Tuesday, June 25, 2013
PEEPING MOT (A Maxwell; Apogee Press)
In the late Spring and summer of 2011, I began work on translating Rene Char’s Leaves of Hypnos. Here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to Ron Silliman the day that he posted Tim Hetherington’s Diary (Saturday, April 23, 2011). Given the current events in Syria, I’d recommend that anyone who has not seen that video find it on their search engines immediately.
“I’m about one-fourth of the way through translating Rene Char’s Feuillets D’Hypnos (Leaves of Hypnos). My French is rudimentary, to say the least, but it’s sufficient to be very dissatisfied with the version edited and mainly translated by Jackson Matthews (Random House, 1956). Cid Corman’s translation (Grossman, 1973) is vastly superior to Jackson’s, but it feels like a radio reporter’s transmission of field notes that have first been vetted by the station’s general manager. I don’t mean that Corman’s version seems censored in some way, but that he intermittently constrains himself, like an actor who feels unworthy of representing the hero, from testing the intellectual and emotional boundaries of Char’s concise syntax. I’ve known and admired Char’s poetry for a long time, and from my first encounter have wanted to make his work better known. I wonder how many of our contemporaries have actually read Char, and so I’m working on this translation as a way of urging others to read him. I myself have certainly benefited from this process: the thematic nodes in Char’s prose poem journal are very subtle at times, and only by working on a translation have they become audible.”
I only finished about a third of Char’s journal of his time in the Resistance during World War II, and perhaps I will never find the time to do so. Having engaged, however partially, in a close reading of Char’s writing has continued to be a greater resource than I anticipated as I continue to meet younger poets in Los Angeles. Most recently, A Maxwell gave me a copy of Peeping Mot, in which Char’s presence is minor but nevertheless contributes grace notes to a book that focuses on the process and value of raising an infant son. Seeing Char quoted in this book immediately made me want to read it so as to understand the precise integration of Char into Maxwell’s themes.
It turns out that Peeping Mot is a hybrid assemblage of short poems, epigrams and diary-like meditations on the relationship of language to social power. The book is 83 pages long (the pages themselves are unnumbered); it opens with four untitled, numbered propositions, followed by epigrams with titles and the first dated entry, 7.25.10. All this occurs in the first eight pages, and the book unfolds along alternations of these pressure points for slightly over six months.
Many books that might fall into the classification of post-modern make little effort to stabilize themselves in an easily apprehensible manner. Maxwell has made use of a familiar process of “tagging” in order to register the “key” (akin to music) of a given passage. Of the dozen terms that serve as a “key,” the two most frequent are “Life X” (39 entries) and “Suspended Judgments” (42 entries). Judgments get suspended because the problems (another “key”) are immured within complicated contexts. The challenge is to extract the problem and resolve it, without isolating its solution from the causes and sources of its original contradictions.
The primary axis of destabilization in Peeping Mot is the presence of a very young child in a family. I read somewhere if you find the exact center of a play by Shakespeare you’ll encounter a line that contains the key to the play’s major thematic impetus. Almost exactly at the mid-point of Peeping Mot, Maxwell ponders “The problem of the black swan tool,” a term that is a conflation of a mechanism used in a rescue operation (“swan tool”) and the paradigm of the “black swan,” the exception that disrupts normative expectations. In Maxwell’s formulation, the writing of a poem is the primary activity of the poet, but becoming a poet involves the crucial awareness that “the vector of poetry is away from publication.” On a page tagged with the key: Discovery, Maxwell observes, “The poem as black swan tool attempts to engineer an exception, an egress from ‘the literature’ – from the literary economy or marketplace – yet simultaneously also attempts to breaks into the vehicle of literary history, or the conceit of a bounded discipline and its progress.”
The double function of a poem in this construction manages to keep its balance in Peeping Mot largely because Maxwell is able to juxtapose the obligations of child-raising with its peculiar, but ineluctable outcomes:
“If one can never concede the defeat of one’s own knowledge, one can never be a humorist.
If one can never be a humorist, one can never be perfect.”
One’s knowledge will be defeated, in part, because that is what the love of the child demands: not the imposition of the strictly delineated, but the bestowal of reassurance that an autonomous means of looking at the world is possible.
He’s delighted, and we want that.
He fails to describe the world in the canonical way, and we want that.
Such even prospects.
In accepting such a leveling, Maxwell affirms his comradeship with Char: “To understand Char’s sense of acquiescence, one must understand what he chose to sentinel: the sovereignty of the child.” Near the beginning of the book, on 7.27.10, Maxwell records a conversation with his young child that addresses how the child exercises that sovereignty:
What’s this thing?
In the youngest vocabularies, the sound at the root is a response to the prompt.
What does this token go when the agreed-upon words crowd it out?
PEEPING MOT is one of the places to look for the poem of where it goes.