Wandering through the Universal Archive

19 February 2013

One of the things that became apparent as the various collaborative projects for this chapbook emerged is the tendency of the concept collaboration to open and proliferate. The possibilities for poetic collaboration seem to be inexhaustible. As a singular entity, then, a collaborative work, tending to the provisional, can exhibit a kind of restrained polyamory. Plato thought all poets were necessarily promiscuous. Reading Pam Brown’s collaborations with Maged Zaher and John Kinsella, I want to ‘throw things around’ … ‘with a mathematician’s belief’. I want to shimmy myself senseless wearing only my shadow and burn my ID like a disco survivalist. There is something easy about these poems in a Warholian sense, half in love with easeful death or dreamful ease. As if by way of after-party, Brown’s cento (for Kate Fagan) constitutes the meticulous reinvigoration of love from within so that ‘shocked by faultless mathematics’ we ‘turn away ekphrastic / into a new present’.

In a scaly and winding poem by Justin Clemens, the new present has arrived and language submits to the torsional hypotheses of a mathematical edict. Though thaumaturgy now conjures the miraculous, in 1570, John Dee’s Mathematicall Praeface to Euclid’s Elements described it as an ‘art mathematical … which giveth certain order to make strange works, of the sense to be perceived and of men greatly to be wondered at.’ Even though I’ve been told how the structure of this poem operates, it continues to confound me. It’s as if I were still subject to the returns of the 16th century in which ‘the Mathematicks’ referred not only to abstract calculations, ‘but to physical mechanical devices which employed mathematical principles in their design.’ Those who did not comprehend the figurings behind these machines saw them as ‘magical devices which could only have been made with the aid of demons and devils.’1 There is something unthinkable about this work which nevertheless shows how we might sever the poem from its Romantic heritage and allow it to attempt the impossible. Through the simultaneous subtraction and dissemination of language regulated by a mathematical imperative, this work enacts collaboration in its political, scientific, artistic and amorous dimensions in the performance of a new distinction between language and being.

Charles Bernstein and Richard Tuttle offer a translation of Catullus 85 that reminds us that the art of translation is as much an act of conservation as it is a radical reworking. The accretions of sense overlaid in their multiple translations of these few lines undertake a kind of restoration in reverse. Rather than removing layers in an attempt to explicate the poem’s bare-boned intention, Bernstein and Tuttle apply the minimal interventions of contemporary parlance to reveal our connection to the ancient and enact an ethical stewardship of the poem. Their ongoing investigations into the dissimulations of pain figure these lines by Catullus as pre-Troubadourian to the extent that ‘the pleasure of experiencing unpleasure’ is ‘incised into their song’.2

Jessica L. Wilkinson’s Marionette: a biography of Miss Marion Davies performs the other side of the Troubadourian canticle, one in which the silent feminine is released from the historical conception of woman as ‘a combination of the existential and negation’. This release, enacted through the performance of ‘holes’ in the biographical data attributed to the silent film star, Marion Davies, ruminates on a situation in which the ‘Woman speaks but does not know what she is saying; in effect, she babbles incoherently, she is “dumb”’ and transforms it into one in which the ‘dumb’ woman is drawn into the arena of speech.3

As Wilkinson has it, Davies can be said to have collaborated in her own oppression, choosing to remain silent on the extent to which her career was controlled by her long-time lover, the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Wilkinson’s transposition of marionette into a collaboration with Simon Charles and the innovative music ensemble, Manteia, supplements the findings of marionette and underscores the extent to which collaboration entails multiple voices.

Timothy Yu’s first Chinese Silence was exhumed from his reading of a poem called ‘Grave’ by Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States. Intrigued by the poem’s invention of the one hundred Chinese silences that it subsequently disavows, Yu resolved to write the ‘Silence of the Night Boat’, the ‘Silence of the Lotus’ and the ‘Silence of the Temple Bell’ into existence. An initial methodology entailed seizing on every Collins poem that mentions China. After 25 or so poems, Yu turned his attention to the Poetry Foundation database (his first 15 Silences, as a chapbook, was recently released by Tinfish Press). Yu’s series makes the political a possibility for poetry by locating the nonrelation between the traditional and the new and exercising it as what we might think of as an illicit relation. Where, in Collins the Chinese silences are in excess of the situation, in Yu they come point by point to constitute the basis for poetic innovation. As Yu remarks in a recent interview, ‘others who get the silent treatment include Ezra Pound, David Sedaris, and Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi Deng.’ Yu’s Silences currently number 63.

  1. J. Peter Zetterberg. ‘The Mistaking of ‘the Mathematicks’ for Magic in Tudor and Stuart England.’ Sixteenth Century Journal, II.1 (Spring 1980).
  2. Justin Clemens. Psychoanalysis is an Anti-Philosophy. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2013.
  3. Alain Badiou. ‘The Subject and Infinity.’ Conditions. London: Continuum, 2008.




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