Vital Signs


     In a memorable volume of Parnassus, Annie Dillard writes about contemporary poetry that “it is the native tongue of nobody. As a language it is useless for important messages. It is arcane and luxurious. It amounts to a secret code. Only the people who speak it think it can save the world.” Part of her observation–the incomprehensibility of poetry– is by now a commonplace among critics and readers alike. But I’m interested in the discrepancy she indicates between this obscuring secrecy and the social power that poetry is expected to wield. There is a remarkable disparity between the modest aims of individual lyric poems–they capture the ineffable, the momentary illumination, the fragile beauty–and the grandiose ambitions of poetry and poets in general. Shelley claimed that poets were “the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life.” Whitman maintained he was the voice of the people (who preferred Longfellow), and Pound was nearly shot for elevating poetry and the arts over the economic interests he thought were at the root of war and of the universal dissolution of culture. Of course, he was broadcasting his opinions over the Italian radio at the time. If he had been anything other than a poet, which is to say if his prosecutors had taken either him or his ideas seriously, he would certainly have been executed as an example to the nation. Instead, they locked him up in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital–the “bug house,” as he called it. So much for power. Continue reading “Vital Signs”


     Last Spring I enjoyed lunch in Santa Cruz with an learned, conscientious relative of mine, who is an uncomfortable transplant from the East Coast into Northern California, and who occasionally feels compelled to justify herself before a kindred spirit. Since I was myself a transplant from Southern California onto the stones of New England–a metaphorical reversal of her journey–, she sometimes has this idea that I possess a native understanding of her shame: she actually likes California, with its eternal sunshine, its sensual beaches, the endless mild summer days, and vineyards everywhere. Everyone is mellow, or tempted to be, which she instinctively mistrusts as a shallow, unconsidered, inadequate response to the dire state of the world–which everybody on the Northeastern Seaboard knows is better served by angry competitive sarcasm, and a sort of crowbar analysis that pries into every aspect of daily life. There are too many dudes in California. Continue reading “Thresholds”

Shadow of a Cloud, But No Cloud

What follows is the text of a recent review of Killarney Clary’s new book, ‘Shadow of a Cloud, But No Cloud‘, published by the University of Chicago Press. The review appeared this Friday, October 17th,  in the Los Angeles Times by Stephen Burt. This is a lovely review about a fabulous poet’s newest collection.




Twenty-five years ago, Killarney Clary’s first collection made an international splash: The prose poems of “Who Whispered Near Me” wove evanescent description of Clary’s native Los Angeles, from her childhood’s backyards to her office mates’ cubicles, together with pithy regrets and vivid advice. The mysterious, teasing results — not quite short stories, not quite memoir; friendly and yet reserved — got Clary anthologized, imitated and even attacked by critics as far off as London. (Last year it was brought back into print by Tavern Books.)

“Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud,” the fourth collection from Clary, who now lives in Aptos, Calif., refines and returns to her initial strength: It’s wiser, terser, sadder, never resigned, but alert to the years of a poet who has lost a parent, survived her first fame and kept her insight acute through middle age.

Clary’s prose poems depend on the melodies of their sentences, connecting phrase to phrase without the interruptions of line breaks. Their unpredictable paths cross the inland desert (“blooms of Styrofoam in the tumbleweed”) or head indoors through moments of recollection, as when the young poet painted with watercolors, probably for the first time: ‘Worry touches the loaded brush tip to the wetted paper and the color floods into a sharp-edged shape, darkens to be a thing, my own.” Such close observations recall the poet’s own training in studio art: When a child plays with a marble, “the game he plays he plays with his weight on one knee, on the press of a few toes,” with “beads of rain heavy on the leaves between his nape and the sky.” Other pages include single phrases that could be short stories on their own: “From the warehouse in Sparks, Nevada to fill a catalog order in Emmett Idaho, a blouse for a woman who will be better when the parcel has arrived.”

Such sketches, on their own, could make a beautiful book, but Clary has more. Midway through the volume, her single scenes, interiors and portraits give way to sequences about her parents: her mother’s illness and death, her trip to Ireland with her father (and her mother’s ashes) and then her father’s apparent decline. Dementia renders cruel the echoes and similes, the likenesses and paradoxes, presented in happier days by the art of poetry: “You want to introduce me to Killarney, then, puzzled, you stop. … I can’t imagine a kind way to tell you who I am.”

Stitching together such remembered moments, Clary sets up ironic pairings between her girlhood and her present self, her mother as powerful giant and her mother as an absence or a ghost: “I sit on the sunny pantry floor and read repeatedly the label on a can of mandarin oranges, its best-by date years past. There will be noise; they will need me. My hands are exactly as I remember my mother’s hands, now gone.” To listen to Clary carefully is to detect ever more intricate echoes, both in her psyche and in the sentences’ sounds: The passage above, for example, descends into 16 consecutive sharp monosyllables, from “its best-by date” all the way to “my hands,” before — in a cascade of Rs and S’s (“are exactly as I remember”) — it softens again.

Her volume finds ways out of sadness, not only in shining moments but also in present-day connections: She is, among many other things, a subtle poet of domestic affection, and it is in that key that the volume ends. “We hear leaves stir under the bamboo, the progress of our different pictures — fall wind or possum — and I lie against you. One of us is warmer. One will die first.” Is that a melancholy claim? Perhaps, but it should not undermine a pair bond, neither for people nor for the hawks that Clary and her partner observe. “Two shapes lift over the canyon, their prey hidden or scattering. I smooth your hair.”

Clary works in the tradition of modern novelists (Virginia Woolf, for example), who ask us to trust their characters’ streams of consciousness, but also in a tradition of prose poetry stretching back to Baudelaire. Fans of today’s short-short fiction — say, Lydia Davis — should check her out too. She may never be wildly popular: She’s too strange for that, and she leaves too many things out; nor is she the kind of experimenter who makes readers angry by what she refuses to do. Instead, she invites us into her shifting scrims and absences, her curtains of sentences, showing us slices and glimpses of her own experience, “waiting here where bees were once kept,” or writing graffiti “with the dry cleaner’s clear wax zipper crayon on the flat blue-gray paint on the closet wall,” or swimming with her mother’s “swirl of pale hair in the bay.”

Few writers have shown at once the vividness and the evasions of memory so well. And Clary explains — within her poems — the workings of her poems, which resemble parties (people move around, trying to listen to one another), optical illusions and party games: “there is a pattern, not a story, repetition of shape, change of scale and/or direction, a game of perception: find the hidden hat in the picture: it may be inverted. Shown for only a moment, the tray is taken into another room.”

As in life, so in her poems, the pieces are moving; Clary challenges us to figure out what we can.


Freedom in Translation: Finding Ourselves a New Poetics

At the recent AWP Conference in Seattle, which convened at the end of February, I moderated a panel on translation as an emblem of poetic freedoms. What follows is the text of my introduction.

I. Our presentation today focuses on two essential concepts:

1. That the act itself of translation chooses among various aspects of sequential cognitive resources—some linguistic, many that are not (What these resources are I will defer for the moment). The crucial feature within translation is its insistence upon a pluralism of linguistic aims.

2.  That the act of translation re-imagines and redefines the mechanisms by which language works: what language is, what are its aspects and features, what are its resources.

II. The first activity will be engaged by my three colleagues–Gary Young, Stephen Haven and James Brasfield– as they each in turn discuss specific features of their work in translating into contemporary American English the poetic works existing in three distinctly non-Western-European languages: Japanese, Chinese, and Ukrainian.

III. My task here is to engage in that second activity: I want to introduce a basis for re-conceiving a poetics that can reflect the range of creative possibilities available to the imagination—because current versions of postmodern poetics constitute a remarkably inappropriate reductivism.

As I’m sure we all know, the core of this poetics inhabits the troubled relationship between the sign and the signified. Its intellectual pedigree runs in generations from Saussure and Nietzsche, to Heidegger, to Derrida and Foucault, and subsequently into the current metamodernists and antihumanists.

The architecture of the argument is benignly simple:

a. Words have no essential relation to their referent. 

b. Rather, meaning is merely a social consensus. 

c. Therefore meaning represents the play of power and money by which social consensus is reached.

d. Ergo, language is the exercise of power, wielded by the wordsmith, to repress other similar exercises.

This entire house of logical cards derives upon that initial proposition: that language is a collection of nouns looking for their referents.

From the point of view of neuroscience, this proposition is untenable for many reasons, but we can start with its entire lack of empirical foundation. What is described by post-modern theorists does not represent the phenomenon they purport to explain. Saussure is the linguistic basis to which the philosophers point for justification, but Saussure was not fluent in, nor ever had even heard a native speaker using, the Indo-European languages from which he derived his theories of linguistics—from which in turn he then generalized to all languages. Accordingly, his conclusions amount to a sophisticated provincialism that, in my belief, has been persuasive largely because it has bolstered the provincialism of Continental and North American theorists.

Postmodern linguistic theory does not survive the translation to non-European languages. For instance, as Steve Haven will be explaining, any given sign in Chinese changes meaning according to which one of the four formal tones of voice in which it is spoken. Chinese does not limit itself to signs and signifieds, but introduces tonal aspects into its linguistic usage—which have remained unconsidered in postmodern theoretical formulations.

I want to propose a different intellectual practice–which will conserve the expectation that a poetics will be based upon features of our language, but that will define those features according to empirical observation and structured inquiry into the phenomena in question. I am, in other words, going to dip into neuroscience to provide an alternative study of the nature of language. *Accordingly, I will start with three observations about language, from the point of view of empirical science:

 a. language is sequential: phoneme follows phoneme, word follows word, sentence follows sentence, paragraph follows paragraph;

 b. it is also patterned:–its features have regular, definable arrangements, which we can group into rules;

c. it is temporal  (It took me 28 seconds to say the words in that sentence.)

These sequential features are not limited to language, but in fact represent a primary inductive category according to which the brain makes cognitive sense of the environment at large. The world is chock full of sequential patterns—the regular and coherent occurrences of sounds, objects, and events to which the brain is sensitive. Some of these are linguistic, but many are not.

a. For instance, laughter is one of the set of complex, nonlinguistic vocalizations that nonetheless communicates a wide range of messages with different meanings. 

b. We likewise find music meaningful,—which also is a structured sequential event–though it, too, is non-linguistic. 

c. Many of us also find meaning in the sensuous sequences of dance–or (to pursue the world of motor movements further) even learning to swing a tennis racket. Dances, procedures for hitting a tennis ball, a golf ball, etc, are each a meaningful set of steps with which motor patterns are engaged. Along these lines we should likewise acknowledge that we walk and run, which are themselves brain-mediated sequential practices…which are non-linguistic. 

d. Finally, we also keep track of time itself, which by definition is sequential—on a daily basis, as well as over prolonged years of developmental, biological time (i.e. circadian, developmental) and worldly time.

What science finds is that there is an interplay among these various neurological sequences. Language is not separate from the rest of cognition, but uses the same underlying neurological mechanisms as other non-linguistic sequential tasks. For instance, aphasic patients are commonly apraxic as well—meaning they are impaired in the production of novel sequential hand and arm movements. Further, the converse is also true: among aphasic patients, the work done to improve non-linguistic motor skills can contribute to improvements in syntax.

So let me conclude here. The translator, having assumed there can be no perfect copy of the original meaning,  is thereby compelled to re-conceive & revalue linguistic resources other than simply matching referents–what the words purportedly mean. The translator is free to look to the interplay among whatever expressive sequences seem called for–whether linguistic (such as hunting for appropriate words), or nonlinguistic, such as establishing a prosody, or working out an appropriate pace of the voice, or introducing tonal features such as sarcasm, or sometimes even environmental noises (The French, for instance,  translate the sound of a barking dog as Woooah Woooah). There is an immensity of sequential sounds, symbols, facial expressions., and physical gestures to sample. The task of the translator thereby opens the inquiry to a range of poetic expression that escapes repressive theory, and finds its limits—insofar as there are any—within the play of imagination itself.

Links to further thoughts and entertainments: