Horizons within the negative spaces of my body were lakes hovering above the road. I follow U. S. 54 from Wichita to the junction with Interstate 10 in El Paso. The road parallels the course of the Union Pacific Tucumcari line. Near Santa Rosa it crosses U. S. 66, the main truck road from Chicago to Los Angeles. U. S. 66 follows various routes over different New Mexico state highways as determined by local political necessity or whim. It wanders into Laguna to avoid passing through Santa Fe. Blue lines map the roads. They constrict the heart and impede blood flow. My feet tire from operating the pedals. Cramps in the metatarsals of my left foot. A tailor’s bunion. I kick off my shoes. I am to meet literary translators in Tucson.
In my bag are copies of my recently published Neila, Evening Song: The Last Poems of Yvan Goll, poems done into German and published and edited by Claire Goll in 1954, with the assistance of Paul Celan. The French edition is illustrated by Joan Miró, Bouquet de Rêves pour Neila (1967). The poems are melancholy. Undoubtedly Goll was besotted by his love for Claire and at times appalled. Scholars often lambaste Claire for her mistreatment Celan. She is implicated in the depression that led to his suicide. She had accused him of plagiarism from Goll’s work, a perverse and unsupportable charge. Neila is an anagram of Liane, a nickname for Claire.
My interest in the Goll’s work originated in conversations with Jack Heliker one summer on Cranberry Island. When he was my age, he met Claire while camping on the Gaspé. To him she revealed her prized possessions. Kept in a sachet nestled in her bosom, the papers included poems written to her by Rilke as well as watercolor sketches by Chagall. A fascinating history of modernism was revealed in Jack’s tale, one that included promiscuous women who loved homosexual men, one that included murder and abortion. In her memoir, Claire acknowledges her role in Celan’s suicide and other murders for which she proclaimed herself guilty including the termination of a fetus at Rilke’s insistence. In my explorations of Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine with Michal, we came upon the eroded arches at Cap-au-Trou, their abyssal proportions similar to those of the pierced cliffs of Gaspé. As Yvan’s Neila, Claire displays supersensual powers of retribution.
Unreal as mist in the silent machinery of night
Your face flies past with moon sails
O Neila, blue offering smoke
Death enables such offerings. I have traced the contours of this story frequently out of my love for Jack, producing finally my translations. “Night sips her red blossom from your ear,” Goll lay suffering a terminal leukemia as he wrote these lines. My friend Joe, who lives in northern California, is the only other mortal known to me who has intuited my fascination and affection for this material. He gave me a copy of Claire’s autobiography when I visited him 1995. He also understood my fascination for Covarrubias and his work on language and dance notation in Bali. Dear Joe! and now I learn that Roberto and his lover Yudi often visit Bali. As I drive across New Mexico, I am hovering over a fate to be revealed in these visages as they align with one another, wreathed in offering smoke.
In Tucson, I stay near the river instead of in the convention hotel. I know already that I will sell few or none of the books that I have brought with me. I will lecture on best practices for working with texts that are inextricably impossible to translate with accuracy or certainty. That message challenges the competencies that many translators value, especially the doctrine of faithfulness to the original. I do not advocate reinvention of the original in an improved version. Instead, I propose the value of registering the marks and even the flaws that make translation impossible. The text must alienate the reader with its foreignness. And even that reading will be a performance and interpretation, very unlike its theoretical original. Conventions like this one are an opportunity to spend times with friends whom one does not ordinarily see that often.
Very tall Cynthia is one of the most supportive people I know; we reflect on our common brilliance. Encomiums pile on top of one another in an aerial display of mutual respect accompanied by hugs and kisses. Her Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem) engages a text by Virginie Lalucq with commentary by Jean-Luc Nancy. The work requires several levels of reading and multiple simultaneities of absorption. “Le poème / est mental. Son écriture physique.” (The poem / is cerebral. Its writing physical). My work too is a voyage through a constructed landscape. I have long called a journal that I keep “Mental Excursions.”
Cynthia and I are ecstatic fans of one another’s work. Her work of translation, in this instance, involves a co-translator, Sylvain Gallais. The commentary by Nancy is a reading of the poem that also requires translation. The philosopher notes that in the verse cited above there are no slashes as in previous verses: “Soudain les barres obliques ont disaparu. A disparu le marquage des fractions, fractures, fragmentacion du texte. La notation de syncope …” (Suddenly the slashes disappear. The marks of fractions, factures, fragmentations in the text disappear. The notation of syncopations …). Another voice churns the cauldron of meaning, adding depth and pleasure to reading. Even at the level of short lines I begin to employ syncope in alternation with enjambment in my poetry. “Syncope” is also an English word addressing the absence of expected sounds in expressions like “pr’haps.” It pertains to both broken sentences and loss of consciousness. Translation is never done. I will soon embark on a long poem that embraces dialog with Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou. We dine on beer and burgers and long-standing affection.
I have begun to reconstruct the Tucson of Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Almanac of the Dead. Her Tucson is perched between Native American desert lands and real estate development schemes. Her families are Sonoran people, drug runners and healers. They have joined forces with a circum-Pacific coalition of Mayans from Guatemala and Inupiaqs from Alaska. Rose, an Inupiaq grandmother, is able to bring down planes from the sky by chanting over televised broadcasts of their flight. The Mayan twins are emissaries of a prophetic book. Hundreds of thousands of indios from Latin America push north across the Sonoran Desert. The plan is to render American commercial interests powerless by bringing down electricity generating facilities and damaging the grid. Discouraged and displaced U. S. Army veterans of the Vietnam conflict lend technical support and occupy the ravines, preparing for guerilla war. Another unfinished revolution ends without overcoming its obstacles.
On my way home I stop by Laguna, Silko’s pueblo. This visit had been prophesied long ago when I left Tenerife, in my days of biblical seafaring. A cavern draws American boys who seek radioactive treasure. Pollution of the soul. Her defiant people are my people. They live deeply within themselves. I have learned this lesson from my daughter’s grandmother who studies shamanism in Point Hope. Edie also studied among the Ndembu of Zambia. She recently passed. Her spirit is among my shadows. Among native peoples special powers are ascribed to grandmothers.
Shakespeare’s’ Pericles reacted in horror to the heads perched on the battlements of Antioch. He revives John Gower’s four-foot line. In those gruesome heads is a model for my mental theater. The pattern is a rhombus within a circle and a four petaled cruciform flower: cresses and wallflowers, with lanceolate leaves divide the circle into quadrants. The colors are black and white framed against an earthen ochre. Native American suns are yellow on a blue field, three spikes to each of four sets of flaming arms. I entered the recreation hall. I took photos of the ball field and of abandoned stone huts on the edge of town. In one of these Tayo, the lead character of Silko’s Ceremony,was set to watch cattle. I saw no cattle.
In Santa Fe, a statue of St. Takawetha, the perpetual Virgin stands before the Catholic Mission Church. Her scars from small pox are said to havedisappeared at her death. Another statue is found at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré near Quebec City. A humble country lane near the home of an exiled Iranian family in Lewistown Maine bears her name. Kateri Tekakwitha: Ownkeonweke Katsitsiio Teonsitsianekaron. From a stand in the village of Hatch I purchase a bundle of the renowned red chili peppers. A tourist brochure indicates that “chiles are in the genus Capsicum, and the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes other New World plants, such as the tomato, potato, eggplant, tobacco and the petunia.” Hatch chiles are exceedingly hot on the tongue of the novice like me. I will transport these to the east, leaving bundles as offerings to those who provide me with food and shelter.
My son asked me to give a poetry reading at his university. My words lost their meaning as I read. The typeface decomposed into broken letters. No one understood my difficulty. As an alternative to reading, I began to lecture on the meaning of simple words, “his” or “hers.” Do these terms refer to possessions or mysteries? I had become victim to a syncope. I made jokes about missing children. My brother, when a toddler, had sought to visit the zoo in a nearby town, all on his own, following the railroad track with no intention to return home. No one applauded. No reception had been prepared. Those wandering in the hall avoided me. My son said he was charmed. I stepped outside for a cigarette although I had last smoked twenty years ago. When I returned the room was empty except for a pile of dried branches in the center of the auditorium.
For Beowulf’s people, the rings recovered from the dragon’s hoard retained little value after the hero’s death. Ongunnon þa on beorge baelfyra maest wigend wrecan wudurec astah swert ofer swioðole. (The warriors undertook then to build the greatest funeral pyre on the barrow wood smoke rose black above the flames). But in Taos the path threads snow-covered mountains. Deer traveled in a herd led by a solitary stag. I negotiated a patchwork of fields and forestlands stretching far to the east until I rejoined the interstate highway. I began to imagine living in a New Mexico secreted away from all that most disturbed my sleep. Again, I am between mental conversations. I run along a trail bordered with pristine snow.
George and I were long distance runners. Even in the summer we’d meet to run the trails through farmlands and virgin forests. We joked at times about running with erections. Without a jockstrap that sometimes chaffed our thighs, the glans of the exposed cock rubbed on the nylon fabric of our running shorts. We joked about arousal should anyone know. Sometimes a female runner joined us. I assumed that his sex drive lay in that direction. My pleasure lay in my own feelings for our situation, the mechanics of it.
George’s roommate Tom would later found the film department at Hampshire College. I sometimes worked with Tom, carrying the sound pack for his SONY 8 mm camera. We filmed folk concerts, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary. At twenty, he was a wiry towhead, a short man with a high forehead, skin naturally red with an incandescent glow. I’m sorry that I lost contact with both of these men. George was tall and he also had an incandescent glow to his skin, redder than Tom’s, flaming Irish red. Thirty years later I watched Silverlake Life, The View from Here,shot with a handheld video camera. It documents the daily life of Tom and his lover Mark as they both struggle with AIDS and its corrosive effects. Tom’s approach to the subject is clinical, the method forefronts the presence of the camera and its constant shifting and whirring within frames. The documentary and autoethnographic presence of the fused author/witness persona reduces pretension to fact. The film has no entertainment value nor should it.
The artist in me is attracted to the howling nightmarish presentation of David Wojnarowicz’s work, both video and prose. Bison tumble into a rift valley. “The longest piece of his writing “The Suicide of a Guy Who Once Built an Elaborate Shrine over a Mouse Hole” recounts the life of Montana Hewson, an eccentric gay denizen of the East Village. “It is a biography with a void at its center” writes William E. Jones on Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: a Memoir of Disintegration. A void similar to that which I sometimes approach in my notes? More desperate, assuredly. Agonizing. In response to David Wojnarowicz’s art, I wrote:
popeia sing the nursingmothers.
He bathes the body of the king and he is the king.
He is male and female. His indiscretions drive
the honey-pump of resistance.
How defuse the two?
His own voice, decaying death’s head, calavera,
scourges apocalypse. Poverty and abuse.
Sew and snip. The shrill judgment of the already doomed fills
the cathedral nave. Drumming shadows
ejaculate. The nasal caw of my nightmare comes back to me,
for David Wojnarowicz (from Roman Exercises)
My thought degenerates into discontinuous fissures as if my purpose were to be incoherent.
I did not speak of my excursions when I met with Bruce. His home in Magdalena is at the far end of a route that follows the Rio Grande Rift Valley, the Magdalena mountains forming the western horizon with the face of Mary Magdalen etched in a talus and scrub grass formation on the eastern slope of the Magdalena Peak, a resemblance noted by early Spanish explorers. The valley provided access for marauding conquistadors and later for cattle herding on the Beef Steak Trail or Magdalena Livestock Driveway. I join the mounted horsemen following the sweep of the trail through the broad grasslands in our search for the mythical city of Cibola. Coronado himself leads. His lieutenant, Alvarado is known to have passed this way. A cattle guard gate gives access to trails through scrubland leading to Bruce’s cabin on a knoll, some 18 miles from the village. Experience holds no match for what I see.
Bruce writes on the effects of decadence that are visible in William Carlos Williams’s poetry. Early on Williams may have been influenced by the aesthetic decadence of the British Symbolists; after all these artists explored the new ground that became known as “modernism.” I doubt that he identified with the internalized sufferings of Oscar Wilde, Marsden Hartley, or Allen Ginsberg. Like many others, he attributed moral failing to perversion and to the subsequent decadence or decay of the human stock, its genome. Williams often addresses grotesqueries in Paterson. That very title suggests a boy-loving decadence. Family drama is masked by monsters with gigantic heads spawned among the early Dutch settlers of the Ramapo Mountains. Williams cites old newspaper clippings to this effect. Inbreeding is said to be a factor in the inherited deformities of some inhabitants born to old families, webbed fingers and toes. It is a Ramapo mountain girl who serves as a model for Williams’s Elsie and for the nurse to the lesbian pair portrayed in the Corydon and Phyllis passages of Paterson5. Is it even possible to contemplate aesthetic decadence in these mountains?
The whereabouts of Peter the Dwarf’s grave was unknown until the end of
the last century, when, in 1885, P. Doremus, undertaker, was moving bodies
from the cellar of the old church to make room for a new furnace, he
disinterred a small coffin and beside it a large box. In the coffin was the
headless skeleton of what he took to be a child until he opened the large box
and found therein an enormous skull. In referring to the burial records it was
learned that Peter the Dwarf had been so buried (PatersonIV, 192).
Beyond the grotesque, Williams also indicates an interest in the ravages of syphilis, citing the case of Gauguin. The decay of European morality is a subject found in Baudelaire. It is put under a magnifying glass in Flaubert, and then gets transformed into the arrogance of experimentation with form among early moderns. Or so one might argue.
I find no address to homosexuality, other than random disparagement of effete forms of masculinity among the early modern poets or their critics. Hart Crane felt isolated; Lorca less so in his Poeta en Nueva York.Proust conflates disparagement and despair. Male to male homosocial bonding hangs like a shroud over the foundational norms of modern American poetry. For many English language readers, “decadence” and “perversion” are conjoined terms that elicit, even haunt the postmodern canon associated with French thought, Camille Paglia’s antipathy for Michael Foucault, for instance. Woe to reception theory in this climate! For others, decadence has attained a “camp” aura that protects its reception. Not David. He suffered.
Freud and following him Dr. Spock cleansed masturbation of its debilitating effects once believed to enfeeble human breeding stock. Today a faggot son with vaudevillian talents is well-beloved and taken seriously as circumstances now enable acceptance. Some sons desire emasculation. It’s the universal cost of freedom. I have found it best to hide my proclivities. I am a biological male who fears castration. I am a motherly male. That is an acceptable professional profile for my work in my judgement. Louise Bourgeois has produced a digital print entitled, “Maternal Man,” but now my children are grown and I feel deeply decadent. I wanted to study psychology when I was young. I was forced at the time to watch footage of infant primates sucking emaciated ragdolls in experiments on maternal deprivation. Refusal is entangled with my anxieties.
The red flowers, were they camellias?
brushed the sides of the car.
We went down a narrow lane.
Ahead lay the villa, the yard fenced
with rusted wire, the gate ajar.
My mother drove. My sex indeterminate.
Some banter, some tea. She asked,
Do you speak German, do you speak Sikh?
She had practiced in New Guinea,
among the shrunken heads. Her robe
of golden wings opened.
The feathers of an archangel.
We fled over the cattle guard gate
where the dirt track met the country road
in the sacred grasslands of New Mexico.
I felt the heat of her flaming sword.
I lived with cattle and goats
in a white-washed adobe
of two rooms with sky blue tin roof
on the Pacific Rim of Chiapas.
They nest within my mind, adjacent
places where memories are stored.
A thatch roofed bungalow
with dirt floors in Kenya. In each
dwells a woman and her creatures,
a small boy whose name is my own.
Take my ashes to the island
so my body may lie with my mother.
Multiple vistas combine, layers or lamina, superposed. The first is the slave quarters at Mary’s Fancy outside Christiansted. Open to the west wind, with camellias for shrubbery. As with Bruce’s place there is a cattle guard crossing and raw barbed wire fencing. I am the female child, precocious, but dependent on my mother. An incest theme nudges the surface of our bodies. I am Magdalena.
The reference to New Guinea shrunken heads in “Camelias” derives from Celan’s Meridian. The figure of the machine or automaton that stands for the soul also derives from that text. Our hostess has angelic properties. The display of golden eagle wings is Native American. We are in Silko’s New Mexico. Spare, one or two room, adobe shelters are typical of both the Sonoran desert and Chiapas far to the south from where the Mayan Twins who carry the Almanac of the Dead began their northward journey. These places are superposed. They share similarly impoverished circumstances that are also to be found in the huts along rivers in Kenya or the on abandoned plantations with their incinerated sugar mills in the Caribbean of my childhood. I am now the old man who wishes to lie in eternal rest alongside his mother on an island in the Great Harbor of Mount Desert. I would waltz with a spirit guide who has a fat, jiggly belly. Who will figure any of this out? It is not meant to be decoded. Cosmic rhythms are to be felt.
Donald Wellman, poet, editor, and translator, his recent book of poetry is Essay Poems (Dos Madres: Loveland OH). Other books from Dos Madre include The Cranberry Island Series and A North Atlantic Wall; Prolog Pages was issued by Ahadada (2009); Fields (Light and Dust 1995). For several years, he edited O.ARS, a series of anthologies, devoted to topics bearing on postmodern poetics. Books of poetry in translation include Emilio Prados, Enclosed Garden, (Lavender Ink / Diálogos 2013); Antonio Gamoneda, Description of the Lie (Talisman 2014) and Gravestones, (UNO Press 2009). His translation of Roberto Echavarren’s The Espresso Between Sleep and Wakefulness is from Cardboard House (2016). His translation of Echavarren’s The Virgin Mountain is from Lavender Ink (2017). A translation of Néstor Perlongher’s Cadavers is from Cardboard House (2018). Recent critical work includes Albiach / Celan: Reading Across Languages (Annex 2017). His Expressivity in Modern Poetry is due in March 2019 from Fairleigh Dickinson.