To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Norman Finkelstein: “Oppen at Altamont”

From N. Finkelstein, The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems, Dos Madres Press, 2016

Thrownness he calls it
And indeed “everyone
turned very sharply
into himself or herself.
Kind of a masturbatory

And the music—
something we had never
heard before though surely
it had been heard before
long ago   the songs…
are no one’s own

                                                                                    Not his, surely not
                                                                                    his.  In red and black
                                                                                    this medieval prince,
                                                                                    troubador of darkness,
                                                                                    self-appointed but
                                                                                    delegated—allow me
                                                                                    to introduce him as he
                                                                                    introduced himself

                                                Easy as
                                                pie?  No!
                                                because it
                                                is witnessed
                                                we witness
                                                ourselves as
                                                he witnesses
                                                himself there
                                                in the cutting

obscured by their long hair they seem
to be mourning
But this is not prophecy
on the massive spike the song

A spike not
a knife though one
may lead inevitably
to the other

                                                                 For one sees it in their eyes,
                                                                 their homely faces
                                                                 The girl cannot stop weeping
                                                                 and the boy in the cap
                                                                 looks up at him shaking his head
                                                                 knowing that something has gone
                                                                               terribly wrong
                                         But to what degree
                                         does one withdraw from the stage?
                                         Oppen cancels his reading tour—
                                         “woke up one night in the absolute certainty
                                         that I could not do it…
                                         cannot, cannot, perhaps particularly
                                         with the expansion of voice in Numerous
                                         I cannot make a Chatauqua of it,
                                         cannot put myself so thoroughly INTO it,
                                         like a Ginsberg.”

                                         Who appears innocuous
                                         however unleashing
                                         energies comparable
                                         to what we see
                                         on the screen

                                         Who once invited
                                         the Angels to
                                         a Dylan concert, calling
                                         them “our outlaw
                                         brothers of the

                                                                             The roiling mass
                                                                             and the naked woman
                                                                             cannot be otherwise
                                                                             than a Bacchante
                                                                             her rounded flesh lifted
                                                                             up and set back into
                                                                             the crowd by the Angels
                                                                             whose chief looks on
                                                                             at Jagger singing—
                                                                             products and producers
                                                                             of such powers

While the meditative man
confirms his failure
his victory in retreat
to “honorably keep
His distance
If he can.”

The populist caught
between the Old and New
past and present

The crowd, the “people”
organized by a vanguard
or newly individuated
always at risk
as power is unleashed

                                                                             Jagger helpless onstage:
                                                                             “If we are one
                                                                             let’s show
                                                                             we’re all one”

                                       What, what,
                                       we asked each other
                                       on the way to the museum,
                                       were they doing there?
                                       “It was necessary to park                                                                             
                                       one’s car and walk a mile.
                                       Nobody looked at my wife and me”
                                       Yet how odd they must have seemed
                                       to any of the festive youth
                                       unstoned and thoughtful
                                       there among “the irrigation
                                       canals   walking under the high-
                                       tension wires over the brown hills

                                                                       And Charlie Watts,
                                                                       backbone of the band,
                                                                       stares out in reverie,
                                                                       murmuring of the way
                                                                       the Angels cleared the path
                                                                       to the stage

                                                                       Only much later
                                                                       are we shown
                                                                       the biblical painting
                                                                       the crowd parting
                                                                       as the bikes roar through

                                                                       In the computer’s freeze-frame
                                                                       it seems like Oppen’s
                                                                       migratory vision
                                                                       “the wounds untended
                                                                       and the voices confused”
                                                                       turned to nightmare

                                                At the press conference in
                                                some uncharted space
                                                between naiveté and cynicism
                                                Jagger speaks of “a sort
                                                of microcosmic society
                                                which sets an example to
                                                the rest of America
                                                as to how one can behave
                                                in large gatherings.”

                                                 Yet for Oppen too
                                                “The Students Gather”:
                                                “I too agree
                                                We are able to live
                                                Only because some things have been said”

                                                But who would not hesitate
                                                to speak
                                                knowing all
                                                speech may be corrupted?

                                                To identify death
                                                with a kind of ecstasy
                                                so that the crowd
                                                takes over in a darkness
                                                closely akin to joy

                                                Words lost
                                                in what he knew to be
                                                an endangered, dangerous

                                                Not “the shuffling of a crowd”
                                                nor the ball game’s argument
                                                not even Williams’ crowd
                                                seen as “beautiful,” “venomous”
                                                “deadly, terrifying”

“I know, of course I know, I can enter no other place”


The space of possibility
is always limited:
the past is
because it has been
insofar as we
have been thrown
insofar as we
are fallen
insofar as we
may project ourselves

                                    Always at some point
                                    they are running
                                    from or toward
                                    the helicopters

                                                                                    The Stones and
                                                                                    their entourage
                                                                                    lifted up and away
                                                                                    from disaster

                                    Or the fall of Saigon
                                    reenacted endlessly
                                    in a musical

                                                                                    Troopers playing
                                                                                    the same old songs

Oppen feels the wind
blowing through the century
The Collected Poems arrives—
the Angel of History in a cardigan
at the end of the continent
dissolving into language

                                    And that sickening acceleration
                                    that no poem may stop

                                                                   No arbitrary freeze-frame
                                                                   neither the Maysles nor mine
                                                                   can prevent this passage

                                                                   Poised to leave
                                                                   Jagger stares out at us forever

                                                                   Let him go

                                                                   The storm kicks up
                                                                   the credits roll

                                                                   We almost expect to see them
                                                                   walking back toward the car

 A note on “Oppen at Altamont”: George and Mary Oppen attended the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont on December 6, 1969; Oppen later wrote about the experience in his sequence Some San Francisco Poems. My poem quotes from the first poem in that sequence, as well as from the poems “Of Being Numerous” and “The Students Gather,” from Oppen’s interview with David Gitin in Ironwood 5, and from his letter to Charles Tomlinson (Oct. 1969) in the Selected Letters. I also draw on images and lines of dialogue from Gimme Shelter (1970), the Maysles Brothers documentary of the Rolling Stones tour that culminated with the Altamont concert. Additionally, the poem alludes to Heidegger’s philosophy (Oppen read Heidegger closely), specifically his notion of “thrownness.” The poem first appeared in Smartish Pace 16 (April 2009).

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dennis Tedlock: Seven Poems from Alcheringa & Another from a Long Trip through Morocco

[Re-posted from a previous publication in Poems and Poetics, to mark Dennis Tedlock’s  unexpected passing earlier this year.  My admiration & debt to him – & that of so many others – is hardly in need of explanation, though the note below provides some of it. (J.R.)]

Advice Received

Don’t ask too many questions.
Don’t ask questions about religion.
Don’t take notes in front of people.
If someone is chopping wood
don’t just stand there.


- I could tell you a story.
It’s the story told to all boys when they are initiated.
Do you want me to it? -
- If you want to tell it go ahead. -
- Don’t say that.
Say you want me to tell the story.
The Hunter’s Wife

She looks out the window
the snow is falling
her husband went hunting for elk
the boy went along too
a neighbor thinks he saw them at Red Hill
she hasn’t seen the sun all day.

She was out in the woods
gathering pine nuts
and there
under a tree
was a fawn
the fawn said
- Tie me up. –


The men left her in camp for the day
a wounded buck
charged right into the fire
she hit him over the head with a frying pan.

When Only The Breath Is Left

On the third day after her grandson died
she thought she heard his
transistor radio playing
but that wasn’t even in the house
it was already
broken and buried.
On the fourth night
the door was left open for her grandson
she dreamed of masked dancers
in a row
she heard the cry of the deer
they all walked away
he was the one in the middle.

The Fire in Your Fireplace

You started it right up
with one match, it must be
your aunt loves you
it was quiet for awhile
but now
listen to that fire!
The flames go straight up
it roars!
Someone is hungry, it must be your
every time you eat
take a little bread
a little meat
throw it in the fire, say
- Great-grandparents!
Eat! -
That’s the shortest prayer there is.

While Eating Mutton

Here are the eyes
but that means weak eyes
here is the fat around the eyes
but that means getting tears in the wind
here is the tongue
but that means getting thirsty all the time
here is the brain
but that means snoring all night
here is the heart
but that means forgetfulness
here is a bone with marrow in it
but that means hangnails
now here is the meat on the palate, with this
I’ll be able to eat cactus fruit.


A spider walked across the table
he lit a match and burned it
then he said
- Bluebird!
That handsome Bluebird!
He’s the one who killed you!
Shrivel up his eyes!

A spider bit the girl
there were big red bumps down her arm
but her aunt knew the right medicine
it was the juice of the burnt Bluebird. 

Hamid’s Instructions for Travelers
as recorded by Dennis Tedlock

Give a kiss on both cheeks, then a handshake, then place your hand on your heart. If it’s someone you don’t know already, say, “Peace be with you.”

When looking left or right, do not turn your head. Shift only your eyes.

Eat out of the same dish with everyone else. Use your right hand only. If you feel it necessary, use a spoon.

Read from right to left, not left to right. Be very careful with vowels. Mispronounce a vowel and it changes everything.

When using European languages, combine them in any way that conveys your intended meaning. They are hard to tell apart anyway.

When you see the printed face of the king, look for the face of his dead father in the watermark.

The person who makes change for you will think more of you if you count it.

Put God and Satan at a great enough distance to leave room for genies. You are not required to mortgage your soul to get help. You own the genie; the genie doesn’t own you.

In the market, keep an eye out for unattended cobras. Beware of people who say they’ve seen you somewhere before. If you have a tooth pulled, know that the dentist will add it to his display. If you listen to a storyteller, know that the story will never end.

Do not ask to see more than one edition of the Book. They all say the same thing. The words in red are not quotations from the Prophet, but his name. At the airport, say you bought the Book for a believer. 

NOTE.  Dennis Tedlock’s work as one of the co-founders of contemporary ethnopoetics is internationally known & regarded as a singular achievement of twentieth & twenty-first century poetry.  By the time of our first meeting in 1970 Tedlock had already started his own pioneering work in what I soon came to call “total translation” – the still remarkable presentation in Finding the Center of spoken Zuni narrative performances as lineated compositions.  Afterwards, in the manner of true poetic innovators (& with a scholar’s skills to back that up), he created a new translation of the Mayan classic, Popol Vuh, that drew on the knowledge of contemporary Mayan speakers & his own study of Mayan language & culture.  This was followed by his translation of the ancient Mayan drama, Rabinal Achi,  & most recently his 2000 Years of Mayan Poetry has exposed for us the full range of Mayan writing from the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions to the works of later writers using the Roman alphabet.  Sometimes overshadowed by these groundbreaking works, Tedlock’s own poetry forms a continuum with them, as in these poems, informed by his years of association with the Zunis in New Mexico & first published in Alcheringa, the journal of ethnopoetics that he & I published & edited in the 1970s.  (J.R.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Coda: Eight Poems in Black, after Goya

[N.B. What began for me with 50 Caprichos after Goya & has continued with variations on “The Disasters of War” will end with this Coda, first sketched in Madrid 2007, in the shadow of his darkest, brightest works. (J.R.)]

two women watch
a man    his hand
under his cloak
or in his pants    the act
that causes one
to grin, the other
wryly looking on
as in a dream

a procession of
old whores & madams
bearing fardels
& a gallant
from a former time
lined up along the base
of a grey mountain
holy crones
& well-laced fathers
of the inquisition.

A Pilgrimage for San Isidro

who but the dead
can scream so
with their eyes rolled back
their mouths
like black holes
whom a blind man leads
strikes a guitar
& to his left
two men in black
two women in half-white
without a face

devouring his sons
whites of his eyes
as brilliant as
the red blood flowing
from the severed
blood on his hands
his penis hot
& throbbing

man fighting man
with cudgels
drawing blood
a stream of red
across his face
& sinking
ever deeper
into the mud

a poor dog
hidden in the brown
& yellow mud
that could be clouds
– the way they suffer
without sound –

The Witches Sabbath (1)

Satan as a great
goat    black
& holding court
before a ring
of men & women,
too deformed
from watching
the small figure
covered with
white shroud,
& at the edge
a young boy,
almost cut
from sight
the only
gentle soul,
whose screaming
mother hollers
at the assembled

The Witches Sabbath (2)

red more brilliant
than her eyes,
the blanket set across
her mouth,
poor doll & witch,
& yet the eyes
are turning backwards
in her head,
the one who flies with her,
a rock between
his teeth, a tongue
made stone,
the yellow wind
spiking his hair,
who has no choice
but points a finger
at a hill in space,
a city on a hill,
that vanishes.
Nothing has changed
since then,
try as we will,
nor will it please you,
friend & father,
the ragged soldiers
aiming guns,
the line of pilgrims,
barely seen,
circling the lonely fell,
the old witch
like a sibyl
arisen from your dream
ready to tell it all.
* Originally published in J.R., Concealments & Caprichos, Black Widow Press, 2008.