Ammiel Alcalay’s “neither wit nor gold” (from then) comes at us at once as a poetry deeply absorbed in another time and a reconfiguration of that history as it endures and is transformed for the present.
Time remembered is discovered. The poet listens to what emerges “from then,” sees it anew, and recovers it, the way Charles Olson asked poets to listen and witness and dig into a “history as a finding out for oneself,” “to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. . . . one saturation job.” It is, as Amiri Baraka said about Olson’s project, “a poetry that use(s) history as an engine to wrest meaning from the present. To see how now got to be now and where was it going and where had it been.”
This journey is not new for Alcalay, a Boston native who has been working this archaeological path of poetic reclamation for years, whether as a prolific translator (Semezdin Mehmedinović’s Sarajevo Blues and Nine Alexandrias), scholar (After Jews and Arabs), novelist (Islanders), poet (from the warring factions) or, more recently, General Editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a series of chapbooks featuring poetic and extra-poetic work of the New American Poets, “their precursors and followers.”
“neither wit nor gold” (from then) continues this archival impulse but differently, more intimately. In the process, stuff gets unearthed: photographs, documents, notebooks, manuscript jottings, newspaper captions: the unarticulated groundwork of an era—An Era /Any Time /Of Year, Zukofsky once wrote—out of which the poet sifts through the materials of the places and periods during which these poems were written and which are now coming to transparency, as if for the first time, “the materials only get[ting] more mysterious.” At one moment, we see a shot of a rapt, self-abandoned Hendrix on stage, slim guitar vibrating up at the sky, his face of experienced pain and want seen through the book’s paper, right into another fallen figure abandoned in the poem, Valse Triste, on the next page, where the two images are brought together: the image of one person shadowing the appearance of the other’s loss, one lost self set against the other in a ritualistic song and dance around love and death, reminiscent of the medieval troubadour tradition:
I say I am a shade
Of my former self
My legs barely carry me
Among the gowns
Of women no one
Introduced to me
I see them twist.
I see them spin.
I fall. I see
and all I do
is see and fall.
If one is familiar with Alcalay’s poetry—from the warring factions, Scrapmetal, A Masque in the Form of a Cento—then one may hear particular pieces or echoes of those particulars in this book, at least that is what one thinks will be heard, since the book reads as itself, uniquely, almost as if past work has been rewritten, the older poems, or the semblances of older poems, appearing in a newer context. If one is not familiar with Alcalay’s work, all the better—the writing is new and renewed at every turn.
This twice-perceived poetry—from then, from now—is something that should but rarely happens with a Selected Poems, which is what this book was intended to be. But where a Selected Poems gathers poems recomposed for the occasion of the book, Alcalay’s method is reflective and takes us back to the occasions out of which the poems arose. From the originals, or what we imagine are the originals, arises an immediacy of experience, reminding us of Robert Duncan’s description of his process as a “working toward immediacy,” not aim[ing] at originality,” but being “a seeker after origins, not an original.” In seeking after origins, Alcalay’s selection of poems breeds beautiful mutations, pairs of shining wings, taking off, now. . . . The precursors and informers are multiple: from the New Americans—Olson, Creeley, Wieners, Dorn—to the older English—DeFoe, Wyatt, Campion—to (at least one of) the early Americans, the 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet, an excerpt from her poem “Contemplations”—nor wit nor gold nor buildings scape time’s rustrecalled here from the first poem in the volume:
rust and time
nor wit nor
gold abet the
old song’s burden
part prophecy part
longing the hanging
garden a shadowy
dream the world
grows so very old
though once we
too were young
On one level, this is a reflection, even a lament on mortality, as in Bradstreet’s poem, but more critically, it is a call to “dream the world” anew the more it ages, to use longing not as a form of nostalgia but as an extension—an elongation—of what can be reimagined out of the time and facts of the world, past and present. It is the poet “longing the hanging/ garden (of Babylon?),” creating, like the Heraclitus he writes into his notebook, the possibility of “a dynamic universe within a Foundation of Physical Law,” within a history where “all works of the imagination are interchangeable”:
Are facts nor flowers and flowers facts
Or poems flowers
or all works of the imagination interchangeable?
Time is a shine caught blue
from a martin’s back
And time does come through, caught in freeze-framed objects fulfilled through the events which shape them, changing their meaning as the sky changes over them, so that Alcalay is moved to write in a cursive notebook reflection “from then”:
something had happened to the very particles of the substantial, of substance, to the very cup on the dashboard, now not what a cup might have been –the sentences themselves seemingly unable to carry the seed of an untold tale driving through the words in full force to emerge as told
Several pages later “the very cup on the dashboard” appears in an old photo of a car driving through the icy woods towards a snowcapped house on top of a hill. Alcalay takes us through “the very particles of the substantial” to what Ed Dorn called “love of common object”: in this case, a cup, seen close-up through the lens of a camera, “now not what a cup might have been,” back then. And beneath the photo, back then, we find these words:
THERE WAS A TIME WE WALKED
THESE STREETS WITHOUT|
A CARE OUR
Much of this “careless” “history within” comes up against the news of the day in ways that pit young people living an innocent “our time”—a mirage of untroubled life—against the documentary evidence of the times. The poems bear signs of personal histories meeting and mirroring events outside them. On top of one page, there is a prose poem, perhaps the start of a story about kids beaching it under a bridge:
Oily water dripped off the figures. Their white skin bleached by the sun, the girders that clarified them. Silhouetes in the shadows. . . .
The “story” continues and is interrupted by another, this time front and center, a headline: a newspaper photograph with a caption reading Racial Flare-Up in Boston, showing a policeman dismounting from “a horse to wade after swimmers during disorders involving jeering and stone and bottle-throwing between blacks and whites at [a] public beach in South Boston.” This is followed at the bottom of the page by a revision of the prose poem above which began the process, but now suggesting a narrative of teenagers without a care, “running down a gangplank …jump(ing) through the white air, legs crazy, heads about to burst, down through the deep blue green.” In these words, there is an ominous interrogation of the ground—in this case, the water—where people have been: who are these careless white teenagers, innocent, without consciousness, “heads about to burst” playing around deep in the water? Who are they, who were they, now set against another background, a scene close to them in space but not in mind, in South Boston, where cops are invading the beaches and black heads are being broken by bottles?
Alcalay is at his most telling when he poses the possibilities of these counter-collaged memories meeting and creating another kind of consciousness, a third eye on a distant landscape coming into zoom focus, or, like Jack Spicer’s poet as radio, radiating poems as messages (radio waves) coming in at different frequencies, frequenting multiple dimensions. The archival impulse is always pushed in all temporal directions, seemingly at once: voices from the past coming together now as a composition of “these times,” and resonating into the future like a story still emerging to be told. “Working through these materials, “ Alcalay writes in the author’s note at the close of the book, “is in itself a statement about the present and how a body of work might be made not only to cohere but become the carrier of messages no longer so readily available.” Here he echoes earlier writing—as the translator of Semezdin Mehmedinović’s classic collection of writings on the siege of Sarajevo, Sarajevo Blues. In introducing his translation of that work, Alcalay writes about how “poetry is information and in translating such work we take both the risk and responsibility of giving these words another life . . . and providing their possessors a path—however tenuous—back into an indifferent world such words no longer seem to have anything to do with.” In a corresponding way, “neither wit nor gold” (from then) looks back to a seemingly “indifferent world” and asks what “the messages no longer readily available” might mean today and tomorrow, what can the poet do to give that world “another life,” an urgency, another mode of knowledge and experience, where out of context becomes in context, where the words do make a difference, for us, now, captivated by them, again and as if for the first time:
Searching the streets for a face
putting a face to time
Benjamin Hollander’s books include Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli (Parrhesia Press), Vigilance (Beyond Baroque Books), and The Book Of Who Are Was (Sun and Moon Press).
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Benjamin Hollander