Joyce Mansour and Variation

Midway through my two-hour browse through both locations of Commonwealth Books in Boston, “downstairs” and “upstairs and around the block,” I realized that my yearning was more than the simple reader’s yearning– I wanted to fall into love– new love, to match the new green of young willow leaves. A moment after this recognition, I opened a book and read this:

“The man left on the roads of insomnia
With a tongue in each eye and a leg on his shoulder
And the song of swallows
To guide him.”

I did not fall in love with Joyce Mansour but I recognized the dangerous perpexity, the soul-cutting as invocation to ego-death, the mayhem that is the train of tenderness, the wanting of what I wanted. I can’t say that finding her poems was better than love, nor a replacement, but there was enough parallelism to get me by– an uneasy compromise she would accept.

Mansour was one of the few women associated with the surrealists and little known to English speakers. Translated by poet and critic Serge Gavronsky, the volume drew me in and out my wallet.

Feeling pleased and talky and having petted the delightful orange animal that prides around the floor stacks, I mentioned to the friendly bookseller that while I loved Black Widow Press’s series of surrealist poetry (this is my fourth volume, joining Eluard, Char, and Queneau) I was not fond of the thematic cover design: alternating red and black triangles interrupted but a photograph, usually by Man Ray, with the author’s name and title in a large bold sans serif font.

The bookseller turned out to be Joe Phillips, publisher of Black Widow Press, and designer of the covers. He was happy I was buying the book and not too offended that I had dissed his book jacket, but boy was I embarrassed, and boy did I high-tail it out of there as soon as I could rather than make a friend.

That night I looked for a poem for A, but was unhappy with the translation of the one I wanted to send. I made some changes but in the end remained displeased. Yesterday morning I rewrote it freely.

I’ve snatched the goldenrod warbler
that vivifies the devil’s sex
it will instruct me in the seduction of
men, stags, and angels aglide on double wings
it will despoil my thirst, my shirts, and my illusions
before it goes dormant,
but me, my sleep goes stepping across the steeples
murmuring, gesticulating, and making love violently
avec les chats.*

Joyce Mansour (trans. by Wm Emery)

*with cats. It just sounds so much more casual and off-handed in the original, a bored slide of the hand and a long exhale from a Gauloises.

A smart and passionate if terribly hipster appreciation of Mansour can be found here.

readings: saga means to say

The technological proximal: A collaborative project setting all of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to music.

Tomas Tranströmer is dead. I’m going to translate one of his poems.

“Drömde att jag körde tjugo mil förgäves.
Då förstorades allt. Sparvar stora som höns
sjöng så att det slog lock för öronen.

Drömde att jag ritat upp pianotangenter
på köksbordet. Jag spelade på dem, stumt.
Grannarna kom in för att lyssna.”

As I read his obituary I was led to an album recorded by his daughter, Emma. Together with composer Maurice Karkoff, she set some of her father’s poems to music. Tranströmer was also a pianist, and when he suffered a stroke and lost functionality in his right side, Karkoff composed pieces just for his left hand. The album, Dagsmeja, is like the midday sun that melts the snow. After discovering Karkoff, I discovered also that he died in 2013.

Kenzie Allen’s poem Solgangsbris also draws inspiration from attenuated meterological terminology.

Give me these new desires
swift and shifting and ocean-
reaching, plains-conquering
as the wind at sundown, the
solgangsbris which carries
the tide and cools the skin
and makes me also a
valley, also a vessel, also
vast and remaining and full.

clarity is not language

One language is many languages in dimensional parallelism. I hear it in the word “father.” The vague shape of your intention meets only my inability to map it. You think you have given me meaning. It is largely noise.


On having a clear style: Sometimes the force of a word itself is more important than clarity. These too heavy words and phrases move through the text and surface like pods of whales.


Suggestions from a woman from Brittany: George Brassens, Veraline’s Chanson D’Automne, Serge Gainsbourg.

“I love you. Me neither.”

Readings: the slick business of forgiving

The too-appropriately-named-for-my-comfort Donna Stonecipher’s poem treads fresh snow and I am ready to follow.

How “human” is human enough. Little rescues are at hand, angels in plainclothes, but how can we know inside whom embark the seeds of our

As I stood holding my face up to the night sky the stars in their pristine arrangements pricked every last swollen thing inside me, as if

For the larger the target of your heart, the more you must smelt yourself down to the slick business of forgiving

Forgiveness the liquid eating away at the cool white stars of the sugar. Intransigence the cream billowing up through the dark

Young, brilliant and beautiful Danish writer, Josefine Klougart, is trapped by snow and love in the country.

In a way, I can’t stand to be anywhere, I say in a voice that sounds brittle, dry, combustible. A ray of sun in a glass would be enough; it would break, and it could happen any time. A threat. Because in a way I’ve already seen too much. An odd sense, all of a sudden, of things being arbitrary. That it’s not my dead man who’s important; suddenly it’s someone else, the new man, on whom my life depends. I think: can I never just be in one place. Without that magnetism. That’s what the snow does. Or that’s the illness the snow cannot cover up, cannot heal; the snow as salt falling upon injured raw thoughts raw emotions. When did it happen. In the night the snow comes, the magnetism wells up in me, I wake up magnetic, and as a magnet: held back, bound up, the entire space between me and this new man vibrates like that. A disconcerting tension. Movements drawn in the air, movements revealing themselves—the second before they exist: then perhaps amounting to nothing. Distress at what could have been—so precious.

Olga Ziemska makes eerie sculptures from natural materials.

In researching justifications for leaving my poems without titles, I came across this insightful investigation of Emily Dickinson’s same decision by John Mulvihill. His thinking on her probable thinking is similar to my own.

With no title to authorize a spatial or temporal context, nor to provide a concept, emblem, or complex word on which to anchor the poem, readers must provide a context themselves — or, alternatively, draw on their reserve of what Keats called “negative capability” and remain in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.”

Dickinson’s poems often leave the reader with a sense of not just the evanescent (a quality of both the snake and hummingbird) but the ineffable – the unnameable. David Porter has discussed the ineffable in relation to her poems’ abstractions: “She evidently avoided a more palpable naming in order to hold onto the unnameable merger with irrational existence” (36). I would go further to say that she not only avoids a “more palpable naming” but avoids naming at all, in not titling, in order to evoke “the merger with irrational existence.”

Like other stylistic characteristics of her poetry – its compression, inverted syntax, neologisms – nontitling is a purposeful subversion of conventional poetic practice.10 Dickinson is the first modern poet who systematically and purposefully did not provide titles for her poems. To borrow Marianne Moore’s words: her “Omissions are not accidents.”

While I offer this evidence of Dickinson’s linguistic skepticism as a quite specific explanation of her nontitling, I agree that her nontitling can be seen as of a piece with her nonpublication, and more generally of a piece with her antipathy toward the public sphere and her commitment to the interpersonal and private spheres. This antipathy is expressed in P288:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!
(first varient)

The public world is the verbal world, and particularly the world of names and titles. It is where you “advertise” yourself, have a career in which you make a “name” for yourself. It is where you can be a “Somebody” — when being a “Somebody” means many people know your name who don’t know you.

Fascinating look at the history of translation in Cairo by Samah Selim.

The line between original, translation, and adapted works at this time “was a very thin one,” and translations were so popular, Selim said, that some Arab authors published their own original work as translations. Original works, she said, might masquerade as translations for prestige, profit, or for the greater license.

These weren’t just a foreign colonial form somehow “imposed” on a blank reading public. Selim traces the popularity of the French mystery genre in 19th and early 20th century Egypt to a local narrative culture dating to the medieval tradition of qissa and sira — as well as he trope of the corrupt and dangerous modern city, popular in the news media.

Massively popular nineteenth century Lebanese novelist Jurji Zaydan suggested, Selim said, that these foreign stories were “genetically related to the medieval Arab story tradition” — that is, the stories of the Thousand and One Nights or the semi-oral siras. And this is surely true, as 19th century novels drew heavily on Nights motifs, and the Nights themselves had been freely adapted into Western languages and had, for Western audiences, an “exotic” appeal similar to reading Sherlock Holmes in Cairo.

juvenal and juvenilia (until you rose and left me)


Back from when Deucalion climbed a mountain in a boat
as the clouds lifted the waters, and then asked for an oracle,
and then little by little spirit warmed the soft stones
and Pyrrha showed naked girls to their husbands,
whatever men do – prayer, fear, rage, pleasure
joy, running about – is the grist of my little book.

Ex quo Deucalion nimbis tollentibus aequor
nauigio montem ascendit sortesque poposcit
paulatimque anima caluerunt mollia saxa
et maribus nudas ostendit Pyrrha puellas,
quidquid agunt homines, uotum, timor, ira, uoluptas,
gaudia, discursus, nostri farrago libelli est.


the steps to the attic cellar
of age are spinning coins

might I fly


but empty

cohesion rises
when blood has not
solitude becomes idea

severing constellation ties to each iris


plastic lizards amazing bouncing balls
protect me from gasoline and body hair
return the late day glow
of the nursery the eating
of a moth dirt and roaring
I will build a home from my sleep


old man in a charcoal suit and a yellow tie
wrinkled like similes wrinkle a thought


I want to go blind for words
cataloged neatly in cabinets scattered
about tables under glass pinned labeled
destroyed indistinguishable brazilian reds
every word a tree black eden
in bloom under halogen bulbs let me go blind
for you my eyes turn to milk for you
let only the words of god sift through


the half man shuffled in
the mommies and aunties could only shout
as daddies and uncles rose to turn him out

they must have forgotten the season
“It is winter,” I said
and they replied eerily in unison: “Amen.”


my friend bends to the water’s surface
she calls this surface stars
she gives a cup to me
and cannot keep it filled


whisper to me your name
I have forgotten
its difference from heaven’s
“there is no difference
we are separate halves of one kiss”


this silence I once feared like madness
like falling from great heights like drowning
flailing as my lungs filled with water
I used to talk all day
tonight I whisper your name
into your soft admonishment
with only silence to speak
I kiss you until the dawn


you stretch across the night sky
in disguise but I know you
I pretend not to
I touch the stars beneath your skin
and gaze at your soul changing color


your legs tremble
and my soul ceases to recognize itself
you speak and my soul becomes your words
you breathe and my soul is inside of you
telling you my secrets and beckoning me to follow


the universe teased with my teeth
shuddering tightening escaping gasping
immense and infinite under my lips
her firmament with its heavy scent
floating like fog her stars pale silver
beneath her skin the places she is pink
heat my only air the pulsing the continuous
bursts of light the collapsing exhaustion the slow quiet
breathing the charting of limbs onto maps of the sky


yes the ax is sharp
you have seen others
their life seeping into the stone

but look at her hair curled around her collar

that image will remain
as your blood balls the dust


search for a balance they say do not indulge
the only balance is falling everything
weightless while I fall and fall and fall
tumbling around the syllables of your name


until you rose and left me
I was eternal immense and drowned

Review of Norman Lock’s A Boy in His Winter

The following was written last fall upon the request of a literary journal. I had hoped I would like the book, which was a time travel redo of Huck Finn, but it filled me instead with rage, rage that eventually cooled enough to form a review shaped island of text. The journal declined to publish the review for reasons of tone. I understand their decision, as I have been uncomfortable submitting it elsewhere or publishing it here. I get somewhat heated and dismissive. I make derogatory (if obviously stylized and hyperbolic) insinuations about the author. It also doesn’t escape me that I am a white man writing about how another white man writes about race by taking characters from another white man’s book about race, and that one of my issues is that I don’t like the way race is portrayed. Enough apologetics. At least it isn’t raccoon porn.


A book is written and read in Time. Many shed that minute skin, others are swallowed whole, and some of those find a second, third, or fourth life in amber. As Norman Lock’s novel, A Boy in His Winter, purports to be a novel of race relations through history, it seems appropriate to check its ambitions against the life outside the book, as well as its source material, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is the weather as of this writing: the streets of New York, Chicago, Memphis, Ferguson, and New Orleans are filled with rage and sorrow. The sky is occupied by helicopters and that percussive police state sound. Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, was choked to death by a police officer in Staten Island and despite video evidence the killer was set free. He joins Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown as the latest black man murdered by a badge, although reports are coming in now about another unarmed black man shot in Phoenix. By the time this review appears, more names will fill newsprint, protest signs, Twitter and Facebook feeds. Police lynchings are only the most egregious example of a criminal justice system that incarcerates over two million people—the highest number in the world—and holds another five million under ‘supervision’ of probation or parole. These are Joseph Stalin numbers. This is a heavy context for a mere fiction to bear, but Lock brought it on himself with this press release of a novel. Time-Traveling Huck Finn in Hurricane Katrina! Instead of updating and extending the original novel, A Boy in His Winter serves instead as a two hundred page exercise in white guilt.

Lock’s conceit is this: Mark Twain’s book was a lie. When Jim and Huck stole the raft, they actually traveled both down the Mississippi River and through Time. Huck still narrates, but as a man at the end of his life, deep into our future. How this time travel works is unexplained at considerable length, but even more mind-boggling is how Lock turned the open, searching, and sympathetic voice of thirteen-year-old Huck into an octogenarian bore that corners the hapless at parties with talk of yachts and the lynching he once saw.

That’s right, Jim (the n-word is conspicuously absent in what amounts to a tacit acceptance of censorship) is lynched in the 1960s. This is not really a spoiler because the suspense-adverse Lock more or less tells the reader on the first page. Huck grows up to be a yacht salesman. Now he is telling his life story to an unknown and possibly Martian recorder in a future that is never described. Huck does arrive, sans the recently and unimaginatively murdered Jim, in New Orleans, where he is forced to abandon his wood plank time machine and re-enter the usual flow of years. Rather than give that grand city and its crisis of class, race, weather, police, and government failings the epic scope it demands, Lock has Huck team up with a misfit band of drug smugglers, including another kindly black man destined to be murdered, for some Z-grade Breaking Bad drama that lands Huck in juvenile detention. This would be an excellent opportunity to continue exploring prejudice and injustice but instead Lock gives us a reading list. After he gets out, Huck starts selling yachts because rafts, falls in love with a woman named Jameson because Lock ran out of ideas but not whiskey, and then gets wintery, which is to say, old. Honestly, after Tom Sawyer and Jim die, (Tom’s death slips silent as a stone through the waters of the book) not a single other character comes to life. This is in part because Mark Twain already did the real work with the original cast, and in part because Lock isn’t really interested in them, or the stories in which they figure.

What, then, is Lock concerned with?

1. Research
Did you know that in 1850 a “little ice age” froze the Big Muddy solid all the way down to St. Louis? Did you know about the African-American infantry regiment in World War One known as the Harlem Hellfighters? Or that the treaty expelling the Choctaw was signed at Fort Adams?

2. Half-assed racial apologetics
“I wish I could say I stole Carlson’s raft to spite him for his prejudice…Enlightenment in 2077 is relatively easy—now that the white race is no longer in the majority. But in 1835, when Jim and I commenced our journey, people were rawer in their sensibilities, more indifferent to the feelings of others.”

3. Name-dropping
H.G. Wells, Tristam Shandy, King Oliver, Bob Marley, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, Tocqueville, Claude Debussy, Marcus Garvey, Jacob Bohme, the Ganges, Calcutta, London, Palm Beach, the Rhine, Barcelona, Morocco, Rotterdam, Mazerati…

4. Inappropriately fancy writing
5. Anxiety about the possibilities of narration
6. Bullshit metaphysics

“Have you considered what this story might mean, or are you taking dictation with no other thought than the payment you’ll receive when I have in my hands the transcript of this—what would you call it? An American picaresque? A chimera spawned by an old man’s grotesque imagination? And will anyone care? I wish I had Jim here to sound! He understood things better than I: the river, life, our helplessness, our desire—the human wish to be elsewhere and not alone. To be unalone, unlike me with no company but a hired amanuensis. I spent a long time in the world but never possessed the knowledge of men and women. Not even with her… Maybe the fault lay in my most unusual childhood. If that is the truth, why have I failed myself? Unless we all do, but with the grace and courage not to grumble.”

A paragraph of this sort of musing would not have been amiss, but similar bone chewing occurs on nearly every page. Lock also can’t go three pages without throwing shade at Twain, a macho tic that seems more like tourettes than the big brass balls he might have intended. And Jim is a magical negro. Although supposedly just floating down the weird timey-wimey Mississip’, Jim is able to recite the entire Gettysburg Address in honor of Lincoln’s assassination and predict the sudden extinction of the passenger pigeon just so Lock can scold us and scratch his guilt-ridden hives.

At this point a comparison to Twain is unfair, if begged for, so instead I will take a lesson from the far superior revisionist history: Bubba Ho-Tep. In the movie, a geriatric Elvis and a body-swapped JFK (he is now a wheelchair-bound black man) directly confront the possibilities that one or both of them might be lunatics, the realities of the abandoned elderly, and a soul-sucking mummy. It is an issue-loaded, high-concept, low-comedy move of which Twain might have approved.

For Twain’s Huck Finn, an outsider to class, civilization, and adulthood, there were no easy answers. Huck carried instead persistent bafflement, compassion, and engagement. He represented an honest perspective on theater, government, storytelling, slavery, manners, ethics, any and every taken-for-granted aspect of American life he encountered. Lock’s Huck wrestles with only his own infuriating acceptance of a self-adequate and self-congratulatory guilt wrapped in metaphysics. Mark Twain would have realized instantly that metaphysics, as they are here deployed, are a superstition no less risible than the fear of witches.

In our ongoing human and literary response to injustice and hypocrisy, will we be bought off by cheap reforms, asphyxiated by frustration and the mere awareness of privilege, or will we do the impossible and maintain an open, engaged relationship to the structures of power that require the permanent subjugation of an underclass? Twain’s Huck Finn still holds the door open to these questions. Lock has shut the door and swallowed the key.