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

Friday, January 19, 2018

Billie Chernicoff: “Gradiva,” a new poem from WATERS OF, with a closing note by Robert Kelly

[Reprinted from the original 2016 publication by Lunar Chandelier Collective]


She who walks 
the woman who walks 
that woman
the splendid one
unreal twice over 
thus real, who walks
with her sisters, 
the three who walk 
early, in the dew.

The dew, called
“what is it?” called
the teaching water,
drops of the night.

She who does not stride
who does not go dreamily
who is real, who walks
with naked foot 
who lifts her foot
and sets it down
sets her heel down 
in wet grass
she whose toes, whose
arch, the arch of whose foot
whose foot lifts
and flexes, whose toes 
press the earth
whose heel is firm
she who walks
walking ahead,
even of her sisters.

Across the wet field.
She who has risen early
who hears the owl
and the mourning dove.

She who lifts her skirt
who lifts the heavy cloth
the folds of
the stuff of her skirt
who gathers in her hand
the soft cloth of her garment
and lifts it from the ground
walking with wet feet and ankles
with cool feet in the dew.

With warm thighs under her skirt 
under the cloth, her warmth
as she walks, as she walks away
from chaos, history, obsession,
she to whom the walls of the city
are as mist. 

The rhythm of sisters 
rhythm of hips
deep socket of the back
the sway of hips
spine rising
from the cleft of her buttocks
her torso rising, uplifted.

Each step lifts her. 
It is a rocking
and a sailing
a moving forward
while hovering.

The unthinking acts of her feet
knees and hips, the hinges, the slip
the synovial fluency, the slip of
thighs overtaking each other
the genital slip, the smallest.

Unreal twice over,
therefore real, she walks ahead
of those who imagine
remember, deny
and pursue her,
who are perplexed
refreshed, comforted
pleased, vexed, shaken by her,
who confuse her with her name.

She slips away.
She balances,
moves forward.
Her gaze is a sailing ship.

Her foot on the earth
pleasures her, the earth
pressures her, answers her.
It is her pleasure.

The moist cloud
of her breath
and of the earth,
her own perfume
in her skirt 
in her armpit,
the perfume
of her sisters 
of the grass
even of her name,
all these are in the air.

The dew is in her skirt
her cloth, her clothes
her hem heavy with dew,
it cannot be helped.

That she is free of us,
free of our supplications
our promises,
free of our books.

Her wet skirt is her book.
She who resolves
absolves and reveals
wrings out the solvent
from her own skirt.
Her hem rains,
love doctoring love.

Our father the owl
our mother the mourning dove
our sisters the laughter of her sisters.

The sun and moon are in the sky. 
The morning star is in the sky, 
a wet flame. How pale the moon is. 
How at one everything is in her gaze. 

You walk with her 
wait for her
marry and abandon her. 
She heals the letters of your name.

You dream you are her only errand.
She leaves her footprints in you.

She who slips between columns
who advances, who rises
and walks on, splendid in walking.


[Note by Robert Kelly] 

What are we to make of such grace?

The great poets of the last half-century rediscovered for us the musical power of the poetic line, the actual line in an actual poem.  Not a counted beat but a rhythmed tune, a muscular (the heart is a muscle) limb of sound.  From the line we make music, and we shape lines by the silences between them.

We learned from Creeley and Duncan and Williams (for me, in that order) how the interruption of syntax indulged that deepest of all qualities of poetry, what Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists called ostranenie, its strangeness, its subtle or not so subtle difference from ordinary speech.  From that strangeness our poets made music.

When I read Billie Chernicoff’s work, though, for all its quiet, tuneful suspensions of syntax over visual gaps, I’m conscious of something else at play.  I want to tease out here, if I can, what that difference is.  Or not so much difference (from what I and a million other post-New American Poetry poets are doing) as something added to that process, a different way the music is being used.

Provisionally, I think it is a mode of making visual.  Look at the longish poem in the middle of the book, “Gradiva.” and you’ll find a scrupulously lucid description of the image of a ‘walking woman’ — which is pretty much what I take the Latin word to mean.  That poem, its summoning of the image, is my clue to what’s fresh, very fresh, about Chernicoff’s work.

To say it as clearly as I’ve been able to think it, she’s trying to turn the hesitant, graceful movement of music into a visual apprehension of physical movement.  The silences at the ends of her lines are not just rests in the musical score, rests in the measure, they are the geometric points that outline the shape of a person, or a Chinese bronze— it is as if the shape of the poem says:  when you see this, know that there is a curve, a salient, a deep embowerment in what the sound of me is summoning you to behold.

Something like that.  I feel it in the persistent visualization that goes on in Chernicoff’s work — things say look at me.  Even when they seem to say touch or taste me, I see more the hand reaching out to caress, rather than the feel of bronze or flower beneath the fingertip.

In this sense, Chernicoff’s work is profoundly shaped by, part of, the visual culture we more and more inhabit.  She casts the image on the mind’s eye — as poetry has always been doing, that’s what an image is — Brakhage’s ‘eye-mage’, Pound’s phanopoeia, all that.  But Chernicoff’s process is not to cast the image by describing it in so many words, but by setting the name of it in supple motion in the silent air around the poem — we see the shimmer.

Something like that, again.  I started out by noticing the grace, the dance–like suavity of her tunes, her sequences, especially the order of things she notices for us to observe or inhabit.  Quiet, slow, unhurried as any object, the spectacles her poems unfold are sumptuous in their giving. 

The book’s title itself starts us off with just such a seen silence.  The waters of.  Of what?  Of Babylon where we wept, remembering? Of Siloe, where we hold our tongues and meditate? The Housatonic that flows through her neighbor fields?  Sea that washes all away?   That of makes us see something, a place or word, just as so often the line will end, startling as a knock on the door.  We hurry to open it to see who’s there. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Toward a Poetry of the Americas (8): Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Walt Whitman”

Translation from Spanish by Martín Espada

I don’t know
at what age,
or where,
in the great wet South
or on the fearsome coast
beneath the brief
scream of the seagulls,
I touched a hand and it was
the hand of Walt Whitman:
I stepped on the earth
with bare feet
and walked across the grasslands,
across the firm dew
of Walt Whitman.

all my early
that hand came with me,
that dew,
his solid fatherly pine,
his expanse of prairie,
his mission of circulating peace.

for the gifts
of the earth,
the capital’s
abundant curves,
or the purple
of wisdom,
taught me
to be an American,
you lifted my eyes
to books,
the treasure
of the grain:
broad poet,
across the
of the plains,
you made me see
the high mountain
as my guardian.
Out of the subterranean
you collected
for me,
everything that grew,
you gathered the harvest
galloping through the alfalfa,
cut the poppies for me,
followed the rivers
to arrive in the kitchen
by afternoon.

But your shovel
brought more
than earth
to light;
you unearthed
and the humiliated
with you, balancing
the black dignity of his stature,

You sent
a basket
of strawberries
to the stoker
in the boiler,
your verse
paid a visit
to every corner of your city
and that verse
was like a fragment
of your clean body,
like your own fisherman’s beard
or your legs of acacia in solemn stride.

Your shadow
of bard and nurse
moved among the soldiers,
the nocturnal caretaker
who knew
the sound
of dying breath
and waited with the dawn
for the absolutely silent
of life.

Good baker!
Elder first cousin
of my roots,
of Chilean pine,
the wind has passed
over your growing grasslands
eroding your eyes.

These are new
and cruel years in your land:
venomous weapons
and wrathful wars
have not crushed
the grass of your book,
the pulsing spring
of your fresh waters.
And oh!
who murdered
lie in his bed,
his chair
of fragrant wood                                                                                                                                        to raise a throne                                                                                                                           spattered with blood and misfortune.

your voice
in the train stations
on the edge of town,
your words
dark water
loading docks
at night,
and your people,
and black,
as all people
are simple,
do not forget
your bell:
they congregate singing
the magnitude
of your spacious life:
they walk among people
with your love
nurturing the pure evolution
of fraternidad across the earth.

[NOTE. As part of the transnational anthology that Heriberto Yépez and I are now composing, I’m posting on today’s Poems and Poetics Neruda’s “Ode to Whitman,” a masterful bringing together of the two (and more) Americas by one of the Americas’ greatest poets.  In this translation, Martín Espada, himself a poet of considerable force & means, gets all of the stops right, and his version, built with sharp, short words, takes up the work, lest we forget, of linking arms & minds across the barriers of languages & borders.  So, when Neruda writes to Whitman from his different place in the Americas: “you / taught me / to be an American,” it redeems the idea of America as such from its long-held northern dominance & stands as a directive for our project as a whole & for the troubled days through which we’re living now. More to be said of course but this as a beginning. (J.R.)]  

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reuben Woolley: Six Poems from “Broken Stories” with a note by the author


she brings black flowers
black flowers
to black weddings

from black suns
she dances

black swans
on black rivers

i want / black
sails on black seas

the outlying

looking out from layers
is not time
for counting the broken

 it's here all the tawdry

another pointed explosion
for all the relevant 
dead.we have no room
for breathing & talk
is no comfort at all

time shining

is a time away
unseen                       there is eyes
& all the twisted mix

i have my own name now
& i can speak you
                                    we go slow
not here
making shadows
the echo of sounds

through all the day i hide
my mad indifference

& bridge
a while away

are holes
in all systems

life is overrated she said

            i write

            i missed
your portrait
& all the years

every detail

hung a face
            & dried
where everything is

insufficient.a candle
will not warm us now

the broth is cold
& the bone is hollow

they did & loud
her sleep continues


this last
            there are no heroes
behind cross
focused on distance
            are empty plates
for broken tables

she walks in black
& dust

with all the silence
of tomorrow  
every move & when

is a tale for hurtling days
i've lived with me
all my is 
not easy

            i go riding
on rivers.they’ll take me
in the slow beat
of a universe

an ocean a long breath
are answers sufficient

i don't want
your infinities         self-
reflected        & old smears
                         the doubling
of alibis
glazed for auction
                         the bark
in my hands

i'm fingering for nothing
& finding it

let's go            small
in the distance

bye bye

[NOTE.  Published earlier this year by 20/20 Vision Publishing in the U.K., of which he writes, relating to both the title & the concept: “For a story to be broken means that once upon a time it was whole. A story is never finished; one leads into another. However, in these dystopian times, this process has become more complex; the story teller meets interference. These narratives that used to exist, that helped to hold a culture together are being broken by certain people for their own ends (political and corporatist) or are being weakened in our hi-tech world (with or without our collaboration). We haven’t yet produced a strong enough narratology to take their place.

“We are the stories.
“Music is a strong influence on the work. The white spaces are an essential element and should be read. The void is not empty! However, the beats are not necessarily the regular beats of drum and bass but rather the breath beats of a free form jazz saxophonist, for example, which may vary in tempo. I like to think of the interplay between different beats: the earth beat, breath beat and the blood beat.

“Among the influences on the work are a wide range of British, American and European poets, writers such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, whose plays I consider to be among the greatest poetry of the 20th Century and musicians such as Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, Roy Harper, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Terry Riley.”]