Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Collected Poems of Li He

The Collected Poems of Li He, translated by J. D. Frodsham (Calligrams Series, The Chinese University Press/New York Review of Books, 2016)

This collection of the works of the lesser-known Tang-era poet Li He (790-816) was long-awaited.  It is a republication of Frodsham’s original translation that first appeared in 1970, then again in 1983, now further updated and with a new preface by Paul Rouzer.  Li He is described in the introductory material as a kind of doomed Romantic or an ancient Chinese Rimbaud.  He did die young, apparently of tuberculosis, and his poems are often littered with images of death and otherwordly figures.  His work was left out of the standard Tang anthology, for being supposedly too weird.  Yet, it seems a tiny bit of a stretch to me to compare him to Kurt Cobain or to a contemporary teenage Goth, as Rouzer does in his preface.  These Western analogues make for good selling points, but in reading the whole of Li He’s oeuvre, not just the wilder pieces that the introductions and back cover focus on, it becomes clear that he was more often than not working within the conventions of Chinese poetry than breaking them.

Though the more well-known Tang poet Li Po (701-62) is mentioned by Frodsham only once (and then only in passing), Li He’s corpus often follows contours close to his predecessor’s — he overarchingly utilizes the same metres and line-lengths, and similarly there are poems about drinking wine, of sad farewells to friends, there are court poems (often dense with allusion and allegory), songs of singing women, “harmonizing” poems, travel poems, and imagistic nature poems.  A nice example of the latter is Li He’s “Walking through the South Mountain Fields,” which reads in part,

Pool-water deep and clear,
Insects whining,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
Cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.
That the red moss “weeps” dew is a nice touch here, personifying the natural scene and lending the poem a slight hint of melancholy.

Both Lis also dabble in mysticism from time to time, writing ecstatically of gods, goddesses, and immortal beings who inhabit heavenly realms beyond ordinary human experience.  Li He was greatly influenced by the early (c. 200 BCE) shamanistic series of poems titled the Chu Ci, and in his own “Song of the Magic Strings,” one of his most remarkable poems, he writes,

Blue raccoons are weeping blood
As shivering foxes die.
On the ancient wall, a painted dragon,
Tail inlaid with gold,
The Rain God is riding it away
To an autumn tarn.
Owls that have lived a hundred years,
Turned forest demons,
Laugh wildly as an emerald fire
Leaps from their nests.
Here, it seems to me, the Western analogue is not the Romantics or even the Symbolists, but the Surrealism of André Breton.  This is also an ekphrastic poem in part, with certain lines responding to a temple fresco (“On the ancient wall. . .”).  It is stunning imagery, and though not all of his work is quite as intense, this volume is more than worth it for having poems like these.

A similarly arresting poem is “Song of an Arrowhead from Chang-ping,” where Li He visits an ancient battlefield and feels the presence of ghosts:

Desolate stars,
Black banners of damp clouds
Hung in void-night.
Souls to the left, spirits to the right,
Gaunt with hunger, wailing.
Not only can we say that Li He was, at times, haunted, but that the poem itself is haunting, still today some further 1200 years on.

One point of divergence between Li He and the slightly earlier Li Po is that where Li Po was decidedly Taoist in philosophy and religion, Li He bends toward Buddhist thought — a cherished text for him being the Lankāvatāra Sūtra.  Yet, I am not sure even these differences are really all that great.  The Lankāvatāra Sūtra, in its discussion of the emptiness of form and self is not so far from Taoist texts such as the (admittedly Buddhist-influenced) Qingjing jing (Scripture on Clarity and Tranquility).  And, for that matter, the Chu Ci poems are often seen as iterating an early or proto-Taoist perspective.  While Li He frequently satirizes Taoist external alchemy (the misguided attempt to create and ingest an elixir of life), he nonetheless seems to delight in religious ritual of all sorts.

A further poem that I found interesting is “The Caves of the Yellow Clan,” which depicts aboriginal natives of southern Guanxi/western Guangdong, who were in the process of being colonized by the Chinese imperial government.  Li He describes them as “Treading like sparrows, they kick up the sand / With sibilant feet,” . . . “High-pitched voices shrilling like apes. . . .”  Li is clearly taken by these people and the spectacle of their massed ranks: “Coloured cloth around their hanks, half-slanting, / On river banks their war-bands muster / Gorgeous as arrowroot. . . .”  He seems sympathetic to them, despite their otherness (for him), and goes on to critique his own government for their unnecessary slaughter.  But the poem is also noteworthy as an early example of primitivism, in a way similar to early depictions of Native Americans, or Caesar’s descriptions of Gaulish culture, alternating between fascination and disgust.  With more awareness of such a dynamic, we in the West might even sometimes question our approach to reading Asian poetry, so it is another odd twist to remember that China, ancient and modern, is also an imperialist society that has engaged and does engage in the same kind of primitivizing, colonialism, and exploitation that the West has also often been guilty of.

Frodsham’s translations in this book are exceedingly well-wrought, following a pattern of their own: Li He’s five-character lines retain their single lines in English, rendered in quatrains or octets, while the seven-character lines spill over into two (broken after the fourth character).  This roughly brings across the feel of the original classical Chinese forms, and while Frodsham dispenses with the strict rhyme and tone-patterns, his English verse is rich with alliteration, slant-, and internal rhyme.

A final note, which should not discourage anyone from acquiring this volume, but nonetheless it needs to be said: There are far too many typos here than one would expect from any professionally published book, much less from a university press.  Unfortunately, this seems to be something of a trend as of late.  Presses absolutely must retain (or, apparently, hire) full-time proofreaders, or risk losing credibility.  Perhaps it is a symptom of disappearing funding and slashed budgets, but it is nonetheless unacceptable that typographical standards are getting so low in the publishing world.  One is able to muddle through, as here the mistakes are, in the scheme of things, infrequent.  But taken as a whole, they add up to too much.

Once again, though, this book is well worth the time spent and includes Frodsham’s copious notes for context and explanation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thinking Continental Pre-Orders

Thinking Continental: Writing the Planet One Place at a Time is a multi-genre, eco-critical anthology, published this November by the University of Nebraska Press.

Edited by Tom Lynch, Susan Naramore Maher, Drucilla Wall, and O. Alan Weltzien, it includes a poem by myself.

It is already available for pre-order, here:

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Review of Get Out (Jordan Peele)

Jordan Peele’s first film, Get Out, is a great début.  I’ll confess that it is rare for me to care all that much about a newly released horror/thriller film these days, but of course this one is different than the usual.  It was interesting to me in that it consciously plays on many of the tropes of the genre, but then does weird things with them, like Kubrick did in The Shining (though it only somewhat resembles that film in places).  In many ways it is akin to Rosemary’s Baby or The Wicker Man (I’ve also seen it compared to The Stepford Wives) — except that the ultimate evil here is not Satanism or paganism or anything supernatural, but rather whiteness itself!  The first half of the film wittily explores the various microaggressions that black people are frequently subject to in American society, and is thus a kind of well-rendered social commentary.  These, however, are bizarrely heightened, and so for example the main character’s interaction with a cop is laden not only with the usual layer of fear that many, especially African Americans, might feel in such a situation, but also with the expectation of potential terror that you get in the horror film.

Then, in the second half (spoiler alert!), we learn that these microaggressions (exemplified especially at the white girlfriend’s family’s party) spring from more than just the usual subconscious or even conscious racism that still widely exists in the supposedly more enlightened America of today.  In fact, the white family wants the protagonist’s black body (because, they say, black people have stronger physical genes, propagating yet another stereotype) — they are essentially turning them into zombies, re-enslaving them in a sense, and ultimately transplanting the brains of their dying, rich white friends into the bodies of kidnapped African Americans whom they have lured to their house in one way or another, here through the girlfriend, who is in on it, but sometimes, with the help of the girlfriend’s younger brother (who plucks them off of the street).  Upper-class whiteness is suddenly revealed as a kind of sinister cult, hiding behind a liberal veneer, but enacting a horror just as evil as anything that occurred in past history.

On one hand, then, Get Out is a wry satire, but on the other an eerie intensification of the real fear that exists for many, and finally is a metaphor for contemporary America.  It is amazingly filmed, which may or may not be a surprise from a first-time director who came to prominence for a comedy sketch show (I personally was always a fan of Key & Peele, and thought it was excellently directed).  In a way, it is odd that the film is being promoted in such a mainstream way (though good for Peele).  Peele has the eye of a more “artistic” director and seems to be taking cues from people like Kubrick, Lars von Trier, and so forth.  The opening sequence is an impressionistic montage of a forest, with a nice play of light, and there are unexpected dream-like sequences that occur when the protagonist is hypnotized by the girlfriend’s mother, and so on.  Call me a snob if you want, but sitting through the 20 minutes of awful “Hollywood blockbuster”-type action-movie previews before Get Out even began felt incongruous, and reminded me why I never see them.  But in this case it was well worth it.


Monday, February 20, 2017

Louisville Conference 2017



Get to the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900 early!  This Thursday the 23rd I’ll be presenting on the Santa Fe poets of the 1920s!  Tell your friends!

Here’s my panel:

A- 2  Mythologies of Modernist Poetry
Thursday 1:30 PM − 3:00 PM    Room: Humanities  207
Chair: Daniel Ross, Columbus State University
·  Elysia Balavage, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
“Dionysian Modernism: Chaotic Release in the Poetry of Ezra Pound and H.D.”
·  Michael Begnal, Ball State University
“'visiting with a strange mesa': Modernist Mythologies and the Poets of Santa Fe”
·  Patrick Jackson, Columbus State University
“Singers and Scavengers: The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in Ted Hughes’s Crow Poems”

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Free State Review 7

I have an essay in the new issue (#7) of the Free State Review.  It is a great issue, with many wonderful co-contributors.  My piece is a somewhat scholarly, somewhat subjective view of the ancient Chinese Taoist poet Li Po.  Editor Barrett Warner saw fit to put me on the cover.  Thanks for that. . .

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

David Stone, The Memory Strait

David Stone is a poet I’ve written about on this blog and elsewhere a number of times (see here, here, here).  His newest book is called The Memory Strait (Macauley, 2016).  It includes not only text, but mail-art / collage / painting by the late Guido Vermeulen, and cover art by Cheryl Penn.  Here’s a brief excerpt from Stone’s poem “A Phenomenology of Night”:
Spectral agents
ground on foot
the rotating
seconds fed
the thirst
after laughter
ceased.
The apocalyptic
police steered
the demand
for the outcome
of planetary gains...

Monday, January 16, 2017

Formative Albums

This is something that originated on social media — people posting lists of albums important to their teenage years, as opposed to say all-time favorites, or what have you.  I rarely if ever do these things, but those who know me know that, aside from poetry, I also write about music.  So, my list.  Here, I’m really thinking something like ages 14-18 or so.  As it’s 12” albums, I’ve left off important 7”s, and I’ve also only gone with one per band, in no exact order (though I guess they’re roughly in the order of my coming to them).  Again, this is not an all-time favorite album list, which would be rather different   I’m sticking with the “influenced you in your teenage years” thing.  Here are eleven.  [Bracketed comments in regard to live shows.]


Ramones, first album 
I actually first listened to this when it came out in 1976, when I was 10, due to the fortuitous presence of a long-time family friend who gave it to my parents.  Afterward, I went through a couple of different phases of musical development, including popular AM radio groups, then a serious Beatles period ages 13-14, then some “new wave,” and then at 14 got into true punk rock again in a big way, with the Ramones gracing my record-player frequently.  In fact, they still do.  This album is probably the ultimate punk album (certainly one of the all-time best albums, period), and I imagine my life might have been very different without it.  [I finally saw the Ramones live in 1985.]


Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks 
While the lustre of this one has kind of worn off for me (if I ever listen to the Sex Pistols these days, it’s mostly the rarities or B-sides), I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a major record for me during the early part of my punk career.  (I use the word “career” because I was in a band already — Wasted Talent — aside from just being “a punk”).  Out of the “big three” of the British punk bands (Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned), I would now unhesitatingly go with the Damned as my favorite, and even throw in Sham 69 and the first Wire album over the Pistols.  Strange how that happens.  [I never saw the Pistols live, as they broke up when I was 11, but I did see the Professionals with Steve Jones and Paul Cook.]


The Plasmatics, New Hope for the Wretched 
As it turns out, this band was originally a performance-art project created by their manager (I think it was), but then weren’t the Sex Pistols too, in a way?  When this album came out (1980), they were pretty much the biggest thing in American punk rock, and I even remember seeing them on Entertainment Tonight or one of those shows, blowing up a car on stage as part of their live act.  You might dismiss them as a gimmick, but the real test is in the music — they were a surprisingly good band, and Wendy O. Williams was a great singer and front-woman.  Best tracks: “Butcher Baby” and “Monkey Suit.”  [Never saw them live.]


Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables 
The DKs were a pretty well-known band in the early hardcore scene, though they don’t sound as hardcore as some on their early stuff.  I started buying their singles, then saw this album in the store.  My favorite tracks were probably “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “California Über Alles.”  Jello Biafra’s voice is the kind of thing you either love or hate.  What I also liked about the DKs is that they had a pretty original guitar sound, with weird surf influences, etc., not just the standard bar chords.  Highly political (maybe even more so on their subsequent releases), one could argue that they are once more relevant, given the era we now live in.  To be honest, though, I don’t listen to them much anymore. Just a subjective thing.  I guess, like the Sex Pistols, I kind of wore them out.  [Never saw them live.]


Germs, (GI) 
The Germs, however, never get old for me.  Darby Crash had one of the best punk singing voices out of anyone.  Despite his self-created image as a drunken lout, his lyrics are some of the most poetic or literary lyrics in punk rock.  The Germs took the best of the original ’77 punk sound and intensified it, creating (along with a few other bands) the L.A. hardcore sound.  Pat Smear’s guitar is unrelenting.  There’s not a whole lot in the way of leads, but his bar chords are hard to beat.  This is still one of my favorite albums.  [Never saw them live.]


Black Flag, Damaged 
As is Black Flag’s Damaged.  Since I’m only going with one album per band, it was a toss-up between this and Flag’s other great album, My War.  But since I’m still focusing on earlier influences, I chose Damaged.  I can’t count how many times I played this album at age 15 and 16, over and over, very much into the lyrics and the viscerality of the music, and the way they were able to evoke intense emotion more so than probably any other band I can think of.  You want pathos, you got it!  But it doesn’t so much speak to the teenage condition as it does the human, and that’s one reason why it still holds up as art for the ages.  [I first saw them live in May 1982, and ten times after that.]

V/A, Flex Your Head comp 
As everybody knows, Washington, D.C., had the best hardcore scene in the country, or at least the best bands.  This compilation is proof: The Teen Idles, Untouchables, S.O.A., Minor Threat, Government Issue, Youth Brigade, Red C, Void, Iron Cross, Artificial Peace, and Deadline all on one album, without a single throwaway track.  Even though I think I was just 15 when I got this, it made me want to quit school and move to D.C. to be part of it all.  In retrospect, there was at least something to be said for staying in State College, PA, for a couple more years, as awful as it seemed at the time, and being in the band I was already in.  [Of the bands on this compilation, I saw live shows by Minor Threat, Government Issue, Void, Iron Cross, and Deadline.]

Minor Threat, Out of Step 
Along with Black Flag, and then very soon the Bad Brains, Minor Threat was one of the let’s say top three bands that represented “me” and how I felt about life and how I put myself forward in the world at the time.  Focusing on personal politics and positing a straight-edge philosophy (in fact, vocalist Ian MacKaye originated the idea and the term, as we all know), MT was and is the quintessential East Coast hardcore band, the sine qua non of the genre, and have never been surpassed (sorry, Fugazi fans; sorry NYHC fans; etc.).  Out of Step was their only album, but it didn’t come out until the spring of 1983.  By that time, it was an “event,” and it was worth the wait — it’s indisputably a great record.  Before it, though, their two 7” EPs were almost constantly on my turntable.  [I saw Minor Threat twice, in May 1982 and June 1983.]


Bad Brains, Rock for Light 
Though I had listened to their ROIR cassette and of course really liked it, and had a few of their tracks on compilations, I didn’t really get into the Bad Brains in my own way until 1983, when Rock for Light came out.  “Ah, yes,” I thought to myself, “now I see why Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye argue that the Bad Brains are the greatest hardcore band ever.”  People say their heyday was a year or so earlier, and maybe it was, but Rock for Light is one of the best and most original hardcore/punk/whatever albums imaginable, in sound, fury, and content.  Sure, it’s a toss-up between this and the ROIR album, in fact many of the songs are the same, but I give this one the edge here for production and my own personal investment at the time.  And, the three reggae tracks on this album are great!  [I saw the Bad Brains twice in 1985, shortly after they re-formed.]


Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade 
I got Hüsker Dü’s first album shortly after it came out and thought it was so-so.  Then, however, I was blown away by both Everything Falls Apart and Metal Circus.  Either of these latter two could be on my list, but Zen Arcade, wow.  It came out in the summer of 1984, so I was either still 17 or had just turned 18.  It was that point in time where the original hardcore scene was just starting to fragment and evolve (if not the beginning of the end), and this double album pointed a way forward.  It still retained the speed, roughness, and noisiness of hardcore (a few songs were still outright thrash), but brought in all kinds of other influences at the same time: 60s garage/psych, hard rock, an “emotional” lyricism, there are a couple of acoustic tracks, vocal melodies, some tape loops, etc., but they never lose their punk edge and intensity.  Zen Arcade is a landmark album, and still one of my favorites.  [I saw Hüsker Dü twice, in December 1983 (with the Minutemen opening) and in the spring of 1985.]


The Stooges, Fun House 
It’s hard to know where to begin with Fun House.  Any of the three Stooges studio albums could’ve been on this list — in fact, I first bought Raw Power when (I think) I was still 14.  But, I started getting into Fun House when I was 17 or so, partly because Henry Rollins (via Chuck Dukowski’s influence) had talked it up in an interview.  My initial point of comparison was Black Flag’s My War LP, the way both albums had this subtle departure in mood between side one and side two, with the back half getting wilder and more free-form.  But Fun House quickly took on a life of its own for me, at a time when (as I alluded to above) I was looking for something beyond what had increasingly become a hardcore formula (well, I stayed with the hardcore sound for a while more, too).  Much has been written about this album (indeed, readers of my blog know that I write about the Stooges myself from time to time), and its importance to my own art from that period on cannot be overstated; there’s no other record like it.  In my opinion, it is the greatest rock’n’roll album.  [Never saw the Stooges live, though I did see a couple of Ron Asheton shows (with Empty Set, and Dark Carnival) and a couple of Iggy Pop shows.]

Since narrowing it down is difficult, here’s a supplementary twenty-two more formative albums.  Again, no particular order except rough personal chronology, same time period (age 14-18).  And I’m obviously leaving off many other important ones.

Gary Numan & Tubeway Army, Replicas
New York Dolls, first album
Iggy Pop, Soldier 
Lydia Lunch, Queen of Siam 
Dead Boys, Night of the Living Dead Boys 
V/A, The Decline of Western Civilization soundtrack
V/A, Hell Comes to Your House comp
V/A, Boston Not L.A. comp
Circle Jerks, Group Sex 
Misfits, Walk Among Us 
Faith/Void, split LP
V/A, Let Them Eat Jellybeans comp
V/A, Not So Quiet on the Western Front (MRR) comp
SS Decontrol, Get It Away 
D.Y.S., Brotherhood 
Ruin, He-Ho 
Necros, Conquest for Death 
Marginal Man, Identity
Black Sabbath, Paranoid 
The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Doors, first album
MC5, Kick Out the Jams

Monday, December 19, 2016

J. P. Seaton’s Li Po

I’ve read a lot of Li Po (increasingly now spelled as Li Bai), the great Tang-era (8th-century) Chinese poet, famous in the West for inspiring translations by Pound that are seen as central to the latter poet’s forging of Imagism.  For me, Sam Hamill’s translations are still the best, and I’ve also read versions by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley, Red Pine, Witter Bynner, James Cryer, and probably others here and there, and I should credit John Balaban for introducing me to Li Po in a serious way.  Just now, I’ve read J. P. Seaton’s Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po (Shambhala, 2012).  With translation, I do think it’s always a good idea to explore a variety of different visions of the original poet.  I do not read Classical Chinese, so I have to rely on many others in order to get some “real” (or at least more approximate) sense of the primary texts.  Seaton’s vision, it seems to me, is idiosyncratic but interesting.

Where I appreciate Hamill for trying to approximate Li Po’s form in a serious way (stripped-down, formal, haiku-like short lines, quatrains for the most part, à la many of the originals), Seaton has added on numerous extra lines in many of the poems in this volume, in order to pack in as many of the different shades of meaning as he can.  He has clearly gone for content over form.  I think this is worth noting because, in many respects, on a basic level, Li Po’s form is inherently part of his meaning.  But then, translation is always going to turn it into something else anyway, and so Seaton has apparently decided why not just forget about his form on the page (often, anyway) and do something different.

For an extreme example, in regard to his second version of “Thoughts of a Quiet Night” (given in the Appendix, in which he details his translation process), Seaton writes, “There are plenty of Chinese poems that are practically photographic: these translate beautifully almost word for word. . . . But there are other kinds of poems . . . that I believe require [his emphasis] a freer method to become real poems in English.  I hope more translators will dare to try to make such translations when they find such poems” (223).  The resulting version is nine lines, where the original is a mere four five-character lines.  Granted, Chinese and English are vastly differently, but here Seaton has seemingly opted not to make choices based on form, and instead has included almost every possible reading of a given line or character.  I can’t say this is wrong or bad, and in fact I’m glad for the opportunity for the increased multiplicity of meanings, but I guess I’m saying that I also appreciate that photographic quality in much of Li Po’s work.  To be fair, Seaton’s first version of the poem is closer to the original in that it too is four lines and rather “imagistic” (though Seaton calls it a “compromise” — what translation isn’t a compromise?).

The question of where to draw the line, to balance some kind of formal approximation of the original with concern for getting the full meaning in there no matter what, is of course part of the fun of translation.  In often opting for the latter approach, Seaton’s versions make for a unique take on Li Po.  In many instances, he comes off as a quasi-Beat poet, conversational, informal, overtly demotic.  My understanding of the original work, though, is that Li Po often worked in more traditional modes (many consciously composed in the “old style”).  But again, his formal poetry was loaded with oblique references and subtle double-entendres that often subverted the tradition that he took from.

So, I can appreciate a need for Seaton’s approach in order to round out our view of Li Po.  One thing I found to be quite distracting, however, was Seaton’s propensity to employ italics for emphasis in the poems, as if telling us exactly how the given poem should sound, as if Li Po himself was standing before us reading it out loud at an open-mic night.  While I imagine that some of these poems would have been read out loud, for the most part, however, given their obvious orthographic nature, they more often seem (to me) to inhabit the page.  Li Po is highly concerned with line length and structural balance (his poems tend to create nice little calligraphic squares), and many of the aforementioned shades of meaning are derived from the visual qualities of the ideograms.  While his approach may be philosophically informed by a Taoist spontaneity, and of course he loved his wine, I don’t see him as the primarily oral poet that we often get here.

That said, I have nothing against open-mic nights — love them in many ways, in fact, and have been part of many — and so while the Li Po of this book sometimes departed from my own vision of him, I still liked reading it and engaging with Seaton’s.  On top of that, there were a number of poems here previously untranslated into English that I was thus reading for the first time.  I liked the foregrounding of Li Po’s own major poetic influence, T’ao Ch’ien, whom the poet references in many of his works, but discussion of whom is seemingly relatively rare.  I also liked that Seaton included a couple of Li Po’s longer, ecstatic, dream-vision poems.  Furthermore, I was willing to go along with his division of the work into five themed sections: drinking, friendship, philosophy/spirituality, political protest/commentary, and travel.  Usually, I would hope for a chronological approach, but since the dates of most of the poems are unclear, this made sense.  So, Seaton’s volume is ultimately an enjoyable one, perhaps sometimes even more enjoyable for the at-times arguable decisions he makes and which the knowledgeable reader must grapple with.  In any case, Li Po’s voice, one clear strain of it, comes through inevitably and familiarly.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Ceithre Dhán in An Gael

Tá ceithre dhán de mo chuid san eagrán nua de An Gael (Geimhreadh 2016).  Is é An Gael iris oifigiúil Chumann Carad na Gaeilge, iris a dhíríonn ar phobal idirnáisiúnta na Gaeilge.  Is féidir an t-eagrán a cheannach agus/nó a léamh saor in aisce anseo:
http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/1197547

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Four Poems at Empty Mirror



I have four poems up at Empty Mirror.  They are titled “Homage to Yoko Ono,” “Elegy for Lou Reed,” “Elegy for Scott Asheton,” and “Homage to André Breton,” and can be read here:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Maurice Scully’s 'Plays'

Plays is Maurice Scully’s latest chapbook, published in PDF format by Smithereens Press, and available to read for free, here.  Initially dense but, with a couple of readings, very rewarding, Scully’s sequence tackles epistemological questions about the relationship of art to the world around us.  Specifically, Scully seems to be asking whether we can ever truly know the material world through poetry (language), or even through the senses, perhaps even whether there is a knowable material world at all.  That sounds heavy, but this is still a poem, not a philosophical treatise.

It opens with “Path,” a poignant image of a lost dog playing with a ball on a pier, repeatedly letting the ball fall into the water then retrieving it: “A dog came up the steps with a ball in its mouth & / shook itself dry”. . . .  The full significance of this scene does not become clear until the end of the book, when it returns (then titled “Pith”), but the fact that, in the last line of “Path,” the dog is referred to as “our dog” suggests some connection between it and us (i.e. all of us, people, or whomever), lost, forlorn, going about our activities nonetheless.

“Placed” takes up the metaphor of the game of tiddlywinks, while also referencing Yeats’s poem “Easter, 1916” — an unexpected pairing, perhaps.  But maybe there is something to the juxtaposition of the fraught, rather random task of flicking small disks into a pot (“Don’t let / the cup / tumble”) and the propensity of a poet like Yeats to seek overarching myths (“Spread low / with many / mythologies // rippling / a language’s / underparts”).  That is, Scully is here deliberately working against such Yeatsian, mythopoeic strategies by deliberately focusing on the quotidian.  In turn, what seem like unimportant details can become driving metaphors themselves.

Scully’s pared-down lines are deceptively simple, containing a wealth of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme.  In this, he takes a cue not so much from the obvious twentieth-century models (WCW’s pared-down lines, for example), but from the soundplay and concise patterning of mediaeval Gaelic poets like Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe, who provides an epigraph (from his poem “A theachtaire thig ón Róimh”) on the inherent “falsity” of poetry.  The first line of the epigraph, “Gémadh bréag do bhiadh san duain,” might translate as “Though it may be a lie, being in a poem. . . .”  Such a theme recurs throughout Plays.

In fact, Scully seems to putting clear water between himself and much of twentieth-century poetry — both the modernists who were obviously at one time an inspiration, and a more reader-friendly poet like Heaney.  In “Pitch,” he parodies Heaney’s “Digging”:
 . . . a meaning-bearing creature digging
over vegetables flashing signals to
light-sensitive weed-seeds in the dark.
Between yr fingers & yr thumb, humble
ambition.
A little further on there is a knock against poetry critics: “the Taste Police quick to be invisible, are out & about / & busy over the generations ready to shame / us with a terrible pun.”  The ghost of Heaney looms over these lines as well, “shame / us” echoing “Seamus.”  A number of additional humorous poetic allusions are waiting to be found throughout the text.

However, it is in Scully’s subtle critique of Pound and imagism that he more specifically sets out his philosophical position.  That Pound actually appears here is debatable (I tenuously base this on Scully’s use of the word “cohere” in “Panel,” also famously occurring in Pound’s “Canto 116”), but Scully is clearly attacking his imagist principle of “direct treatment of the thing.”  Instead, he seems to argue that that is simply not possible.  There are images in Plays, of course, images galore, but Scully has all along been undermining the notion that they are in any way capable of giving us the thing itself.  In “Print” Scully has revealed the science behind perception:
The most energetic
rays that reach
the earth’s surface are
those to which

our eyes respond 
& we call
‘light’. Right.
Thus, the image is not the image.  Nonetheless the poet will write it and take great if ephemeral joy in the writing, as Mac Con Midhe did nearly 800 years ago.  And so, finally in the closing section, “Pith,” Scully revises the image of the dog playing with the ball, elaborating on it until the dog is no longer a dog, not even the image of a dog, and not even light-rays, but an idea in the poet’s mind: “An idea came up the / steps with another idea in its mouth & shook itself dry”. . . .

Does the repetition and revisiting of the scene imply a kind of pattern, à la the cycle of history in Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (also obliquely referenced here)?  That is hard to say.  Not in the Yeatsian sense, as he clearly rejects this.  But there is a tension between “laws” and “accidents,” which Scully explores, i.e. randomness v. pattern, repetition v. change.  It would be hard to say he comes to any final conclusions, however.  Knowing that his work consists of large, ongoing poems (perhaps it is all one ongoing poem), I have no doubt he will continue to render into poetry “bréagach” his continuing explorations of these and other questions.  Unsurprisingly, then, a note at the end of this chapbook informs us that Plays is excerpted from a longer work.. . . .

Monday, November 14, 2016

Gimme Danger: Jarmusch’s Stooges Film

Jim Jarmusch’s documentary on the Stooges, Gimme Danger, is most definitely the serious historical treatment that the band deserves.  It is interesting to me, a nearly life-long Stooges fan, to see how much the Stooges’ reputation has grown over the last couple of decades.  I bought my first copy of Raw Power at age 14, when I was just getting into punk rock, and then the two Elektra albums a couple years later.  Even well into the 1990s, the Stooges remained a solely underground interest, whose influence was understood by punks and certain rock cognoscenti, but definitely not considered important by the likes of Rolling Stone magazine or whoever was running the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  Often, when asked my favorite band, and I inevitably replied the Stooges, I would be confronted by looks of confusion and be forced to contextualize them along the lines of: “Have you heard of Iggy Pop?  They were his band before he went solo. . .”  We all know the story now, though, how their reunification in the early 2000s sparked new interest among critics, their eventual induction into the R&R HOF, etc.  And as of 2016 there is this excellent documentary film, which should not only cement the Stooges’ place in history, but feels also like something of a victory lap.

What struck me the most about this film was its uncompromising point of view about art — shared by Iggy and the director Jarmusch — that despite adversity one should not give in to the temptation to produce lame, commercial schlock.  Iggy goes so far as to charge the record industry in the 1960s (and beyond) with “cultural treason,” for refusing to support the flowering of indigenous, local music, and instead seeking to impose a watered-down marketable version of pop.  As an example, Iggy disdainfully mentions Crosby, Stills, and Nash doing “Marrakesh Express.”  He doesn’t stop there, however, and goes on to point out that while we typically think of the “American Idol” sort of manufactured pop to be a contemporary phenomenon, it has been happening since the beginning of rock’n’roll, with the “replacing” of Elvis with Fabian, and was indeed also quite prevalent throughout the 60s, a decade many think of as a halcyon, creative time in rock music.

In a sense, this is the tension that has always been at the heart of rock: how to stay true to your own unique vision, your own art, in a world or at least an industry that seems only to value shallow hit-makers?  The dichotomy can be summed up in the title of Joe Carducci’s 1991 book, Rock and the Pop Narcotic.  It’s almost a cliché, the whole “authenticity” thing, and of course even the Stooges took influences from elsewhere — the blues, the Stones, free jazz, Harry Partch.  Having ingested them, however, they discarded them once they got going in 1968, choosing instead to beat on 50-gallon oil cans and put microphones into blenders (okay, so they kept the Partch influence, and the free-jazz impulse came back in a big way on Fun House [1970]).

All of this is entirely different from succumbing to record-label pressure to produce bubblegum, as so many do.  Even by the late-1972 recording of Raw Power, although as James Williamson claims the band was actively trying to have a hit record, they were only capable of making the music “that [they] liked.”  Iggy’s (and implicitly Jarmusch’s) argument thus still resonates — it is the artist who has the courage to suffer through the bottles being thrown at his head (as documented on the Metallic K.O. live album), or to find himself working a series of crappy jobs after the band has fallen apart (as Scott Asheton discusses in this film), who might nonetheless point the way forward and finally be recognized as having done the valuable work for all of our sakes.  As a film, Gimme Danger revivifies the authenticity narrative, at least as it relates to rock, and posits the Stooges as one of the few bands of their period, like the Velvet Underground and the MC5, who refused to give in to the corporate machine, even to their own detriment.  The results were not pretty.

Along the way of this nearly two-hour production, Iggy gets in a few responses to his critics, one of them being Johnny Ramone, who once reproached the Stooges for not wanting to please a crowd by playing the recognizable tunes from their previous album.  As much as I love the Ramones, I’ve always loved the Stooges more, partly because of their desire to be continually challenging, and not to be crowd-pleasers, to try to bring their audience along with them into new realms of sound (and implicitly into new realms of thought), to evolve, to throw away the old stuff and write all new material about once a year.  Think about it — in the course of their initial existence (1968-74), they changed at the speed of sound.  They went from being an experimental noise band in ’68, to doing the garage-y material on their first album in ’69 (which would essentially become the template for the Ramones), to taking a quantum leap in 1970 for Fun House, to writing the dual-guitar, ur-punk-metal material of 1971 (which is glossed over in this film), to the “I Got a Right”/“I’m Sick of You”-type stuff of early 1972 (Williamson’s first recordings as sole guitarist), to the Raw Power material of ’72-73, to their further, final development of late-’73-74 (perhaps, you could say, their “baroque” period).  That is a lot of evolving in such a short period of time, something worthy of Pablo Picasso or Miles Davis.

Yet, the Stooges were commercial failures.  One thing I like about this film, though, is that it makes the assertion that it didn’t have to be this way.  Jarmusch, through interviews with Danny Fields and Iggy himself, suggests that deliberate neglect by the record label (Elektra first, later Tony DeFries’ management and Columbia Records) was just as much if not more to blame than the Stooges’ supposed inability to appeal to the masses.  The band was drawing large crowds in its Elektra years and with a little boost from the company might have sold a lot more, thus helping the label to help itself.  The ultimate insult came in 1971, when Fields brought the label execs to hear the Stooges’ new material.  The response was, “I didn’t hear a thing.”  “That says it all,” Fields emphasizes, “I didn’t hear a thing.”  You’ve got Miles playing in front of you, say, and you don’t “hear a thing”; or you’ve got a Picasso painting on the wall in front of you, and you don’t “see” a thing.  As Iggy charges, cultural treason.  And so the Stooges’ 1971 set (of quite amazing material, for those who know it) was never properly recorded and exists only as a latterly released box-set of muddy cassette concert tapes.  Better than nothing.

There are a few flaws with this film.  Too often, Jarmusch plays a song and it doesn’t match the photo in terms of the time period.  Only a true fan would notice, I suppose, but why not try to be historically accurate in every instance?  As I previously mentioned, the 1971 era is glossed over, though band members Jimmy Recca, Zeke Zettner, and Bill Cheatham (the latter two from the late-1970 period) at least get a mention.  Iggy describes Ron Asheton as having “joined” The New Order after the Stooges broke up (instead of starting that band), but that could’ve been merely a slip in phrasing.  And, while the Ashetons’ sister Kathy is a welcome — even key — presence, finally coming to the fore in the telling of this story (she did also appear in the Legs McNeil/Gillian McCain-authored Please Kill Me book), it might have been worth it to round out the documentary with some further voices.  For that matter, I’d have liked to see even more of Ron, who did numerous on-camera interviews in his lifetime and is ultimately the soul of the Stooges.

Nonetheless, some of the archival footage that Jarmusch has accessed is invaluable — a show from 1970 in vivid, clear color, that I had never seen before, and a couple of clips from 1973 or so (including some very cool black-and-white film of James Williamson).  There’s a clip of Steve Mackay playing with Carnal Kitchen (I think).  The Stooges footage that was previously available has been cleaned up and looks great on the big screen, finally bringing to life a sense of the band’s live performances that so many (including myself, being too young) missed.  Iggy’s feral movement and physicality is on display here in un-ignorable fashion.  And while it may be a truism, it’s true — he invented the stage dive, and in the era of the big-time rock star, he was in among the crowd at almost every show.  Not only that, but, as Iggy argues, the band lived a truly communist existence, sharing everything, practicing the kind of life that the MC5 in their own late-60s radical period espoused, but without the need for any set ideology, doing it all intuitively for the sake of their art, which was in itself revolutionary.  Which in itself urges against easy formulas.  Which in itself strikes against the forces of cultural conservatism and small-mindedness.  Which in itself still points the way toward a mode of being that is needed now more than ever.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Calque Translations at Jacket2

My translations from Calque no. 2 (May/June 2007) of Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, Proinsias Nuinseann, and Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin, all 18th/early-19th-century Gaelic poets, are now archived at Jacket2, with issues available in PDF form.

http://jacket2.org/reissues/calque#no2

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Interview at The California Journal of Poetics

I was interviewed in the new edition of The California Journal of Poetics.  The interview was conducted a couple of years ago now by John Wisniewski.

Topics covered include my two Salmon Poetry-published collections, living in Ireland, Seamus Heaney, the Stooges, how music can influence poetry, some of my recent work, and more.

Read the piece here:
 
http://www.californiapoetics.org/interviews/7112/an-interview-with-michael-s-begnal/

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Two Poems at Public Pool

Walton Ford, Falling Bough (2002)
Two poems of mine are published over at Public Pool — many thanks to the editors.  The first one is “Walton Ford, Falling Bough,” an ekphrastic poem in response to the above Walton Ford painting (of a flock of now-extinct passenger pigeons).  The other is “Sonnet for Bernadette Mayer,” who is one of my all-time favorite poets.

Read the poems here:
http://www.publicpool.org/dope/micheal-s-begnal/

Thursday, August 11, 2016

My News for You: Irish Poetry 600-1200 (Shearsman Books)

Edited and translated by the contemporary Irish poet Geoffrey Squires, My News for You: Irish Poetry 600-1200 (Shearsman, 2015) is a refreshing translation of a range of early Gaelic poetry.  Some of the selections will be familiar to readers — “Messe ocus pangur bán” is one of the most well-known (the one about the white cat!), and one of the earliest recorded Gaelic poems.  Squires would have been remiss not to attempt it, and here he gives it new life.  The title poem “Scél lem dúib” may also be known to some, as it appears on a relatively recent t-shirt design.  It’s one I’ve actually translated myself, and I like how Squires has handled it.  The poem to St. Brigit (“Brigit bé bithmaith,” possibly incorporating language used for the earlier goddess Brigit?) is another that I recall reading, somewhere.  There is (arguably) an extract from the Suibhne Geilt series, some from Acallamh na Senórach, and so on, but also many that are lesser trodden.  Out of the hundreds of poems that could be included, Squires’s choices are excellent.  This will no doubt become a standard text for Gaelic poetry in English.  I can see it becoming as indispensable as Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin.

Squires also provides excellent supplementary material — introductory essays on the history, landscape, culture, language, and poetics of Ireland in the chosen time range.  He goes into detail about his own approach as a translator, at one point verging into a broader manifesto on poetic form itself: “Since form is a key and sometimes contentious issue, it may be useful to step back a moment and ask the functional question: what is form for?”  Squires proceeds to answer his question in three ways, and his assertions are valuable reading for both poets and non-practicing readers.  It should be noted that Squires’s own work is often seen as being on the “experimental” side of the spectrum, and I think the perspective he brings to this earlier poetry, which often employed intricate or arcane modes of prosody, makes a lot of sense.  Viz: “each [function of poetry] can be performed in various ways and to varying degrees. . . . what matters is that the poem satisfies us in terms of recall, pattern and the fit of sound and sense.”

In terms of the content of this material, it is interesting that the anthology foregrounds the not so cut-and-dried shift in Irish society from pagan to Christian thought, and Squires points out that it was a gradual continuum, still going on long after the arrival of St. Patrick (who is referred to mockingly in a couple of the poems as “adze-head”), often with the two frameworks existing side-by-side in the same place and time, the native tradition hanging on strongly alongside the imported Christian influence.  One example is “Admuiniur secht n-ingena trethan,” attributed to Fer Fio, abbot of Comraire, who died in 762 (making this one of the earlier poems in the volume).  It invokes “the seven daughters of the sea,” “my silver champion / who has not died and will not die,” and “the Ancient One of the seven ages / whom fairy women suckled on their flowing breasts” — all of whom seem non-Christian personages — as well as a litany of metals upon which Squires remarks, “the general evocation of metals in this passage has a quasi-magical ring.”  A Latin, Christian ending stanza is tacked on, but there’s really no other way to see this than as a recycled pagan prayer.

Squires provides copious notes on each individual poem, often clarifying issues in the text or discussing his choices in translating particular words.  My only (minor) criticism in this regard is that we do not get the primary texts (except for seven out of the 81 selected poems), and so often cannot connect Squires’s discussion to the particulars of the Gaelic originals.  He does give an extensive bibliography and a number of websites/URLs where most of the sources are housed, but it would have been much preferable, I think, to have the format of facing originals and translations, side by side.  He defends his decision not to go this route, however, and so it is a choice he has made.

Whatever about that, My News for You: Irish Poetry 600-1200 should become a standard collection, a “go-to” book for any poet or reader, not only those Irish-focused.  In a comment on the language and style of the works herein, Squires observes, “I sense that economy of expression was highly prized among these poets, and it is no accident that when comparisons have been made, they have sometimes been with Chinese or Japanese poetry, rather than neighbouring European models.”  This is something that I myself have often thought, in my own explorations of Old Irish poetry.  Not all of the pieces here are short, jueju-, lüshi-, or haiku-like, but all similarly rich in images.  So, perhaps after your next reading of the of course also great Li Po, Tu Fu, Issa, or Basho, you will want to consider turning to the (unfortunately) mostly anonymous Old-Irish/Gaelic poets, who similarly speak to us, sometimes seemingly as if only yesterday, out of the mysteries of nature and the human mind.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review of 'The Muddy Banks' at Sabotage Reviews

My chapbook The Muddy Banks is reviewed by Peter O’Neill over at Sabotage Reviews.  Concentrating especially on the first section, it is a perceptive reading (if I do say so myself!).  My thanks to Peter and all involved.  Read the review here:

Friday, July 29, 2016

Bynner’s Poem “Idols” (1929)

I’ve written recently about the overlooked but (more than) worthwhile modernist-era poet Witter Bynner.  I’m again struck by his brilliance and intensity in reading his 1929 collection Indian Earth.  I’m also in some ways ambivalent about it, as it takes as its primary subject “the other” — Mexican and Aztec culture in the first section, and Native American Pueblo culture in the second.  Written around the time of D. H. Lawrence’s visit to New Mexico and his and Bynner’s subsequent trip to Chapala, Mexico, the same material informs both DHL’s The Plumed Serpent (1926) and WB’s Indian Earth (Bynner in fact became a character in the novel).

Without getting into analyzing the whole collection, let me just briefly discuss one poem from it that I think in a way sums it up: “Idols” (pp. 56-57).  Macabre and inspiring at the same time, its first three sections describe the speaker finding an ancient clay figurine at a burial site in Chapala.  It is macabre because the poem’s speaker is essentially grave-robbing, pillaging: “every bone was fibrous like old wood, / And his moony skull came crumbling in my hand / When I removed the god that whispered there” (56).  I do not know whether Bynner was part of some sort of archaeological dig at the time, and whether this was acceptable practice, or whether such an incident ever even really occurred.  For the speaker, the premise of his being there is not in question; he is simply there and this is what he finds.

The incident sparks a meditation on religion and myth — what “surer god” could there be except “This idol made of clay, made of man, / This fantasy, this mute insensate whim / Enduring still beside its maker’s dust” (56-57).  Surely, in a modernist era enthralled with myth, this is the sine qua non of poetry, to romanticize or mythologize what might lie behind the burial?  After all, “this is the living thought / That make[s] man alive and alive again” (57).  Many poets would have ended the poem there, with the conclusion that through a god or perhaps even through the crafting of the religious idol of the god, one can in some sense live on.

But, though he engages in various forms of mythmaking throughout his work, including elsewhere in Indian Earth, Bynner does not do so here (except inasmuch as poetry itself is a form of mythmaking?).  Instead, the moment prompts a further meditation in the fourth and final section in which Bynner realizes that, for him, only poetry is capable of containing the kinds of feelings that others impart to religion or myth:

Lie close to me, my poem, and comfort me,
Console me with substance lovelier than mine,
Breathe me alive a thousand years from now,
Whisper — beside that rim of an empty moon,
Under the earth, the moon I thought with once —
That once to have thought, once to have used the earth,
Is to have made a god more durable
Than flesh and bone. Lie close to me, my poem. (57)
He does not fetishize the image of a pagan god, à la Lawrence; instead there is only the poem that can redeem, only the poem can “breathe me alive.”  The idea that “once to have thought, once to have used the earth” is enough to have made something durable, to become something durable — i.e. that to have lived once or at all means one has become part of the cosmos for all time — collapses time and metaphorically blurs the line between death and life, suggesting a view of death as only one part of something larger (which doesn’t have to be religious per se).  Only this can be comfort for a poet, or for Bynner anyway, that a trace of the act of making a poem, an act of living, can be contained in the words themselves and might survive in the poem.

That is the inspiring part, a view of poetry as enacting something rather than simply describing something, and potentially bringing one to a deeper sense of reality.  It is at the same time troubling that it is premised on the occasion of wresting an antiquity from an ancient corpse’s hands, seemingly randomly (i.e. seemingly not under the direction of a trained archaeologist; but who knows).  Macabre and troubling.  Metaphorically, this act of taking from what must be an Aztec Indian grave gets into the dynamics of colonialism and cultural appropriation that we are still dealing with today.  It speaks to the kinds of assumptions that even a poet with good politics brought to the table at that time in history.  It is not an excuse, but these are the things we confront, not only in Western society, but often throughout the whole world.