I sip from the cup that Keats says is full of the warm south, mirth, and sun, “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim / And purple-stained mouth,” and I recommend Byron’s remedy for a hangover: “hock and soda water.
For every poet a fruit or a sweet, plums for Williams, bananas and pineapples for Stevens; the shape of a pear (Stevens), the burst of “Joy’s grape” (Keats), and the word as delicious as the melon sweet as fresh water to the parched lips of the sailor on the abandoned raft: honeydew.
from "Love's Banquet" by David Lehman
Read more at The Inquisitve Eater
I don’t really remember a lot from yesterday. Mostly, I remember some of the messages I sent and got. I got an email that was titled “The Desert.” I opened it, but it was addressed “Dear Friends.” Normally, I would delete an email that was addressed to “Dear Friends,” but I decided to read it since I had such limited access to the world of the internet. It appeared to be an invitation to go to a writing conference or gathering or something in Joshua Tree in California in April. Of course, there was no way that I could go to “the desert” this April because I’m a single mom and teach five classes a semester and I live in the deep south. Also, my son currently has hand, foot and mouth disease, so I had to take care of him today, which made this feeling of “of course I could never do something like this” worse.
I proceeded to read through the email. The part that struck me the most was in the body of the email where the people who sent it wrote, “What are we willing to change about our approaches to the mundane in order to alter that numbed consciousness—and can we usher in a time when the innovation within the arts in this country is less about how we can commodify our gifts and more about how we can use them to fight commodification in our daily lives? Are we truly courageous souls? Can we learn how to say ‘not for sale’….” The email went on. I wondered, of course, how many people this email had been sent to? 10? 20? 50? I wondered if someone who sent the email to “Dear Friends” would have seriously want to know the answers to these questions, or the material and labor conditions that would limit access to this kind of conference or gathering. It seemed strange. I’m not trying to disparage the people who sent the email. I am, though, trying to show you the mind frame I was in. As I said, normally, I would have probably deleted an email with the subject of “the desert” and I definitely would not have read through an entire email addressed to “Dear Friends,” because of the generic and impersonal nature of the address, but reading through the email made me feel more alone and alienated than I had in the previous three days and I thought it was ironic that a well-intentioned email aimed at pulling post-election poets and writers together for a nice gathering had become so irritating.
The other communication that struck me should have made me feel a lot better about myself and less lonely. My friend Natalie Eilbert, who I sent a pdf of my latest book to, (by the way, you should read her poetry!) messaged me to say it was “brilliant.” My friend Brian Blanchfield texted me to say that he had loved the poem I texted him a few days before (read his poetry too!). But for whatever reason, I felt sadder than ever. I think that the last message I sent before I went to bed was to McKenzie Wark and just said “I hate poetry,” to which I got no response. Alex texted, “you seem very isolated and alone.” I told him, “I know. I think that’s the point.” Throughout the day, I also cheated a little bit with my rules. I checked my Facebook messages and personal email sometimes during the day when my rules told me to only check them twice a day.
My feelings of total isolation reminded me of an art project that I put together a few years ago. I wondered if I could be a conceptual poet or like a video artist or something. I don’t know. I set up this thing where I went to TJ MAXX every day either before or after work and took a video of myself talking about, well, nothing in the dressing room.
The dressing room functioned as a kind of confession booth that I went to religiously, day after day. I remember that at first the experiment was fun, but over the course of a few weeks, it became horrific. It became uncomfortable and annoying to go to TJMAXX to just sit there and talk to myself day after day. People in the dressing rooms next to me thought that I was a crazy person. I wanted to know what it was like to go to a place where you are supposed to go after work to make yourself feel better about capitalism (buying things like purses, tops, pants, perfume) but instead just sitting there with it. The project made me feel sad and isolated to the point where reality started losing its bearings. The dressing room made me feel self-conscious and paranoid. I wondered how experience, altered and organized differently, not based on impulses but art projects could bring you to new levels of consciousness.
In no time, fun flipped into something terrifying and now I’m starting to realize that that what’s happening here, right, with my internet deprivation project. The internet was supposed to be fun. Becoming a body of information is supposed to feel amazing! I mean, the internet is fun. But it was also masking a lot of the horrors of capitalism. With all of that information over the last few days, all of that reading and interaction literally drained out of my body, it was hard to know who I was. Happy feelings were replaced by dark feelings, perhaps always there. Without the constant directive of the internet to be positive enforced on an hourly basis, what was to hold back this flood of negativity?
At TJ MAXX, during the weeks of my video art project, I never thought about the, for all purposes, slave labor that made the clothes I was talking about. Slave labor in other countries far away—but I could feel it. I could feel the dead labor—it was all around me. The vectors and specters and vampires and trade ships and ghosts and graveyards and morgues of capitalism, I could feel it all.
The women always said the same things to each other “That looks cute.” The person who gave people the number of items of clothes never said anything bad about anything anyone tried on. If someone emerged from the dressing room, she would say, “That looks cute.” On the outside, things were cute. On the inside, the new reality, organized by a set of principles that I set up completely arbitrarily, was crumbing and scary. I gave up my art project because I thought that I would lose my mind if I didn’t.
I thought too, back then doing the art project, and now with my internet deprivation experiment, that something of the memetic was dissipating or collapsing before me. Both experiments forced reality to be something else, perhaps closer to itself, and that reality wasn’t more awesome, it simply highlighted that both the fantasy and the reality were deeply flawed. With no mirror, with no memetic spectrum to bounce between, at TJ Maxx, I was bored, lonely, hopeless, angry, depressed and annoyed. All of the feelings I had previously gone to TJ Maxx to alleviate by in consumer culture, sat inside my body like a swamp of negative feelings from which I could not escape. I became the alienated labor that I was—that everyone around me was—I had to inhabit it, and it was equally frightening that the mask of ideology, of consumption, was so easily torn from me simply through a few “rules” that I had set up for myself—mainly, that I had to go to TJ MAXX every day and videotape myself in now what had become not the confession booth of my despair but the prison of it.
And so one day, I aborted the project and returned to “normal” consciousness. I can’t stress enough how much this project threw off the coordinates of not only my sense of who I was but what I was. Theoretically, I knew what I was—a mother, a consumer, a late capitalist American bourgeois, but I don’t think I had ever felt it in the way that I had felt it.
My internet experiment had brought me to a low place—that of disconnection, paranoia and depression in a matter of days but I was determined to continue through Sunday, despite Alex’s concern. And I wasn’t going to cheat. I leave you with the last poem that I wrote before I started this experiment, the one that Brian said that he loved:
The Crisis of Capital
Oh how I cathected so much
onto the great Ponzi scheme
Of late-capitalist literature
Watching the dew roll around
Inside a swiveling rose
Trying to retrieve some pleasure
From fucking what may come.
Maybe I was responsible
For the breakup of a marriage or two who can say anymore
what those eyeballs
Blamed on me
And so I cruised the streets more Parisian , More vampire than I cared to admit
Having had enough of the crowds
The blighted yes yes yes
And wanting to fold back into my body the ruin and devastation,
Of the antique centuries
but nonetheless trapped here inside
the ever-morphing architecture
of the deep state
Which is a system of course
More than a structure
The players, coded, who change sides with no remorse
And the military industrial complex
Brain stem from which
There is no way back, the bleak talk of peak oil inside the conference center's monstrous ebb
Since this is all decline as
When the digital subsumed the analog and another
eugenics set in
Simple and sad
These new clocks
Their death sentences
Their ticking mechanics
And what to make of
The mother's death?
The Seine was beautiful and the Rhine
was beautiful too
And the Elbe like the bird
Calls of loons
And being in bed with you was also beautiful even though
we messed it all up with our sad expectations
With our excessiveness
I should have told you I loved you
But I was nervous and wanted you to be impressed by me
And because you didn't love me
It made it worse but maybe you did who knows
maybe you just thought this is the poet
who fucks all the other poets
but what does it matter anymore?
This is the most desperate ransom note to the future--if you are out there---please save us from this--I'm sorry we were statecraft--if it makes any difference, I was a poor agent, a poor analyst, a poor, poor player who knew very little and cried a lot in spaces you aren't supposed to--in the office at work, in the closed down Safeway parking lot at night alone in bed when no one could hear me--made bad move after bad move, made the most embarrassing situations more embarrassing, I was language's poor double agent and to employ me to spy on language took my body in opposite directions and ripped me apart--- "I dread the events of the future not in themselves but in their results" hohoho Edgar Allan Poe
so never do this to us again
I think that today was marked by extreme feelings of anxiety and shame. I posted yesterday’s post to the Best American Poetry blog in the morning around 8am or 9am today and then linked the post to both my Facebook and Twitter accounts but quickly realized that because of my rules, there was no way to know if anyone liked it, if anyone read it or to check in on “how it was doing.” The anxiety started right after I posted it to social media. I wanted feedback and reassurance and suddenly felt extremely vulnerable. It occurred to me, after all, that one of my Facebook “friends” could say something disparaging about my writing and there would be nothing that I could do about it. Normally, if I was letting myself use Facebook, I would quickly delete a rude comment and maybe go into a short diatribe about trolls.
This fact leads me to yet another aspect of social media, being a woman and social media labor. The amount of extra work that I have to do deleting comments from men who harass me online, blocking trolls, receiving their unwanted messages on multiple platforms is actually a lot of work. It’s not something that we often think about in terms of what goes into maintaining an online presence, but it’s certainly real labor and extra labor for women.
In any case, as I left my house for work in the morning, I was already feeling insecure. I live in Florida but I work in South Georgia, so it takes me a good 45 minutes to get to work. Of course, I left my cell phone behind at home, following my rules. The strange thing is that I really wanted to get to work as quickly as possible and get in front of my computer even though I knew cognitively that all of the old “rewards” for doing so would be absent. No one was going to “like” anything and even if they did, I wouldn’t be able to see it; I wasn’t going to be able to read outrageous news about the Trump administration. Having fired my employers (CNN, Facebook and Twitter, Politico, even DemocracyNow and a million other websites), there was literally no reason to rush to work at all. After all, I had finished my grading yesterday at Panera in no time.
When I got to work, I did something that I ordinarily don’t do: I read every work email that came in. To be honest, I usually ignore a lot of nonstudent work emails that don’t seem important at the moment and then read them later. But, since my rule was only to check my personal email twice a day, I figured might as well read each and every work email right now. To my horror, I opened the work email called “TU Announcements,” and found a link to the Best American Poetry Blog that I had posted just hours before. Normally, I would be getting all of the feedback and support I needed online from my social media networks having posted some of my writing but because I didn’t have this at all, I felt extremely self-conscious, almost like I had been found out at my work environment and I didn’t have the internet to comfort me.
I immediately called the publicity person at my school. “Cindy,” I said, “how on earth did you get the link to that blog post?” “Ohhhhhh,” she replied, “We use something called (sorry I can’t remember the name it had the word ‘crawler’ in it) blah blah blah crawler and any time the university’s name comes up we get a link to the content.” I realized that the name of the university where I teach was in the bio I provided. For the next few hours I walked around campus feeling weirdly ashamed and humiliated. My colleague Lisa said, “I have not read your blog, but you should be proud of your writing!” I think that my cheeks felt flushed for the first time since I was a teenager. Then, the chair of my department yelled from across the hall, “Get in Panera jail!” Of course he was kidding, but I could barely manage a “did you like my post?”
My feelings of shame and vulnerability surprised me and I wasn’t quite sure where they were coming from. My hypothesis was that the lack of immediate feedback was creating a space where self-doubt couldn’t immediately be overrided by new content or performance of the “online Sandra Simonds.” Ordinarily, if I posted something and no one liked it, I would post two or three more things to sort of “erase” what had come before thereby negating feelings of shame or humiliation or, I would just delete the post altogether. But, because I couldn’t do this, I had to sit with feelings of failure. The odd thing was that this sense of failure was not based in any “reality.” I mean, I have no clue how many people liked my post. I wondered what the implications were for linking poetry in social media. Were we linking to the poems that we write that are more “likable” simply to reinforce a positive sense of self and negate feelings of self-doubt and shame? And what implication did this had in terms of the dissemination of poetry since the more things are “liked” or shared, the more people read them?
Anyway, at around 12:30, I went to teach my Composition class. We were reading “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. I told the class that Kafka asked his editor (or friend or both? I’m not using the internet so I can’t look it up) Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts and that luckily Brod decided not to do that. I asked the class why a writer would want to burn his papers. There was silence. Finally, one student said, “maybe Kafka didn’t want other people to copy his writing.” “Possibly,” I answered. Then someone said, “Maybe he just wanted his privacy.” Maybe. After class, I wondered what it would be like to burn down all traces of my writing. I guess that would mean burning down the internet. Burning down google documents. Burning down gmail. Burning down social media but that all seems so impossible.
It was weird walking around my own campus feeling like people had read my work, that my privacy had been invaded even though this wasn’t true. After all, my writing was meant to be public, so why did I feel so awkward? Maybe because like everything online, we want to individualize everything, including our audiences. Because my writing ended up in a “non-intended” audience, it was deeply embarrassing. I ran into a colleague on my way back to my office after teaching. “I feel so embarrassed that Cindy linked to that blog post,” I said. My colleague said, “Oh don’t be. I mean I haven’t read it yet.” And then I realized that it’s pretty likely that these people have much, much more to do than read my blog post and that they are not reading work email and are probably distracted by their phones and lives too.
In the early afternoon, I drove home and listened to NPR. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t listen to NPR but would be on my phone sort of reading news articles about Trump, texting my friends and driving home at the same time. But, since I couldn’t do this and longing for some form of communication, even if it was only in one direction, NPR was the best I could do. A news report came on about Kurt Cobain and how if he hadn’t killed himself, he would have turned 50 years old today. In the news report, the biographer they were interviewing said that there was a vigil for Kurt after he died and Courtney commanded the audience to shout, “Fuck you, Kurt.” I don’t have any recollection of this happening in 1994. Maybe it’s common knowledge, but I guess I just don’t remember it. I guess Courtney was so upset with Kurt for killing himself, seeing it as a selfish act or whatever, that she wanted the grieving audience to feel the anger and loss that she felt. Maybe I am misunderstanding what happened, but having no internet, there’s no way for me to find out. The weird feelings of shame that I had felt all day sort of culminated in this moment listening to this report on Kurt Cobain driving back to Florida. It seemed wrong to shame someone for killing himself, especially in that public way. I began to have no clue anymore what audiences were for. To shame the dead? To consume art? I felt sort of sad and depressed, and in the back of my mind, I wondered if my fiancé had read my blog post. I noticed some kind of hawk circling high above the trees and it was pretty.
When I got home, around three in the afternoon, I immediately went for my cell phone like a true addict. I had two new voicemails. Awesome, I thought. Maybe one of my friends called me but when I saw the number, it was a South Georgia phone number and I don’t really have friends in South Georgia. I listened to the first voicemail which was a recorded message saying that there was an active shooter on my campus. The second voicemail, sent a few minutes later, was one that said that the campus was clear and that we could all “go back to our normal routine.” I think if I would have gotten these messages at work, I would have probably had a heart attack. But the fact that I got them at least an hour after they were sent, and in such close succession, suggested that there was some sort of mistake. I checked my text messages. There were a number of colleagues who had texted in a group text and, long story short, there was no real emergency and that some gun had backfired in an on campus celebration of President’s Day. How strange it was that the drama of the active shooter “emergency,” I did not experience in real time, but in retrospect, the pieces of which were easily put together. Having not experienced these voicemails and texts as they were unfolding, drained the entire experience of its meaning or potency.
By late afternoon, I saw that my friend Brian texted. Brian is someone I met at Whole Foods when Hurricane Hermine hit Tallahassee in September. He helped me move my things from one duplex where a tree had crashed through my house, to a duplex down the street.
“Hi Sandra,” Brian texted, “I’m turning 41 today and I think I’m going to hide.”
When I saw Brian’s text, I texted back, “So, I’m doing this experiment. If you want to talk to me, you have to call me this week.”
I had about an hour before I needed to pick my kids up from after school care. The thought crossed my mind that I could make Brian cupcakes for his birthday. The old voice in my head, the ghost came back…..well, there’s nothing to do, so might as well. At this point, I was mad at the voice in my head. I mean, this is NOT the way I think. I make nice things for the people I care about. That’s who I am. Except my ex-employers kept calling. There’s something you are missing, Facebook, Twitter, CNN, said. I resisted the voices and made my friend cupcakes.
After I picked up my kids from school, I called Brian and he came over and we all celebrated my 41st birthday. I told him about my experiment. “Be careful, Sandra,” he said. “I gave up Facebook for lent one year and I never went back.” I asked him why he gave it up. “Because I was spending too much time tending my farm in Farmville.” Farmville? I thought. He must have given Facebook up a while ago.
In any case, spending time with Brian did do something unexpected. It alleviated my shame from earlier in the day and put it into perspective. I’m not exactly how this happened or why it did, but talking about politics, riots, race in America with an actual human being instead of fighting with people online about politics, was far more nuanced and, frankly, less aggressive. It seemed more like a conversation and less like a battleground. By the time he left, I really didn’t care if anyone liked my blog post or not. I put my kids to bed and the day was over.
The logic that I didn’t understand, that was the most upsetting for me throughout the day was that fact that I would engage in activities since “there was nothing else to do” as if the other world was so much greater, so much more awesome than the one that I was living in. This, I think is what is so frustrating and disingenuous about “mindfulness” culture and commands to “live in the present.” How was anyone supposed to do that on top of working for all of our corporate overseers? I could barely do it and I had walked away from them for this experiment. My logic was always the same: If I made cupcakes for Brian, deep down, it was because there wasn’t anything else going on. Whatever it was that I did in the “real” world took on this kind of logic too. I kept thinking of the Dickinson line “I live in possibility/ a finer house than prose.” Or whatever she says, again I’m not looking it up.
By late evening, I was beginning to suspect that we are starting to feel most comfortable when we are being exploited by our corporate overseers 24 hours a day nonstop and the addictive quality of the internet had not only changed our behavior but also our cognition—our sense of self, our identity, our total being.
In bed, I kept thinking of that audience at Kurt Cobain’s vigil being commanded to yell “Fuck you, Kurt!” I had anxiety that I was probably misremembering the story and even more anxiety that I couldn’t look up the details to “get it right.” I imagined Twitter, Facebook, CNN, Democracy Now, Politico, Instagram, fake news sites, yelling “Fuck you, Sandra!” and I felt helpless again. I didn’t know who to apologize to, though. I looked at the voicemails on my phone. There were a number of them that somehow I missed. My friend Dan had called and left a message. It was nice to hear a friend’s voice. I listened to the message twice. I think he said that leaving a message, he felt like he was in the 1990s. I wanted to call Dan back right away but I didn’t. What if I am interrupting him at home? I didn’t know what to do. Since I couldn’t text him back, due to the rules of my experiment, I was sort of in a bind. I decided not to call him back and I didn’t text him either. I let it go. I figured as the week unfolded, I would know what to do. Hey Dan, if you read this, call me back!
MB: They Jes’ Grew.
I was going to leave it there, but Kent told me I have to say more.
Things Jes’ Grew when all of a sudden you start moving and not only can’t you stop, you don’t want to stop. Inspiration is a sad Atonist imitation of Jes’ Grew. Jes’ Grew takes the top off. Jes’ Grew is a mortal threat to civilization and its discontents – as Ishmael Reed said, it belongs under some ancient Demonic Theory of Disease. Right now we can see Jes’ Grew starting to spread again, infecting millions with its laughter and its anger and its passion and its movement. Swaying its hips and marching down the middle of the street. The mass movement is moving and Jes’ Grew is its feverish disease, its Nkulu Kulu of the Zulu, a locomotive with red green and black python entwined in its face, Johnny Canoeing up the tracks.
Dispatches Jes’ Grew in a crucible of talk and mind and laughter and anger where all good things grow. Boom. Then there it was, dancing. Kent saw that and took it up several notches. We started off slow and picked up steam one day at a time and Jes’ Grew.
KJ: Though Mike and I are quite aware that posting on the Dispatches site has been considerably slowed the past number of weeks… We’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the work on the Resist Much/Obey Little anthology, soon to be released by Dispatches Editions. 350+ poets and 740 pages. (Actually, Tennessee Reed, Ishmael’s daughter, is in it, so there’s that chance growth to Mike’s reference, I suppose.) But we’ll get back to our usual cranky senior-citizen selves. Dispatches from the Poetry Wars will keep advancing by projective force of institutional critique, one unsuspected accretion leading instanter onto another, as someone else more or less once memorably put it… Of course, most of what we do is totally by the seat of our pants, as you might imagine. Dancing sitting down, etc. It is how we’ve done it, how we like it, and how we’ll keep rolling.
And strange that we’ve been doing it only for nine months, that it’s developed this much and attracted such a readership in this initial gestation, our audience consistently growing. One gratifying thing has been getting lots of communications from folks (some of them not eager to publicly share the confidences!), from poets of different aesthetic backgrounds and generations, telling us how much they dig Dispatches’ outlier charge, its willingness to be impolite in this deeply cautious poetic field, where people walk around on quiet toes most of the time, afraid for their “careers.” In any case, it’s become evident many readers appreciate that we confront and satirize and critique, with no special allowances for anyone, ourselves not excepted. Or is that “ourselves included,” I grew up in Uruguay with Spanish double negatives and I get confused. On the other hand, it’s been gratifying, and confirming, too, to not get any communication from some folks or institutions! Like the Poetry Foundation, which we’ve gone after a tad, it’s true, and which has clearly determined to pretend we don’t exist. Gratifying, I mean, in the sense of being a bit entertaining, really. Well, “Onward, Subcultural soldiers,” as the old-time hymn goes!
DD: In your first dispatch, you write: “Poetry is and always will be an unruly opening of profound modes of oppositional thought, a constant reset of “knowledge” and its categories, a site of revelation for unprecedented form and exorbitant meaning.” How do you see these “modes of oppositional thought” operating in this era of “alternative facts” and what you’ve called a “reality TV ontology”?
MB: Modes of oppositional thought operate within, and in fact are part of the crucial in-formation of, temporary autonomous zones that proliferate a-centrally to greater or lesser degrees in relation to the Given. They are openings, the play of emergence where you pick up news of that elsewhere that is here, always here and in this moment that Octavio Paz named otherness. Alternative facts and Reality TV ontology are conditions that only signify within the discourses determined by modernity. And as Charles Olson tried to tell people, we are already way past that.
No wonder the categories are breaking down. No wonder truth is evaporating in the desperate struggle to adjust to our groundlessness. It’s modernity’s truth without meaning, truth as an accurate measure of only the material extension of the cosmos, truth as fact whose techne creates the massive commodification machine that feeds the endless markets that arise to create sites where brief, fleeting experiences that resemble what used to be called meaning occur at endless points of purchase. What a deal. And even poetry, which I used to consider the anti-commodity, the death of commodification, has been turned into a token to advance careers, establish hoards of cultural capital, and found academic empires.
Temporary autonomous zones celebrate groundlessness as opportunity for the imagination to go on a tear. They don’t require bourgeois truth because modes of oppositional thought are creative, not reactive. We are the inheritors of the inevitable disintegration of a 500-year-old system riddled with violent, irresolvable contradictions that are coming to head. Temporary autonomous zones are forays into what John Clarke called “world completion,” looking out, not back, seizing the opportunity to articulate new groundings that refuse to become grounded.
KJ: That is a wonderful passage in our first, opening Dispatch, isn’t it? A kind of encapsulated Poetics. I wish I’d written it. But Mike usually comes up with the best lines. Not that I don’t get lucky and trip across a few myself. Which Mike then revises for me. No just kidding. The two of us actually have a fully fraternal and non-competitive collaboration. Quite amazing, really, that we’ve gone on this long, at this level of intensity, with no major blowups. Not exactly the most common thing in poetry circles.
I have just one comment here, about Mike’s use of the term “alternative fact.” It’s not really a disagreement with what Mike says, so much as an expansion of the term into other criteria: Poetry is its own alternative fact, the constructive ethical flip side to the manipulative “alternative facts” of ideological dissimulation and propaganda. To poach from Picasso (or was that Pessoa?) we aim to lie our asses off in name of the truth. And to poach from Eileen Myles’s cool blurb on the back of the Resist Much/Obey Little anthology, we will drown their banal, manipulative lies with the clear water of our truth-telling ones. (Mike, don’t blow up on me for first time for disagreeing with you here!)
DD: Kent, you and Michael have spent your artistic lives challenging orthodoxies and status quos inside and outside the poetry world. How, if at all, has this mission changed post-election?
KJ: Yes, I suppose that is true, how we’ve spent our artistic lives. It’s one reason we are outsider pariahs with overdue AARP cards. Not to mention that it’s why we never get invited to any poetry soirees on either of the three coasts (I’m including the Great Lakes, there, where I live). Or in the Dakotas or Saskatchewan, for that matter. So: Know what you are getting into, thou hordes of young poets at the AWP, now yearning to emulate our gadfly proclivities…
Seriously, I know what you’re getting at, Dante: That in the introduction to the anthology, Mike and I forcefully call for a united front of poets, across the tendencies and factions. And this is something the big book represents and enacts, to be sure, as its contents reflect all manner of “aesthetic” allegiances, from the colloquial and prosaic to the experimental and paratactic. Calling for such a united front would seem to provisionally put “poetry war” critique on hold, right? So, you ask a good question.
But I don’t think the matter has “changed post-election,” really, at least not in that manner. I myself go way back with this united-front position, and far back beyond my days as a publishing poet, in fact, to the mid-1970s, when I first become active in socialist politics. Extending those learned principles, I wrote an essay that was pretty widely circulated at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, titled “Bernstein’s ‘Enough!’” wherein I called for provisional poetic unity via the temporary collective vehicle of the Poets against the War project, and somewhat acidly berated the infantile sectarianism shown at the time by Language Poetry figures like Charles Bernstein, Barrett Watten, and Ron Silliman. More recently, I published an essay in Lana Turner, titled “No Avant-Garde,” where I called for the thinking-through of a broad cultural front, wherein writers and artists would deprioritize their aesthetic differences (but without giving them up!) vis-a-vis the tasks of principled unity around issues of progressive cause and action. Not that there aren’t others out there who might disagree with my views, and I am eager to invite them into exchange, if so! But poets, especially “Left” ones, generally don’t seem to like to debate too much in public, alas.
Of course, there is nothing new about such proposals. Such principled united-front strategy is at the heart of Left history and policy—it’s even the core assumption of the internal operations of bolshevist parties, before the Stalinist era! Not to mention social-democratic ones. What I’m saying is not that aesthetic differences be ignored or that critique be suspended. To the contrary, such critique must continue and be understood as part of the very process of cultural solidarity construction. What must happen, though, is that poets rise above their narrow poetic allegiances and predispositions of coterie to see that these don’t have to trump (sorry) the greater responsibility of collaboration and solidarity in the current conjuncture. Because that, most unfortunately for poetry’s politics, in and out, is what has happened: though there are some crossovers, poets of different aesthetics largely don’t talk to each other. Poets of the Geraldine Dodge Festival mainstream pretty much ignore and dismiss poets of the Avant wing of things. Avant poets think they’re so far ahead of slam poets in NYC or Chicago that they don’t need to pay them heed, for the slam folks are clueless about their more sophisticated vanguard understandings, and so forth. This is all sophomoric, cliquish bullshit and has to cease. There are many avenues and ways of collaboration between the poetic “tendencies” that haven’t even begun to be explored, and it will be in that comradeship, volatile to be sure, that the richest and most productive aesthetic debates will evolve. And may those debates be honest and fierce, as they should be. But the first step is to give up on this crap of “screw your poetry, ours is more of the common language and working class,” or “ours is more advanced, this is the analytic form we need, not your sorry workshop stuff” etc. We need to bring it all together, now, I would say, and see what happens. No one is above anyone else because no one really knows what the answer is. You know what I mean?
MB: Nothing has changed. Nothing. It is the same terrorist state that has operated in the US since Winthrop and the General Court expelled Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. Sometimes it dresses up better, and sometimes it likes people to think it is “nice.” But it goes on shooting unarmed black men like Charles Kinsey, lying on his back with his hands in the air yelling “Don’t shoot.” (We have a precise found poem about this at Dispatches.) It goes on dragging Sandra Bland out of her car and lynching her in her cell for being an uppity black woman. Bang. The Poetry Wars are important and ongoing, even as we join multiple antagonists from that war to resist the current regime, because poetry is the only news worth knowing, and without waging a struggle for that, the careerists will succeed in locking it all up in the Great Philadelphia Poetry Detention Center (aka Great Philadelphia Poetry Warehouse and Media Center), where it will be alphabetized, categorized, and filed away for easy consumption in podcasts and use in marketing programs to increase the cultural capital of the Poetry Capitalists. Fuck that.
DD: You and Michael have written an amazing introduction to the anthology Resist Much/Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance, in which you discuss the origin and intent of the project. Could you restate for our readers how this anthology came about and how it seeks to inaugurate a resistance to the Trump administration and its policies?
KJ: Thank you for saying that about the essay, Dante. Mike wrote to me on the day after the election, no doubt hungover, like I was, and he said, “Maybe it’s time for an anthology.” Because my head was stuffed with gauze alcohol swabs and I wasn’t thinking straight, I immediately wrote back to him, “OK, sure, let’s do it!” Then I can’t remember exactly what happened, it’s sort of a blur. Mike yelled at me a few times and I yelled at him, then we made up, or maybe we did not; we sometimes like doing yelling at each other.
Our masterstroke was pulling in a team of twenty incredible and dedicated poet-editors, who then went to the wall to bring people to the book. You can see their names on the cover. We totally decentralized the book’s production, out of emergency necessity, and (excepting the many unsolicited submissions we received to the Dispatches site, which Mike and I handled) the many editors had full autonomy over their solicitations and selections. Full mutual trust, risky but necessary. Then we gathered all this stuff, after thousands of emails back and forth between everyone, and went through a million more logistical nightmarish details, and Mike heroically handled all the formatting and technical labors, because I don’t even know how to create a PDF, and we put it all together, handling a second and fourth round of nightmarish logistical details, and then we wrote the intro and sent it all off for final design to the talented Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, one of our co-editors, and here we are, after being at 770 pages, and then having to edit the formatting down to 740 at the last second, because the spine couldn’t handle the thickness otherwise. This all happened in less than ten weeks. Right now, as we write, Valentine’s Day, the pornographic complicity (in more ways than one) of the Trump clique with the Russian mafia is coming clearer and clearer. Love to you, from tens of thousands of poets in the world, neo-Fascist johns.
MB: It Jes’ Grew.
DD: Despite the dire political situation confronting the United States at this moment, your introduction strikes a hopeful note for “collective measures of performance and action that move beyond the printed page.” Could you talk about “the new dimensions of activist vision” that may energize poetry in the coming years?
MB: Poetry is resistance by its very nature. It exposes the structures of containment that bind us mentally and spiritually, and materializes acts of freedom that break through that containment. Some people, like William Blake, realized that and made their writing into an ongoing revelation of our condition, a weapon for liberation, an act of resistance that still propels us further, beyond those mental chains. Others just get an MFA or an advanced degree in Poetics and carry on with their poetry careers. With the rise of a mass movement, and I do think that is what we are seeing in relation to the naked aggression of Trump’s regime against decency, compassion, care, even the idea of “democracy” itself, (poetry) business as usual is over. Poetry that brings the news will become more and more a part of people’s daily lives.
KJ: What Mike says. And we should be especially keen right now to the experiences of poetic/cultural activist movements in other places and times, study them for lessons we might apply: experiences where poets have reimagined the very meaning of “poetry” and thus given it unsuspected powers of influence and inspiration within the broader dialectic of struggle. We mention a few of them in the introduction, like the example of the CADA group and its allies during the Pinochet period, in Chile. American poets should look at the cultural guerrilla tactics of vanguard groups like CADA and others and seek to apply them to current Trumpian conditions. The stage of ideological, transgressive struggle has been set by the neo-fascist theater producers themselves. It’s time to occupy that stage with epic cultural actions and anti-actions, moving the meaning of radical performance into four and more dimensions, trashing all the B-movie scripts they had dreamt of directing.
DD: Reading through the manuscript of the anthology, Pierre Joris’s piece, “A little contribution to a how-to of resistance” caught my eye. The piece ends:
Vision-in-resistance/ resistance-in-vision as essential
modes of action. (Revolution we’ve learned goes in circles, eats its own, creates bureaucra-
cies.) Bertolt Brecht said: What times are these when / To talk about trees is nearly a crime, /
Because it avoids speaking of all that’s evil! Paul Celan answered: What times are these / when
A conversation / is nearly a crime, / because it includes so much / that’s already been said. I
add: What times are these when a US President can define “real freedom” as the ability “for a
person or nation to make a living, to sell or buy.”
It seems to me that the dialogue enacted in these lines is emblematic of the anthology’s project as a whole. Could you riff off of Joris (and Celan, and Brecht) and discuss this dialogue?
MB: Well, the key is Pierre’s opening equation: vision-in-resistance / resistance-in-vision. We need to keep in mind that the struggle we are engaged in is not simply “political” in so far as that is defined as a negotiation/struggle for power in a civic arena. The power at stake is the power to define a world as we emerge from the wreckage of the last Sampo. Poetry is uniquely placed to respond to that necessity because of its freedom in language, its creative potential, its necessary but indeterminate meaning which is entangled with vision. Not all poetry does that. A lot of it is all about buying in. Pierre’s injunction is to keep the vision active and non-central because without that, the same old tyrannies, tyrannies of meaning and power which are like wave and particle in quantum mechanics, will be reborn with new names. What times are these is a really good question to keep in mind not as some kind of closure, but as an opening between or beyond the particular horrors of our moment.
KJ: If I could offer this thought, triggered by your reference to Brecht: One genre-avenue for poets in the coming period that could be more explored, at least in regards to insurgent poetic engagement, is Poet’s Theater. What unsuspected estrangement-effects might happen when poetry and theater interface? More theater by poets! Not the largely nihilistic, hollow kind that we have had since the late-Language poetry phase up through Flarf, but a vibrantly radical and committed new form of poetic staging, one that learns (albeit with critique!) from Brecht, Erwin Piscator, John Arden, and Margaretta D'Arcy, say. Not that I’m all that in-the-know about theater; I’m certainly not. But there’s a space of action for poets here, no question.
DD: Resist Much / Obey Little has eighteen editors. I was wondering if a few of the editors could give me a comment on their involvement in this project and the importance of this anthology right now.
Nita Noveno: This anthology is urgent literature for our democracy. Working on the editorial team with Mike, Kent, and the others for the past few months (all online) was a pleasure. They were responsive, flexible, and encouraging in what was a challenging process. I especially appreciated their openness and energy in the endeavor. It was all worth it for a formidable and inspiring book.
Philip Metres: I was happy to be a contributing editor, to solicit poems from other poets, as part of a wider chorus of resistance to the election of Donald Trump. The naysayers will say that this is not enough. Of course it isn't enough. Poems themselves can never replace the prose of political engagement (voting, calling and writing congress people, canvassing, writing letters to the editor, protesting, boycotting, divesting, and the rest) but poetry can be part of our vocal commitment to democratic life, to the quest for human liberation, social justice, and planetary health. In the end, I'm less interested in the rhetoric of resistance than I am in the possibilities of the revisionary imagination to create the beloved community.
Kass Fleisher: I wasn’t part of the Outrage Action (I call it) after the election—I had been working the election in three states—not the presidential, but for three senate races, in PA, IL, and CO. But when you’re phonebanking, you hear some weird shit (people say the damnedest things into their telephones…) so I knew this was going to go down hard. I was also working citizen journalism on Facebook and getting killed by the right *and* the left. And I’ve been a feminist activist since 1982 and had been telling anyone who would listen to me, No way does this country elect a woman in a landslide. (Usually I spared people the lecture on nativism.) So when people started shrieking from any platform they could find on November 9, I was not among them. I had predicted 3 recounts, and I was bummed that we weren’t getting the recounts I wanted. lol. (Just so you know how dumb I am: I predicted them in PA, NC, and someplace I now forget—I can check my records but I doubt anyone gives a damn. I had been saying, “Pennsylvania is the new Florida.” But NC was a shock to me. Did not see that coming. In my defense, neither did James Carville. (Ha.)
One of my bubbles is the poetry bubble, and the thing folks in that universe were shrieking in The Great Aftermath (:>) was, We have to make poetry, we have to make poems, we poets have to work through poetry, let’s make some poems, who can publish some poems. To be honest, my first thought was, Stop voting for the Green Party when you’re running against an idiot; and my second thought was, What can poetry achieve in this situation.
It wasn’t a question because, really, I thought—nothing.
But I’ll tell you what, and I speak now as an anthologist and a micro-press publisher, I really liked what Kent and Mike came up with. (And other people may have been involved; it was Kent who approached me.) It wasn’t a howl in the wilderness—they got very well organized very fast. I’m in awe of how fast, and I love the model of finding X number of editors and giving us the freedom to solicit and edit people/works of our choosing. That was genius, and they also cared nothing for aesthetic schools or “what kind of poetry”—we were told “relevant.”
Immediately I began to think of this as an avalanche of anti-inaugural poems. It was clear that the recently revived Inaugural Poet thing was not going to happen, and if poetry can achieve something in our current situation, it would have to be in an avalanche.
And that’s what we have here—a fucking avalanche of anti-inaugural poems. I loved getting to work with the people who answered my own call, and I loved working on their pieces, which were all over the place in terms of structure and topic and form—and so what I see now that the damn thing is together, is that this avalanche of poems has a function. I’m scheduling a launch for it in my remote area for a couple of reasons: one is that folks of all bubbles still need a place to gather and process and plan to activate in this environment; and because the avalanche is so impressive that they will gain an appreciation for poetry of wildly varying “types.”
The way this thing was put together was *perfect*; the outcome is reflective of that initial blast of organization. I wish I’d been in the room for that—I probably would’ve said, You people should’ve worked a polling place. I’m that kind of asshole, lol. Folks in this particular bubble, and I’m one of them—we tend to be quite isolated—we work alone—we don’t always get out much—my own writing pals are scattered to the winds—so, it’s great that they found this way to bring us together, and with this magnificent result.
Can’t say enough about what they achieved here. I’m grateful.
Andrew Levy: Resist Much / Obey Little is BIG, with the voices of 350 contributors. When Kent and Mike asked for my participation as a contributing editor on the anthology, I didn’t hesitate. We could have easily, with a little more time (and money), attracted 3500 poets with valuable things to say at this moment in our country’s history. I’m teaching a literature course at CUNY this spring. The following statement from Martin Luther King, Jr. is the epigraph to the course syllabus: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed non-conformists…The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” (From Strength to Love)
Mindful of partisans such as Steve Bannon encouraging empire and its requisite illusions of apocalypse, whose armies of ruin offer paratory glances of an abandoned tomorrow, on the planet Earth the creatively maladjusted poets in Resist Much / Obey Little speak truth to power, thereby holding warring factions of American unreason accountable. How do mechanisms of social abandonment, in the imaginary hatred of the undevelopable, in a loss of sympathy for and understanding of the human and non-human, accompanied by the rise of nationalism, collide in silence with stultified invention, as, for example, in Trump’s nominations of Betsy DeVos, Jeff Sessions, his immigration ban, and further deplorable executive orders. Resist Much / Obey Little challenges that drift into a common “normalizing” chord that so much of America’s collective unconscious and corporate media is rife with. That’s a significant accomplishment.
DD: Could you tell us a bit about Kent’s new book published by Dispatches Editions, Homage to the Pseudo Avant-Garde?
MB: It collects Kent’s work since 2008. As with most of Kent’s writing, it is sui generis. I mean, it is all part of the tradition of satire, satirical resistance animates his work, but each address finds its own particular form, the necessary form. From Middle English rhyme to mini-biographies to prize lists to bumper sticker verse, Kent is always inventing what is necessary to the articulation. It is often hilarious, but always deadly serious. I’m poaching myself from my intro to the book, I admit.
KJ: If I may, and it’s the only thing I will say about the book, and this is entirely Mike’s doing (he is a master of book layout and design): It arguably has the most exciting cover image of any North American poetry book in the last decade. I got lucky.
DD: The titles of two forthcoming titles from Dispatches Editions seem quite timely: A poet's guide to the end of the world, by Lisa Jarnot, and The Metaphysics of Survival, by John Clarke. What can we expect from these two books?
MB: John Clarke is a sadly under-recognized writer, partly because of his relation to Charles Olson, but largely because he was a deeply democratic person, someone who was committed to his work with no sense of ambition beyond the community of its interest. But I think it was Al Cook who said that Jack went as far beyond Olson as Olson went beyond Pound. The book is a collection of various pieces by Jack. The center of it is a book within a book edited by his friend and colleague, Al Glover, called toward a #6. It is a collection of letters, poems, and bibliography which gives you a strong sense of the complexity, immense range, and dynamic of Jack’s thinking. In addition, there is a long piece called “Lots of Doom” that is a transcription of a “reading” from 1971, three essays he wrote on Charles Olson, and some odds and ends. Lisa Jarnot wrote a terrific introduction and Daniel Zimmerman wraps it up with a profound meditation called “Knowing Jack.” Lisa’s book is a mystery. You could say we commissioned it. So you know it will be perceptive, insightful, and with a sharp edge.
KJ: We also have others in the tentative works: A book of strange and moving serial manifestos by the mysterious OBU group, a book by Laynie Browne, a translation by Chris Daniels of the astonishing and almost hereabouts-unknown Brazilian poet Orides Fontela, a profound and hilarious book of aphorisms by John Bradley, a rich collection of Mike’s own essays, and numerous other surprises to be announced.
DD: I’d like to end our conversation with a poem from Resist Much / Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance. Would you select one and introduce it?
Mike and Kent: This is the poem, published in 1979, by the great and ridiculously neglected Umbra-group poet Lorenzo Thomas, which opens the book, as epigraph. It’s almost as if he were visited, back then, it seems to us, by some Nostradamus-like vision of January 20th, 2017. We suspect there wasn’t anything “mystical” involved, but there’s something here in the undercurrent, as they say, that seems compellingly channeled across the long present. Listen poets:
The land was there before us
Was the land. Then things
Began happening fast. Because
The bombs us have always work
Sometimes it makes me think
God must be one of us. Because
Us has saved the world. Us gave it
A particular set of regulations
Based on 1) undisputable acumen.
2) carnivorous fortunes, delicately
Referred to here as “bull market”
And (of course) other irrational factors
Deadly smoke thick over the icecaps,
Our man in Saigon Lima Tokyo etc etc
— Lorenzo Thomas
Michael Boughn's most recent book, City — A Poem from the End of the World, was published in 2016 by Spuyten Duyvil. Hermetic Divagations — After H.D. is forthcoming in March, 2017 from Swimmers Group in Toronto. Together with Victor Coleman, he edited Robert Duncan's The H.D. Book for University of California Press. He lives in Toronto.
(Kent on the Left) Kent Johnson's latest books are A Question Mark above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem "by" Frank O'Hara (Starcherone/Dzanc), I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field (Longhouse Books), and Homage to the Pseudo Avant-Garde (Dispatches Editions). With Kristin Dykstra, he is editor of Materia Prima: Selected Poems of Amanda Berenguer, forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.
A. Introduction to my experiment
B. Reflection on Sunday 2/ 19, Day One
I like formal writing experiments. A few weeks ago, I was a guest poet at Wayne State University in Detroit and I talked to the creative writing class I was visiting about how I wrote my poem, “The Lake Ella Variations” from my book Steal it Back. I told the class that every day for a few weeks, I would walk around Lake Ella in Tallahassee and listen to people and observe them. I explained to the class that when I got back home, I would jot down the things I remembered from my walk. The things that I overheard eventually made their way into the poem. In my walks around Lake Ella, I certainly found some gems…. I mean I witnessed a mom asking her kid if he was going to feed the Chicken Nuggets he was holding to the ducks. You can’t make that shit up. In the creative writing class, I turned to Barrett Watten, the professor who invited me and said, “Poets have to be good at observing things, right? In that sense, we would probably make good spies, don’t you think?” I think he agreed.
I was going to blog for a week about political poetry and the protest movement, something I feel at this point I know a lot about, but honestly, I just need a break. I need time to think. Last week in DC for AWP, I stayed with my friend Chris. One night, talking to my friend, the poet Brian Blanchfield, who was also staying with Chris, Brian described the writing experiment that went into composing his incredible book Proxies. He said that to write the book (a collection of essays, not poems), he didn’t use the internet. He relied on memory and intuition. I found it intriguing that the absence of the internet, the negating of online information, could become freeing, a source of imaginative space. Another poet friend I was talking to a few months ago about trying to re-create the conditions of writing from over a decade ago for his Creative Writing students. I’m not sure what the rules were for his class, but I think that the students were not allowed to just immediately share what they wrote via social media. They had to wait. They had to be patient.
It seemed like my friends were converging on a common need and longing, not to go back in time, but maybe we were all a little nostalgic for the early conditions of the writing life. Until I was into my late twenties, I really didn’t know that many poets. I shared almost none of my work. My first experience with a writing community was definitely blogs on the internet. I remember in my MFA years at the University of Montana, my boyfriend, who was also a poet, coming home and saying “Hey Sand, I’m going to start a blog.” “What’s a blog?” I replied. That was 2002. Even when he explained it to me, it really didn’t make much sense. But soon, I understood. I started a blog and a world opened up: there were poet bloggers. I was suddenly connected to poets across the country, poets who were doing avant- guard, highly experimental things that were VERBOTEN in my MFA program.
Look, I’m not conservative and I’m not against technology. I don’t think that there was an earlier, better time in American history and honestly, I do like the internet. I like social media. Don’t worry….I don’t want to make poetry writing great again! Didn’t Trump say that the internet was bad for people? I would look it up, but I can’t (see my writing experiment rules below). But I do think it’s worth the experiment in trying to push back against the absolute limits of the working day when every single moment is exploded and then cannibalized by these processes of monetization. How do we even understand reality beyond a mechanism of use? How do we live when our bodies, fingers, skin, genitalia, eyes, lips, mouths are completely consumed in consuming? That every “like,” every “heart,” that every affirmation of our being is simply the trick of capital? That the terrible lie is always in the background that we can win this game—we can’t. I mean, deep down I know this, don’t you?
To walk away from it, though, is its own reckoning. What does it take? Self-control? To control one’s narcissism? I’m not sure. To somehow side-step the idea that one is the center of one’s world when this is so clearly untrue? Back to the limits of the working day. How does it relate to poetry, both its composition and its relation to the social sphere? How does this constant consumption and production inside the reality of the internet relate to the production, dissemination, reception of the poem? What happens to the poet’s imaginative space when it is radically altered for a number of days? Does the poet see or hear things differently? What happens when you can’t easily correct or look up information? Does reality become hazy? Does it shift?
Here are my rules for the next seven days which will function as my writing experiment:
1. I will not check the news. If I want, I can read the news in the newspaper at my university library where I work BECAUSE OMG THE NEWS IS KILLING US
2. I will not use social media at all except to post these posts each day for 7 days BECAUSE DO I REALLY NEED TO KNOW THE EVERY MOVEMENT OF THE PROM QUEENS AND JOCKS THAT BECAME RADICAL LEFTIST POETS LIVING IN THE BAY AREA WHEN WE ALL KNEW WHO YOU WERE IN HIGH SCHOOL YOU ARE NOT FOOLING ANYONE
3. I will not bring my cell phone with me when I leave the house (including when I go to work) BECAUSE IN THE SEVEN YEARS THAT MY KIDS HAVE COLLECTIVELY BEEN ALIVE NOT ONCE HAS ANYONE CALLED ME FROM SCHOOL BECAUSE THERE HAS BEEN AN EMERGENCY
4. I will not use the internet at all except for work-related things like grading papers or if I need to pay a bill BECAUSE THERE IS NO REASON I NEED TO READ IN-DEPTH ARTICLES POSTED ON MEDIUM ABOUT THE ‘DEEP STATE’ WRITTEN BY PEOPLE I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF
5. I will check my email twice a day (morning and night) BECAUSE THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO EMAIL ME ARE….. I DON’T THINK THEY ARE HUMAN? UNSUBSCRIBE 6. No texting (except my one friend who has a disability) BECAUSE IF YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO COMMUNICATE WITH ME THEN YOU CAN CALL ME MAYBE?
Anyway, friends. This is an experiment about poetry, the imaginative space of poetry and the current material conditions of poetry. Remember, I can’t look up anything so I’m going to probably make a lot of mistakes. Feel free to follow me on my journey. I mean, it might be a complete failure but hopefully I learn something. And if Trump decides to drop a nuclear bomb on some country, hey, my fiancé, Alex, promises to let me know.
Day One. Sunday 2/18.
Today, the first thing I noticed were birds. In the morning I went on a walk in my neighborhood without my cell phone. Normally, I would take my phone with me on the walk “just in case” something happened, or in case someone texted me or just because I was bored. With those possibilities out the window, I just went on my walk. I was annoyed. Constantly thinking of the fact that I could be on my phone. I’m not exactly sure why I thought that there would be something important enough that couldn’t wait 45 minutes, but my brain was so trained to constantly check the phone that it felt like something was missing.
Then I noticed that they are out there….the birds. THERE ARE FUCKING BIRDS IN THE WORLD AND THEY LIVE IN TREES AND MAKE SONGS. It’s almost like the birds were trying to communicate something, not to each other, but to me. HERE WE ARE SANDRA WE ARE BIRDS they were saying. I suddenly wanted to know which kind of birds they were and what the hell they were singing about. I longed for this book that Chris’s son had—a bird book put out by Cornell University where there are pictures of hundreds of birds and you push this button and there are digitized recordings of each bird’s song. But I didn’t have the book and I didn’t have the internet and I didn’t have the internet to buy the book (which I might have, if I had had my phone with me done right there, buy the book I mean, but then I probably wouldn’t have noticed the birds in the first place if I had had my phone with me because I would have been probably reading another shitty news article about Kellyanne Conway).
So anyway, because I couldn’t use the internet and didn’t have my phone anyway, I just had to sort of enjoy the birds and stay curious about them. But what good are birds if you can’t share with everyone in your social network how awesome the birds are you are enjoying? That’s the train of thought that went through my head on my walk. Now, tell me that isn’t fucked, right? I mean I don’t want to use the dammed birds for the social media free labor project….I did amuse myself with this thought and then got back home. I rushed to my phone….certainly someone important has called me. Nothing. I decided to text the people closest to me about my writing experiment—my fiancé Alex, my sister Sylvie, my dad, my best friend Dyan and my friend Dan. I told them I won’t be texting for a week and if they wanted to talk to me that they would have to call.
My sister texted…”omg, I could never do that. I mean, I just had a baby. My phone is a portal to the world.”
My dad texted…some weird thumbs down emoji?
Alex texted… “I think that’s a great idea”
Okay, the day goes on….This thought actually goes through my head…Well since there is nothing to do, I might as well go to the gym and go swimming. So, I go to the gym and go swimming and leave my phone behind at home since this is one of my rules. What if someone calls me? What if something happens to the kids (they are at their dad’s house). In the pool, my mind wanders and it almost feels like I’m on a swim but from 1999. I think that this feeling of being in the past is because I’m not thinking of what I will be checking on my phone once get out of the pool, which I normally would be thinking about because my phone is at home and for the first time today, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know exactly how to explain it but I was using a kickboard and sort of floating on my back looking at the Floridian sky with its puffy white clouds and I realized that my sense of time is starting to morph. This thought echoed through my head repeatedly on my swim in a kind of ghostly way—there is nothing to do. Sandra, the ghost said, there is nothing to do.
And with each echo, my coordinates of time and reality began to slip away. I finished swimming my laps in a different mental space. On my way out of the gym, I asked the two people I saw working at the front counter how long it had been since they accidentally left their cell phone at home. “Four years,” one said, and followed up with, “but that was in high school and I think I went back home to get it.” “Never,” said the other. I walked out of the gym, hair still dripping with chlorinated water, got back into my car, and drove home. Only a few hours into my experiment, and things have gotten weird, like really weird. Like I am aware that the world has become more surreal than the world of the internet, that the world of social media and the internet has given me not only a sense of identity but also the coordinates to “reality”—I mean the reality of the world of trees, birds, swimming pools, gyms, i.e, not virtual space. Has the “real world” been abandoned and gutted? I’m not sure but it’s giving me some anxiety. I notice this as I am driving back from the gym when I’m not compulsively checking my phone. The world is FUCKING WEIRD and it’s WEIRDER than it is online. Time isn’t doing the things that it used to do, just hours ago. I’m in awe, but also radically more patient. Something’s different. Something is off. The world feels more gothic, lonely and strange. There’s nothing to situate it. There’s no frame to enclose it. There’s no continuous reference point on online reality that I’m used to make reality reality.
What the fuck is going on? I get home from the gym. The day continues. Around three in the afternoon, I see Bob. Bob is my across the street neighbor and he’s getting his certificate in teaching English as a foreign language. He’s having a party in the front yard with some ESL students because he’s getting that certificate thing you need to teach English abroad. I’m at the party eating some nachos. Normally, I wouldn’t have stopped by the party because I have a zillion papers to grade but, again and I’m busy. At the same time of course, the ghost is whispering in my ear….Might as well be at the party, Sandra, since there’s nothing to do.
By early evening, I drive to Panera. I call Panera “Panera jail” and only go there when I can’t get my grading done at home. I hate hate hate the music at Panera. Actually, I hate everything about this place. I come here to PUNISH myself. I don’t know how I’m going to grade papers not punctuated by Facebook and Twitter. I mean social media has been what has made grading papers a bearable task, right? “Sonny’s Blues is about a man who has a drug addiction,” punctuated with a “like” for someone who had a baby (I have no idea who you are!), punctuated by that facebook crying emoji when someone is sad because their poems got rejected again (I don’t know who you are either!)..etc.
At Panera, I notice a few things. 1. The music isn’t as I remembered. I have a theory for this: I think that the shift in consciousness in this regard is because normally, I would have my phone with me and the minute I didn’t like the song that came on, I would just listen to my own music. But because I didn’t have this sort of ability to knee jerk individualize my listening experience, I took what I could, musically. When the 10,000 Maniacs song came on, I found a way to enjoy it. The songs that I didn’t like, I sort of tuned out. It’s weird how much technology lets us control and individualize space—sound even, to our liking. With no ability to override my corporate overseer’s musical choices, Panera music suddenly became analogous to the music at the grocery store or TJMAXX, places where I wouldn’t normally tune out the music and might in fact hum along because I am too busy shopping to care.
The second thing I noticed, which is going to be pretty obvious, was that I was far more productive in terms of grading papers. I mean I couldn’t believe how quickly I worked through each paper. What would normally take me hours, took under an hour. I have mixed feelings about this. It brings up the idea of pleasure and who are we working for, anyway? It’s like earlier in the day, I fired a few of my virtual reality employers—Facebook and Twitter and CNN—and could devote all of my mental resources on the employer who actually deposits a paycheck into my account. I might reflect more on this over the week. We often think of the internet and social media as distracting and limiting our attention, and while that may be true, once eliminated, my attention was even more acute and focused than it had ever been. I mean it was scary the way I worked through each paper like a machine. I think that the internet is actually teaching us how to work for multiple employers with a frightening level of ease and facility.
The third thing that I noticed at Panera is that I was far, far more likely to talk to strangers. Remember the ghost like voice that haunted me all day-Sandra, there is nothingggggggg to dooooooooo. For example, there were three high school students sitting next to me who were reading out loud what seemed like poems to each other. I spontaneously asked them what they were up to. “We are adapting a Moliere play so that it takes place at McDonalds,” one of them said, “It’s called McMoliere’s.” “It sounds really fantastic,” I replied. I mean, it really did. These kids were so smart and their poetry play or whatever you want to call it was funny as hell. “Next customer,” one of the kids said. They kept reading their play out loud. The last line I heard as I gathered up my things to go back home was one of the kids saying, “I’m sick of my boss at McMoliere’s!” With all my papers graded, I went back home, listened to Rumours on my record player and fell asleep.
This week we welcome back Sandra Simonds as our guest author. Sandra is the author of six books of poetry: Orlando, (Wave Books, forthcoming in 2018), Further Problems with Pleasure, winner of the 2015 Akron Poetry Prize and forthcoming from the University of Akron Press, Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012), and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009). Her poems have been included in the Best American Poetry 2015 and 2014 and have appeared in many literary journals, including Poetry, the American Poetry Review, the Chicago Review, Granta, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Fence, Court Green, and Lana Turner. In 2013, she won a Readers’ Choice Award for her sonnet “Red Wand,” which was published on Poets.org, the Academy of American Poets website. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida and is an assistant professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia.
Welcome back, Sandra.
In the scarlet light of Valentine’s our paper hearts are blind
from “Valentine Melody” by Larry Beckett and Tim Buckley (1966)
(Tim Buckley was born on Valentine's Day 1947; he died of a drug overdose at the age of 28.)
1) December 1966. While at school in Schenectady, a friend tells me about a new singer-songwriter whose voice is “angelic,” and he’s our age. His name is Tim Buckley, and he’ll be appearing on a bill with Frank Zappa at the Balloon Farm on St. Marks Place. Over break, I climb the stairs of the Balloon Farm toward my balcony seat. Leaning against the wall on one of the landings, alone, is a kid with curly black hair. Our eyes meet and I say, “You’re Tim Buckley.” He smiles and walks away with a wave. The next time I see him he is on stage, singing angelically. In the middle of his set he starts “One For My Baby,” but stops in the middle, says he can’t go on, and walks off the stage.
2) March 1968. Buckley is performing at the Fillmore East, but we’re stuck in Schenectady. We listen over and over to Goodbye and Hello, and I say, “He should know what he’s doing to us." I call the Fillmore and say, “Let me to speak with Tim Buckley."
“He’s on stage right now. Can I give him a message?”
“Yeah, tell him that we hear him in Schenectady.”
“Far out, I'll let him know!”
3) July 1968. Cliff Safane and I (two-thirds of a folk/jazz group “The Shuttle”) obtain press passes to the Newport Folk Festival through the Union College newspaper. Cliff has brought his bass clarinet with the hope he could jam with Tim Buckley. We introduce ourselves to Tim in the outdoor backstage area, and arrange to meet him at his hotel.
Over lunch, he tells us that he had been called for his draft physical shortly after signing his first album contract with Elektra. “It’s what I always wanted, to make a record” he says, so he did everything he could possibly do wrong at the physical. “They pointed to a room down the hallway and I walked in that direction, straight into a wall.” He has perfected collecting a huge glob of spit on his mouth, which he did repeatedly at the physical. “The Army guy told me I was either the stupidest guy they’d ever seen, or the smartest; either way they didn’t want me.” We talk about Steve Noonan and Jackson Browne, who, along with Buckley, were dubbed the “Orange County Three” by Cheetah magazine. (More about Steve Noonan to come.)
After lunch Tim pauses on the stairway above the lobby, waits, eyes imperious, until he attracts some attention. Slowly around his mouth a huge wad of spit congeals and remains.
Back in his room, Tim improvises an extended scat, his voice melding with the chords on his 12-string. Cliff unpacks his bass clarinet and joins in. This is way above my musical pay grade, so I lean against the wall like Frank O’Hara at the end of “The Day Lady Died.” Later, Tim's girlfriend drives us back to the festival grounds. She introduces herself: “I’m Jainie. You know: ‘Jainie don’t you know….’”
4) July 1975. On July 7, I write a long (for me) poem, including:
...on the corner, they are talking about the horse who broke her leg today
I watched the match race with my father, read the early editions,
Foolish Pleasure vs. Ruffian, colt against mare
the nation watching, wearing "He" and "She" buttons
they didn't know if they could save her
my father remembered when they used to shoot them right at the track
when he used to go with his father
I overhear someone say Ruffian has been "put to sleep"
and it affects me
though not as much as Rod Serling and Tim Buckley
who also died recently
and who meant a lot to me
earlier Cliff called from Boston
to talk about Buckley, it was not only that he died at 28, a year older than us
but it reminded him how much has changed
since they jammed at Newport in '68, the night before his performance
the Newport Folk Festival is gone
the women we were with then are gone
and Buckley had been driving a cab, though there was talk of a comeback
and Rod Serling, who'd taught me irony and voice
I kicked myself for not having visited him
he was a college professor at the end and probably accessible
Serling was 50, younger than my father,
and next month I will turn 28....
Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings, part of the Northwestern World Classics series, is officially published today!
While today's publication of the book, all by itself, represents the most meaningful validation of my work begun ten years ago as a labor of love, and thus is a reward onto itself, I would of course like to appeal to you to purchase a copy, to recommend it to your friends and on Goodreads, and to like/join the Russian Absurd Facebook page to receive updates as the book goes forth into the world. I want to make it perfectly clear that I am painfully aware of the bitter irony inherent in the fact that, should you choose to support my own work in bringing Russian poetry into English, I stand to benefit from the work of an author written without even a shred of hope of publication in his own lifetime, a writer who had been literally starving to death for the final five years of his life, and who finally did so, during the Siege of Leningrad, in 1942. While I do take this awesome responsibility before the court of your judgment very seriously, I have every intention of pursuing my own work, with or without financial remuneration or even the prospect of the publication of another book; among my next book projects is a Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, perhaps the most important Russian poet of the 20th Century, one who has been most consequential to me personally, and yet another poet repressed by the Soviet regime. With this in mind, this, my last post dedicated to this book, is on DANIIL KHARMS and the STATE.
Pronin said, “You have very pretty stockings.”
Irina Mazer said, “So you like my stockings?”
Pronin said, “Oh, yes. Very much.” And he ran his hand down her leg.
Irina said, “But what do you like about my stockings?”
Pronin said, “They are very smooth.”
Irina lifted her skirt and said, “Do you see how high they go?”
Pronin said, “Oh, yes. Yes.”
Irina said, “They end all the way up here. And there, I am nude.”
“Oh,” said Pronin.
“I have very thick legs,” said Irina. “And I’m very broad in the thighs.”
“Show me,” said Pronin.
“I can’t,” said Irina. “I’m not wearing any underwear.”
Pronin knelt on his knees before her.
Irina said, “Why did you get down to your knees?”
Pronin kissed her leg just above the stocking and said, “Here’s why.”
Irina said, “Why are you lifting my skirt? Didn’t I tell you that I’m not wearing any underwear?”
But Pronin lifted her skirt anyway and said, “That’s alright.”
“What do you mean by that, alright?” Irina said.
At that moment someone knocked on the door of Irina’s room.
Irina quickly righted her skirt. Pronin got up off the floor and went to stand by the window.
“Who is it?” Irina asked at the door.
“Open the door,” a voice commanded.
Irina opened the door, and in walked a man wearing a black coat and high boots. Behind him were two soldiers, armed with rifles, and the apartment super. The soldiers guarded the door, and the man in the black coat approached Irina Mazer and said, “Your last name?”
“Mazer,” Irina said.
The man in the black coat addressed Pronin: “Your last name?”
Pronin said, “Pronin. My last name is Pronin.”
“Are you armed?” said the man in the black coat.
“No,” Pronin said.
“Sit here,” said the man in the black coat, pointing to a chair.
Pronin sat down.
“And you,” said the man in the black coat, addressing Irina, “put on your coat. You will have to take a ride with us.”
“What for?” Irina asked.
The man in the black coat didn’t reply.
“I have to change,” Irina said.
“No,” said the man in the black coat.
“But I have to put on a little something,” said Irina.
“No,” said the man in the black coat.
Irina silently grabbed her fur jacket.
“Good-bye,” she said to Pronin.
“Conversation is forbidden,” said the man in the black coat.
“Do I have to go with you also?” Pronin asked.
“Yes,” said the man in the black coat. “Get your coat.”
Pronin got up, grabbed his coat and hat off the hanger, put them on, and said, “Alright, I’m ready.”
“Follow me,” said the man in the black coat.
The soldiers and the apartment super clicked their heels.
Everyone exited into the hallway.
The man in the black coat locked the door to Irina’s room and sealed it with two brown seals.
“Everybody out,” he said.
And they all walked out of the house, slamming the apartment door shut.
August 12, 1940
Petrov saddles up his horse and declaims, directing himself at the crowd that’s gathered round, what would happen if in place of the public gardens they erect an American skyscraper. The crowd seems to agree. Petrov scribbles something into his notebook. From the throng emerges a man of medium height and he asks Petrov what it was he jotted down. Petrov answers that it concerns no one but himself. The man of medium height continues to pester him and, after words are exchanged, they come to blows. The crowd allies itself with the man of medium height and Petrov has to save his life by flogging his horse and disappearing around a corner. The crowd surges with anxiety and, having no one to sacrifice, grabs the man of medium height and cracks his head open. The decapitated head rolls down the bridge paving stones and becomes wedged in the sewer drain. The crowd, its lust for violence appeased, disperses.
ON UNIVERSAL BALANCE
Everyone knows these days how dangerous it is to swallow stones.
One of my acquaintances even coined an expression for it: “Waisty,” which stands for: “Warning: Stone Inside”. And a good thing too he did that. “Waisty” is easy to remember, and, as soon as it comes up, or you need it for something, you can immediately recall it.
Аnd this friend of mine worked as a fireman, that is, as an engine stoker on a locomotive. First he rode the northern lines, then he served on the Moscow route. And his name was Nikolay Ivanovich Serpukhov, and he smoked his own hand-rolled cigarettes, Rocket brand, 35 kopeks a box, and he’d always say he doesn’t suffer from coughing as bad from them, and the five-ruble ones, he says, they make him gag.
And so, it once happened that Nikolay Ivanovich found himself in Hotel Europe, in their restaurant. Nikolay Ivanovich sits at his table, and the table over from him is occupied by some foreigners, and they’re gobbling up apples.
And that’s when Nikolay Ivanovich said to himself: “A curious thing,” Nikolay Ivanovich said to himself, “What an enigma the human being is.”
And as soon as he had said this to himself, out of nowhere, before him appears a fairy and says:
“What is it Good Sir that you desire?”
Well, of course, there’s a commotion at the restaurant, like, where did this little damsel suddenly appear from? The foreigners had even stopped stuffing themselves with apples. Nikolai Ivanovich himself caught a good scare and he says, just for the sake of it, to get rid of her:
“Please, forgive me,” he says, “But there is nothing in particular that I need.”
“You don’t understand,” the mysterious damsel says, “I’m what you call a fairy,” she says. “In a single blink of an eye, I can make for you anything you wish. You just give me the word, and I’ll make it happen.”
That’s when Nikolay Ivanovich notices that some sort of a citizen in a gray suit is attentively listening in on their conversation. The maître d’ comes running in through the open doors and behind him, some other character, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
“What the heck!” Nikolay Ivanovich thinks to himself, “Who the hell knows how this thing will turn out.”
And indeed, no one can understand what is going on. The maître d’ is hopping across the tops, from one table over to another, the foreigners are rolling up all the carpets, and in general, who the hell can tell what’s really going on! Who is capable of what, that is!
Nikolay Ivanovich ran out into the street, forgetting even the hat he’d left behind earlier at the coat check, and he ran out onto LaSalle Street and said to himself: “Waisty! Warning: Stone Inside!” And also: “What haven’t I seen already in this whole wide world!”
And, having returned home, Nikolay Ivanovich said this to his wife:
“Do not be afraid, Ekaterina Petrovna, and do not worry. Only there isn’t any equilibrium in this life. And the mistake is only off by some kilogram and half for the entire universe, but still, it’s amazing, Ekaterina Petrovna, it is simply remarkable!”
September 18, 1934
Kharms, while a pacifist and eventually a "conscientious objector," was strictly apolitical. Before the Oberiu were suppressed, he had toyed around with the idea of positioning the group as a successor to Mayakovsky's Left artist movement (the New Left). In his late anecdotes (“Pronin,” “Mishin's Victory,” etc.,) Kharms comes uncomfortably close to describing the actual horror, to bearing witness, but for the most part, he makes due with parables, like the following, and it is precisely that compression and allusiveness that we love him for so much. (I think you will agree how prescient, timely, and still relevant the first of these just now happens to be).
Theme for a Story
A certain engineer sets before himself the task of building a huge brick wall across all of Petersburg. He ponders how this may be
done, and stays up all night mulling over it. Gradually, a circle of thinker-engineers forms and develops a plan for building the wall.
It is decided to build the wall at night, and in such a way that it is all built in a single night, so that it appears as a surprise. The workers are called together. Assignments are handed out. The civic authorities are distracted, and finally the night arrives upon which the wall is to be built. Only four people are aware of the plan to build the wall. The construction workers and the engineers receive precise assignments, where it is they should stand and what they should do. Thanks to such exact planning, they succeed in building the wall in a single night. On the next day, Petersburg is all up in a topsy-turvy. And the inventor himself is feeling in the dumps. How this wall should be used didn’t occur to him either.
The conclusion of “Let us look out of the window”
So I go to the food cooperative and say: Give me that can of sardines over there. And they tell me: We have no sardines, these cans are empty. And I tell them: Why are you pulling my leg? And they tell me: It’s not our idea. So whose idea is it? It’s due to the shortages, because the Kyrgyz have rustled away all the split-hoofed ungulates. So are there any vegetables? I ask them. No vegetables either. All bought up. Keep quiet, Grigoriev. And the human being finished with a song:
I, Grigoriev, just shut up,
And began to carry binocs.
I look through them and look,
And see the stacks to come.
How strange it is, how inexpressibly strange, that behind this wall, behind this very wall, a man is sitting on the floor, stretching out his long legs in orange boots, an expression of malice on his face. We need only drill a hole in the wall and look through it and immediately we would see this mean-spirited man sitting there. But we shouldn’t think about him. What is he anyway? Is he not after all a portion of death in life, materialized out of our own conception of emptiness? Whoever he may be, God bless him.
June 22, 1931
A gentleman slight in height with a pebble in his eye approached the door of a tobacco shop and stopped. His polished black shoes shone by the stone steps leading up into the tobacco shop. The tips of the shoes were pointing inside the shop. Two more steps and the gentleman would have disappeared behind its door. But for some reason he tarried, as if intentionally, to place his head under the brick that had just fallen off the roof. The gentleman even removed his hat, as if only now discovering his bald skull, so that the brick hit the gentleman squarely on his naked head, breaking his skull bone and getting stuck in his brain....
...Don’t you worry, gentlemen, I’ve already had an inoculation. You see, the pebble sticking out of my right eye? This had happened to me once already. I’ve gotten used to it by now. It’s all a piece of cake now.
And with these words the gentleman put on his hat and went off somewhere, exiting stage right, leaving the confused crowd in complete befuddlement.
Seated at a table, flighty thoughts,
shoulders spread, inflated chest,
I pronounced empty speeches,
still as a statue and just as loved.
From “To Oleinikov”
Wait! Turn back! Where, with your cold and calculated
Thought, are you fleeing, forgetting the law of the crowd?
Whose chest was pierced by arrow so morose? Who’s
Enemy to you, who friend? And where’s your gravestone?
January 23, 1935
This is how hunger begins:
you wake early and full of life
but soon begin to weaken;
the onset of boredom arrives,
the sense of loss impending
of quickening powers of mind,
followed by a peace descending.
And then, the terrifying ending.
You will be murdered by your dreams.
Your interest in this life of struggle will
disperse like the mist. Simultaneously,
the heavenly messenger’s wings will miss.
Your wants and desires will wither and wilt
and the inflamed ideas of your youth scatter.
Let them go! Leave them behind, my friend,
your dreams, so your mind is free for the end.
October 4, 1937
The end is here, my strength expires.
The grave is calling me to my rest.
And suddenly life’s trace is lost.
Quieter and quieter beats the heart.
Death races toward me like a cloud
And in the sky the sun’s light goes out.
I see death. It’s forbidden for me to live.
Good-bye, dear earth! Earth, farewell!
We have been killed in the field of life.
Not even a shred of hope remaining.
Our dreams of happiness are over—
The only thing left for us is penury.
They shoved me under the table,
But I was very weak and a fool.
The freezing wind blew through
The cracks and landed on my tooth.
It was torturous for me to lie so,
But I was very weak and a fool.
The atmosphere is too cool
For comfort at any time of the year.
I would have lain on the floor in silence,
Flung open my coat of sheepskin wool,
But it became insanely dull to lie so,
For I am very weak and a fool.
April 23, 1938
I thought of eagles for a long time
and understood such a whole lot:
the eagles soar above the clouds,
they fly and fly and touch no one.
They live on cliffs and on mountains
and are intimate with water sprites.
I thought a long time about eagles
but confused them, I think, with flies.
March 15, 1939
From the Diaries (1937– 1938)
June 1, 1937. 2 hours 40 minutes.
An even more terrifying time has arrived for me. At the Children’s Literature publishing house, they are up in arms about one of my
poems and have begun to bait and persecute me. They have stopped publishing me, explaining it away with “We can’t pay you because of some clerical error.” My sense is that something mysterious and evil is taking place behind the scenes. We have nothing to eat. We go unbearably hungry.
I know the end has come. I am now going off to visit ChildLit to receive a refusal of my request for payment.
November 16, 1937
I no longer wish to live. I have no need of anything: not a shred of hope left. I have not a prayer for the Lord, let His will be done, whatever He intends for me, be it death or be it life— whatever He intends. Into thine hands, oh, Lord, Jesus Christ, I commit my spirit. Keep me from harm, have mercy on me, and grant me eternal life.
I don’t have the strength to do anything. I don’t want to live.
January 12, 1938
I am amazed by human perseverance. It is already January 12, 1938. Our situation has become even more desperate, but we’re still scraping by. Dear Lord, please send us a prompt and easy death.
How low I have fallen; few have fallen this low. One thing is certain: as low as I’ve fallen, there is no getting up.
All people love money. They pat it and kiss it and press it to their hearts and wrap it in pretty strips of cloth and cradle and rock it as though it were a doll. Some take a dollar sign and confine it to a frame, hang it on their wall, and worship it as though it were an icon or an idol. Some feed their money: they open its mouth and stuff it with the most succulent, fat morsels of their own food. In summer heat they put their money in the cold storage of a root cellar and in winter, in the bittermost frost, they throw the money in the wood stove, into the flames. Others simply hold a conversation with their money, or read to it aloud from interesting books, or sing to it pleasant songs. I personally give money no particular attention and simply carry it around in my wallet or in a billfold and, as need arises, spend it. Yowza!
October 16, 1940
Previously published in Gargoyle 60.
"If a state could be likened to the human organism then, in case of war, I would like to live in its heel." — Daniil Kharms, 1938
And this one final appeal... As I had mentioned in my first post in this series, having edited the Spring 2015 Russia issue of the Atlanta Review, I have been slated to edit the magazine's Spring 2018 Baltic poetry issue, along with Kevin M. F. Platt and Rimas Uzgiris. Given that the sanctions against Russia, and even the future of NATO and the EU themselves, are currently in doubt, there is a great sense of urgency, and I have been given the green light by the journal's new editor, Karen Head, to edit a Special Summer 2017 issue, if we are able to raise $5,000 for it. This link to the Kickstarter campaign to raise that money will go live shortly.
DANIIL KHARMS on SPIRIT; Selections from Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings (NWUP, 2017)
From Daniil Kharms's magnum opus, “Starukha” (1939)
“So you mean that those who wish not to believe already believe in something?” says Sakerdon Mikhailovich. “And those who wish to believe already, a priori, do not believe in anything?”
“It may be so,” say I. “I do not know.”
“But believe or disbelieve in what? In God?” asks Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
“No,” I say. “In immortality.”
“Then why did you ask me if I believe in God or not?”
“Well, simply because asking ‘Do you or do you not believe in immortality?’ sounds somehow foolish,” I say to Sakerdon Mikhailovich and get up from the table....
From "A Treatise More or Less in he Spirit of Emerson"
IV. On approaching immortality
It is characteristic of every person to strive toward enjoyment, which is always a kind of sexual fulfillment, either satisfaction or acquisition. But only that which does not lie on the path of enjoyment leads to immortality. All the systems leading toward immortality, in the final analysis, are reducible to a single rule: at all times do that which you do not want to do, because every person always wants to either eat, or to satisfy their sexual urges, or to acquire something, or all of the above, more or less, at the same time. Interestingly, immortality is always connected with death, and is represented by the various religious systems either as eternal enjoyment, or eternal suffering, or an eternal absence of both pleasure and suffering.
V. Of immortality
Righteous is he on whom God had bestowed life as a perfect gift.
February 14, 1939
From “The Conversationalists” (1940)
On the tram sat two men engaged in the following conversation. One was saying: “I do not believe in life after death. No substantial evidence exists that life after death exists. No such authoritative testimony is known to us. And in religions also, it is mentioned either not particularly convincingly, as in Islam, or quite nebulously, as, for example, in Christianity, or it is not mentioned at all, as in the Bible, or it is directly said not to exist, as in Buddhism. The instances of visions, prophecies, various miracles, and even accounts which relate direct experiences of life beyond the grave neither possess nor may serve as definitive proof of its existence. I am not interested one jot in such tales, like the one about a man who saw a lion in his dream and the next day was killed by a lion escaped from the zoological exhibit. I am only interested in one question: does life after death exist or does it not? Tell me, what are your thoughts on the subject?”
The second Conversationalist said: “This is my answer to you: you will never get an answer to your question, and if you ever do get an answer, you will not believe it. Only you will be able to answer this question. If you answer yes, then it will be yes, if you answer no, then it will be no. Only one must answer with complete conviction, without the shadow of a doubt, or, speaking more precisely, with complete faith in your answer....
From “A Young Man Who Had Surprised the Night Watchman” (undated)
Hey, you, ogre! a young man wearing yellow gloves hailed the night watchman.
The watchman realized immediately that his attention was required but he continued examining the fly. I’m talking to you! the young man screamed once more. You dumbass!
The watchman squashed the fly with his thumb and, without turning his head to the young man, said:
And you, shit-for-brains, what are you yelling at? I can hear you. There ain’t no need to raise a racket!
The young man wiped his gloves on his pants and delicately asked, pointing to the sky:
Would you please tell me, grandpa, how do I get up there?
The watchman looked the young man over, squinted in one eye, then squinted in the other, then scratched his little goatee, looked the young man over one more time, and said:
Well, there’s no reason to loiter here, go on, get going, sonny, get going....
From my Introduction to Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings: "Explaining his program, Daniil Kharms wrote: 'I am
interested only in pure nonsense, only in that which has no practical meaning. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation. I find heroics, pathos, moralizing, all that is hygienic and tasteful abhorrent . . . both as words and as feelings....' In some of his other work, we may find a precedent, for example, for the Theatre of Cruelty; but there is also, in his depictions of the minutiae of daily life (byt), a precedent for the postmodernist, documentary yet paradoxically ironic approach of the Moscow Conceptualist artists and poets of the 1970s who acknowledged Kharms as an essential influence. One of them, Ilya Kabakov, wrote: 'Contact with nothing, with emptiness, makes up, we feel, the basic peculiarity of Russian conceptualism....'* Kharms was similarly central for the postwar generation of nonconformist poets of the 1950s and 1960s (Kropivnitsky, Nekrasov, Satunovsky, Kholin, Sapgir, Eremin, Khvostenko, to name just a few) as well as for the Russian Minimalist poets of the 1970s and 1980s. Just to enumerate some of his aesthetic (that is, anti-aesthetic) values: plain speech, written as it is spoken, folksy simplicity, byt, but also the spiritual values of Absurdism— the ridiculous as a reaction and an alternative to revulsion and resignation before an absurd age. (*Mikhail Epstein, After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.)
The point I would like to make here is that our reading of Kharms in the West has so far been constrained, accounting I believe primarily for the negativist aspects of Russian Absurdism, and not at all for its 'afterlife,' and that a fuller consideration of his work might be facilitated if we were to pay particular attention to Kharms’s development as a writer over the short span of some decade and a half of creative life.... It seems to me that, as Kharms’s work matures, the elements of protoexistentialism present in all his writings emerge to the fore. My argument here is that we must take Kharms and Russian Absurdism more 'seriously,' as a species of protoexistentialist writing within which context Kharms, Vvedensky, and their circle may be viewed as essentially metaphysical poets. In closing, I once again wish to emphasize the afterlife of Kharms’s oeuvre, being a widely acknowledged influence on the postwar revival of the Russian avant-garde in its experimental, unofficial, nonconformist manifestations— Kharms as a patron saint to the Minimalists and Conceptualists of the 1960s and 1970s. There is something about Kharms that is emblematic of the condition of the Russian soul, for lack of a more precise word, and thus of our own modern condition. In this, he may well be thought of as a worthy member of the postwar generation of existentialist writers— Sartre, Beckett, and Camus— and (it is my hope) enlisted in the canon of world literature among their ranks."
And a bit more from the Introduction: "Another key to these writings is the Kharmsian whimsical narrative 'I' and his many heteronymous stand-ins—the Grigorievs, the Myshins, the Pronins, the Kuznetsovs—all of them objects of defilement and self-abasement. These 'perversions of self' may be viewed through the lens of Michel Foucault’s 'biopower,' the state’s subjection of the body to absolute control through its exercise of the right to punish (and not publish), a secular equivalent of the usurpation of God’s will on earth. (I have written elsewhere of this spiritual foundation of Kharms’s work, in the contexts of minimalism and of his fellow Absurdist Alexander Vvedensky’s 'prison prose....') However, such seething nihilism doesn’t preclude a spiritual dimension, it makes it necessary, something I believe to be true of all minimalist practice. And it is this particularly that will likely remain most incongruous to contemporary Anglophone readers. How is it possible to reconcile nihilism (I would argue Kharms was not a nihilist) and make it coherent with, and even motivated by, a personal conception of God? While the folk and Russian Orthodox contexts that are particularly evident in the writings of his friend Alexander Vvedensky (who was a genuinely religious person) and in the content of Kharms’s irreverence (he was the son of the religious mystical philosopher Ivan Yuvachev -- see photo to the right -- and seemingly an irrepressible person) are outside the scope of this introduction, it is fitting to end by noting that Kharms falls squarely within the Russian tradition of the yurodivy, the 'holy fool,' even to the point of feigning insanity to avoid arrest. I believe that in this naive and sacred ethnographic role, as court jester and sad clown, Kharms can tell us more about the spirit of his, and our, age than the millions of lives and deaths that became (to paraphrase the heartless tyrant) merely a statistic."
From "The Sabre"
...The death of the ear is hearing,
the death of the nose is nausea,
the death of the sky is silence,
the death of the eye—blindness...
Question: Strange. Then how are we to fit ourselves into the other objects, distributed in the world? By observing how much longer, wider, and taller the wardrobe is than we? Like so, is it?
Answer: The one is symbolized by us as the sign with the appearance of a stick. This icon for one is only the most convenient one for symbolizing the one, as is every other sign for a number. Just so we ourselves are but the most convenient form of ourselves.
The one, in registering the two, does not with its sign correspondingly fit within the sign of the two. The one registers numbers through its quality. And that is how we must act.
Question: But what is the meaning of our quality?
The death of the ear is hearing,
the death of the nose is nausea,
the death of the sky is silence,
the death of the eye—blindness.
We also know the abstract quality of this singularity. But this understanding exists in us as an understanding of something. Let’s say, a fathom. The one registers the two—there is this: one fathom fits within two fathoms, one match fits within two matches, and so forth. There are many such singularities. Just so man is not one, but many. And we have just as many qualities as there are people in existence. And each of us possesses our own particular quality....
[November 19-20, 1929]
From “The Whorld”
But as soon as I understood that I saw the world, I ceased to see it. And I was afraid, thinking the world had ended. But as long as I thought so, I understood that, had the world indeed vanished, then I would no longer be thinking this. And I looked out, seeking the world, but found it not.
And then there was no longer anywhere left to look.
That is when I understood that as long as there was somewhere to look, around me was the world. And now it is no longer. There is only me.
But the world is not me.
Though, at the same time,
I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
And then I thought no more.
May 30, 1930
* * *
I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action
Only of spiritual angst.
The rain’s thunder spoke,
Time has come to a stop.
The clock helplessly tocks.
Grass grow; you have no need of time.
God answer, you have no need of words.
Papyrus flower, how wonderful your calm is.
I also want to be at peace. But all for nothing.
Detskoe Selo, August 12, 1937
One man went to sleep with faith, and woke up faithless. As luck would have it, in this man’s room stood very precise medical scales, and the man was in the habit of weighing himself daily, every morning and every night. And so, before going to bed the previous evening, having weighed himself, the man determined that he weighed four stone and twenty-one pounds. And on the next morning, having woken up without faith, the man weighed himself again and determined that he now weighed only four stone and thirteen pounds. “It may thus be determined,” the man concluded, “that my faith had weighed approximately eight pounds.”
I would like to conclude this post with a collection of links to reviews of Daniil Kharms's work available heretofore in English translation, including the piece by Ian Frazier I had referred to in an earlier post, so that those who are interested may explore further.
"The revelatory rediscovery of Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms" by Chris Cumming in Bomb Magazine
"Samuel Beckett's career is one possible model for how Kharms' writing may have evolved had he lived. Beckett, too, spent many years hammering out a mature style after deciding that the could go no further in the direction of experimental modernism, which he felt had reached its end point with Finnegan’s Wake. Both Beckett and Kharms experimented with absurdity, grotesquerie, and black humor in their early works; throughout their lives both were obsessed with logic, mathematics, chess, and arcane knowledge, and both believed that the highest goal of literature is to access the irrational that hides behind conventional language and categories of thought. Beckett was just three months younger than Kharms, and at age 36 he was working on Watt (1953), a novel whose craziness cedes no ground to anything Kharms wrote, and whose mixture of the bizarre and the pedestrian it recalls. With Mercier and Camier (1946), Beckett began to bring this aspect of his work under control, and his greatest books—spare, classically controlled, but no less artistically or intellectually radical—were all written when he was in his 40s. Kharms’ turn toward classicism in his last years makes me think he might have developed in a similar way.... His attitude toward the real world, the world of politics, history, war, and revolution, remains a puzzle. And his reticence on the great events that swallowed him up adds to the pathos of his diaries. He was killed over a game he had no stake in. 'I’m a tiny little bird who’s flown into a cage with big angry birds,' he wrote in 1935."
My personal favorite is this essay-review, "Art is a Cupboard!" by Tony Wood in the London Review of Books.
"Throughout his life, Kharms cultivated an eccentric public persona that reinforced the singularity of his written output. This involved such oddball stunts as perching on the façade of the Singer building on Nevsky Prospekt in plus fours and spats to invite the passing crowds to a poetry evening. One visitor to his apartment reported seeing a contraption made of bits of metal, wooden boards, springs, a bicycle wheel and empty jars; Kharms said it was ‘a machine’, and, when asked what kind, replied: ‘No kind. Just a machine.’ He also seems to have collected unusual friends: in her 1982 monograph on Kharms, Alice Stone Nakhimovsky mentions a Dr. Chapeau; apparently ‘ideally attentive’ as a physician, Chapeau also ‘drank a great deal and tended to urinate on the floor’. An obliging Kharms, we are told, ‘simply kept a mop on hand’....
Kharms’s ... short pieces do much more than parody the observational mode. There are wonderful send-ups of any number of genres. The epistolary: ‘I am writing to you in answer to your letter, which you are planning to write to me in answer to my letter, which I wrote to you.’ Literary biography, as in the deliberately misspelled ‘Anegdotes from the Life of Pushkin’, in which the poet writes abusive poems about his friends – He called these poems 'erpigarms”’ – and where we discover that ‘Pushkin had four sons and all of them idiots. One didn’t even know how to sit on a chair and was always falling off. Pushkin himself was not so great at sitting on chairs.’ Here the principal foil for Kharms’s wit is the Russian literary tradition, irreverently plundered and distorted, as in the novella ‘The Old Woman’, which effectively reverses Crime and Punishment by having an old woman turn up and die unaided in the narrator’s flat...."
Here is Ian Frazier writing on Kharms, "A Strangely Funny Russian Genius," in the New York Review of Books.
"Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who came of age in the worst of Soviet times, is categorized as an absurdist, partly (I think) because it’s hard to know what else to call him. To me he makes more sense as a religious writer. He is really funny and completely not ingratiating, simultaneously...."
Here is Joshua Cohen's brief and witty summation, "Incidences," written in Kharms's own curtailed style, in Bookslut.
"One of his children’s stories features a man who goes out to buy cigarettes, and never returns. Presumably, he’s arrested. Like Kharms was again, in 1941. He died in February a year later, of starvation, in a Leningrad prison hospital a few blocks from his home. German bombs were falling that winter. Apparently, there was a war.... If I were Kharms, I’d be smoking its pages...."
"Daniil Kharms, Master of Deadpan, Father of the Absurd" by Freidemann Kohler in Russia Beyond the Headlines
"Many view his absurdity as a political seismogram from an evil age. 'Incidences', a work replete with chain dances of death, was written in 1936, during the reign of terror known as Stalin's Great Purge.... American critics called his work 'exhilarating' and even came up with a name for his powers of anti-description, calling it 'Kharmsifying'....What are the most important points for new readers? Kharms was witty, charmingly deadpan, cryptic and doomed. But seventy [five] years later, he now has the last word."
And last but not least, "Soviet Deadpan," George Saunders writing on Daniil Kharms in The New York Times.
Daniil Kharms's brilliantly weird stories, written during Stalin's terror, reflect an aesthetic and political crisis. "When I first discovered Kharms, my answer (like the answer of many readers and critics before me) was, These stories are an absurdist response to the brutality of his times...."
What else is there to say about infinity and the eternal? Kharms, in “The Permanence of Dirt and of Rejoicing” (1933): “…And then the fleeting years go flying by, / and people, arrayed in their orderly rows,/ march into their graves and disappear.” And later: “Motion itself has become more viscous, / and time’s acquired the consistency of sand.” And in “The Physicist who Broke his Leg” (1935): “Flashing joints of mechanical motion / A policeman is seen approaching. / Reciting the multiplication table, / A young student tries to help him." In his many meditations on immortality, numbers theory, and infinity, Kharms, having adopted for his critique of reason the languages of both the Old Testament and of Science, rejects all soulless automatism and circular reasoning in favor of a mystical philosophy, at the core of which is the Khlebnikovian Budetlyanin, or the man of the future – the Poet-as-Creator.
How satisfying to write without missing a beat!
And then what I have written out loud to read.
Yes, this is a most pleasant way to pass the time.
Whence at once participate both body and soul.
That's when I feel myself in the universe's stream.
Daniil Kharms, 1935
Tom Raworth was an English ["Anglo-Irish" says Terence Winch] poet whose work fit into no categories. He was as unique and original a person as he was a poet. We first met in the late 1960s (if I remember correctly, no later than '71 anyway), and my first impression was my last: what a decent person he was.
Just one small recent example. One of his last emails to me was after poet Ray DiPalma died. Ray had burned a lot of bridges including with poets, once friends, whose earliest work Ray championed and published in his little magazine DOONES. Tom emailed me to commiserate over Ray's passing but also to say he had posted on his web site NOTES (see the list on the lower right of sites I recommend on my blog Lally's Alley) his appreciation for Ray as a poet and artist, but first of all as someone who had supported Tom as a poet early on by publishing Tom's poems in DOONES.
Tom suffered from a heart condition that folks in our poetry world (back then the outside-the-academy-approved scene) whispered about with the supposition that he would die young. Maybe it was that ever present possibility that gave him the calm I remember him most for (being the exact opposite myself, I envied him and wished I could be like him in that regard).
Where I was always defending my right to even be a part of that world (having grown up in a very different one) which led to me overstating my importance in it, Tom seemed oblivious, or at least unconcerned, about status and recognition and other ego-related aspects of being a poet in the world. And he had the knack, or good fortune, to have the most innovative publishers making his books almost universally precious works of art in themselves (see LION LION or ACT among his early books).
I wish I had seen him more on his visits to the states (I met him when I lived in DC and he came to read and stay at my place) or had traveled to England more myself, but even in his presence he seemed amused though accepting of my frantic energy and volubility in ways that left little room for me to fully appreciate his presence anyway. Fortunately I've settled down over the years in ways that have left me even more appreciative of the gift Tom had for living life at its fullest while appearing, from my perspective at least, to be not taking it too seriously if seriously at all.
He had a good full life for someone so many of us expected not to be around even this long (he was 78, I believe) and summed it up best himself in his last entry on his site NOTES when he knew he had only days to live: "Bits of it all have been fun and it's been a decent run."
My heart goes out to all his family, especially Val, his friends, and his fans.
I'll leave you with this early poem of Tom's (from MOVING). I feel like he's still whispering it calmly in my ear, advice I couldn't hear from anyone else:
THE TITLE : HEAR IT
you are now
inside my head
better you were
inside your own
Beaverson was walking down the road pondering: why is it that when you pour sand in the soup, its taste becomes spoiled?
All of a sudden, he saw a tiny little girl sitting in the road, holding in her hands a worm and crying loudly.
What are you crying about? Beaverson asked the little girl.
I’m not crying, said the little girl, I am singing.
Then why are you singing like that? asked Beaverson.
To make the worm happy, the girl said, and they call me Natasha.
So that’s how it is? Beaverson said, taken aback.
Yes, that’s how it is, said the girl. Good-bye. And the girl hopped up, climbed on a bicycle, and pedaled away.
So small and already riding bicycles, Beaverson thought to himself.
Previously published in The Literary Review, Vol. 56, Issue 03 , "Cry Baby"
I was born among the cattails. Like a mouse. My mother gave birth to me and placed me in the water. And I swam off.
Some kind of fish with four whiskers on its nose circled around me. I started to cry. And the fish started to cry also.
All of a sudden we saw, swimming on the surface, a porridge. We ate the porridge and started to laugh.
We were very happy and we swam along with the current and met a lobster. This was an ancient, giant lobster and he was holding in his claws an ax.
Swimming behind the lobster was a naked frog.
Why are you always naked? the lobster asked her. How come you aren’t ashamed?
There is nothing shameful in this, the frog said. Why should we be ashamed of our beautiful bodies, given to us by nature, when we aren’t ashamed of our despicable deeds, that we ourselves create?
You speak the truth, said the lobster. And I don’t know how to give you an answer to this. I propose that we ask a human being, because a human being is smarter than we are. Because we are wise only in fables, which human beings compose about us, so that it again appears here that the human being is wise and not we. So that’s when the lobster saw me and said:
And we don’t even have to swim anywhere because here’s one— a human.
The lobster swam up alongside me and asked:
Should one be ashamed of one’s own naked body? You are a human so tell us.
I am a human being and I will answer your question: we should not be ashamed of our naked bodies.
And now I will tell you about how I was born, how I was raised, and how the first signs of my genius were recognized. I was born twice. It happened in just this way:
My father married my mother in the year 1902, but my parents brought me into this world only at the end of the year 1905 because my father had wished that his child be born precisely on the New Year. Father had calculated that the impregnation must occur on the first of April and only on that day did he take a ride over to mother with the proposition that she become “with child.”
The first time my father visited my mother’s was on April 1 of the year 1903. Mother had long waited for this moment and was terribly overjoyed. But father, apparently, was in a very jovial mood and could not restrain himself and so said to mother: “April Fool’s Day!”
Mother was terribly hurt and would not on that day allow father near her. And so we all had to wait until the following year.
In the year 1904, on the first of April, father again prepared to arrive at mother’s with the same proposition. But mother, remembering the events of the previous year, said that now she no longer wished to be placed in such a preposterous position, and again would not let father near her. No matter how much father fumed, nothing helped.
And only a year hence did my father succeed in breaking down my mother’s resolve and siring me.
And so my germination took place on the first of April in the year 1905.
However, all of father’s plans were quashed, because I turned out to be premature and was born four months prior to term.
Father became so incensed that the neonatal nurse who delivered me, in her confusion, started to stuff me back in where I had just crawled out from.
One of our acquaintances who was present during the event, a student at the Military Medical Academy, declared that stuffing me back in would not work. Despite the student’s warning, they stuffed me in, though, it should be noted, and as was later confirmed, stuff me in they did but, being in a rush, they managed to do it into the wrong place.
That’s when the total pandemonium ensued....
In his lifetime, Daniil Kharms was known primarily as a children's poet. As I note in my introduction to the book, "The Lacanian psychoanalytic of the 'abject,' the sadomasochistic dyad inherent in Kharms’s oft-repeated and vicious attacks on children, [as well as on] women, the old, and mankind in general, is reminiscent of W. C. Fields’s comical persona. (One can only imagine the bitter irony inherent in the fact that Kharms owed his very physical existence to his “official position” as a children’s writer!)"
Today, I will try to represent a small portion of that work. But first of all.... Daniil Kharms was the pen name Daniil Yuvachev adopted while still in his teens. He spelled it variously: Harms, Charms, Daan Daan, Shardam, etc. Among his favorite models (Kharms knew English well, having studied it at the elite German Peterschule) were the alogism of Lewis Carroll and the nonsense of Edward Lear. It has also been conjectured that the name he chose for himself is close to the Russian pronunciation of that creation of another of his favorite authors, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Since the 1980s, an entire cottage industry has sprung up in Russia consisting of Kharms's illustrated children's poems and animated films based on his work:
Perhaps my favorite of his children's verses is “Kak Papa Zastrelil Mne Khor'ka” (“How Father Shot me a Weasel”). The link to this page contains reproductions of the pages of the illustrated book, the text of the poem in Russian, followed by a very full tribute to his children's verse (also in Russian).
Here is an animated version of “Plikh i Plyukh,” Kharms's adaptation into Russian from the German of Wilhelm Busch. It should be noted here that the status of children's poets is much higher in Russia than in America, perhaps partly due to the fact that, because so many serious poets were not permitted to publish their "mature work," they turned either to children's verse or to translation to survive, both physically, by thus gaining admission to the Writer's Union, and as poets. Another cultural difference is that adaptation from foreign languages has always been a standard Russian translation practice, as for example Alexey Tolstoy's immensely popular adaptation of Pinocchio, Buratino, and Korney Chukovsky's Doctor Aybolit, an adaptation of Doctor Dolittle. One of Russia's most beloved children's poets was the noted Shakespeare translator, the Jewish Soviet poet, Samuil Marshak.
Here is a late Soviet version (1987) of perhaps Daniil Kharms's most popular children's verse, “Ivan Ivanych Samovar”. Here is an illustrated audio book version of the same poem, and yet another one, this, perhaps the most popular illustrated version from my own childhood.
THE BRAVE HEDGEHOG
On the table there stood a box.
The animals approached the box, and started to examine, smell, and lick it.
And the box suddenly – one, two, three – and popped open.
And from the box – one, two, three – popped out a snake.
The animals got scared and ran off.
Only the hedgehog didn’t get scared and yelled: “Kukareku!”
No, not that way! The hedgehog yelled: “Af-afaf!”
No, not like that either! The hedgehog yelled: “Meow-meow-meow!”
No, again not like that! I myself don’t know how.
Who knows; how do hedgehogs scream?
* * *
Upon the river floats a boat
That’s traveled very very far
And on this boat the sailors four
Are very brave and very broad.
They have two ears upon their skulls
And tails protruding from their bums
And the only thing that scares them
Are little kittens and full-grown cats.
A VERY TERRIFYING TALE
Two brothers walking in the alley
Were finishing up a roll with butter.
Suddenly from around the gutter
A huge dog jumps out barking loudly.
The youngest to the oldest said:
He intends to draw first blood.
So that we don’t end up dead
Let’s toss him the bread instead.
In the end, all came out smoothly.
The brothers immediately understood
That for every morning stroll
It’s best to carry a breakfast roll.
From the Notebooks:
I detest children, old men, old crones, and elderly wise people.
Poisoning children is cruel. But something needs to be done about them!
[second half of 1930s]
From Daniil Kharms's magnum opus, "Starukha (Old Woman)"
I can hear the loathsome cries of boys coming from the street. I lie there, inventing ways to punish them. I like the idea of infecting them with tetanus best of these, so that they freeze in their tracks. And then the parents drag them to their homes. They lie in their little beds and can’t even eat, because they can’t open their mouths. They feed them artificially. The lockjaw passes in a week, but they are so weakened that for another full month they must stay between the sheets. Then they begin to gradually improve, but I make them relapse with another bout of tetanus, and they all perish.
I lie on the daybed with my eyes open and can’t fall asleep....
From It was Summertime
...Plato extracted himself from the hammock and followed the cat.
Behind the bush, balancing on one leg, stood a heron.
Seeing Plato, the heron flapped her wings, swung her head, and made a clicking noise with her beak.
“Greetings!” said the heron and extended its foot to Plato.
Plato, wanting to shake the heron’s foot, held out his hand.
“Don’t you dare!” the pussycat said. “Handshakes have been forbidden! If you wish to exchange greetings, you must do so with your feet!”
Plato stretched out his leg and touched the heron’s foot with his own foot.
“That’s good, now you’re acquainted,” the pussycat said.
“Arethen Letusfry!” the heron said.
“Yes, let us fly!” said the pussycat and jumped on the heron’s back.
“Fly where?” Plato asked. But the heron had already snagged him by the back of his neck and taken off.
“Let me go!” Plato screamed.
“Nonsense!” the pussycat said, sitting on the heron’s back. “If we let go of you, you will fall and die.”
Plato looked down and saw the roof of his house.
“Where are we going?” Plato asked.
“Over there,” the pussycat said, flapping his paws in all directions at once.
Plato looked down once again and saw below him the gardens, the streets, and the tiny houses. Several people stood on the town
square and, shading their eyes with their hands, gazed up at the sky.
“Save me!” Plato yelled.
“Sirence!” the heron screamed, opening its beak wide.
Plato felt something constricting in his chest and heard a deafening noise in his ears, and the square with the tiny people began to grow quickly.
And then Plato heard the pussycat’s voice above him: “Catch him! He’s falling!”
You may read this story in its entirety in the book, or in Narrative Magazine, where it was previously published (free registration required)
The Four-Legged Crow
Once upon a time there lived a four-legged crow. Truth be told, she had five feet, but there’s no point in talking about that.
So once upon a time, the four-legged crow bought herself some coffee and thought: “So here I am, got myself some coffee, but what to do with it?”
And then, as bad luck would have it, a fox came trotting by. She saw the crow and yelled to her:
“Hey!” she yells. “You, crow!”
And the crow yells back at the fox:
“You’re a crow yourself!”
And the fox yells at the crow:
“And you, crow, are a pig!”
That’s when the crow, being upset, spilled her coffee. And the fox scrammed. And the crow climbed down to the ground and slunk off on all four or, more precisely, all five of her feet to her despicable house.
February 13, 1938
An old man, for no particular reason, went off, into the forest. Then he returned and said: Old woman, hey, old woman!
And the old woman dropped dead. Ever since then, all rabbits are white in winter.
The days are fleeing like fleet swifts
And we are flying like little sticks
The clock on the shelf is ticking and
I sit here wearing a wool-knit cap
The days are fleeting like the cups
And we are fleeing like the swifts
The sky is shimmering with lamps
And we are flying like the stars
DANIIL KHARMS, 1936
OK, I said, and wrote her
this calling it "Lune de Miel"
and shared it today
with the infinite internet
as "the poet of the month"
for The Inqusitive Eater:
The best thing about Paris
is being here with you
(a Sauterne with one course,
a Cote de Beaune with the next)
and the best thing about
being here with you
is Paris (three letters short
of paradise but I
wouldn’t have it any
other way) on this November
day of clean blue skies
(a Chablis with one course,
a Pomerol with the next)
after yesterday’s umbrellas three
stories below our window
where three streets meet
in the cold gray rain
of a new day in the past
which we’re keeping alive
Happy Valentine’s Day! Sick with a cold I am, but I still love this day along with all of the trappings—the gold-embossed Cupids, roses, candles, slinky lingerie, sonnets, and chocolate. Who can resist the chocolate? And to think the day was invented by Chaucer. Perhaps we poets should invent a few more days worthy of celebration? I vote for a day for dreaming, or at least sleeping-in as long as possible. No peeking at the clock. In fact, no clocks allowed. Or how about a day of kindness, or at least of caring for others including the woebegone, the piqued, the miffed, the melancholy, and the dejected. Or maybe something simpler—a day for collecting words and expressions you loved once but no longer hear or use, words like suasive, addlepated, spindle-legged, vulpine, folderol, and cattywampus. I have to think, but given a day, I think we could have a regular word party. And expressions--yes, expressions like: Where in the Dickens is it? Or, You're about as busy as a cow's tail in summer time. Or, I do declare. And, Do go on, meaning, You wanna dig that grave a little deeper?
From ON UNIVERSAL BALANCE
...And, having returned home, Nikolay Ivanovich said this to his wife:
“Do not be afraid, Ekaterina Petrovna, and do not worry. Only there isn’t any equilibrium in this life. And the mistake is only off by some kilogram and half for the entire universe, but still, it’s amazing, Ekaterina Petrovna, it is simply remarkable!”
[September 18, 1934]
From Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings (Northwestern University Press, World Classics series; officially published on February 17, 2017)
First of all, my apologies for the delay in posting this: I must again excuse myself by repeating that, like so many of us, I've only just returned from DC and the AWP. And so, dear reader, please accept this, my belated Happy St. Valentines's Day wishes to us all: may each of us seek to daily find within ourselves those inner resources that enable us to feel and express our love. Yesterday, I was helped on this occasion, during a particularly difficult personal time and in this unsettling historical moment, by going to see a film with two people I care about very much. While Lion is far from a perfect picture, what else is there in this world that can better evoke in us those cathartic and complex feelings of pity and empathy more than the innocence of a child?
I also wish to say that I had all the relevant selections from the book ready to go before I got on the road, but, to quote E. M. Foster: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" What I want to tell you about today is an experience of censorship I had with the Russian Absurd, Daniil Kharms Facebook page I had started, intended to promote the book with a series of selections, including the poem that follows here. The response I received to it was: "Your ad wasn't approved because it doesn't follow our Advertising Policies for adult products or services. We don’t allow images or videos that show nudity or cleavage, even if it’s portrayed for artistic or educational reasons." While I appealed the decision repeatedly, including finally to a live person, explaining that the post contained neither nudity, nor cleavage, nor certainly any videos, it got me exactly nowhere.
The situation became only more absurd, when Facebook's response to a prose piece in tomorrow's follow up post, "Daniil Kharms on Spirit," that I thought not only innocuous but genuinely elevated and uplifting was: "Your ad wasn't approved because it calls out to specific user attributes (ex: race, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender, disability or medical condition, financial status, membership in a trade union, criminal record, ethnicity, name). Such ads may offend users and lead to high negative sentiment." To make this already far too long introduction shorter: to put it mildly, Kharms, like so many of us today, had a "complicated relationship" with all of mankind, and even with God "himself". I hope you will read on for yourself, and I will only add here the following words from my introduction to the book:
"Humor and horror, Eros and Thanatos, degradation and sadomasochism jostle one another, side-by-side, in these stories and poems. Kafkaesque and Chekhovian situations and motifs from Pushkin and traditional Russian fairy tales are recognizable in Kharms’s sparse prose, yet they appear diseased, stripped down to their bare essentials, as if contorted by the terror of impending arrest and doom." And we might add, "by the terror of love gained and love lost". And now, most of the rest of this, I would like to be in Daniil Kharms's own words.
You can sew. But that’s all bunk.
I’m in love with your pudenda;
it’s moist and smells abundantly.
Another man would peek, let out
a squeak, and, sealing his nose, scram.
And wiping your fluids from his hands
would he return? Oh, what a question;
suddenly, there can be no other.
Your juices are to me sheer joy.
You think my words are an excrescence
but I’m prepared to lick your cunt
without break for breath and swallow
the delicious squim of your mallow
until I begin to burp and grunt.
(Daniil Kharms, 1931)
"Joseph Brodsky once quoted Anna Akhmatova, about an improbable Kharms sentence: 'Only with Kharms could that ever work. Never with anyone else.'" (From Ian Frazier's group review of all the books heretofore available in English translation in The New York Review of Books, which includes his own very personal experience discovering, translating, and failing in the attempt to communicate to Anglophone readers how and why Daniil Kharms's works are "funny".)
From “Thoughts about a Girl”
And when she passes by aflutter,
As if on air, not a word do you utter;
And when with a knowledgeable hand
She makes contact— you understand.
And when she lightly, as though dancing,
Sliding her lovely foot across the floor,
Proceeds to offer her perky breast for
You to kiss— then it is impossible not
To shout out loud and lovingly blow
From her firm breast a dust mote,
And recognize how touching your lips
To her youthful breast is pointless.
January 21, 1935
In every church bell there is spite
In every red ribbon there is fire
In every young woman shivering
In every young man his own steed.
March 20, 1938
Came to the window naked. In the house across the street someone must have taken an exception, the sailor’s widow, I think. A policeman came barging in, with the yard sweeper, and someone else in tow. They declared that I have been disturbing the neighbors across the street from me for over three years already. So I have hung some curtains. What is more appealing to the eye, an old woman wearing nothing but a chemise or a young man, buck-naked? And for whom is it less acceptable to show themselves au naturel?
This was my own "working" version of the book's cover. Being a very visual and concrete person, as I was developing and completing the book, being able to see both the "big picture" and the individual pages helped me in doing so. Here, I had "cut" and reversed what I believed to be a double "wedding portrait" of Daniil Yuvachev and Esther Rousakov. Kharms's first wife, she was the daughter of Jewish Russian-French “expats,” and part of the "reverse immigration" that had returned to Russia after the Revolution.
From the Notebooks. July 27. Who could advise me regarding what I should do? Esther brings with her misfortune. I am being destroyed along with her. What must I do, either divorce her or . . . carry my cross? I was given the choice to avoid this, but I remained dissatisfied, and asked to be united with Esther. I was told yet again, do not be married! But despite “having caught a scare,” I still insisted, I still tied my fate with Esther’s, till death do us part. I myself was to blame for this or, rather, I did it to myself. What has happened to the OBERIU? Everything vanished as soon as Esther became a part of me. Since that time, I have ceased to write as I ought to and have only brought misfortune upon myself from all directions. Is it that I can’t be dependent on women, no matter which one it is? Or is the nature of Esther’s character such that she brought an end to my work? I don’t know. If Esther is filled with sorrow, then how can I possibly let her go....
Kharms developed a highly personal and involved symbology, mostly involving an almost kabbalistic play with the letters of her name (his symbol for her as a whole person was the window). Esther Rusakov (née Ioselevich), was repressed, along with her entire family, in 1936.
Before I enter, I will knock on your window. You will see me in the window. Then I will walk through the door and you will see me in the doorway. Then I will walk into your house and you will recognize me. And I will enter you, and no one, except you, will see me and recognize me.
You will see me in the window.
The woman in the following picture is Alice Poiret, another of "Kharms's women;” both she and his first wife, Esther, have most often been literally cropped out of the few surviving photos of Kharms that have come down to us. Kharms had dedicated a number of poems to Alice, including the following:
[ January 7, 1933]
October 16, 1933
Talent grows, destroying, building.
The sign of stagnation is well-being.
Dear Klavdia Vasilyevna,
You are a remarkable and genuine person! As much as it grieves me not to be able to see you, I won’t be inviting you to the Children’s Theater or to come to my city. How heartwarming it is to know that there still exists one human being animated by dreams! I don’t know what word one can use to express that force which so delights me in you. I usually call it simply p u r i t y. I have been thinking about how wonderful it is, that which is primal...
… I’m genuinely delighted that you take your walks like so, in the Zoological Garden. Especially if you take walks there not just for the sake of walking, but also to observe the animals— I will fall in love with you even more tenderly.
October 20, 1933
I have studied women for a long time now and can definitively say that I know them with flying colors. First and foremost, a woman likes to be attended to. Let’s say she is standing right in front of you or is about to, and you make it seem as though you’re hearing and seeing nothing, and act like there’s no one else in the room; this inflames female curiosity. And a curious woman is capable of practically anything.
The next time I will intentionally stick my hand deep in my pocket with a quizzical appearance, and the woman will plant her eyes on me, like, what’s going on here? And I will slowly draw out of my pocket some sort of spark plug. Well and good; the trap has been sprung, and the fish is in my net!
One of the principal sources of divergence of human paths is the matter of preference for either skinny or plump women. I propose we reserve alleys in public gardens for quiet strolling, with two-seat benches distributed two meters away from each other; furthermore, thick bushes should be planted between the benches so that those sitting at one bench are not able to see what is happening at another. On these quiet pathways, the following rules must be enforced:
1. Entrance is forbidden to children, both alone and accompanied by a parent.
2. All noise and loud conversation are strictly prohibited.
3. Only one woman may take a seat next to a man, and only one man next to a woman.
4. If the person seated on a bench is resting their hand or some sort of other object on the free seat, you may not join them. Alleys should also be reserved for walking in solitude, with metal armchairs for single people. Between the armchairs, bushes. Entry is forbidden to children; noise and loud conversation are prohibited.
As a rule, pretty women do not stroll around in gardens.
September 28, 1935
One personage, wringing her hands in sorrow, was saying, “What I need is an interest toward life, and not at all money. I am seeking enhancement, not advancement. I need a husband, and not a rich man but a true talent, the director Meyerhold!”
The Sensual Woodsman
When in the distance flashed saws
And the axes had started ringing,
My girlfriends all became dearer.
I’m in love with them ever since.
Oh, girlfriends, my dear girlfriends,
So pleasant to sense you with my hands!
You’re all so smooth! All so solid!
One more wonderful than the next!
It’s so pleasant to touch your breasts,
Brush my lips the length of your legs.
Oh, help me people, dear people.
Oh, help me God, my dear God!
August 24, 1938
From An Obstacle (August 12, 1940) Previously published in Narrative Magazine (free registration required)
Pronin said, “You have very pretty stockings.”
Irina Mazer said, “So you like my stockings?”
Pronin said, “Oh, yes. Very much.” And he ran his hand down her leg....
From A Lecture (1940)
“A woman is the lathe of love.”
And he immediately got punched in the face....
From “The Power of...”
Faol continued: “Take, for example, love. It may be for better or for worse. On the one hand, it is written: you must love . . . but on the other hand, it is said: do not spoil . . . Perhaps it is better not to love after all? But it says: you must love. But if you do love, you will spoil. What to do? Perhaps go ahead and love but in some other way? But then why is it that in all languages, the same word is used to designate both this and the other love? So, this one artist loved his mother and this one plump young girl. And he loved them each differently. He handed over to the girl the larger part of his salary. The mother often starved while the girl ate and drank for three people. The artist’s mother slept in the hallway on the floor, and the girl had at her disposal two very adequate rooms. The girl had four coats and the mother just one. And so, the artist took from his mother her one coat and had it altered into a skirt for the girl. So that, in all respects, the artist spoiled the girl but his own mother he didn’t spoil, but loved her with a pure love. However, he did fear his mother’s death, but the death of the girlfriend he feared not, and when his mother died, the artist cried, and when the girlfriend fell out of a window and also died, the artist didn’t cry but found himself another girlfriend. And so it seems that a mother is prized as one of a kind, as though she were a rare stamp that cannot be replaced with another....”
September 29, 1940
You can read the rest of this powerful late "fiction" in the selection of seven prose pieces I had previously published in International Quarterly.
Daniil Kharms’s second wife, Marina Malich's (Durnovo) memoirs were recorded and published by the literary historian Vladimir Glotser in his book Moi Muzh Daniil Kharms (My Husband Daniil Kharms; available only in Russian).
From the Notebooks. May 26 
Marina stays in bed all day in a foul mood. I love her so very much, but how harrowing it is to be married.
I am tormented by my “sex.” For weeks, and sometimes months, I have not known a woman.
1. There is one purpose to every human life: immortality.
1a. There is one purpose to every human life: achieving immortality.
2. One pursues immortality by continuing his bloodline, another by accomplishing great mortal deeds in order to immortalize one’s name. And only the third leads a righteous and holy life in order to achieve immortality as life eternal.
3. A man has but two interests: the mundane— food, drink, warmth, women, and rest; and the celestial— immortality.
4. All that is earthly is a confirmation of death.
5. There is one straight line upon which all that is mortal lies. And only that which is not plotted on this axis may serve as confirmation of eternity.
6. And for this reason man seeks a deviation from this earthly road and considers it beautiful or brilliant.
And, last but not least:
From Symphony No. 2
...Well, to hell with him. I will tell you about Anna Ignatievna instead.
But to tell you about Anna Ignatievna isn’t so simple. First of all, I know practically nothing about her and, second of all, I just fell off the stool and forgot what I was about to say. Better I tell you about myself.
I am tall in height, not stupid, dress colorfully and with taste, don’t drink, don’t patronize the horses, but do like the ladies. And the ladies do not avoid me. In fact, they love it when I accompany them. Seraphima Izmailovna has invited me time and again over to her place, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also told me that she is always happy to see me. And with Marina Petrovna I had this amusing episode, which is the one I want to tell you about. The episode is really quite ordinary, but still very amusing, because Marina Petrovna turned, owing to me, entirely bald, like the palm of your hand. It happened this way: I came over to Marina Petrovna’s and she “boom!” and turned completely bald. That’s it.
June 9– 11, 1941
This week we welcome Alex Cigale as our guest author. Alex’s own poems in English appear in Colorado Review, The Common Online, and The Literary Review, and his translations of Silver Age and contemporary Russian poetry in Kenyon Review Online, PEN America, TriQuarterly and World Literature in Translation. In 2015, he was awarded an NEA in Literary Translation Fellowship for his work on the St. Petersburg philological school, poet Mikhail Eremin, and guest edited the Spring 2015 Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review, blogging about it in Best American Poetry for the week of July 13-17, 2015. His first full book,RussianAbsurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings, is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press World Classics series in February 2017 and is now available for pre-sale.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.