REVIEW: Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre” by Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez

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To translate the spirit is an intention of such enormity, so phantasmal, that it can well turn out to be inoffensive . . . —Borges, “The Translators of The 1001 Nightsby

by Jerome Keeler

I

I had Borges’s writings on translation in mind when I picked up Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre, the recent translation of Stéphane Mallarmé by Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez. The book’s reputation preceded it. It aims to convey a sense of the peculiar energies a reader of Mallarmé’s time would have perceived in his work by rendering this work vital to our own time—that is, by creating translations that work as contemporary poems. Previous renderings, the translators feel—they single out the highly-regarded efforts of the Henry Weinfield (University of California Press, 1994) and E.H. and A.M. Blackmore (Oxford, 2006)—are too academic, too antiquated in their diction, and, most importantly, too occupied with preserving meter and end rhyme at the expense of other poetic qualities. The present version, as the translators’ note explains, “privileges a certain music—a striking music—that is integral to Mallarmé’s poetics.”

These are admirable aims. But they introduce a new set of challenges in tackling Mallarmé, who is justly considered the least translatable of French poets. This is all to say that Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez had their work cut out for them, and I confess I found it hard not to go in rather skeptical of the project.

To lend some concreteness to assessing the collection, I would like to focus on important parts of two of Mallarmé’s most representative poems. Here, then, is an excerpt from the early and relatively accessible “Azure,” in the more faithful rhyming translation of Weinfield as well as the present translation.

Weinfield:

—The Sky is dead.—Toward you I run!

Bestow, O matter,

Forgetfulness of Sin and the cruel Ideal

Upon this martyr who comes to share the litter

Where the happy herd of men is made to kneel.

 

For there I long, because at last my brain,

Like an empty rouge-pot on a dressing stand,

Has lost the art of decking out its pain,

To yawn morosely toward a humble end . . .

 

In vain! The Azure triumphs [. . .]

 

Bronson-Bartlett/Fernandez:

 

—Sky’s dead.—Toward you I run. Give, o

Heaviness of all things, forgetfulness of the Ideal

And of sin, to this martyr who sojourns

Among the sweat of mortal cattle.

 

I want out. My empty brain, empty

As a pot of face paint at the wall’s foot,

Dry, empty, it can’t face paint, mask, a weepy idea

Shuttling some girth toward pinned eyes . . .

Vain! Azure triumphs [. . .]

There are many interesting points of comparison here. The most noticeable, I think, are the differences in the treatments of the second stanza. Certainly the longing and the morose yawning of Weinfeld’s rendering, and even the rouge-pot and the dressing stand, feel mannered by contrast to the touches of the present translation. The wordplay of “it can’t face paint,” for instance, strikes me as just the sort one might encounter in a contemporary poem. The enjambed free verse of the present translation feels fresher as well, especially in contrast to Weinfield’s base of rhymed iambic pentameter. The decision to abandon end rhyme and regular meter, in fact, seems much more significant to this collection as a whole than any updates in diction. But this brings me to what I find the more interesting points of comparison: the first stanza, and the thought that follows the second. Here, in terms of contemporary feel, there is, I think, little meaningful difference between the translations. This sort of unevenness from stanza to stanza and also from poem to poem reflects the general situation in the first half of this collection.

I intend this not as a major criticism but simply as an observation about the challenges in rendering a late nineteenth-century poet contemporary. Mallarmé was heavily influenced by Baudelaire, and his early verse, composed in the 1860s, has a decidedly Baudelairean atmosphere: “Ennui,” “the Ideal,” and “Azure,” often apostrophized and capitalized, are invoked repeatedly. Consider “Azure.” For Mallarmé, this is not simply a color that sounds like it belongs in a poem but a conception, an atheist alternative to “ciel,” which, in French, can mean both sky and heaven. This is lost on us. And if “Ennui” can’t necessarily be called antiquated, it’s hard to imagine anyone today blissfully cultivating it in the manner of Baudelaire and the Decadents. “Boredom” isn’t really an update, but it’s also not so intimately bound to a particular historical context. And it is, at least, a translation. I wondered why it, or something like it, did not appear. Occasionally, in fact, the translators conceive an ingenious solution—I particularly enjoyed “infinite whatever” as a rendering of “langueur infinie” (literally “infinite languor”) in the poem “Sigh.” It’s a wide departure from the original but a perfect expression of contemporary sensibility. For the most part, however, the vocabulary of the Symbolists and their precursors remains untouched. The presence of such content in one stanza or poem, then, with an update such as “night cinema,” “Oxys” (for Oxycontins), or “Gravitrons” in the next, seems an indication of an unfinished battle—or perhaps simply an unwinnable one. In any case, I found the issue intriguing, though sometimes distracting, and I wondered if more might have been done to address it.

I don’t wish to give the impression that nothing in Azure feels truly contemporary. The shorter poems toward the end of the collection are remarkably so. These are drawn from Mallarmé’s mature verse of the 1880s. The Baudelairean influence is diminished. The translators are in their element here, and they take more liberties in departing from the French. Certain gestures are masterful and can be appreciated without comparison to the originals, as in the final stanza of “Scrap, as for an Album”—

Such a raw, clear

Childlike laughter

Releasing air-Valentines

—and the opening stanza of a section from “To you colonist”:

No lace

Can’t believe this incredible joy

And won’t ironize it, open

No more than a tossed mattress

And it would require a separate review to do justice to the 108-page selection from the “Livre,” Mallarmé’s manuscript notes toward a book-of-books that would reveal “all existing relations between everything.” This selection, translated into English for the first time, is a significant contribution to Mallarmé scholarship. But it is much more than that. I was pleased to find that these notes, fragmented and unfinished as they may be, and in fact precisely for that reason, read as a kind of postmodern concrete poem in the form of an outline for a book/stage play, complete with crossed out words, diagrams, arrows, and equations.

II

I would like to shift focus to the translators’ goal of conveying the music integral to Mallarme’s poetics. This seems to me a much more interesting aim. It is also one in which they largely succeed. For Weinfield and other translators, end rhyme is the most important property of Mallarme’s verse. It’s hard to say they are wrong in this. However, this is also the property most difficult to do any justice to. Mallarmé’s end rhymes are often far too complex, and too spectacular, to be transferred into English. The results are bound to be disappointing. This is particularly true of two of his greatest achievements, “Prose (for des Esseintes),” which contains a series of masterful homonymic end rhymes that cross word boundaries, and the delightfully inscrutable sonnet “Her pure nails,” also known as the “Sonnet en –yx.” The latter is far and away the most significant offering of Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez’s collection. To understand why, we must know a bit more about the poem.

The “Sonnet en –yx” consists of two quatrains followed by two tercets. It contains an intricate scheme in which end rhymes are “crossed” between the quatrains and the tercets, playing on the cross of the letter x itself and on the image of a cross that occurs at the beginning of the first tercet and that is central to the meaning of the poem. The crossing is achieved through an inversion of the gender of the rhymes between the quatrains and tercets: the first and third lines of each quatrain end with a rhyme in the masculine yx or ix (onyx, Phénix), while the second and fourth lines end with a rhyme in the feminine ore (sonore, s’honore). Each tercet contains one rhyme ending in the feminine ixe (fixe) and two rhymes ending in the masculine or (septuor). The centrality of the poem’s sounds to its meaning is signaled by the wordplay of its opening phrase, ses purs ongles (her pure nails). When said aloud in French, the sounds of the first three syllables of this phrase are nearly identical to the sounds of the phrase c’est pur son (it’s pure sound).

This feat is impossible to reproduce in the absence of gendered nouns. The best a translator can do is preserve the rhymes ending in x sounds and skip the other rhymes altogether or offer some less satisfactory substitute. Weinfield tries the latter, other translators the former. Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez realize that English allows for wordplay of other sorts.

Here is the final stanza of the poem in the original, followed by a fairly literal translation by Patricia Terry and Maurice Shroder, and then the present translation.

Mallarme:

Elle, défunte, nue en le miroir, encor

Que, dans l’oubli fermé par le cadre, se fixe

De scintillations sitôt le septuor.

 

Terry/Shroder:

She, in the mirror, nude, defunct, although

Within the framed oblivion at once

Appears, all scintillation, the Septet.

 

Bronson-Bartlett/Fernandez:

 

She, stripped, dejected mist in the mirror, even

Though in this oblivion, frame-enclosed, is fixed

The coming cinquefoil, sext chiming, for our septet

 

The masterstroke here is the last line, which plays on the interactions among the sounds and appearances of French and English words. Most obviously, the line mirrors the sibilance of scintillationssitôtseptuor through “cinquefoil,” “sext,” and “septet.” And it is not only the s sounds of “scintillation” and “sitôt” that are evoked but their initial vowel sounds: the san of “scintillations” is suggested through the visual “cinq” of “cinquefoil,” while the si of “sitôt,” is conjured, one might say, through substitution: the French six is pronounced cease, and “sext,” one of several ecclesiastical terms central to the poem, designates noon, the sixth canonical hour. The line goes even further when considered on a strictly visual level, playing on the French five, six, and seven (cinq, six, sept), openly through “cinquefoil” and “septet,” and obliquely, again, through “sext.” Thus the translation renders explicit a counting that is essentially subliminal in the French scinsisept. This counting is significant: it prepares for the culmination in “septuor,” the revelation that the “pure nails” referenced in the poem’s first line are the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major. In terms of the actual words, with the exception of “septet,” Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez’s line is nowhere close to the meaning of the French. I can only imagine how long it took to conceive. I would not have minded more like it.

There are many more qualities that distinguish this collection from previous translations. This is a surprisingly visceral Mallarmé, still largely impenetrable except through close study or previous knowledge, yet easier to appreciate for the immediacy of its imagery and the beauty of its language. Those with purist tendencies are sure to object to the collection’s many departures, and those who have not read Mallarmé previously will need to turn to exegesis. But I think that, despite all of this, and rather miraculously, the translators accomplished much more than could reasonably have been expected.

Wesleyan University Press (2015): $17.95 

Jerome Keeler is a freelance writer living in Princeton, New Jersey.

REVIEW: The Age of Virtual Reproduction by Spring Ulmer

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by Bethann Garramon Merkle

In weaving together contrasting memories, archived photographs, and contemporary fashion fetishes, Spring Ulmer stitches a narrative in which humanity’s closet is rifled through. “I am interested in how clothes fit us or don’t. I like to be able, for instance, to hide in my clothes,”[1] she discloses.

Ulmer begins with fairly tranquil vignettes which share a fashion-as-identity theme; clothing is what makes the people on Ulmer’s pages vivid. After “trying on a few outfits,” Ulmer trades out a silk dress for her father’s sweatshirts plus pants with dragging cuffs. Her reverie accelerates into an imaginary triste with a rustically dressed Italian farmer she fancies from an old photograph. It is a subtle, mundane, romantic episode that doesn’t actually happen,[2] though, thanks to Ulmer’s vivid prose, you can almost believe the encounter is real.

Ulmer walks an imaginary donkey down the pictured road, envisioning a liaison comes to be. In the vision, she writes, “My farmer lifts his arms and shakes off his coat…the ripped armpits endear me. He covers us both with it as we recline onto the cold, slightly damp ground.” Fixated on the photograph of her fellow and his companions’ clothing, Ulmer muses, “I find their unfitted wear beseeching. I want them in these ill-fitting suits, enjoying their outing, looking so ephemeral.”[3]

And then, she drops you off an emotional cliff.

Abruptly, you land in the milieu of Spring Ulmer’s meditations on torture, slaughter, and the severity of so many human relationships. Epitomizing these nightmarish circumstances is her preoccupation with the ‘Made in the USA’ chairs that are used for controlling violent inmates (at prisons and mental institutions alike) and also for force feeding prisoners of war attempting hunger strikes. Driven to see for herself, Ulmer seeks out the retired military officer-turned county sheriff who makes these chairs in his basement workshop. In a poignant-yet-bile-inducing noninterview, Ulmer asks him:

“…the same questions I am asking myself about the roles we play in other peoples’ suffering, because I can’t sit in my room fearing that people are being tortured and not do something. I’m not sure I believe in a just war.”[4]

Essay snippets reflect on lynching films, an array of war atrocities, and occasional rest stops near Ulmer’s non-reproductive status. Piled in amongst these recurrent themes are snapshots of a circus elephant deliberately fed cyanide-laced carrots, shod with copper shoes, and publicly electrocuted; a pet pig starving itself after being separated from its lifelong companion, an autistic boy anguished over the mutual loss; mass graves in Rwanda.

Ulmer builds jagged teetering stacks, bleak discomfiting moments of social unrest and individual trauma and tragedy layered upon each other. Through it all, Ulmer compels the reader – by herself unflinchingly facing a web of contemplation – to concede how powerless words are. Powerless in the face of tragedy. In the face of terror. In the face of blind violent patriotism. In the face of radioactive waste – waste tallied as much in sickened humans as in stores of nuclear byproducts.

Although she resists this impotence, trying to perpetuate the notion that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ Ulmer struggles mightily. Candidly. And, she fails. Fails to convince herself, never mind the reader, that words can change, that words can compel justice, that words can conjure empathy where only suspicion exists.

And yet, she advocates writing. Doggedly. In particular, Ulmer carries on a one-way correspondence with Jumah, a Guantanamo Bay detainee. In one of her many officially refused never-reached-the-prisoner letters, she maintains, “…my not writing would imply that writing doesn’t matter, and I cannot stand such a thought. Even if what I write is simply a record of barbarism […], it is still a record.”[5]

In the wake of the walking-nightmare tone that dominates most of the book, Ulmer’s final chapter, “The age of numbing,” comes as the kind of relief she may be seeking. It is here, with the reader immobilized by the relentless desecration of decency Ulmer has exposed, that her parents’ role in the narrative becomes explicit. Throughout the book it seems Ulmer’s parents are equivalent to her dragon-and-pheasant emblazoned mug – moments of mundanity sprinkled in, not as respite, but to remind the reader that, yes, this whole wide world weighs down, even on the most ordinary souls.

However, in her final chapter, Ulmer’s parents evolve into a metaphor which reunites with the Walter Benjamin quote which prefaces her book: “There is no difference between a human life and a word.” If humans and words are no different, and words are powerless, where then does that leave Ulmer in her grieving and atrocity-grappling? Like her memory of her father, she, too is working “like a madman, hauling stone here and there, hammering, sawing.”[6] And yet, as she says of her own mother, within Ulmer’s text “there’s something in her manic energy these days, though, that isn’t always practical.”[7]

Ulmer’s book was published in 2009. That year, Barack Obama became a Nobel Laureate and president of the United States; Slumdog Millionaire won Golden Globe and Academy Awards; countries on every continent declared recessions. Bombings, assassinations, and powerful storms and tsunamis rocked the world. The Iraq war was not over.

Yes, the events leading up to The Age of Virtual Reproduction were grim. And yet, political and pop cultural events since have demonstrated the power of people and words to make change, which is why Ulmer’s concern about impracticality will likely stand out to contemporary readers. Although bleak events dominate the news, there may be more practical reasons to hope for change. Since 2009, diplomatic relations have been re-established with Cuba. Massive protests around the globe have demonstrated extensive citizen backlash against financial inequities in the US, corrupt governments, and other injustices. And, in keeping with Ulmer’s penchant for moments of mundane relief, since her book was published, Lady Gaga and Will and Kate became household names, and “Gangnam Style” reached 1 billion views on YouTube (the first such video ever). Still terrible things keep happening, including enough suicide bombings and mass shootings that these awful incidents have lost some of their urgency and claim to noteworthiness. 115 men are still imprisoned in Guantanamo. Garment factory collapses in southeast Asia graphically demonstrate how ugly fashion can be.

Through it all, words have had the last word, despite Ulmer’s articulate well-founded doubts about the efficacy of writing. Social media is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. WikiLeaks caused a massive whistleblower uproar, Edward Snowden leaked extensive US state secrets and went into exile in Russia, and Pope Francis continues shocking and thrilling the world with edicts and encyclicals.

We swim in a vast sea of words. According to one study cited by Forbes magazine in 2012, the average adult can read and comprehend 300 words per minute. Another, cited by The New York Times in 2009, reports we absorb 34 gigabytes of content (some 100,000 words) every day. At more than 5.5 hours of reading every day devoted to processing the horror and opportunities surrounding us, that’s no minor time commitment.

In the face of all this tragedy, joy, and banality, perhaps it is worth reinterpreting Ulmer (and the Benjamin quote she starts with). If a few of those daily reading hours were devoted to provocative witness prose like Ulmer’s, perhaps we readers would find words and humans are interchangeable because their very presence is power.

Essay Press: $13.95

REVIEW: Arboreal by Barbara Tomash

arboreal

By Kelsy Thompson

Barbara Tomash’s Arboreal is a study in the tensions of everyday life. Within its pages, Tomash has crafted a lyrical journey that asks unflinching questions about one’s existence, such as “isn’t living the tension between container and force?” and invites the reader to answer for herself.

Through the lens of sweeping, natural imagery, Tomash creates a fascinating counter narratives in her poems “Light Source” and “Against the Glass.” The former depicts an idyllic scene overcome by a storm.

wild lilies budding, tree bark striated

blue tufts of grass …

now she looks up into swirling …

sky not so much hidden as forbidden

This is a metaphor we can all relate to: the challenges and conflicts that go hand-in-hand with life’s best moments, the troughs that inevitable follow our highest peaks. Change is life’s only constant, whether you’re a budding lily on the cusp of its first storm or a human being chock-full of optimism and dreams. This reminds me of the adage, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass—it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Look at any of those motivational quotes set against a grand, natural backdrop and you’ll see evidence of our visual biases. Storms equate with strife, while cloudless blue is a sign of better times. Tomash deconstructs these visual tropes in “Against the Glass,”

here comes a break in cloud cover …

a certain kind of happiness, or a different kind of pain

blue prevailing now, momentarily

Uncertainty reigns in this stanza. The break in the storm is ambivalent at best, and that brief peek of blue remains fleeting. In that moment of reprieve, there exists equal opportunity for pain and happiness, and both are conditional. Just as we cast the budding lily as a victim to nature’s contrariety, we like to see that shift from swirling storm to prevailing blue as a change for the better. The counter narrative in these two poems scrapes out a different kind of truth—that change is neither inherently good or evil. The pelting water that bruises one lily can, in different circumstances, bring it to full bloom.

There is so much of that uncertainty, that tension between hope and reality, within Aboreal’s pages. In “Relict” Tomash speaks to the innate strength that is required to survive life’s challenges while maintaining the hope that one’s situation can always improve.

when the wolves come into the city to keep warm

she has to go back to choosing words

the small watery ones, the narrow arrow slits

it is a time of bitter cold …

girdle of walls, tangle of reeking streets

In times of challenge, we are so careful with ourselves. We know how sharp and unyielding the world can be, and somewhere in our DNA we possess the survival skills necessary to weather those challenges. I know when I’m in the midst of my own bitter cold, I focus on the now, the necessary, those things that I cannot live without. The future can wait. But when that situation improves, as many situations do, I suddenly regain that sense of “what if?”, that desire for more and better and brighter things. Tomash echoes this sentiment in the next stanza:

she miraculously recovers the conditional tense

conical roofs with lacy ridges, pointed spires

and some glamour of spirit

It is that miraculous recovery of the conditional tense that makes being human so very wonderful. Perhaps reality is stark compared to one’s glamorous fantasy, but without the bridge between those two binaries, we could never hope for progress, for the blessed opportunity to land somewhere in between.

If the only constant is change, then the only inevitability is death. Tomash speaks to our terminal existence in “Floating Gardens,” “when we are called, we must go.” Despite the seemingly bleak message, this is where Aboreal shines brightest. “Leaving Eden” comes next and leaves us with this message:

she opens the book to the last page and reads the last paragraph—it makes

no sense to us, we who were not present at the perfect balance of the

beginning, absent at the cadence of the first sentence

Like this poetry collection, life is not about turning those final pages. It is about the journey between covers, between the first sentence and last paragraph. It’s not an easy path to travel, and it’s even harder to strike that balance between container and force, but life’s most poignant moments are found within those tensions, within those compromises between reality and fantasy, between budding lily and swirling storm.

Apogee Press (2014): $15.95

Kelsy Thompson lives in Ogden, Utah, where she spends her days worshipping the written word and wrangling her clowder of cats. Follow her on Twitter @kelsythompson.

REVIEW: Buzzing Hemisphere / Rumor Hemisférico by Urayoán Noel

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by José Angel Araguz

…poetry was there for me as a refuge and as a way to channel and redirect neural energies. In terms of the book, it is a personal struggle, but also a family and a social one. I come from damaged hemispheres, both biographically as someone with epilepsy, and politically as the child of a colonized island.

The personal and social worlds of the poet as well as the implied agency of seeking “refuge,” “channeling,” and “redirecting” all come together in Urayoán Noel’s latest collection Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico to present a vision of poetry as (inter)active narrative. Yet, these pieces are born not only of personal experiences and their social implications but also how both of these factors are translated from language to language, moment to moment, and even technology to technology. Many of the pieces in this book were written via various smartphone apps (including word and anagram generators, Google Translate, etc.). Also, as the poet notes: “Certain poems were composed in English and Spanish simultaneously, while others are performative, experimental, or nonequivalent self-translations. In some cases, the line between translation and original is deliberately blurry.” Along with such rigorous structural framework and play, the collection is pleasingly grounded at each turn in a sensibility able to alternate not only between languages but also between personal and social purpose.

An example of the alternating current (pun on a book title by Octavio Paz intended) running through the collection can be found in the sequence “Décimas del Otro Mundo/Otherworldly Décimas,” in which the poet presents a series of décimas, a traditional Spanish form, in both Spanish and English, along with an Afro-Taíno refrain:

[5.0]

Revolución de las alas,              Revolution of the wings,

revolución de las noches,          revolution of the nights,

revolución sin derroches,          revolution that unites

eufemismos, ni antesalas,         with the clarity it brings,

revolución de las balas              revolution of all things

en la cuna en que morí,                         in the death cradle that claimed me,

un abikú y su cemí                    an abikú and his cemí

en selvas neoliberales               in neoliberal pastures

de retoños irreales:                   governed by unreal masters:

aguoro tente omi ki’.               aguoro tente omi ki’. …

This combination of three languages within a traditional Spanish form by itself subverts tradition in order to evoke the kind of confluence of cultures that make up Latin America. Beyond this subversion, however, there is the poet’s use of bold type to bring forward a third poem from the English. In this particular décima, the world “revolution” is chanted in bold, insisted upon, only to open up to “the clarity it brings.” Noel’s use of language and type face here parallel the literal movement implied by the word “revolution”; the eye of the reader falls on the page and reads one poem, then returns and reads another. This kind of engagement with the text is of great value to this collection’s vision.

Another mode of drafting poems employed in this collection is that of the improvised oral poem. One such poem here is “Voz Quebrada/Voice Creaks” which the poet recorded “on a smartphone while walking along Cripple Creek Road in Tallahassee, Florida.” This mode of writing is compelling as it presents the poet embracing technology with the same kind of spontaneity and attention as anyone at their desks with a writing prompt. Instead of a word bank, there is the bank of a creek on a given date; yet, there is the poet in their solitude, working out such insights as:

This accident of voice

these surroundings unmarked

except for the trademarks I carry

remarks without recharging

this gadget defines my song

but no battery in the world

can power the promise

of this brown orange green

of this hazelnut pine

this water’s

haze

While one can see the influence of the performative mode of writing on the subject matter in a line like “this gadget defines my song,” there is also an indirect musical influence; the internal rhyming of “unmarked,” “trademark,” and “remarks” here show how thought and music alternate while at the same time following each other toward the purpose of song.

The narrative of struggle and understanding of what the poet terms above as his biographically “damaged hemispheres” also alternates throughout the collection. Early on, the piece “My Burning Hemisphere” presents the following scene:

The July fourth I spent at the hospital I woke up staring at the smudge of waterfront across the East River. That night the fireworks would crawl like serpents up my skin, matching the wires tangled in my head.

My epileptologist would later tell me, you’re lucky (to be a poet, he meant, and work with the language part of the brain, in school, at my own pace—or at least that’s how I heard it).

Trying to seem smart, I nodded, mumbling something about neurons and dominant hemispheres, but soon the fog had dominated me. It wasn’t river fog, it was the fog of self as it slogs through way stations, looking out smudged windows at cities for once festive.

He might have simply said “the sky, it clears for no one,” and I might have started to agree, had I had the strength, had the serpents not returned.

One notes right away that the narrative of this particular piece is carried less in the actual details of what occurs between the speaker and the epileptologist than in the sensations through which the speaker understands and remembers. The speaker tries a number of times to listen and hold onto the moment, only to mishear and drift into a “fog” of what “might have simply [been] said.” What is significant here is how the struggle against “fog” and “serpents” leads the speaker to a silence that they quickly turn into an imaginative space. While not able to clearly see what’s happening, the speaker is able to evoke in a poem what happens when they see that they are not seeing.

One of the more compelling pieces, “Scene Apps/Synapse,” a piece that Noel notes is half comprised of “free-form and selective translations of passages from father of modern neurology, Jean-Martin Charcot’s book Les démoniaques dans l’art (Demoniacs in Art, 1887)” picks up the “damaged hemispheres” narrative, albeit indirectly. The poet’s translations of Charcot alternate between word lists “generated with a random-word generator app for smartphone and then (mis)translated using Google Translate.” This mix of objective meditation and technological randomness evokes again the “fog” of the earlier poem as well as the project’s overall variations of the word “hemisphere” as having both a global and neurological meaning. The “fog” of the earlier poem is the poet’s own condition; to have an echo of that struggle derive indirectly from an alternation of texts such as in this piece is moving on both an aesthetic and human level.

Furthermore, the nature of the project, with its engagement with code-switching as well as embrace of mistranslation and self-translation, moved me as I read this particular piece to return to the title “Scene Apps/Synapse” and translate it into Spanish (“Sin Apps,” which in English would mean “Without Apps”) which also evokes an English variation (“Sin Apps,” meaning the apps of sin). Far from being immaterial, this train of thought is indicative of the kind of readings this project lends itself to. In reading the alternating text, moving from the coherent, articulate prose of Charcot to the technologically generated randomness of the word lists, the descriptions of the epilepsy-like episodes take on a more intimate verisimilitude; such involuntary episodes do leave a person split between coherence and intrusive chance, in a state “Without Apps” to help distinguish, navigate, or ground reality. The mistranslation into English “Sin Apps” also feels connected to the piece in the way that it mirrors how the father of modern neurology’s analogies and interpretations of these episodes are put in terms of demoniacs.

The fight against being pinned down, whether politically or biologically, is an American struggle (America here meaning not just the U.S. but all of the Americas). Noel responds to the forces, large and small, around him with movement: the movement of wordplay as well as the movement of his own voice on the wind. Through performance and chance, (mis)translation and mashup, this collection presents a poet willing to push and reach out in much the same way the speaker’s mother does in “Rumoreos/Her Hemisphere in Me”:

pensé en como siempre te lamentabas I thought about how you always regretted being de ser la única en tu familia que cantaba feo the only one in your family who couldn’t sing y en como siempre encontré tu voz linda and how I always found your voice pretty por el esfuerzo in its exertion por como te empujabas para llegarle a la nota in how you would strain to reach a note

Again and again, this book presents the kind of poetry that if you were to only hear it you would miss what there is to see; yet, if you were only to see this work, you know it would be worth it to hear it aloud. These poems, more than any I’ve read in a while, ask you to consider and read them in the languages you know, and to suss them out in the languages you can barely guess at, for these poems speak the languages we’re made of.

Noel ends the collection with “Signs of the Hemisphere/Letreros del Hemisferio,” a poem that evokes Whitman in its scope, and in which, like a 21st century Whitman, he strikes a note of communion and continuity:

who hears what I’m reciting?   here’s what I’m reciting                       the echo and the wave’s crest   I leave the rest to resigning politicians and the bankers who are gasping for heirs    and so I leave the word in hopeful ruin I transcribe our reunion                        with your help I begin to transcribe          I transscrub      I transscrawl     I transcry         while holding ground over the missing tongue   with your help I begin    I’m reciting the cyst    I’m resisting the sigh    I’m restoring the song              with your help              I’m resetting the sky

Buy it from The University of Arizona Press: $16.95

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.

REVIEW: Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine

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by Michael Wasson

A flock of birds
when touched I scatter.

Here we are. We seem to have reached the edge of disaster and feel, really, how still and gorgeous we are within our isolated, temporal bodies. We reach out and out until the world touches back with some sense of validation of our brief time here. On earth, we are faced with instructions for our everyday living. These clinical symptoms provide us the chance to maintain ourselves. And it is through this merciful, compassionate work that brings us nearer to each other.

In her first book, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, Camille Rankine intimately takes urgent contemporary conditions of our modern living through frames of still-lives, back into memory, under the shadow of failure, and even held down in the tender arms of loneliness. Her poems ask us to stay affectionate while zooming in close to a tension-wrought face-to-face with the mangled cages of our existence:

Dear prisoner

Dear, dear wounded

You have earned our respect

Dear bad animal

Dear caged thing

There was something about you

What Rankine does with this opening poem, “Tender,” is write small rhythmic salutations to so many lives. To us. We are the poem’s addressees. We the people. We are the ones valued, and what better way to be tender than calling out with such generous grace and necessary passion. A dearness imbedded into each of us. Our bone fragments. Our daily catastrophes. Our patriot and citizenships. Our displacements and glad hands. Our perfections made bad, and likewise, our imperfections made beautiful. This is how we are made to stay in Rankine’s poetry.

Her poems do so as well by holding to what I’d call an unconditional affection for our pains and triumphs—like close-eyed devotion to the flights and failures of human experience. Take for example, “Always Bring Flowers”:

Before we could beautify our death
it was a white noise in my head, underwater-

red. The bullet holes in the walls
were stars and stars.

These moments happen throughout the collection, moments in which we are straddled between the fathoms of physical self-consciousness and visceral abstraction. Rankine has us look inward where we hear and experience, touch and see, all funneling to the point of one’s bodied experience of drowning. But also, almost effortlessly, we are turned to the outside reality—the bullet holes in the walls. Rankine has folded us over and over, and then quilts the ending couplet with scattered points of light—because those perforations riddling the wall are stars. They hammer awe into us with the softest blow.

Reading Rankine’s short, terse, and honest lines, I can’t help but end up feeling so grateful. For the gentle, expertly seamed wounds are aligned against the most untouched surfaces of our human experience. Her brilliant observation dissolves the line between language and experience.

In every dream I dream
I am asleep (“Letter to the Winding-Sheet”)

If I could
be the shape of your breath in the cold. (“Contact”)

in breath, an indecent thing, these wars
blessed to our bodies. (“Symptoms of Doctrine”)

where there is a city
or say       there is no city (“Lament for the Living”)

You know how the body is
a fragile thing. (“Little Children, My Apologies”)

And at last, her ending piece weaves every you addressee into a we, merging the you and I together into a distinct call across modernity, declaring how we exist even at the edge of disaster. Here we are the lit homes, the bones and blood, the knife and lost language, the smashed and rebuilt. We are a collective curiosity and always—yes, always—an impulsive discovery.

What a bright entrance into American poetry Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses has uncovered.

Buy it from Copper Canyon Press: $16.00

Michael Wasson earned his MFA from Oregon State University. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho and lives abroad.

REVIEW: Sur/Dans/Par Rature: The Quest for Media’s Vanishing Point in Craig Dworkin’s No Medium

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by Chris Mustazza

[epiphone]

The epiphone for this review is an excerpt from the leading noise at the beginning of of a 1931 recording of Vachel Lindsay reading his poetry, originally recorded on an aluminum record. The act of presenting you with a play button/link promises audio content and doubles down on the promise by beginning to deliver noise that cues the beginning of an old recording. Such a promise keys a frame before rupturing or moving the frame, in the language of Erving Goffman. In other words, the promise, or at least the promise that you may have understood, is not fulfilled in the way that you might have expected. It turns out that the “silence” at the beginning of the recording, the hiss and rumble from the early sound recording equipment is the content, not an old-timey, paratextual mise-en-scene that foregrounds the “poem proper.” At the moment of recognition that there would be no voice delivered in the recording, that the only sounds to break the silence would be the material markers of the recording’s creation, you may have heard the hiss and rumble in a new way, considering it on its own terms rather than as an aural imperfection that one must endure to consume the content one wants. But what is the medium of the sound you just heard? The aluminum record? The reel-to-reel it was dubbed to in the 1970s (which we can faintly hear in the noise)? The mp3 digitized for PennSound? The unique combination of all three, plus the particular speakers or headphones you happen to be listening with? By going down this rabbit hole, we’ve begun to interact with the fascinating topics explored by Craig Dworkin’s No Medium and his goal to show that there is no medium, but that we must always consider media plural. In pursuit of media’s ontological multiplicity, Dworkin searches for a case where media can be the seuil (threshold—allusion to Genette intentional) to nothing: blankness, silence, meaning degree zero. “The goal of this book, accordingly, has been to linger at those thresholds and to actually read, with patience, what appears at first glance to be illegibly blank” (33).

In the loosely constellated chapters of No Medium (some of which have been previously published as essays), Dworkin reads books comprised of blank pages, disembodied paratext, audio recordings of “silence,” and clear leader presented as video in search of the precise point where raw materials become inscribable substrates—media. His larger question is how to identify the medium of any work, and more precisely, where the medium begins and ends. He concludes that any use of the word “medium,” in the McLuhian sense, is reductive: “Taken together, the chapters collected here argue that contrary to the casual ways in which we use the term, there is no ‘medium.’ No single medium can be apprehended in isolation” (28). Dworkin cites John Cage’s 1952 Music for Piano, in which Cage marked all of the “imperfections and irregularities” on a piece of paper before overlaying a musical staff on the sheet, thus converting the material markers of the paper’s production process into aleatory music. The reader of No Medium here becomes acutely aware of the 12.8 ounces of paper in his or her hands.[1] Instead of looking through the materiality of the book as one is often wont to do, the reader begins to look at it, the way an early modernist might hold a book up to the light to determine which way the chain lines run. This defamiliarization of the legible highlights the positioning of No Medium in the hinterlands of the fields of bibliography, material texts, art history, poetics, and media theory. Entering this territory, readers will find themselves teetering (and tittering) at (the idea of) the limit point between the symbolic and real.

Since No Medium is about apprehending the subtlest formal signifiers, I would like to focus on a couple of the formal devices Dworkin uses in his elucidation of media. The first is the rhetorical appeal to etymology that pervades the book. In every chapter, etymology is either foregrounded as an epigraph or presented as evidence within the argument. As Dworkin explains the lexical history of words like “hard-core” (89) and “substrate” (104), he is not just attempting to show resonances of the words’ earlier meanings in their current uses. The persistent appearance of etymology renders words material, in the tradition of so-called Language Poetry (“Words are things too,” said Charles Bernstein). In other words, the etymology in No Medium is a conscious formal device, rather than just a conveyer of content. In other words, the signifier becomes a kind of substrate into which diachronically variable signifieds are inscribed, blurred, erased (as with a pencil eraser), and reinscribed palimpsestically. In other words, in other words.

Translation also plays an integral role in No Medium, both as a formal feature of Dworkin’s argument and as a topic of his content. “Tangent,” the book’s sixth chapter, offers a critique of the common view of translation as the production of an ersatz copy of a perfected original, a quest for authenticity doomed to be asymptotic (“ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from modern Latin asymptota (linea)‘(line) not meeting,’”).[2] Seemingly in dialogue with Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction,” the chapter argues that translation need not be a privative, quixotic quest for fidelity, that it can be additive and supplementary. Similar to the etymological threads that run throughout No Medium, the text consistently presents direct quotations, mostly in French, alongside Dworkin’s translations, which appear in brackets. I would argue that the presentation of both original quote and translation is not just a practical consideration, meant to aid those without the ability to read the “originals,” but rather an enactment of the aforesaid thesis of “Tangent”: translation and original are alternative lenses, individually historicized strata of meaning (thinking of Milman Parry’s “The Historical Method” here). An even more peformative enactment of this kind of diachronic accretion of meaning would be if, upon translation to another language, a future translator of No Medium included the original French quotes, Dworkin’s English translations, and his or her own translation of both, into words that figure their own historical moment and location. If this process were to be repeated over and over (and sorry for the Borgesian thought experiment here), the meaning of the translations would grow as a whole, not just pursue an unattainable original. There would be no original, just as Dworkin argues there can be no medium.

But media, more than language, is the focal point of “Tangent.” The chapter focuses mostly on transmediations of nothingness, from Cage’s inspiration to create “4’33”” by Robert Rauchenberg’s White Paintings, through Pierre Huyghe’s Partition du Silence, where he transcribes to musical notation the ambient sounds that break through the “silence” in “4’33””. Read together, the works present a poetics of synaesthetic translation, long of interest to modernist poets. Consider here James Weldon Johnson’s scoring of the speech sounds of African American preachers to paper in his seminal collection God’s Trombones (1927)—paper as recording medium and the transference of aural to visual.[3] Neither the aural nor the visual possess primacy—they are each an intermediary stratum built upon their own substrates that sum to dialogic meaning, just like the lingual translations.

No Medium always seems to anticipate a reader’s every interaction with it as physical object, demanding a sort of material paranoid reading. In the book’s third chapter, “Textual Prostheses,” which is a reprinting of Dworkin’s 2005 article of the same name, No Medium hits its apex of meta-ness, directly engaging with one of the book’s primary influences, Gerard Genette’s Seuils. Genette writes, “one may doubtless assert that a text without paratext does not exist and never has existed. Paradoxically, paratexts without texts do exist…” (Seuils 3).[4] And “Textual Prostheses” proceeds to show a number of cases where paratexts become disjoint from their texts, in an effort to trouble the distinction between note and text: “[the note] possesses an authority to trump the text that would seem to master it” (68). If there is one example I was surprised not to see in this chapter, it is Eliot’s addition of notes to “The Waste Land.” The addition of the notes follows from the material production of the poem: the book was composed of two 32-page quires and the poem ran for 48 pages—something was needed to fill the additional 16 pages. Now, of course, Eliot did not need to put notes here—he could have filled the pages with additional poems or other content. The choice to add the notes forever altered “The Waste Land” (insomuch as we can talk about any stable version of “The Waste Land,” originally titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices”). The notes are spoken about perhaps as frequently as the poem proper, and their appearance arose from the feeling of necessity to inscribe blank substrate, an aversion to the page naked.

The focus on notes and other forms of paratext in “Textual Prostheses” follows from a discussion in the second chapter, “Cenography,” on marginalia, including an examination of works where the text is erased, leaving only a reader’s marginalia. Marginalia is a form of reader interaction with the text—“the annotator always has the last word” (40)—and its focus both highlights the instability of a text (in a Barthesian, “death of the author” kind of way) and decenters the finality of pre-inscribed media. The reader can reframe the text by inscribing the substrate known as margins, in an act that brings Goffman and Genette together. While reading these chapters, the reader begins to become aware of the sea of paratext that submerges the text, that “speak[s]…from the margin: always partially excluded from the central text and always subaltern” (73). One notices the black bars that run through the epigraphs between chapters, conjuring the appearance of redaction, even in complete quotes: read between the lines! One begins to notice one’s own marginalia altering the text, taking it to get reframed. “He never said that—he’s been framed!”

As such, the book is successful in its engagement with the Russian Formalists, particularly Viktor Shklovky’s principles of estrangement/defamiliarization (otstranenie) and “laying bare” aesthetic devices. Dworkin cleverly summarizes this approach when, after discussing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography—“I know it when I see it”—he refigures the question: “But what if, instead, we saw it only when we knew it?” (93). Perhaps this is outside of the book’s purview, but I found myself wondering about a different form of estrangement, thinking about it in the Marxian sense, estrangement from the product of one’s labor. I was interested in the manufacture of the materials that form the substrates. For example, the records that are examined as substrates in chapter 7, “Signal to Noise,” are presented as being made from PVC. But just slightly before this time, records were made from shellac, an insect resin scraped from trees in Southeast Asia. The economy for shellac seems to me a parallel to people’s selling their rags/old clothes to be used in the creation of paper for books, during the period when paper was made of rag. I wonder what kind of biopolitical forces underwrite the conversion of substrate to materials, wherever that conversion may occur. And is this conversion similar to Bourdieu’s notion of reconversion, wherein economic capital can be converted to cultural capital?

In a world of progressively layered mediation (cf the epiphone), No Medium is a crucial and timely intervention. I wanted it to continue on, pushing Dworkin’s argument into inquiries of what silence or nothingness means in digital milieux, extending to meet the kind of forensics done in Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms. “Signal to Noise” comes very close to these topics, beginning to think about how a release of Zen for Record might be figured as Zen for Compact Disc, what silence means in the digital (e.g. zeroed-out disk segments within the constraints of audio CD format requirements). What does nothing look/sound/feel like in solid-state media like hard-drives in modern laptops? Can I stream silence from the cloud, or is it better to pirate it? Is it a good idea to use encryption if I’ve got Nothing to hide? The topics covered by No Medium were so captivating that I can only hope that there will be a sequel. Or maybe it’s already out, in the form of Dworkin’s Nothing: A User’s Manual. I might read this one on Kindle.

[1] Product weight from Amazon.com

[2] Apple Dictionary, built into OSX.

[3] See Mustazza, Chris. “James Weldon Johnson and the Speech Lab Recordings.” Oral Tradition. (forthcoming March 2016).

[4] Genette, Gerard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, tr. Jane E. Lewin.

Chris Mustazza is a doctoral student in English at the University of Pennsylvania and the Associate Director of the PennSound archive, the world’s largest archive of recordings of poets reading their own work. Chris has edited several collections of previously unreleased recordings of poets like Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and James Weldon Johnson, and his writing has appeared or will appear in Oral Tradition, the Chicago Review, the Notre Dame Review, and Jacket2. He’s been awarded a creative grant, for the 2015-16 academic year, by Harvard University’s Woodberry Poetry Room, where will do research for his dissertation, tentatively titled “The Sociolinguistic Birth of the American Poetry Audio Archive.”

REVIEW: The Book of Joshua by Zachary Schomburg

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by Matthew Schmidt

Birds. Horses. A boat. Blood. The color white. A telephone.

These and other recurring motifs and objects make up The Book of Joshua by Zachary Schomburg. It is a strange journey indeed; beginning in the year 1977 and moving through 2044, the first two sections titled Earth and Mars are prose poems with only the year as title. Schomburg was born in 1977 and the third section of lineated poetry, Blood, begins on page 77. This most likely is not a coincidence as numbers are important to the book, however, only 67 years elapse in book time (though the final section does not contain years or individual poem titles).

I bring these points up to note the meditative quality of the poetry. Moving as if through the speaker’s life and to a possible future, Schomburg questions himself, his place in the world, and what is expected of him through the birth of himself/Joshua and his maturation. 1981 has the speaker slowly growing:

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While the speaker (who is possibly an avatar of Schomburg) and Joshua appear to be the same person, it is debatable. We can assess the similarities to Schomburg’s life (or time of existence), the fact that a character known as the Woman is writing The Book of Joshua in The Book of Joshua, or that The Book of Joshua in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is attributed to Joshua but most likely has several contributing authors. Arguments could be made for all three and perhaps other interpretations. Suffice it to say, the book is an amalgamation of various sources and ideas.

According to The Poetry Foundation, Schomburg himself wants his poetry to “generate…energy through confusion…in an emotional sense.” This is true of the book; strange things happen that the reader must grapple with: Joshua comes into being from the speaker’s throat (spoken into existence), the speaker makes himself/Joshua into a machine (much like our bodies mechanically regulate our temperature, blood flow, etc.) so that he can talk to him(self), travels to Mars, swims an ocean of blood, births his own father, and plays the game Family (like how we interact with our families). Yes, this sounds confusing, but ultimately it isn’t narratively confusing. It allows us to emotionally consider our lives, what we’re doing with them, why we act as we act, what it means to say something, and that we keep looking for something even though we don’t know what it is.

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I think it’s important to look at an entire poem like this to understand the movement of the work: how things grow and shrink, questions are asked aloud and of the self, feelings are considered and communication and place are questioned for their validity. Dreams and nightmares clash in the speaker’s mind as reality and emotional identity are pursued seemingly through funhouse mirrors. Think about it: we go to carnivals and pay money to look at ourselves in variously-shaped mirrors. Certainly it is fun, but it also is a way we can be something else for a moment, or think we look a different way than we look. Are the mirrors in our homes (flat, regular mirrors) really telling us the truth when we look in them? Isn’t it strange how we can look smashing in one photograph and awful in the next? Schomburg takes us to this existential realm and allows us the opportunity to look at himself/Joshua/ourself. We can ask hard, emotional questions and decide how seriously we wish to consider answers.

I’ll admit the first time I read the book and arrived at the third section I was nonplussed. An immensely engaging story has been going on for 70-plus pages and now I’m confronted with line breaks and lots of white space. Much of these lines repeat what has happened in the first two sections and I was lost. This is part of the point though. In life, just as we begin to think we understand something, find a rhythm, get comfortable, something changes. We think back over what has changed and try to pinpoint what we thought and felt about the events preceding the change and we come up with fragments of thought, a distorted reality. Often we mull these fragments over and over in our minds before arriving at a somewhat abstract conclusion. This is what the last section of the book enacts as form:

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Many of these ideas are all ready in our mind because we just read them. They return here in a different form and elicit different meaning with line breaks, white space, and brevity that make us take more time to pause and consider them in relation to their previous meanings. Time changes things or things change over time. We alter our understandings and make new connections. Joshua is the speaker is Zachary is me and you. Is robotic. Is equine. Is creating from the mouth and bird bones. This is definitely a trip, moving through the solar system and our blood stream simultaneously, issuing from mouths and entering ears, creating a new planet that is this same planet, learning what to do with our bodies and minds and importantly asking our emotional selves how we feel and that we do. I think you should get in the spaceship. Think you should go read this book.

Buy it from Black Ocean: $19.95

Matthew Schmidt studies English at The Center for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi.