Attention Span 2011 | Benjamin Friedlander
Rose Ausländer | Gesamtwerk in Einzelbänden | 16 vols. | Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag | 1992-1995
My German, never good to begin with, has been slipping away from lack of use, and I’ve no longer got my father to call for help when the grammar tricks me up—a stroke took away all his answers. A month before the stroke he and I were in Berlin and I bought a few of these volumes; I’ve acquired the others since, reading aloud at the nursing home, where my father’s silence becomes part of the effect. It’s the late work in particular that moves me, written after Ausländer turned seventy: a metaphysical imagism, fluid as Matisse’s cutouts, cutting as a northern wind, though at whisper strength. Or seemingly at whisper strength: the late work fills nine of these volumes.
Bureau of American Ethnology | Annual Reports and Bulletins | Government Printing Office | 1879-1967
Of the 200 bulletins and 48 annual reports with papers, only a few contain material that one might call literary, but these are precious: a treasury of Native American texts in the original languages, with dictionaries and translations. It’s incredible that these are available online, and incredible to scroll through them, if a little bewildering—they encompass a wide range of philosophies and projects, and their credibility is uneven. Racism is pervasive, so suspicion is required, but it’s hard not to get excited by the material: a ghost story in which a bird puts adult skulls on child bodies, which topple over; a song with the refrain, “the entire world weeps for me”; a prayer to the sun that includes the unexpected hope, “Perhaps if we are lucky / … / A floor of ice will spread over the world, / the forests … / … will break beneath the weight of snow.” The highlight for me is The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, published only a few years after the events described, containing a number of the songs that accompanied the dance. (The translator, James Mooney, reports that they were composed in a trance, one after the other, 20 or 30 at a time). Just as interesting, and more influential as poetry: Frances Densmore’s various collections of Indian song, widely read by the moderns—just this week I found a citation by Basil Bunting.
Norma Cole | To Be at Music: Essays & Talks | Omnidawn | 2010
Argument by citation, juxtaposition, repurposing—a Talmudic strategy, though based on a very different principle. Not the authority of a sacred text, but a library where authority is dispersed—where the sacred, like the untranslatable, is yet to be grasped. Making this a musical book in Cole’s sense (formulated for Robert Browning): “In the time of imagination, prosody becomes the reference system, the set of locating coordinates.”
Ann Cotten & Kerstin Cmelka | I, Coleoptile | Broken Dimanche P | 2010
Consulting a dictionary every other word impedes the reading of some poets more than others, and Cotten, alas, is one for whom speed matters. This is ironic, since her Fremdwörterbuchsonette (Suhrkamp, 2007) includes the word “dictionary” in its title. A dictionary of loan words, for Cotten—American—has borrowed her German, while incorporating an English borrowed for her readers. Wit is required to keep up, and I’m just too slow in German. Probably, I’m too slow for this English text as well—a prose-poetry hybrid with photographs—but here at least I can pretend to understand. And pretending is precisely the point. The photos (by Cmelka) reproduce stills from a film starring Mayakovsky, with Cotten in Mayakovsky’s role, while the narrative is given under the sign of a disguise: the “coleoptile” is a vegetable sheath, the covering of a shoot, hence a figure for becoming. “I am a woman as yet / in a cocoon. I am embarrassed / that one has caught me as I unfold / my first wing, still in the ‘real,-’ bag.” In context, “real” suggests “reel,” just as shoot invokes photography, so it’s fair to surmise that the metamorphosis unfolds in the manner of a film, the projection of something already been (or “bean,” as the opening discourse punningly puts it). Like a loan word transposed into poetry, it slips by too fast to be savored—or is savored at narrative’s expense.
Stephen Crane, ed. Christopher Benfey | Complete Poems | American Poets Project | 2011
In his introduction, Benfey notes that Crane’s most individual qualities have long been ignored, even by sympathetic readers: they admire his starkness of language and modernity of line, but not the compressed, parable-like narratives these serve. Yet the time may have come for reassessment: aligning Crane with a certain vein of writing from the seventies, Benfey sees a ground prepared by the influx of poetry from Eastern Europe, and by the impact of deep image. This made me think a more contemporary ground might lie with the writers of Action Books. Though Crane lacks the grotesqueries they admire, he flirts with kitsch. His angels scoffing at churchgoers, man chasing horizon, split the difference between American Renaissance allegory and New Yorker cartoon; and it’s not surprising to learn that his original publisher, Fred Holland Day, was a mentor of Khalil Ghibran. All that aside—or rather, not aside—Crane’s work is fun to read. It’s nice to have this compact edition.
Donato Mancini | Buffet World | New Star | 2011
A pringle can probably tell us more about our world than a potato: ersatz, weighed down by packaging, more pleasurable than sustaining, the lowly chip—like its lowly consumer—is the material form of a relation (economic, ecological) that stitches reality. These wonderful poems tug at those stitches, making reality dance wonkily, like a puppet show. Fun facts, childish play, damning critique: Capitalism, you are what you eat.
Thomas Mann, trans. John E. Woods | Doctor Faustus | Vintage International | 1999
From the Mann-Adorno correspondence I learn that portions were taken verbatim from source texts—a precedent (yet another) for our contemporary practice. I feel especially close to Mann’s version: plundering one milieu to recreate another, he historicizes the avant-garde while making it the vehicle for a counter-history. In conceptual writing, however, a concept is nothing without execution. Here, as it should be, the devil is in the details.
I poeti della scuola siciliana | Vol. 1: Giacomo da Lentini | Vol. 2: Poeti della corte di Federico II | Vol. 3: Poeti siculo-toscani | Ed. Roberto Antonelli (vol. 1), Costanzo Di Girolamo (vol. 2), and Rosario Coluccia (vol. 3) | Mondadori | 2008
It’s silly to list these long-coveted volumes when I’ve only managed to make my way through a half dozen poems (under Carla’s tutelage, of course), but because they’ve already sent me on a fruitful detour through Rosetti, I feel, if not justified, then at least honest: my attention is directed where it takes new inspiration, though it can’t go forward on its own.
Laura Riding | Omitted Poems and Superseded Versions, 1927-1938
I spent a fair portion of the year tracking down fugitive publications and original editions by A. R. Ammons, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Laura Riding, with gains in each case. The biggest surprise came with Riding, whose bibliography contains perhaps a hundred pages of uncollected poetry and a wealth of material for a variorum, a companion to First Awakenings (the uncollected work through 1926) and Collected Poems (Riding’s “self-determining canon”). What lies beyond, in the archive, I can’t say, but the unpublished writing strikes me as a separate issue. It’s the successive stages of Riding’s public presentation that interests me—a story well worth preserving.
Andrew Schelling | From the Arapaho Songbook | La Alameda | 2011
It feels good to be in synch with a friend: little did I know when I took up The Ghost Dance Religion that Andrew was already studying one of its principal languages, Arapaho, an Algonkian tongue that flourished where he now lives. The aim: “to get closer to plant, animal, rock, weather, or hydrological cycles, by way of the Native words that held them.” The resulting work has an objectivist compression, which, despite the economy, finds space for all that the eye can see, or ear hear, all that deepens a day. Living up to the demands of Arapaho as expressed in his book’s epigraph, from Edward Sapir: “Single Algonkian words are like tiny Imagist poems.”
Elisabeth Workman | Maybe Malibu Maybe Beowulf | Dusie Kollectiv | 2011
Through experiments on a rodent (namely myself), I can say that these poems all hit the goody place, the pleasure center of the brain, which laps up the lines like so many pulses: “pink tufa dust / of the Golden Girls,” “Caucasian dawgs,” “a probe, a hole, a ‘Burger King,’” “SpongeBob / ejaculates brief histories of time.” All meaningless, of course, but perfectly directed, electric.
Beyond these, let me cite without comment two books I blurbed this year: Stan Apps, The World as Phone Bill (Combo Books, 2011), and G. P. Lainsbury, Versions of North (Caitlin Press, forthcoming). Also, two broadsides that gave me great pleasure: Tim Atkins, Pet Soundz (Crater Press, 2011), and Rodney Koeneke, At the Small Bar in the Embassy (Cuneiform Press, 2011).
More Benjamin Friedlander here.