The Text as Poem, Art, and Lyric: A Look at Three New Poetry-Based Publications

Courtesy of New Directions Publishing, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Ugly Duckling Presse
Courtesy of New Directions Publishing, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Ugly Duckling Presse

Books and Digest Editor

We take a look at three texts that touch upon the boundaries of poetry: Alice Iris Red Horse by Yoshimasu Gozo, A Primer for Cadavers by Ed Atkins, and Algaravias: Echo Chamber by Waly Salomão.

Alice Iris Red Horse by Yoshimasu Gozo

Cover courtesy of New Directions.

In 1964, a freshly graduated Japanese poet Yoshimasu Gozo published his debut collection Shuppatsu (Departure). Gozo’s crackling and vivacious form of verse caught the attention of Suwa Yu, a poet, translator, and the editor of two influential art magazines highlighting the Japanese avant-garde was emerging in the early 1960s. Gozo’s poetry, as far out as it was, also fell in step in what was happening to the arts in that country: “Around that time,” said Gozo in an interview, “an extremely intimate, yet open, genre-bending mentality prevailed.” Gozo quickly developed a reputation for his bombastic readings, in which, accompanied by snarls and howls of jazz instrumentation, he would channel the words on the page in a maddening build of his voice from whisper to shout. Regarding a work from the late 70s, the three-part, thousand-line long poem Neppu (Devil’s Wind), Gozo said “I incorporated marks, like dots, lines, and brackets, into the text, so that it would be impossible to read aloud. I ended up reciting it anyway.”

His new collection of selected contemporary poems, Alice Iris Red Horse (edited by fellow poet and renowned writer Forrest Gander) shows that Gozo only gets edgier with age. His is a slightly intimidating poetry, incantations that threaten to unleash evil if not correctly chanted, or at least befuddle the mind. Among the most visceral of this new body of work is “Naked Writing,” a visual poem from 2010 that incorporates almost Walserian miniature typography punctured by brutalist date stamps and English names written in flourished cursive.

Highlight from ‘Named Writing”

And here is a translation as printed in the book:
a dressmaker (……’s Nui-san seamstress,……), her goddess’s yamamba,,——tatami mats and straw matting be(came) sheets, the sheets a crimson boat,……(her eyes,……) dyed amber, an awning boat (船篷 péng chúan)
The full text is a dizzying feat of typographical gymnastics that breathe in ellipses and dashes, forcing the reader to acquiesce to its pace. This allows for a deeper appreciation of every tic and swish Gozo presents alongside the Cantos-like narrative of “Naked Writing.” But Gozo isn’t one to simply wear Pound’s influence on his sleeve, he allows more himself to be more vulnerable, pulling the reader into Gozo’s unique sense of experience, such as his unorthodox and powerful portrait of a visit to Okinawa (“The Keening I Long For”):
Early fall of the year 2002, “summer dust” (just), dancing, falls, the former name Koza,…(Bearded Seat,…Old Apologies,
…) now Okinawa City (enter it from Central Park Avenue, the second house to the right) Teruya Rinsuke Teruya, Terurin Inn, why was I standing in front of it?
This is aided heavily by Gander’s Virgilian editor’s notes that travel on the verso pages in tandem with Gozo’s poems on the recto, which flawlessly rendered into English by crack team of a dozen translators. In a poem written in reaction to the Fukishima tragedy (“Stones Single, or In Handfuls”), Gander notes, for instance, that Gozo’s repeated use of metaphoric white peaches refers to a common Japanese symbol of good luck. An item that strikes harder when compared to the other colors appearing in the poem — an abandoned convenience store “Lawson (blue)” and an abandoned tram “rusted-out train (red).” In fact, the notes are so intertwined with this edition that their occasional absence is given a blank page.

Included in this volume are a clutch of collected interviews with Gozo, including a conversation between him and sound artist Aki Onda, that pull Gozo’s poetry back into the performative, and gives an intriguing and crucial history of his work in the greater context of the Japanese avant-garde: “After talking about all these things,” he tells Onda at the conclusion, “I get the sense that I’ve fulfilled some small part of my lifelong dream.” If Alice Iris Red Horse is any indication, Gozo will continue to weave his dream long into his twilight years.

A Primer for Cadavers by Ed Atkins

Cover courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions.

If you’re wondering what a poetry reading from a parallel universe might look like, British artist and writer Ed Atkins serves as the perfect gatekeeper. His compelling video work puts into profile morose and macabre looking avatars, who sing, enchant, mutter, and converse in a wickedly scripted poesy. In a profile for the New Yorker, the writer Andrew Russeth described Atkins’s writings as “an odd mixture of philosophical musings, impressive crudity, and bursts of confusing sincerity.” Clips of Atkins’s video work can be found easily on Youtube, but Atkins’s writings has for a long time been limited to art magazines and gallery publications. Now, venerated publishing house Fitzcarraldo Editions has released the first, and likely the lasting, definitive collection of Atkins’s experimental prose.

A Primer for Cadavers gathers the last six years of Atkins’s hyper-stylized texts, which are difficult to pin to any specific type of writing—a testament to their idiosyncrasies. In one piece, “The Trick Brain,” Atkins creates a dyspeptic timeline that flings the reader back and forth between dates separated by billions of years.

Here’s the entry for “502,000,002” AD:
Eulogized here at a respectful, funereal pace. Drifting slow through the thick, cloistered air — motes of dust long landed, one atop the other, to form weird, geometrical, precarious objects. Materialized echoes of the objects beneath. Your head turns dumbly, your gaze focussed on somewhere the other side of the wall — somewhere in the street outside, in the drain, in a fucking bank.
And 2013 AD:
You are standing in a fucking room!
By pairing outlandish chronologies with an intense sense of presence, Atkins allows for clues into the what shapes his prose: the domestic dispute between man and mind. Take for instance another text written for Atkins’s video piece “Warm Warm Warm Spring Mouths” in which he imagines a fantasy of dying at the bottom of the sea:
I am at the bottom of the sea and my lungs, spine, my inner ear, spasm and collapse with a violent, alien *CLICK!* under the enormous pressure and, consequently, I die.
He then revises the fantasy:
I AM AIN’T at the bottom of the sea — I AM AIN’T anywhere. I am INSIDE MY HEAD. Bogged by them licks of grey matter — the licking grey matter — the licking mists I inhale blown back shroud gag.

Still from “Warm Warm Warm Spring Mouths” (2013)

While disparity is present in the work, Atkins displays incredible sense of control, as if he were whipping a demon back into the fire. He explained to Russeth that his method is a “bedroom practice” where he reads, writes, plays, creates within assumedly long hours of solitude of his bedroom. The thought alone is enough to make anyone mad, but confinement has a knack for enhancing the imagination. In this sense, Atkins’s closest kin may be the French writer Xavier de Maistre, whose novel Voyage Around My Room (1791) parodies a civil worker’s imagined odyssey around his chambers, a way to pass the time while he is under an enforced six-month bedroom confinement.

In his afterword, poet Joe Luna calls Atkins’s writing “a Frankenstein for the 21st-century.” He continues: “It is a writing with one foot in the oral stage, as childish as it is denuded, as infantile in its gorgeous, gorging openness, as it is mature in its skepticism of the contemporary, merely grown-up moment. In this sense it resembles a kind of symphonic tantrum.”

It’s almost post-tantrum, as if by tearing through mental spaces, Atkins comes across gems of profundity that protrude from the deep mines of Atkins’s mind. Nuggets such as: “I wanted to say—confidently, unquestioningly—that I love towards you,” may only offer themselves up through repeat readings. As Atkins is a visual artist, none of these 20 pieces collected here (21 if you count the colorful intro) resemble each other. In “A TUMOUR (IN ENGLISH), Atkins wraps the text around a blank, bulb-like center. In another piece “A Seer Reader” Atkins plants doodles around the text—deflated faces, arrows, some kind of beverage, and yes, a penis—as if to antagonize it.

This may come off as performative, and in some ways — many ways — actually, it is, unapologetically. Whether or not you are ready for it doesn’t matter to Atkins. As he says in the last line of the book: “The performance rages and fucking rages.”

Algaravia Echo Chamber by Waly Salomão

Cover courtesy of Ugly Duckling Presse

The Brazilian poet Waly Salomão, who died in 2003 at the golden age of 60, was an accomplished bard during lifetime. He—along with Ana Cristina Cesar, Torquato Neto, and a handful of others—was a major force in injecting the self — the “I”, rather — back into Brazilian poetry, after a generation of concretism espoused by poets such as Augusto de Campo and Decio Pignatari. Now the long astonishing poetry press Ugly Duckling—in a superb translation by artist, theorist, and poet Maryam Monalisa Gharavi—has put out what may be the first English-language collection of Salomão’s work.

Algaravias: Echo Chamber, which won one of Brazil’s highest literary prize in 1995, serves as an excellent introduction both to Salomão’s work, and to the “poesia marginal” — a movement in 1970s Brazilian poetry that took the poem that rose in opposition to both academia and the political military dictatorship. Though considered a street or people’s poetry, Salomão helped set the tone for the movement’s best work—a poetry that resembled, unironically, that of the New York School of poets.

Compared to the cold beauty of the Concretists, (Campo’s “terremoto” is a good example) Salomão’s confessional poems seem almost blindingly humanistic, such as the title poem, “Echo Chamber”:
I grew up under a peaceful lair
My dream was just a little dream of mine
I was trained in the science of care
Now, between my being and the other being,
The border line has disappeared.
The comparison to the New York School is no accident. Salomão was in constant conversation with American poetry, and included in this collection are a poem on the legacy of Wallace Stevens (“to drench the entire poem / from beginning to end / metaphors, metaphors, metaphors”), as well as an open letter in the form of a poem to John Ashbery:
Nulla dies sine linea. Not a day without a line.
One, without name and with watery will,
raises this slogan like an anti-entropic
But so too is Salomão’s poetry ostentatiously Brazilian. In a poem to Rio de Janeiro, “RIO(colloquial-modernist).DOC” he espouses that temporal fate that can ruin the city—bad weather:
The god that bathes Rio de Janeiro
becomes irritated on sunless days.
Yet it only takes the sun to shine:
Rio bares its unabashedness
and the god exerts
the latest faculties
for pleasure.
Salomão is a bard of Rio, and of Brazil at large, but the poet also paid his dues to become a voice for the people: In 1970, at the height of Brazil’s military regime, and while he was still a student, Salomão was imprisoned in São Paulo’s notorious Carandiru prison for his political activism. Upon his release, he quickly entered the ranks of the great writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians to emerge from Brazil in the 1970s. Salomão’s stylistic short phrases, often written in colorful markers in the dozens of notepads he kept, could touch upon the experimental, but his versatility also lured in Tropicália artists such as Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso for which he penned some of their memorable lyrics (the musician, in turn would write later address his “great friend” in the song “Waly Salomão.”

Waly Salomão (left) & Caetano Veloso (right) in 1981

Salomão’s politically charged youth and his later cosmopolitan airs are excellently paired in “Jet-Lagged Poem” the collection’s longest work, in which he writes of carrying a luggage of contraband that includes “Brazilian Tanager birds and pilgrims and a truck of pilgrims from Bom Jesus da Lapa,” as well as an exploded bottle of “rare wine,” and subsequently ruined, expensive Comme de Garçons shirt.

“Writing is to avenge loss” writes Salomão, a feeling countered when put to poetry: “A deja vú sensation / withering any freshness / in mature age”. The contrast of these two thoughts deftly captures the sentiment of Algarvias — a work of a man still charged by his past, still ready to argue and drink with his fellow poets, but growing increasingly resigned to the enclosing boundaries of age. In any case, he seems all but happy to settle and write. As he says in the poem “Anti-Travel”
To what end abandon one’s shelter,
leave one’s turtle shell behind
And be impelled downstream by the rapids.
It’s possible to imagine that in the relatively short span of time between Brazilian publication of this book and his death, that Salomão had said all he needed to say. This new translation is evidence that his words have and will continue to find listeners.
Selected Poems
by Yoshimasu Gozo, translated by various
New Directions (US)
230 pp.| $18.95
by Ed Atkins
Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK)
480 pp.| £12.95
by Waly Salomão, translated by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi
Ugly Duckling Presse (US)
96 pp.| $16

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