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Robert Zend – Part 8. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren, Glenn Gould

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Part 8. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren,
and Glenn Gould

 
                                                            Robert Zend the Nomad
                                                            gazing in like an acrobat
                                                            at the window in the sky.
                                                                      ——Robert Sward
 
          This installment will conclude the sections on Zend’s Canadian affinities. The next ones will look at some significant international collaborations, notably with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and French mime artist Marcel Marceau. I’ll also show some Italian connections, such as his interest in experimental playwright Luigi Pirandello and cynical poet Giacomo Leopardi. And I’ll demonstrate the influence on Zend of Belgian artist René Magritte as well as Japanese traditions such as haiku and origami.
          But first . . .

The Three Knights of a Roberthood:
Priest, Sward, Zend

          During the 1980s, Zend participated in a remarkable collaboration with two Canadian poets who were also fellow immigrants: Robert Sward, an American poet from Chicago who lived in Canada from 1969 to 1985, and Robert Priest, a British poet who moved to Canada. Picking up on their admiration for one another’s poetry and the fact of their identical first names, they began performing together in poetry reading tours, calling themselves “The Three Roberts.” They also published a series of poetry anthologies of their work in themed collections: Premiere Performance, On Love, and On Childhood (fig. 1).

THREE BOOKS 505

          Sward and Priest performed their poetry together at CBC radio, where they met Zend. Sward recalls that Zend’s cosmopolitan outlook drew them together and inspired them. He relates that the sense of humour and playfulness of their personalities and poetry allowed them to play off one another during their performances and to serve as muses to each other.1
          Each of the Roberts has a recognizable voice: Sward often writes from a personal and familial perspective steeped in his Jewish heritage; Priest’s poetry exhibits a zany sense of humour and the influence of popular British music such as the Beatles; and Zend explores the personal and fantastical with a cosmic vision. There is a warm accessibility to the work of the three that creates a coherence in their anthologies that, as Sward observed, placed them a bit outside the mainstream of Canadian poetry during that time.
          Below (figs. 2 and 3) are a photograph of the three looking rather like a jolly barbership trip, and a set of silhouettes created by Zend to commemorate their friendship.

THREE ROBERTS X 2 500

          One of Robert Sward’s poems in Premiere Performance captures the spirit of good humour, rapport, and mutual inspiration of the “Roberts . . . / Robertness . . . / Three Knights of a Roberthood.” The following is an excerpt:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Robert Zend phones Robert
Sward. Ring, ring.
“Robert, this is Robert.”

“Is this Robert?” “This
is Robert, Robert.” “Yes,
Robert?” I say, “This

“is Robert, too.” “Ah,
excuse me, I need
to find a match,”

says Robert Zend putting
down the telephone
and rummaging for matches . . .
. . .
Zend translates serious things
into funny things
and funny things

into serious things.
He also translates himself
into other people, and

other people into himself —
and where does one of us end
and the other begin?

And where does Zend begin
and where do I zend?
I mean, end?

And what about Robert Priest?
Is he a visible man?
An invisible man?

Or the man who broke out of the letter X?
Is he a spaceman in disguise?
A blue pyramid? A golden trumpet?

A chocolate lawnmower?
An inexhaustible flower?
Or a reader who escaped

from some interstellar library?
Rock Musician in residence
at the University of the Moon?

And meanwhile Robert Zend
looks into his mirror
and sees not Zend

But Chicago-born Uncle Dog;
Half a Life’s History;
Mr. Amnesia; Mr. Movies; Left to Right;

Mr. Transmigration of the Soul;
The poet as wanderer;
A forty-nine-year-old human violin . . .

Robert Zend the Nomad
gazing in like an acrobat
at the window in the sky.2

Their first performance, at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto in January 1984, was reviewed by Sheila Wawanash of Shades Magazine, a punk rock magazine:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

[Their] poetry reading . . . was especially fine (by which I mean fun). . . . Three voices — and quite different kinds of approaches — broke up hieratic monotonies in “poetry” “readings,” while their (rough) conjugation of themes circled round and took off. Of course, it helps that they are all worthy poets and readers and much else besides; in their concluding, separate sections/performances, Priest sang some of his songs (which survived a solo acoustic rendition) and Zend showed the slides illustrating his long and abiding obsession with “action word” doodles, some of which were remarkably funny and beautiful.3

          Although their collaboration was cut short by Zend’s untimely death in 1985, while they were together they formed a vibrant part of the Canadian poetry scene. And the sympathetic vibrations among the three during their performances and in their three anthologies is testament to their creative rapport and close friendship.

Norman McLaren: Musical Geometry

          I cannot end the installment on Canadian influences and affinities without at least a mention of Zend’s admiration for the experimental films of Norman McLaren. Zend, who had worked in film in both Hungary and Canada, was fascinated by McLaren’s artistic and sometimes abstractly geometric animated films. Zend’s Linelife, a work that I featured in Part 1, most obviously shows Zend’s interest in McLaren’s avant-garde animations. As well, Zend dedicated to McLaren “The Three Sons (a fable of geometry),” involving the progeny of “Father Circle and Mother Circle.” The admiration was mutual: McLaren called Zend “a sorcerer par excellence.”
          Zend’s experimentation with geometrical animation was brief and not sustained. However, the little gem of Linelife is one piece in the overall picture that I wish to build of Robert Zend’s openness to many different influences. Indeed, this little piece of animation bears an affinity not only with Norman McLaren, but also (as I will show in a later installment) with Marcel Marceau.
          In addition, McLaren played a role as a kind of tutelary spirit in Zend’s development of his typescapes. In his creative essay “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story,” he imagines McLaren as a guiding force, encouraging him to overcome difficulties in his struggles to “tame” the typewriter. After some trial and error, Zend becomes frustrated:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

I remember taking a coffee break. While sipping coffee and smoking my cigarette, I sulked: “Why do I have to make mistake after mistake?” Then suddenly Norman McLaren’s face leapt into my mind’s eye. I saw him bending over a “mistake” on a piece of film, with a loving smile on his face. What was this? I’d never seen Norman working with film, where did this memory come from? Then I knew. Last summer, I made a radio series consisting of 5 programs in which Norman not only spoke about his life, but every night a guest speaker talked about Norman’s art. The last of these speakers was NFB executive producer Tom Daly who gave a beautiful talk about the various worlds Norman had created in each of his animated shorts. Among other things, he said that whenever Norman made a mistake, he wasn’t angry, as people usually are, but that he contemplated the mistake and tried to take advantage of it so that many times a small mistake became the source of a great innovation.4

Zend had the epiphany that like McLaren, he could use his mistake to his advantage. He experimented by superimposing characters to create an almost infinite variety of textures, each with “a different soul” (fig. 4):

TEXTURES 7

With this revelation, inspired by McLaren’s process, he went on to produce, in a feverish and concentrated period of creative energy, scores of typescapes whose hallmark is their subtle and overlapping textures with delicate shadings.

A Glenn Gould Scherzo:
Where to Put the Zend?

          An admirer of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, Zend dedicated his poem “Symphonie Fantastique” to him; one of his doodles below (fig. 5) also pays tribute to Gould. His esteem was reciprocated: Gould called Zend “unquestionably Canada’s most musical poet.”5
          And to conclude my installment on Zend’s Canadian lineage, I’d like to quote Gould’s homage to Zend in the following humorous quandary about the resistance of Zend’s work to categorization. Zend was not quintessentially Hungarian or Canadian or any other nationality. As Gould suggests, Zend is akin to many, yet he also “stands alone.”

QUOTATION MARKS 7

If I were a gallery curator, Robert Zend would pose a problem.

          “Where do you want the stuff to hang, boss,” my assistant would ask, “in with the Mondrians, maybe?”
          “No, I don’t think so—the sense of line is similar, but there’s more sense of humour in Zend—so try wedging them between the Miros and the Klees, and better set up an exhibit of Saul Steinberg in the foyer as a teaser.”

If I were a symphony manager, the problem would be similar.

          “Out of ze question,” Maestro von Zuyderhoffer would declare. “I conduct no Zend before Bruckner, not even mit Webern to raise curtains.”
          “But, maestro, Zend takes the cosmos for a plaything, as does Bruckner, and wrings out of it an epigram, like Webern. However, I suppose we could try him on a chamber concert with early Hindemith, maybe . . .”
          “Ja, besser.”
          “. . . and then, perhaps, Kurt Weill . . .”
          “Viel besser!”
          “. . . and finish off with Satie.”
          “Nein, kein Satie. Zat vun is not knowing secondary dominants, und ze vork of Zend is full of modulation.”
          Ah, well.

But if I were a book publisher, no such problem would exist.

          Robert Zend could stand alone—his cynically witty, abrasively hedonistic, hesitantly compassionate, furtively God-seeking poems could mingle with each other, find their own program-order, and settle among themselves the question of what goes where and how much wall-space will be needed.
          Gee, what an easy life book publishers must have!6

Next Installment — Part 9.
International Affinities: Argentina (Borges)


Camille Martin

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Robert Zend – Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: bpNichol

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Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
bpNichol, The Four Horsemen,
and Jiri Ladocha

          In the last installment, I began my exploration of Robert Zend’s affinities with Canadian cultural figures, starting with Marshall McLuhan. The next two installments will discuss ways in which Zend’s work was transformed through exposure to Canada’s poets and artists. Here I’ll focus on his kinship with avant-garde poets such as bpNichol and the sound poetry group The Four Horsemen, and artist Jiri Ladocha.

Robert Zend and bpNichol

          Among Canadian poets, bpNichol produced a body of work that is most closely akin to that of Zend. Most obviously, both expand their range to include concrete poetry, typewriter art, sound poetry, and multi-genre works. In addition, both weave an intensely social poetic fabric; embrace a processual aesthetic; incorporate metapoetic gestures; exhibit playful, free-spirited qualities; and explore cosmic themes. There are fundamental differences in their work, of course, some of which I will try to address as well.

The Process Is the Message

          Ample evidence points to Zend and Nichol as writers and concrete poets concerned as much with the processual paths leading to thoughts and decisions — both conscious and subconscious — that become a part of the reader’s experience, as they are with the published product. Fortunately, neither was averse to discussing the process and evolution of their work. In Nichol’s case, we have Meanwhile, a generous selection of essays and interviews edited by Roy Miki. And of course the multi-volume The Martyrology itself, which Nichol describes as a “poetic journal,” is a testament to his interest in exploring process. In Zend’s case, works like “The Key” (a story told in footnotes, arising from a collaboration with Borges) and “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story” (a multi-genre essay recounting the evolution of Zend’s typewriter art) demonstrate such an approach. As well, an examination of the documents in the myriad boxes of the Zend fonds allows the researcher to traces interconnecting strands among works and to understand Zend as a writer and artist fascinated with journey as much as destination.
          In an interview with Pierre Coupey and others, Nichol addresses what writers sometimes call “writing on the mind,” or as Nichol explains it, writing that “reflect[s] accurately the processes of the way the mind works”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

I keep going back to this, of how consciousness works. Like in The Martyrology, I would bring in names very briefly, or characters very briefly or faces very briefly. Because it felt to me like that was the way you encountered people in real life. You’re walking down the street, you’re feeling things all the time, you see somebody you meet very casually, you know their name. You might never meet them again, but for that moment they’re there, and that’s all you know about them. Whang — they’re gone. So I let all that stuff into the poem, I let in a bunch of maudlin things because it felt to me that it was all part of the process of moving through something. All those things actually collide with your consciousness, so I left them in. But it makes for a very strange poem.1

In the following example of such “strangeness” from The Martyrology, Nichol writes of spending an evening with poet friends:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

                an evening spent with friends —
                bissett, Arlene Lampert, Janine & Robert Zend
                — that list enters the writing again
                like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
                the details of my life dragged into the poem
                in part at least
                immaterial as the leaf
                as any life
                as the fleeting impressions of this cold October night
car slam2

Nichol moves freely and conversationally between naming friends and more metaphysical musings (“immaterial as the leaf / as any life”). He then jolts the reader into consciousness of the materiality of both life and writing with the auditory reality of a “car slam.” This passage also displays Nichol’s famous self-reflexivity, bringing into the writing the act of writing itself (“that list enters the writing again . . . the details of my life dragged into the poem”). The result is a linguistic texture of a life lived, suffused with an awareness of being in the moment, observing details as they happen and jotting them down for later reflecting and shaping (he was not at all averse to revision).
          Zend also embraced a processual aesthetic, and tells of enjoying drafts and sketches as well as the completed work:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Picasso . . . published a huge book containing his sketches for Guernica. For me, turning the pages of this book is [as] interesting and enjoyable as looking at the finished mural itself.3

He was also acutely aware of the ever more reticulated network of cognitive associations over time that lead his work in different directions. His description of the evolution of his typescapes demonstrates that although his brief but remarkably intense period of creation of this typewriter art may seem to have been “spur of the moment,”

QUOTATION MARKS 7

the moment on the spur was, in fact, the final eruption of hidden forces boiling and whirling for years under the surface.4

          For Zend, eastern spiritual traditions wisely de-emphasize originary creation:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Artistic creation is often compared to divine creation, but the mystery of the beginning (the tale that God created everything out of nothing and will annihilate everything at the end) is a special note in our Judeo-Christian tradition. According to other — more Eastern, or more ancient, and, perhaps more sensible — traditions, the thing called Nothing doesn’t really exist except in the human mind as a concept; consequently they speak about world ages separated by global catastrophes in which the death of a past age coincides with the birth of a coming age. Thus the concept of creation in the beginning and the end of the world is replaced by that of eternal change.5

          In his customary highly visual style, Zend observes the continual fluctuation between process and product in the evolution of his typescapes, in which

QUOTATION MARKS 7

I had succeeded not only in expressing my entangled subconscious
PROCESS 1 115 W
in “finished” type scapes
PROCESS 2 140 W
but I also had kept a clear account of the mysterious “process” of creation
PROCESS 3 210 W
so that one day I could write it down with the most acute clarity, so that it would be just another finished product.
PROCESS 4 235 W6

The triumph of that account, however, is tempered when he describes an inscrutable encounter with his six-year-old daughter and understands that the product is never finished but continues to produce still more threads in the “entangled subconscious”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

PROCESS 5 270 W7

Thus Zend believes that there is never true poetic or artistic completion, but instead an ongoing process of associations between creation and quotidian existence, an attitude shared by Nichol, especially, as we’ve already seen, in The Martyrology.
          While Nichol usually references postmodern linguistic and critical theory to make his point, Zend more typically refers to ideas from world religion and mythology. Although their theoretical approaches diverge, nonetheless they are both swimming in the same avant-garde waters, radically questioning habits and traditions of thought and writing.
          Another difference is that whereas Nichol found in the poetic journal “a logical model upon which to build formally” in The Martyrology, Zend found in dreams the ideal cognitive model for his fractured and shape-shifting narratives of Daymares and some of his poems. For Nichol,

QUOTATION MARKS 7

the journal is almost always present as an element in the continuous poem. Its partialness, incompleteness, serialness and, yes, processualness, make it a logical model upon which to build formally. Certainly, in my own work, its use of intimate detail, of private reference & temporally tied specificity, has worked as a formal framework for The Martyrology and for part of what The Martyrology attempts—the building of a life work in which the building of a life is also reflected.8

On the other hand, dreams-worlds and the journeys and digressions of the conscious (and subconscious) mind provided Zend with a model for exploring the strange world in which a mysterious darkness reigns, whose law is

QUOTATION MARKS 7

falling-apartness instead of coherent concentration; obscurity instead of distinctness; spaciousness instead of linearity; dispersion, instead of fusion; overlapping, instead of separateness; indefinity, instead of expictness; womb-like roundness, instead of erect angularity.9

Each chose a different paradigm — Nichol the journal and Zend the dream — but their explorations of the mysterious movements of consciousness as multi-layered and meandering are on parallel (if non-linear) tracks.

Parties and Gossip

          Another point of convergence between the poetry of Zend and Nichol is that it is often intensely social, as the above passage by Nichol remembering a party with friends demonstrates. For Nichol, such naming was part of bringing lived experience into the process of writing, as in a journal. He also stresses that “one of my intents in naming, on a first name basis, people encountered in the course of the text [is] to recreate that . . . parallel emotional experience . . . as part of the reading experience.” Mentioning proper names is “part of the gesture of story-telling,” to “locate the narrative in a moment of reality. That was their entire function.” Using proper names is also

QUOTATION MARKS 7

a deliberate confrontational device, an attack, if you like, on naïve notions of biographical and psychological criticism, since “David” is many Davids and the “I” is more than a biographical gesture.10

          In a similar way, Zend’s poetry is often laced with social interactions — autobiographical or semi-autobiographical — as in a poem in which he and twenty-five co-workers (“at the dreadful place where the supervisors / imagine themselves prison guards”) construct a fantasy room complete with carpet, bookshelves, flowers, and a record player, where partying and love-making help them to escape the soul-numbing workday.11
          One of his most striking “naming” poems is “Prelude and Fugue,” which involves a complex web of gossip surrounding a poem of Zend’s. Here are the first two stanzas:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

I wrote a poem to A(mbrosios),
I read it to B(elinda),
Then gave it to A(mbrosios)
Who showed it to C(ameleon)
Who mentioned it to D(olores).

I didn’t really like what I’d written about A(mbrosios),
But B(elinda) wept when I read it aloud),
That’s why I gave it to A(mbrosios) because B(elinda) wept.
C(ameleon) liked the content but didn’t like the form
and told this to D(olores) who didn’t read my poem at all. 12

Despite the alphabetic naming, which tends to generalize persons almost to the point of anonymity (or at least fictiveness), I view such instances in Zend more as an apparatus of story-telling than a postmodern attack on notions of individual biography. Nonetheless, it’s clear that both he and Nichol share, along with many other poets of their time such as New York poets Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, a desire to incorporate interactions with their network of friends into their poetry, bringing elements of the personal, narrative, and lived experience into the texture of the poems.
          Zend brought a social dimension to his concrete poetry as well, especially in a series of “portraits” in hand-written Hungarian, as in “Vera” (fig. 1). I can’t comment on the Hungarian but only admire the ingenuity of the shapes and guess as to the kinds of characteristics they suggest.

VERA 300 W

Meta

          The excerpt from Nichol’s Martyrology above includes a metapoetic gesture in his incorporation of the process of writing into the poem:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

                — that list enters the writing again
                like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
                the details of my life dragged into the poem
                in part at least13

Another example from The Martyrology shows Nichol addressing writing to a different effect, that is, not self-reflexively to announce the incorporation of lived details into the poem, but to meditate on such non-transparent use of language:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

this is a voice speaking
reflecting in reflection

metaphorically the page is a window

it’s not

i try writing on the glass &
the ink won’t hold
ideas
the mind won’t hold
writing i try in the dream &

this is a pen moving on paper

metaphorically this is a pen moving on paper

gesture

memory trace

place to place &
a poem because of it
part of poem this time
not always the case14

Nichol’s metapoetic “reflecting in reflection” arises from the desire to critique assumptions about the transparency of signification: the transparency of glass, the window-on-the-world that is text assuming its role in transparently conveying meaning. Such transparency will not absorb ink, will not draw attention to itself as a writing surface to bring into awareness its own material presence; nor will it allow language to reveal its own incompleteness and semantic slipperiness. As Nichol says in ABC: The Aleph Beth Book,

QUOTATION MARKS 7

WE HAVE PLACED THE POEM BEYOND OURSELVES BY PUTTING ARTIFICIAL BOUNDARIES BETWEEN OURSELVES & THE POEM. WE MUST PUT THE POEM IN OUR LIVES BY FREEING IT FROM THE NECESSITY TO BE. . . . THE POEM WILL LIVE AGAIN WHEN WE ACCEPT FINALLY THE FACT OF THE POEM’S DEATH.15

For Nichol, the autonomous poem, oblivious to itself as created artifact, constitutes an artificial separation of poem and poet, whereas the “artifice” of self-reflection liberates and breathes life into the poem.
          Zend’s poems also often describe the act of writing, as in the following short poem, which opens his first book, From Zero to One:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Pencil
Someone writes with me
his fingers clutch my waist
he holds me tight leads me on
holds me tight again

The poem done he drops me
I feel diminished
and with surprise I read
the part of me he wore away16

Here, Zend’s metapoetry functions differently from Nichol’s. Whereas Nichol critiques language as a transparent conveyor of signification and incorporates the act of writing into the poetry, Zend dramatizes the illusion of the writing subject as autonomous, intentional author, by imagining the poet taking the role of the writing implement, and some other force wielding him to write the poem. In this respect, Zend’s metapoetics seems more related to Spicer’s notion of the poet not as a consciously created self with an autonomous voice, but instead a conduit for language channeled from some other source.
          Zend’s most significant metapoetic exploration, of course, is Oāb, in which each character in turn writes into existence his own two-dimensional child, who then attempts to stretch beyond the limitations of his world of ink on paper. We can see a similar kind of metanarrative at work as in the short poem above: the otherness of the writing subject, unaware (at least in the beginning) that he may be being written by another.
          In the excerpt below from Oāb, Zėnd (a semi-autobiographical character in Zend’s creation myth — note the diacritical mark on the name — contemplates the constraints of the world of his son, Oāb, compared to his own more expansive perspective:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

His cosmos is one of my galaxies
his galaxy is one of my planets
his planet is one of my poems
he lives alone on it17

But Oāb, the filial creation of Zėnd, wonders what lies outside those limits:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

What is beyond the four
edges of this paper?
Another paper? And beyond that?
Another and another and another?
How many sheets of paper
lie beside each other?
How many sheets of paper
are contained in what?
And what lies after
the last one, on the other edge?18

If on one level Oāb is Zėnd’s textual progeny, then the perceived limitation of the paper’s range signals the circumscription of authorial perspective as well as that of the signification of the created text. Oāb’s yearning to expand his world and become more autonomous alarms Zėnd (again, the character), who in his hubris would like to think he possesses and controls his writing.
          Oāb and The Martyrology both contain so many metapoetic passages that one can practically point on a random page and find such reflexive gestures — indeed, self-reflexivity is part of the fabric of each work: writing that self-consciously creates worlds as it proceeds, commenting along the way on that act of creation.
          bpNichol’s self-referentiality in The Martyrology occurs within the personal and meditative framework of journal writing, traditionally a genre in which the writer meditates on events, but not usually the event of writing itself. Nichol continually shatters the mimetic illusion in a convergence of writing and life, and a blending of poetry and critical theory.
          Zend’s fundamentally metanarrative premise in Oāb, on the other hand, arises more from his dramatic playing out of authorial creation and intention. The multi-layered drama of Oāb also alludes to other contexts of creation: biblical and generational. Although the name “Zėnd” suggests a semi-autobiographical character (as do many of Zend’s poems and stories), the work as a whole has a mythic or allegorical quality, and the reflexivity of Oāb serves to explore questions of authorial desire and illusion within that framework.
          Of course, metapoetry and metanarrative were very common during that period of concentrated experimentation in poetry and fiction (not to menton their occurences throughout the history of literature). Nonetheless, I find it instructive to compare the self-reflexivity of these major multi-genre works by Zend and Nichol — contemporaries who lived in the same city and who were certainly aware of each other’s work, even if they were not close friends — for their differences in approach as much as for their similarities.

Typewriter Art

          During the 1960s, Nichol began experimenting with typewriter art and concrete poetry. In the end, he produced more handwritten concrete poetry than typewriter art. Zend, on the other hand, produced about as much concrete poetry as typewriter art, the latter during an extremely concentrated period of feverish creation. It’s interesting to recount Nichol’s and Zend’s stories of coming to their visual work without much influence from predecessors, as well as to note the many points of similarity in their work in each genre.
          Nichol relates that he came to concrete poetry and typewriter art with few examples and no clear idea of the history of such work. In the early 60s, he was studying the Dadaists and the visual poetry of Kenneth Patchen. Addressing this relative isolation, he states that

QUOTATION MARKS 7

There were hardly any examples; I had nothing that I could actually look at. The whole problem with what is known as “avant-garde” literature in the 20th century . . . is that it’s like we’re dealing with amnesia; we’ve got this repressed tradition so that . . . when you start writing this way, you end up regurgitating a lot of what’s already been done because you can’t get your hands on the stuff. So you literally have to make your own way. In a way I made my own way, so that when I look at some stuff I can say, as some reviewers have said, “Hey that was done in Berlin in 1921”; I look at it and say “Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921.”19

NONOSISI          Similarly, Zend tells that he came to typewriter art with no knowledge of precedents. By 1978, he had already produced a body of work in the category of concrete poetry, and was approached by John Jessop to contribute to the International Anthology of Concrete Poetry he was editing. Jessop selected forty, some of which needed to be re-typed or translated from the Hungarian original.
          Zend, famously a procrastinator, didn’t complete the work on time but instead began to create new concrete poetry. At first, he typed lines of repeated words onto paper, cut them into shapes, and glued them onto paper on which he had typed another word repeated in lines — see fig. 2 for this kind of early experiment with the yin and yand symbols. Then he had an idea:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

I could get rid of the glue by using a sheet of paper as a “negative” and placing it on another sheet, the “positive.” I typed across the holes of the negative onto the positive.20

He found that this method “gave a much more 3-dimensional look . . . than the former glued version.”
          He then discovered the range of textures he could create by superimposing various typed characters. Through a series of trial and error, he finally succeeded in creating polished and complex works. Fig. 3 shows the process from sketch to finished typescape, which looks rather abstract but is actually a “stylized representation of the almost invisible fine lines on the silvery crust of a sea shell”:

KURDALMION PROCESS

My low-resolution reproduction does not convey a faithful sense of the delicacy of the textures, so I’ve cropped a portion of the finished typescape to show a detail (fig. 4):

KURDALMIION DETAIL

The differing weights of the question marks forming the overlaid shape suggest that he varied the pressure applied to certain typed characters to give the effect of shading.
          Nichol relates that his typewriter art evolved from visual and verbal puns, such as the following minimalist poem:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

warbled
WARbled
warBLED
warbled21

Nichol dubbed “warbled” and other more visually complex poems such as “ASEA” (fig. 5) his “ideo-pomes.”

ASEA 250

          At a certain point, Nichol decided not to continue with typewriter art, preferring to draw his concrete poetry by hand, citing the

QUOTATION MARKS 7

more direct connection with the body—I’m actually shaping the individual letters with my hand . . . . The form is moving into my body—it’s moving into my own musculature—it’s like an intimate involvement with the architecture of the single letter.22

          However, some of the work that he did produce in this genre shows him and Zend thinking in a similar vein about overlapping forms, as a comparison of Nichol’s “precarious poem” and Zend’s Peapoteacock reveals (figs. 6 and 7).

PRECARIOUS + PEAPOTEACOCK

          A key difference in their typewriter art is that while Nichol brings linguistic and conceptual play to the fore, Zend emphasizes the aesthetic and symbolic, using typed characters to create varied and delicate textures that form emblematic images, as in Uriburus; or that create visual or verbal puns, as in Peapoteacock, a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock; and Sexerpentormentor, an image of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Nichol’s typewriter poems most often must be read to be appreciated; their typed shapes add to the plurality of meanings that arise from the fragmentation and recombination of letters and words.

Concrete Poetry

DRAGONFLY 380 W

          As early as 1963, Zend was beginning to experiment with spacial configuration in his poetry, adding visual movement complementing the meaning, as in “Dragonfly” (fig. 8). bpNichol also produced a number of such poems that take the shape (or suggest the movement) of an object or experience, as in “sunthrutreespassing” (fig. 9).

SUNTHRUTREES 500 W

Nichol created a number of such concrete poems in which the letters and words more or less mimetically reproduce some feature of the object they spell out. Zend created (quite literally) hundreds of them to illustrate the play-learning of Oāb and Ïrdu in Oāb.
          As we have seen above, Zend also created a series of portraits as concrete poems, sometimes drawing the small letters to form lines and shapes, as in “Erzsi” (fig. 10), and sometimes typing them, as in “Judith” (fig. 11) (see also “Vera,” fig. 1).

ERZSI 500 W

JUDITH 500 W

In most of these concrete poems, the words and letters are as important as the shapes in contributing to the effectiveness of the portrayal.
          In such portraits, Zend’s concrete poetry has a social component, whereas most of Nichol’s work in this genre tends to be (as far as I can tell) almost exclusively metapoetic, conceptual or representational. Zend’s concrete poetry that he created as a result of his friendship with mime artist Marcel Marceau, as well as that which created under the influence of Japanese traditions, will be explored in later installations on international influences and affinities.
          Zend’s most prolific and sustained contribution to concrete poetry is contained within the two volumes of Oāb. Until this work, most of his concrete poetry is mimetic on some level — imitative of a person or thing, or else creating textures for a more or less representational work. In Oāb, however, the concrete poetry is interwoven with the dramatic metanarrative.
BPNICHOL 2 250          Both Zend and Nichol delighted in alphabet games, including the creation of artificial alphabets and strange fonts. Zend’s playful use of the alphabet in the visual poetry of Oāb is related to Nichol’s concrete poetry experimentations using the letters of the alphabet, giving sculptural materiality and playful drama to the irreducible components of language. Fig. 12 is an example of Nichol using comic-book-like frames, riffing on the letter “A.” Fig. 13 shows images from three pages in Oāb, in which names and letters personify the characters they represent, playing out various dramas in Zend’s myth of authorial creation—sometimes also using comic-book frames for the parade of Oāb and Ïrdu’s games.

OAB 3 4 6 250

          Zend also shared bp Nichol’s interest in the calendar, specifically with the naming of months, in his concrete poem “The Months of the Super Year” (fig. 14), which is part of a “super-calendar” for humans to track time if we ever populate a “super-universe”:

MONTHS WORK

A comparison of this work with Nichol’s “Calendar” (fig. 15) shows a similar structure but a different kind of fragmentation in the names of months:

CALENDAR NICHOL 505

While there is no evidence of mutual influence in Zend’s and Nichol’s rendering of the calendar months, it is worth noting that both were experimenting with language in related ways, taking apart the names of the months and arranging them in such a way as to reveal something about the nature of mutability and expanded temporality. Where Nichol’s approach to the months is fragmentary, Zend’s is recombinatoric.

Sound Poetry

ZENDOCHALAND CREATION OF WORLD 270          Another dimension to Zend’s multi-genre explorations is his sound poetry. In addition to composing and performing his own, sometimes in collaboration with others, Zend also performed on at least one occasion, according to Janine Zend, with The Four Horsemen, the sound poetry group to which bpNichol belonged along with Steve McCaffery, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Paul Dutton.23
        Zend was no doubt influenced by the explosion of Canadian sound poetry during the 1960s and 1970s in his unfinished manuscript of sound poems from 1979, Zendocha-land (fig. 16), which was to be collaborative effort with Czech-Canadian artist Jiri Ladocha. He proposed to Ladocha twelve to sixteen “poem-paintings” to be presented in a dynamic relationship with the art. Fig. 16 shows a draft for the sound poem in that collection about “the creation of the world,” which arises “from nothing: H / from breath / H / ether becomes air becomes water becomes solid ever denser / new vowels are born / new consonants are born” and new “combinations develop.” The trajectory of the sound poem follows that of creation and destruction: “Life appears on the back of cold rock planets . . . but when the creation reaches its peak / the end begins / the machine runs down” and all is once more nothing, “where it started / long ago.”

Splitting Words

          Nichol and Zend are kindred poets in their linguistic playfulness; both delighted in creating puns and fragmenting words into phonemes and letters. Nichol shares his love of wordplay with Zend, whose puns extend to his typescapes. For example, Zend’s Peapoteacock (see fig. 7 above), a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock to form a visual and verbal pun, shows a playful punning that is similar to the Nichol’s delight in verbal inventiveness, as in his most well-known minimalist poem, “Catching Frogs”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

jar din24

The following is a more extended example of word fragmentation, from Nichol’s The Martyrology Book 5:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

each street branches in the mind
puns break
                    words fall apart
a shell
sure as hell’s
ash ell
when i let the letters shift sur face
is just a place on which images drift25

Compare this with an excerpt from Zend’s “Ars Poetica”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

There are poets who insist
that poems can only be written
about glbvx
in the style of iuiu

I think everything
repeat everything
eve and ryth and ing
also yreve and gniht
evth and ryng and tyrev too
can be poetry26

Steve McCaffery points out in an interview with Nichol that

QUOTATION MARKS 7

In your playful destruction and reassemblage of words, the subject and its relation to meaning become a prime issue. If a reader can get beyond a distanced appreciation of (or irritation at) the display of wit in these pun productions, then a radically different subject emerges and one not predicated upon the orthodox logic of the sign. A subject deprived of unity and circulating as a textual effect among the verbal fission and the shattered syntax of the language.27

McCaffery’s observations about fracturing in relation to both poem and reader also relates to Zend. In their word-splitting, both poets are expanding the possibilities of language, and the string of fragmented words and recombined letters seems to unmoor words from their meanings so that when “the letters shift,” “sur face / is just a place on which im ages drift.” Depth of meaning (and thus the mimetic effect of language in which poems must be “about”) is transformed to a surface of drifting images, and this “too / can be poetry.” A different kind of reading is involved, one in which expectations of linearity and completion must be relinquished to appreciate the text. Such language does not merely fade into the background while a more or less straightforward signification plays out on a stage, but comes to the fore, compelling the reader to contemplate the materiality of language and to reflect on the slipperiness of its signification.

Inner Child

          Northrop Frye wrote that “Robert Zend never forgot that every creative act was first and foremost an act of free play.”28 Both Nichol and Zend have been described as taking a childlike delight in their manipulations of language and visual poetry. In a poem from about 1979, Zend writes admiringly of his seven-year-old daughter Natalie at play, and expresses the desire to “change the Earth into a gigantic playground / instead of the battlefield that it was made into / by our common enemies, the grownups.”29 Zend, who as a young man had written and published for children in Hungary, must have felt an affinity for the playful spirit of experimentation in the work of avant-garde Canadian poets such as Nichol, and in his adopted language he was constantly experimenting with wordplay and puns, as in a series entitled “Silly Rhymes,” perhaps created to amuse his daughter Natalie:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Winnipeg

When you come to Winnipeg,
I’ll show you my guinea-pig.

Fly!

Butterfly!
I will catch you!
Better fly!30

Perhaps some day Zend’s early and popular publications for children written in Hungary under his pen name, “Peeker,” will come to light. Such verses above likely came naturally to him as he explored and delighted in the possibilities of English. Nichol also wrote for children, including the beautifully illustrated On the Merry-Go-Round; an excerpt from the title poem is reproduced below (fig. 17):

MERRY GO ROUND POEM

Cosmic Scale

          Lastly, Nichol’s and Zend’s poetry shares a preoccupation with cosmic themes and images, which often play out dramas of infinity and cyclical processes of life and death. Zend’s concrete poem “Scope” (fig. 18) is a thought experiment illustrating the interplay between micro- and macrocosmic scales, in which the the pupil of the human eye serves as an image of both the tiny and the vast:

MACRO MICRO 2 550 BLUE

In a similar way, the following poem by Nichol from The Martyrology imagines a dizzying and continually broadening span of time and space in relation to human lives, which “flare briefly” and vanish:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

here on the galaxy’s edge we live out our lives in ignorance

the distance to the dawn bridge grows infinitesimally longer
our lifetimes flare briefly and are gone

highways stretch from the big bang outward
cycle back to our beginning31

Comparing Nichol’s excerpt with the one below by Zend, from a poem entitled from “More and More,” it’s clear that they were both fascinated by space and time on a cosmic scale:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Hasn’t the universe been exploding long enough?
No, not long enough. More.
Death. And what can follow death? More.
Should we buy a second house? More.
After our world tour, should we travel again? More.
When this poem is finished, should I write another? More.
The sun orders us: More. From the core of the galaxy of galaxies
a telegram comes to ours
which is forwarded down to earth
and when we read it, it says: More.32

The excerpt by Nichol relates cyclical processes on a grand scale to those on a human scale, whereas the excerpt by Zend relates the two to offer a compelling vision of infinity to the point of ennui, accompanied by the relentless refrain “More.”

In the Air

        A case could be made for Zend’s kinship with other contemporaneous Canadian poets who were experimenting linguistically and visually with the aesthetic approaches mentioned above. After all, bpNichol was not the only Canadian poet exploring typewriter and other concrete poetry and performing sound poetry; as Janine Zend points out, such things were “in the air” during the sixties and seventies. Zend befriended many Canadian poets, attended their readings, collected their books, and dedicated poems to them. Focusing the above comparison on bpNichol shows many points of convergence, and extrapolated to a wider community within Canada would reveal a matrix of themes and processes that Zend was aware of and drew upon for inspiration in his own work.

Next Installment — Part 8.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren,
and Glenn Gould


Camille Martin

Charles Borkhuis: “Write What I Say”

The following is a close reading of Borkhuis’ poem “Write What I Say.” The complete poem is included in the stanza-by-stanza analysis below, but the uninterrupted text of the poem can be found in the previous post. I open my analysis with the prefatory remarks from the previous post for the sake of continuity.

          The title of Borkhuis’ poem is ironic: the poem offers many images of excess, of the overdetermination of signs, symbols, utterances, so that writing down what a person says is no more guarantee of pinning down its intended meaning than eavesdropping on the mumbling of an absent god through thick walls.
          A less ironic version of the poem’s title might be, “Write what you think I say when I say what I think I’m thinking.” Which is to say that as soon as I start to tease out meaning from the poem, I feel caught up in a catch-22: the poem sings the superfluity of tracing its outlines with my own signifiers. It invokes shadows, drowning, hovering, weedy waters, and above all, the superfluous action or situation that overflows its context (or inversely, invented contexts that overdetermine an event). That which exceeds its bounds metaphorically stands in for linguistic excess, the signified that overdetermines origin, context, intent.
          It’s tempting to say that in this poem Borkhuis captures the essence of poetic language, but of course his poetry does not celebrate essences but rather the infinite splaying of experience in which the words that name it abandon us in a wilderness whose colours language can paint only in wisps, elusive brushstrokes, evocative traces. And in the process of interpretation, I become acutely aware of other meanings lurking behind the ones I choose in order to create my stories, my opera, of the poem.
          The work strikes me as an example of the metapoetics in language poetry that echoed deconstructionist thinking; it brings to my mind Derrida’s “Signature, Event, Context” in Limited, Inc. Has this approach to poetry really fallen in popularity (if I can use such a word to describe a tendency in experimental poetry) in recent years, perhaps following Derrida’s somewhat fallen stock? Is the gesture of pulling the rug from under signification taken for granted and somehow absorbed into political and social critique? My question is vague and problematic, but who these days, among the younger generation of poets, is writing more or less explicitly about writing, speech, words, language, la rupture?
          For now, though, my aim is to explore how Borkhuis richly engages such concepts.


                    Write What I Say

                    write what I say


          The parroting of the title in the first line suggests from the start the idea of excess, redundancy, yet the first line differs from the title: set in italics, it signals a quote. This contextual slippage implies that even if the speaker’s command were obeyed and his words written down, the context will not necessarily follow along with an intended signification—the words might be carved in stone, but their meanings are from the start far less ossified than the cliché would suggest. The amenuensis writes the words of the speaker, but the words have already abandoned the speaker.
          Derrida’s idea of “a written sign carr[ying] with it a force of breaking with its context” is relevant. As I mentioned above, a less ironic (and more cognitively and linguistically lifelike) imperative might be “write what you think I say when I say what I think I’m thinking.”


                    said someone face over
                    water in the weeds


          Here’s context for the quote, but the words, situation and speaker (“someone”) remain uncertain. Moreover, the speaker’s words are aimed not at an interlocutor but (perhaps just as futilely) at weedy water, an image that conveys indeterminateness.

                    drown the instant in ink
                    flickering eyelight to eros
                    walk your shadow across the wall


          The above three lines, continuing the speaker’s imperative mode with a touch of irony, suggest the impossibility of constraining experience in inky symbols—or, to put it the other way around, writing as death (recall Derrida’s association of Thoth with writing in “Plato’s Pharmacy.”) But if the signifier would drown the occasion of its inscription, in other words, conscribe its own horizons of signification, the writer’s gazing at eros embraces the excess, the overkill, of the signified.
          These lines trigger a series of images of excess or futility, as in attributing independent agency to a shadow.


                    a small red ball hangs from a string

          Here’s a lovely image of precision: a single thing with definite and simple properties, a discrete little entity in the midst of a less precise or certain world. There’s a futility in the image as well: the little red ball cannot do what little red balls do best: bounce. Instead, it dangles from a thread, suspended in mid-air.
          At this point I pause as I become aware that I’m attempting to weave a basket (a coherent whole) out of the poem in which to place my interpretation, to dovetail the poem to suit my own exegesis of it. And this realization makes me more acutely aware of Borhius’ theme about writing and death. The end of the poem gives insight into the speaker and context: the sole survivor of an airplane crash apparently tries to describe the experience to an interviewer. His fear of being misunderstood prompts him to command (in a gesture of futility) the interviewer to write exactly what he says.
          By the same token, I see in front of me exactly what Borkhius wrote in the poem, yet because of its disjunctiveness, I become aware of the extent to which I am giving the poem significance. Borkhuis doesn’t give many stepping stones, so a reader must become something of an acrobat, or to continue Borkhuis’ theme, embrace the text as a living process, coterminous with life and death, something that does not reproduce experience faithfully (offering it a kind of immortality) but doubts itself at every turn.


                    the naked woman in the window
                    steps behind the curtain


          . . . thus preventing the viewer from gazing at her nudity. Eros thwarted, vanquished, erased. The presumed object of desire is removed. The remaining desire is excess, superfluity. I wouldn’t exactly say writing (or poetic language) as sublimation of that desire; I think Borkhuis is getting at the idea of absence at the heart of writing.

                    “I’ve been running in place all my life”
                    sneers a fat man on tv


          Perhaps the man is on an exercise show, instructed to run in place, and he puns on the futility of his life as well as the futility of his running in place—he’s still obese. These two lines are rich in their suggestions of excess and futility.
          I realize that not everyone will invent the same context for the speaker’s words, but what I find interesting is the way in which the words hover on the brink of intelligible context and invite the invention of a contextual narrative.


                    an empty train pulls into the station
                    enter with the others and stare
                    at the smudged glass

                    write what I say


          Borkhius invites us to enter a train and “stare / at the smudged glass,” becoming one of many alienated from one another, leaving their bodily traces as smudges on glass. It is a train of the living dead. And when a mass murderer springs into action, the killing in a sense seems superfluous, as does his apology just before he shoots.

                    flesh-dwelling memories
                    caught in a lover’s mandibles
                    or carved
                    into a bird-lit tree stump

                    languorously finger-writing
                    her name on the window
                    while we circle the runway

                    down we go


          I’m struck by the musicality of the language here. The images are strikingly visual, and the rhythm of the language seems to be orchestrating its meaning.
          These images as well speak to futility (“circling the runway”) and violence or death (“mandibles,” “carved”), and not insignificantly, Borkhuis links these images to writing. The carving of a lover’s name onto a tree trunk will not invoke the lover any more than the memories trapped (possessively, violently) in a vise grip of insect-like mandibles; however, the mandibles threaten also to kill, to erase, those mental representations of the beloved (like the naked woman moving behind a curtain).
          In addition, “down we go” foreshadows the plane crash (violence and death) following the signature event.


                    scribbling on the underside
                    of night (the little hairs
                    that go unnoticed)

                    the recitular residue
                    of dead skin and ash
                    stains at the bottom of the cup
                    talk in riddles
                    dream in code


          More images of illusiveness, traces, extinction, mystery, insubstantiality, superfluity, linked with writing. Poetic language might be described as “[s]cribbling on the underside / of night” that recuperates the endangered traces of what goes unnoticed (“the little hairs”).
        And in an image reminiscent of a tea-leaf reading, the networked stains at the bottom of a cup are, surprisingly, composed not of tea leaves but of “dead skin and ash.” These stains speak in riddles and code that must be deciphered (a trope for reading and giving meaning to a text). The stains do not contain inherent prognostications (meaning); they are only symbols that flourish within a reader’s experience and perception, with all of the ephermerality suggested by those realms.


                    awaken
                    with the outward manifestations
                    of a displaced metaphor
                    poised at the eye

                    a photo of the last of her
                    sitting at the fountain
                    the relaxed angle of her arm
                    on cold stone


          I’m again interested in the musicality of the language here, especially in the stanza describing the photo of a woman. But to dive into the significance of the images, they both have to do with representation: “the displaced metaphor” and the photo. The latter is associated with death (“cold stone”): language has once again killed its subject; she seems to be leaning on her own tombstone.
         In the former stanza, the signifier also subsumes its referent, the object described as “the outward manifestation / of a displaced metaphor.” Far from capturing its object, the language only serves to refer to itself (the “displaced metaphor”) describing the object, thus in effect replacing the object.
          As the publisher’s description on the jacket eloquently states, “Borkhuis’ own term for the direction that his work has taken is the ‘critical-lyric,’ which argues that the unpredictable disruptions of the body are in excess of any attempt to contain them in a linguistic system or theory, yet these nameless forces of dynamic ‘otherness’ leave traces in the swirling grains of language through which poetry attempts to speak.”


                    write what I say

                    emptiness folds into itself
                    giving birth


          The latter two lines nicely describe poetic language without trying to pin it down, in contrast to “write what I say.”

                    (parentheses vibrating)

                    a man’s exhausted
                    habit-swollen face
                    on a stalled train of thought
                    our eyes lock and load

                    lock and load


          Borkhuis’ language is finely-honed and evocative. Traces of dynamic forces in swirling grains of language, indeed.
          The man’s “habit-swollen face” recalls the “flesh-dwelling memories” of the beloved. In the case of the latter, the thought of the beloved arouses desire, which grips the memories in its “mandibles,” threatening to devour them. As to the latter, the man’s actions and perhaps also thoughts are determined by habit, iteration. But here his habitual “train of thought” stalls. The common thread between the two images, it seems to me, is the threatened failure of thought and memory to capture en event. Note, by the way, that Derrida is concerned with rupture “not only for all orders of ‘signs’ and for languages in general but moreover, beyond semio-linguistic communication, for the entire field of what philosophy would call experience, that is, the experience of Being, so-called presence.”
          As in other images in the poem, that of the man’s aborted thought reveals Borkhuis’ concern with absence, abandonment. The habitual trajectory of thought stalls, leaving the man stranded. The thought’s origin is perhaps forgotten, unmoored from the impetus that triggered it, and its destination seems unreachable. Habit, iteration, in thought and language, fails because it is from the outset unmoored, absent to the thinking and writing subject.


                    where the words lead and then
                    abandon us . . .


          Absence and abandonment are important linked concepts in Derrida’s thought. For example, in “Signature, Event, Context,” Derrida notes that in the act of writing, “the sender, the addressor” is absent “from the marks that he abandons, which are cut off from him and continue to produce effects beyond his presence and beyond the present actuality of his meaning, that is, beyond his life itself.” And many images in Borkhuis’ poem are marked by absence, abandonment, death.
          The poem ends with a series of metaphors to describe the way words lead us on and then abandon us. Poetry is that site of linguistic abandonment that rescues its offspring and also becomes its own offspring – giving birth not only to the lost significations on the head of a pin but also to itself in mid-song.


                    like the scent of our own flesh
                    that’s always too much
                    and not enough


          Flesh-scent, an invisible bodily trace, both exceeds the boundaries of the body and inadequately defines it. The linguistic analogue is elusive but traceable: writing exceeds, overflows, its context.

                    like the sea gull fallen
                    between parked cars
                    her motionless eye staring
                    at no one in particular


          A dead seagull seems to be staring (superfluously) but at no on in particular (futility): life within death, excess within and beyond limits.

                    like the man on the train
                    who stands and apologizes
                    before shooting into the crowd


          If the action of the mass murderer is beyond the pale, his apology is both excessive (outside the norm and overshooting, so to speak, the correction to alienation), inadequate to the heinousness of the act, and redundant (murdering the living dead in the train). Borkhuis suggests an analogy to the linguistic act, which always threatens to erase its origins and exceed its limits (just as those origins cannot be constrained by that act).

                    like the coyote trapped
                    and gnawing off its foot


          The excessive and violent act achieves the coyote’s freedom. Capturing is unsuccessful, and the coyote escapes, but not without leaving a part of his body behind. Perhaps Borkhuis suggests that poetry speaks through such a violent act of abandonment.

                    like your tongue tracing the ridges and valleys
                    of your lover’s scars


          The theme of violence continues. The image of “scars” comes as a surprise; signs of injury unexpectedly compose the erotic terrain of the body. And these traces of violence (marks analogous, perhaps, to writing) overflow their origins, become part of the erotic life-force.

                    that’s not what I meant

                    winced the sole survivor
                    of the burning 747

                    write what I say


          The last four lines offer a context for the title, but even given the added situatedness of the words, they still convey irony: the survivor can speak, not the dead. Yet the survivor cannot make himself be understood, and he futility instructs his interviewer to write what he says, as though doing so will pin down his meaning. The scope of the disaster is in excess of his words’ ability to convey the experience. The words have abandoned him at a critical point and allowed intention, context, meaning, to shift. He has escaped death, and poignantly tries to hold on to his words, to fix their meaning for eternity. But they have from the outset abandoned him.

Camille Martin
Sonnets