To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Habib Tengour: Maghrebian Surrealism [Essay & Manifesto]

Translation from French by Pierre Joris


— Given an audience of intelligent participants
— Into a red chechia without a ponytail place nine ping-pong balls numbered from 1 to 9.
— Shake the chechia for the one minute needed to create silence.
— Draw a ball
— The number on it determines the title of the essay.
…except that, well, the balls have disappeared.
Which proves that a chechia is as good as a top hat.

The Maghrebian, “that inveterate dreamer, daily more discontent with his destiny, has trouble assessing the objects he has been led to use” (objects that are few, one has to add, because a subtle lack surrounds his gaze and turns him away from “real life”), “objects that his nonchalance has brought his way, or that he has earned through his own efforts, almost always through his own efforts, for he has agreed to work, at least he has not refused to try his luck (or what he calls his luck!).” This luck is not a Straight Way: it is uncertainty — like the piece of clothing one no longer takes the pains to mend. However, he values this luck he has awaited at the end of a cold weapon, he hopes for at a border crossing. For it, he has accepted all kinds of exile. “At this point he feels extremely modest,” but nobody should be fooled: it is a loaded silence!
Who is this Maghrebian? How to define him?

The woods are white or black” despite the gone-to-earth nuances. Today definition impassions because of its implications. A domain for going astray. Political jealousy far away from the exploded sense of the true. Indeed there does exist a divided space called the Maghreb but the Maghrebian is always elsewhere. And that is where he realizes himself.

Jugurtha lacked money to buy Rome.
Tariq gave his name to a Spanish mountain.
Ibn Khaldûn found himself obliged to hand over his steed to Tamerlaine.
Abd el Krim corresponded with the Third International.

An excessive taste for history and controversy chains him ironically to a hastily exploited hagiography. As to the Tragic, he only grasps its throbbing and banal spark. He turns his back to the sea and mistrusts the sun, knowing its terrible burns. “The mere word freedom is the only one that still excites him. (…) It doubtlessly satisfies [his] only legitimate aspiration.”

There remains madness.” Around here it is common. It circulates. Sometimes it gets locked up, by accident. For the rest of the time one prefers to tame it in order to enjoy it in the margins of the NORM. Because from very early on everyone learns how best to exploit it. Knowing that “hallucinations, illusions, etcetera, are not a source of trifling pleasure.”

I council the reasonable man to go sit by the river and he will see pass by all the madmen he ever wanted to meet; provided that he live long enough. All Maghrebians know the subversive power of madness; their artists (with rare exceptions) know it less well than they do, as shown by the sugary and luke warm use they make of it in their works trying to compel the unbearable limits of a dailyness so difficult to bear.

The madman, the mahbûl, the medjnûn, the dervish, the makhbût, the msaqqaf, the mtaktak, etcetera, belongs to folklore, alas. This reduction reveals the narrowness of the outlook.

It happens, however, that the jerky flood of fire and mud illuminates the word: Nedjma bears witness to this just as some of Khaïr-Eddine’s bursts carry its disorder.

On the screen, madness remains a moving picture. Maghrebian moviemakers – the Algerians in particular – are seduced by the image of the madman: he is thought to speak what had been silenced. In most cases we are dealing with postcard-madmen (colonial exoticism was fond of this sort of postcards), boring and pompous. Zinet’s in Tahia ya Didou does grab me, maybe because of its naïve clumsiness.

Of the dream and the marvelous, the Maghrebian knows the weight: it is a nod of the head and a long sigh.

In the morning the one who has dreamed tells someone close: I had a dream. Then shuts up. The other one has to answer: oh well, by the grace of God. Only then does he tell his dream.

I have let many dreams pass by for not having been able to say the hallowed formula in time. I have also known many Maghrebians said to be married to Djinnies or Rûhanies – floaty creatures between the human and the angelic. According to their entourage things weren’t any worse than for other couples: quarrels and reconciliations, broken dishes and careful housekeeping.

In the Maghreb the ancestors often visit the living for the sheer pleasure of appearances.
For a long time the Maghrebian has been a surrealist without knowing it. Take for example the following statement by Ibn Arabi:

“In what I have written I have never had a deliberate purpose, like other writers. Glimmers of divine inspiration illuminated me and nearly overcame me, so that I couldn’t free my mind of them except by writing down what they revealed to me. If my works show any kind of formal composition, this form is not intentional. I have written some of my works on the behest of Allah, sent to me during my sleep or through a revelation.”

But Breton has defined surrealism “once and for all”:

“SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

“ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. (…)”

During the twenties, some Maghrebians in exile “performed acts of Relative SURREALISM.” It was difficult for them to do otherwise: the family was a lack they wept over in front of a post office window, the fatherland a confiscated identity and religion a recognition.

Today the twenties are long gone, drowned in the gaze. The “fish” have dissolved and fat rats are enthroned as critics. “The Magnetic Fields” lie fallow. Only the battlefields are exploited.
The “act of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM” remains to be done.
Premonitory signs announce it.


The passing Maghrebian is surrealist in Djeha.
Nafzawi is surrealist in sexual revelation.
Ibn Khaldûn is surrealist in intrigue.
Sidi Ahmed ben Yussef is surrealist in cursing.
Mejdûb is surrealist in anguish.
Feraûn is surrealist in Si Mohand.
Kateb is surrealist in the tradition.
Dib is surrealist in the drift.
Mrabet is surrealist in his joints.
Sénac is surrealist in the streets.
Khaïr-Eddine is surrealist in his alcoholic delirium.
I am surrealist when I am not there.
Tibouchi is surrealist in certain verses.
Baya is not surrealist despite Breton’s sympathy.

I would like to stress this point: they are not always Surrealists (…) because they did not want to serve simply to orchestrate the marvelous score.” This “marvelous score” we find it in the game of the boqala, in the threnody of the professional mourner, in the rhymed recitation of the meddah, in the invocations of amorous magic, in blasphemous insults, etcetera. Speech and gesture are not dissociated from the perpetual movement of the natural elements that encumber the waking dream. Superb and indifferent echo, assonances. The lines are established, bent to the severity of chance: there is nothing to prove.

The Maghrebian artists, however, are often obsessed by their image, they want to prove something: that they have “talent.”

A left bank Parisian publisher confided confidentially that he did not like to do business with Maghrebian writers because they all think they are Rimbaud. So what! It is certain that he, Rimbaud, didn’t give a damn about being a Maghrebian in the Harrar and that the publisher in question is a cad despite his undeniable qualities.

Today this obsession with “talent” keeps most Maghrebian artists from being “modest recording instruments.” Kateb is to my knowledge the only one who denies “the ‘talent’ which has been lent to [him],” but he has lost his resonance. His suicidal position enchants only the drifters closing in on him. I would have loved to hear him exclaim: “The haste some show to see me disappear and the natural taste I have for agitation alone would be enough to dissuade me from vainly shuffling off this coil”…

The Maghrebian artists have plenty of “talent” – but not enough to dare say “We have no talent, (…).” One had to be rotten through and through with culture and have a moral rigor above suspicion in order to lance the boil. “(Even) the simplest surrealist act” demands a considerable subconscious disposition. One does not go “into the street” on a whim and, in order to make art fade away one has to be a familiar of its arcana.

We will certainly manage to melt ourselves into the surreality of our space in order, finally, to be.

Right now the “recording instruments” are somewhat gummed up. “There still exists at this hour throughout the world (Isn’t the Maghreb the beginning and the end of the world? It is said that Atlas is wearying under his load. It is also said that the world is a miniature Maghreb but that everyone does their best to ignore this fact), in the high schools, in the workshops, in the streets, in the seminaries and in the barracks young, pure beings who refuse to fit in.”

One of those “young beings” went to Tunis high school. To a French Literature exam question on “qu’est-ce qu’un beau vers?” (what is a beautiful verse?) he answered: “un beau vers est un ver à soie” (a beautiful verse [vers] is a silk worm [ver]). But since then he has had the unhappy naivety to take himself for an inspired poet! … This often happens and is, when all is said and done, less problematic than the case of the “pen pimps” who set themselves up as censors of taste. That’s because many “corpse(s)” don’t give up the hope of “making dust.” I’ll leave them to their sordid haggling, necrophilia not being one of my pleasures.

It is finally into Maghrebian Sufism that surrealist subversion inserts itself: “Psychic automatism in its pure state,” “amour fou,” revolt, chance meetings, etcetera. The mistrust Sufism inspires and the multiple attempts at recuperating it incite me to be more attentive towards a phenomenon it is wrong to hastily catalogue as retrograde. A judgment based on ignorance! There always exists a non (?)-conscious smidgen of Sufism in the Maghrebian writer who is not a clever faker – just reread Kateb or Khaïr-Eddine, for example. The Maghrebian rarely errs concerning the derailment of his Sufis: in this domain, mystification is not easy. There where the exterior observer sees only heresy, sexual dissoluteness, coarse language, incoherent acts, etcetera, he asks himself:

— Yes?
— Yes!… No.
It's obvious, “Existence is elsewhere.”
Thus goes “belief in life (…)”…
When the Sufi Master is not present, the initiates don’t dance.
You will have understood, or at least I hope so, that despite my perverse attachment
to art, it is “elsewhere” that I hope to sojourn.

The Surrealist Revolution is total and “in matters of revolt none of us can have need
of ancestors

Constantine – March 7, 1981.

Born in 1947 in Mostaganem, Eastern Algeria, raised on the Arab and Berber voices of marketplace storytellers, Habib Tengour has lived between Algeria and Paris ever since, both incarnating and, in his work, speaking to the nomadic & (post)-colonial condition of his countrymen. Trained as an anthropologist and sociologist, he has taught at universities in both countries, while emerging over the years as one of the Maghreb’s most forceful and visionary francophone poetic voices of the post-colonial era. The work has the desire and intelligence to be epic, or at least to invent narrative possibilities beyond the strictures of the Western / French lyric tradition, in which his colonial childhood had schooled him. Core to it is thus the ongoing invention of a Maghrebian space for and of writing, the ongoing quest for the identification of such a space and self.

[N.B. Recent publications in English include Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader, ed. Pierre Joris (Black Widow Press Modern Poetry, 2012) and The University of California Book of North African Literature (Poems for the Millennium, volume 5, 2013), with Pierre Joris.] 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Alvaro Estrada & Henry Munn: Shamanistic Songs of Román Estrada

Henry Munn, c. 2010
Recording & translation from Mazatec into Spanish by Alvaro Estrada
Translation into English by Henry Munn

[As a comparison to the chants of María Sabina, discussed elsewhere on Poems and Poeticcs, Román Estrada's shamanistic songs open to the language of a contemporary Mazatec male shaman. They also give some indication of the differences from singer to singer, poet to poet, within a specific indigenous culture.  For examples -- written and audio -- of María Sabina's chanting, check the following:  I presently know of no recordings of Román Estrada. (J.R.)]

Medicinal herb, remedial herb
Cold herb, Lord Christ
Free this person from his sickness
Where is his spirit trapped?
Is it trapped in the mountain?
Is it enchanted in some gully?
Is it trapped in some waterfall?
I will look for and find the lost spirit

Ave María!

I will follow its tracks
I am the important man
I am the man who gets up early
I am he who makes the mountains resound
I am he who makes their slopes resound
I am he who makes the spirit resound

I make my paws resound
I make my claws resound
Christ Our Lord
Lord Saint Martin is present
The Lord of Dry Tree is present
The Lord of the Lake is present
Santa María Zoquiapan
I am the dawn
I am he who speaks with the mountains
I am he who speaks with the echo
There in the atmosphere
There amid the vegetation
I will make my sound felt
Father Saint John the Evangelist
We see how the dolls and eagles already play in the air, already play on the mountains, already play between the clouds
Whoever curses us won't do us any harm
Because I am the spirit, the image-day of the person
I am Christ the Lord
I am the spirit
There is the serpent, coiled up, alive
(It is coiled up
It is alive )
I alleviate, I give life
(I give life )
I am the tall and handsome one
I am Jesus Christ
I am Lord Saint Martin
I am Lord Saint Mark
In whose dominion there are tigers
Whoever curses us has no influence on us
I give strength to the sick
I am the medicine, I am the fresh herb
Come back lost spirit, I will whistle to lead you back (he whistles), come back
May there come with you
Thirteen deer
Thirteen eagles
Thirteen white horses
Thirteen rainbows
Your steps move thirteen mountains
The big clown is calling you
The master clown is calling you
I will make the mountains sound
I will make their abysses sound
I will make the dawn sound
I will make the day sound
I will make Jar Mountain sound
I will make Mount Rabon sound
I will make Stone Mountain sound
I will make the Father Mountain sound
I am the big man
The man who alleviates
The man of the day
It is time for the sick one to get well
It is time for the miracle to happen
The miracle of the Holy Trinity
Like the miracle of creation
Like the miracle of the moonlight
The miracle of the starlight
Of the Morning Star
Of the Cross Star
The dawn is coming
The horizon is already reddening
There is no evil outside
Because I am he who alleviates
I am he who gives the dawn
Santa María Ixtepec speaks
Santa María Ixcatlan speaks
There where it is dry and thorny

Of course this is only a fraction of the long chant of the wise man, who told us that on the day his initiation ended – Román said this in Spanish – he received a diploma from the hands of the Principal Ones. (Román died the fifth of August 1986. Reader of cards, magician and excellent hunter, in his veladas he imitated a pack of dogs after the quarry, usually a deer.)
[From Alvaro Estrada, La Vida de María Sabina, Siglo Veintiuno editores, México 1977.  See also: Maria Sabina Selections from University of California Press, 2003.]

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Jerome Rothenberg: On the Achievement of David Meltzer, A Pre-Face & a Memorial

[The word of David Meltzer’s death came to us the morning after & on the threshold of a new & dangerous year in which his friendship & kindly spirit will be greatly missed by the many of us who drew from & treasured his grace of mind & the life of poetry that grew from it.  In the immediate aftermath I thought to reprint the pre-face I was privileged to write for his selected poems (David’s Copy, Penguin Poets, 2005) & the short poem, composed by gematria, that follows.  There is much more to say of course, and I hope still to say it. (J.R.)] 

(A Gematria Poem) 

Ten riches. 

Ten fountains. 

Ten wrestlings. 

Ten cities. 

Ten wonders. 

Ten hairs. 

& ten.

(for David’s Copy, 2005) 

I first became aware of David Meltzer – as many of us did – with the publication in 1960 of Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry, that celebrated the emergence over the previous decade of a new & radical generation of American poets.  Those included ranged in age from Charles Olson, already fifty, to David Meltzer, then in his early twenties.  Meltzer’s four poems were all short, filling up most of three pages, & displayed a surefooted use of the kind of demotic language & pop referentiality that was cooking up in poetry as much as it was in painting.  His lead-off poem mixed traditional Japanese references with more contemporary ones to Kirin Beer & Havatampa cigars, but  there was otherwise no indication of a wider or deeper field of reference – as in the work, say, of older contemporaries such as Olson & Robert Duncan, or of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams or Louis Zukofsky before them.  Like many of our generation his aim was not to appear too literary; as in the conclusion of his biographical note: “I have decided to work my way thru poetry & find my voice & the stance I must take in order to continue my journey.  Poetry is NOT my life.  It is an essential PART of my life.”
            It took another decade of journeying for Meltzer to emerge as a poet with a “special view” & with a hoard of sources & resources that he would mine tenaciously & would transform into unique poetic configurations.   For me the sense of him had changed & deepened some years before I got to know him as a friend & fellow traveler.  The realization – as happens with poets – came to me through the books that he was writing & publishing & that I was getting to read – on the run, so to speak, like so many others.  In The Dark Continent, a gathering of poems from 1967, I found him moving in a direction that few had moved in – or that few had moved in as he did.  The “transformation,” as I thought of it, appeared about a quarter of the way into the book – a subset of poems called The Golem Wheel, in which the idiom & setting remained beautifully vernacular but the frame of reference opened, authoratatively I thought, into new or untried worlds.
            The most striking of those worlds was that of Jewish lore & mysticism, starting with the Prague-based legend of Rabbi Judah Loew & his Frankensteinian creation (the “golem” as such), incorporating a panoply of specific Hebrew words & names along with kabbalistic & talmudic references & their counterparts in a variety of popular contexts (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Harry Bauer in the 1930s Golem movie, language here & there from comic strips, etc.).  It was clear too that the judaizing here – to call it that – was something that went well beyond any kind of ethnic nostalgia., that he was tapping in fact into an ancient & sometimes occulted stream of poetry, while moving backward & forward between “then” & “now.”   In an accompanyhing subset, Chthonic Fragments, a part of it presented in the present volume, he expanded his view into gnostic, apocryphal Christian, & pagan areas that left their mark, as a kind of catalyst, even when he swung back to the mundane 1960s world: the “dark continent” of wars & riots, the funky sounds of blues & rock & roll, the domestic pull of family & home.
            I mention this as a recollection of my own very personal coming to Meltzer & to the recognition that he was, like any major artist, building a special world: a meltzer-universe in this case that spoke to some of us in terms of our own works & aspirations.   (“The Jew in me is the ghost of me,” began one stanza in The Golem Wheel, & I was smitten.)  His pursuit of origins of all sorts was otherwise relentless – not only in his poems but with a magazine & a press that also took as their point of departure or entry the hidden worlds of Jewish kabbalists & mystics.  The magazine was called Tree (etz hayyim, the tree of life, in Hebrew) & was connected as well to a series of anthologies of his devising (Birth; Death; The Secret Garden: An Anthology of the Kabbalah), alongside chronicles of jazz writing & jazz reading & of poetry – Beat & other – that had emerged or was emerging from the place in California where he lived & worked.
What was extraordinary here was the lighthearted seriousness of the project – a freewheeling scholarship in the service of poetry – & his ability to cast an esoteric content in a non-academic format & language.  In this he shared ideas & influences with a range of contemporary artists & poets – notably the great west coast collagist Wallace Berman, whose appropriations of the Hebrew alphabet as magic signs & symbols led directly to what Meltzer, borrowing a phrase from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, called Bop Kabbalah.  It was also in that California ambience that he made contact with older poets like Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, & Kenneth Rexroth, & with younger ones like Jack Hirschman, engaged like him in the search for old & new beginnings.  In circumstances where everything suddenly seemed possible, he joined with his wife Tina (as singer) & with fellow poet Clark Coolidge (as drummer) to form a rock performance group called Serpent Power – the name itself an echo of ancient yogic & tantric practice.
The totality of Meltzer’s work will wait for another occasion – a Meltzer Reader perhaps or a collected Meltzer – in which all of it can be mirrored.  For now – & not for the first time – he has condensed his nearly half century of poetry into the pages of this book.  As such it is a reflection of where he has worked & lived, often with great intensity – first in polyglot New York (Brooklyn to be exact) & later (most of his life in fact) in California.  He has never been a great traveler, in the literal sense, but his mind has traveled, metaphorically, into multiple worlds.  In the process he has drawn from a multiplicty of times & places & set them against his own immediate experience.  His attitude is that of a born collagist, a poet with a taste for “pilfering,” he tells us, or, paraphrasing Robert Duncan: “Poets are like magpies: they grab at anything bright, and they take it back to their nest, and they’ll use it sooner or later.”  And he adds, speaking for himself:  “I use everything, everything that shone for me.”
The range of the work itself follows from another dictum: “Poems come from everywhere.”  As such, the focus moves from the quotidian, the everyday, to the historical &, where it fits, the transcendental.  The mundane stands out, for example, in a poem like “It’s Simple,” though not without its underlying “mystery.”  Thus, in its opening stanza: 

            It’s simple.
            One morning
            Wake up ready
            For new work.
            Pet the dog,
            Dog’s not there.
            Rise & shine
                        Sun’s not there.
                        Take a deep breath.
                        No air.                                           

If the presentation here gives the appearance of simplicity – something like what Meltzer calls “the casual poem” – we can also remember his warning, that “art clarifies, it doesn’t simplify,” that his intent as a poet is, further, “to write of mysteries in language as translucent and inviting as a mirror.” 
            Mystery or “the potential of mystery” is a term that turns up often in Meltzer’s poetics – his talking about the poetry he & others make.  It is no less so where the poem is family chronicle than where it draws on ancient myth or lore: the fearful presence in “The Golem Wheel”
                . . . returning home to a hovel
                to find table & a chair
                wrecked by the Golem’s fist         

or the celebration & lamenting of the parents in “The Eyes, the Blood:
                my father was a clown,
                my mother a harpist . . .

There is a twofold process in much of what he does here: a demythologizing & a remythologizing, to use his words for it.  In this sense what is imagined or fabulous is brought into the mundane present, while what is mundane is shown to possess that portion of the marvelous that many of us have been seeking from Blake’s time to our own.
            David’s Copy is full of such wonders, many of them excerpts from longer works that show a kind of epic disposition – in the sense at least of the long poem as a gathering of fragments/segments/image-&-data-clusters.  Watch him at work, full blast, in the two excerpts from Chthonic Fragments or in the “Hero” & “Lil” excerpts from what was originally his long poem, “Hero/Lil,” in which he draws the Lil of the poem (= Lilith, Adam’s first wife; later: the mother of demon babes) into the depths of post-exilic life: 

                        She-demon deity
                        lies on the sofa
                        stretching like a cat.
                        Small hot breasts.
                        Miles breathes Blackbird.
                        She accepts
                        the hash and grass joint.
                        Cool fingers
                        Dive under my pants
                        ka! ka! ka!
                        Screech of all
                        Lil’s hungry babies
                        caged-up next door. 

Or again: 

                        She wants words only at dawn.
                        I touch her mouth with language
                        then afterwards move against her. 

            In other serial works the touch is lighter, where he observes or playfully takes the role – totem-like – of magical yet ordinary animal beings: the dog in Bark: A Polemic, say: 

                        Bark is what us dogs do here in Dogtown
                        also shit on sidewalks door mats proches
                        wherever new shoes walk fearless.
                        Bark is what us dogs do here in Dogtown
                        it’s a dog’s life
                        we can’t live without you.
                        Mirror you we are you.
                        Beneath your foot or on the garage roof.
                        You teach us speech bark bark
                        for biscuits we dance for you.
                        You push us thru hoops
                        & see our eyes as your eyes
                        but you got the guns the gas the poison
                        all of it.
                        Bark is what us dogs do here in Dogtown. 

Or the Monkey in the singular poem of that name – both pseudo-orthodox (“bruised before Yahweh”) & quasi-stylish (“suave in my tux”).
These are the marks of a poet who has worked over a span of time, to pursue interests near & dear to him.  To cite another instance, music – the full range of it for Meltzer – comes into a large portion of the poems, a reflection of his own musical strivings inherited in part from his harpist mother & cellist father, celebrated in the long poem or poem series, Harps, itself a section from a much longer ongoing work called Asaph, one intention of which is to use music, he tells us, “as a form of autobiography.”  Of such musically engaged works the great example is his recent booklength poem for Lester Young, No Eyes,  from which he has generously selected for the present volume.  Add to that another big work, Bolero (also a part of Asaph), & short poems or references to Hank Williams (the “lamentation” for him), Billie Holiday (“Darn that Dream”), & Thelonious Monk, among recurrent others.  Later too, when he becomes a chronicler (Beat Thing the most recent & most telling example), the music of the time, like its poetry & loads of pop debris & rubble, has a place at center.
I would cite Beat Thing in particular as both his newest book as of this writing & as something more & special: a harbinger perhaps of things to come. As recollection & politics, it is Meltzer’s truly epic poem – an engagement with once recent history (the 1950s) & his own participatory & witnessing presence. If the title at first suggests a nostalgic romp through a 1950s-style “beat scene,” it doesn’t take long before mid-twentieth-century America’s urban pastoralism comes apart in all its phases & merges with the final solutions of death camps & death bombs from the preceding decade. This is collage raised to a higher power – a tough-grained & meticulously detailed poetry – "without check with original energy," as Whitman wrote – & very much what’s needed now.
The reader of David’s Copy will find in the more recent poems that end it a sense of timeliness amidst the timelessness that poetry is often said to offer – Beat Thing clearly but also Feds v Reds, Tech, or even Shema 2 with its linking of judaic supplications & koranic language in the wake, I would imagine, of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The political engagement – embedded in the poetry itself – is both real & heedful of his earlier remarks that looked down at the “onedimensionalizing” of so much  political poetry (“a tendency to supply people with conclusions, but you don’t give them process”) in contrast to which “a certain kind of pornography was what I wanted to do as politics.”  And that in fact was something that he also did – a genre of novel writing that he called “agit-smut” and described as “a way for me to vent my rage and politicize … a way of talking about power.”
Elsewhere, in speaking about himself, he tells us that when he was very young, he wanted to write a long poem called The History of Everything.   It was an ambition shared, maybe unknowingly, with a number of other young poets the sense of what Clayton Eshleman called “a poetry that attempts to become responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world.”  Then as now it ran into a contrary directive: to think small or to write in ignorance of what had come before or in deference to critic-masters who were themselves, most often, non-practitioners & non-seekers.  By contrast, as is evident throughout this book, Meltzer allied himself with those poets of his time & place (Beats & San Francisco Renaissance & others) who were both international in their range & the true carriers or creators of traditions new & old.
It was at this juncture that I met him, & his companionship added immeasurably to my own work as a poet.  I continue not only to prize him but to read his poems with the greatest pleasure.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Anne Tardos: My Work with Jackson Mac Low, from “Lines–Letters–Words,” at The Drawing Center

[In celebration of an unprecedented showing of visual & performance works by Jackson Mac Low, January 19 to March 20 at the Drawing Center in New York, I’m posting Anne Tardos’s introduction to the richly illustrated catalogue along with the Center’s official announcement of the show.  Tardos, along with her own impressive workings as an artist & poet, was for many years Mac Low’s companion & principal collaborator, so that her testimony in the present instance is of more than passing interest. Mac Low was of course the foremost experimental poet of his time. (J.R.)]  

As an artist, as a poet, I have always appreciated Jackson’s devotion to the art of performance. Many, or most, of the drawings in this show were regarded as performance scores. Every Gatha (phrases or mantras on grid paper) is a score for any number of performers. The Vocabularies and Name Poems, where a page is filled with words from a “lexicon,” created by using the letters of the dedicatee’s name, or the occasion of a celebration, were viewed as performance scores as well as artworks.

Perhaps his later works, the thirteen Vermont Drawings, where he wrote words such as “clouds” or “dogs” or “stone,” over and over on the page, were not considered performance scores, but simply drawings. These might have been an exception. In the mid-1990s, while visiting our mutual friend Simone Forti in Vermont, we often walked across the field down to the brook that, as Steve Paxton remarked, felt more like a temple. Jackson describes the scene in meticulous detail in his poem “Forties 77.” We would spend hours sitting on the rocks, in complete tranquility and felt inspired    to create. Jackson used a very hard pencil for these drawings. For an artist, who used bold strokes and drew with India ink for much of his life, to choose such a delicate and faint instrument to make his mark was interesting to me. He was in his early seventies at the time, and felt himself aging. There is a gentleness to these drawings, perhaps the tenderness of old age, but the boldness of the concept, repeating words to form a visual pattern, had not  faded.

Atypical drawings such as the Skew Lines, diagonally drawn straight lines, using color markers, made in the late 1970s, inevitably turned into performance scores. He performed them solo a few times, interpreting the lines as a musical score, vocalizing according to the lines’ directions. Still, I had the impression that the absence of words in these scores left him somewhat wanting. Jackson was a man of words and language.

 When we first met in 1975, I was making film and video art. I made a series of tapes with Jackson improvising for my camera, using whatever object in my loft was available at the time. A piece  of wood, a ladder, a rope. The work was utterly graceful, poetic, and sometimes hilarious. Later, after I began writing multilingual poetry,   I also agreed to join him in his performances. We were sometimes accompanied by musicians, and we traveled the world as a duo. We wrote a number of performance works collaboratively, and performed them together. We were collaborators. There are canvases with words and images on them, bearing both our signatures. Like me, Jackson was a poet, visual artist, and composer.

 Our performances were so-called guided improvisations, where   we worked with the score, listened to each other intently, and only contributed to the whole when we felt we had something worthwhile to add. Jackson’s universal instruction to performers was to “listen and relate” with “no ego tripping.” It was clear that this direction was a political one, pointing to his vision of a utopian society in a pacifist anarchist world.

 Jackson had worked with many other performers in his life, often groups, and in the 1960s he involved entire audiences by handing  out copies of his scores. When I once asked him why he was mainly performing with me rather than larger groups as he used to, he said “this is what interests me now.”

Many of the works in this exhibition were discovered after his death. One might say, they could only be discovered then. He had kept his drawings and collages safely, but he completely lost track of them, sometimes painfully suspecting the works as having been stolen.  I had to go through the enormous accumulation of this artists lifes work, and in doing this, I discovered many long lost items, in particular the original, hand drawn Light Poems Chart. In the decade following his death, I edited three large, posthumous volumes of his works: Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works (University of California Press, 2008); 154 Forties (Counterpath, 2012); and The Complete Light Poems 1–60, with Michael O’Driscoll (Chax Press, 2015).

Jackson Mac Low’s work has been widely recognized as influential, and has been acknowledged by poets, artists, dancers, and musicians, as pivotal and groundbreaking. He is regarded as a major avant-gardist visionary. This exhibition is a fitting tribute to Mac Low’s visual and conceptual work.

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[The following is the official announcement for the Jackson Mac Low Exhibition]:

In Jackson Mac Low: Lines–Letters–Words, The Drawing Center will present the first solo museum exhibition of visual works by Jackson Mac Low (1922–2004) that spans the multidisciplinary artist’s practice from the 1940s to the 2000s. Mac Low, who is known for composing poetry through chance procedures and automatism, first experimented with these creative processes in his drawings. The earliest drawings in the exhibition, created in the late 1940s and early 1950s, resemble pre-linguistic marks made with gestural ink brushstrokes. Later works created during the 1960s through the 1990s include series of drawings—Drawing-Asymmetries, Vocabularies, and Gathas—that emphasize the visual and aural qualities of written languages, acting as both graphic representations and performance scores. The exhibition closes with a series of thirteen drawings made in 1995; echoing the unsettled system of marks in Mac Low’s early works, these drawings were composed by repeatedly handwriting terms that describe natural scenery, creating a ghostly impression with layered graphite marks. Through Jackson Mac Low: Lines–Letters–Words, The Drawing Center identifies the foundational character of drawing, a medium that significantly informed Mac Low and influenced his multidisciplinary practice for more than sixty years.
Curated by Brett Littman, Executive Director.
Jackson Mac Low: Lines–Letters–Words is made possible by the support of Glenn Horowitz, Steve Clay and Julie Harrison, Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein, and several anonymous donors.
Special thanks to Anne Tardos, Executor of the Estate of Jackson Mac Low, and to composer Michael Byron.
The Drawing Center is located at 35 Wooster Street in Manhattan.