CRYSTAL SET #11: Hymns of St. Bridget by Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson (Adventures in Poetry, 1974)

Hymns of St. Bridget by Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson (Adventures in Poetry, 1974). Stapled with a cover by Larry Rivers, the book is 20 pages long and includes 9 poems written together by O'Hara and Berkson, as the back matter says, “between 1960 and 1962, mostly in New York. Some of them appeared in Evergreen Review and Chicago.” Every poem’s title has something to do with Saint Bridget, like “St. Bridget’s Hymn to William de Kooning” and “In the Summer House (With St. Bridget).” The idea for the collaboration started when Berkson and O'Hara were walking down First Avenue and noticed the bent steeple of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church. Berkson then wrote a poem in imitation of O'Hara about the steeple, “Hymn to St. Bridget’s Steeple,” which became the first poem in the book. Berkson showed the poem to O'Hara, who responded by suggesting they write a series of St. Bridget poems together. The “limp and ridiculous” steeple, as Berkson describes it, also appears in O'Hara’s well-known poem “Steps,” written on October 18, 1960, the same time he was writing these poems with Berkson: “How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime / and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left.”

Wikipedia tells me a lot of good things about Saint Bridget, including that “as a child, she once gave away her mother’s entire store of butter. The butter was then replenished in answer to Brigit’s prayers,” but most importantly for Berkson and O'Hara, Saint Bridget/Brigit was “a woman of poetry, and poets worshipped her, for her sway was very great and very noble.” (This is a terrific use of “sway.”) Also, Bríg, the Celtic version of Bridget, invented keening, a combination weeping and singing, hence the “hymns.”

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These poems map out the physical, emotional, and social space of Manhattan for the two poets, as Berkson signals in the first lines by locating St. Bridget’s on “ninth street,” but then quickly turning to “it doesn’t matter, you are my dream / of an actual winter.” The second poem, “St. Bridget’s Neighborhood,” is maybe the best poem in the book, and is written in couplets with small caesuras separating phrases. Instead of describing the poem I’ll just quote two amazing passages. First these lines from about halfway through the poem: “I have a headache / I want to have heartache   (to begin:) // My heart is corresponding oddly and with odd things and I / sometimes wonder if the future holds nothing // but the Surgical-Dental Supply Co. and Disney / the light is getting dim and a softness is settling // over the aluminum appliances and the fire escapes / and a fresh green paint over my royal flush heart.” And these lines, which end the poem: “I rather like these minor attentions when I / am not alone and it is nice for me when you are not alone // An orchestra is never alone   St. Bridget is never alone / although she must feel lonely when we ask her such questions // Is the nest an animal too?”

I was also super stoked that yogurt shows up here, in “Song Heard Around St. Bridget’s,” because O'Hara has some great poems with yogurt in them and it’s important to keep track of those. “When you’re in love the whole world’s Polish / and your heart’s in a gold stripped frame / you only eat cabbage and yogurt / and when you sign you don’t sign your own name.” Yogurt actually comes up again in this poem but I’m not going to overdo it and quote more yogurt lines.

Here are more great lines from other poems: “no more fuzzy fatigue / though we’re still asleep / walking through the gardens of Sceaux / to the frozen dahlia exhibit / lying there like income tax forms” (from “St. Bridget in the Metro”)

“you are attractive and poor   you are a horse” (from “St. Bridget’s Efficacy”)

“you are not unlike a blue and pink and bong / de Kooning” and “bravo bravo bravo bravo as usual / because I was not logical I was crying and I flushed / the tears down the drain back to the salt like on / the wharf the pier the pier-ess   Two becomes one often / enough to keep the floodgates closed against art / or any abstraction which might make us one / instead of two singular steeples necessarily / together” (from “St. Bridget’s Hymn to William de Kooning”) Obviously here Berkson and O'Hara are describing the act of collaborating that incorporates gender in a really amazing way.

The last poem in the book, “St. Bridget’s Hymn to Philip Guston,” has an epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “Why do you beat Sunday” (can’t find what book it’s from) and is pretty long, 6 pages, and plays with separated columns of lines that can’t be read be horizontally, so it’s like the two columns have to be read by two voices simultaneously a la Ashbery’s “Litany.” The de Kooning and Guston poems are both longer and look, on the page, like O'Hara’s poems from the time with the long lines and spacing of poems like “Ave Maria” and “Having a Coke with You.” The word “eagle-nutted” also appears in this poem.

“Us Looking Up to St. Bridget” includes the lines “St. Bridget may not protect you but she / does keep you alive if that’s your idea of a good time.” This line stayed with Berkson for a long time, maybe in a way tied to O'Hara’s death, and later became the title of the collaborative correspondence book assembled between him and Bernadette Mayer, What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? In a letter to Bernadette in response to the question “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Bill writes, “I was incredibly mean to Frank O'Hara one time: I shouted at him for liking the sound of his own voice too much. I think now it was out of envy. It’s one of the few things, maybe the only one, I feel a physical hellfire damnation about, partly because he was so vulnerable to the attack, he didn’t retaliate.” Like so many of the other New York school collabs, Hymns of St. Bridget is an incredible record of a friendship of thinking and loving together, a difficult, expansive necessity.

“I am the cushion of your soul your ambition your beauty

and I am glad and that is my hymnal next to the Bowery

that is my bower next to your beautiful Self that’s IT”

CRYSTAL SET #10: Bolinas Journal by Joe Brainard (Big Sky, 1971)

Bolinas Journal by Joe Brainard (Big Sky, 1971). Printed in a run of 300 copies, the book is 45 pages of undated journalistic entries with drawings throughout, including excerpts of a comic made will Bill Berkson with a Pop-Eye dick and Nancy vagina, versions of posters for readings given during his month in northern California, drawings of friends (a great one of Berkson), a map of Bolinas, a portrait of Joe by Philip Whalen (with “Joe knits up a careful tennis shoe white thread” written underneath), a little poem written by Ted in his hand, and handwritten introductions for Joanne Kyger and Bobbie Creeley by Joe for a reading in San Francisco (the poems read by Bobbie were her Fifteen Poems, republished by Belladonna* in 2012). The cover is a reproduction of the classic black and white Mead notebooks. It was the first book published by Berkson’s Big Sky Books.

Brainard wrote Bolinas Journal from May-July 1971 while on an extended visit to Bolinas, CA from NYC to spend time with friends, including Bill Berkson, Lewis Warsh, Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, Robert Creeley, Bobbie Creeley (now Bobbie Hawkins), Diane di Prima, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley (Ted and Alice visited around the same time as Joe), Tom Clark, Lewis MacAdams, and Donald Allen. Anne Waldman and Kenward Elmslie are also mentioned (via mail and phone calls). He stayed with the Creeleys and then lived in a house shared with Whalen (one page is a drawing Joe made of two notes Whalen left him in the kitchen). I’m pretty sure Ron Padgett mentions in his memoir about Brainard, Joe, that Bolinas Journal was planned to be published all along, which makes sense. Not that the writing is premeditated, it’s the same sort of frank, self-conscious, funny, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes totally glowing prose as I Remember, but reading Bolinas Journal as a project is interesting, and with as much as Brainard obsessed and flamed his own anxieties about “work,” Bolinas Journal is a prismatic example of pleasure-as-work, and vice versa, or what it means to produce work as an artist traveling, or what a community of artists is or does (especially since Bolinas is often referred to as the west coast hub of the New York school).

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Regardless, it’s a really good book. In a review of Brainard’s Collected WritingsMarjorie Perloff describes Bolinas Journal as “boring,” saying about his journalistic writings and interviews in general that they are “not profound” and that “there is something missing here.” About the Collected as a whole she says, “300+ pages of such material may be too much.” I wonder what Perloff means by “boring” – as in nothing happens, or that it’s tedious? She probably means trite or shallow or inconsequential, i.e. “not profound.” The tired critic’s contradictory tropes of excess, both “too much” and “something missing,” betray the hollowness behind Perloff’s aesthetic devaluing, that Brainard’s particular and astoundingly unique dismissal of genre (both in his visual art and writing) doesn’t conform to received (or even progressive?) notions of literary purpose or beauty. Overall, she seems to find little value in Brainard’s writing other than that it is occasionally “amusing.” Leaving aside the critic’s larger political-aesthetic project, it seems to me difficult to read Bolinas Journal and not be equally delighted and decimated. If anything, this book has a kind of frayed elegance. And I mean frayed in the most permissible, potentially terrifying (for the writer) way, that it exposes the effects of a strain, the strain of being openly gay in the mostly heterosexual community of Bolinas and the strain of being an artist with deep anxieties about the quality and process of his own work. Brainard picks at these strains throughout:

“Being queer isn’t an easy habit to break. And usually, I have no desire to….And I do think that being ‘queer’ is an unnecessarily limiting as being 'straight.’”; “How I can be so shy and insecure, and such a conceited ass at the same time, is beyond me.”; “As for me - I was a bit embarrassed by my New York City diaries. (So melodramatic) And I wonder about my being somewhat 'primitive,’ and knowing it. And taking advantage of it.”; “The funniest things are hard to admit. Pills. That’s a hard thing to admit. That I take them. No, that’s not hard to admit. What’s hard to admit is that I needthem. (Sometimes) Thank God I’m vain enough not to let myself get carried away tho. And I take them only for work.”

Does Brainard calling his own homosexuality a “habit” point to anything less than a crisis? And I don’t mean that in a dramatic sense of personal disaster, but that referring to being queer as a habitual burden and then immediately observing that dichotomous sexuality is socially constructed, a deft turn to say the least, is exactly that frayed elegance Perloff misses, where the crisis is the writing’s own irresolvable position. That Brainard does this so simply (I want to say “does this with a surface that is also a depth,” but a surface that never trusts the stability of itself as a surface is probably better) shows how full and charged (over-full, glamorous, exuberant) the choices are in this writing. Also, how are these not two of the best sentences you’ve ever read?

“Another thing nobody likes around here is the postmistress Rose.”

“A little girl wants a quarter. Giving her a nickel she mumbles 'mother-fucker’ and walks away.”

There’s also this brief story about Joe losing a very old and expensive baroque pearl and emerald pendant on the beach during a 4th of July party, which is accompanied by a drawing of the lost pendant on the page next to it. The baroque pearl reminded me of the recent conversation about the baroque as aesthetic sparked by Stephen Burt’s essay about the “Nearly Baroque,” where the contemporary baroque (overwrought, visceral, decadent, excessive) is founded on a kind of deficiency (Perloff’s “something missing”). Joe’s reaction to losing the “imperfect” baroque pearl is compelling, and it seems, if you wanted to, that you could lay these sentences right on top of the Perloff/Burt argument, as if Brainard’s “loss,” which he experiences in a positive way as surprisingly casual affirmation of value, is exactly where critics might respond negatively to a lack of profundity:

“Funny tho, instead of reacting to the loss, I somehow got outside of myself, waiting and watching to see how I would react. Which I didn’t. I mean - I just more or less said to myself 'Well, it’s gone.’ Let me tell you that it really was a beautiful pearl. Very valuable too. And my most favorite thing.”

There’s a lot more to say about Bolinas Journal, how it deals with friendship and gossip, how it confronts sexuality and gender (and how it may be complicit with traditional values at times), how it refuses overused tropes about the New York school, how it performs the concept of illustration, how it works as a collaborative book, and so on. Copies of the original Bolinas Journal are rare (this one is ILLed from Arizona State), but it’s worth getting Brainard’s Collected, where it’s reproduced in full, if only to see the drawings. The last line of the book is:

“My idea of how to leave a place gracefully is to 'disappear.’”

CRYSTAL SET #9: Polar Ode by Eileen Myles and Anne Waldman (Dead Duke Books, 1979)

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Polar Ode by Eileen Myles and Anne Waldman (Dead Duke Books, 1979). I found out about Polar Ode on the ABAA site looking through book listings late at night. I was surprised to have not heard about it before since there were so few female collaborations in the 2nd generation New York school. Polar Ode was written back and forth by mail between, as the end of the poem notes, New York, Boston, Cherry Valley, San Francisco, and Florida for “a reading at Zu, NYC December 22, 1978,” the winter solstice, and also the same day Bernadette was writing Midwinter Day in Lenox, MA, which is a cute nerd fact. The back matter notes that Polar Ode was printed at The Poetry Project in an edition of 350. The cover is by Steve Levine. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side lists four titles under Crony Books/Dead Duke Books in 1979-80, which was run by Greg Masters. At some point Dead Duke became Crony, which still exists now and recently published At Maureen’s, a collaboration between Masters and Bernadette from 1981 about staying at Maureen Owen’s house in Connecticut.

Like how Waldman and Ted Berrigan’s Memorial Day (1971) was written for the occasion of a reading on Memorial Day, and so moves through themes of death, loss, and remembrance, Polar Odewritten for a reading on the winter solstice, marks the movement of fall into winter and moves through ideas of cycles, seasons, and the subtle ways that bodies and time are kept or patterned, both on a large scale and in terms of personal movement and identity. The mythopoetic tropes of the seasons, especially how seasonal changes correspond to sexuality in Greek myths, become a way of approaching feminine sexuality, particularly being an openly gay woman poet. The gossip around Myles’ having come out in her poems at a reading (there’s a part about this in Inferno) repeats a few times, and a critique of “acceptable” femininity and sexuality runs throughout the poem, moving between flirting (“I mean, um, do you come here often”) to camp (“need more jewelry in this poem”) to abject (“And / as you’ve been taking oatmeal baths / I’ve been ‘eating it’ each morning”) to punk (“I like a good fire, / a good fuck”) to mystic (“that the goddess Parvati is having a business to do to be holy in this world, that Dickinson’s poems will make you cry, that you will cry”) assertions of female power and ability. There’s also this great movement between astrology and science as a way to open up ways of thinking about sexuality beyond heterosexuality’s mostly dichotomous codings. What it means to be hot or cold (summer or winter/turned on or turned off), in the city or out of the city, and having made it or not made it also recur as ways of interrogating sexuality and bodies, and behind that is this tension of being in the poem or out of the poem: “I once asked Blank to do a collaboration / and she said she didn’t do that sort of thing // I thought she was being snotty” (Based on what comes directly after this in the poem, my guess is that “Blank” here is Alice Notley.)

This leads into how fraught even the poetry community of the late-70s/early-80s in New York was when it came to including queer women: “Couldn’t be queer / until I was legit” and “I am curious to be queer young poet / for the first time / etc.” The poem quotes a number of lines from other poets that directly or indirectly address queerness, including from Frank O'Hara, Notley, and William Carlos Williams, to display the sexual marginalization embedded in their own avant-garde tradition. The phrase “asexual daze” repeats as this condensed acknowledgement of the violence of being forced to assign yourself a clear sexuality, but there’s also this attempt to throw off the assumption that it’s “a big deal” to be openly gay in a poem: “there was some comment, my dear, / on a recent poem of yours / using the pronoun "she” / for the first time / referring to a lover // was this a big step? // double brrrr. I took a pile of valium and / turned on the tube, / become one with her. A true truce.“ The avoidance of a direct answer with this gloriously decadent moment of fuckmerging attests to the poem’s audaciousness when any either/or distinction seems on the verge of splitting the poem, splitting the writers. There’s this great part where they’re playing with this 2nd wave feminism Wittig-cliche "all women are lesbians” and saying, Yes totally we’re all lesbians which means straight women are actually “deviants on ice,” which is funny since ice skating keeps coming up in the poem. Race, the canon, music (The Ramones, Rolling Stones, Talking Heads), the issues/difficulties of collaboration, drugs, spirituality, health, and capitalism all play a role in the poem as well. The last line of the poem, which is in quotes, is “'So, do you want to go to bed together?’”

On an unrelated note there’s also a great drunk John Ashbery moment (the “you” here is Anne): “John Ashbery, inebriated & coming on / the other night at / Jimmy Schuyler works reading: 'I want to SEE you!’ / 'But I’m going to Florida in the morning.’ / 'Don’t give me THAT!’”

CRYSTAL SET #8: Ceremony Latin (1964) by Bernadette Mayer (Angel Hair, 1975)

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Ceremony Latin (1964) by Bernadette Mayer (Angel Hair, 1975). The book is 23 pages with no front or back matter and the Angel Hair address stamped on the inside of the back cover. The year 1964 is in the title because that’s when the book was written, so it is Bernadette’s “first” book, though it was her fourth published book following Story (1968), Moving (1971) and Memory (1975). In a July 17, 1989 lecture at Naropa, Bernadette describes Ceremony Latin (1964):

The structure of this book is simply the duplication of a journal that I kept when I was about 17, and it includes translation from Ovid, “The Golden Age,” and sort of funny journalistic notes and poems and things about how much I hated my grandfather. So all I did was print the journal itself and the reason I wanted to do it was because the keeping of this journal was what had inspired me to really want to become a poet, so I thought it might be beautiful and useful to other people.

Here’s a link to the full lecture: https://archive.org/details/Bernadette_Mayer_Lecture_July_1989_89P076.Bernadette would have been 18/19 in 1964, but 17 is a fair stretch. Ceremony Latin was reissued in 2006 by Shark Books, which is only $6 at SPD and worth buying. They also did a reissue of The Baskbetball Article. I ILLed an original copy from Ball State that’s been maimed by being unbound and restapled into unmarked hardcover vomit brown flaps, though the cover and interior pages are in pretty good condition.

The book begins with a translation of Ovid, followed by pages of what look like poems but could be lists of notes and imagistic jottings, some “formed” poems, quotes from Psalms and Genesis, and transcriptions of dreams. For as disjointed as the materials in the book might appear, and for as casual as Bernadette makes the book’s preparation seem (“simply the duplication of a journal”), Ceremony Latin has a deliberate structure and accumulative movement that show the early formation of her poetics. The integration and appropriation of multiple voices using quotes and quotation marks, rich syntactical juxtapositions (“smells / lemon satchet”) that led to Bernadette’s importance for Language poetics, the mixture of the contemporary and antiquity (“the western party, Vestal Virgins”), and a vernacular prosody that integrates dream into the consequences and crises of the everyday – all formal choices that would become important to works such as Midwinter Day – are at work throughout Ceremony Latin. At one point “Christ” and “Billy Budd” parallel one another. At one another point she writes “A couch is but an imprimatur / for farts.” I cried, on the beach, when I read that. 

Her poems’ interest in desire, sexuality, and gender are also present here, most obviously in lines like “I masturbate with you I hope and my love is greater / than yours,” but in more subtle ways as well, like when she dreams of two women, “One is 189, the other 144 years old. Their breasts are / large and firm. They do not know how they can be so old. / Their conversation is trivial,” which echoes her earlier quote from Genesis, “And Lamech lived a hundred & 82 yrs and begot a son. / And Lamech lived after he begot Noe, five hundred & 95 yrs / & begot sons & daughters.” The tension here is between how men control the privilege of time, of being named, of being progenitors, and how women, despite their bodies, or perhaps because of how their bodies are compartmentalized based on male desire, remain anonymous, confused, trapped in “trivial” speech. Bernadette’s poems have never stopped insisting on the unacceptability of this paradigm, of confronting its violence, and forming movements through its difficulties. Later in the book she writes, “A nun helps me climb back up. I cling to her wondering / how my body feels to her. It is natural for me to be / clinging to her and not a man.” Her Catholic upbringing, and her struggle with its orthodoxy, is apparent throughout the book. The title Ceremony Latin, implying both the monolithic power-language of Catholic mass and the potential liberatory gesture of the poet-translator’s ritualistic attention to a “dead” language’s constructedness, foregrounds this question of language’s role in restricting/allowing certain ways of being in the world.

Overall, the book is funny, painful, and audacious, especially in its interest in the abject. How it is a book is also amazing to me, that it begins with a translation and moves through these various forms beyond a simple conception of “poem” and really kind of all collapses and rises together. It reminds me of the contemporary books I’ve been most obsessed by, how they break our idea of “poetry book” and “poem.” There’s also just no anxiety at all about this 23 page text being a book and not a chapbook, which is maybe a distinction we put too much weight on because of institutions. I don’t know, but I like how this book works as a book, and how it insists on being a book despite even how Bernadette tells us it is straight from a journal.

This is totally subjective, but the part of Ceremony Latin that most reminds me of “later” Bernadette poems is this page about halfway through the book, so I wanted to quote it in full. There’s no title. She mentions her sister, Rosemary Mayer, who became a visual artist, and Vito Acconci, who Bernadette edited the magazine 0 to 9 with in the late ‘60s.

Dream more real than life. Every old woman

is a fetus at a phony saints feet. There are no works

of art without sentiment. I doubt Rosemary’s interest

in art. I never dream about Vito. My conscious feeling

about him must be more real than dream. Jealousy is

worse than morality. Instead of a harmless father image

he has turned into a lover image and I was too slow in

realizing it I have committed my self to a whole set

of institutions superstitions prejudices projections and

customs which I denied & deny in my mind. Marriage

like this is half old and half new. I love queers.

The last page of the book has this one line on it: “Scorpions when threatened by fire commit suicide.”

CRYSTAL SET #7: Back in Boston Again by Tom Clark, Ron Padgett, and Ted Berrigan (Telegraph Books, 1972)

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Back in Boston Again by Tom Clark, Ron Padgett, and Ted Berrigan (Telegraph Books, 1972). I found out about this book from Aaron Fischer’s Ted Berrigan: An Annotated Bibliography. It’s a small book, 7x4.5 inches and 48 pages, with a foreword by Aram Saroyan, “Forward,” and 3 short sections, one each by Tom, “Ten Things About the Boston Trip,” Ron, “Back in Cambridge Again,” and Ted, “Ten Things About the Boston Trip: An Aside to Ron & Tom.” The picture of the cover is of Chris Martin’s copy of the book, which I was coveting on his couch in Minneapolis last week. I asked Chris to send a picture of it because the copy I ILLed was rebound in one of those generic hardcovers and they removed the original front and back cover, which is very stupid, because the photograph on the cover is by Rudy Burckhardt, the photographer and filmmaker associated with the New York school who was Edwin Denby’s bff. The cover photo has a kind of Cornell box-like arrangement. Burckhardt made a series of short films with Joseph Cornell in the 50s, some of which are up at UbuWeb. I recently found a copy of Burckhardt's Films, which collects his collaborations with John Ashbery, Jim Carroll, Denby, and many others.

The entry in Fischer’s bibliography gives some background on the press: “According to Victor Bockris, Telegraph Books was a collaborative press that he founded late in 1971 with Andrew Wylie and Aram Saroyan (who indicates that the word "Forward” is not a deliberate misspelling.) Back in Boston Again was the fifth of ten titles published in the course of the eight to ten months that the press was active. At the time, Bockris was working at Folcroft Press, which was located in ‘an obscure suburb of Philadelphia’ and dedicated to reprinting out-of-print literary criticism. He used its facilities to print and bind all the books done by Telegraph.“ The back cover has the Telegraph Books logo, where the "T” looks like a telegraph pole, and the price of the book, which was $1. The back matter lists a few other titles published by Telegraph, including Saroyan’s The Rest and Gerard Malanga’s Poetry on Film. The copy I ILLed is signed by Tom Clark. Chris’s copy is signed by Ron Padgett.

Back in Boston Again is about Tom, Ron, Ted, a few other people going to/meeting up in Boston where Aram was living at the time. You can read the book really fast, just a few minutes. Aram’s foreword is brief and dryly funny as he “introduces” his three friends, basically noting that Ted talks a lot, Tom is smart, and Ron likes to read. Tom’s section is a series of short poems in quatrains that mostly play with using a lot of names in short lines but come off as very bro-y, or maybe like he’s trying to be “cool” about being on this trip with Ron and Ted. I bought his Easter Sunday at The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City last week and want it to be good and not bro-y.

Ron and Ted’s sections are both made up of short prose pieces. Ron’s read like James Tate narratives, a la Return to the City of White Donkeys, but seem entirely “real,” other than one about a woman who says she has plastic bones in her leg. They’re funny and warmly odd and straightforward in that Padgett way and about how he doesn’t know what a lilac looks like and getting yelled at making Xerox copies and not being able to order a chocolate malt. Here’s one in full where Ron says “zonked,” which is such a Ron thing, and drops a Yeats reference:

Aram had expected only Tom from New York, and in the afternoon, so when Larry, Ted, Tom and I banged on his door at 11 a.m., he came down the stairs, still zonked by sleep, opened the door, could hardly trust his senses when he saw the four of us standing there in the brilliant sunlight, all very tired from not sleeping the night before, all of us excited, all of us talking to him and each other and ourselves at once. The center was not holding. When I break-the-icingly suggested that we try again tomorrow, he invited us in. Someone asked about coffee and Aram said, “Yeah, man, come on in the kitchen.” He led us to a doorway, over which hung a curtain of red burlap. We parted the burlap and stepped in…to the bathroom. We must have stayed there several minutes, no one daring to mention the fact that we weren’t in the kitchen.

Ted’s section is very funny and more wrapped up in the literary side-trips of the trip to Boston, like what book he got for free at Grolier Book Store in Harvard Square (now Grolier Poetry Book Shop), and going through back issues of The Harvard Advocate in the Lamont Library looking for old poems and stories by Frank O'Hara, “one of which, called NOT WITH A BANG, was hilarious. It made me think of Rene.” He means Renépart of an early 19th century French novel by Françoise-René Chateaubriand. (Note: an email from Aram Saroyan corrects me on this point, saying that “Rene” is likely René Ricard, which makes much more sense.) Saroyan’s foreword says they took the trip to Boston a “few years” ago, so probably 1969 or '70, only a few years after O'Hara’s death. Ted’s devotion to O'Hara’s work and its influence on him are well documented, but whenever I come across Ted mentioning Frank, especially in less discussed texts, it really shows how deeply Ted revered O'Hara, how sacred and deep that love was. Even in the early 80s, just before his death, Ted was still copying down O'Hara poems and quotes into his journals. In a journal I looked at with Dan at Emory, one page has O'Hara’s “Poem to James Schulyer” written out in full with what looks like a newspaper picture of Frank pasted onto the page. It’s a very deliberate, careful act of love.

Ted made Xeroxes of everything he found of Frank’s in the Harvard Library, which is when Ron had a hard time and got yelled at by the copy guy. Ted’s section also talks about how he got a sunburn, bought a striped polo he wore every day of the trip, and broke the zipper on his pants.

After getting Xerox copies made of the works by Frank, I went to the Men’s Room, when after a brief interval for the greater inconvenience, my zipper broke and my pants were rendered useless. I had no underpants on. I closed my pants as best I could, which was not at all, and sauntered out of the Library, across the street, and into a men’s clothing store, where I purchased a pair of light brown LEE trousers. No one else on the Boston trip mentioned my new trousers, even though my former pants were blue-and-yellow striped. I left them at the store.

The idea of Ted walking around Boston in blue-and-yellow striped pants and a striped polo like a burly Bob Dylan sailor is amazing. Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” could totally have been a source for the title Back in Boston Again. At one point everyone is hanging out listening to The Beatles. In another piece, Ted talks about smoking a joint on a park bench in Cambridge. “I thought about Frank. I was smoking grass.” The last page of the book reads, “I was in that park about a year. Never did feel in a hurry. I was in love.”

Crystal Set #6: Memorial Day by Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman (Poetry Project, 1971)

Memorial Day by Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman (Poetry Project, 1971). In the last few years Memorial Day has received some attention, first in 2012 when the audio recording from Ted and Anne’s initial reading of the poem at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery on May 5, 1971 was found in Robert Creeley’s audio archives and posted on PennSound. Michael Hennessey has an article, “Recovering ‘Memorial Day’” at Jacket2 about finding that recording: https://jacket2.org/commentary/recovering-memorial-day. What I love most about the article is Anne saying she had “a recording of a recording of a recording” of the poem made by Clark Coolidge. This note, along with the tape showing up in Creeley’s archives, especially after it had been considered lost for so many years, shows how valuable this poem was to a wide variety of poets. And not only the poem itself, but the event of its being read and heard. It is a poem that needs to be heard.

Then last year a video of Ted and Anne reading Memorial Day was posted on the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art channel. I don’t think anyone had any idea it existed. The video description says: “This reading of Waldman and Berrigan’s poem "Memorial Day” was performed as part of a reading series at 98 Greene Street Loft curated by the poet Ted Greenwald. The video was shot by Sandy Hirsch on the only video format that existed at the time, ½ inch open reel video, often referred to as Portapak, and like any video shot in this format from the late 1960s to early 1970s, it is now a very fragile historical document. Digital preservation of this video allows us to now view it and share it with the public for the first time in decades. The Archives thanks the Berrigan estate, Waldman, and Hirsch for their generous permission to share the video on our YouTube channel": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjfWeiTTvnw. I had just found the audio recording of Memorial Day last year like a week before this video surfaced, so my seduction at the hands of the recording immediately became an obsession as I watched the video over and over.

In Ted Berrigan: An Annotated Checklist, Aaron Fischer quotes Anne Waldman about the making of the book:

“Ted & I were scheduled to read several months in advance at The Poetry Project on Memorial Day. Not sure we originally requested this date, but the day fell out that way and we were psyched, having an 'occasion’ to focus on that would also jar some collaborative writing. We were both living that spring in Long Island. I was in Bridgehampton, renting a house with Michael Brownstein Kenneth Koch later bought. Ted and Alice Notley were in Southampton in Larry Rivers’s place there. Ted was always somewhat 'charged’ by the subject matter(s) of death, loss, friendship and the energy & challenge of bumping up against another poet in 'making’ work. Some friends of ours had died by then and we saw the potential piece as an homage, a commemoration, a meditation, and we definitely composed it with the oral reading of it very much in mind. It was kind of a psalm, hymn, litany all blended together that allowed for story (epic that you tell the heroes’ tales) - some decidedly musical form. We weren’t living far away from each other but decided to collaborate through the mail. So we went back and forth at least five times. As the time for our performance drew near it fell on me to 'organize’ the text which were 'clusters’ to my mind out on the Bridgehampton studio floor and letting my eye and ear jump around with scissors and paste. I think we both (after the initial organization) looked it over & Ted went with my arrangement with very minor emendations. The decision on the last part (’& Now the book is closed’) was mutual and we orchestrated it with great intentionality (pretty much alternating lines) for our public performance. The 'closed’ chant originally came from hearing Chris Gallup (Dick & Carol Gallup’s daughter) saying that things were 'closed’ as she drove a street or highway in a car (possibly on Long Island?). Ted had picked up on this and I went with it wholeheartedly. Larry Rivers did a terrific collage work that we translated into a flyer for the event (Nice To See You, p.119). We were in great form, the performance felt exhilarating and powerful. Ted 'borrowed’ the audio tape made that night which he played on numerous occasions. Where is it now?

The cover is by Donna Dennis who I think has a section in Nice To See Youwhere she talks about spending time with Ted and making the cover for Memorial Day. There’s an alternative cover included there, too. The line "Nice To See You” comes from Memorial Day; the words Ted says he’d like on his grave. Frank O'Hara’s death is a huge part of the poem, too, and I’m sure the idea to write a Memorial Day poem had a lot to do with Frank’s “Memorial Day 1950.”

The audio and video recordings are breathtaking, each in their own way. I feel like I’ll never get over this poem, but that’s just as much about the poem as it is the banter at the beginning of each recording, especially the audio. How Ted and Anne joke with one another explaining the poem’s process, Ted putting on his tender bravado, Anne’s wit mixing with his performative masculinity. Then this incredible joke: “Anne and I have been married for twelve years now and we’re living testimonial to how marriage can work,” Ted announces. Everyone laughing. “Go ahead, honey.” “Ok, baby.” And they start reading, exchanging sections of the poem back and forth as they read. “Today / Open: Opening: Opened:” says Anne. And then Ted: “The angels that surround us / die / they kiss death / & they die / they always die.” It’s so clear how much they love each other.

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I had been obsessively listening to the 1981 recording of The Sonnets for a while before I became familiar with Memorial Day, but it was really Memorial Daythat bound me to Ted’s work. Last summer Carrie and I wrote a long poem after Ted and Anne’s poem called Labor Daywhich is about work in the way that Memorial Day is about death, that was recently published as a double collaborative chapbook, along with Tyler and Layne’s Collected Feelings, by Forklift, Ohio. Writing with the people I love is such a part of that love. Ted and Anne are so good at showing us how our love existed before we did. It’s significant that Memorial Day is included in Ted’s Collected Poems, a rare inclusion of a long collaborative work in a space that is typically restricted to a poet’s singular output. One imagines Ted would have insisted it be included, too.

I ILLed the original stapled mimeo pamphlet, which is the one handed out at the initial reading in 1971, and read it today, Memorial Day, while listening to the recordings of them reading the poem. I sat on this couch and Carrie sat on the other couch. The original is so gorgeous, the lines spread out on the large pages, all the little typos, the shaky, uneven typewritten font, how the ink bled through onto the back of the pages. Maybe the most amazing thing about it is that the back cover is another front cover, as if the book’s beginning and ending had been confused, as if it didn’t end. Ted believed in cycles, and this object bears out that sense of how time collects, returns, and is revoiced. Carrie just said to Jared on the phone, “I’m glad you’re okay. I’m glad you’re okay.” Later we’re going to eat a watermelon we took from a dumpster last night. Our grave is going to say THE PONIES WERE JUST HERE.

Crystal Set #5: The Basketball Article by Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer (Angel Hair Books, 1975)

The Basketball Article by Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer (Angel Hair Books, 1975). I think Cassandra sent me a pdf of The Basketball Article. I printed it out and stapled it together. It sat on a shelf for a while, then I read it, re-read it, saw there was an essay about it in The Color of Vowels that I didn’t read, saw it mentioned in an essay by Daniel Kane about Angel Hair, read it again. This is Bernadette’s note at the beginning, dated July 15, 1975:

THE BASKETBALL ARTICLE was conceived in November 1974 & written in April 1975 as an assignment for OUI magazine. We got to go to all the Nets games we wanted through Barney Kremenko, Publicity, but Jim Wergeles of the Knicks balked, “What do you girls really do?” We heard he was a jock. We went to the first women’s basketball game held in Madison Square Garden. We wrote a review that was rejected for being too technical. We tried not to make THE BASKETBALL ARTICLE too technical so it was rejected by a group of editors a few of whom thought it “was a minor masterpiece,” the others “couldn’t tell what the hell was going on” in it. We were rejected by the Village Voice for whom the work was not technical enough. An agent told us THE BASKETBALL ARTICLE was fragmented and could not be handled. We never got into the locker room. A purely prophetic work in the tradition of social realism, THE BASKETBALL ARTICLE is duplicated here in an edition of 100 copies, by a Gestetner 420 mimeograph machine using green film stencils no. 62. We express our thanks to Mr. DeBusschere, Mr. Kremenko, Mr. Padgett, Mr. Rezek, Mr. Robertson, & Mr. Warsh.

Is there a school for sports announcers? They should all have to read this. The note is such an amazing performance of the intricacies and tensions of how the female poets of the “second generation” New York school fucked with and played against the warp and mess of gender expectations in the 70s. The whole book takes those issues of male dominance and exposes them in the scene and celebrity of basketball. Two women conceiving together in spite of the jocks, how technical mastery or a failure to master (mister) is noticed/received/reviled, what it means to be seen and given access (publicity/privaticity), to have or not have titles, to be whole or in pieces, what it means to (mis)represent an ideology, to be rejected/accepted/handled/owned/duplicated, the clout of expertise and the disregard of being inept, the prophetic in the easily reproduced and popularly reported. “We never got into the locker room.” To be a charlatan, to be marginal, and to write out of and through the thrill and profanity of those deficiencies not as deficiencies but as channels of renewal. Joyful, flamboyant little aporias as the clock ticks down.

The Basketball Article predates the funny ESPN office commercials by 30 years, and undoes all of them. It’s only 13 pages long, but the prose has this irreducible audacity that so excellently combines Anne and Bernadette’s hilarious charm with their insistence on performing the complications of consumption and desire attached to being a female body. They talk about wearing lipstick to the games and flirting with the players. “We begin to dress in red, white and blue, we do not stand up for the national anthem.” They talk about how baffling they are to players, managers, and the press. “We enter their consciousness. We carry a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets with us.” They talk about their female bodies and the male bodies of the players and the exaggerations of bodies. “It’d be interesting to put Oscar Robertson into a dream laboratory. He never crossed his legs.” They talk about how they love it and couldn’t give a shit less. “We were sitting in our hotel suite at the Plankinton House in Milwaukee drinking Tequila Sunrises.” It’s really about pleasure, the pleasures of ritual and attention, how sports direct our pleasures, how poetry directs our pleasures. It wants us to talk about that space. The fact that they called it The Basketball Article, with the emphasis on the definite article “the” and how it names the text as a singular, authoritative gesture, like saying we, Bernadette and Anne, are going to write the article about basketball, is totally indicative of their audacity on a larger scale. Also, there’s a joke at the end of the book about Full Court Press, an amazing press that put out Frank O'Hara’s Selected Plays.

The picture on the cover of The Basketball Article is of a man speaking, who looks like a basketball player at a press conference, and a woman not speaking looking at the man. The picture really foregrounds the problems of reverence that Bernadette performs in her introductory note when she thanks the basketball people along with “Mr. Padgett” and “Mr. Warsh.” Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh, who edited Angel Hair together, used to be married. Bernadette and Lewis started seeing each other in 1975 and were having children together soon after. Anne and Bernadette’s shared pleasure in making this book, and their shared pleasure in these men, and how they articulate that pleasure on their own terms, is an incredibly radical sexual-poetic statement. It’s funny that Ron Padgett is mentioned though. Ron seems to continually end up being the butt of the joke whenever Bernadette, Anne, Alice, or Eileen talk about their relationships with male poets during that time. I’m writing this in Minneapolis where today someone told me they saw Ron read at a Swedenborgian Church. I want to play basketball with all of the poets at the Swedenborgian Church.

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CRYSTAL SET #4: Book of Magazine Verse by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit Press, 1966)

Book of Magazine Verse by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit Press, 1966). I don’t know if Jack prepared the book for publication, but it was published the year after he died and the chronology in his collected poems does say he wrote it in spring/summer of 1965 and sent some of the poems out. According to the SF public library website White Rabbit put out 63 books between 1957-1968, including Jack’s After Lorca (1957). Book of Magazine Verse has 7 sections, each one titled something like “Two Poems for The Nation” or “Seven Poems for the Vancouver Festival,” the conceit being that Jack wrote each set of poems as a submission for that magazine, or whatever else, knowing they would likely be rejected. So the book is this joke about how writing poems becomes this business of publication and how editors police aesthetics. This kind of gesture seems in keeping with Jack’s snarky wit, sometimes remembered as him just being an asshole, but the book also represents his insistence that poems are not of this world, that they aren’t made to be discrete objects held in place under some lit mag’s temporary clout. This is the book’s dedication: “None of the poems in this book have been published in magazines. The author wishes to acknowledge the rejection of poems herein by editors Denise Levertov of The Nation and Henry Rago of Poetry (Chicago).” I don’t know how much it had to with the press, but in 1960 Spicer tried to start an art space in San Francisco called “White Rabbit College,” the name being a slight fuck you to Black Mountain College. Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Robert Duncan is the place to go for more about the intricacies of Spicer and Duncan’s relationship, one that was often very fucked. I remember one story where Jack sent a young male poet from his entourage to Vancouver with a message for Duncan and the kid saw him at a party, was all excited to given Duncan this message, and said to him something like “Jack wants to know if you can tell the difference between a poem and a streetcar” and Duncan freaked out on the kid, like who the fuck do you think you are, get the hell out of here. Years earlier, when they were very close, Spicer and Duncan had said about a poet they didn’t like that he couldn’t tell the difference between a poem and a streetcar. An amazing example of how far Spicer would go out of his way to piss someone off. But from our perspective 50 years later it also seems like such a devoted gesture. It’s hard to imagine Spicer, despite all the fights and shit talking and protesting against other poets, didn’t love his friends.

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In the notes to his collected it says the cover, which is a replica of an old Poetrymagazine cover, was designed by Graham Mackintosh and Stan Persky. Each section is printed on a different kind of paper to simulate the kind of paper used in the magazine the poems were written for, from the glossy pages for Ramparts, a 60s-70s expensively produced political/lit mag, to the leafy brown newspaper-like pages for The St. Louis Sporting News, a section made of 4 poems “about” baseball. The poems remind me of Berrigan’s sonnets, maybe because they look similar on the page and have these off-kilter repetitions, but also because a whole poem repeats from one section to another. A note from Robin Blaser shows how this was in keeping with Spicer’s beliefs about dictation: “Jack did not know he had duplicated a poem until he read the poem to Stan Persky and me and we pointed it out. He looked surprised, checked them, and said that was the way they had to stand.”

I bought The Book of Magazine Verse at The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville, North Carolina, a place Steven Karl, Alexis Orgera, and I stumbled upon after eating vegan sausage on our way to Raleigh. Asheville is the Portland of North Carolina, a hill city still weird and thriving a few miles from Black Mountain College. The Captain’s Bookshelf is poetry dork heaven with a ton of rare editions and a poetry section full of treasures. I also bought a first edition of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In the back the owners, who were so stoked to talk to us, showed us a painting that is a portrait of Kenneth Patchen with light and energy streaming out of Kenneth’s head. I think it was called Kenneth Patchen as a Spiritual Being. The Whitney Museum had just visited to appraise it for their collection but they didn’t want it because it had been mounted or something. Kenneth Patchen is from Ohio and one of the greatest least talked about poets and seeing this painting, I was kneeling on the ground looking at it, is one of the most important moments in my life. This is all to say that how I came to own The Book of Magazine Verse is bound up in some intense magic.

The Book of Magazine Verse is the last section in Jack’s collected and the last poem is about Allen Ginsberg with the first line “At least we both know how shitty the world is.” The poem is such a complicated articulation of the difficulties of love and freedom in terms of the public and the private and, because of its insistence on that difficulty, a totally incredible last poem for a book and for a life. Kevin Killian recently tracked down Spicer’s grave and you can read about that here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2014/05/jack-spicers-grave/ Daniel Katz’s new book about Spicer is also really good: http://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Jack-Spicer-Daniel-Katz/dp/0748645497

The Critical Performance of Translation in The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare

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The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare, edited by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault, is a collection of “translations” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, where translation, as opposed to operating between languages, means a variety of English-to-English transformations and other experimental procedures. Each sonnet is translated by a contemporary poet based on a wide range of processes that take to its limits Walter Benjamin’s notion that “[t]he task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.” In Cohen and Legault’s Sonnets, this “echo of the original” is deformed, defaced, silenced, or amplified in a myriad of translation processes that, as the book’s introduction suggests, are conceptually in keeping with the piracy and theft that led to the initial unauthorized publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1609, the cover of this collection being a fact-simile of that pirated edition. “[O]ur hope,” write the editors, “was that the contributors would approach the original texts from their multitude of vantage points, that they would board the ship, loot and pillage, break things down, and reconstruct it all in a fashion that would allow us to view multiple dimensions of the original work in a new light, as a new structure.” The editors continue, “If Shakespeare’s framework was the sonnet, then our contributors’ framework was Shakespeare.” This emphasis on reevaluating translation as a negotiation within a conceptual space of authorship rather than strict or accurate formal and semantic carry-over animates the project of this book. Including a wide-range of poets from disparate aesthetics and politics, this anthology is unique in its inclusion of an array of “new” or “conceptual” translation methods, including homophonic translation, erasure, collage, and a number of hybrid forms that challenge traditional notions of what a poem is, not to mention the reliability and purpose of the act of translation.

In this polyphony, Benjamin’s contested notion that in the translation of a text “there remains in addition to what can be conveyed something that cannot be communicated” is radically extended towards Johannes Gorannson’s idea that in what he calls the “wound of translation,” “the “meaning” may have been “lost” but the materiality of the text is brought to life.” Translation as such, if by translation one means fidelity to an accurate one-to-one carry-over of meaning between languages, is of no interest to the poets in this collection. Rather, the translator here is closer to Artaud’s conception of the director as “a kind of manager of magic, a master of sacred ceremonies” who performs the theatricality of translatability that abandon’s semantic fidelity to reimagine translation as a site of affective resurgence, a process that is as much séance as scene (in the theatrical sense), as much creative appropriation as critique. As critic Patrick Primavesi notes, “The performance of translation enacts the encounter of texts in different languages.” That these translations are mostly English-to-English dramatizes this performance by semantically internalizing the encounter with otherness, or untranslatability, that frames traditional translation.

Precedents for such performative conceptual translation include poet Jack Spicer’s 1957 After Lorca which begins with an introduction presumably written in English by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca that states, “It must be made clear at the start that these poems are not translations…. Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not Garcia Lorca as, indeed, he would if he were to look into my present resting place.“ Of course, in 1957 Lorca had been dead 21 years, shot at the outset of the Spanish Civil War, his body never found. One also thinks of Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 film Adaptation, which dramatizes Kaufman’s failed attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thiefinto a movie, transgressing and blurring the boundaries “between theory and practice, text and performance, language and body” in a way analogous to these prismatic restructurings of Shakespeare’s sonnets. What is important in these examples is the foregrounding of the failure of translation and the gesture toward formal innovation, the materiality of the text, and process-as-critique as the theatrical mechanisms of translation’s performance. Examining a selection of poems from The Sonnets will show the political, economic, and aesthetic performances of these translation methods, suggesting how acts of translations might act as a revolt that produce poems and poem-objects which, as Brandon Brown describes, “in a minor and yet powerful way, call for the end of masters.”

One act of translation that dominates The Sonnets is what will be referred to as conceptual formalism. For example, Vanessa Place’s translation of Sonnet 20, titled “Boycott,” simply changes the gender of the pronouns and nouns from female to male while retaining the formal elements of the original poem, highlighting Shakespeare’s contested sexuality and challenging the gendered and political nature of language and description. Place’s “Boycott” is subtle, but its reassignment of desire threatens to undermine the formal structure that houses it, transgressing against the traditional, heterosexual work of the sonnet form. Dara Wier’s translation of Sonnet 106 is another example of conceptual formalism, provocatively foregrounding the form and the act of translation by doubling each line to create a 28-line poem, as if Wier had copy-and-pasted each line of the original sonnet; even the poem’s numeric title “CVI / CVI” succumbs to this twinning, calling further attention to the sonnet’s reliance on numbers as a structuring mechanism. When read out loud, the result is a kind of formal stuttering that humorously interrupts the iambic eloquence of the original and brings to the fore the poem’s formal constructedness. Most interestingly, in the doubled translation the poem’s Shakespearian rhyme scheme of four alternating, rhyming quatrains with a final rhyming couplet is radically upset so that each line’s end word is now made to rhyme with itself. This both parodies the contrived, “forced” nature of rhyme (one thinks of the lyrics “Generals gather in their masses / just like witches at black masses” from Black Sabbath’s 1970 song “War Pigs” or “boom, boom, boom, / Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon” from Katy Perry’s 2010 innuendo-rich “Firework”) and overemphasizes the subtle use of eye rhyme in Elizabethan poetry: it is no coincidence that “rime” is made to rhyme with itself in lines 5-6; the same goes for “eyes” in lines 21-22. But eye rhyme is not excluded to end words; Wier’s poem visually extends the notion of eye rhyme to encompass each whole line. These redundancies and stutterings turn the reader’s focus from the sonnet’s lyric argument about writing, time, and beauty to the overdetermined nature of the poem’s formal constructedness, calling attention to the poem’s artificial scaffolding rather than its content. That the original poem’s meaning is explicitly concerned with semantics – with reading texts “in the chronicles of wasted time” and meditating on how these dated authors’ “antique pen would have express’d / Even such a beauty as you master now” – shows how Wier’s doubling translation toys with and undermines the specific content of the poem in its translated theatricality. 

In the larger scope of The Sonnets, Place and Wier’s sonnets are relatively restrained experiments, retaining much of the original texts in order to draw attention to political and aesthetic issues latent in the poems’ content. Thom Donovan’s translation of sonnet 64, another example of conceptual formalism, further radicalizes these moves in a number of ways. As Joyelle McSweeney writes about affective, deforming translation methods, “‘acts of translation’ are matters of one medium entering into another’s space, of one body saturating another, of disintegration, a disorientation of borders.” Donovan literalizes this transubstantiation of mediums by presenting his poem as a screenshot of his computer on the website Google Translate, an interface that allows users to translate a text between any number of languages by copying a text into one box, selecting the source and translated language, and clicking “translate,” causing the translated text to appear in another box. In the screenshot, Donovan’s English text appears highlighted on the left side of the page, supposedly copy-and-pasted from another document, and on the right appears the same text translated into Arabic. However, the English text is not the text of sonnet 64, but a brief, seven sentence reaction to the original poem’s themes of disaster, ruin, and monuments to death written into the context of post-9/11 American politics. Sonnet 64’s references to “lofty towers I see down rased” and its politically charged lines, “When I have seen such interchange of state, / Or state itself confounded to decay, / Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,” clearly directed Donovan, a poet actively engaged in New York’s Occupy Wall Street, to read the poem’s meditation on death and love’s fleetingness next to the themes of violence and remembrance surrounding the rhetoric and politics of September 11th.

Donovan’s reaction begins by referring to Shakespeare’s now-unseen sonnet: “The upper echelons of American government are unlikely to respond to September 11 in this way. The recent war with Iraq implies the obverse of what Benjamin – or probably even Shakespeare – might like to see. Still the reflection on ruins is an undertaking available to us all.” The government not responding “in this way” refers to the introverted helplessness and ravaged empathy of the turn in sonnet 64’s final three lines: “That Time will come and take my love away. / This thought is as a death, which cannot choose / But to weep to have that which it fears to lose.” Instead of this admission of vulnerability, Donovan suggests, the American government has gone to war with Iraq, here calling on Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish theorist who died fleeing the Nazis in 1940 whose essay “The Task of the Translator” haunts The Sonnets as a project, as well as Shakespeare himself, as a means of layering the discourse around authorship in the same way that the screenshot layers the several textual modalities that compose the final “translation.” In this way, Donovan emphasizes “the irreducible violence” of translation itself, how the diasporic movement of Shakespeare’s sonnet into various modes, locations, and languages acts as a corollary to the violent dispersal of bodies in war and reactionary nationalisms.

This fluid relationship between translation and violence, the aesthetic and the political, is further performed by Donovan’s translation in terms of disaster and economy, the related scenes whose legibility is defined and policed in the behavior of bodies and poem-bodies. With Shakespeare’s sonnet 64 wholly absent from the translation site of Donovan’s screenshot, the original poem becomes the invisible ruin at the site of war’s excessive beginning in the same way that, as Donovan writes in his poem-response, “the rubble at Ground Zero has been hastily, almost heroically, cleared; and [there are] plans progressing for building something new on the site.” The removal of debris and recovery of bodies here becomes analogous to how the vast majority of translated texts are presented in English, absent the original and radically deemphasizing the role of the translator. Instead of an active, exposed participation with ruin and/or text, Donovan’s translation suggests that erasure and memorial are our culture’s modus operandi, both in literature and politics. Rather than linger on “[i]mages of immense piles of debris and deep holes of devastation,” such images are quickly circulated through the bodies of various media and deformed in the process, most pointedly on the internet, a process similar to translation that further complicates the relationship between memory and time expressed in the original sonnet and performed in Donovan’s screenshot. That Donovan’s already translated text is then translated into Arabic, stereotyped as the language of “the terrorists,” and a language that Donovan supposedly does not know (hence the use of Google Translate), exposes the densely tangled and often erased assertions of otherness and untranslatability involved in American diplomacy and traditional North American translation models, as well as the increasing complications of neoliberalism’s appropriation of Arabic as a valuable language of business in the entrenchment of global capitalism. The pressures of economy also explicitly enter Donovan’s translation in the form of the screenshot, which allows us to see, at the top of the image, Donovan’s browser and bookmark toolbar, including quick links to various art websites, Facebook, Gmail, the American Alliance of Museums job search page, the AWP job list, and, in the Apple menu bar, a small American flag symbol that indicates the use of a “U.S.” keyboard palette, an apt representation of the politicization of all language acts.

Brian Teare’s translation of sonnet 40, “OCCUPY SONNET,” continues the political critique of Donovan’s conceptual formalism, but Teare’s methods are slightly different. Here, the original text is still completely absent, but the translation takes the form of a loose close-reading-cum-litany that analyzes sonnet 40 in the context of Occupy poetics. This translation method, written in prose, investigates the economy of form and the form of economy, commenting on the formal movement of meaning in the sonnet as it relates to the economic movement of capital. How both of these systems of exchange and value allow or prohibit individuals’ capacity to love others is of direct interest to Teare’s translation. Like Shakespeare’s original sonnet, Teare’s “OCCUPY SONNET” begins with a question, “Why turn a lover’s discourse into a discourse about debt?” Having pressured the sonnet as “a lover’s discourse” into a politicized space of “discourse about debt,” the poem immediately answers itself with lines written as an economically motivated reading of the poem, where “love” in the original becomes “money” in the translation: “The sonnet begins with a complaint: if I’ve already given you all my money, then – duh – you’ve got it all. But sonnets and lovers depend on numbers.” Like Wier, Teare calls attention to the sonnet’s formal reliance on numeric patterns, but here Teare’s translation suggests that an inherent debt results from the exchange between love and form, money and economy. The flippant “duh” of Teare’s economic rationalization stands in for the beleaguered position of Occupy Wall Street activists rallying against the excesses of corporate capitalism, their radical “complaint” echoing the complaint in Shakespeare’s original, “What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?” Shakespeare’s dense repetition is performed in Teare’s translation as an interlocking set of litanies beginning with the phrases, “The sonnet…”, “We tried to explain…”, and “Some of us…” that act as the formal elements of the translation’s poetic argument as it slowly comes to “occupy” Shakespeare’s sonnet just as protestors occupied public spaces during the Occupy movement.

 As the poem progresses and the list of who “we tried to explain” economic inequality to moves through capitalism’s hierarchy to include credit card companies, banks, the federal government, and finally the president, Teare’s translation is forced to take action: “A few of us began to protest. “Poverty is something money can’t buy,” Joanne says, but it can be stolen when it’s a metaphor.” The tension here between the hegemonic control of material wealth and the theft of discourse’s immaterial power appears in Brandon Brown’s formation of translation as shoplifting: “The scene of translation sometimes felt like the moment you’ve shoplifted something in a store where surveillance systems are unknown to you. Will you make it out?” Oblivious to traditional demands of “fidelity and license,” as Benjamin notes, Brown and Teare’s translation methods audaciously steal back language’s ability to articulate meaningful demands for autonomy and socio-political accountability, neglecting the surveillance and policing of poetic and political representation.

 As Teare’s translation continues to glibly and angrily elucidate Shakespeare’s sonnet in economic terms, “The sonnet continues: I’ve given you all I had, and now you’ve taken more, what the fuck?”, particular repetitions begin to suggest critical pairings, such as “counting” and “accounting,” “forgiven” and “forgiveness.” The sonnet’s formal “counting” morphs into “accounting,” referring both to the irresponsible financial accounting of the “1%” and to the lack of accountability for the economic crisis, issues that dominated the discourse of Occupy Wall Street. Furthermore, the inability to have one’s debt “forgiven” by economic institutions is layered with the affective-spiritual dimension of “forgiveness.” As Teare writes, “When poverty is literal and persistent, it’s an injury we learn to live with without forgiveness.” If the goal of the Occupy movement was to occupy the symbolic “publicness” of civic spaces as a means of, like Zizek’s Bartleby, “preferring not to” submit to the strictly oppositional logic of capitalism’s hegemony, Teare’s “OCCUPY SONNET” similarly occupies the representational space of Shakespeare’s sonnet 40. This occupation is both metaphorical and literal as it negotiates the contradictions inherent in our ability to “carry-over” meaning and value both in the act of translation and the act of revolution, redirecting value towards a radical embrace of this aporia, the poetic-political scene of utopian salvation where “their [the 1%’s] dream will stop, the doors will open and they will wake up in our arms.”

Similar to Donovan’s translation, Teare’s critique of economy and revaluation of form’s role in that critique is mediated by the absent text of Shakespeare’s original sonnet as well as a historical lineage of literary and political precursors from Benjamin to Occupy. Dana Ward’s translation of sonnet 4, “Cinq Saveurs: A Children’s Book,” written in 14 prose stanzas equivalent to the 14 lines of the sonnet, further extends these methods by combining Donovan’s ability to construct the poem as a constellation of layered texts with Teare’s development of a personal narrative around the master text. More than any of the previous examples, Ward’s poem enlarges the performative scope of translation to include a lush range of intimate narratives subtly engendered by the text of sonnet 4. But Ward’s “translation does not describe the original work, so much as it reconcieves it, injecting it with new ideas and values” (Brown). Like Teare’s poem, this radically revalued poem comments on the economy of form and the form of economy, negotiating concepts such as friendship, tradition, community, and affective transformation.

Ward’s poem is prefaced with an epigraph from Bay Area poet Dodie Bellamy, to whom the poem is dedicated, describing “one lovely evening with John Wieners,” a poet of the second generation of New York school writers, that culminates with Wieners purchasing a pack of Lifesavers candy for Bellamy. “I keep that pack of Lifesavers in a draw in my desk,” the epigraph ends, an affectionate expression of her reverence for Wiener’s gesture as well as the role of his poems in her writing life. The beginning of Ward’s translation performs the poet’s readerly reaction to Bellamy’s narrative, asking

What would I do with those candies if I had them? Save them forever, an heirloom I’d guard with my life to be given not even to Viv but somehow just given away. For the moment I guess that’s impossible here. There are too many Charons between us for gifts to bridge the rough abyss they shelter & reveal. Shatter & confirm.

The speaker’s negotiation with the generosity of gift economy is immediately complicated by his desire to save the Lifesavers as his own, even from his daughter, “the bad karma of wishing they were mine” propping up what is “impossible here” (5). Bellamy’s Lifesavers, like Shakespeare’s original sonnet, “shelter & reveal,” “[s]hatter and confirm” the borders between death and life, the irrevocably complete past and the constantly generating present. It is from this generative present that Ward constructs his translation, as the speaker says in the second stanza, “The morning I read Dodie’s post I knew I’d be nourished by its questions forever. The question of the lineage of love’s exilic candy, … of preservation, consumption, & hunger & care.” He continues in the third stanza, “I know their magic would seduce me in the end. I’d succumb because it’s what I always do.” Like in Teare’s translation, Ward reimagines the ability or inability of affective exchange between individuals, as embodied by the candy, as the conditions of translation and literary tradition at large. But also at play here is an anxiety about the unavoidability of succumbing, both as a participant in capitalism and as an artist, to the selfish consumption of ideas and goods, of what it means to constantly negotiate personally, aesthetically, and politically between one’s “hunger” for self-preservation and “care” for one’s community.

Ward’s translation so thoroughly blurs the distinctions between the personal, aesthetic, and political that earlier lines such as “It’s so cherry though, thinking economy’s grave,” with its pun on a Lifesaver flavor and the colloquial meaning of cherry as “in exceptional condition,” suggest radical political possibilities are deeply embedded in everyday choices, both personal and artistic, but, like translation, especially in how one chooses to “carry-over” value between individuals and over time. This is illustrated later in the poem as Ward and a friend attempt to stage the exchange between Wieners and Bellamy on their own terms by buying Lifesavers and throwing them into the Ohio River together as a wish ritual. However, when they stop at the mall’s candy shop to buy Lifesavers they find only the “gummi kind that come in little bags,” their translation of the scene already failing. But by no means does the speaker encounter this failure as a prohibition, as he continues, “I decided those would have to do. Maybe they’d finally be better. In trying to excise a fantasy why not begin by unmaking its fidelity, first to itself, & then to every other thing.” These lines not only describe the speaker’s ritualistic act of homage, but speak to the poem’s own relationship with Shakespeare’s original, which it has thoroughly “excised,” a term that Artaud welcomingly applied to his notion of performance as that which should “make our demons FLOW.” Embodying this flow, Ward’s translation “creates this proliferation of openings” that later in the poem allow the possibility of the speaker being “instantly & totally transformed,” a kind of translation as instant gratification that foregrounds the impossibility of absolute fidelity in the scene of translation.

Indeed, if Ward’s poem is provocative in its exclusion of any direct carry-over of meaning from Shakespeare (it does carry-over associatively), it is more provocative for choosing the only actual moment of translation inthe poem as its title: “I asked Julian before he ran into the store to grab a roll of Life Savers I could keep as an emblem of our weekend. The package had the French & English both. Cinq Savuers. I savored the word in my mouth.” But as noted above, “Cinq Savuers: A Children’s Book” formally corresponds to the sonnet with its 14 prose stanzas and, in the final stanza, alludes to Ron Padgett’s 1964 sonnet “Nothing in That Drawer,” an early conceptual poem that repeats the phrase “Nothing in that drawer” for 14 lines, commenting on the artificiality of the sonnet’s formal conveyance. Ward’s poem also performs the theatricality of translatability in its acknowledgement of the speaker’s failure to reproduce the emotional effect of the events that precipitated the poem while nevertheless generating its own unique emotional resonance. Like Donovan’s screenshot, Ward’s translation layers various reading and writing experiences in the folds of a single text to encourage a reevaluation of meaning’s origin, to consider translation as a ritual exchange between bodies and over time that must begin and end in failure, in love.

If Teare and Ward’s poems extend Place, Wier, and Donovan’s poems even further beyond traditional notions of translation, then Amaranth Borsuk’s translation of sonnet 103 almost fully obliterates it. Borsuk’s poem is a sparse flash of phrases across the page, visually reminiscent of Jen Bervin’s erasures of Shakespeare sonnets, Nets, in which the majority of the text is erased, leaving only a ghostly trace of the original and a new poem standing out from the excised text. Borsuk’s translation, on the other hand, strays even further. Taking its cue from the first line of the original sonnet, “To me, fair friend, you can never be old,” Borsuk begins her translation as an epistolary to Shakespeare himself, “Will, / blame me not / for striving / to rehearse // your lines / in this / fogged mirror.” The poem digresses from there into two more short, often-enjambed sentences packed with puns and double entendre: “Language fails, // or mine does. / Call me lame – / I can’t reverse // your verses, / or reflect: / my typed face pales.” However, this is not the end of Borsuk’s translation. Following the poem proper is a three-page “Translator’s note,” a kind of mini-essay that fully elucidates Shakespeare’s sonnet 103 and Borsuk’s choices in relation to an avant-garde tradition. Reading the poem and translator’s note as a unified text, Borsuk’s translation thoroughly destabilizes “the distinction between the inside and outside” of both poem and translation, insisting on a rich lineage of aesthetic predecessors and critiquing the traditional invisibility of the translator.

The relationship between Borsuk’s translation and the translator’s note is especially provocative when one considers the use of “rehearse” to describe the poet’s failed, self-conscious effort of translating Shakespeare’s sonnet. In its traditional theatrical context, rehearsal is that preparatory space of repetition and experimentation where failure is necessary in order to decipher “what is and is not working” in a given performance. Here, the poem is exactly that space of rehearsal refusing to be totalized, complete, or perfected. The poem also rejects the concept of translated texts “mirroring” the original, suggesting that such reflections of meaning and authorial identity are fictions. Rather, Borsuk’s “typed face pales,” a pun on typeface that finds identity, however weak, in how thoroughly a text does not reflect its source. But if identity is in the typeface, in written language, then, as we all know, such identities are by nature highly destabilized, borderless, malleable. This emphasis on deformation and the potential untranslatability of poem/self is equally performed in the translator’s note, a critical-poetic prose essay that, just as the poem does, rehearses the critical process of thinking through Shakespeare’s sonnet and a lineage of theorists and poets including Jacques Derrida, Gertrude Stein, and Ronald Johnson. Many of the note’s word choices comment on the “rehearsal” space of the translation, suggesting that Shakespeare’s sonnet 103 operates “in the guise of a praise sonnet,” that “the Bard writes,” and Borsuk’s comment that sonnet 18 “inspired Derrida’s own thoughts on différance.” This “guise” suggests that the sonnet’s formal qualities constitute, like an actor on stage, the poem’s “costume,” obscuring in measure and rhyme Shakespeare’s own “typed face.” Similarly, Borsuk referring to Shakespeare as “the Bard,” that stereotypical master-poet, situates the author as a character in his own production, an actor performing “a verbal joust” via the sonnet’s theatrical metrics and rhetorical turns. With the page now thoroughly transformed into a stage, Borsuk’s statement that Derrida’s burgeoning post-structural project was “inspired” by an anxiety about linguistic insufficiencies in sonnet 18 brings critical and theoretical writing closer to poetry and translation by suggesting that a theorist might be “inspired” by a creative text in the same way that a poet might be.

In this sense, this vague notion of inspiration becomes the space in which all reactions to a work of art become a “translation” of that work. Indeed, Borsuk’s translator’s note is itself “a verbal joust” that makes (perhaps) preposterous claims about Robert Herrick and Gertrude Stein imitating Shakespeare and generates itself out of clever puns, such as when a quoted line from All’s Well That Ends Well, “Here comes my dawg” (II. v. 52), echoes in the following paragraph when Borsuk writes, “As writers following at his heel or on his path, well all dog William Shakespeare.” To dog Shakespeare, meaning to pursue or to shadow his legacy and innovations, seems an apt description of the project of The Sonnets as a whole and, in a wider sense, as a comment on how various avant-gardes approach literary heritage in general. Borsuk’s note ends in a provocative gesture, noting that “These poets, and others, have sought to kiss the hem of Shakespeare’s argument with their praise, only to find it gone – our Bard stripped bare by his bachelors, even.” Reduced to mere discourse, the authorial space of “Shakespeare” is revealed to be empty, “stripped bare by his bachelors” in their gestures of appropriation. The final, ambiguously charged “even” of Borsuk’s note performs exactly as it would in a poem, acting as the literal and metaphoric space of finality, so that, perhaps before the true performance begins, all actors, all poets, might be “even.” If the various experimental translation methods in The Sonnets have anything in common, it is this insistence on the dismissal of the academic gate-keeping and the hierarchical notions of fidelity and accuracy that dominate traditional discourses around translation. Rather, these poets propose various methods and models that imagine translation, and art-making in general, as a continually coalescing space of performative critique and celebration. Whether that means translation is a conceptual disorientation, breaking and entering, occupation, digression, or the act of enjambing oneself in the dialectic, the possibilities for translation as performance are endlessly renewable.

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Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. trans. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Press, 1958.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” The Translation Studies Reader. ed. Lawrence Venuti. London: Routledge, 2000.

Brown, Brandon. “Translation and Revolt.” Harriet. The Poetry Foundation, 8 Nov. 2012.

Cohen, Sharmilla and Paul Legault, eds. The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare. New York: Telephone Books, 2012.

Donovan, Thom. “Proceeding Translation: Brandon Brown & David Larsen.” Harriet. The Poetry Foundation. 3 Feb. 2010.

Goransson, Johannes and Joyelle McSweeney. Deformation Zone. New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012.

Primavesi, Patrick. “The Performance of Translation: Benjamin and Brecht on the Loss of Small Details.” TDR 43.4 (1999): 53-59.

Shakespeare, William. Sonnets. ed. Barbara Herrnstein Smith. New York: Avon Books, 1969.

Spicer, Jack. My Vocabulary Did This To Me: Collected Poems of Jack Spicer. ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. New York: Wesleyan University Press, 2010.

Ted Berrigan and Foreign Film

 from Michelanglo Antonioni’s  L'Avventura  (1960)

from Michelanglo Antonioni’s L'Avventura (1960)

I just finished an essay on Ted Berrigan’s novel Clear the Range (1977) and one of the things I found really interesting while researching the book was the possibility of it being influenced by Ted’s interest in foreign films. Clear the Range is a transformed western, in the same sense that Star Wars is a western, and though it’s been well-documented that Ted loved the “badness” of western and gangster movies, his attraction to more experimental cinema like French New Wave hasn’t really been talked about. In March 1962 Ted wrote to his first wife Sandy about seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), Michelanglo Antonioni’s L'Avventura (1960), and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961). And that was just during one month. Pop Art film also could have been an influence. Berrigan was friendly with Andy Warhol, used one of Warhol’s Brillo boxes as a coffee table, and was probably interested in the “boringness” of Warhol films like Sleep (1963), Empire (1964) and (we can only hope) Taylor Mead’s Ass (1964). Warhol conducted a screen test (ST22) with Berrigan in 1965, so Ted was pretty intimate with the avant-garde film scene in the 60s. I write about this in my essay, which will be published sometime soon, but it’s interesting enough to bring it up outside of Clear the Range, if only to show how I got to this point in reading Berrigan and suggest that we look for ways to read more poets through aesthetic frames other than literature. The below passages are from Dear Sandy, Hello: Letters from Ted to Sandy Berrigan edited by Ron Padgett and Sandy Berrigan (Coffee House Press, 2010). The fact about Ted’s Brillo box is from Ron Padgett’s Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan (The Figures, 1993).

March 4 or 5, 1962: “Tonight Dick [Gallup] and I and Joe [Brainard] are going to see Breathless and L'Avventura in a double bill. You and I will see them again when you are here. Breathless is so frantic, so nervous, so controlled anyway. So alive. L'Avventura is like a dying life. Days take minutes. Seconds sometimes last for hours. In both pictures, from opposite sides of the coin, marvelous things are done with time. To rip out of the mind of human beings the dead concept of time as mathematical…time is not arithmetical. Nor is it geometrical. It is magic.”

March 31, 1962: “I went to see a movie called Last Night at Marienbad. It’s the new movie by Alain Resnais, who made Hiroshima Mon Amour. It’s a collaboration with the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, and it is one of the greatest things I have ever seen….The movie is presented in such a way as to make it all seem unreal and real at the same time. The characters sometimes move as if they were in a slow-motion ritual dance. Sometimes they are completely symbolic, other times completely flesh and blood. There is no story nor plot as such. Time is almost nonexistent in a chronological sense. There is only night and day, darkness and light….The move is masterful. It concerns life and death, and the chance for new life. If only people would remember when they were alive, they would always renew their lives. But they don’t remember. There is always something between them and life: walks, games, responsibilities. They don’t remember.”

 from Alain Resnais’s  Last Year at Marienbad  (1961)

from Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961)