letter to d

Seeing A– is always nourishing wondrous. But the milieu was gelatinous with the marrow of terrors, the heavy gravity of an iron-cored planet, everything seemed muffled and far away, I couldn’t react but through layers of filthy gauze, my heartbeat like blackstrap molasses in a winter pantry. 

The need to build a life here for him out of my own materials, out of possibility and play, is more pressing than it has ever been. And nothing for it but sell my work, enter public life, to become.

And it does feel as though I am enduring a transformation, with all the extravagant highs and lows, dead-ends, sloughing of dead skin, gambling with quickening scabs, and grand erotic visions of a small suite of rooms filled with my books, wood furniture, and gauzy curtains holding the curves and hollows of earthwind.

Not having been to NL or your corner of DE I could not say what I would like you to bring me. Any small slim volume of something will always do. If you were in Munich I would ask you to send me the last night I had there with Anne. I know just where to find it… but who is to say what customs would make of such cargo anyway. I suppose with the winnowing of time to a moment’s essentials, and if you let out all the air, the scene could fit on a thin chain of silver or in the hidden compartment of a ring.

I have a Swedish houseguest, 23, a scholar and fangirl of David Foster Wallace, who turned me on to the poet Karin Boye. A good number of her poems are artlessly translated online. Here is one I have redone.

Now is the vaulted time of waiting

before the enleafment,

now the canopy quakes for the loss of its halo,

the birches in purple the aspens in green

and the streamside willows in gold and red–

the time of unseen influence

when all is just a burdened womb–

the tongues of souls go panting,

and dusk excites and tires

like an intoxicating tryst.

Now creation is poised longing to pounce–

before the disappointment

when the forest is as green as possible

and the world is as complete as possible

and the people and the trees mumble from out of their sleep

“We wanted more.”

–Karin Boye


three poems: green throat of the arbor

the patient executor of the catastrophe snips

and kneeling lays the long thistles on a blue tarpaulin

they excavate the low atmosphere like leonid meteors

until the center is full they are a mane of fire in the air of labor

the light shock of thistles yields to a sheared hillock

set in the landscape like an apollonian temple for tidy

pilgrimage ornamental grunt work in order’s image

his old datsun pickup parked precisely in a live oak’s shade

my admiration is helpless his tools his technique of erasure

at once practiced futurist high attic and surreal such certainty

his hide gloved inexorable strength a one man pogrom against

my leonine cousins the thistles too drop unmurdered seeds of praise


they tell each other when they travel of never destinations

do you remember she asked the orchard of the prime minister

on his saint’s day we picnicked in a caesura of pear trees

with his bitter windfall of sons no he replies do you remember

the city elastic as spit from bridges above it no the weather factory

town the sleet smelt no I’m sorry to go through customs we crawled

across the steel surface of seawater no do you no the bog at pig holler

no where the steam from the geyser cuckooed the clocks no

our friend meander’s house train c’mon we cooked s’mores on the boiler

no each claim countered with forgetfulness until they arrive muss the hotel room oh

you mean prime minister ginwheel why I just found his card his youngest has married


“O how could I be so calm
When she rose up to depart?”

mayflies into midgenight

a gummy gossamer agitation

a day of this less

the tongue muscle of the mud

labial and salivac waters

immolant rot of insect wings

green throat of the arbor

love lay taut beneath desire

silent as catgut

Readings: Confabulario


Juan José Arreola’s Confabulario is a masterpiece of short experimental prose.

Tim Parks on his collection of essays Where I Am Reading From.

In a way, this book is an autobiography of someone brought up with a very particular relation to books, in a religious family, in an English literary tradition, who on becoming an adult, for private personal reasons, set himself literary goals that were gradually revealed as spurious. Also, it’s about a person from the literary center—English, London— who has spent more than thirty years in another country, Italy, that is out of the literary mainstream. And a writer who also, by chance, became a translator and went on to teach translation. My life has been a long process of awakening to the reality, the changing reality, of the contemporary book world, which is a million miles from the naïve vision I had when I started writing books at twenty-two. Since it is in the publishers’ interests, and indeed the University’s, to sustain a false picture of what the book world is like and what the contemporary experience of books amounts to, my articles were a response to this, and an attempt to get my own head straight about what I’m really doing and the environment I move in. One is seeking at last to be unblinkered about it all.

Ottilie Mulzet, a translator of Krasznahorkai, on Hungarian and English.

I feel extremely close to Hungarian as a language. I love the sound of it, I love how it works grammatically, I love the vocabulary, the astonishing mishmash of words from so many different languages, I love what writers can do with it. Hungarian is an agglutinative language with vowel harmony—it has seemingly endless suffixes and amazing possibilities for compound words, and it has absolutely flexible word order, depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. And I would certainly mention the unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian—it’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.

English, despite how global it is, is a lot less flexible. Maybe the kind of English that’s spoken in the Indian subcontinent—where it’s partially subjugated to the tendencies of Hindi—would be a more suitable English for translation from Hungarian, but I have to work with the language I know the best. You have to struggle to make sure the sentences don’t seem too jam-packed with information, and yet, when there’s some pretty serious elision going on, you have to test the boundaries of English, with its rigid subject-verb-object structure and having to have all your indicators in place. Hungarian can look like just a splash of ink on the page. There are sentences—or, in Krasznahorkai’s case, subclauses—of just two or three words. I’m intrigued by all of this elision, and fascinated by the problem of conveying it in a recalcitrant language like English—just trying to get English to do something it’s not really meant to do. English today is the global language of commerce and trade, so while it’s dominant, it’s also in some respects deeply impoverished. It desperately needs these transfusions from other languages.

Silvina Ocampo, translated by Jason Weiss

I am all the words that I adored on the lips,
in the books that I admired.
I am the greyhound that fled in the distance,
the solitary branch among the branches.
I am the happiness of a day,
the whisper of the flames.
I am the poverty of naked feet,
with children going silently away.
I am what they did not tell me and I knew.
Oh, I wanted everything to be mine!
I am everything I have already lost.
But everything’s elusive like the wind and the river,
like the golden summer flowers
that die in your hands.
I am everything, but nothing, nothing is mine,
not the pain, nor the joy, nor the terror,
not even the words of my song.

Can Xue, translated, perhaps clunkily, by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.

The old cicada, whose body was both dark and bright, had sturdy wings, but seldom used them. He always stayed in the same place—the strong branch a little below the magpies’ nest. He was a loner, immersed in memories. He had stayed underground for a long time—precisely eight years, according to the magpie couple. Everyone knew he was very old. Still, his energy hadn’t diminished. But why was he so solitary? Was he was still living in his memories, sensing neither the fellows all around nor the vast blue sky? Cicadas seldom live underground for eight years. That time had completely shaped his character.

Ned Beauman made me laugh, uproariously, with his essay on the painter William Bouguereau.

Indeed, Bouguereau is often described as pornographic even by his defenders. But 40 naked women are not 40 times as arousing as one naked woman. Forty naked women are, on the contrary, less arousing than one naked woman. Like a word repeated too many times, nipples soon lose all meaning; this, surely, is the principle on which nude beaches are able to function. If Les Oréades was intended as erotic, it fails. Of course, with a few exceptions like Munch’s Madonna, important old paintings almost always strike the modern eye as failing in this respect. But at least it is possible to imagine that, say, a Cranach might have turned someone on back when standards of beauty were different. Even if you recast Les Oréades (aka Loin Helix aka Babe Flume) with 20 Megan Foxes and 20 Mila Kunises then it wouldn’t do the job, because there are just too many girls in the chorus line. I’m aware that this entire paragraph has been written in exactly the sort of patriarchal, heteronormative, scopophiliac idiom that Berger wants us to question, but that is a sleazy neighourhood I am visiting only in order to rescue Bouguereau from it, or at least that’s what I’ll say if I bump into anyone I know there. Both Berger’s and Dijkstra’s books tend to assume that their readers’ attitudes to gender are as effortlessly progressive as their own—this assumption may be a bit too generous in the case of, for instance, any former pupil of one of England’s medieval public schools who, even several years after leaving, is still running a Truth and Reconciliation Committee on the antique values bestowed upon him by his school. I mean, guys, come on, be honest, you’re can’t be telling me you’ve never even once had a discussion with a female friend that ended with you shrieking something like, “But I’m not a misogynist, I can’t be a misogynist, I don’t hate women, I just find them (as the art historian Bram Dijkstra put it) both fascinating and frightening!” Oh. Really? Nobody else?

Stathis Gourgouris on ghosts and nation states.

One of the crucial elements of the nation as a dream-form is that it presumes, on a basis that is entirely nonsensical (in terms of logic) but altogether sensical/sensuous (in terms of affect), that a given nation has existed since time immemorial and will continue to exist into the endless future. The lifting out of the nation — this profound historical form, this artifice of human creation — from the order of time creates indeed this powerful ghostly existence.

But the ghost requires actualization in real time and space in order to be substantiated: the daily affirmation of the ground of its existence, literally speaking, terra patria or motherland. It’s funny. Both genders are required here because the primal imaginary order of the nation is the family, a certain kind of natural ancestry, if I may put it this way. In any case, the ghostly presence requires a ground (land) and a body (the people) in real time (history). Recalling the dead, or bringing the dead back into the realm of the living, as you say, seems unavoidable in a situation that privileges memory over reality, the roots over the process (of growth and decay), and surely immortality over finitude. The tyranny of memorialization is rampant in the national imagination — Nietzsche explained this to us very well.

Michael Marder, kind and good, calls for a botany of words.

I wonder whether one day we could muster courage and creativity enough to pursue a “natural history of words” (not to be confused with Vico’s or Condillac’s “natural history of grammar”). As I imagine it, this discipline would study how semantic units germinate, undergo metamorphosis, grow, flourish, and decay within and between diverse cultures. Even better would be a botany of words that would finally descend to the literal roots of semantics, the theory of meaning that borrows its name from the Greek sema—“sign” or “seed”. And that is not even to mention the role of roots in grammar, among other botanically inflected terms! Vegetal processes would not play the role of metaphors for the words’ formation, cross-referencing, or falling out of use, but would be recognized for what they are: the first principles of growth and decay in all spheres of life, including the life of culture.

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.”