Reading Reports

Reading Report: Alison Knowles & Jerome Rothenberg

Two old friends came together to give very different presentations on February 20th, 2008 at the church.

Alison Knowles gave us “North Water Song,” a mesmerizing duet for voice and dancer, to the accompaniment of bell-like chords on electric guitar and occasional recorded tones played on the shakuhachi, more landscape elements than music. Landscape was to be very much an element of the performance, though at the beginning the only object in the performance space was a low platform composed of a wide plank resting on three cinder blocks.

The piece flowed unbroken through three parts. In the first, Alison named a series of object and I ching castings, the dancer, a younger woman, intoning various terms suggestive of ecological phenomena. It was rather like a composer establishing the tonal elements at the beginning of a composition, while exposing the chance operations involved in its making.

The second and longest part began with the two women unrolling a wall-length narrow scroll of white paper, attaching it loosely to the wall. The dancer then stripped down to flesh-colored leotard and tights, simulating nakedness. Alison wrapped her, as if with swaddling, in another long scroll of white paper, and as the dancer moved it was as if she were emerging from a chrysalis, or a veil, parts of her body emerging provocatively into view, then retreating again, the paper a cloud-form, or more, a play on the variations of clouds or whiteness. Alison wrapped her again, more tightly, as if packaging a statue. Then, as Alison intoned images of flowing water, the dancer, unwrapped again, progressed across the room, squeezing between wall and paper, the lower half of her body protruding, and shone a green light through the paper, creating something like the eddies of water and moonlight on a classic scroll. She seemed to become water itself. The text opened out into a Ponge-like environmental catalogue, Alison wrapping her arm in heavily-textured paper, then moving across the space with a bag of the same paper filled with beans, producing a sound like a rain stick. She sprayed water on the long scroll, as if drawing a horizon line, then tore the paper along it.

The third part began with Alison leading the dancer to the platform. She stood motionless as Alison put loose paper sleeves on her, then raised her arms—the dancer totally passive, like an infinitely compliant, infinitely flexible manikin. Alison put paper leggings on her, adjusting their fit around the groin, then paper slippers on her feet, then pulled a paper hood over her head. And the perversity that had been a disturbing substrate from the start emerged full-blown, but ambiguous, so that there was no safe place for the viewer. The revealing of the flesh-colored leotard and tights at the beginning had been more shocking than actual nudity—the sense of innocence and freedom missing, the simulacrum of nudity insisting on the simplest physicality, and demanding our awareness of our voyeuristic impulse. And the dancer, at the end, had become something like Hans Bellmer’s erotic doll, on which to act out sadistic rituals. It became, as well, impossible not to think about the dancer’s identity outside the performance—Alison’s daughter. The hood at once reminded one of the Spanish Inquisition and Abu Ghraib. Alison led, or escorted, her through the crowd and out, blind, helpless, and scraping her feet along the ground as if manacled.

Alison Knowles is a pioneer of Fluxus, and it continues to be a major influence on her work, as here. Jerome Rothenberg was involved with Fluxus in its early days. He began his reading with a set of instructions for an event in the Fluxus manner from that time, and there were Fluxus-like instructions embedded in the rest of his reading, from his recent Triptych (ND, 2007), which brings together three books, Poland / 1931 (1974), Khurbn ( 1989) and The Burning Babe (2006), but the work couldn’t have been more different. Knowles’ work comes out of oriental meditative traditions, tends to abstractions, and stresses silence at least as much as words. While her environmental and political concerns are clear, they seem divorced from the grit of human life, and radically aestheticized, though no less moving for being so. The connection to the largely absent human world is elusive, expressed as symbol. Rothenberg’s work, often boisterously comic but always at base deadly serious, is an eruption of words profoundly embedded in an occidental, rabbinic tradition of moral inquiry, grounded in the social and individual life as lived. One is overwhelmed by the presence of the street and the multitude of bodies and stories. Symbolism is largely eschewed, except in the magisterial “The Burning Babe,” in which one of the West’s master symbols is deconstructed.

Rothenberg tells us in the introduction to Khurbn that it was written partially “in answer to the proposition …that poetry cannot or should not be written after Auschwitz,” but I think that applies equally to all three books. Poland / 1931, he told us was an attempt, in the manner of ethnopoetics, “to create an ancestral poetry of my own in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves and madmen.” He had previously attempted the same for Plains Indians and other groups equally threatened with physical and cultural annihilation. The impulse was somewhat the same—in each case it was a mission to rescue dead and dying cultures from the grip of sentimentalization and appropriation into the forms of the hegemonic culture. So, an exuberant, sometimes bawdy communal life is resurrected as it lived within one Jew born in 1931, reconstructed out of voluminous scraps of hearsay as if it continued unbroken.

A decade later, having visited what was left of his family’s Polish life, in their village and in the camp where almost all of those who stayed behind perished, it’s another version of that world being resurrected. He can no longer turn away from the horror and despair epitomized, for instance, by his family’s one “survivor,” an uncle who had gone to the woods with a group of Jewish partisans and who, when he heard that his wife and children were murdered at Treblinka, “drank himself blind in a deserted cellar & blew his brains out.” The poem “Nokh Aushvitz (After Auschwitz)” is a catalogue of “pure ugliness,” culminating with

the scarlet remnants of the children’s flesh
their eyes like frozen baby scallops
so succulent that the blond Ukrainian guard
sulking beneath his parasol leaps up
and sucks them inward past his iron teeth
and down his gullet, shitting
globules of fat & shit
that trickle down the pit in which the victim—
the girl without a tongue—stares up
& reads her final heartbreak

Khurbn attempts to give that dead girl her voice again, as Poland / 1931 had tried to give a voice to the pre-Auschwitz past.

The Burning Babe takes its name, and draws much of its imagery, from the title of a poem by the English Catholic Martyr Robert Southwell, but reads it through the lens of Blake’s “The Mental Traveller,” which supplies its epigraph:

But when they find the frowning babe
Terror strikes thro the region wide
They cry the Babe the Babe is born
And flee away on Every side.

In Rothenberg’s reading, the Babe as symbol of Christ is repeatedly contrasted to “the real babe,” which suffers at the hand of its symbolic savior. The idea never is allowed to excuse the actual. If anything, the endless cruelties performed in its name are seen as consequences of that symbolic distancing.

babes watch
their killers
little eyes gone white

with fingers squeezed around
a doll whose eyes
are also white

& filled with
killers’ faces
like a babe’s

So, two very different, profoundly moral artists. It strikes me as a shame that so many of The Poetry Project’s regular audience weren’t there. It was a full house, but the median age must have been about 50. This is hardly surprising: I’ve noticed a tendency for audiences to approximate an age or group cohort, which would seem to elevate the social above whatever might be learned. These were two masters at the top of their form. One would think that younger poets especially would have flocked to see and hear them.

Mark Weiss