31 ago 2010

Continuing my notes on Libro de barro.

XV "Amado objeto mío." There is an unnamed object, identified with the speaker, who turns inward in the second paragraph. Her pupils are stars that go on and off in the darkness. In the 14th and here in the 15th section of the sequence the speaker emerges more clearly and explores her own inner world, which before was projected unto a landscape.

XVI Two hands, one holding madness and storm, the other a "rigorous, mortal stone." So is there an alternative, a choice between these two hands? Next we find a spiderweb "secreting salvation over the abyss." In short, the metaphors become denser here, more charged. "Every center is a a mistaken road." The center contains nothingness and silence.

XVII A search for a sexless or virginal biological state, "without uterus or testicle, "an original and virginal beach."

XVIII The idea of salvation appears (first mentioned in XVI). Anything at all can be "the plank of salvation." But the speaker doesn't understand what salvation means, what it is for, when it will occur. It is "iron-hard nonsense."

We are near the end of the sequence now, with five poems remaining. No clear narrative has emerged, no intrinsic reason why one poem has to follow or precede another. There is coherence in the set of themes and motifs that has emerged, in the poetic language itself. There have been no false steps, aside from a few metaphors that are perhaps excessive in their hermeticism.

(to be continued)

30 ago 2010

Continuing from the day before my notes on Blanca Varela's Libro de barro.

IX. The Gamoneda convergence becomes even more marked: "¿Qué dice ese cuerpo inmóvil en su movimiento?" Or "I say isle and think see I say sea and think isle." A dialectic between mobility and stillness, isle and sea, plenitude and emptiness. This is the shortest poem in the sequence so far, the most cryptic and intense.

X. Another very short text. "Infinite isles in an interior sea." An attempt to recapture lost time in the presence of death.

XI. "Wear decrepitude like a flower or crown." We should envy Autumn and Winter, embrace snow and silence. There is wisdom in an "absence of shadow," perhaps due to an absence of light?

XII. An attempt to define poetry itself, as the "silent hubbub of the heart." Poems are "objects of death." Poetry is compared to bodily fluids, urine and blood.

XIII. "Pain between two walls is no longer pain." The body seems separated from itself, somehow, a foreign object: "zona inexplorada de la carne íntima" [unexplored zone of intimate flesh].

XIV. Here we return to theme of god, who is also alien to himself, sitting at his own right hand. The speaker has created him in her own image. She identifies herself as a woman for the first time in the sequence: "A poor woman with sad hair who takes evil off herself by the fistfuls and washes herself a thousand times and is herself the indelible mark on the blade of the knife." The word for blade here (hoja) also means leaf and page of paper (hoja de papel.)

(to be continued.)

29 ago 2010

Notes on El libro de barro.

These poems by Peruvian poet Blanca Varela were written from 93-94. There are 23 of them, none longer than a page. None has a title, so that the overall effect is one of unity. They are written in prose and/or long lines of verse that push the limit between prose and verse. Varela's later poetry showed a marked convergence with that of Valente and Gamoneda, two Spanish poet with whom her name has been associated. Like these two poets, her poetry became even more interesting in her later years, so that a poet born in 1926 writes a lot of her most interesting work in the 80s and 90s. Gamoneda contributes an epilogue to Varela's collected poems in which he rewrites her motifs in his own style.

Although the poems are not numbered in the text, I am identifying them by Roman numerals for convenience:

I. In the first poem the speaker finds a vertebra in the sand and then loses it immediately. The scene is a beach, where, on this side of the ocean, the foam is darker, more sinister. The style is quasi-surrealist, with an emphasis on landscape.

II. "Columns of dust hold up the afternoon sky." We seem to be in the same landscape, the same imaginative space, as in the first poem. The fossil bone reappears: "To find the fragile little bone of the race by chance and to lose it."

III. "The hand of god is bigger than himself." A huge cosmic force, whose effect on reality, his touch, is larger than his own presence.

IV. "The blood of the African lamb is indelible." We remain within this quasi-surrealist rhetoric. Bones, harps, eyes. The lamb is the sacrificial animal par excellence. To say that the blood is indelible (a word usually used of ink), is to say that the trace of the sacrifice can never be effaced. We have music produced by a wind blowing through bones. These lines could almost be by Gamoneda: "Ojos susurrantes se abren y cierran donde ni cal ni arena fueron sino edades y cenizas del corazón."

V. Men are "bleeding in the book of mud." The first explanation of the title of the sequence. "The history of history is the sea." The theological theme persists (gods, crucifixion, paradise). The only elements that have appeared in the sequence so far relate to the natural world, the human body and human emotions, and this theological discourse.

VI. Now the speaker is god, or god speaks. "Write it down in your book," he or she says. "It would be absurd not to celebrate this treasure."

VII. "The child looked at himself in the mirror and saw he was a monster." Now writing becomes a way of digging up (desenterrar) childhood--a childhood seen without sentimentality. Although the themes seem to change here, the language and rhythms do not, so that we feel continuity even in the absence of discursive coherence.

VIII. A mysterious answer comes in the wind. The moon and the stars shine, but give very little light. The body is a bow and arrow.

(to be continued)

28 ago 2010

I just realized my colleague gave a course on violence in the Spanish novel recently. Maybe I don't want to organize my course thematically around violence after all. Maybe that will just be one theme.

Someone else also pointed out that with a monothematic course, discussions can get repetitive toward the end.

Here is my plan so far. I will organize the course around two to four topics like the following:

(1) Violence and the sacred. Sacralizations and aestheticizations of violence. Lorca and Hernández.

(2) Drugs and alcohol: drunkenness (Rodríguez), drug abuse, drug-induced madness (Leopoldo María Panero). Poetry as a mind altering substance. Venoms (Gamoneda). The pharmacological imagination. I just read a fantastic book on this subject, Las letras arrebatadas, by Germán Labrador Méndez. I could have my students read sections of that.

(3) Sex and sexuality.

(4) Poetry and music.

I hate the idea of "sex, drugs, and rock and roll in medieval times," those kind of courses that pander to the superficial glamour of certain topics. What I hate even more, though, is the idea that poetry is realm of purity where everything is sublimated out of existence. This would be course based on a Rimbaudian conception of poetry, more or less, with some Baudelairean artificial paradises thrown in. More Dionysius than Apollo.

The major figures of the course, then, would be

Lorca (sex, violence, music)

Hernández (violence, music)

Gamoneda (violence, venoms)

Rodríguez (drunkenness)

Panero (drugs)

Rossetti (sex)


Drugs and drunkenness is something else that everyone officially disapproves of, but that is pretty much central to the way cultures function--just like sex and violence. These four themes also intersect in interesting ways. Sex goes with violence and with music too.

27 ago 2010

I always thought it would be interesting to compare postmodern poetry (from Olson to everyone else in the New American Poetry to what's called postmodernism in fiction (Barth, Coover, Pynchon, etc...). In other words, look at these two parallel movements together, the way they were received in the criticism. Postmodernism was Olson's coinage, but it didn't take off until it became applied to fiction. Boundary 2 was originally devoted to a more generically poetic version of postmodernism.

Gilbert Sorrentino is the major figure who is both a poet in the New American Poetry and a writer of postmodern metafiction. He would be interesting to look at. It would be also interesting to look at the fiction of Creeley, Jones [Baraka], etc... The novels of John Ashbery and James Schuyler. Why are the critical discourses on Pynchon and Olson so far apart?

A third definition of postmodernism, deriving from Lyotard, largely erased the literary postmodernism derived from American novelists inspired by Borges or American poets in the Olson tradition. After Lyotard's influential book, postmodernism merged with what was known, before that, as poststructuralism.

Anyway, this is a free dissertation topic for anyone who wants it. You can have it for free, as long as you put me in your acknowledgements somewhere. Postmodernism has got to the point where it's so old hat that it could almost be new again with a fresh critical perspective.

26 ago 2010

Here are some ideas I've sometimes believed:

20th Century poetry written in Spanish is much more interesting than French poetry of the same period. In particular, Spanish pseudo-surrealist poets like Lorca, Aleixandre, Neruda, are more interesting than the French surrealists.

The Latin American "boom" novelists are far better than peninsular Spanish novelists of the same period, like Goytisolo and Benet.

The boom in Latin American narrative is more interesting that Latin American poetry after Paz, Parra, and Lezama Lima. The energy of avant-garde poetry (Neruda and Vallejo, Borges's essays) flows into narrative--not lyric poetry, which settled into a kind of dull conversational mode during this same period.

These beliefs seem to depend on an unexamined premise: that there is a kind of imaginative energy that is present in really interesting literary movements and absent in others. There is an "it" that moves about from country to country, from genre to genre. Whole swaths of literature can be boring because they don't have it.

I'm questioning this kind of thinking, not because all these judgments are necessarily mistaken, but because they make reality seem too simple and rely on cultural stereotypes. For example, I'm sure I've accepted judgments about French surrealism without having read the French poets in question.

25 ago 2010

I'm not saying that Bill Evans and Robert Creeley are my two favorites--they are among my favorites of course--but they are two in a special category in that I have periods where I crave their work intensely, as though they were chocolate or some other craveable substance. When I want Creeley nothing else will substitute. There are other musicians or poets that I like just as much, but for whom i never feel that sense of an itch that can only be scratched one way.

About Bud Powell, on the other hand, I feel a sense that I do not want him to stop. As far as i'm concerned he could play 3,000 choruses of "Bouncing With Bud" and I would be perfectly happy.

24 ago 2010

I turn 50 today.

23 ago 2010

As a final gesture, one of his final gestures, Juan Ramón Jiménez decided to produce a final edition of his poetic works, what he wanted to save, about 1300 poems, that suppressed line-endings in all unrhymed poems. In other words, any poem without rhyme would be printed as a prose poem. This is a radical gesture. As Howard Young put it in a review of the book--which didn't appear until 1978, years after the poet's death:
The poet who introduced verso libre / desnudo and who eloquently justified its use resorted in his last years to undermining at least part of his theory and permitting the undulating lines he had compared to bird flights or dancers' movements to flatten out in a paragraph”

I've always been shocked and fascinated by this decision. Could you imagine Williams are Creeley doing this?

22 ago 2010

Poets who owe a substantial part of their place in literary history to their prosodic originality or influence.

Horace. Adapted Greek meters into Latin with great virtuosity.

Garcilaso de la Vega. Adapted Italianate meter and forms into Spanish poetry. Showed that the 11-syllable line could work in Spanish.

Shakespeare: Brought blank verse a flexibility and vigor that would put all subsequent poets to the test.

Whitman. Originated a form of free verse that would go on to be hugely influential on poets writing in many languages.

Rubén Darío. Brought a style of Parnassian ornamentation into Spanish verse.

Ezra Pound...

Those are some major cases, not an exhaustive list but just a start. There are also minor poets who owe their fame, or a substantial part of it, to their skill at versification: Campion, for example...

It is interesting in how many cases prosodic innovation comes about through looking at models in other languages: Greek for Horace, French for Darío, various languages for Pound. An innovation can be an adaptation into another language.

Who would you add to this list? I'm sure there are many, very great poets who don't owe a substantial part of their historical importance to their actual writing of verse, or their innovations in prose poetry, etc... but I'm not that interested in those (right now, for my present purposes) except as counter-examples, perhaps.

21 ago 2010

Tales of violent death, like those of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías and Antoñito el Camborio, are everywhere in Lorca's work. Death is everywhere in his work. We talk a lot about death in lyric poetry, but some proportion of this death is violent. In the epic tradition, obviously, violence is central.


I am not wanting to praise violence, simply by pointing out how much a lot of us like it in the culture we consume. In fact, I'd like to question some of this glorification, reflect critically on it and on its popularity. A lot of reflection on violence simply takes for granted its necessity. For example, you can debate whether tv or the movies are too violent, whether the violence is too graphic, whether it will be imitated by spectators, etc... But all this takes for granted its centrality.

20 ago 2010

The revival of Bemsha: I will try to post something every day and be better than ever. Posts will be written in advance and published at 1 a.m. every day.

19 ago 2010

I'm thinking of making the theme for my graduate course next semester on Spanish poetry violence. Poetry and violence. Real and symbolic and everything in between.

Lorca. Looking at the way violence is sacralized and aestheticized, sexualized, etc...

Aleixandre: death, love, and destruction...

Miguel Hernández. Look at some of his war poetry.

Gamoneda: violence and suffering.

Rossetti: martyrology and sexuality.

I think this could work, because violence is pretty much glorified in our culture from all sides of the ideological spectrum. Just about everyone loves violence in some form or another. The passive acceptance of violence is present in the Christian tradition very strongly.

I have no theory of violence.

6 ago 2010

Everyone, pretty much, accepts violence, when not celebrating it. Everyone has a preferred form of ritualized or aestheticized violence. Against the Vietnam War? Then I bet you have a Che t-shirt. Violence is sacralized in religion, aestheticized in entertainment, romanticized in all ideologies from right to left, enshrined by all nationalisms and patriotisms--and plenty of ways of opposing nationalisms and patriotism. It's there in military marches and Lorca poems, and just about every genre of film from Westerns and Horror movies to slapstick comedies. It's implicit in sports, except where it's explicit. There's a lot of violence in poetry, because why should poetry be any different from anything else? Blood flows from the Iliad to the Inferno and Hamlet, Miguel Hernández and a lot of poets in between.

War is the master trope for everything else: entertainment, politics, religion, art, ideology. Homo polemikos? It's pretty hard to find an outside to violence. People will tell you that pacifism is just letting some other violent people go unopposed. You don't fight back? You're probably just "passive aggressive."