Marlise’s portfolio

Friends. (Oppen said something like, the poem that ends as it should, “ok,” the poem of the world. Tonight for me, it’s the post that begins as it should, “friends.”) I’ve meant to share with you a portfolio by one of my vis po students from this spring. She rides a badass wheelchair and her work is images of and round and beyond her condition, Friedreich’s Ataxia, a truly shitty degenerative neuro-muscular disorder.

I don’t mean to be sentimental here. That’s cheap to those who live with a disability. From here it seems, there are some who live with such visible cruelties, I’m using Marlise’s so apt word here, and others who bear cruelties invisible to all until they flame out horrible, and some who have the bad luck to be lucky till they’re not, and then they know not what the fuck to do.

Even all that considered though. This young woman has moved me no small measure with her guts and her mischievous gleam. So, here are, with her permission and a bit of anonymizing, some words and images of hers.

“One of my passions, my goals, and perhaps my purposes, is to help arts by and/or about the physically-disabled population to gain at least culturally standard recognition. This course has made me see visual poetry as a wonderful and effective forum to achieve this.

Portfolio-3“In creating my pieces, I was most inspired by our course text Nox, by Anne Carson. She delivers poignant messages about grief through photocopies of memorabilia about or featuring her late brother, while still leaving the concepts of familial love and loss open-ended and undefined.

Portfolio-5“Being physically disabled myself, I often think of myself and my as audience members, just insignificant observers of my disease’s progression, effects, and affects. This ‘outsider’ perspective is what I interpret as Carson’s purpose and message behind Nox, and it’s what I have striven to elicit for disability in this project.

Portfolio-2“I’ve explored the photocopy technique, implementing forms of handwritten pieces and material objects. Attempting to play with my method of choice in new ways, I photocopied in the ‘negative’ setting a couple of times to convey the stark labels put in visibly-disabled people, Another way I twisted the work via the photocopier was selection of reflective objects to photocopy.

“The first artifact displays the title of my disorder, Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA), through a bag that has one transparent side and one opaque, turquoise side. I chose this to hold the piece because I knew the photocopier because I knew the photocopier would reflect off the bag, and the resulting glare I wanted to evoke the unapologetic cruelty of my handicap.

Portfolio-1“Also, I thought the bright turquoise backing worked as representation of the crippling sadness or unashamed joy underlying nearly every part of disabled life. The writing is done in charcoal, and then smudged, translated to be the destruction of effort. Where I placed the artifact in the photocopier cut off the top fails-at-drawing-a-straight-line of th F, leaving a single, straggling line reminiscent of lives cut short by means of physical disability, including mine. Finally, I inserted the page into its sleeve upside-down to distance and simultaneously inconvenience the viewer, like disability effects everyone involved in the victim’s life.

Portfolio-4“As a visual element, I will steer the viewer’s attention to the cover art. There I have my prescription-medication bottles, showcasing the nameplate-labels. Not only do I associate paid-for treatment with disability, but I see this photocopy of personal and yet widely recognizable objects as the prime subject to introduce this portfolio, too. It compartmentalizes disability, and also starts the project’s accessible journey of disabled interpretation.”


POSTSCRIPT. The cellophane technique I’ve been playing with BTW is thanks to Marlise, who on a handwritten poem assignment took my encouragement to view her handwriting as differently beautiful and handed this in –

Handwriting 3a

– but because the charcoal was bleary handed it in, considerately, in a plastic bag, which gave me an idea, so when I scanned it I scanned it in said plastic, with all those unanticipable opacities –

Handwriting 3b

Whoever says teaching creative writing sucks from their creative work needs to check what they’re teaching.

Student work – Scrap elegy

The exercise, upon reading Anne Carson’s Nox:

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

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

Nox - CI

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

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

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

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

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

Herewith a gallery of their deft encounters.

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

Ex 6 no 1

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

Ex 6 no 2

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

Ex 6 no 3

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

Ex 6 no 4

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

Ex 6 no 5

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

Ex 6 no 6

On erasure practice (I)

Gonna hit erasure practice hard next week with my class. So thought here to summate. So much, to lift a word or three from a forebear to this sprawly lineage, depends on how you mark the missingness of what’s missing.

There’s a typography angel (sic) taken by Anne Carson in her Sappho —


Okay wow so the first clump suddenly recalls me to the borderline people in my life. And the second clump to how I’ve answered them. Well anyway I do love the aberrant slant in the image. Too, Armand Schwerner in his Tablets


Brackets, ellipses, squares, circles, squared circles, enlisted to mark the polyambience of what’s missing, or imagined to be. Though nothing is really missing, is the message, as I take it, of erasure practice. The blank page a perfect poem no one has ever managed to write.

Then there’s the palimpsest, where the new poem greys out, but doesn’t quite white out, the old. Jen Bervin’s erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Nets work here, both stilly

imageand movingly, as here, where the palimpsest of it flickers in and out. That’s it for tonight, happy sultry (for here) weather all, more tomorrow.

The eros aspect

What’s not been touched on yet — the eros of the fragment. Eros, Carson writes in Eros the Bittersweet, is the god of what in oneself seems lost, when momently found in the beauty of another. “All desire is for part of oneself gone missing.” What’s genius in If Not, Winter is, the loss of the beloved object, the imago, that the poems are about, and the lack the poems in their fragmented state endure, are found to be the same lack, suffered here in flesh and bone, suffered there in ink and surface. I put it better in a review of the book some years ago so I’ll just link now to that.

The line composts the sentence

Carson’s Sappho composts a dozen ways and more. One one student noted is, the enjambed and lightly punctuated line breaks a (propositional) thought into smaller (experiential) thoughts.

And in it cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.

The poet composes the line. The line composts the sentence. That’s general to poetry but more prominent here than often it is. “And in it cold water makes a clear sound through” is a whole phase and phrase and frame of feeling. Notwithstanding its unfinish as a sentence. The effect is to reorient thought — to reorient thinking — away from proposition and toward proprioception.

Sappho is a compost occasion

We found as a class three things compost does. One, there’s a breaking down of old forms, cauliflower leaves corn cobs egg shells radish greens, they begin to lose the walls that bound them as what they were. Two, there’s a blending and a merging, as the elements released in the breakdown start to wander in search of new figurations. (See mandibles in Empedokles, the clinamen of Lucretius, the fact that matter does wander, that’s its nature, that is nature.) Three, something’s nourished, as nutrients released by the breakdown and rearranged in the blending become the constituents of new forms, new ways of being life.

And found all three at work Carson’s translations of Sappho in If Not, Winter. Just one for now (all things in their times). The first line of the one poem of hers we have whole, called often her “Hymn to Aphrodite,” in the Greek is

Ποικίλοφρον ἀθανάτ Ἀφρόδιτα

Transliterated that is, I think, I have no Greek,

Poikilophron athanat’ Aphrodita

And translated word for word,

Spangle-minded deathless Aphrodite

One character is in question. Where Carson reads phi (φ), others read theta (θ), and that one difference, between a sphere crossed vertically and an ellipse crossed horizontally, is a difference between poikilophron, mind, and poikilothron, throne. Is it the mind of Aphrodite, or the chair she sits in, that’s glinting, variegated, subtle, ambiguous, changeful?

What makes this compost is that the two readings coexist. A word Sappho wrote, or had written, was made by time two words, jostling. We can never get rid of one of the other. Time’s co-author of the poem.

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind

Exercise: Fragment work (2)

Pick a fragment where most has gone missing and fill in the gaps. You don’t need to sound like Sappho here. Instead, sound how the few remaining words feel to you. For example, given


one might get to

And anxiety.
How the ground.
Rises to meet.
A body.

Drawing a blank I stole another move from Carson. Her “Life of Towns.”

Exercise: Fragment work (1)

Imagine you are time. Pick a fragment from Carson’s Sappho that looks whole and erase most of it. Use brackets and the space of the page, à la Carson, to indicate where things have gone missing. Aim for a fragment just as resonant after your treatment as it was before. For example

and gold chickpeas were growing on the banks

might become

gold [                                      ] wing

No Narcissus

Drove down to Samish Island this morning for a dharma talk by Norman Fischer. A bit remains with me from the life of Dongshan. He was walking up in the mountains, newly a teacher, chewing on the question of suchness, his teacher Yunyan’s “just this,” came to fastmoving stream and was startled by his fastmoving reflection in the water.

“Wherever I go,” he wrote in the poem the moment gave him, “there he is, with me. He’s me. But I’m not him.” Norman, I hope I have that right.

Drove away with a feeling for the dreamlike spaciousness of the country around—green fields, tidal flats, starlings in the road, hawk on a powerline. If I could amend it, it would be to say, “He’s me. And I’m not him.”

A few points of contact. Narcissus staring at his reflection in the water. Chuangtzu’s butterfly. (Was I Chuangtzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming I’m Chuangtzu?) And the spacious light of Sappho’s fragments (rereading them for my compost course) in Carson’s translation:

] thought
] barefoot

(She won the Griffin Prize this year, as did Brenda Hillman, on the international side. Wonderful.) More to come on Carson’s Sappho, how it seems to me compost might be a way to speak of them.