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Elise Partridge: Particulars of Uncertain Provenance

I ended up sitting front and centre on a folding chair at the Vancouver launch for Elise Partridge’s new and last collection, The Exiles’ Gallery, to a packed house on Thursday evening, March 21, at the Cottage Bistro (formerly the Rhizome Café, near the intersection of Kingsway and Broadway). Many writers – connected to or mentored by Elise – as well as members of the English Department at UBC, where she studied and where her husband Steve teaches, turned out, along with fans of her poetry and other community members, to hear a dozen of (mostly) her fellow poets read a poem or two each from the new book and to celebrate her work. Christopher Patton, Rob Taylor, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Rhea Tregebov, Gillian Jerome, George McWhirter, Jordan Abel, Elee Kraalji Gardiner, Caroline Adderson (reading both for herself and for Aislinn Hunter), Barbara Nickel, Elizabeth Bachinsky and Miranda Pearson each chose poems that connected in some way to their relationships with Elise, both personal and poetic. There were a few moments when readers found themselves buffaloed by stifling tears, but most of the texts – while caught up in the pervasively elegiac tug of her poems – drew not toward lament but instead toward the celebration of the particulate textures of both language and experience in which her writing characteristically engages, her finely-attuned pursuit of “one-liners, testaments, inventories, chants, condolences,” aspiring to “see just so much,” both whelming and delicate, risking the fiercely precious, a sharply-faceted and vatic immediacy (see “Waltzing” and “The Alphabet”). Even so, the poems – each producing what she calls “a landing strip for particulars / of uncertain provenance,” and deliberately opening themselves to (her word) love – also frame a tension around their vestigial metaphysics that often feels like a yearning toward absence, not so much to fill it in as to embrace its lyric provocations. In “A Late Writer’s Desk” – a poem issued as a broadside by Anansi to mark the publication of The Exile’s Gallery – she both describes and celebrates the cobbled, awkward and uneven construction of a discarded “escritoire”: “They couldn’t give it away, I guess, / so left it beside the road, / where, obdurate, it warps.” Gesturing, in her allusions in the poem to the doubled play of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, at a Shakespearean mutability that confuses entropy and alchemy, she uncovers in the desk’s decrepitude and in its weathered reabsorption into natural substance, a decreative attention to the work of poiesis, of unmade making. Its surface pollenated by “catkin loads,” the desk as she describes it might seem neglected and abandoned, but in fact it has been both recuperated and redeemed – a kind of “scrap-yard rescue” as her text puts it – by her own poem’s haptic observance: its reciprocity, its attunement, its listening. Uneven, broken surfaces, with “not a board true,” nonetheless manage and can only manage to bear welcoming witness to “the true,” to the small but miraculous uncertainties of our own brief and all-too-human presence in this world. Listening to Elise Partridge’s poetry read aloud by those who cared and who care for her, I felt I might have caught a little of her drift.

The Challenge of Phillis Wheatley (poem)

“Phillis Wheatley frontispiece” by Scipio Moorhead – This image is available from the United States
Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a40394
I’m currently taking a MOOC from Stanford University Online called “Ten Premodern Poems by Women,” led by Eavan Boland. It’s essentially a poetry appreciation course, fostering a broader sense of women’s essential and often neglected contributions to the canon of English-language poetry. Each week, Eavan Boland introduces a poem, and then offers some historical and biographical – and even a little formal – context, and then discusses the poem with a guest speaker, usually (so far) one of the Wallace Stegner Fellows in poetry from Stanford’s Creative Writing Program. The course is very enjoyable and informative, and taking it is giving me a chance to try to re-connect with the student experience: we have weekly writing assignments, informal responses to each text. In the past few weeks, the prompts for these assignments have invited participants to compose poems of their own, either in the style of the work we’re reading that week or in reaction to the context and themes of a given poem. I had never really looked too closely at the work of Phillis Wheatleybefore – the first poet of African descent to publish in English. The facts of her life are well known: at about seven years old, in 1761, she is stolen from her home in Senegambia and transported on the slave ship Phillis to pre-revolutionary Boston, where she is purchased by Mrs. Susan Wheatley for a “trifle” of either ten pounds or ten dollars; “Phillis” has a gift for languages that her new “family” encourages, and by the time she reaches her teens she excels at poetry; in 1773, around her twentieth birthday, her poems are collected and published (in England, not in Boston) as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Read through the lens of our own time, many of these poems can seem deeply troubling, as they appear to praise slavery – in highly conventional late 18th-century style – as a means to Christian salvation:Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.” In his 1922 preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson lamented that

one looks in vain for some outburst or even complaint against the bondage of her people, for some agonizing cry about her native land. In two poems she refers definitely to Africa as her home, but in each instance there seems to be under the sentiment of the lines a feeling of almost smug contentment at her own escape therefrom.

Reading Wheatley now, I feel what we get aren’t outbursts but cracks in the mask, in her formal poetic façade, at which something like an agony, suppressed in the interests of her survival as a child in bondage, briefly shows through. What we have, after all, are the poems of a teenager. After her manumission, when she was 28 or 29, Wheatley is said to have composed another 142 poems, now lost; I can only imagine that some expression of that pain must have found its way into that work, silenced by circumstance. One of the ways to honour Wheatley’s legacy, it seems to me, is to risk writing a little way into that silence: not to speak for her – although, in ventriloquizing her seven-year-old self and transposing her voice into an English she didn’t have at the time, I ‘m aiming at least to gesture at that fraught and awful gap, the racially, culturally and linguistically marked distances of the Middle Passage. (“Yummy,” I discovered, is one of a few English words imported from Wolof, Phillis Wheatley’s native language.) I wrote this piece, torsioning the pentameter/hexameter couplets that were a mainstay of her early style, as an homage and as an attempt to encounter those distances. The challenge of encountering Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates argues, “isn’t to read white, or read black; it is to read.” I wanted at least to begin to address that challenge. And since the poem was submitted to a public forum anyway, I thought I might as well republish it here, myself.


“Phillis Wheatley,” July 1761, about seven years old
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate 

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat . . .
I‘m not sturdy enough. My two loose front teeth
fall out: I make a charm to ward off certain death,
jamming them between tarred planks near the keel
like deciduous tokens. I can’t feel
the ghost of my lost mother’s touch. Wolof
has no such words. Crammed bodies reek; men cough
up on themselves, yoked in rusting collars
to be unlocked only weeks later when we dock.
A lady tours the wharf. For ten pounds or dollars
she gets to become my good Boston mummy.
She gives me an apple. I say, “Yummy.”
She tells me, that’s a funny way to talk,
and makes me leave my carpet-scrap cloak behind,
I imagine because she’s afraid I might trip.
She rechristens me after that bad ship.
If only she knew my true name, I shouldn’t mind.

The Crucified Earth: Jan Zwicky, Robert Bringhurst and Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words’

Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurstcomposed new poetry for a week-long series of performances of Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” for string quartet, collaborating with a quartet from Early Music Vancouver that included Marc Destrubé and Linda Melsted on violins, Stephen Creswell on viola and Tanya Tomkins on cello. The last concert of the series took place on January 24, 2015, in Pyatt Hall in the Orpheum Annex in downtown Vancouver, with the space arranged as a café with candlelit tables, setting a mood of intimate intensity. Performing Haydn’s Op. 51 presents some unique challenges, not the least of which is what to do with what Bringhurst and Zwicky call in their programme notes “the presence of a text” in a work “designed as a magnificent musical envelope with seven pockets for spoken words.” The seven “words” are “seven short phrases from the Latin bible” that register in the rhythms and phrasings of musical lines, and it’s tempting to hear a form of textual mimesis in Haydn’s music, not unlike (for example) the fourth section of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, in which a “psalm” is delivered as a verbal recitation in the lead melody: “the musical phrases,” Zwicky and Bringhurst note, “rise from the meaning and shape of the text.” This noetic melopoeia seems to be what draws Bringhurst’s ear, in particular, to this work; his poetry recurrently pursues what he has called “the musical density of being.” I’m not sure that Haydn’s classicism would effect quite as much pull, although its measured textures mesh well with the chiseled exactitude of Bringhurst’s sense of line. Zwicky, too, shapes lyrical meshes of the musical and the philosophical in her poetry, and she has mined both Classical and Romantic European musical history for source material for her work.
In a pre-concert interview, Zwicky and Destrubé described the rehearsal process (at Zwicky and Bringhurst’s Quadra Island home), with Zwicky noting how for her, above all else, both poetry and music strove to realize an immediacy and a clarity, that the work could be taken in at “one hearing.” In their programme notes, Bringhurst and Zwicky describe how they developed a more ecumenically ecological set of texts, cued by the lines from the Latin translations of gospels that provided Haydn’s music with its original scaffolding, the seven last words of Christ at his crucifixion; noting that other poets – notably, Mark Strand – have written poems to accompany Haydn’s music, and that performances and recordings of the quartet have included interleaved readings from the biblical texts and other “poems on Christian themes,” they frame a pressing compositional problem:
After all these experiments, and in the face of Haydn’s own wordless eloquence, could there still be something to say? One reason to think there might be is, of course, that the crucifixion has never ceased. Man’s deliberate and vengeful inhumanity to man – and to just about everything else – is no less vivid and casual in the twenty-first century than in the first. So in 2014, when we were invited to supply some words for a performance of Opus 51 by Early Music Vancouver, we said yes. And our theme became what we thought it had to be in our time: the crucifixion of the earth.
This last phrase echoes the title of Zwicky’s award-winning 1999 collection, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, as well as the text of Bringhurst’s “Thirty Words” (1987), which was revised and expanded in the subsequent decade into an ecologically-focused liturgy, his “Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Oreamnos Deorum”:
Knowing, not owning.
Praise of what is,
not of what flatters us
into mere pleasure.
Earth speaking earth,
singing water and air,
audible everywhere
there is no one to listen.
(Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press, 159)
The kind of listening Bringhurst both calls for and wants to enact in his work refuses the “mere pleasure” of distraction and pushes instead toward the excoriation and even the extinction of the callous “inhumanity” of the human, an audibility that demands that “no one” be listening, not in the service of nihilism but rather of the dissolution of our domineering egocentrisms. Zwicky can sound, at times, less confrontational, but she is no less exacting in her demand that, as Rilke famous has it, we change our lives: “Learn stillness,” she writes, “if you would run clear.” The clarity of style and the communicative immediacy that she wants in her poetry incline toward just such an attentive stillness, an extinguishing of our all-too-human desires for control and agency: a relinquishing.
         I’m going to concentrate my commentary on the poetry, which I’m recalling from memory (none of the texts is published, and all were newly written for the Haydn) and from whatever notes I managed to take. The string quartet played with lyrical ferocity and focus throughout; their performance was, for me, a marvel of concentration and emotive power – not at all, I have to confess, what I expected from a concert of Haydn. As for the poetry, the first of the seven pieces was a colloquy, a dialogue between the two poets modeled on the polyphonic (that is, multi-voiced) forms of Bringhurst’s “The Blue Roofs of Japan” or “Conversations with a Toad,” or Zwicky’s Wittgenstein Elegies. Both poets exchanged admissions of failure, their mea culpas, with Zwicky intoning how, as human subject, “I” have “failed to let the great breath of you move through me.” Uncannily, the concentrated, collective intake of breath by the members of the string quartet was audible as they launched into Haydn’s music with fierce conviction and palpable energy, making the lines appear to breathe through them. If Zwicky and Bringhurst acknowledged human failure, that loss was answered by the creative drive of the music that followed, a gesture at some form of responsive forgiveness. Bringhurst’s poetic prelude to the second sonata  (“Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” Luke 23:43) declared that “This is it,” that humanity needs to recognize that paradise is present to us on earth, if we can recognize it. To lead into Sonata III (“Woman, behold thy son,” John 19:26), Zwicky picked up on this same imperative, to behold, to come to awareness, but again stressing the haecceity, the this-ness or the present-ness of the earth as it is, vitally:
Look up.
It’s the sky.
And the rain that is falling
is rain.
(I have no access to the print text: the line breaks are based on how Zwicky paused as she read.) That honouring of things in themselves was counterpointed by Bringhurst’s hard-edged text for Sonata IV (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46), which began by declaring almost Miltonically that “Hell is the absence of heaven and earth.” Bringhurst also composed the poem for Sonata V (“I thirst,” John 19:28), which again took up a condemnatory tone: “They will take much more than everything you have.” Notably, Bringhurst’s texts often distanced and objured the human – theywill – while Zwicky’s texts tended to emphasize collective complicity – we will . . . . For Sonata VI (“It is finished,” John 19:30), Zwicky offered a list of extinct species, in what was perhaps the most deeply affecting moments of the performance. She also closed out the poetic part of the performance, leading into Sonata VII (“Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” Luke 23:46) with a lyrical framing not of guilt or condemnation but of tenderness,
                    a tenderness we can’t imagine
but still recognize, opening
and opening
its hands
(Again, my line breaks – not necessarily Zwicky’s.) That recognition, if only a prayerful gesture toward the relinquishment of shared self, a selflessness we might share at the limits of words, opened into a passionate musical response from the quartet, as the potentially cold edges of Haydn’s calculated classicism evolved into what felt to me almost Steve Reich-likerhythmic loops and cascades: a present-tense music that wanted to open our ears, collectively in that space and that moment, to hope and to possibility.

Vanderpump Rules Third Season Reunion Show, a Preemptive Précis (Poem)

Lisa
Don’t mistake fame or your beauty for mine.
Stassi
Come back, if only for the goat cheese balls.
Jax
Whatever else, the sex was adequate.
Tom Sandoval
Cover-up applies better clean-shaven.
Sheanna
Few become their own crop-topped bridal stylists.
Ariana
Who should be smart enough to know better.
James
Leave him to his posh busboy puppy love.
Katie
Nobody’s fool would motorboat a d.
Stassi
Betrayal wants another bff.
Lisa
Translated, the maid’s name means something pink.
The Other Tom, Tom Schwartz
Marriage gives most guys the jitters, bubba.
Ariana
Check your text messages, smirk and look up.
Jax’s “Therapist”
 The world will always validate your needs.
Peter, Vail, Kristina, Rachel, Shay,etc.
Second-string friends, bit players, fiancés,
third-rate fifth business, wannabes, the rest.
Line Cooks at SUR
(High five: some heinous puta just got fired!)
Katie
No proper girl wants a ring on a string.
Kristen
Your best and only boyfriend is the truth.
Chorus, led by Tom Sandoval
Shut up, Kristen, shut up, shut up, shut up.
Lisa
Who makes the rules should never sign the cheques.


Sleeve Notes for Vanderpump Rules Third Season Reunion Show, a Preemptive Précis

I was unabashedly hooked on the third season of the Bravo reality show Vanderpump Rules, which began its television life two years back as a spin-off of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I came across this season’s first episode late in 2014 while channel-surfing, and found myself unable to look away. The blurb on the Slice TV website says each week the program offers “yet another explosive wave of shocking betrayals, bold confrontations, and petty grudges,” which sound like reason enough to keep tuned in, but my own fascination and nascent fandom, I’m starting to realize, has less to do with salacious voyeurism and more to do with the pop poetry of their pervasively empty interactions. When Stassi claims she’s been betrayed by Katie, or when Jax recounts his own largely fictional version of some gossip that’s transpired earlier, I find myself at a loss to understand what exactly it is that these people are in fact talking about. Frankly, I don’t think I have ever known what any of them means, or means to say, most of the time. They’re usually talking about talking about nothing. Nothing. But their seemingly shallow and vacuous speech, embedded in what feels like a relentless carrier-wave of romantic pop-culture clichés, is also often tangibly bursting with strange verbal textures, inadvertently startling lines, weird resonances. They seem constantly to be saying nothing, but also to be articulating some emergent poetic language sui generis, to be touching on some shared and common fabric of language as such.
And so I aimed to make a sort of poetry, as a listener and as a committed viewer, out of segments of what they’ve said about each other. The reunion show, part one of which was broadcast this week in Canada – a week behind the States – and part two of which is still pending, saw the actors arranged in an amphitheatrical semi-circle in a room at SUR, as participant-spectators, both viewers and viewed. (Several of them, notably Stassi and Kristen, made careful note that they had “seen the show” – watched themselves on the show – in the interim between filming last summer-fall and this reunion.) The reunion is designed to elicit some degree of critical reflection from members of the group, but really the intention is to aggravate the controversies and to stir up old trouble. It struck me that, in the slippery double displacements of subject and object being staged at this reunion – they comment on themselves commenting on what they say and have said about each other – there were peculiar echoes of the populist aspects of Shakespearean meta-theatre, as well as repositioning of the agonistic choric odes of Euripides or Aeschylus, maybe along the lines of Anne Carson’s skewed anachronies.
My own small project also tries to mimic the Pentametron bot on Twitter: each voice could be rendered in something like an iambic pentameter monostich, an aphoristic reduction of what they might have said, and sort of did, or didn’t. The resulting text would be an aggregate of linked non sequiturs, a sort of compilation. There are no subjects, however, beyond the accretion itself: nothing but sound bytes of fanfiction-mediated personae, their un-voices. Because the poem is assembled from what must be public, fair-use artifacts (along with a hodge-podge of nods to various famous sonnets, to Irving Layton, to Gilligan’s Island and to David Peoples’s Blade Runner script),  I think the piece needs to be published as a blog entry, with all the attendant narcissism of self-publication (which, maybe, fits with the source material). And maybe I’m being pretentious trying to explain myself like this. Because really, who am I to talk?

On Stephen Burt, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place

Stephen Burt delivered the 2015 Garnett Sedgwick Memorial Lecture at U. B. C. yesterday on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place.” For those who don’t know his work, he’s a professor in the English Department at Harvard University, currently teaching courses on “ways of reading and ways of hearing poetry” and on literature and sexuality; he’s also written extensively on poetry and poetics, particularly on the work of Randall Jarrell, and he’s published three collections of poetry. What I have discovered I like most about Burt’s critical writing, apart from its combination of clarity and intensity, is a willingness – or better, an articulate desire – to recoup lyric vitality from ideologically and aesthetically disparate poets, writers who, as he puts it, tend to disagree “in first principles, and  . . . come from all over,” yoked by an inclination to stylistic difficulty (see his Close Calls with Nonsense, page 6). Poems communicate texturally, for Burt, and those textures can sometimes be recalcitrant and forbidding, seemingly within the purview of intellectuals and literary academics; but poems also communicate, nonetheless and despite themselves, with certain affective immediacies, and it’s that public reciprocity that also draws his eye and his ear. As he puts it addressing himself in “Over Nevada,” a poem describing – circumscribing? – the prospect from an airplane window over Las Vegas, poetry distills formally from language a vital creative muddle, interstitial reciprocity, Simonidean coinage, exchange, indebtedness and gift: “How could you ever sort out or pay back what you owe / In that white coin, language, which melts as you start to speak?“ The communion of readers is fleeting and spectral, , but also, despite its frustrations, it is of this exact shortfall, it is this exact shortfall, that lyric language materially speaks.  


         His talk drew out a conceptual antithesis that marks the lyric, an ambivalence between the transcendental, “departicularized” tendency of lofty abstract language – that it happens anywhere, outside of history – and the concrete particularities of descriptive circumstance, that whatever happens inevitably has to happen somewhere, to someone. What’s interesting for me aren’t the terms of this opposition, which are so general as to be fairly banal, but Burt’s energetic investigation of the tensions between them as the stuff and the source of poetic work. Most loco-descriptive poetry, he argued, connect outward geography – I’d suggest, physiography – with “inner life” – I’d suggest not only physiology but also psychic topography. What persists, despite claims by Charles Altieri and others that the poetry of place has long since run its course, is according to Burt an intuitive sense of commonality tied to imagined place: that place, however articulated, is still  intersubjective, communal. He concentrated on the work of two key poets, for him: C. D. Wright and Mary Dalton. Quoting from Wright’s “Ozark Odes” – “Maybe you have to be from here to hear it sing” – Burt developed the homonymy of here and hear to suggest that Wright’s poems generate the textures and particularities of place apophastically, allowing the reader access through lyric attention, through the melopoeic richness of her geographically precise diction, to a phenomenologically rich encounter with that particularity. You hear the place, you sense it, palpably, in Wright’s words, despite and even because of her skeptical refusal to claim communicative success. The withdrawing “melt” of her language, in other words, is also recombinant and evocative, a plenitude. Burt gestured at Elise Partridge’s poem “Dislocations” (from Chameleon Hours, 2010 version) which also presents a “hybrid” form of lyric apophasis, refusing to lay claim to any naïve or grandiose transcendence while also, at a moment of surprising intensity, discovering how poetic intelligence still fuses to its descriptive objects, as “you feel your strengths intermingling.” One of the pleasures of Elise Partridge’s poetry, Burt said, is that its “attention to place does not preclude migration from one place to another,” and that some of her best work inheres in those transitions and intermediations. He concluded his talk with an investigation of some of the poetry of Mary Dalton. He was especially taken with how human geography and dialect words, in her poems, “imply the physical geography that the words produce.” He focused on the seductive estrangements of encountering the moments when she seemed to open her Newfoundland word-hoard. “Maybe you don’t have to be from there,” he concluded, “to hear it sing.”


"A Friend in the Art": For Elise Partridge

Galanthus, 31 January 2015
Weeks early,
snowdrop clusters poke
through moss and unraked, rotted leaves:
green, fetal fingertips,
small-scale
backyard congregations, the chewed
ends of some child’s coloured pencils,
spring stubs.
Friends in the vernal art,
they’ve already
managed to start
unclosing their glandular blooms,
split, mute bells
inclined to tremour
in this one winter’s milky breath.

This piece is for Elise Partridge, who died a week ago. Her poems and her friendship over the past twenty years have meant a great deal to me. I hope my brief elegy pays some tribute to her life and work by attending to the kinds of small, often unremarked things, like snowbells, that her poems often did, in a mode that wants to approach her own careful craft. Hers is a poetics of care — in its senses of close attention and rapt formalism, of respectful humility and warm concern. I last heard Elise Partridge read her poetry in January 2012, at the Vancouver Public Library on a triple bill with Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel, two other members of the Vancouver Poetry Dogs. That night, I bought a copy of her chapbook, which was a supplement to her second book, Chameleon Hours, and she autographed it for me, as “a friend in the art.” Elise had done readings with me many years ago — I recall presenting on poetry and translation with her at Brock House (Esther Birney and Miriam Waddington were in the audience) in, maybe, 1998, and she had also invited me to several meetings of the Poetry Dogs, though I soon fell away from attending. In the past year or so, I hadn’t seen very much of her at all, and I regret my negligence. She was a deeply kind, warmly engaged person, and a truly gifted poet. 


All Good Possibles: Ken Babstock, On Malice

Ken Babstock read last Tuesday evening at Book Warehouse on Main St., for the Vancouver launch of his latest collection On Malice, which appeared a little earlier this fall from Coach House Books. The book gathers three extended pieces and a skewed sonnet sequence: “Perfect Blue Distant Objects,” “Deep Packet Din,” “Five Eyes,” and “SIGINT.” The emphasis falls variously in each agglomerated text on distraction and noise, on riddled and riddling semantic textures, on versions and variorums.  A little like Tom Raworth, Babstock inclines his ear closely to the saturated, thickened flows of mediatized language — “the streaming of form from the machine” as the closing line of “Deep Packet Din” puts it — catching at and contingently arresting on each page those overlapping currents, those soupy waves of vestigial sense. Each poem presents itself as a species of media drill core, a striated section of repurposed data-packets, reconstituting voice as shifty aggregates of sedimentary, lexical samples. Reading these lines, I rarely know quite who or where or how I am meant to be, or to be positioned: “The excess space junk making / prayer beads of morning’s screaming / party.” Speech cannot settle into consistency, and the speaking subject asserts itself as verbal ragpicker, as audio splicer. “May we become / noises,” somebody eventually does pray in “Perfect Blue Distant Objects.” Just so.
         Over the past year and a half I have heard Ken Babstock read three times: at Tuesday’s launch, in late October at the Vancouver International Writers Festival (as one of eight featured in the Poetry Bash), and last spring at the Play Chthonics series at the University of British Columbia, which I was coordinating. At each reading he concentrated on presenting slices from “SIGINT,” the opening sequence from On Malice. Given the complexities of this poetry and my own limited space here, I’m going to concentrate on making an initial foray into reading “SIGINT,” rather than attempting to come to terms with the book as a whole.  Even as networked arrays, each of the extended poems of On Malice is constructed and derived from a principal source, an originary pool from which its draws much of its noise; “Perfect Blue Distant Objects” refigures an essay on optics by William Hazlitt, while “Five Eyes” “mines vocabulary” (as Babstock puts it in his own notes, without which — or at least without a thorough Google search — I would have a pretty hard time figuring this out) from John Donne’s tract on suicide, “Biathanatos.” “SIGINT” is a set of thirty-nine hybridized sonnets, which seem to gather voices at an abandoned surveillance station atop the artificial Teufelsberg in Berlin, but are also built from translations of Walter Benjamin’s manuscript notes about his son Stefan’s language acquisition – records of a preschooler’s various word-games, puns and whimsical infelicities. The choice of the sonnet form may have a little to do with Benjamin’s own posthumously published Sonette, a Jugendstil-ish sequence he began composing after the war-protest suicide of his friend, the poet Fritz Heinle, in 1914 — a segment of literary history that may also link to the Donne piece. Despite any gestures at late modern formalism (Benjamin’s sequence, for example, uses Shakespearean and Rilkean sonnets as formal models), Babstock’s poems tend to be fractured both metrically and structurally, hacking their generic/genetic source-codes. Each poem consists of four tercets, substituting a hypermetrical thirteenth line for a couplet, an imaginary “incident report” of collisions between birds and aircraft, animal and machine, in Soviet airspace between Siberian and Berlin. Place names invoked in these seemingly arbitrary last lines are also ordered, approximately, alphabetically, another gesture at factors of thirteen: twenty-six letters divided by two. The sequence itself is broken symmetrically into three parts of thirteen poems. Thirteen, not quite fourteen: these are sonnets gone to pieces. But rather than collapse, the form also suggests reconstitution — not teleology or closure, but asymptote, approach. These are sonnets in the process of self-acquisition, self-fashioning, assemblage.
Teufelsberg, from http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teufelsberg
         The Teufelsberg station, haunted by Cold War spectres, figures in the poems as a listening post that attends to human aftermath. The poet, in Babstock’s sequence, takes on a role derived from Benjamin’s reading of Charles Baudelaire, a cultural ragpicker: “’Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. He collates the annals of intemperance, the capharnaum of waste.’ . . . Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse.” Babstock’s poems collate by listening to mediated human noise, attending to the “rattle again of splintered waste” that aerials, ears and dishes manage to pick up. The poems both catalogue shards and orts of discourse and aspire to regenerate meaning tentatively from semantic refuse: “It is, I’m afraid, a symbol, dear rubble.” Writing wants to devolve, fearfully, into replicant transcription, copy-editing: “I can only read out / what we get back.” What those fractured symbols might impart to us remains in abeyance, the mechanics of representation still fraught and insufficient.  “What gets learned,” our frustrated ragpicker asks,  “from all this listening?”  “One can listen all night,” we’re told, without imaginative gain. Yet traces remain, nonetheless amid what feels like aleatory jumble, of a “devotional commerce,” a vestigial lyric religiosity, a texture of sense; or, what the poems at one point name “a surplus of negative affect” onto which the voice opens, as a prayer to language itself, a call to recover from informatics welter — by what the poems call merely thinking, by cognitive and creative effort — whatever might be left to us of singing: “in the post-informational gloaming” we “can never not finish reading it as song.” Melopoeia prods readers, as listeners, into affective involvement: “I have just thrown / the feeling into your mouth. Now you tell it.” What Babstock offers as poetic throwing — and even as throwing up, an abjected language that also frames itself as “desiccated scat” and refuse —hangs in the hiatus, as the small lurch of the line break here suggests, between repression and disclosure, like the uneasy stall of a double negative (“never not finish”). “There will be no clarification,” our collator notes, so we need, even at this late moment, to”[t]hink of a good reason not to quit listening,” so that we might  somehow move past reiterative stasis. ”I am practicing dead songs,” the poet aggregator declares, but, amid “constant surveillance,” swallowed in “the knowledge industry,” the first person singular, the speaking subject, still inclines to sing: “I’m repurposing myself.” The call to listening shifts reading away from semiotic anxiety (“I’m afraid”) toward an aesthetics of mouth texture, of shared speech and permeable selves, a remaindered eros: “Because you involved me.” The hiatuses, the fractures and absences onto which these poems open, are also — as linguistic surplus, as negative tropes — spaces of desire, of human longing:
                    Because I am sleeping in love’s room
now, the moment will have
received a promise to wait.
At such moments Babstock’s sonnets become sonnets, although the trimmed tenth syllable of the pentameter in the first of these lines, “now,” thrown forward into the next line, also marks a disjunctive temporality, an abeyance: passionate stall.
         Listening to Ken Babstock read these poems out loud — briefly, quietly, even undemonstratively — gestures, despite their apparent recalcitrance as texts that might be decoded, clarified or understood, at reciprocity, at shared affect:
                  Perhaps you truly don’t own it but it’s
                  in your mouth now so take it
                  for  a walk.
(Again, a pair of skewed pentameters, sonnet shards.) At the Book Warehouse reading, like a poetry nerd, I found myself taking notes, transcribing stray lines, a little like the ragpicker of these texts. It turns out, perhaps, that I was inadvertently answering that call, getting involved, pulling a few good possibles from what I thought I heard, taking his words for another brief walk. Just so.

Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song

Following the performance of The Muted Note: Songs Based on Poems by P. K. Page by Scott Thomson and Susanna Hood, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation is convening a colloquium called “Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song” from 2:00 to 5:00 on Thursday, 16 October 2014 in the Dodson Room of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at the University of British Columbia. Two panels of poets, composers, performers and scholars will talk about their own work and their collaborations. Presenters will be investigating the cultural politics of contemporary composition and performance by women: are there particular constraints or challenges that contemporary women artists face? Are there specific musical, textual or performative strategies that women employ in their creative work when faced with such challenges? Is it still necessary or even possible to address artistic work, as performers, composers and listeners, with attention to the complex cultural politics of gender and sexuality? In addition to the two discussion panels, there will be a performance by Lisa Cay Miller of her text-based improvisations for piano, “Lessing Stories.” Admission is free, and the colloquium is open to all, students, artists, academics and the general public.

Colloquium Schedule

2:00-3:00 Panel: Extending the Poetics of Song

Scott Thomson, composer and improviser, Montréal and Toronto

Susanna Hood, vocalist, choreographer, Montréal and Toronto

Sandra Djwa, P. K. Page biographer, Vancouver

Phanuel Antwi, Department of English, UBC

3:00-3:30

Lisa Cay Miller, “Lessing Stories”

3:30-4:30 Panel: Collaborations and Challenges, Sounding Out

Rachel Rose, Vancouver Poet Laureate

Jacquie Leggatt, composer, Vancouver

Bronwyn Malloy, Department of English, UBC

A downloadable PDF version of the colloquium schedule can be found here: Extraordinary Presences schedule

Partial Elegy for Charlie Haden

The great Charlie Haden passed away Friday, July 11, and tributes of all kinds have been appearing over the past two days. I hadn’t really realized how many records in my collection Charlie Haden had appeared on; his bass playing, his sound, has been a pivotal and essential part of much of my listening. I saw him a few times in concert. Once, with his Quartet West on a double bill with John Scofield’s quartet at the Orpheum in Vancouver; and once, very memorably, with Geri Allen and Paul Motian in Montreal, as part of the 1989 invitational series. I wanted to write something in his memory; for some reason, I found myself thinking of the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash standard “Speak Low,” an evocative version of which Charlie Haden performed with Sharon Freeman for Lost in the Stars, a Hal Willner tribute to Kurt Weill. The song leads back to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but I have also recently been pretty heavily under the sway of Nathaniel Mackey’s word music, so some echoes of that must have found their way into this piece. It was composed very quickly, so I’m sure there are a few rough edges and infelicities, but I’ll leave them in to honour the improvisational drift of Charlie Haden’s music.
Partial Elegy for Charlie Haden
Already gone too soon, other than him
who in this fraught hereafter could have named
the ruminant lumber his instrument
had been assembled from? Dark-toned boxwood,
hickory, lacquered spruce. Coaxing a deep
murmur from heavy-gauge strings, propounding
their full-bodied, hefty resonances,
he re-curved chthonic rumble into line
and cadence, his trademark over-fingered
pizz and tectonic double-stops marking
the thick eddies where sound and purled silence
abutted, then let go: a politics
of left-leaning, strung-out torch-songs that tell
you, “Speak low if you mean to speak at all.”