by Carolilna Ebeid
Owing to the general scarcity
of books in the post-Soviet city,
this particular population of library
dwellers, which included the intellectuals,
playwrights, poets, homosexuals,
would pass the same borrowed copy
of the novel among them, the hardback
becoming a familiar / familial
object, they would mark words
with imperative asterisks, underscore
whole paragraphs, each reader insinuating
himself & herself in the coordinates of here
& here in faintest graphite, creasing
the corners of pages where one,
anyone of them, should return.
Frome the Archives (November 8, 2012):
About a year ago, the Chicago based theater artist Erica Barnes approached David Lehman for permission to adapt his poem "Mythologies" for the stage as a dance performance piece. According to Erica, she was in the midst of a somewhat fallow period when on a whim she visited the Poetry Foundation website, clicked on the "Poem of the Day" and "fell in love." David's sequence of thirty sonnets "Mythologies," first published in the Paris Review issue 106 (1988) and awarded the Bernard F. Connors prize, was the Foundation's featured poem. Erica has this to say about David's poem:
We need new myths. Our old heroes are too unattainable, too perfect, too… heroic. David Lehman’s poem ‘Mythologies’ tells the story of a man struggling to construct new myths in the wake of the disintegration of his expectations. Blending the language of poetry with the ritual of theatre, ‘Mythologies’ searches for the answer to the age-old question -- what is it to be human?
David granted permission and over the next several months Erica dispatched periodic updates of her work- in-progress. She secured funding, hired a full cast and crew, found performance space, and held rehearsals. On November 1, "Mythologies" opened at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater in Chicago. "It was a success," writes Erica, and her excitement is palpable. She sends along this preview video, which makes us wish we could put the production on the road:
Erica promises to send more photos of the performance, which we will share here. Meanwhile, you can find out more about "Mythologies" in Chicago by visiting the dedicated website. You will find Erica's interview with David here.
"Mythologies" will be included in David Lehman's forthcoming New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013).
Hysterical Literature is a video art series by NYC-based photographer and filmmaker Clayton Cubitt. It explores feminism, mind/body dualism, distraction portraiture, and the contrast between culture and sexuality. Each video features a woman sitting at a table reading aloud from a book of her choosing. However, under the table, there is an unseen person equipped with a vibrator who is assigned to distract the reader as she reads.(These are really fun to watch.) --sdh
From Marne: "For my appearance in Hysterical Literature I chose to read “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, the long form poem by John Ashbery, which is not sexy per se, but is aesthetically “hot” to me in its many layers of perception on vision, art, self-portraiture, reflection, abstract poetry, time and space. It is a gorgeous text that requires considerable focus and a love of deconstructed, yet lyrical words.The poem refers to the 16th century painter Francesco Parmigianino’s painting "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," and is also the title of Ashbery’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of poems. John Ashbery has a long history of involvement with the arts; he was an arts writer and collaborated with many artists. Ashbery said "I have perhaps been more influenced by modern painting and music than by poetry." It seemed right as rain to me, to read a poem about a painting of an artist’s self-portrait, read by an artist who makes artist portraits and self-portraits in mirrors, while having an orgasm!"
"Thank you John Ashbery and thank you Clayton Cubitt for an interesting addition of my life cycle, to the stars and back again…"
Find more Hysterical Literature here.
Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.
Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.
Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.
He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.
Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.
I shall buy a silver boat.
I shall be its captain.
It shall be a bark and I upon its poop. At the helm,
Commander of the ocean’s broad rage.
Commander of the fury of the waves.
My silver bark shall skip, jump, cannon, fly.
For I shall pass over eagles under Yahweh’s restless eye,
For I shall steer above the dizzying globe.
For I shall spin the wheel,
This way, then that.
Cracking, snapping, billowing sails shall carry me beyond.
And breathless, above,
Over the world’s worsening wickedness.
For, as I buy,
no snaggle-tooth shoemaker shall have dominion over me,
For, as I command,
no seller of hats nor haberdasher shall have dominion over me,
For, as I steer,
no fire-breathing philosopher nor rabbi shall have dominion over me.
I, I, I am deathless;
I shall have no name to be forgotten nor recalled.
Forgive the political nature of this comic--I like to think of this blog as a sacred space where we all breathe more easily. But all week I have been thinking of this Edward Lear poem. And how as a girl, whenever my mother read it, I would complain that you can't possibly go to sea in a sieve--
to which she answered:
Why, there's nothing to worry about! Because you can always sleep in a crockery-jar with your feet wrapped in pinky paper, all folded neat, and fastened with a pin.
I think that's my favorite stanza of the poem:
The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, ‘How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
Martha Graham & Erik Hawkins. Photo: William Eugene Smith
Dancing is an affirmation and assertion of our humanity. Here are five poems that translate dance experiences into poetry with verve and ingenuity:
Ben Belitt, "Dance Piece": Belitt's poem, an homage to Martha Graham, is an ekphrastic after her 1947 dance "Errand into the Maze," seen here performed by the company in 1990. Belitt writes: "Emblem, the heel’s blow upon space, / Speak of the need and order the dancer’s will. / But the dance is still." In five quatrains with shifting a/b rhyme schemes, he captures the iconic, sculptural quality of Graham's choreography with words that, like Graham's dances, are schematic and chiseled.
Rita Dove, "American Smooth": The title poem of Dove's 2004 book embodies the push/pull tension of ballroom dancing, written in short lines as restrained yet sexually charged as the style of dancing she describes; they pull the narrative forward and back around to the stanza's center, two short sentences swinging out and back to stillness at the end. Dove writes: "I didn’t notice / how still you’d become until / we had done it / (for two measures? / four?)—achieved flight, / that swift and serene / magnificence, / before the earth / remembered who we were / and brought us down."
James Merrill, "Farewell Performance": This poem is an elegy to Merrill's friend, the writer and critic David Kalstone, but it is equally beautiful for the way in which Merrill weaves the metaphor of performance through the arc of life as for the way it speaks to the human need to be sustained by performance— for we are merely players, hungry for the moment when Art, as he writes, "cures affliction. As lights go down and / Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea change / starts within us. Limber alembics once more / make of the common / Lot a pure, brief gold." Interestingly, Suzanne Farrell, at the time a principal dancer in New York City Ballet, dedicated a performance of Balanchine's Mozartiana (1981) to Kalstone.
Babette Deutsch, "Ballet School": Deutsch's pithy poem is a delight for the way it moves through and takes on several different classical ballet archetypes — the swans of Swan Lake, the flitting moth-like Wilis of Giselle, the flowers of The Nutcracker, and Firebird's flame — she writes: "The bare bright mirrors glow / For their enchanted shapes. / Each is a flame, and so, / Like flame, escapes." Deutsch captures the fleet-footed, ephemeral nature of dance training--namely, that it is a practice that takes on, and always runs up against, the inevitable forward-rush of time.
Mark Turbyfill, "A Lost Dancer": Turbyfill, a neglected twentieth-century poet, visual artist, and dancer who worked with Katherine Dunham, among others, captures the frustrating moment of 'stuck' that can happen in artistic composition with this poem. What artist, in any medium, doesn't know this feeling? He writes: “Above the profound park / She sees the frozen satellite / Reveal its wrinkled face, / Waits, mirror-like, in trance, / And finds no impetus / To carve the dance.”
Pain doesn't hurt. Fear does. Fear not, Dear Readers. Tomorrow, an interview with the Chilean writer Gustavo Barrera Calderón.
from Odalisque In Pieces
by Carmen Giménez-Smith
Versified, we took pills and ideals. The backlit of the hills' blue against the sky plus
the creamy soignée element flared around us. Under dutiful watch, almighty christ.
So some day I was walking with Dawn. The drills gone for Sunday. My duress was
valentiney, not the deliverable package.
Torrential downplay of the giggling kind. I am sad to see you go. Then the humpbacked
lady with her such trying walked past. We walked too, but not the limping kind.
Not the body failure way. Limbed as fish or tree. Wired for longitude. We were just
loving the grand early-ness of walk. Some do. Some do.
Coincidence then with such a bomb shudder. Such like in none to see. The better part of
it in the neck and gut. The ground was as still as always but the shift made us look,
for heaven came to earth to dimple our reverie. For that when two girls crossed came one,
old. For that peculiar nod knowing where we were.
Such fatuous noise we were, but also necessary. Killing time with cigarettes. Filling in
the blade okay. Then was it.
Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir and four poetry collections— including Milk and Filth, finalist for the 2013 NBCC award in poetry. She co-edited Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing, published by Counterpath Press. A CantoMundo Fellow, she teaches in the creative writing programs at New Mexico State University while serving as the publisher of Noemi Press.
Arthur Mitchell. Photo: Columbia University Archives
History teaches. America is made great by the spirit and talent of people such as Arthur Mitchell. That spirit perseveres.
Marianne Moore's poem "Arthur Mitchell" captures the fine finesse of the dancer's "peacock-tail," seen here in a pas de deux with Allegra Kent from Balanchine's Agon, which City Ballet premiered in 1957. Naturally, the language in a poem paying tribute to a dancer will stem as much from the aesthetic imperatives of the poet herself as it does from those of the dancer, but when it works, it works: and Moore, with few words, succeeds in giving the reader a sense of what it's like to watch Mitchell dance by embodying rather than explaining his confident, elegant way of moving, comparing him to a "dragonfly / too rapid for the eye / to cage." This poem and the others featured here stand on their own as works of art, whether or not one is familiar with the dancers named; still, it's fun to seek out videos of them doing what they do best. Here are four more favorites honoring iconic dancers:
Ed Ochester, "Fred Astaire": Ochester's poem translates Astaire's everyman brilliance into language as everyday-sublime as the dancer he describes, who "looked like a bus driver who could dance." And "doesn't Fred look a bit like Carlos Williams, who also talks plain without ornament, just like Astaire when he's singing," just as Ochester does when reading his poem?
Charles Olson, "Merce of Egypt": In this propulsive poem about fellow Black Mountain artist Merce Cunningham, "The ankle / is a heron" and Cunningham is as well. He has the same alert, lithe quality, a stop/start way of moving both liquid and staccato. Olson's poem spins out from there: "the ball of my foot / on the neck of the earth, the hardsong / rise of all trees, the jay / who uses the air. I am the recovered sickle / with the grass-stains still on the flint of its teeth." I love, too, that this poem embodies Merce's voice in a figurative sense by speaking each stanza from the 'I.'
George Seferis, translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, "Nijinski": Frank Bidart's "The War of Nijinsky" may be better known, but Safaris's prose poem, honoring the man who people say was the greatest male dancer of the twentieth century, is a stunning and perfectly distilled two-page arc that captures the dancer's charisma and descent into madness; with ingenuity, Seferis leaves the reader feeling sure she knows something of Nijinsky's essence, while at the same time challenging that certitude: "He held in his hands a large box of red matches which he displayed to me like a conjuror taking an egg out of the nose of the person in the next seat. [...] Though I was witnessing an agonizing struggle, I had the feeling that I was better, that I’d triumphed over something. Before I could draw breath I saw him, fallen full length now, plunge into a green pagoda portrayed on my carpet."
Frank O'Hara, "Ode to Tanaquil LeClercq": Le Clercq was a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and the last of Balanchine's four wives (if not ballerina-loves); tragically, she contracted polio at age 27 in 1956 on a NYCB European tour. O'Hara wrote her this ode in 1960. The tone of the poem is both ecstatic and mournful, celebrating the winsome ease of her dancing while lamenting the cruel nature of her disease, "because you are beautiful you are hunted / and with the courage of a vase / you refuse to become a deer or a tree / and the world holds its breath / to see if you are there, and safe / are you?"
Stay safe, Dear Readers. Tomorrow, in part three, I'll detail my favorite poems that document dance ekphrastically.
May our dancing be an affirmation and assertion of our humanity.
Warhol & an unidentified breakdancer in his Factory, early 1980s. Photo: Paige Powell
The connections between painting and poetry have long been explored—Ut pictura poesis and all that good stuff—yet it seems to me that the closest cousin to poetry is not painting or music but dancing. Utilizing breath, syncopation, and space (as a field through which to carve the articulation of language, whether with words or with the body), dance and poetry move to keep things whole. Zadie Smith gets it; exploring the compositional relationship between writing and dance is a rich but neglected realm.
So what I'd like to do this week is investigate and celebrate the possibilities inherent in collapsing the false Cartesian distinction between the writing mind and the dancing body. Part of my interest in collapsing these distinctions lies in the fact that, though I have been both dancing and writing since childhood, the mechanisms by which I create in either context still feel all too compartmentalized in my own body. I don't necessarily feel present in my dancing body when I write, and I am usually trying to get out of my own meta-cognitions when I am composing in a dance space. So, in the past few years, I've been “seeking the feet” in my artistic work, to borrow a phrase from the twentieth-century poet and dancer Mark Turbyfill; I'm trying to get grounded, to let the nervous system, bones and muscle tissue, the head and heart work in concert with each other, to avoid prioritizing the imperatives of one aspect of the creative body over another. Maybe it's a matter of opening ourselves up, of trusting that, in the moment of composition, our faculties will be present in the way we need them to be—that, in seeking the feet, we can become more connected to what's within and without. Naturally, it's also a matter of just showing up to do the work, even when it doesn't work. On Sunday I attended an evening of three instant composition pieces here in Berlin. Two worked, one didn't. The relative success of each piece didn't have anything to do with the movement vocabulary used, it had to do with “being inside time,” as Berlin-based movement researcher Jan Burkhardt says. Of course, failure is as instructive as success, and in watching the two dancers and one musician improvise outside of time, fussily moving about the space in an attempt to be interesting, in the guise of personas removed from their personhood, I began to understand all that had gone wrong with my approach to a novel manuscript I worked on for several years: there we were, performing toward our idea of an idea, end-gaining, imposing rather than composing, our ambitions impeding the possibility of being present. We needed to stop describing what we wanted the moment to look like and embody it instead, to be brave and risk vulnerability, to be humble and allow what needed to happen to happen.
In recent years, I've also been engaged in the practice of literary translation, and so am especially curious about what it means to 'translate' modalities of movement into poetic contexts, and vice-versa. Just as a word-for-word rendering of an Italian phrase in English is a way of describing but not translating the phrase, to use poetry to describe dance seems to me to miss the point, or just graze it. As with successful translations, effective ekphrastic dance poems, capture, in my view, the essence of a dancer or dance by embodying structures and qualities of movement in language particular to the demands of the poem itself, rendering an equivalent effect rather than an observational gloss. If that sounds exceedingly abstract, fear not: I will follow with some favorite examples in subsequent posts.
But for now, here's a delightful example of ekphrasis flipped backwards: an excerpt from Nederlands Dans Theater's 2003 piece “Shutters Shut,” by resident choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, set to Gertrude Stein's 1923 recording of her poem “If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso.” Jerry Hochman writes rather beautifully on the expansive nature of this choreographic translation in a review of NDT2's performance at the Joyce in New York last year. I also love what NDT2 dancer Spencer Dickhaus says about “being the track” when performing the piece (a variation on “being inside time,” perhaps?) in this interview from Jacob's Pillow (min 1:50 to min 3:55).
What other propositions can dance offer to enrich poetic language, and poetry the vocabulary of dance? Dear Reader, I invite you to comment: I'm curious to know your thoughts on this, your favorite ekphrastic dance poems, and/or your own examples of poetry translated into choreographic contexts. In Parts 2 and 3 of “Seeking the Feet,” I'll share with you some poems that distill, in my moving mind, essential aspects of dancers and dance.
Of course, it’s not his real name, though I am led to believe one half is real; the other half, as he once remarked, is “an act of concealment.”
I first came across Eric Eric in 1986 when I was editing my then magazine joe soap’s canoe. A chap I know, Richard Catchpole, sent me some of Eric’s poems. In the course of a long and rambling letter catching me up on his recent doings (he thought I was interested) Catchpole told me he had been working temporarily for a company doing the catering for a telephone engineers’ conference, and he had “fallen in” with a chap attending the event who wrote “weird little poems”, and he thought I might like to see some of them.
One of the first poems I read, and subsequently published in joe soap’s canoe 10, was this:
The air is where
The air is. And where
The air is, is where
There is a stinking bus.
I was pretty much bowled over by what at first I thought to be a somewhat individual take on a minimalist approach to poetics, but I mainly fell in love with that sledgehammer of a final line that made me laugh out loud at the same time as realizing the poet and I at some point in our lives had experienced the same kind of bus service. This, for me, placed the poem absolutely in the everyday world, though it came with a dollop of questionable sanity for good measure. But I also initially assumed Catchpole was messing with me – he has his playful side, and I would not have put it past him to try and trick me into publishing a figment of his somewhat self-indulgent imagination. In fact, I was only finally convinced of Eric’s real existence when I met him briefly in Nottingham in 2008. We had kept in very occasional touch since I shut down the canoe, and he was visiting the city on some kind of training course to do with his work. He was still a sort of telephone engineer but now did something I vaguely understood to be to do with mobile phones; he said he was too near retirement to be much bothered to learn anything new, but it was a few days in a good hotel, and the financial subsidies he was getting for being away from home were excellent. Knowing I was back from China and working as the Royal Literary Fund’s Writing Fellow at Nottingham Trent University, he suggested we meet up for a drink. I knew enough about him by that time to know that, if he was indeed real, this was an uncharacteristically sociable move on his part, and I jumped at the chance to meet him. It’s an hour and ten minutes of my life I will never get back, but they do say it’s not always a good idea to meet your heroes.
But I am jumping ahead of myself.
To step back to the 1980s, I had published Eric in a couple of subsequent canoes, but then he kind of fell off my radar until a few years later, by which time I’d shut down the magazine. But he had evidently decided that trying to goad me into opening it up again would be something of a mission for him, and his first few communications during the early 2000s somewhat harped on about it. But eventually he gave it up as a lost cause, and our contact settled into his sometimes telling me a poem of mine he’d seen was good, bad or indifferent, and sometimes letting slip an opinion or two about poetry in general.
I had learned that the poems I had published in 1990 were among the last he had written: unbeknown to me at the time, he had announced, in the personal columns of London’s Times, that he wished to devote the remainder of his life to finding the perfect corduroy trousers. Eric had also shown himself to be well-read but highly opinionated. He shared my liking for the poets of the New York School: he said he admired their brains and their wit. But he also once said that John Ashbery’s poems sometimes annoyed him, although he'd be able to find it in his heart to forgive if Ashbery would only respond to his invitation to go for a swim together next time they found themselves in the same city. I was never quite able to get to the bottom of that one. As for current British poetry, he told me when we met that he’d more or less given up on it. His withering assessment of some of the country’s most well-known and “much-loved” contemporary poets should probably not be repeated here (do libel laws apply on the internet?) and he said he was currently more interested in delving into the world of the pre-17th century sonnet. When I asked him if he was writing sonnets he got up, in what I gather now to be true Eric fashion, and went in search of the pub’s toilet.
When my friend Rupert Mallin and I announced Rupert’s new art and poetry magazine, Decals of Desire, Eric pounced like a cat that had been lurking in the bushes waiting for its moment to catch a sparrow (though anyone less cat-like than Eric Eric is hard to imagine). It turned out that earlier this year he had taken up the pen again because, and I quote: “I am needed.” I had often asked him why he had never published anywhere other than the canoe, and he had simply said it didn’t interest him, and that he would probably still severely restrict what he called his “public appearances” – I had long since understood from some of the things he said that Poetry World as a whole struck him as not much more than a club for mutual back-scratching involving (with some honorable exceptions) people whose back one would not want to touch.
But anyway, he sent me a little group of poems with a note that he asked be added to them if we published: “This is some poems about people. I have others about animals, but they’re not as good.” This was quintessential Eric, and I was smitten. The first thing I noticed was that his style had not changed at all in the last 30 years. Here are a couple of the poems:
Sometimes I think
I am the door
And sometimes I know for sure
I have feelings
I have feelings
I have feelings (and some paint)
Minimalism is obviously (and somewhat paradoxically) a pretty wide-ranging and at times contentious field – a minefield, even – and how it’s poked its head in the poetry door since the early years of the last century has surely been the topic of all kinds of books and essays and arguments. For me, it’s a debate in which I’m not very interested, insofar as I don’t care how long or short a poem is, or what’s been left out or left in: let’s face it, we have even had poems with no words in them at all. Call me old-fashioned, but I respond mainly to an elegance of language and the wit and intelligence of a writer, to something subtle and elusive in a piece of writing that makes me want to be alive and thankful for having had the privilege of sharing the experience of a particular poem, no matter its form or provenance. I’m not sure if that makes me sound like a moron or a genius, but no matter.
Eric’s minimalism, by which I mean his poems’ brevity, is not about itself (as some so-called innovative poetics seem to be) and it’s not a pose or a posture or the obvious result of a definitive and reasoned poetic. Yes, Eric understands line breaks and rhetoric, and even a little bit of French (and probably some Klingon), but he understands also that some things come naturally. I once asked him how much time he might spend writing a poem, and how much he edited and/or cut down. His answer was aptly brief: very little time, no more than ten minutes including drinks and toilet breaks, and absolutely no cutting down. They start short and stay short. It occurs to me that Eric’s brevity extends not to the point where what there is to be said has for poetic reasons to be only an oblique utterance uttered obliquely, leaving the reader to bring to the text what they will, but instead reaches with a workmanlike confidence only what it considers to be its point and where it’s satisfied there’s nothing else to say. And, if there were something else to say, Eric is certainly not the man to say it. And if he were the man to say it, he wouldn’t say it in a poem because that’s not what poems are for: if he wanted to say it he could write a letter to the newspaper, or start a blog, or bang his head against a Facebook wall, or troll around on Twitter. But he’s almost certainly better than that, and would rather spend time in his garden and grow his own onions.
I don’t think anyone else is writing poems quite like Eric Eric. For more than 30 years he has followed his own path (or fallen asleep on it) and if he had been bothered he could even have become a household name. But he isn’t bothered. He can’t even be bothered to be unknown. I love him for that. At the risk of over-exposing this somewhat retiring character, we are almost certainly going to feature him in the next issue of the magazine, too. He has sent some more poems, including this one:
Do you think?
Is this –
This little poem at first seemed to me almost inane in its simplicity, but the apparently unnecessary dash and parentheses are a wry nod towards a lack of necessity that makes us think, paradoxically, of necessity. One of the other poems he sent is about a glove puppet frog called Fred. It’s really good.
Note: Eric Eric’s poems in joe soap’s canoe can be found online at http://martinstannard.com/jsc/jschome.html - they are in issues 10, 11 and 13.
Decals of Desire is at www.decalsofdesire.blogspot.com
- Martin Stannard, Zhuhai, China, November 2016
Wu Xia works in a clothing factory. She frequently works twelve-hour days or twelve-hour nights. At the age 35, she has been working in various factories for 21 years, or nearly two-thirds of her life. What is striking about Wu Xia, and this comes through clearly in her appearance in the documentary film Iron Moon, is the way she accepts the burdens that poverty and the migrant-worker lifestyle have placed on her and her family, and, simultaneously, how much her poetry resists it.
Bowls Wearing Earrings
The factory cafeteria is lined with
bowls of different patterns. They’re sent one by one up to the counter,
and perhaps one will vanish. That’s disturbing,
because losing a bowl is like losing one’s soul.
Mama bored holes in the sides of her bowl and of mine
and attached loops of iron wire,
so when we pick them up, they shake and clatter.
When I went to get my food, my coworkers laughed and said the bowl
was wearing earrings. But soon they were copying it.
More and more bowls wearing earring appeared in the cafeteria,
like girls just beginning to dress up.
We all worry about losing our jobs,
but the bowls don’t have to worry about getting lost.
This poem reveals much about the migrant worker lifestyle: the cafeteria lined with anonymous bowls, and the way the workers are also treated as essentially anonymous. How mother and daughter work together in the same factory. How the workers here are female, indicating the kinds of internal segregation in workforces these factories perpetrate. How a utilitarian object, even one as seemingly impersonal as a bowl, becomes akin to a “soul.” How these places are pervaded with the workers’ fears of being fired or laid off, and the omnipresent threat of bosses.
Wu Xia’s poetry is often plainly “feminine” and soft in tone. She writes about flowers and sundresses and earrings and sunshine. But underlying all of this is a powerful articulation and rejection of the kinds of depravations workers face in their jobs and lives. In her poem “Sundress,” she describes pressing, folding, and carefully boxing up a sundress that will be sent to a boutique where “it will wait for only you.” This is the kind of store that Wu Xia herself does not enter; she wears cheap dresses that she buys from street markets.
Rather than focusing on this imparity, or on what she cannot have, Wu focuses instead on what she is giving to the world: “unknown girl / I love you” she writes. Her resistance also comes in the form of a deep generosity toward her fellow citizens. In a discussion with the filmmakers after the screening of Iron Moon in Shanghai, one of the audience members stood up with tears in his eyes and said that of everything in the film, he had been most moved by Wu Xia. “You never see people like that in China anymore,” he said.
Over the past several years, China has been undergoing a kind of spiritual crisis, a reevaluation of its culture, values, and common decency. The freewheeling economic development that has brought millions of people out of poverty has also led to a profound interpersonal impoverishment. The social structures that held villages, towns, cities, and the whole country together have been crumbling. The group to bear the brunt of these rapid changes are the ordinary workers in factories, coalmines, construction sites, paper mills, chemical plants.
Within that context, Wu Xia’s resistance with softness is a strategy that should not be underestimated. There are many forms of fruitful resistance, but some messages that will be ignored if delivered with anger or resentment may be accepted if delivered with a lighter touch, as the man in the movie discussion demonstrated. He’d never thought much about the workers that are everywhere in Shanghai, he told the audience. But now he couldn’t help but pay attention.
Many, many thanks to Stacey and David for giving me the blog floor for a week! It’s always great a pleasure. Please feel free to visit my website at www.eleanorgoodman.com and the kickstarter page of the movie Iron Moon at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/963482307/iron-moon-the-poetry-of-chinese-migrant-workers. The book Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry will be out this coming spring.
David had beautiful eyes,
a shepherd among the lilies.
David had beautiful eyes,
a shepherd among the lilies.
Saul smote his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.
David, King of Israel, lives,
Lives to this day.
David, King of Israel, lives,
Lives to this day.
The poet Zheng Xiaoqiong does not herself appear in the documentary film Iron Moon, a movie about worker-poets surviving in contemporary China, but her poetry does. Zheng has worked a die-mold factory, a magnetic tape factory, a toy factory, and as a hole-punch operator in a hardware factory. She is one of the rare cases of a manual worker escaping the factories for a literary job by dint of her talent and luck. Now a magazine editor in Guangzhou, she has become known for her long, sinewy lines—some of her work verges on a prose poetry—and for her blunt descriptions of what it’s like to work in the harsh factory environments of contemporary Shenzhen, especially as a young woman.
A Product’s Story
First, it starts with a warped piece of iron sheeting, setting off from a village, iron mine, truck,
steamer, or port, then losing one’s name, getting a serial number, and standing at a workstation;
second is springs and assembly lines, the whinny of nervous motion, pain close by, aluminum alloys,
blueprints, breadcrumbs, cutting machines, familiar sweat, plastic and cardboard boxes,
pleasures and sorrows; third is the pale faces under fluorescent lights, employee IDs, mechanical springs,
gears, card edge connectors, pressure coolants, anti-rust oil, silent overtime;
fourth is certificates, standardized forms, exterior polishing, the lashings of a 3000-degree furnace
the cooling heat treatment of overtime pay, of the raindrops, of being fired, your twisted-up
body appearing in an hourglass; fifth is temporary residence permits, physical exam cards, proof of single status,
migrant worker cards, work permits….they wait in line, silently, leaning on
plastic travel bags with exhausted faces; sixth is young pinned-down arms, back pay
and fines, missed periods, a medical history of flus, listlessness, homesickness
as wide as the sea, noise from the overhead lights, drifting in a far city and paystubs floating on a river;
seventh is the dialects of machines and dorms, Hunanese dreams on the berth above Sichuanese,
Hubeinese is neighbors with Anhuinese, the Gansunese machine bit off half
of the Jiangxinese’s finger, Guangxinese’s nightshift, Guizhounese’s gloominess, Yunanese’s rainsoaked
sleep-talk and Henanese’s dress. Eighth is sticks of fried dough, lumps
of instant noodles, the shape of the city in vegetable soup, masks made of copper, coupling links, certificates of conformity,
a buck and half of fried rice noodles, chili sauce, artificially flavored and colored cola;
ninth is love hidden in stories and fairy tales, shared rented rooms, doors
without keys, iron ladders to upper berths, antiseptic fluids in hospitals, birth control pills, the tears of breaking up,
corroded flesh, baseless promises of love; tenth is train tickets to go home, a door
or a pit, a quick-selling ticket or a possible fake, squeezed in the aisles,
in the toilet, standing on tiptoe, crushed, you just want to find a place on the train or in the world
to live, to love, to slowly grow old
What strikes me first about this poem is the form: the long lines, the lists, the blocky shape. Then the specificity of the nouns and the physicality of the descriptions. Finally, the unapologetically female (though not necessarily traditionally feminine) voice. The majority of publishing poets in China are male, and that is all the more true for worker-poets. Many explanations have been offered to for why this is, and I’m sure there is some truth to the idea that girls, and especially girls from rural areas, are taught traditional values, among them the virtues of silence and modesty. I’m sure some women may be more sensitive to the oppressions of the factory environment, including prohibitions against speech, and internalize rules that then make it more difficult for them to write. But it is also the case that women poets are less likely to be accepted into poetry circles. Their writing is taken less seriously, published less frequently, and overall given less attention and support than work by their male contemporaries.
And what a shame. For in the work of a skillful poet like Zheng, we discover things that are absent from the work of male poets. The question of “missed periods,” a serious and common health issue in these dangerous, high-pressure work environments, is something I have seen addressed only in women poets’ writing, and for obvious reasons. Similarly, birth control pills are an omnipresent element in women’s lives, especially in the only recently loosened age of the one-child policy. Then there is the attention paid to food that is clearly not homemade, the “baseless promises of love,” the “proof of single status” required by some factories for their female employees. Perhaps surprisingly, there are more women working in factories making goods for export than there are men. Yet their words are still being overlooked and suppressed, both deliberately and as an effect of neglect. I hope the selection of work by women poets such as Zheng Xiaoqiong, Lizi, Shu Zhishui, and Wu Xia (whose work I will discuss on Friday) which I’ve translated in the anthology Iron Moon will bring more of these vital voices to the fore.
Tomorrow: the whimsical and the painful in the poetry of Wu Niaoniao.
The poet Xu Lizhi come to prominence in one of the worst possible ways: he jumped from a high-rise in Shenzhen, ending his life at the age of 24. Before his death, Xu was not well known as a poet; he published very few poems during his lifetime, and he concealed his writing even from his parents because, as he put it, his poetry was dark and he didn’t want them to worry. The documentary film Iron Moon includes amazing footage of the cramped, cheap room Xu was living in when he died; all of his possessions can fit into a few paper bags.
Like Hai Zi and Gu Cheng, both poets of tremendous talent who committed suicide at the ages of 25 and 37 respectively, Xu Lizhi vividly expressed his isolation and desperation in his poetry. What distinguishes Xu is the kind of life he led. Both Hai Zi and Gu Cheng were college-educated and made their livings as intellectuals within a university setting. In contrast, Xu began working in factories immediately after graduating from high school.
Xu Lizhi came to international attention because his death was part of a spate of suicides at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. Foxconn is the world’s largest manufacturer of Apple products, and working on the assembly line there, Xu would have handled devices that ended up here in the United States and across the globe. His descriptions of the life he and his fellow workers endured are remarkable not only for their painful realism, but also for their sheer poetic power.
I Speak of Blood
I speak of blood, since it can’t be avoided
I also want to speak of breezes, flowers, snow, the moon
speak of the past dynasty, poetry in wine
but reality makes me speak only of blood
blood comes from matchbox rented rooms
narrow, cramped, sunless year round
oppressing the working men and women
distant husbands and wives gone astray
guys from Sichuan hawking spicy soup
old people from Henan selling trinkets on blankets
and me, toiling all day just to live
and opening my eyes at night to write poems
I speak to you of these people, I speak of us
ants struggling one by one through the swamp of life
blood walking drop by drop along the worker’s road
blood driven off by the city guards or the choke of a machine
scattering insomnia, illness, unemployment, suicide along the way
the words explode one by one
in the Pearl Delta, in the belly of China
dissected by the seppuku blade of order forms
I speak of this to you
though my voice goes hoarse and my tongue cracks
in order to rip open the silence of this era
I speak of blood, and the sky smashes open
I speak of blood, and my whole mouth turns red
What surprises me again and again as I translate Xu’s work is the incredible technical virtuosity of his writing, a combination of raw talent and self-taught skill. The repetitions that underpin the poem, the powerful nouns, the contrasts between the beautiful (breezes, flowers, poetry, wine) and the dark reality (blood, machines, rented rooms), the use of the direct address (“I speak of this to you”)—it all builds into an undeniably moving and forceful work. The fact that he managed to write so impressively while working 11-hour nightshifts and living in what we would find destitute conditions is a great testament to his talent and strength of character. That in the end he found himself defeated in the face of it all is a tragedy for world literature. Xu Lizhi was potentially a great poet in the making.
If you’re interested in reading more of Xu’s poems, you can find a dozen or so in a feature I did here for the China Labour Bulletin: http://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/obituary-peanut-creatively-cynical-world-worker-poet-xu-lizhi.
Tomorrow: Factories, construction sites, and coalmines may be a man’s world, but there are a lot of women in it. I’ll talk about the poetry of Zheng Xiaoqiong, one of the most prominent female worker-poets writing today.
I have long admired these lines in Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Unnameable Heart”: “There are so many / lives of which I know nothing. / Even my own.” As a translator of Chinese literature, I frequently encounter the foreign in various guises, but over the past year I’ve had a chance to become unusually closely acquainted with five lives that bear little resemblance to my own.
The following is a poem by Chen Nianxi, a poet who appears in the independent documentary film Iron Moon, which explores the lives of workers in contemporary China:
Daybreak and my head feels like it’s exploding
this is the gift of a mechanized society
it isn’t the fault of steel
it’s that my nerves have grown old and feeble
I don’t often dare look at my life
it’s hard and metallic black
angled like a pickaxe
when the rocks are hit they will bleed
I spend my middle age five kilometers inside mountains
I explode the rocks layer by layer
to put my life back together
My humble family
is far away at the foot of Mt. Shang
they’re sick and their bodies are covered in dust
whatever is taken from my life
extends the tunnel of their old age
My body carries three tons of dynamite
and they are the fuse
I exploded like the rocks
“I spend my middle age five kilometers inside mountains”—that image alone conjures up a set of experiences that are largely alien to most of America, and especially to most American poets. The darkness, the danger, the arduous labor, the heavy machinery, the grime, the isolation. This is a man who does hard physical labor for little compensation, a person whose life is undervalued in the larger scheme of things. He works to support three generations of his family: his parents, his wife, and his child. Imagine the pressure—the explosive pressure—of doing dangerous work for low pay and with few protections, worried you won’t be paid when the job is done and knowing that even if you are the money won’t go very far, while the next job is always an uncertainty. Unlike in the United States, coalminers in China are piecemeal workers: they work one site, are paid (or stiffed by unscrupulous coalmine managers), and are set adrift again to look for more work. There is no health insurance, shamefully little recompense for injuries, and absolutely no security.
This is not unique to the coalmining industry. The same is true for hundreds of millions of people who have moved from the countryside into the cities to look for work, as China has proceeded down its path of economic development and rapid industrialization. This past year I’ve been translating the subtitles and poetry that appear in the documentary Iron Moon, directed by Wu Feiyue and Qin Xiaoyu. The film follows five workers at the very bottom of Chinese society who also happen to be accomplished poets, including Chen Nianxi. The project combines several things I consider vital: poetry, social awareness, an examination of globalism, and of course, contemporary China. I’ve also been translating the poetry of other Chinese worker-poets, and will publish an anthology of workers’ poetry with White Pine Press this coming spring.
This week I’ll be introducing five poets from the film, talking about their poetry, their lives, and what it means for all of us. If you’re interested in the film, more information can be found here, including screenings in NYC and LA this coming November: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/963482307/iron-moon-the-poetry-of-chinese-migrant-workers.
Tomorrow, a look at the most well-known poet in the film, the former Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi.
from A HUNDRED LITTLE MOUTHS
by Valerie Martinez
from up above: lewh, whist, stlew, ist, histle,
and so it is with breath and sound, puckered
mouth, little o—aperture—through which
travels noise, pitched. harsh or sonorous.
un-, in-, -telligible. a small piercing. sweet.
behind which the body leans forward:
heel, arch, ball, knee, pelvis, torso, neck.
as if. upon. a precipice.
And the girl goes, meandering,
through a field defined by fences.
Link, slatted wood. Limned
by four back yards. Beyond which
the houses contract, holding breath.
Early morning. Quiet.
So she closes her eyes and hums,
telling the windows open, open,
let the air-song out.
And the girl’s foot in the dirt,
making its circles and shallow diggings.
So that the field is pockmarked
here and there, between tufts
of wild grass and weedlings.
Bird’s eye view:
a field poked and dotted.
making her marks.
of the red-winged blackbird:
throaty check, high-slurred
male song, with display
of his red shoulder patches:
female: chit chit chit chit cheer
or teer teer teerr.
And what is happening in the houses—
the man rinsing dishes, another
moving quickly from room to room,
glancing briefly out the back window.
Sight traveling down, skimming
along the backyard rock and dirt,
climbing up and onto the fence,
peering curiously into the field.
Toe-dragging, walking end to end
times two, then corner to corner.
The girl in headphones: agitated,
focused, curious, pumped.
“A diary fills its pages
With one eye on the clock
How long? How long
Have we got?”
And each afternoon, sprung,
the way the girls synchronize
their headphones, listen
to the same song, part
at the entrance to the field—
fist bump and nod. The way
she alone walks in, measures
in strides, north to south,
west to east, cater-corner.
Counting her steps.
Knowing the field expands
and contracts, a living thing.
On bad days, suffocation.
On good, the field’s borders reach west,
all the way to the Pacific,
east to the Black Kettle grasslands.
The land. She. A lung.
And the way the girl straddles
the field, takes up its four corners,
ties it like a balloon.
she: bird-of-the-world. lifting.
Here where the earth, air, word, body-wave,
bird-song are gathered--nest. Constant murmuration—
liquid, liquid ink. What she has learned to learn
by leaning—here at the precipice. Where the sound
is sound’s absence, absence a radical noise,
noise of all things radiating north and south
and west and east on the wave of her voice.
through the air and up.
here we are.
Valerie Martínez is an award-winning poet, educator, activist, and collaborative artist. Her book-length poem, Each and Her (winner of the 2012 Arizona Book Award), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Open Book Award, the William Carlos William Award, and the Ron Ridenhour Prize. Her poetry has been widely published in journals, anthologies, and media outlets including American Poetry Review, AGNI, Prairie Schooner, The Best American Poetry, the Washington Post, and The Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Everywhere series. Valerie has more than twenty years of experience as a university professor. For the past ten years, she has been working with multidisciplinary artist teams through a wide range of arts and community development projects. She is the Founding Director of Artful Life which works to transform communities through the beauty and power of collaborative art. Learn more at www.valeriemartinez.net. "A Hundred Little Mouths” was commissioned and originally published in chapbook form for the Crowing Hens Whistling Project, directed by visual and performance artist Susan Silton. for SITE Santa Fe’s 20th anniversary event, November 7, 2015.
Subj: My Flu
Date: 96_12_21 15:22:57 EST
From: email@example.com (Reetika Gina Vazirani)
I caught the flu
there is nothing I can do
but entertain myself as u-
sual, it's fun reading your books which out of the blue
put up sprigs of mistletoe
rapid random kisses ensue
achoo, achoo, achoo
it's all a dream on my part I know
but a good one thank you
David I am walking on broken glass it’s so
crunchy! If there's ice or snow
I won't be able to check my email, it’s cold the wind is blow
ing, I blow you good wishes Blow
you in this case has a direct object O-
kay master explainer of interpretive theo-_
ries of our day -- take care of you sweet ego
You friend, Reetika Also
do Not get a Flu
Shot that's how I got this horrible disease the flu
I don't need a doctor I need a lawyer so
I can approach the Nat’l Agency on Flu
with one sentence: I plan to sue!
O, so do go ahead and get a flu shot we can sue
them together just we two
we will threaten the agency execu-
tives: Look you -- holding up a photo
(exhibit A) of you with a silencer to your head, ready for death to
take you The flu
is a silent killer and to kill off po-
ets is a terrible thing for a country to do!
Achoo, is that your sneeze, God Bless You!
-- December 21, 1996
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.