“Grief will go out of fashion (has already gone out).”


   A. Skidan, “Red Shifting”



“It is Margaret you mourn for.”


   G.M.Hopkins, “Spring and Fall”



During the weeks before leaving San Francisco for Rome and a two-month residency with my wife at the American Academy there, I gradually realized that a cloak of grief – or grieving – was descending over me. My senses had dulled dramatically and the effort to put words on a page, after a period of relative ease, had come to seem overwhelming and perhaps purposeless. Why this? Beautiful Rome, beautiful Academy, the freedom to work and to prepare a little talk to give during a brief trip to St. Petersburg for the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Poetry Awards ceremonies in late November? A talk about poetics? Perhaps in part about the Russian poets I so deeply admired? What after all is “poetics”? “Everything concerning the art,” as Aristotle broadly understood the term? Everything? Could everything include something, or some small things, learned and unlearned along the way? Was it grief or depression, or are the two conjoined? Might one actually think and write in such darkness? Was I imagining, even staging, a feeble melodrama, unworthy of the art in itself? Was I ensnared in a Book of Questions with no answers, as this first paragraph might imply? How had the years passed so swiftly, my generation and the one preceding it gradually disappearing, members of the beloved, contentious company, without which there is no art, succumbing one by one to that thing we had failed to consider in the effort to move along, to articulate a resistance to the given, the pathological “normal”? What remained of these beings, now shadows? Certain memories, the texts, the voices on recordings spread across the Internet, the tales told in private? And what remained of me from earliest efforts, earliest work and earliest understandings and misunderstandings as I had first entered that company in my twenties? This last question first occurring to me some years back as I spoke at Waseda University in Japan about my influences and experience, literary, political and so on, during the horrendous years of Vietnam and subsequent instances of imperial violence, the feral imbecility of the Bush years, the undermining of any true sense of democracy by the forces of oligarchy and exceptionalism and willful amnesia. To be a poet, if one can ever be such a thing, in the midst of a relentlessly materialistic miasma, was it in fact to be a “missing person”? Was it somehow to be an unconscious, passive enabler of those very values and forms one had hoped to bring into question? I spoke in Tokyo of various strains of influence stemming from the so-called New American Poetry, that counter-tradition of the Beats, the New York School, Black Mountain, and the San Francisco Renaissance, as well as the Modernists and vanguardists in various international cultures that had left their mark on me and helped me along with others to find something like alternative modes to the then canonical strains of officially acceptable American verse, which had quite systematically suppressed the more radical energies of the poetic impulse while undercutting its politically progressive sympathies. Yet I was simultaneously aware of the inadequacy of such information, of any such purported quasi-historical “explanation” of origins – as if poetry and poetic origins and acts could be usefully submitted to such examination. The thing does lie elsewhere, probably differently for each of us. And the measures by which the body of the poem breathes, inhales and exhales, submit to no simple, quantitative currency or enumeration. Nor does that “negative” or ‘impossible” community we simultaneously aspire to admit of facile definition.


Have I begun? Probably not. 


“The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth.” Simone Weil


“Whenever I listen to the stone I hear the cooing of a white pigeon gasp in me…” Mahmoud Darwish


“But poetry is never itself.” Aleksandr Skidan


Have I begun? Not yet, not quite. I am thinking too of Mandelstam and his stones, his poems, and his peripatetic prosody, that of a body walking, finding its way.


I am in Rome, but the Italian I once spoke moderately well, never more than that, is practically gone, at least for now. Where do our languages go? Meanwhile I am finding my way around this place, I who so often become lost wandering through cities and even buildings. (Okay: my wife, an architect, would add: even rooms!) On the mezzanino lies our spacious apartment, with this desk at which I am working. Down below, to the right, the café and the dining room, and further along the so-called Billiard Room, then the Salone, where the daily newspapers are available, and where a tv sits unused, and then the administration offices and the mailroom and reception, the galleries (holding at the moment, a wonderful show of Cy Twombly’s photographs, often glimpses of something close to nothing, as certain revelatory poems can be) and following the curve of the interior courtyard, back almost to my starting point, the (yes, labyrinthine) library. Rooms, stanzas. Poems, stones. Rooms complete, poems perhaps never. My own library left behind in another city, books on shelves there, books on tables, books and unfiled papers everywhere on the floors of that house now nine time zones away. I must think some more about zones of time. I will make a mental note to myself: Think some more about…


Someone is singing quietly down below, very quietly, since the artists and scholars must have silence in which to work. I cannot make out the words of the song, though the melody comes through quite clearly. 


Logos/melos. Silence. 


Would those three be enough to constitute a poetics, or must we include phanos? We must, or some of us must. I don’t myself know what to say of the image. Did I once? Imagism itself we need not speak of. In America, it quickly turned into tourist postcards.


I find that if I speak without thinking, some of my long latent Italian returns, but if I think first, it disappears and I feel shame, then sorrow, for things neglected and lost. A book of poems never written - how might they sound? Would they include images, for example of the majestic Italian stone pines (Pinus pinea), marking the grounds here? I doubt it. 


Considering St. Petersburg, I think of Bramante’s Tempietto a few minutes walk from here, upon the site where St. Peter is said to have been crucified (upside down, if I remember correctly). 


Peter – Petrus - stone. How long ago I cast off the Church, its weight of stone, its spiritual tyranny, enduring earthly corruption and hypocrisy. Sometime in my fourteenth year I think it was, after a Joycean vision of hell-fire had ebbed, if indeed it ebbed. I fled, disgusted and enraged. Yet did its rhythms and rituals, its relentless repetitions and repressions, somehow imbed themselves in my unconscious? And did other beliefs emerge in that space opened by my unbelief, along the via negativa? In any case, I was fairly soon to find a different company altogether than had been designated for me, among the painters, the composers, the musicians and the dancers, and of course the poets, who proposed an alternative life and who graciously opened a welcoming door to the outside, where a throw of the dice might help decide the way.


Moving on, to where I’m not sure, there is a kind of poetry that those dreaded creatures, “poetry lovers,”…love: poetry as the enemy of poetry. Why am I writing this, since in St.Petersburg you know it all too well? The problem, shall we say, of the stone pines, of the scenic and sentimental, and the complicit; counter to which, poetry’s obligation to reclaim meaning, even if need be by means of non-meaning. I think, in this context, of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s remark to me many years ago, that Wittgenstein’s attempt to destroy philosophy – Agamben was speaking of the Tractatus – was “honorable,” because Wittgenstein was attempting it “by means of philosophy.” Impossible not to share the same urge, at times: to clear the field, to clarify the art by simple, surgical negation, to erase. No fault of the stone pines themselves, perfect in their way, against the sky. The poem, however, does not “reflect” the stone pines. Why should it, since they are there, complete in their totality of form and their silence? Nor does the poem “re-present,” passively holding up that famous mirror to what is already there. It is an act of presentational immediacy, within which it may be entirely possible to actively reflect upon such things as stone pines, umbrella pines, gas stations and helicopters, eider ducks and porcupines. 


So quiet at the Academy today, a Sunday, with many residents away. The occasional weighty door closing emits a startling, echoic sound like a gunshot, reminding me how silence amplifies sound, spacializes it, even while amplifying itself, if that makes any sense – and even if it doesn’t. Always the question of what surrounds the words, articulates the stresses, makes possible a life in what Gennady Aygi calls “noise world.” Resistance can take many, often negative, or seemingly passive, forms. Of course, silence can just as well represent complicity, and it is sometimes difficult to tell which is which. I have always lived with a certain sense of internal exile, exile not only from the constituted laws and conventions of belief and behavior, but from self itself, as a stable structure wherefrom our desires flow and our identity makes itself known. The poet has no voice. This is as true of a public poet like Whitman as it is for a poet of profound, tragic inwardness, like Paul Celan, who has written, “Niemandes Stimme, wieder”  – “Noone’s voice, again.” It is the again that suddenly resonates for me here, that sense of the task, and of recurrence, the turning and returning, the unearthing.


Within the poem, doors opening, doors closing. Space and negative space. An unfixed, liquid architecture. A form of address, like this “letter,” addressed by whom and to whom? And if we build it (out of air or breath), who will visit, inhabit it, dismantle it, and redesign it in their turn? Qui parle? Poem as its own erasure? What algorithm has undoubtedly already been fashioned by a young techno-conceptualist to digitally and endlessly reconfigure the poem in cyberspace? Poem as instance of its own virtuality, its own transitoriness, its own contingency. Perpetuum mobile. The poem moves on from itself, leaves the room empty, leaves a place wherein to begin. Have I begun yet? Probably not, though time grows short. 


Leningrad 1990: I am sitting with Arkadii Dragomoshchenko in the sixth floor bar of the old Sovietskaya Hotel when a drunken Eastern European businessman in a powder blue suit lurches and falls through the glass door of the entryway, shattering it. Shards of glass spread across the floor and reflect the light from above, in random patterns, rather like modest stars fallen to earth. Quite lovely. Arkadii turns to me and says, “Welcome to the new Soviet Disunion!” What’s in a name? If, after still another glass of Georgian brandy, I suddenly forget Arkadii’s name, has he become Another, as he surely always was? We spoke rather cosmically about poetics, in perfect agreement, erasing the distance between these two nations, these two self-designated enemies locked in a preposterous Cold War, though I cannot remember the details of what we said. If Leningrad is now once again St. Petersburg, are they in any way the same? Are they both the same and different, following a certain poetic logic that dislodges signs from their semantic base and from the conventional Law of the Excluded Middle? At times I grieve, that is the word, for Arkadii and for Alyosha Parshchikov, and for many others whom the years have taken since the name of St.Petersburg displaced that of Leningrad. Here is the poem I wrote after Arkadii’s death and dedicated to his splendid wife, Zina. It in turn refers to a poem by Arkadii dedicated to Lyn Hejinian, perhaps thereby invoking the hermeneutic circle within which, as on a carousel, we turn and return while riding mythical beasts:


To X





Who is the night creature

that devoured the clover,


who the mathematician

who first solved to X?


The child lost in the house

in the dark corridors of the house


endless corridors of the house,

what child, what house?


Those blood-red nasturtiums –

I planted them for Arkadii


when I heard of his death

having forgotten


that I was not, not ever,

in this echoic life


to mention death

either of the self or the other,


the particle or the page

curled at its edges


by what random flame?

It is no match for the flame


to which the lovers are consigned

no match for the wind


that feeds the flame

no match for the fate

of the earth at our hands.

It is complex


the mathematics of lovers

where one plus one


equals what?

And the lost child


for who was not once

the lost child


and who will not

become so again?


By the River of the Fathers

we often gathered as kids.


It stank of chemicals and shit,

not the river’s fault,


not your fault, not mine,

a sacred, baptismal river, Arkadii,


your book has arrived

though you’ve suddenly left.


for Zina


Leningrad 1990: We sat, five Soviet and five American poets along with various invited guests, in a seminar room of the Writers’ Union overlooking the Neva. I raised the agreed upon topic for discussion, a comparison of censorship by the state and censorship by the marketplace, and asked for comments. A deep and awkward silence settled over the room. Were the hidden microphones of the KGB still operating, or had they, as without any clear evidence we sort of assumed, by then been turned off? What manner of government (communist, fascist, democratic, capitalist, oligarchic, other?) would follow from those deeply unstable and perilous times? More silence, when suddenly Arkadii’s voice arose, “Speak, my friends – after all, it’s a free country!” Laughter followed, at first hesitant, and then raucous, and so the discussion began.


Perhaps, among the ruins, the empty wish that the poem take us from existence toward being? Love among the ruins? I’m only asking, but in asking, am I asking about or asking for? Some possible heterotopia in which grief might take its place beside desire, even within desire, as the measures of the work unfold and enfold, propelling us toward some potentiality everywhere undisclosed within or resisted by our daily habits and rituals of speech? That which language does not want to hear, and absolutely does not want to say, according to far too many? A fool’s errand, cousin to chaos?  Necessary folly? Can we name the sources of grief, of grieving, those objectifiable particulars that many claim distinguish it from melancholy? I think not, not always, not so easily. To come to grief is not always to grieve for. To come to grief – to shipwreck, “the shipwreck of the singular,” as George Oppen more than once expressed it. To approach it, as if a city or a shore, and then to be wrecked within it or stranded upon it. And if the city’s name should change before one arrives, or the shore be inundated by the now everywhere, perilously rising seas, how recognize the “same” within such difference, how know where you are, what you have come to? Or perhaps within the semantic cycling of sameness and difference that constitutes language, as well as the poem, the city will be at once the same and different, the shore at once familiar and foreign. Just as the poet within the poem, the more or less generative poem, arrives at others and otherness in a journey outward from the self-same, the given, the designated. Might Dante’s paradigmatic journey in the Commedia be so described, as he attempts to pass beyond the psychic limits of the dolce stil novo without entirely abandoning the youthful lyric impulse at their source? To overcome the shipwreck of the singular by entering conversation with those one encounters along the way, however familiar, however transformed, however previously unknown? To affirm a common tongue by uncommon means and to uncommon ends? To liberate its potential for the unfamiliar and unruly, the estranged or missing, that awaits undisclosed within any tongue and on any shore, while coming to grief, coming to the acknowledgment of grief as both a poetic and mortal invariable, a point of final debarkation?  Little wonder that over time so many commanding works, poetic, intellectual, philosophical, have been left unfinished, have broken off or even apart before arriving – where?  


Please be forgiving of the scattered form all such speculation is taking here. I am simply at a borrowed desk, by a window on the Janiculum Hill above Rome, trying to put some thoughts in a letter, in the semi-random way such thoughts come, with no wish to disguise or embellish the process. I have filled this little missive with questions, questions for myself of course, but also as entreaties to whoever might be listening or reading to respond. Questions are signs of the open text, the opera aperta, as distant as possible from authoritarian interrogation. In the latter case, correct answers are foreordained, wrong answers signs of disobedience, at worst signs of heresy, punishable by shunning, or excommunication, or forced reeducation, or violent death. Many critics or cultural authorities, the usual minions, refuse to acknowledge that there are no correct answers to the poem, that it is not a test in school, not a puzzle to be solved. Such critical authorities claim a certain command as well as ownership. “It is mine,” sayeth the Lord of the Text. Then there are such rare intellectual figures as, just to name two, Roman Jakobson and Erich Auerbach, who extend the active field of the poem, who participate in the opening of that field, who enter the conversation with the makers. Who knows, perhaps they also share their eternal uncertainty, and their grief.


“There is another world, but it is in this one.” Paul Eluard (as quoted by the novelist Howard Norman in a memoir). 


Might Mayakovsky, in his late despair, have uttered these same words of Eluard as a plea? A plea for understanding of the project of the poem, the beyond of the poem that is within, not elsewhere. The streaming present of the revolution? The “meta” that the Metametaphorists invoked? And what of a possible “metametamorphism?” “All things a-flowing” – thus Herakleitos. And now it seems useful to return to Skidan’s remark, “But poetry is never itself.” Never self-identical, is that one of his meanings? Metaphor itself as a crossing, a journey, never a proposition, if we remind ourselves of the Greek, metapherein. Given the option, who would not choose to be borne across the dark stream, not out of this world, but into the actual, in the company of words and song? Do we not also always wonder who the ferryman is, what patience, endurance and forbearance he or she must show while performing the never-ending task, the necessary self-sacrifice of repetitio (as touched upon with such precision by Celan, above)?


Last night, an exhibit of four artists, entitled Transformers, at the new Museo MAXXI, the building itself designed with characteristic, baroque élan by Zaha Hadid. Among the works shown, a group of mechanical musical instruments by the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, fashioned from the metal of destroyed pistols, shotguns and rifles. Beautiful (not all in the audience seemed to agree), spidery string and percussion instruments “that can be programmed and operated via computers, making them capable of performing music concerts with compositions prepared beforehand,” according to the text handed out to the audience. So, the revival of the concert méchanique, and, as it seemed to me, certain Futurist impulses from the avant-garde past, though something entirely new as well, of course. I watched as a musician seemingly tuned a violin-like instrument by means of his iPhone in this brave new world. The grittiness of the instruments and the network of electric cables extending from them contrasted strikingly with the all-too-familiar, moneyed gloss of the museum environment. In his public conversation, Reyes spoke of his admittedly implausible desire for a world without weapons, and of his quasi-utopian wish for “a change of polarity.” I was led once again to consider metaphor and metamorphosis, music and art as weapons put to various uses, the play of identity and difference across the language field, and the thought that what once was St. Petersburg, then became Leningrad, before once more becoming St.Petersburg. Same and different? I cannot say. The years’ flight bears us along. It is true that poetry, like music, can capture time, can command time, bend time, even perhaps annihilate time, for a moment, but only a moment, before yielding to its rule, its transformative force. Is it any consolation that time is our own invention, our own measure, our own Frankenstein? From the Greek metapherein, the Latin translatio, once again, a bearing across and a transfiguration. Is it any consolation that in the act of translating, from one shore to another, we too are translated, transformed? Such my experience with my Russian contemporaries in the few years leading up to Leningrad in 1990, and in the many years since, as I have come to understand “horizon” differently, distances differently, and time differently. There in Leningrad we seemed to be as much in the company of the tribal, shamanistic voices that had sounded before the founding of the city, and seemingly continued to sound, as we were among the specters of the Futurists, Acmeists, Absurdists, Formalists and others who had come to grief during the years of revolutionary turmoil, social upheaval, war and sacrifice. Whether we actually came to a mutual understanding of our various intentions, our divergent poetics, our experiential contingencies, our inner lives, remains an open question. Perhaps it does not matter. Speaking for myself, I was never again quite the same.



American Academy in Rome,

November 2015

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