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Poetic Obligations (Talking about Nothing at Temple)

Michael Palmer
for Robert Creeley and in memory of my mother

The Snow Man

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

I am quoting this poem by Wallace Stevens not from page 8 of The Library of America edition of his Collected Poetry and Prose, but from page 107 of Robert Creeley’s recently published Day Book of A Virtual Poet. Stevens’ poem might initially be considered familiar, even overly familiar, yet I’m happily informed by the way it finally resists any easy assimilation. At some point later, I will cite two more poems from Creeley’s book, from this self-designated virtual poet’s virtual day book, to serve in a sense as emblems for this talk. I am reminded of something entirely obvious, that it is not only the text that counts, but also the context in which it is met, even if it has been met elsewhere, and often, before. Thus I can never think of that consummately wintry book, Anna Karenina, without being called back to my initial reading of it, at the age of seventeen, in the heat of a distant Paris summer. A friend and I would often go to the somewhat notorious and comical and now disapppeared Piscine Deligny, with its filtered water (I hope it was filtered) from the Seine. We went there to escape the heat, but more so to listen to the extraordinary conversations of the pimps and their women who gathered there to relax during those July and August afternoons. I would bring along my rapidly deliquescing Modern Library paperback of Anna K and read it while lying on a towel over the rough boards at poolside. So, into those pages has been inserted forever the slang-laced give and take of the maquereaux and their companions. This may inadvertently reveal at least one of the reasons why becoming a literary critic was never a personal option. As for Stevens, I must have first read Harmonium during the preceding high school year, though it would be several more years before I came to a full appreciation of his work.

I had at one point a particular and somewhat circumscribed subject for this talk, but the life of someone very close to me was thrust not long ago into a series of crises and ruptures that rendered such a method both unworkable and, I think finally, inappropriate. For weeks, between visits to Emergency Rooms and all-night vigils, I struggled to proceed “as normal,” but a screen seemed to be placed between me and those texts with which I otherwise felt intimate. In my exhaustion, both mental and physical, reflection and reading itself became virtually impossible. I came to realize that something more raggedly episodic was necessary, something more proximate to my actual state. The result is this form, one of dispersal, perhaps a map of my nervous system.

What more, as preface? There are classic texts on poetics, most famously Aristotle’s. They have a subject that is more or less determined, and they proceed to articulate that subject by means of discursive reasoning. Then there are the writings in poetics. These tend to be the work of the poets and makers. There is no fixed subject, in either sense of that term, and they usually proceed by a kind of paratactic errancy and urgency. It is writing that is unterwegs, on the way, forward and backward like the poem itself. Such works might include the letters of Emily Dickinson, Rimbaud, Keats and Van Gogh; certain experimental prose works of Gertrude Stein, such as How To Write; the dialogues of Marcel Duchamp; various personal notebooks and journals; the writings of John Cage, Toru Takemitsu, Robert Smithson, Antonin Artaud, and Dziga Vertov, to cite an arbitrary handful. Osip Mandelstam, Louis Zukofsky, Georges Perec, Susan Howe, H.D., Kamau Brathwaite, another handful. The Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi’s “Sleep-And-Poetry,” Moscow, 1975. Aygi, heir to Mayakovski and Khlebnikov, and like Khlebnikov, steeped in a particular ancientness. Closer in time and to home, Norma Cole’s talk a few months back, “The Poetics of Vertigo,” for the George Oppen Memorial Lecture Series in San Francisco. Ann Lauterbach’s recent series of engagements with poetics titled “The Night Sky.” The term “disorderd devotions,” from Robert Duncan, comes to mind.  Several years ago, the poet Emmanuel Hocquard invited me to the University of Bordeaux to give a series of lectures to a group of Beaux Arts students there and to collaborate with them on number of works in the visual arts deriving from a sequence of mine, “Seven Poems Within a Matrix for War,” that had been given them in translation. The evening before my first class, Emmanuel showed me a video of the great French philosopher Gilles Deleuze talking about film near the end of his life. What most struck me, beyond the imaginative character of his thought, was that here at the end, in an extraordinary calm, Deleuze had at last escaped philosophy and had escaped himself. He was in “the open” – to use a term frequently employed by Paul Celan – with nothing before him.

So we will begin, and perhaps even end, this talk with nothing. With “nothing himself.” With “Nothing that is not there.” With “the nothing that is.” I hope we will somehow be on the way.

Another invitation. A couple of years ago I was invited to Paris (Paris again!) to be interviewed at the Centre Pompidou on the odd topic of the writer and his tools. At roughly the same time, François Ditesheim of the Gallerie Jan Krugier, Ditesheim & Cie in Geneva asked if I would be willing to write the catalogue essay for a show of pastels by the painter Irving Petlin, who was living in Paris. I could then visit Petlin’s studio and view the pastels while there. The show was to be entitled “The World of Edmond Jabès,” and would derive from Petlin’s reading of the first three volumes of The Book of Questions, in Rosmarie Waldrop’s superb translation. The catalogue was eventually published, and I received my first copies in the late fall of 1997. I had titled my piece “A Bonfire in the Starry Night.” The reproductions of the pastels were of a high order, and the the text was well presented. As I leafed through the catalogue, however, I began to realize that I had made a crucial error of judgement, had somehow missed what lay at the heart of Petlin’s working with Jabès. I had found Petlin following Jabès through the routes of the fifth arrondissement, their shared neighborhood of streets and alleyways and shops, had found him imaging the crossings that occurred there of the living and the dead, of silence and the spoken, and had found as well the rhymes between the whiteness of the city and the desert’s whiteness, the whiteness of linen and of page, between the screams of the city and the desert’s silence, and had thought I had clearly heard the silence of the screams themselves:

He was seventeen. An age with wide margins.
And then one night, a little before day. And then one
day, and then one night, and then nights, and days which
were nights, the confrontation with death, the  confrontation with the dawn and the dusk of death,
the confrontation with himself, with no one.

(The Book of Questions, p.155)

In the catalogue, I came to a pair of pastels on paper. These, “The soil shifted (for a long time)” (I & II), are as close to pure abstraction as Petlin is ever likely to come. In the catalogue I had written, “Petlin has stated that both works “almost made themselves,” and that “certain things can’t be drawn, instead they are materialized.”  It is the paper itself, the defining shapes in it, which Petlin allows to model his patterns. In each, what is described is a surface; the unspeakable, beneath, is both implied and screened.” Their title is drawn from a passage in The Book of Yukel and reads:

    And Yukel said:

    “In a village in Central Europe, the Nazis one day buried some of our brothers alive. The soil shifted with them for a long time. That night, one and the same rhythm bound Israelites to the world.”

The drawings themselves do little more than follow the grain of the paper’s surface and highlight its shallow folds. There is barely more than touch. It could be said in fact that here it is the paper itself which has become the shaping hand. There are no figures, and the artist/onlooker has withdrawn. They thus offer the ground from which all the rest of the work in the series will arise and to which it will in some sense return. Might they not also be seen as cognate with that phrase of Paul Celan, “Niemandes Stimme, wieder,” “No one’s voice, again” (which I used as epigraph to my collection of poems, First Figure, in 1984)? In both instances, do we not confront the paradoxical limit-case of representation, as well as something that touches on the central obligations of poetry to itself and the world, something that much poetry, speaking of this and that, all too easily sets aside?  I have a little entry in my notebook from July 5th of 1998, “That point where the poem, qua poem, disappears…” Nothing of course to do with linguistic transparency, rather the opposite.

I have another note, only a few days later, “How discuss the other language of poetry, a language that is at once other and the same? The various ways of going “there” (nowhere/now here)? The poem itself, the boat, its sail a tongue (Egyptian Book of the Dead).” I think, in this, what I’m very much fumbling or stumbling toward is some distinction between an art of the given and an art of the actual. (Strangely it is the former that in our culture is most frequently celebrated, but that’s for another day.) Not some dim reflection, or reflexive confession, but the actual as it respires, hidden in plain sight. Placement of words as the place meant. For the moment, anyway, let’s propose that poetry is translation from a lost, or forgotten, language, that is, one spoken everywhere in the streets and yet unheard or else unlistened to. It comes to us in both its familiarity and its foreignness. Maybe that’s not so far from Valéry’s sense of “a language within a language,” though I hope it takes us in a different direction, closer let’s say to Williams’ beautiful formulation in Kora:

    That which is heard from the lips of those to whom we are talking in our day’s-affairs mingles with what we see in the streets and everywhere about us as it mingles also with our imaginations. By this chemistry is fabricated a language of the day which which shifts and reveals its meaning as clouds shift and turn in the sky and sometimes send down rain or snow or hail. This is the language to which few ears are tuned so that it is said by poets that few men are ever in their full senses since they have no way to use their imaginations….of old poets would translate this hidden language into a kind of replica of the speech of the world with certain distinctions of rhyme and meter to show that it was not really that speech. Nowadays the elements of that language are set down as heard and the imagination of the listener and of the poet are left free to mingle in the dance.

Once again, I am quoting not directly from Kora in Hell, Section XV, but from Gerald Bruns’ “The Remembrance of Language: An Introduction to Gadamer’s Poetics,” in the volume Gadamer on Celan (pp.4-5). As I write the title of Bruns’ piece down, I hear the ancient Orphic and Egyptian play on the re-membering of language’s body, of gathering up the scattered limbs. Orpheus/Osiris.

In his essay, “Who Am I and Who Are You?”, Gadamer himself explores the endless shifting of the shifters in Celan’s work:

    Readers of lyric poetry always already understand in a certain sense who I is. Not just in the trivial sense of knowing that it is always the poet who speaks, rather than a speaking person introduced by him. Beyond that, readers also know what the poet-I actually is. For the I pronounced in a lyric poem cannot be conclusively limited to the I of the poet, which would be different from that of the I-pronouncing reader. Even when the poet is “cradled in his characters,” expressly separating himself from the “instantly mocking” crowd, it is as if he no longer means himself, but rather includes the reader in his I-character, separating him or her from the crowd in the same way he knows himself to be. This is especially true with Celan, where “I,” “you,” and “we” are pronounced in an utterly direct, shadowy uncertain and constantly changing way. This I is not only the poet, but even more so “that individual” [jener Einzelne], as Kierkegaard named the one who is each of us.

    (Gadamer on Celan, p.69)

Gadamer goes on to note the readerly obligation, parallel to the poetic one I refer to above, of allowing him- or herself to be “equally implicated.” It is within this agreement, this pact if you will, that the conversation of the poem begins and its social nature is affirmed. In focussing on this point, Celan distances himself from any “object-nature” of the poem, in favor of an idea of process, “the unforgetting of language,” as Bruns puts it, “living language: language whose mode of existence is the event, a language of Erfahrung that lives through and undergoes the experiences of all those who speak it and hear it, and which is therefore never self-identical, but always on the way…” (p.16)

In their parallel exiles then, Celan and Jabès explore the dismembered body of language (Celan’s German) and dismembered memory, where identities constantly metamorphose, in search perhaps of a vanished I-thou. Yet this play of absence and presence, this shifting among shifters, temporal and pronominal, as Gadamer notes, this disappearing, is central to the lyric experience. I would suggest as well that it is part of the unsounded nature of all linguistic experience, part of that world of the destabilized and the relational we choose to cover over, to leave unheard, the shifting, or destabilized, ground. A ground, in Celan, often blanketed with snow:

Deine Frage – deine Antwort.
Dein Gesang, was weiß er?


Your question – your answer.
Your song, what does it know


Snowshroud, sometimes snowfield, it is no one thing in Celan’s work. At times it is perhaps no more than the everyday, what is before you, returned to itself here on a page. But what of snow on a page? If it is also the hidden, so too it may be an open and silent field of unforgetting; or the linen, at once surface and winding sheet; or the inversion of sky and ground; “the inverted flower.” Is it the stillness of the breathturn, that moment between inhaling and exhaling, Celan so often invokes? As Gadamer remarks (speaking of snow in another poem), “It cannot be answered.” It cannot be answered, because here the poem, presenting itself, re-presents nothing. Then what has all this to do with the cat now in my lap, or the earth split open outside my window? What, as the enraged junior professor asked, does it have to do with a picketline? Indeed. Or with smoke? Or with Goethe’s oak among the fields and hills of Buchenwald?

Before exploring a few of these issues a bit further and allowing, as I said above, this piece to begin to dismantle itself, let me offer a second emblem as interlude, following from the Stevens poem and once again cited by Creeley in Day Book of A Virtual Poet. William Carlos Williams:


    are the desolate, dark weeks
    when nature in its barrenness
    equals the stupidity of man.

    The year plunges into night
    and the heart plunges
    lower than night

    to an empty, windswept place
    without sun, stars or moon
    but a peculiar light as of thought

    that spins a dark fire –
    whirling upon itself until,
    in the cold, it kindles

    to make a man aware of nothing
    that he knows, not loneliness
    itself – Not a ghost but

    would be embraced – emptiness,
    despair – (They
    whistle and whine) among

    the flashes and booms of war;
    houses of whose rooms
    the cold is greater than can be thought,

    the people gone that we loved,
    the beds lying empty, the couches
    damp, the chairs unused –

    Hide it away somewhere
    out of the mind, let it get roots
    and grow, unrelated to jealous

    ears and eyes – for itself.
    In this mine they come to dig – all.
    Is this the counterfoil to sweetest

    music? The source of poetry that
    seeing the clock has stopped, says,
    The clock has stopped

    that ticked yesterday so well?
    and hears the sound of lakewater
    splashing – that is now stone?


A curious, twisted century, to say the least, among the poems, “among/the flashes and booms of war.” A century bracketed by so many repressions and returns, often horrific. Yet in the face of the storm, frequently in the teeth of it, there occurs an outpouring of defiant, exploratory and amplifying work, as the recent, two-volume Poems for the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, forcefully reminds us, whatever its inevitable omissions and occasionally contestable inclusions. How perverse might it seem to think of it as a century, that is a poetic century, also bracketed, if approximately and imperfectly, by works on, of all schools, that of the the troubadours? This thought came to me recently, as I read through Ezra Pound’s A Walking Tour in Southern France, assembled by Richard Sieburth from Pound’s notebooks dating to the summer of 1912. That in turn brought occasion to reread Jacques Roubaud’s indispensable study of the troubadours from our end of the century, La Fleur Inverse. Two major poets who choose to look not only at the poetry of twelfth-century France, but also to use it as a lens for examining our own works and days. Not so strange perhaps, when we consider that the troubadours and the trobairitz represent a distant European origin (with, undoubtedly, Judeo-Arabic and other influences) of a certain research into the paradoxes of voice, subjectivity and address, silence and violence, cognition and desire, stillness and history we know as the contemporary lyric and its mirror, the antilyric. For our purposes here, I would simply draw attention to Roubaud’s first chapter, “La tenson du néant et le dilemme du trobar,” and the closely related “The Seventh Day,” of Giorgio Agamben’s Language and Death: The Place of Negativity. What happens when song arrives at the intimacy of the other, that “more or less distant, unknown addressee,” as Mandelstam phrases it (as cited by Bruns in Gadamer, p.27)?  Beyond the “self-same”? With a question? In our time, facing the discourses of control (which asks no question) and of exploitation, dual coercions, it is a question to be asked for our time, if time is to be recovered as (h)ours, unconstrained. So Khlebnikov, in full, and fully ironised possession:

To No-man’s-land!
To that green field in Niemandland,
beyond the leaden Nieman river,
To Nieman-land, to No-man’s land, follow, believer.

(Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov, Vol. III, p.60)

The translation, I should note, is by Paul Schmidt, from his almost unimaginably vital and authoritative five-volume edition of Khlebnikov’s works for the Harvard University Press. I received word of Paul’s death from AIDS two days ago, as I was preparing to deliver this talk.

        • As we walk

          beneath, as we

          pass through, as

          we wander among

          these arcades of

          iron and glass

          and stone, what

          is first for

          sale? Time here,

          then light, a

          shoe, then another

          shoe, hundreds of

          shoes, soap, thousands

          of soaps, candy

          in barrels, jewelry,

          scents, shirts and

          pants, pads and

          pens, machines for

          processing numbers and

          words. Access is

          for sale, as

          well, to virtual

          arcades. There is

          Politix, the store.

          There are mountains

          of books: best

          sellers, manuals, how-to

          and how-not-to, romances,

          mysteries, guides for

          foreign lands, One

          Hundred Favorite Love

          Poems of the

          English Language, poems

          about marriage, dying,

          divorce, childhood, childbirth,

          sex, the seasons,

          dreams, exotic pets,

          our cells adrift.

      • ********

    • ********

  • Language and Death

27 december. My mother now, so close to the end, so fervently gasping for breath.

28 december. Visit to the doctor today. Her valvular heart disease now far advanced, so that she has anywhere from days to weeks to five or six months to live. Her 92nd birthday next month.

The doctor’s words, “It will take its course.”

Note for Temple talk: this is part of the moment of making such a talk, not apart from it. As is the renewed bombing of Iraq, as is…?

13 january. It isn’t the death so much, its prospect, that causes pain (though it does), but the disappearance, bit by bit, word by word, of the one known. Or is it that another side of the self, previously unknown, is coming to be at the end? (And that we are – I am – reluctant to acknowledge it?)

Sarah visiting her grandmother for two and a half hours today. My mother’s regret that she won’t see what will become of Sarah, that they won’t have adult conversations together.

Even as, for a moment, she apparently confuses me with her brother Michael.

This sudden onset of intermittent dementia in recent days, confusion of the names.

Confusion of the names.

Now and then, I, you, he, she and it, suddenly loose from their moorings.

And yet the address, the call, has an openness and directness and a fierce intimacy she has never before allowed herself. [“utterly direct, shadowy uncertain and constantly changing…”]

Note for Temple talk: a poet, whoever that may be, should never offer an essay – still another essay – but instead something closer to the truth, its confusions and hallucinations, if we might recover such words from discredit.

She has begun to confuse one name with another, a presence with an absence, and so those absent return and those present disapppear. Son Michael becomes the brother Michael, dead these forty-something years.

Note for Temple talk: We would always like to offer a form that has not existed before, as a gift to the conversation. It is our only one, even as it echoes other forms, even as they recur within it.

15 jan. The sadly beautiful flow of my mother’s ”liberated” language as she lies, near death, in dementia in the hospital. She who was always so constrained, now freely mixing times, names and events in a final temporal/narrative journey.

16 jan. Today, my mother gradually regaining some lucidity in the morning, then a substantial bit more in the afternoon. Almost unbelievable, given where she was when brought to the hospital. So, she is back to the familar, endlessly retold stories, the ones that locate her in the world, that fix her as just this, here and nowhere else, herself and nothing else.

18 jan. This afternoon and late into the night, my mother slipping back into extreme confusion, now darkly colored with paranoia. “Why are you doing this to me? “Are you trying to kill me?” “You don’t sound like my son.” “Don’t you believe me? Look, that one has a gun!” A look of terror in her eyes, when I first arrived, beyond any I had ever seen before. So we are joined in those eyes, with such others as brought her here and are keeping her from her home.

The attending nurse explains to me that the phrase used for such behavior is “twilighting.” As the light of day fades from the room, estrangement, disorientation and fear increase.

I think of David Levi Strauss, at Robert Duncan’s hospital bedside, when Robert was hallucinating and appeared near death, though in fact he would return and survive another few months. Levi was listening to Robert’s words, the flow of images of color, of lightness and darkness, when he suddenly began to hear that it was the imagery of the Bardo realm, almost exactly as described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The realization that this slippage, this disconnectedness, this revisioning of time and person, is always there, within us, but under surveillance and control, except when through fever, mental disturbance, physical extremity, it surfaces to present its alternatives to the story as we would otherwise fashion it. So too, as in dream, the dead are always with us, waiting to put in an appearance, given the opportunity. The subject is no longer fixed by time and place and habit of self-presentation, nor is the Other so fixed as X or Y or even other. Much of this is what the poem knows, all along, even if most verse does not, or does not want to know.

At various points during the afternoon, I am my mother’s husband, father of myself, father of Michael, discussing how “I” – the father – loved and raised my child. She speaks to him, to me as him, as a man she had had to learn to love, and tells of an excursion one afternoon, when he had played at length with me, and she had understood then that he was a good father and had begun to love him. The intimacy of this is difficult to describe, impossible to transcribe. I look on and listen in (overhear) with a deeply sad and deeply uncomfortable fascination, see myself as a four or five year old, that day we visited The Cloisters in New York, an outing I remember very clearly, as I remember my father’s death late one night in the summer of 1964.

At another point, I am again her brother Michael, from whom comes my middle name, which I’ve adopted as my first. I am Michael the brother before Michael was born. Michael “who is having trouble breathing.” Michael who died still young.

22 jan. Note for Temple talk: Maybe it would be enough simply to list titles of books lying on the floor of living room, bedroom, hallway and study. But enough for what? To graph the expenditure of a cretinous life?

Incomprehensibility of the day as such, and of the everyday.

24 jan, 11:10 p.m.. The call early this morning (c.4 a.m.) from attending nurse, saying that my mother had died in her sleep some minutes before.

The end of it, two days before her 92nd birthday. The infinite sadness and infinite distance in her face when I went to the hospital, two days ago, to accompany her home in the ambulance. A sadness that had gone far beyond me, that would not brook address, one that I have glimpsed in certain Rembrandts. [Days later, the word “departure” comes to mind, and the word “elsewhere.”] There are poets who might make poems of this, good or more likely bad, but I cannot.

In deep exhaustion, yet unable to sleep, I find myself reading about the trial of the Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon, this Papon who after his World War II depravities would resurface as the head of the Paris Police and oversee the slaughter of Algerian protestors in 1961. Their bodies witnessed there by Irving Petlin, who took part in the protest. Now Papon’s face hangs like a towel inside one of Irving’s pastels, and the bodies of the dead have reappeared in his “Seine Series.”


By another, much earlier notebook entry, I am reminded that one of the scatter of ideas for this talk came while reading Confronting Silence, the great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s selected writings. In particular, a little piece called, simply, “John Cage.” Here are a couple of excerpts:

    John Cage speaks of the “insides of sounds.” This may seem like mysterious talk, but he is only suggesting that we include all kinds of vibrations in what we accept as musical sound…Music is something to be listened to, not explained…Listening to his sounds is what John Cage’s music really is….

    Genuine art always defies classification. Shallow and flimsy works are always measured by conventional criteria; they do not survive. The deep impression created by some art is not the result of the individual nature of the artist. Naturally, that cannot be eliminated entirely, but it is by our taking in the quiet revelation beyond the artist’s individual nature that we are inspired anew each time we confront the art. Because that quiet revelation defies classification it is alive. It has various charcteristics and it changes according to who takes it in.


And then a bit further along:

    In Japanese we have the word ikeru, a colloquial form of iku. It has two meanings. One is “to place flowers in a vase to revive them.” The other is “to bury a corpse.” Isn’t there something basic in this word? Isn’t this combination of life and death a measure of the world?

In turn, reading this led me back to Cage’s early gathering of writings called Silence, and in particular to the now famous “Essay on Nothing.” In fact it was the first text I taught in the first class I ever taught, an expository writing workshop at Harvard many years ago. I suppose I was bent, even then, on sending students off on the wrong track. It is a text to be sounded. Let me read you the first couple of pages from what is now, I suppose, a classic work in poetics, though it was then greeted with much ridicule, like Cage’s music, by the codifiers and classifiers, may they too rest in peace:

[Reads from “Essay on Nothing”]

To my ear, of course, this gently anarchic piece bears directly upon the sagesse of the tenso de non-re, the tenson of nothing, where the poet discovers not the subject, but the “taking place of language as originary argument” (Agamben, 68) and thus discovers self as nothing in itself, as only coming-to-be at the moment of greeting, along the way. The poetic here, the obligation here, involves both greeting, or acknowledgement, and disclosure of that which is left, in dailiness, largely unheard and unspoken. Here then, as Cage and Takemitsu tell us, the speaker speaks as “listener to the sounds.” Or as Stevens puts it, “the listener, who listens in the snow.” There is an exchange of names and a sharing of places, not apart from the world of events but in full contingency among them, “a peculiar light as of thought…among/the flashes and booms of war” and among the stopped clocks.

There is another figure, a figure of negativity, whom I must at least mention in relation to the questions of concern here, and that is the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who was born in 1888 and died of drink in 1935. Under the assumption that he is still little known here, certainly much less than he is throughout Europe and the Portugeuse-speaking world, I’ll summarize a few details just to gesture toward his work. My main guides are a little text on Pessoa by the novelist Antonio Tabucchi (in Fernando Pessoa, Maria José de Lancastre and Antonio Tabucchi) and Richard Zenith’s very informative introduction to his volume of excellent translations entitled Fernando Pessoa & Co.. Pessoa spent his life constructing a labyrinth of selves and non-selves and placing them in conversation and argument with one another and one another’s work. These he called heteronyms, and they must be distinguished from the familiar personae of modernism, such as Pound’s Mauberley, Rilke’s Malte, H.D.’s Helen, Valéry’s M. Teste, Eliot’s Prufrock, by the way Pessoa spent his life constructing their dramas, replacing himself with them, and erasing his traces through them. By the end, we seem to be witnessing an elaborate shadow-puppet play, where the puppeteer has vanished or become a shadow himself. (Think once again of Gadamer’s “shadowy-uncertain” as applied to Celan’s pronouns.) As Zenith states:

    …no one took the game as far as Pessoa, who gave up his own life to confer quasi-real substance on the trinity of co-poets he designated as heteronyms, giving each a personal biography, psychology, politics, aesthetics, religion, and physique. Alberto Caeiro, considered the Master by the other two, was an ingenuous, unlettered man who lived in the country and had no profession. Ricardo Reis was a doctor and classicist who wrote odes in the style of Horace. Álvaro de Campos, a naval engineer, started out as an exuberant futurist with a Walt Whitmanesque voice, but over time he came to sound more like a mopey existentialist.

As Zenith notes, the supreme fiction was Pessoa’s orthonymic creation, the poet known as Fernando Pessoa, not to be confused with Fernando Pessoa, if indeed there can be said to have been a Fernando Pessoa, since none other than Álvaro de Campos denies that he, Pessoa, ever existed. Not just a labyrinth of discourse, but one with mirrored walls, and a hydra-headed creature hidden deep within. Or perhaps the labyrinth is simply empty. Here is a poem, a nihilistic parody of the symbolist voyage imaginaire, by the very same Álvaro de Campos, bisexual dandy and aesthete:

    Pack your bags for Nowhere at All!
    Set sail for the ubiquitous negation of everything
    With a panoply of flags on make-believe ships –
    Those miniature, multi-colored ships from childhood!
    Pack your bags for the Grand Departure!
    And don’t forget, along with your brushes and clippers,
    The polychrome distance of what can’t be had.
    Pack your bags once and for all!
    Who are you here, where you socially and uselessly exist
    And the more usefully the more uselessly,
    The more truly the more falsely?
    Who are you here, who are you here, who are you here?
    Set sail, even without bags, for your own diverse self!
    What does the inhabited world have to do with you?

    2 may 1933

The answer to the poem’s final question by the way is, of course, “everything.” One more fragment, from Pessoa:

The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.

Pessoa created entire hosts of other heteronyms (72 altogether, by one count), poets, astrologers, essayists, sociologists, philosophers, who would occasionally communicate and comment on one another’s work. The best known of these others is Bernardo Soares, a “semiheteronym” who wrote Pessoa’s fictional (?) diaries which exist in dated and undated fragments that have since been assembled in various combinations and editions. Soares the rebarbative, enunciator of the unspeakable, debunker, artisan of morbidity, assassin of motion, of the senses, of the present, of the self, misanthropist, onanist, oneirist of the false life, eremite of Douradores Street. There isn’t sufficient space here (by which I mean time) to even begin to look into the “question” of Pessoa in any depth, but I wanted to point toward him, toward his absence at least, after briefly pursuing his spectre through the streets of Lisbon last June. Pessoa might seem an unlikely, even heretical, figure to invoke here, beside the names of Celan, Jabès, Stevens, et al, but it is precisely how he casts his voice outward, out from the self-same or self-identical, and how he subverts conventional notions of voice, identity, lyric impulse and subjectivity that bring him close to such company even as he (or do I confuse him with Soares?) repels all company.

Finally, the dedication to Robert Creeley, “Figure of Outward,” as Charles Olson once presciently designated him, should need no explanation. To him, to Barbara Guest, to Lorine Niedecker and many others over a close couple of generations we owe the recovery of the exploratory tradition in American letters from institutional revisionism, a revisionism we now witness at its work of forgetting once again, in many sectors, cultural, political, historical, of the public world. We must ask whether the subject, in the face of such reaction, will once again become something less, something given. I think not, if we all remain present, as listeners and speakers.

I can only hope that the section concerning my mother’s last days will be interpreted in the spirit in which it was meant, one of homage and farewell, rather than as the exploitation of some last, intimate moment. It all seems to me part of the insistently human: the words, “in the same bare place,” as they ask to be there.

The final poem I’ve sampled from Creeley’s Day Book of A Virtual Poet is a brief one by Wislawa Szymborska:

The End and the Beginning

    From time to time someone still must
    dig up a rusted argument
    from underneath a bush
    and haul it off to the dump.
    Those who knew
    what this was all about
    must make way for those
    who know little.
    And less than that. 
    And at last nothing less than nothing.


Michael Palmer

(Temple University, February 1999)

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