Guest Writer’s Series #5: Chris Tanasescu

With the latest entry into our Guest Writer’s Series, we bid hello to March and goodbye to winter–at least the winter run of this series.  Never fear, we’ll be back in the spring with a new set of guests.  Thanks again to all the writers and readers who devoted their time to this.  And with that…

Poetry, thy name is infinity by translation

In the beginning was translation, says the Finnish poet and translator Leevi Leehto, arguing that it was not language that was at the foundation of culture and community when “we” “started,” but the need for and hopefully realization of exchange, transgression, transubstantiation, and metamorphosis. Hence, poetry is translation.

And yes, in the beginning was poetry, only that there is no beginning, at least not in poetry. As sequential circumscription, celebration, and enactment of the limit (in the mathematical sense of value gradually approached by a function or series through a limitless progression of the input) and by aiming not at totality but at community, the object, subject, and project of poetry is infinity.

There is probably no better place to experience that, than in a band. When I started Margento back in 2001, in Romania, I thought I picked the artists (but not the arts) involved at random, from those at hand, although I later came to realize these two things are sometimes far from being the same. My “theory” of poetry as translation and infinity (which is in no way original: think of Coleridge’s “primary imagination” and the “infinity of I am” thereof) thus started to coagulate out of my actual practice as a member of the band.

The band is the form, as in James Merrill’s algebraic formula, “form’s what affirms.”

My colleagues have always preceded the poems I wrote or picked for performance in their apparent development through the most compatible musical scores and/or visual arts scenarios imaginable.  In turn, when they come up with a new riff and/or with the landmarks of a future “painting opera” I’m often working on a poem or sequence of poems that provides the most convenient translation and counterpart of the elements they had already put together.  This ever verifiable correspondence resided in the form of analogy, metrical convergence, movement, synchronization, and many times, where the case was, even duration.   The paintings or the graphic videos often baffled me with unthought-of interpretations of my stuff and even (a term I have learned in time not to be afraid of) illustrations of my own poetical images.

To me, that experience became and still is “real” poetry, and such processes got to be (through performance as well as translation, which are sometimes one and the same thing) the “ever-evolving realized versions” of my poems. Within and beyond telepathy, we gained a sense of palpable, living, and working community. That community was the poem itself, which through its imperviousness to any sort of apriorism or definitiveness, and its openness to all alterity and sameness, had no identifiable beginning and no acceptable end. For all (and actually thanks to) its circumstances and limitations, the poem is always infinite. As Dumitru Staniloae once put it, “eternity is the relationship between two persons who are perfectly interior to each other.”

“Person” comes from the Latin persona, per sona, [what] sounds through [the mask]. From the beginnings of our (Euro-Atlantic) culture, but in other various traditions as well, the idea of someone’s uniqueness – their person and/or personality – has been intimately connected to the voice. As Ezra Pound once wrote, poets should also be musicians or, at least, spend as much time as possible around musicians. Indeed, both the former and the latter are concerned with the inextricable interaction between the abstract grid (meter, formal constraints) and the particular sound (actual rhythm, euphonies, and syntax), between the score and the performance, the mood and the movements – in one word, with voice. Moreover, the voices coming out through the masks (the personae) tell us about poetry as being essentially performative (even when lyrical, and even more so when lyrical), poetry as fundamentally a spectacle, in which what hides helps to reveal, in which what is not visible is rendered manifest through what is visible – from whence the pictorial value of poetry, the always necessary visual component of a Margento performance. A realized (that is, always in progress) poem is an ongoing performance, and is therefore theatrical, where theater shares with theory a Greek root, whose Latin equivalent is contemplation ([having a communal vision by] being together in the temple). Voices (and media) that converge to a vision in a temple of togetherness, this is poetry.

The infinity of the poem resuscitates and enacts the boundlessness within our most finite community. Donald Revell: “Vision annihilates point of view.”

Theodore Roethke wrote in “The Far Field:” “all finite things reveal infinitude.”

While in high modernism – the epitomizing case of Yeats comes first to mind – person was profusely imbued with its mask denotation, and the highest aim of the art was to put on as many masks as possible and to assume the widest range of voices available or conceivable in the culture, poetry is nowadays significantly more focused on mediums.  As Brian M. Reed puts it in Perloff and Dworkin’s Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound, the right question to ask now is not so much, “What is the medium of poetry?”, but rather, as poets like Bergvall, Bök, Goldsmith, and Nakayasu prefer to ask, “What can this medium do for poetry?”  This extends to performance (beyond the improvisation of jazz and into the samples and synth loops of DJ-ing, for, as Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky purports, “DJ-ing is writing, writing is DJ-ing”) as well as data and networks (the internet and beyond), which speaks a lot more about connecting those that are already there, rather than compulsively becoming something and somebody else at every step.

The (political) complexities and (technological) opportunities are nowadays so many and so permeable to the arts, that poetry is no longer so much into change, but into exchange, not so much about mythicized revelation and impersonation, but about relation and translation and personalization. Poetry is bridging and assembling, networking, co-working. This is not impersonal but concreteness-devoted and at the same time also devoted to word-centered mystical and magical practices (see Stephen Burt’s “New Thing”), and grounded in otherness as the key to discovering and/or building up one’s own person(ae). Not impersonal or self-indulgently personal, but inter-personal and, to the extent to which it is realized, trans-personal, that is, (re)defining, involving, and expressing ever wider and wider communities.

Paradoxically (but then, maybe not so much so) only good and long-lasting poetry never really reaches a final definitive edition. It will always arouse unquenchable interest that will result in reprints, reassessments, new translations, revisions (a form of self-translation), quoting, paraphrasing, remakes, deletions, etc. A good poem is a community in itself, bringing more and more people together into its incessant remaking. It will follow one until one replies to it with a performance that will inform them both (and others) with mutual reformation.

A living human is a unique person, hence existentially a myriad of poems. A good poem is infinite, and therefore essentially a human (any) with their respective personality.

Poems are (in [re]writing, [re]reading, translation, performance, neglecting) the only places where in spite of time but always in due time one can party with any dead or leaving poet or deity in the universe on equal grounds.

As Turkish poet Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca once wrote in one of his poems (“God and I”), “He is the poet/ of his job./ I am the God/ of mine.”

To me, a Margento piece is a poem of mine worked on with certain musicians and a certain painter / multimedia visual artist. Just as for them it is a “wider-medium” song as (re)composed and played together with a certain poet and a painter, and a painting taking advantage of the phonic media of music and spoken verse, together with the graphic dimension of poetry in general and of a specific poem in progress in particular. Any possible preeminence and/or transcendental apriorism of any of the components in a Margento song-video-poem (what in traditional terms would be for instance the absolute value of the text seen as a sort of script for all possible readings or performances) is rendered literally impossible by means of progressive infinity – no medium is original or definitive but always evolving as being in close relationship and gradually interwoven with the others – and mathematical convergence – the result is a continuous accumulation of mutual tendencies that amass energies and efforts within more and more (asymptotically) overlapping vicinities.

The poem is the perfect band. It cannot exist or operate with just the singular “I”.

If it is good it sounds like a good band, it sticks in one’s memory like a hit, and it fascinates and allures like the relationship between and the co-authorship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Lennon and McCartney, Page and Plant.

Lyn Hejinian: “Make it go with a single word. We.”

It’s never just us in the band. Just like it’s never just us in the poem we think we write on our own or in the book we read in solitude. Once we start more and more people will come and join us, dead and living people, supplying in the nick of time relevant clues to the problems we are confronted with, participating in the works always in progress, learning about us and themselves in the process. The asymptotic destination of all this is what Berryman once said, alluding to the dialectic of presence and absence: “Nobody is ever missing.” Which is not the same with “everybody is always present.” But it most likely has more to do with the way in which people and works apparently so far from each other (or, for that matter, too close to each other) in time and space actually get connected when their convergence starts to surface and work. Romanian poet Gellu Naum says in his alchemical poem-diary “The Path of the Snake:” “We are perennially bound to each other, always and always in touch…”

But how does that perennial operational bond work nowadays; this is one of the most important questions the poet has to answer presently through her poetry. I may think of myself as an Orphic poet, but while Orpheus could summon wild animals and tame them with his lyre, I am surrounded by a different stock of beasts. Cars. And they haven’t gathered at my call, plus they don’t listen to or even see me. They are, very much like me, stuck in traffic and carelessly working hard to get the air and the ocean boiling. This is not the boiling blood of the Thracian Bacchae that ritualistically killed me in ancient times, but the hot money flowing back to the metropolises during the downturn of the stock-exchange and banking systems that will leave me starving for something they made me crave and swallow in the first place. The contiguity of “my” ancient Thracia allowed me to descend into Hell and come back without actually bringing along anything or anyone from there; and thus to work and return as a translator: connecting various levels, dying and rising again from the dead.

That world was (or rather it sensed and depicted itself as being) homogenous. This one is transitive, in the sense of relation theory and Boolean algebra. Unlike Cocteau’s Orpheus who would spend time at the back of the house in his car, writing down coded messages from the radio, one sits now in a car always meant to move fast, but in fact stuck for hours; what one gets now is not a foreshadowing of uncreative writing as was the case with Cocteau’s character, for what fun would that be since the uncreative is already here and virtually everywhere in the guise of remixes, remakes (but then only good poets steal…), machinated music, clicheistic political discourse, gobbledegook, flatly horrifying news, etc. One of the meanings that Cocteau meant to put in that radio scene was also an allusion to the coded subversive messages the French Resistance and audience would get from Radio London during the World War II Nazi occupation of France. A modern day Orpheus may pretend not to be able to get those subversive messages anymore on his radio, but in fact I suspect he is not interested anymore in any of them.

I don’t travel these days as a translator (or faithful traitor) anymore, but as a universal key holder, a business person, a free mason, and a tourist. I can take, buy, exchange whatever I want, but there won’t be any actual contact.

As a poet, I think those two worlds will have to be united in marriage (they’re actually both heaven and hell in turns, anyway), and the result will have to be both homogenous, that is, incantatory, self-and-the-other concerned, and contaminating, and at the same time transitive, that is, expressive of a blockage-awareness and employing reductive language(s). A possible point of convergence for these two worlds is to me Margento, an enterprise lyrical and openly-(inter)personal in its sensibility, while also indifferent and industrial in its epic technological expression.

Still, a descent is not always (just) a descent into Hell. It can be one into Whitman’s alchemically corpse-distilling-and-metamorphosing earth. Or into Zalmoxis’s mystery cult cave (a somewhat upside-down version of Plato’s cave in The Republic) or, even tastier, into my Dacian and Roman forefathers’ wine cellars. The archeological sites of Sabazios-Dionysus. The drunkenness of the underground world sustains the clear-headed geometry of the construction above (and David Baker’s land surveying-digging and map making poetry). As a poet, one has to be both an archeologist and an architect; the deeper the excavations into language history and poetic traditions, the more stately and hospitable the edifice erected above. The cellars at night full of putrefying corpses, fermenting wine, and glimmering old coins, the apartments in daytime full of airy music, mellifluous fountains, and telescopes clicking at dawn and at dusk.

But you’re in both places at the same time. And it’s both day and night, depending on who’s looking. You may think what you wear fits a dust-covered digger or miner, bearded, in a rude costume, a hard working field scientist who is no longer in terror, a leisurely and curious (non-)romantic aristocrat, a sweaty bricklayer with the sun in his eyes and still in love, a frostbitten farmer in the auroras of late autumn, a tireless peacock-clad clown in the moon, a performer making himself motley to the view, an old man and his winter night while all out of doors looks darkly in at him, a widow lamenting in springtime with the cold fire that closes round me this year, a child getting months mixed up in my mouth April brings us sun and showers, and the pretty wildwood flowers, a boy at the window on a night of gnashings and an enormous moan, a monument, a temple of crates in cramped and crated scenery, a little box that gets her first teeth, eye and tooth, no ease for the boy at the keyhole, his telescope, the sky of the sky, the root of the root and the bud of the bud, of the seed, cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whom… ever come who may, digging deep to strike root, in the root cellar, dank as a ditch, where bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark, with Roots ripe as old bait, Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich, Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks. Nothing would give up life: Even the dirt keeps breathing a small breath.

The dirt got to live; and rhythm got back    to stories, to heart, and place
roll the Roman song        give the grave        wine
No space        take            to respite
sphere          of no fears           apothellipsis
or symptoms      of asymptotes    lapse
I can do eve        of day        night of no f(l)ight        grace
Peace    see        sea        C    letter ot tethers    binding me
To the light            OF THE SUNRISE      comedian civet
When I’m here    start     with the     word
We        love        lava     to
gather                            moons            in hour    mouths

Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi : “Work like a slave; command like a king; create like a god.”

What was I wearing? Edwin Torres says a poem on stage or in class is the same except that it wears a different pair of pants. Now, Hercules got killed by a cloak poisoned by a centaury envious of his condition. Hercules died as the cloak entered into his flesh. And then, remember Frank O’Hara, who said technique is as important as that – this pair of paints suits you, then wear it! The pants become the ass, the poem becomes what it wears, what to wear is the poem.

To fashion a poem is to be unfashionably into fashion. Not necessarily as a fashion designer, but at least as a fashion model admirer (Charles Bernstein is the producer). Model is the refrain of all that. And through liberation from role models that have to seem tyrannical, a plunge into the liberty of whatever anytime, later on proved to be the translation of money into money. Graves. There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either. Rosetta Stone. Poetry is a kind of money. Wall as stiff-ins. Money is a kind of poetry. Joy accounts, can it matter? The only person, in history, who went to business school to be a poet. Everybody.

Influence is about fluency – one is not isolated or insular, but open towards all alterity. To be able to concentrate is to be able to listen to others and to the world. Concentration is concerting for a concert, both as performer and as spectator. Collages of interest are collegial.

Imagination should not be a faculty taking us “elsewhere” or “beyond”, nor a means to escape. It shouldn’t be the strict here and now either. Rather, it should make the conventionally “realistic” and the fakingly “otherworldly” commune and converge. Its function nowadays is to outline, to beget by digging up, to inclusively discern a crossroads where you and me could meet, a place of shared interests, at times looking like a locus, at others like something unbelievably unique. It therefore should operate not so much like a magician or an inventor, but like a church painter or like a creative director.

Communicating with the other is not a feature or a function of being a person but the definition of it. You are a person in as much as you communicate and establish a communion with the other. Being a person fundamentally is being a poet.

The one who communicates completely, keeps nothing apart, and places himself wholly in communication is a saint (T.S. Eliot: “Humility is infinite”). The poet should, could and may become a saint, but what holds him back is his poetry, because poetry is always dual. His chance is consuming his own poetry’s potential to the hilt, but the trap here could be rendering his poetry more and more untranslatable as it comes along. Whence the fascination exercised by the poéte damné. Still, the opposite of untranslatable is not univocal or of no difficulty or complexity. But effective, transmutational, and communal.

by Chris Tanasescu

Chris Tanasescu is a Romanian poet, academic, critic, and translator whose work has appeared in Romanian and international anthologies and publications. His fourth collection of poems is forthcoming from Vinea Press (Bucharest) in the summer of 2010. He is recipient of the International Library of Poetry Award (Maryland, 2001) and the Ronald Gasparic Poetry Prize (Romania & Canada, 1996). His poetry performance / action painting / rock band Margento won the Fringiest Event Award at Buxton Fringe (UK, 2005) and the Gold Disc in Romania (2008); He was an Anna Akhmatova Foundation Fellow (California) in 2006-2007 for his work as a poet and poetry translator, which includes a book of David Baker’s poems, Omul alchimic (Vinea, 2009), translated into the Romanian.  He teaches contemporary American poetry and creative writing and Romanian prosody and poetic composition at the University of Bucharest where he earned a PhD in English with a thesis on rock poetry.

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