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Ramez Qureshi reviews

A Paradise of Poets: Selected Poems and Translations, by Jerome Rothenberg

New Directions, 1999, ISBN 0-8112-1427-3. $14.95, U.S.A. $20.99 CAN

READERS of poetry know that it is impossible to predict the course of a poet’s development. Will a poet’s next book be his or her magnum opus? Or will the work plummet like poorly-performing stock on Wall Street? Some poets wax as they enter their golden years: think of Stevens or Yeats; others wane; think of Pound or Frost. Poet and anthologist Jerome Rothenberg is entering his golden years, and as his latest volume, A Paradise of Poets, attests, he shows no signs of flagging.
      A Paradise of Poets is a remarkable book. Including poems and translations to which Rothenberg devoted himself  during the 1990s, it is made up of four sections: ‘Elegies,’ ‘Autobiography,’ ‘The Leonardo Project: 10+2,’ and four ‘Translations.’ The work demonstrates Rothenberg’s many concerns throughout the years, encompassing European Dada, Jewish ethnicity, and ancient poetry, which he explored in such anthologies as his landmark Technicians of the Sacred,of which Nathaniel Tarn is not the only writer to remark with only some hyperbole that no poet has gone uninfluenced by — if the poet, as Keats wrote, ‘has no identity,’ Rothenberg has many, which may amount to the same thing.

Rothenberg in the elegaic mode has simply provided us with some of the most stunning elegies in American poetry since Rukeyser’s. His elegies were written abroad, in Japan and Paris, which adds a dimension of the grief of displacement: this generative aspect should make the doctrinaire formalist think twice, and magnifies the poetry’s tone of sorrow. The volume opens with a tour-de-force, ‘At Tsukiji Market Tokyo,’ an in memoriam poem occasioned by earthquake. Rothenberg is not the only noted contemporary poet to write on the occasion of an earthquake — Pacheco for one has done it — but he certainly has not come with a hackneyed hand. Bringing some of his earlier career concerns such as ‘deep image,’ Rothenberg chooses to focus his eye on the minuscule devestation brought about by the immensity of the earthquake, reminding one of Jakobson’s famed statement on the poetics of parallelism and contrast, writing on ‘small fishes packed in rows:"

gills still moving
fish blood seeping out
the blood of white fish with what stolen beauty
orange fins & tails of poison fugu
nearby eels in vats of blood & water
& the dark saws splitting flesh & bone
the severed tuna heads their mouths still open
black fish wrapped in ice
a red slash underneath its head
eye wide & dry
a cavity that cuts down deep
that lets the hand move in & out
to draw out lungs & guts
shrimps wriggling sad survivors in the sawdust
‘insects of the sea"
my mind aswim with these[...]

The last line bundles up its predecessors into the poetics of the deep image. A banal image (quite unbanally transformed) — the fishes glimpsed in the aftermath of the earthquake — becomes an archetypal nexus for the particular’s death in the cosmic. The poem concludes

forgotten with the dead
in glory
massive bodies hidden under frost
the words recorded
of a man beside himself who speaks
who says
‘be here
(so like the world they are
so like the man himself
the water underneath his window
still a haven for lost birds
  uncertain thoughts
uncertain passage through a foreign world.

The italics only intensify the tone of lament. Rothenberg speaks of himself in the third person, underscoring the disassociation caused by the catastrophe; the poet only is left, to ‘record,’ to bear witness. Yet, as in some elegies, there is a hint of consolation, however little, for ‘lost birds,’ the consolation itself only so large as the birds — tone imitates content. The Olsonesque parentheses bring this poem of nature’s bang to an artistic flourish with a non-flourishing whimper, a lack of closure: all is not well, something is unsure, unsettled: the earth itself has moved and upset its inhabitants, but there is that hint of consolation in art, reconciled with a survivor of nature, the bird.
      It is difficult to find politics in earthquakes — who can focus on anything but building codes, government handlings of the aftermath? So when Rothenberg wants to look at the political instead of the natural, as he does, he does so elsewhere, choosing to do so in the abstract. Anyone who has written, or has read an attempt at, a raw political poem, knows how difficult it is to pull this off with eloquence, but Rothenberg has done so magnificently, and has done so in the abstract sphere, providing a poem of dissent that will agitate or gratify depending on one’s politics — ‘A Poem for the Cruel Majority."

The cruel majority emerges!
Hail to the cruel majority!
They will punish the poor for being poor.
They will punish the dead for having died.

Nothing can make the dark turn into light
for the cruel majority.
Nothing can make them fell hunger or terror[...]

The sarcastic salute to the ‘cruel majority’ accompanies the politics of the poem. The ironic subject is in keeping with the atmosphere of dissent against a ‘cruel majority,’ one that imposes its iron will on persecuted minorities in what Adorno would call a ‘wrongfully socialized society.’ Rothenberg quite plainly makes clear that mere democracy is not itself, that the majority’s law is not always a just one, that majorities are not necessarily innocent, that more radical forms of democracy seem needed. Aesthetic truth rectifies social untruth. That this is an elegy only makes the poem more poignant, makes the grief of the persona part of the political indignation, complicates the emotional nexus of the voice.
      If ‘A Poem for the Cruel Majority’ synthesizes the political and the personal in the elegaic in so remarkable a manner, an equally remarkable elegiac synthesis is ‘First Night Poem, for Jackson Mac Low,’ an occasional poem written for Mac Low’s 75th birthday. But this birthday poem is a dark elegy. For a persona to write a dark elegy on the occasion of a birthday, usually an occasion for festive and trite versifying, must be the apotheosis of an elegiac attitude. If one were naive, one might even call it the product of a psychotically depressed mind, and might think of Blaser’s, ‘All Art is madness/Yes.’ It is, however, more of a stroke of brilliance (one might still think of Blaser!). ‘I offer a black sun’ to Mac Low, says Rothenberg. He later speaks of night,

Dark squads of people on a stage lit by a darkness visible as
A night of shining darkness.
Of darkness giving birth.
Plump swollen creatures in the night.
A night of dark-red turtles being born, or hornbilled turtles.
Pregnant with small lobsters,
sharp-nosed creatures,
fat ones swollen in the night.
Where time stands still for us inside the poem,
& only there,
the poem becomes a night poem & gives back the night.

There is some consolation in this darkness visible, time standing still in art, the march towards death halted by the experience of reading poetry. Rothenberg will elaborate what he is up to later:

So Milton told us not to follow rhyme,
as Blake did too,
& still we follow to our dying day.
Those are our contraries, you’d think, the poles we need to
make existence seem complete.

This is an allusion to Blake’s ‘without contraries there is no progression.’ There is rhyme in this poem, order. There is darkness; there is light. As Mac Low nears his death, his friend touchingly ruminates on the contraries, through images of light and darkness, paralleled by formal mechanisms such as rhyme and rhymelessness, in this birthday elegy.
      The elegies, mostly lamentations of a displaced traveler, are intensely personal, as are the other two ‘original’ sections of the volume, ‘Autobiography’ and ‘The Leonardo Project: 10 + 2.’ The ‘Autobiography’ section comprises three poems, each divided into one hundred numbered sections, the first with one line each, the second with two each, the third with three. The titles including the word ‘autobiography’ focus on Rothenberg as poet, highlight Rothenberg as maker. Yet, strangely, there is little use of the first person in them. What is in them is frequent mention of objects in lines such as, ‘18 There is a ship of state no bigger than a thumbnail/A platform of Russians rises to the sky,’ from the second autobiography or the activities of other subjects in lines such as ‘A father & a mother press against each other weeping’ in the third autobiography. By allowing the intrusion of the referential and intersubjective world into his autobiographies, which enter through the jottings of notes and recordings of dreams, Rothenberg dialectically acknowledges alterity, much as he painfully acknowledges the alterity of death in his elegies.
      There is a similar dynamic at work in the ‘Leonardo Project: 10 + 2’ section, a fascinating collection of twelve photographs of parts of Rothenberg’s head with text written on them  done in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper.’ Here language is the other imposed upon the face, synechodically represented by the photographs. In the first picture, for example, Rothenberg depicts the lower half of his face, tip of nose to chin, mouth apart, with text written, ‘the beard/ comes apart/ the mouth/half open with stars.’ The first two lines appear at the upper left and right corners, the third in the middle left section of the photo, the last in the bottom center, on the bearded chin. Language documents the figure, but with a tropic distortion — the personal imaginary self-representation is orbited into the realm of the poetic by the other of the symbolic. Hence, as in the elegies, there is redemption, consolation from the material world, by the aesthetic.
      Also attached to the ‘original’ material are four translations, of Lorca, Schwitters,
Nezval, and Picasso. As Rothenberg indicates in his helpful notes, he is continuing the project he initiated with Pierre Joris in Poems for the Millennium, publicizing the work of the pivotal modernists of the twentieth century. Of these translations, all of them honed, the Picasso poem, ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’ is the most interesting, as it reports the literary foray of one of the most important visual artists of the twentieth century, a preview from Picasso’s complete poems and plays forthcoming from Exact Change.
      Picasso’s poem, completed in 1959, makes one question just how nugatory linear academic models of literary history may be. One is reminded of Ralph Boston’s half-jest that Stein set a long jump record with Tender Buttons in 1914. For Picasso’s extraordinary visionary meditation, written in Spanish and French, not only parallels the multi-lingual experiments of Pound’s Cantos and recalls Stein but also anticipates what Joris has called ‘nomadic’ poetics and many formal elements of Language Poetry: Picasso utilizes prose, abolishes referentiality at times. Here we find sections such as

the most complete gap on the stage
the cast of 0—0—
the most important matters totally outside the question of
prescriptive signspicky picky & a sweet jelly roll.

This respects the left justified convention, though it resembles Stein in its break from referentiality. Some prose:

such a good example since the letter that they got & dropped into the box the same day with no stamp nor trumpet made the sprig of olive & the dove like someone swallowing a bone & sucking on the bottom of his foot just like a sea bream such a shame that after all those cries & those fandangos the young girls of the reverend priest should still be showing off their charms & tricks in a small cot that crawls with bed bugs when the hole is split in half [...]

The passage is additionally qualified. Elements of surrealism and cubism, influences of the European avant-garde art movements of high modernism are all in evidence in this striking poem. Unfortunately, Rothenberg was unable to indicate which passages were in French and which in Spanish. However, he may have done this with wisdom. The reader has a good time imagining all sorts of possible texts in different combinations of French and Spanish.
      And what of the title of this intensely personal book, A Paradise of Poets? Rothenberg informs his readers of his intentions in his ‘Postface:"
      Writing poetry for me has always included an involvement with the life of poetry — & through that an intensification, when it happened, of my involvement with the other life around me. In an earlier poem I spoke of this creating a paradise of poets [...] I do not of course believe that such a paradise exists in any supernatural or mystical sense, but I have sometimes felt it come to life among my fellow poets and, even more in writing — in the body of the poem.
      This is a very heartfelt coda to a very heartfelt collection. Indeed the body of poetry here is replete with references to Rothenberg’s fellow poets: an elegy ‘At the Grave of Nakahara Chuya,’ mentioning of ‘The head of Max Jacob [...] crying from the mud,’ a statement that ‘Robert Duncan rides his elevator up to heaven,’ that ‘Tsvetayeva with her arms wide open calls you her little jew.’ ‘Every poet is a Jew,’ said Tsvetayeva. Rothenberg invites his reader into his personal paradise, into the fellowship of poets that fuels his imagination. It is a ‘limbo’ land at times dark, at times surreal, succinctly aware of the complexities of the material land, and it is a joy to enter it.

Photo of Ramez Qureshi

Ramez Qureshi died on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2001, at the age 28.

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