not nature-as-leafy-green-stuff one swoons to in words, though that’s well and good, but interbeing discovered as your textual ground. Indra’s Net, felt on the breath, that it becomes the texture of our works, our days.

Our reading practice is fluid, but some of these may swim into our ken:

Works co-authored by time

The same except make-believe

20th C. ur-texts composed by bricolage

Objectivist &c. poems &c. at play in their wake

Translations that foreground their compost nature . . .

. . . and translations into a language of pure form

Other conceptual undertakings

Prose compendia and extravaganza with a compost face

Works that suggest to compose just is to compost

Instructions and conceptions

Images and sounds

The bin of the thing

It’s the bare thin start of a compost rolodex.

Later will try to get some more recent workings in.

Here, for now, the wormipede I just found on my kitchen floor, WTF.


Lastly, why so Euro? I need to dwell more on that, but it’s got to do with a hankering for diagnosis. Our thought, I mean the West’s, has been sick a good long time. One way to get a bead on what ails us might be to trace the shadows that remain of cultures who before their ruinous contact with us lacked our afflictions. “Ethnopoetics.” If we’re amiss, our others may offer a glance of salutary haleness. While I admire elders like Robert Bringhurst and Jerome Rothenberg, deep and sincere in an exogenous practice, it may have felt to some of its objects – it surely would to me were I to try on any such regard – like more of the same damn thievery.

Another way is endogenous – sift the debris all round us of our own works and ages.

“Poets Mistake Non-Poet for Fish in Barrel, Open Fire.”

Here is a bad bit of light verse published in this morning’s New York Times:

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 11.16.08 AM

Here is the Facebook pile-on by poets, some nationally renowned, that ensued. We rose up to defend the shade of John Ashbery and the immortal values of poetry:

FB pile-on

It goes on much longer. An umbrage orgy. Here’s why it’s embarrassing for us and for poetry:

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 10.35.22 AM

It was the NYT opening its pages to an ordinary reader. A non-specialist.

No one (including, at first, me) thought to check – everyone just leapt at the chance to pummel this light verster into submission to our post-modernity. It’s high-minded bullying. How are poets going to be critics of the culture if we succumb this easily to its ugliest temptations?

P.S. And here, of course, am I, doing meta-umbrage, its own temptation.


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?

An “allusion chart” for Pound’s Canto II

One assignment for my Pound and Williams seminar is to create an allusion chart for one of Pound’s Cantos. I hope that, freed from the paper demand to make an argument, students might follow lines of reference further and more curiously and with greater rigour also, than they otherwise might.

Here then, the in-class work they start with, and the sample allusion chart I give them, for Canto II, my first love.

Your fifth hour assignment for Pound is to complete an allusion chart for one canto (or a passage from a longer canto). Today’s work will give you some practice with that.

You’ll need:

The Cantos

Carroll F. Terrell’s A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound (Vol. 1. Vol. 2.)

Begin by choosing, with your partner, a canto to work with. Then turn a sheet of paper sideways and creating three columns: “Line or Phrase,” “Allusion or Translation,” “Significance, Issues, Questions” (see example below).

Working together, from the start of the canto, note every allusion you find (left-hand column); use Terrell and your own wits to explain the allusion (middle column); and consider the significance of the allusion, issues it raises, and questions left unanswered (right-hand column).

If you note allusions that aren’t in Terrell, you can track those, too. For instance, we noted in class that the rhythm of Canto I echoes the rhythm Pound’s “Seafarer.” So, we might enter “(four-beat accentual rhythm)” in the lefthand column; in the middle column, something like “Recalls Pound’s translation of “The Seafarer” and Old English rhythm generally”; and, in the right-hand column, something like “Overlays two sea journeys: seafarer’s and Odysseus’s; and a search for beginnings here: the roots of poetry in English, the roots of the epic.”

In the middle column, the challenge is to choose the salient information from Terrell, or any other source you use. Don’t just plunk it down verbatim – select and digest. (Any other sources should be noted in a Works Consulted page at the back.) In the right-hand column, the challenge is to make appropriate inferences from the allusion. Don’t be afraid to have questions and to ask them. Pertinent questions are just as good as clever inferences.

An allusion chart for Canto II

Line or phrase Allusion or Translation Significance, Issues, Questions
Hang it all, Robert Browning Robert Browning, author of Sordello, who treats the poet Sordello as a dramatic mask. • EP regards Sordello as the last epic in English—will pick up where RB left off. • Material recycled from first attempt at Cantos. Signals EP will use dramatic masks (personae) just as Browning does—so “I” may or may not mean Pound himself. • The Cantos are an epic but what “epic” means is up for grabs. • EP recycling own work and recycling culture’s work as well.
but the one “Sordello” The hero and mask of Browning’s poem. Italian troubadour (singer and poet, from French, trouver). Abducted the wife of his patron—some­what in the style of courtly love—but, oops. Fled. • Returned a gift of five castles (for military service) because felt he was “far richer through his poetry” (CT). Masks as above. • EP’s early work translating (and imitating) troubadours comes into play here. How and why do troubadours matter? • Love and love’s transgressions introduced as theme. Connection to come between human love and earth’s fertility. • Tension (or interplay) introduced between material productions (castles) and artistic ones (songs).
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana “Sordello is from Mantua” (Italian). EP uses places (and persons) as metonyms for values and practices—how does Mantua work in that light? • First use of Italian—after Latin at end of Canto I, and several Classical Greek allusions. Signals attention to Mediterranean cultures.
So-shu churned in the sea Reference uncertain. May be corruption of “Shiba Shojo,” Japanese for a Chinese poet who, according to Li Po, created “foam instead of waves” (CT). • Or, contrary to CT, may be a Japanese transliteration of Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuangtse. If former—would seem to mark what a poet should not do—and stands in contrast to Browning. • If latter—may be an approving reference—do all of EP’s references mark either approval or disapproval? (Compare to his treatment later of “Taozers.”) • Either way—line marks transition to seascape.
daughters of Lir Lir—Celtic god of the sea—seals are for EP his daughters. • Seals closely linked with Greek figure of Proteus—minor god who shifts shapes. Pun on Lear? • Proteus—minor Greek God—charac­ter­ized by transformation, as in “protean.” Figures in story of Odysseus (c.f. Canto I).
eyes of Picasso “evokes the artist’s faculty for changing the shape of the things he sees” (CT) What do Proteus and Picasso have in common? Metamorphosis. One alters his own form, the other alters the forms he sees. Not a coincidence that canto centres on a story out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. • Could Lear fit in here too? He goes through a profound change of condition—if not of form. (C.f. tragic figures of canto IV.)
daughter of Ocean Capital “O” makes ocean either an abstraction—not EP’s style—or a being. Makes the sea a god. From class: “gods are a way of seeing nature.”
Eleanor, ελεναυσ and ελεπτολισ! Eleanor: Helen of Troy, Eleanor of Aquitaine. • ελεναυσ: ship-destroying. • ελεπτολισ: city-destroying. Helen of Troy was “cause” of Trojan War—in which ships and in the end a city were destroyed. Curious misogyny by which a woman is blamed for a war men started, fought, and killed women and children in (as well as each other). Connect to efforts in later cantos to find a single cause for WWI and WWII: usury. • Eleanor of Aquitaine: “archetype of the femme fatale, inspiring both strife and poetry” (CT). Women and men both stand as types or archetypes in Cantos … do either ever stand as individuals?
“Let her go …” Voices of old men of Troy (“murmur of old men’s voices”) who wanted to send her back to Greece and end the war. EP seems to disdain their timidity—a failure of the life instinct—and yet they share his aversion to war. What gives? • Note how he reconfigures his source: instead of admiration—rejection, as in Homer, he gives us rejection—admiration—rejection. Why?
Schoeney’s daughters Schoeneus, father of Atalanta, “who, like Helen, through her beauty caused the death of many men” (CT) So we have three femmes fatales now—Helen of Troy, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Atalanta—brought together for what they have in common. Is this misogyny or a working method (or both)? Depends (in part) on whether he treats male archetypes likewise. A sense here of the ideogrammatic method though: bringing together three things (rose, rust, robin) to express what they have in common (redness).
by the beach-run, Tyro In the Odyssey, Odysseus, in Hades, sees Tyro, who fell in love with the god of the river Eni­peus. Poseidon, god of the sea, took on his form, put her to sleep, and raped her. Reference to O.’s journey to Hades connects this canto to Canto I. • A vignette from the Odyssey but has all the marks of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a transition, then, from the first canto’s focus on the heroic archetype (Odysseus) to the second’s focus on the theme of transformation (Bacchus).
arms of the sea-god Poseidon—though Proteus is here too—from a bit earlier—and Dionysos’ theophany (revelation of the god), soon to come, makes him a sort of sea god, also. The identities of the gods are themselves protean—ever-shifting—Proteus becomes Poseidon becomes Dionysos. So the way he treats women (triad of Helen, Eleanor, Atalanta) he also treats gods.
And by Scios Chios, an Aegean island. The transition begins to the canto’s second major movement—the theophany of Dionysos—starts by locating us in spot where that theophany begins.
to left of the Naxos passage Naxos another island—and a center of the Dionysos cult. Continues the specification of location. Interesting that something mythic will happen as if historic—i.e. in a particular place (also, at a time?).
a young boy Bacchus, god of wine and fertility, also known as Dionysos, Zagreus, Iacchus, Lyaeus. A central motif of the Cantos. As Canto I belongs to Odysseus, Canto II belongs to Dionysos.
loggy with vine-must Loggy: heavy, sluggish (OED). Vine-must: new wine. The source is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The god of wine is drunk? I guess that fits.
“Cum’ along lad” A Classical Greek myth, taken from a Roman source, rendered in British Cockney voice. From class: One time laid on another as if on a flat plane (post-Cubist). But why lay times on one another in this way? Pound said, “All times are contemporaneous in the mind.”
And I said Who is “I”? Sixteen lines later identifies himself as Acoetes—captain of the ship. From class: The information necessary to interpret an allusion or a foreign phrase is often sitting nearby in the poem. Same thing done here with identity of speaker. • Pound’s use of personas.
And an ex-convict … a little slave money. Acoetes still speaking. Retells the story of Dionysos’s abduction. Why is Acoetes given such a prominent speaking part? Is he as important as Odysseus? Or is he just here as witness and storyteller? Either way, EP likes him because he honours the gods.
God-sleight then, god-sleight: / Ship stock fast in sea-swirl Long, slow syllables resemble rhythms of “The Seafarer.” • Repetition prominent. Three sea voyages overlaid now: that of Odysseus, that of Dionysos, and that of the seafarer. Is EP composing an ideogram? • Repetition foreshadows extended repetitive patterns both in this canto and in canto IV. Something here about suspension of time.
King Pentheus The king to whom Acoetes is speaking. “Acoetes is telling the story of his crew’s attempt to kidnap the god as a warning” (CT). Pentheus will refuse to honour the god and will end up torn to pieces by the god’s ecstatic followers. Pentheus lines up with sailors who don’t honour the god—who treat the sacred in a profane way—as a means of profit. EP’s values implicit here.
grapes with no seed but sea-foam The theophany begins. EP is doing more than translating Ovid. He’s reimagining the story Ovid told—passing Ovid’s tale through the prism of Cubist practice—so that the gist of it is made new again.
And the sea blue-deep about us, / green-ruddy in shadows Theophany culminates. Note subject-rhyme with end of passage immediately  before the Dionysos section—“a wine-red glow in the shallows.”
And Lyaeus: “From now, Acoetes, my altars …” Lyaeus: name for Dionysos “in his function as the god of wine and ecstasy” (CT). The god adopts Acoetes as his priest. This is EP’s own addition to the story—the god says, in effect, “From now on, Acoetes, you’ll tend to my altars.” (Elisions like this are common … when a passage, though in English, is obscure, try to feel out what words have been trimmed away.)
Black snout of a porpoise / where Lycabs had been Lycabs is a member of Ulysses’s crew. (Ulysseus is Latin form of Odysseus.) By importing Lycabs from crew of Odysseus to crew of Acoetes, EP has spliced stories of Odysseus and Dionysos together. Highlighting their importance to these early cantos: Odysseus, the journeying hero, is central figure of I, Dionysos, metamorphic god, central figure of II. • Lycabs makes no appearance in Homer’s Odyssey—only in Ovid’s telling, elsewhere in the Metamorphoses, of Odysseus’s journeys. So this is EP’s retelling of Ovid’s retelling of Homer. Compare to end of canto I: EP’s translation of Divus’s translation of Homer. Another way of laying different temporal plans flat on top of each other.
Medon’s face like the face of a dory Medon another member of Ulysses’s crew in Ovid’s telling of Homer’s story. But Medon does appear in Homer’s Odyssey—he’s Odysseus’s herald, and at home on Ithaca, not part of the crew.
And you, Pentheus, / Had as well listen to Tiresias Tiresias—seer of Thebes—in Ovid sometimes male and sometimes female. Blind but given the power to see the future. Like Acoetes he advises Pentheus to worship Dionysos. Not to heed a seer is really dumb. Not to heed someone who’s stood beside a god is also pretty dumb.
and to Cadmus Grandfather of Pentheus and founder of Thebes. “[T]he stones of the walls of Thebes rose to the rhythm of the music Amphion played on his lyre. The walls are conceived as the magical protective walls around the archetypal city which were traced in the air by ritual dance, music, and incantation.” CT seems to think city walls are important—why? Note second line of canto IV: “Troy but a heap of smouldering boundary stones.” Something about how a gesture—a dance—can assume a durable form—as a wall. Something about relation of energy to matter, act to thing, verb to noun. Compare to “the tensile light” in later cantos—light that’s both energy and substance.
Ileuthyeria “an inadvertent conflation of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, with Eleutheria, H [Greek], a marine organism of the genus of bisexual jellyfish” (CT) Significance obscure. Connection of bisexuality of jellyfish to gender transformations Tiresias goes through? But that’s connecting dots mostly outside the poem now.
Fair Dafne of sea-bords Daughter of Peneus, a river god. A subject-rhyme with Tyro, in love with a river god, Enipeus? At least, a return to the mouth of the river, where the canto began—its long central section having taken place mostly at sea. And beginning of the transition from Dionysos back to Tyro.
So-shu churned in the sea (As above.) Canto structured almost like nested parentheses: ((( ))). It opened with So-shu, and now returns to him; and will return shortly as well to Tyro.
glass wave over Tyro (As above.) After so much transformation, a return to where we were, at the outset. Suggests almost an eternal now—in which the rape of Tyro is always occurring. Traumatic and yucky, unless, as suggested before, gods are a way of seeing nature—here, a way of seeing the point where the river meets the sea? How is this “way of seeing nature” different from our common sense or scientific ways of seeing it?
Hesperus “Evening star sacred to Aphrodite” (CT). Near end of canto II, just as near end of canto I, an invocation of or to Aphrodite—goddess of love, and, for EP, of what else? What’s her role in this poem? The patron of Odysseus was Athena, who’s not shown up yet at all.
The tower like a one-eyed great goose Whose tower? CT is silent. Suggestion of a prison, a watch tower; also phallic.
And we have heard Identity of “we” unclear. “We” confirms we’ve left persona of Acoetes behind—he speaks only as an “I.”
the fauns chiding Proteus Proteus—sea-god with power of metamorphosis. How many gods here associated with metamorphosis? Dionysos, Proteus, Poseidon … mythological overkill? Or is Pound building an ideogram?
and the frogs singing against the fauns Reference to Aristophanes’s The Frogs—in which Dionysos and his companion, down in hell, try to drown out the croaking of “infernal frogs” (CT), perhaps with a “hemichant,” a technique of Aristophanes’s comedies that sets “one part of the chorus against the other”—i.e. it’s polyphonic. Reference to hell recalls Odysseus’ journey to hell in canto I. • Allusion to hemichant—fauns singing against Proteus, frogs singing against the fauns—suggests something about the working method of the Cantos themselves: voices will be juxtaposed, some aligned with each other (within one subset of the chorus), and some at odds with each other (different subsets of the chorus).

The image atop is a detail from

The Dionysos Cup by Exekias (fl. 545–530 BCE)