Luke Davies, Paris, 2014, photo by Samuel Pignan.
Poetry for The Lifted Brow / Cordite 51.1: UMAMI is guest-edited by Luke Davies.
Submission of flash fiction (between 1 and 500 words max) and poetry will be accepted until 11.59pm, 5 April 2015. These are special issues for both publications. They will feature original works selected by Luke Davies, as well as re-worked, re-rendered, translated, covered, adapted or wholly reconsidered versions of those initial works done by a new author, artist, auteur, game designer, etc. Publication will be in October 2015.
As a guest poetry and flash fiction editor for this special issue, I’ll take an interest in form. The Irish poet Michael Longley once wrote, ‘If most people who called themselves poets were tightrope walkers, they’d be dead.’
And yet ‘verse is everywhere, for those who write,’ said Mallarmé. There are even, he pointed out, ‘verses in the genre called prose’! They are, furthermore, ‘sometimes admirable’. (Thank goodness, and hats off to Faulkner, Joyce.) In fact, Mallarmé implied that prose doesn’t really exist. ‘There is the alphabet, and then there is verse.’ For the purposes of this call-out, however – for this exciting collaboration between Cordite Poetry Review and The Lifted Brow – I’m going to assume that there is prose as well.
Mallarmé’s is an extraordinary notion, speaking as it does of words being the disguise of their own first selves. They are the building blocks – the amino acids, so to speak – and after them, sprung into life like the first forms, comes rhythm, metre. Nothing lies between. ‘Only poetry recognises the centrality of absolutely everywhere,’ says Les Murray, revealing his own inner quantum physicist. Metre is not a function of language … rather, language came into being as a function of metre. The renowned Italian publisher Roberto Calasso, a sublime poet-in-prose himself, points out that in the great Sanskrit song cycles – in the Rig Veda for example, the oldest book in any Indo-European language – the earliest gods, those who originated from the progenitor god, had to wrap themselves in metres before coming close to the fire. The metres were the robes that prevented themselves from being disfigured by heat. ‘If the gods have achieved immortality’, says Calasso, ‘it is the metres they have to thank for it.’ The gods ‘reached the heavens through a form’. Then ‘how much more will [we] have need of form?’ asks Calasso.
At a practical level, that means I’ll be looking for evidence of the craft, the construction, the honing, that make your voice your voice, that make what it is that you need to fight for clear. For there is an awful lot worth fighting for. An awful lot worth fighting against. An awful lot worth praising. ‘This life of yours is not a picture of the world,’ wrote Cormac McCarthy. ‘It is the world itself, and it is composed not of bone or dream or time but of worship.’
Mallarmé’s purist holism stands in contrast to our more familiar, day-to-day experience of the world as being a very atomistic place. Everything is scattered, and there are very many things, and we live in a kind of junkyard of broken forms, rusted metres. Stephen Jay Gould once wrote of our ‘deeply entrenched habit of ordering our categories as oppositional pairs.’ (He was speaking, specifically, of the polarities that exist between science and the humanities.) For Gould, the habit comes from ‘this apparently ineluctable human propensity to dichotomize.’ It’s instinctive to yoke opposites together, in order to create a reference, in order to give the new thing described a sense of its context: we interpret something as being comprised of ‘this’ plus ‘this’.
The loan-term ‘umami’ speaks of a cultural difference of sorts – one to be found in the taste buds. It’s the fifth category of taste (along with the more familiar ones of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). In Japan, umami contains within it the notion of the sweet and the sour at once … neither one or the other, nor simply both bound together. Umami is not necessarily a compound taste. It’s experience is elemental, indivisible: to bastardise Karl Jaspers, it’s more dasein than existenz. Admittedly, though, for Jaspers, dasein was like a reduction – real, certainly, but conceptual, too, elemental – whereas existenz, in all its extended messiness, was the place where we all really live.
There’s a YouTube clip in which Iron Chef Naomichi Yasuda dispenses some basic sushi wisdom to an amateur sushi eater (aren’t we all?) named Joseph George. Real wasabi, we learn, is sweet, before the kick at the back of the throat. ‘This is a balance,’ says Yasuda, presenting to George a fatty tuna roll he’s just prepared, comprising the best seaweed in Japan … ‘that means number one in all the world’ … and rice from his home village … ‘so this is my mother’s gift.’ ‘There’s a lot of things going on here,’ says Joseph George, the happy amateur, tasting it, his mind catching up with his mouth. ‘That’s right,’ beams Yasuda. ‘It’s almost impossible to explain this.’
In the realm of that which can be explained (I’m including, for sample purposes, the entire universe), good poetry and flash fiction can be particularly resistant to the further division of their compact mysteries. Again, Mallarmé understood this. Murray understands this, and most good poets do too; the poem, of course, is the mystery itself, and not its explication.
Nonetheless, for the purposes of this thematic co-issue, if the realm of the binary interests you, whether your proclivities be Cartesian or Manichean, I’m not going to complain. ‘It’s really juicy,’ says Joseph George to chef Yasuda, trying out some tuna – the kick of the wasabi, the sweetness of the toro. ‘Already gone. Already melting.’ Umami.
All other tastes may be only versions of umami, just as for Mallarmé all other forms of writing are broken verses – and sometimes irretrievably broken. Poets maintain that only poetry is consistently capable of peeling back the layers of disguise. Flash-fiction, by contrast, is all about creating said disguise with ambiguity. In any case, send me something juicy, something already melting, the instant it’s consumed. Your work can even come to me bloodied.
Please submit only once, with a maximum of three (3) poems or flash fiction pieces (500 words max) in one (1) document … but first, please read the submission guidelines.