29 July 2013


The first American forces arrived in Europe in January. In March the War Relocation Authority was signed into law by Roosevelt creating internment camps for Japanese citizens. Anne Frank started her famous diary in June. In December the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction is set off under the bleachers on the football field at the University of Chicago.

And Anna Seghers wrote Transit, a book about the plight of refugees of the Nazis. The book would be published in 1944.

The book basically details the bureaucratic process of getting transit papers. Those papers are defined as: "A transit visa...gives you permission to travel through a country with the stipulation that you don't plan to stay." And that is the entire plot. A man who just wants to stay but cannot. Anywhere.

Seghers went through this process. She fled to Marseilles in 1940 and then on to Mexico in 1941. She wrote The Seventh Cross there and it was released in 1942. It was one of the earliest representations of a concentration camp in media. A movie version was made in 1944. It starred Spencer Tracy, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

It's hard to imagine in 2013 the idea of fleeing your home and then moving consulate to consulate hoping to find a country to take you away to a better life. Or maybe it isn't. The Edward Snowden/NSA story seems out of spy novels. Out of WWII era tales of people trapped, country-less. Whether or not you agree with the details, the similarities are interesting.

That the ultimate feeling from the book is one of hopelessness. A sense of futility. It becomes clear that Seghers is very suspicious of people who leave Europe. In the end her main character decides to attempt to stay. To carve out a new life for himself. He chooses to not abandon Europe. And it is shown to be noble.

It is a bold statement in 1942 to make.

It is a bold thing to openly talk about the horrors of WWII.

I was reminded of Carlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. That film holds a firm place in history as an early shout against the Nazi takeover of Europe. The final speech is still shocking and wonderful to hear today. And this book seems to conjure a darker version of it.

From the afterword by Heinrich Boll:
For anyone who would like to make writers aware of the dangerous conditions under which they live and write, I would refer them to the last danger enumerated by Saint Paul and cited by Anna Seghers: 'Perils among false brethren'.

The cover of the new NYRB edition has a cover featuring a drawing by Francis Picabia.

15 July 2013


Edmund Dulac
I said something deep today while talking on the phone with JAA. The discussion was about ourselves as writers. A notoriously douchey conversation topic, but we are writers so we talk about that thing a bunch.

We had stumbled into a discussion of looking backwards at our old work. Seeing what it was about. Learning from it. Personal archeology. JAA writes in journals all the time. Every few months he takes a journal and moves the work onto a computer and begins to edit. I tend to not write things down. It means I forget a bunch, but the written word is like concrete to me and I don't like to set things too early.

I mentioned that I do have a pretty rigorous computer filing system. It's by year and alphabetical. I even put draft numbers in there.

I mentioned that I was sifting through poems from 2000 recently. That it felt like a gift to be able to go back to that time and rethink the work. Edit it. And here's where I got all deepish. I said:

As writers, we get to rewrite our pasts. Erase it. Rework it until it's perfect.

And thinking on that, I realize that I meant it. But not in a erasing the past to pretend it didn't happen way. In a way similar to a cover-up tattoo. You will always remember that there was something else there, Always. And maybe only you can see it. But it exists. Foundational. Underneath.

I've been thinking a lot about foundation lately. Being back in NM has led me down paths I walked 12 years ago. My early 20s were spent writing a lot and working only on weekends. It was great in the way only your college years can be.

My foundation as a writer is in that space. That work. Re-reading it, I am struck by how of that space I was. Writing angry anti-war poems. Aping Ginsberg's voice. Trying to write a poem about body image form a woman's perspective. A few slightly questionable sex poems that border on being rapey. It's all very young man of me. Very Bush V. Gore of me.

At the same time I've been reading a few actual foundational texts for my Pub Weekly review gig. I read a new translation of One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan-al-Shaykh. And then this week I did the new Wole Soyinka translation of Forest of a Thousand Daemons by D. O. Fagunwa. The Fagunwa book is only from 1939 but is deeply foundational to modern African lit. 1001 Nights is obviously foundational to most lit.

They relate to each other in tone, in topics, and in structure. They both are about someone telling stories. They both rely heavily on morality and on a readers pre-known knowledge of certain tropes. They 'teach'. And they both have deep, problematic sex politics.

Foundational literature - Aesop. Plato. 1001 Nights. Forest of a Thousand Daemons - is a thing we often don't think about. That little hidden thought in the back of our head. It only rears up when we actually reopen the file saved away somewhere. When we stare into it long enough to see ourselves in there.

The ugly and the beautiful.

08 July 2013

The Crisis of the European Mind

Paul Hazard on poetry at the hands of Realists in the late 1600s:

"To the rich music, the soothing caress that may be born of words, they were wholly insensitive, and all sense of mystery had vanished from their souls. They floodlit the world with the pitiless glare of realism...

...If poetry is prayer, they never prayed; if it is reaching out towards the ineffable, they would not hear of the ineffable; if it is to hesitate on the delicate line betwixt music and meaning; they never hesitated; no, not they! They aimed at being just so many proofs and theorems. When they did write verse, it was merely a vehicle for their ideas on geometry."

2013 NYRB edition
The part that sticks out to me most are the lines about prayer and the ineffable. Poetry as a prayer to self, a personal god, the world, humanity. It rings with a kind of truth that I find hard to argue with.

This comes very near the end of Hazard's classic take down/history of the Enlightenment, The European Mind 1680-1715. The book is dense and catty. My knowledge of the Realists is not strong enough to agree or disagree with the thesis - That the Enlightenment may have put arts such as poetry on a back burner in favor of hard, cold reality.

I do think you could argue that while not poetry in its strictest sense, Voltaire, Locke, Spinoza, et al do reach a sort of poetic space by virtue of their ability with language. But it requires a very broad definition of poetry.

Here is Rousseau from Discourse on Inequality:

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

I put the parts I find most poetic in bold. This might help you see what I mean more clearly:

The first man,
having fenced
a piece of land said,
This is mine

How many horrors
might one have saved
by pulling the stakes,
filling the ditch,
and crying out:

Beware this impostor;
you are undone to forget
the earth belongs
to nobody.

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet said in 1735:

"The earliest writers, we are told, were poets. That I can well believe; they could not very well have been anything else. But the latest will be philosophers."

I would argue there isn't a difference.

01 July 2013

Inspiration : Exoenzyme

Exoenzyme 10/1/09

Take off your shirt let me hold it to my chest

The poem has obvious sexual overtones. The act of eating is inherently sensual. Sex involves the tongue. The body. The fact that we are moved by pheromones, that a person's smell holds the key to attraction. Our clothes, objects, homes also hold this power.

is a taste as I spoon you into my mouth

There is the story of the Mellified Man, a particular obsession of mine - An elder, knowing it is their time to go stops eating. They only ingest honey. It fills their insides. Eventually they even sweat a thickened golden liquid. Their blood also turns sweet. Then they die. The body is placed in a coffin filled with honey and the whole thing is buried for a generation. When it is dug up, the body has turned into a semi-solid. The entire town/village/tribe comes and partakes. The ingesting of the dead elder infuses the next generation with that person's knowledge. They are literally becoming their ancestor.

From your ___ to my ___

Beautiful - anything could be sitting
filling those blanks

Ambiguity is key to all things. Sex, history, the rites of cultures. Those blanks hold the world. But they also seem to be obviously filled.