from The Books
The Book of Graves
“Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid, in other words to live at the extremity of life, which is what the dead, death, give us.” (Helene Cixous, translated by Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers)
The Book of Graves is buried beneath the tower of books. To find it the reader must dig, she must use the other books as shovels, she must dig with her hands and feet, and hide in shadows so that the sun will not burn her. There are few trees near the tower of books, and those that still stand have dead leaves, but at certain times of day the books themselves cast shadows, and we who read must constantly move in order to stay safe from the sun, which, in the Book of Books, burns the limbs off readers, off writers, off residents who live in the world of images, of ghosts, of dreams. Dig for the Book of Graves, the signs say, and you will find it next to a ladder that helps you move from one book to another, from one country to another, from one bloody word to another. Don’t climb up the ladder, the words say, you’ll dissolve into the earth; but if the ladder lets you descend, then by all means, descend, and take the Book of Graves with you, and wait for something to happen, anything—an ant to crawl, a volcano to erupt—and soon enough the third chapter of the grave that is the Book of Graves will open its lid, and you will crawl in, and you will be with the dead, or you will be dead, and the smell of putrefaction will itself be a story. Yes, the Book of Graves is written in odors: this is the smell of the holy book as it is bathed in excrement and shoved into the hands of the bearded man who screams for his mothers and country and who thinks he now is a palm tree or a bit of a rust on a barbed-wire fence: there are countries in his beard: countries of dead hairs that smell of wedding preparations in a country of rubble, a country where the ancient implodes and the modern implodes and the body parts that fall from the sky smell like vinegar; they split open as they fall and more countries fall out of them and the dead countries smell like wet rugs whose shags shelter the last spasms of birds and grasshoppers, lizards and frogs. And the smell of decomposition forms words which involuntarily leap onto pages and form voices, murmurs from a purgatory that is far worse than hell; and the page flips and there are odors: here is the smell of an old, wet, leather binding to a book wherein the dead who do not believe in life after death moan in resentment; here is the smell of blood that has mixed with ink and formed rivers from which fish ascend into a sea-sky where the algae weighs hundreds of pounds and there in the sky on the edge of the horizon the hair burns and the shoes burn and the skin burns off those bodies who were promised that death is sudden but instead it is a long shower of hail and words and words and hail and the hail and the words are interchangeable just as the gas and the electricity are interchangeable and the lightning and the sun are interchangeable and the rivers and the trees are interchangeable. The residents of the Book of Graves are monsters: they are like people who forgot to stop breathing when they die. They breathe and forget, they breathe and forget: the odor of life and memory.
The Book of Echoes
The reader who opens the Book of Echoes finds a village where no one lives and nothing grows and where all the houses are empty. A famished-looking man meets the reader at the entrance to the village. I know that you came to find the Book of Echoes, says the man, who now takes the reader on a tour through the village, but it is gone. It has vanished. Or better said, the Book of Echoes is indistinguishable from the living echoes that the ghost-men and the god-men intone as they search for an exit from purgatory. A few flips of the pages and soon the book disappears and there are ghost-men and God-men who march through the village looking for an audience to hear what they have to peddle. A man opens his mouth and a little bomb drops out of it and when it detonates books and rivers form out of the ashes. The reader opens a page from one of the new books that has been birthed by the bomb. On the first page there is a country and everyone in it smiles. They are not happy but the law says they must smile or their teeth and lips will be ripped from their faces. They smile and sob at the same time and their sobs echo and the little bombs that fall from the mouths of the writers and readers echo and the silence echoes and the tour guide who brought the reader into the Book of Echoes says to the reader: It’s been a long time since you’ve been gone. You have been here before; this village hides in another village in another book that you have previously entered. A bomb falls out of the tour guide’s mouth and thousands of poems spill out and there is a desert and there are bones that tell stories of the families who live on the margins of this book: they are parables, sure, but they too drop bombs out of their mouths and from their arm pits and they store bombs in their knees and they fling bombs with their fingers and toes. And the bombs are like poems and rain and static and the horns of buses and trucks; and they fill the smiles of the citizens; and the echoes of the bombs are like little blessings that teach us how to blow up all the lies that have taught us to live. Yes the bombs in this book are blessings and the citizens smile at them and sob and there are cities on the horizon exploding and bodies falling from air planes and the bodies buzz when the reader holds them to her chest and in the vibration of the lifeless bodies there is one long oooooooooooooooooooooooooooo; and the moment the ooooooooooooooooooooooo ends the reader finds a mirror and in the glass there is a baby breathing in a field and in the bomb that is the baby’s cry there is breath and more breath and there is the memory of the time when the citizens of the village did not smile instead they wore sadness on their faces and they laughed and there were words written in the river, and the river said grow and smile and don’t smile, and there was a leg that floated into the picture and it was a prayer and we tossed it to the citizens and they smiled and read the leg and held it to their cheeks and it echoed across the entire village and the citizens laid down to die in the beds where they were born but they could not die; they could only sob and murmur and smile.
28 October 2008
21 October 2008
Kent Johnson lives in Freeport, Illinois, where he has taught English and Spanish at Highland Community College for close to twenty years. He was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Uruguay, and spent his football and college years in Wisconsin and Ohio. In 1980 and 1983 he worked in rural areas as a literacy teacher for the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
The following traductions are taken from his Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, released this October, by Shearsman Books, in the UK. The poems originally appeared in The Miseries of Poetry: Twenty Traductions from the Greek, published by Skanky Possum Press, in 2003.
Some comments on the book can be read here & here & here.
Alexandra Papaditsas died, under still unsolved circumstances, in her native mountain village of Thylakis, in May, 2002. She was 42. A victim of the rare syndrome Cornuexcretis phalloides, wherethrough a large keratinous horn grows from the head, she spent most of her life sheltered in a small Gnostic monastery outside the port city of Patmos.* When she courageously returned to live in her village in 1998 (courageous, for her horn approximated the size and shape of a billy goat’s), she was shunned, regarded as a witch, and on more than one occasion, stoned by villagers. This was how I met Alexandra, in fact, happening upon her cowered form (this was January, 1999, on my first of three trips to Thylakis) behind a taverna, shortly after a group of teenage boys had assaulted her.
Though it disturbingly reveals the paranoia and mental anguish she suffered in her last days, I have, after deliberation, chosen to publish, without emendations, the introduction she wrote for this gathering. It is clear --frayed and matted to a semantic felt by suffering though they are-- that these words were written with intent that they be published alongside our co-translations. I cannot decipher what meaning is attached to the epigraphs she chose from Virgil, Goethe, Lacan, and Dickinson.
There is not much more, frankly, that I wish to explain. Enough hurt and misunderstanding has taken place. Thus, I offer her introduction here, verbatim, even though its wild claims may put me in a suspicious light, no doubt engendering further rumors about my person, as if there weren’t enough already. And perhaps, who knows, I deserve any opprobrium that may come my way. Let the gods decide.
In addition, I have let her final bracketed insertions within the poems stand, marks of delirium though they may be. Perhaps in some sense these marks are also mine, her pain having some Archaic source in me, though I barely understand the wherefore. Perhaps, indeed, her textual eruptions should be seen (may the reader forgive me) as bony knobs sprouting from the heads of such minotaurish translations as these-- weird but extrinsic appendages of the ravaged body in which they root, pathetic onyxian projections of love’s ultimate excrescence into misprision and sorrow.**
In three thousand years, may her curling horn be found within the layered strata of asteroidal debris.
* The monastery is one of the important sites of the Gnostic Order of Greece (Authentic Synod), a small syncretic sect founded in 1874, which centaurishly fuses traditions of ancient Greek paganism with Eastern Orthodox Christian practices. Percy Bysshe Shelley, depicted in church frescoes in Patmos with human torso and goat legs, is one of the sect’s saints. The Gnostic Order is most influential in the Northern Aegean, particularly on the islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Samothraki, where it counts with modest but long-standing congregations. It was in the Patmos monastery, in collaboration with a “Brother Kallikteros,” that Alexandra labored unsuccessfully for years to crack the code of Linear Script A, an extinct second millennium B.C. language inscribed on scores of clay tablets and fragments that have been excavated around the Mediterranean over the past century. Linear Script B, a later and distantly related archaic Greek dialect, was famously decoded by the epigrapher Michael Ventris in 1952.
**I have also chosen to publish, as an appendix, a letter sent to me by Papaditsas shortly before her death and a letter I received from Father Savvas, Pan-Abbot of the Greek Gnostic Monastery of Patmos, at a later date. I had written him asking for a comment of endorsement to this book. Though his reply was shocking and painful to me, I feel I have no choice but to be forthcoming about it.
But now we are in the cavern. Begin your song.
Be bold, bold without rein, and great men and women will come to your aid.
Well, when I was a young psychiatrist in Paris, when the City was innocent yet, the man-boy Artaud was a patient under my care. It was a difficult case (imagine treating a patient who has written on the walls in his own shit, "People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs."): In the end, electro-shock was the only way in. He was blue and stiff as a kite in a Chinese wind. "He is LIKE A GOD!" screamed Dali in Spanish, standing behind me, his bony fingers clutching my hips, while Michaux, in turn, clutched those of him clutching mine (we had, the three of us, with our respective disciples, only just that week severed resolutely with the execrable Breton) and were inseperable, like peas in a pod... Yes, it was as if he, Artuad, were (oh, his gauze-filled mouth) a kilometer up in the air, attached to a taut and humming string, and we holding fast to him.
You have so far to go in your poetry, and it’s going to be hard for you to get there, but maybe you can do it if you try very, very hard. Will you try?
--Jim Chapson (spoken to my dear love, Kent Johnson,
in Axel’s Bar, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, ca. 1978)
Hold fast to me, my whore; let us parasail into the paratext.
I am very happy to at last present these traductions of poems drawn from glorious antiquity. Some of these poems have been translated before, even many times, by scholars whose hands and skulls are luminous with the gold leaf of glory. We (me and the Dead Translator who has ravaged me) have poured now more mystery into them. Beware immediately: Buds of pussy willow will break out under the reader’s arms.
Some are traduced in the first time. This has occurred with astonishing thanks to the Montazah Palace find of 1998, where over four hundred philosophical and poetical papyri were discovered, perhaps, I believe, saved from the Alexandria library as it fell burning by Roman hordes. Of course, it is possible also, as he used to say dreamily, his head prepositioned between my lap, that this may be the anachronistic collection of a noblewoman from the Byzantine.
And therefore this book, fragile as a locust screaming its last, it follows such a love affair of the most sandpapered troubles, like a child whose face has been scraped in and out, rawly, in a meat, against the rock, the rough one laid out for me. A man saved a woman so falsely (he saved me on the thistled hilltop, I was driven there by my head-keras,* the stone throwers kissed their sleepy children goodnight in Thylakis). Then he traitored her, cracked her four-handled cup (cipa mezoe tiriowee weke)** one would say in phrasing from Linear B --though Mr. Ventris’s translation is probably inexact -- left her singular on the macadam, by the housing project (Ghettoi). Yes, the situation is ancient, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.
Yet it’s strange, I am ecstatic at his death, my co-translator, the false one, oh the hole of all his buttocks, which gave me heroin just for traduction favors. I loved him and I hate him, bastard, perambulator, like all my doctors in Patmos, the shockers with dead seas in the eyes (I saw them through my gauze and rubber taste). I loved him and he at one season loved me, his Doric locks. I know it, he bathed my body in rose mallow and honey-thyme, his little goat feet. He grabbed my horn and his eyes went white. Something huge passed overhead. Try…
Dionysus!! There was no time: Our bones touched, our Thesauri caught fire by themselves. The priest who married us looked like a giantess with her long beard, his swinging and smoking thing and all the icons, so orthodox around us.*** The sea lapped into our brains (so erotic!), we greased our bodies and crossed it. Oh, Athena [Here the pencil has been pressed so hard and insistently in cross-out that there is a darkly haloed four-inch long by two-inch wide hole. KJ] papyri folded into origami under our thought. “Look, imagine it,” he said, fanning himself with an intricate waterfowl, “No one has the foggy West idea what translation is.”
And then he departed from me and died, he stepped into a Ferrari, I think, on purpose, in Turin. WHY Hipponax? HOW COME, Anacreon? FOR WHAT Attalyda? POR QUE OR POR QUA Alkaios? HEY Alkman? HUH Kentopholous? WHY Tantalos? His death is a snuff-flick of me. Someone, please, call my mother immediately.
Even though I know that poetry is much more than Poetry, I know these are Poems we did in another time, when we were happiest before the terrorist brown color covered everything. I am going to go away now. I am going to go away, like antelopes roaming from Uruguay, where he lived as a boy. The annotations about what is gone in the moths are mine, after his death. I am sure he would disagree. But fuck him, still. Fuck him in the mouth with a great velocity. Minor lying god.
--Alexandra Papaditsas (March, 2002)
* “Keras”: The Greek word for horn. KJ
** Phonetic rendering of phrase from Linear Script B. KJ
*** See the Appendix. KJ
**** Her Mother’s phone number in Patmos. I have altered it for obvious reasons. KJ
On the Bastard Boupalous *
Be a coatrack for me, dear, while I clock
Boupalous on his snot-filled nose.
Following this, be a four-legged bench,
as I fuck from the rear his sweet,
the idiot giantess of Rhegium.**
Thank you, Ibykos, handsome whore-boy,
for supporting my revenge.***
* Boupalous was a sculptor of Ephesos for whom Hipponax had
great enmity. Numerous of Hipponax's poems take him as
**Her name was Arete, and it appears that Hipponax later had a
serious amorous relationship with her.
*** A dig at the court poet Ibykos, famous contemporary of Hipponax.
Not once has the eyeless goddess, Wealth,
come to my hut and said: "Hipponax, I'm
giving you thirty four silver minas and that's
just for starters." Not once.
Cliff Swallows Dart
[...] cliff swallows dart, as if [...]
[…] place your leg like that […]
[…] open it as if […]
[Strange how the thighed absence on either side (eaten by moths) pushes out the ancient sex.]
The Miseries of Poetry
In Lydian tone she said, "Come hither, I will plug up
your tight asshole." And she beat my egg sack with a sprig
of lilac as if I were a satyr. I fell backwards, breathing
heavy, and caught there by writhing vines I suffered
torture times two, and then some: A dried rose stem
lashed my man-tits; someone smeared me with cow's
shit, and then my ass started stinking like Hades.
Dung beetles came, sucked there by the fetid
gook, like roan-filled flies. Bugs with their alphabet-eating
sounds: They covered me and shoved inward, burrowed
deep, filing their teeth without pity on my bones.
I hurt so bad, I might as well have had the Pygelian plague.
On a Serpent Painted on the Aft of a Ship
Mimnes, you sick aesthete! Why'd ya paint a long
snake-thing going up the rear end of our trireme?*
We'll be fucked with black luck, become slave-rowers
for pug-nosed Thessalians. We'll get eaten by sea-worms.
Also, our pretty helmsman will grow light-headed from
pressing tight, in fear, the cheeks of his succulent ass.
--Hipponax, ca. 565-520. Banished from Ephesos, he lived much of his life as a wandering beggar in the nearby city of Klazomenai. He is one of the most demotic, bawdy, and satirically cutting poets of the Lyric Age, almost totally preoccupied with personal topics, and his verse exhibits an earthiness whose imagery often flirts with the fantastic and surreal. As evocatively stated by Herondas in the Palatine Anthology, “O stranger, stay clear of the horrible tomb of Hipponax… You might wake the sleeping wasp whose bile would not rest even in Hades, but launches shafts of song in lame measure.” Indeed, his meter is unorthodox by Hellenistic standards-- Hipponax composed largely in "choliambs," or "lame iambics" with dragging final feet.
* A large galley with three banks of oars.
Appendix: Two letters
10/ IX/ 02
Dear Mr. Johnson,
There is little time in this life for us to account for our sins. God is merciful in victory, but implacable in defeat. You must beg forgiveness without delay, commit the penance of the auto-Pharmakos* and the tongue-clamping measure of the Second Encyclical, thus surrendering yourself to Him with all the ounces of your will. Only in this way will you be cleansed of the murder of Alexandra (you know what I’m talking about) who was like a daughter to me, and like a sister to my brother monks.
What you have done is very grave. That you would ask me for a “blurb” to your “translation” compounds your serious sin.
Do you not know it yourself? And now you have stolen what little she had in her suffering life: You have stolen and lied your way into her mind and her poetry and thus into her and our true history. How dare you? Have you no shame? Is Poetry for you nothing but a game of evil to kill others? Meditate on this question until your head is attached to your corpse in a medical college (this is foretold by the Oracle).
Commit the additional repentances (seven times each day)** that I include in the enclosed brochure.
May our compassionate God have mercy upon you.
-Pan-Abbot Father Savvas
* According to the Loeb (“Greek Iambic Poetry,” p. 359), “The -pharmakos- was an ancient form of purification as follows: If a disaster, such as famine or pestilence, or some other blight struck a city due to divine wrath, the ugliest man of all was led to sacrifice in order to purify and cure the city's ills. They set the victim in the appropriate place, put cheese, barley cake and dried figs in his hand, flogged him seven times on his penis with squills, wild fig branches, and other wild plants, and finally burned him on wood from wild trees and scattered his ashes into the sea and winds in order to purify the city of its ills.” The “auto-Pharmakos” urged on me by Pan-Abbot Father Savvas would, I assume, be a modified version of the original.
** The number 7, for the seven holes of the human body, is of theological significance to the Greek Gnostic Order (Authentic Synod).
On March 14, I did find a conceptual praxis whereby morphemes, these so crazy particles that are the source of All Contradiction in the World of Signified Appearances (mat is mat because it is not bat; the Blogger man you spoke of, Kasey Silem Mohammad is Kasey Silem Mohammad because he is not William Carlos Williams), may be accelerated at opposite directions through connecting wormholes in the poem*, and at so much unbelievably fantastic speed, so that when they smash against the other, the names of Samothracean gods become released and scattered in paragrammatic traces, dashes, and spirals across [the] flattened phase-face of the poem... [Long pornographic tirade deleted here. KJ]
Hooded Authors wander through cork-screwed streets there, serenely greeting to other hooded Authors with a bow. The poets follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, “shimmering,” as Althusser said in Lenin and Philosophy, “beneath the world.” They are very dark from having gone out to the true edge…
Thus, all manner of Contradiction goes away. I am quite confident that the poets of Patmos, a thousand years hence, their hardened hair pulled back by Sacred Law to a sharpened point three feet behind their heads, will assume this as second nature.
Now, does this mean that Paradox is vanquished, also? No not at all, nor could it be. For Paradox is a higher manifestation of contradiction, and it clearly transcends contradiction. She is a gowned, beheaded Nike, [and] the feathers of her outspread wings curl round the furthest reaches of every figure of speech, thus gathering all difference back into the center of a Truth that is so near we are always overlooking it in our great anxiety to be “relaxedly classical,” “universally personal,” “casually cosmopolitan,” or “opaquely experimental,” whatever the case, yes? To see her ecstatic, headless form appear in holograph inside the poem puts a new spin on everything.
*Elsewhere, she writes: “These poetic wormholes are everywhere, actually, in any poem, regardless of the poem’s contingent value or prosody, and at any phonemic point through whose tiny trumpet-like hole the whisper of lost, dead language puffs upward.” KJ
© 2008 Kent Johnson