The Shaman of Subversion: Jerome Rothenberg’s Radical Deconstructions – Mark Wilson

Triptych (Poland/1931, Khurbn, The Burning Babe) 2007

Triptych RothenbergThere is much to celebrate in this recent collage-compendium of Jerome Rothenberg’s multi-various ‘Jewish’/’Poland’ poems. Triptych brings together perhaps his finest two works: the radically irreverent Poland/1931 and the brilliant holocaust memorial Khurbn. This ‘Polish’ trilogy is concluded by a fascinating recent work The Burning Babe. Poetry, therefore, from the 70s, the 80s and the new millennium respectively. A satisfying and ideal introductory compilation, in short, to one of the few innovative mavericks of contemporary American poetry.

For me, reading Triptych has been a radical and euphoric rediscovery of a poet I had read back in my university days during the 90s. Whilst I was supposed to be reading Forster, Woolf and Auden I was, in fact, also immersing myself in as much avant-garde Twentieth Century poetry I could find in the vast warren of the ULU library at Senate House. Anything published by James Laughlin’s New Directions was instantly appealing and Rothenberg’s dadaistic verse was definitely part of this subversive syllabus. Poland/1931 stood out most significantly then and, having gone out of print in the interim years, Triptych is certainly worth the price of admission for this 1974 classic alone being part of the package. To have Khurbn and The Burning Babe in addition is like being blessed with a second (and a third!) Bar Mitzvah. In assembling Triptych from these three quite different works and presenting them as a single, cohesive, multi-layered text one gets the impression that Rothenberg is, indeed, gifting the reading public with his magnum opus.

Broadly in the American Modernist/Avant-Garde tradition spanning from Whitman, Pound, Stein and Williams through Olson, Duncan and the Objectivists to the Beats, Jerome Rothenberg burst on to the literary scene in the late 50s with his poetry of the ‘Deep Image’ which, with its Symbolist leanings, tapped into Lorca’s duende and ‘Deep Song’ poetics. Robert Kelly and Clayton Eshleman were fellow travellers in this poetic enterprise. Rothenberg also impressed with his City Lights translations of young German poets introducing the likes of Paul Celan and Gunter Grass to an English reading public for the first time. This passion for a universalist world poetics would later spawn organically into the Ethnopoetics movement which is perhaps Rothenberg’s finest, and most enduring, poetic legacy. Ethnopoetics was, and still is, a very impressive attempt to collate and translate the oral poetries of ethnic and tribal peoples not in the accepted Western literary traditions. With poets Gary Snyder, Nathaniel Tarn and various anthropologists (Dennis Tedlock, Dell Hymes) Rothenberg has exploded preconceived and colonial notions of what poetry could and should be. He has founded a literary magazine (Alcheringa) and published a handful of groundbreaking anthologies (Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin etc.) to showcase his new discoveries and latest findings in the fertile, simmering, grass-roots savannah of Ethnopoetics. His blog Poems and Poetics, started in 2008, positively bristles with mini-anthologies in constant flux as well as retrievals from his own back catalogue and compendiums of other poets that he admires. Rothenberg’s keen interest in the experimental Dada poets Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters has allowed him to nurture, over a period of fifty years or so, a poetics of gleeful deconstruction and playful reconstruction. The primitive phonetics and gestures of the Dadaists, and other Modernist artists (Picasso, Picabia), chime convincingly with the primitive oral pursuits of the Ethnopoetics movement allowing Rothenberg to mystically marry his passion for the Early Modernists with his primal and ethnic explorations.

In the late 60s Rothenberg decided to create his very own customised ‘ethnopoetics’ by plummeting his ancestral roots in the Jewish Poland of 1931. Although Rothenberg was himself born in New York in 1931 he vividly imagined the world of his Polish ancestors and, perhaps, his doppelgänger-twin in what he later described as “a world of Jewish mystics, thieves and madmen”. The result is the riotous literary pyrotechnics of Poland/1931 which is definitely his career-breakthrough volume and the clear foundation for all his later work. Poland/1931 is as linguistically pleasurable as Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric, the Circe episode in Joyce’s Ulysses or the quotidian, narrative sections of Pound’s Cantos. The rhythmic, somatic lines of Poland/1931 sashay dangerously with a very real intention to subvert. Its wild dance smashes to pieces rigid Jewish taboos and, simultaneously, splinters many musty Polish ancestral codes in its wake. What had been long suppressed in a patriarchal religion or traditional culture is finally released in the pages of Poland/1931 in an orgasmic sublimation of language. The opening title-poem introduces this subversive theme with a wild and headlong cantillation:

my mind is stuffed with tablecloths
& with rings but my mind
is dreaming of poland stuffed with poland
brought in the imagination
to a black wedding
a naked bridegroom hovering above
his naked bride            mad poland
how terrible thy jews at weddings
thy synagogues with camphor smells & almonds
thy thermos bottles thy electric fogs
thy braided armpits
thy underwear alive with roots o poland
poland poland poland poland poland

Eschewing punctuation in an experimental, phonetic chant the poet charges language with a pulsing, earthy ground-bass which is extremely appropriate to his subject matter. The satirical humour of Rothenberg’s ambivalent relationship to his Jewishness is also fitting. With its raw ironic bite and unbridled ambition it achieves a huge literary mileage. From the start of Triptych the poet is keen to stress the oral bent of his poetics. The shamanistic aspects of verse have always fascinated Rothenberg. One only has to think of his many translations from indigenous North American poets such as the Navajo Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell. What he conjures here at the onset is something which is both a searing critique and a raucous celebration of his forebears. In another poem, Soap (II), Rothenberg ironically sends up the ritual washings associated with Judaism:

Will the man who gets clean love his neighbour?
Yes the facts are apparent yes the facts
live on in the mind if the mind lives on

This playful deconstruction reaches its pitch in the first section of Poland/1931 with poems dealing with all members of the Polish Jewish family including poems entitled The Mothers, The Grandmothers, The Fathers and The Brothers where the poet, almost irreverently, presents his forebears in all their naked reality. This is quite deliberate to avoid any potential romantic nostalgia and, therefore, literary slush. In true ethnopoetical style we have the whole truth of the tribal clan brought complete to the festal board.

Jerome_RothenbergThe deconstruction of one’s own ancestral religion in literature is, of course, not new. Most famously there is Joyce’s 1914-15 bildungsroman Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where protagonist Stephen Dedalus finally flies free from the repressive nets of Irish Catholicism to “forge in the smithy of (his) soul the uncreated conscience of (his) race”. Earlier still in 1907 there had been Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son where a young man escapes the cloying straitjacket of his early years in the Plymouth Brethren to embrace Darwinism and a literary life. More specifically Jewish American, and far more contemporary to Rothenberg, is Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel My Name is Asher Lev, heavily influenced by Joyce’s Portrait, which records a young Jewish painter’s struggles and ultimate ostracism after depicting nudes and crucifixions which are anathema to the New York Lubavitcher group which he is a member of. Nevertheless, these are all novels. The new semantic territory that Rothenberg is perhaps breaking in to with Poland/1931 is writing an entire book of poetry (i.e. one long 150-page sequence) which takes this as the main leitmotif and using subversive phonetic techniques to achieve his ultimate aim. Rothenberg confesses that some of the most extreme poems in the Testimony section were indeed ‘experiments in blasphemy’. Challenges to traditional patriarchal Judaism include the re-discovery of the feminine side of God in the Shekinah poems. This includes the stunningly beautiful, yet deceptively simple, She:

She Shekinah
She Kingship
She Dwelling

She Daughter
She Lady
She Pearl

She Precious
She Cornerstone
She Female

She Floweth
She Male
She Garden

She Garment
She Earth
She Ocean

She Omen
She Lady of Light
She Sarah

She Slave
She Sucketh the Gods
She Rebekkah

She Rachel
She Leah
She Moon with the Hair

She the Hoverer

This is certainly reminiscent of the troubadour cortesia tradition revived  in Modernist poetry by Pound, Duncan and Blackburn (all poets Rothenberg admires of course), but the deliberately Jewish and ethnopoetical tinctures are arguably something new in American verse. In Poland/1931 there are also mystical re-interpretations of the kabbalistic Gematria in the Numbers sequence which recall Blake and Duncan as well as Ezekiel and Daniel:

Then did the Master read the text: All sevens are beloved.

And Again:
4 lamps
4 ladders
4 children of the flowers of the priesthood
shook 4 willow branches
toward the 4 directions

One realises, when reaching this point in the book, that Rothenberg’s extroverted mysticism and avant-garde deconstructions are indeed sacral acts of the shamanistic poet. What had, at first, seemed nonsensical and puerile now attunes more to Rothenberg’s enduring and unforgettable phrase for the tribal poet: ‘a technician of the sacred’. The poems have started to exude both a positive spirituality and a healthy humanisation. New rituals and liturgies are reconfigured from ancient sources and reborn in the poetic imagination. The narrow legalism of traditional Judaism has been exploded quite laterally here into something far more universal. Messianic undertones are not accidental of course.

Meanwhile, Poland/1931 rolls insanely on and we are introduced to a surrogate mother figure in the beautiful Esther K who seems to be the immanent incarnation of Shekinah and who, in this life on earth, is a local sibyl or fortune-teller. The Jewish vaudevillian quality of all this is quite brilliantly done. This is especially the case when we are introduced to a surrogate father figure: Lou Levy, hapless and glass-eyed. The reader is indulged in small tableaus of the couple’s strange relationship before Esther K eventually embarks to America. Her name and voyage carry Kafkaesque allusions which reinforce the absurdist and parabolic qualities of this book. Poland/1931 finally climaxes in the two Cokboy poems, where Rothenberg’s doppelgänger-twin has finally laid possession to America by embracing the mind- and spirit-space of the North American Indians

saddlesore I came
a jew among
the indians
vot em I doink in dis strange place
mit deez pipple mit strange eyes
could be it’s trouble
could be              could be

Here we are in the realm of postmodernist multi-persona and trickster-heroes. Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger or Gary Snyder’s re-workings of the North American Coyote myths come to mind as obvious precursors. The incarnation of Cokboy is wonderfully irreverent, but equally captivating and heartwarming as well. At any rate, an agreeable alternative to trenchant capitalism and gloss-slick urban utopianisms. In some senses a caricature, with Rothenberg sending himself up as a poet-searcher-pioneer (with all his many personas to boot: poet, translator, anthologist, essayist, performer, activist). It is certainly the perfect foil to what will come next in Triptych.

Poland/1931 takes up two-thirds of Triptych. The second part is the forty-page holocaust-memorial Khurbn written in 1988. A change in register could not be more pronounced. The Polish-Jewish holocaust was but a subtext in Poland/1931 whereas in Khurbn it is the central, and really the only, thrust for the sequence. Khurbn is excerpted from its original context in Khurbn and Other Poems (1989) and placed in its truer context as the progenital sequel to Poland/1931.

Khurbn_And_Other_Poems_300_451Rothenberg visited Poland for the first time in 1987 and was able to see his ancestral town, Ostrow-Mazowiecka. Here he discovered that the town was only fifteen miles from Treblinka. During the war those in his family had died without a trace and an uncle committed suicide on hearing the news of the death of his wife and children at Treblinka. In his ‘pre-face’ to Khurbn Rothenberg explains that the word holocaust had always seemed to him ‘too Christian, too beautiful, too much smacking of a “sacrifice”’ and he was therefore uncomfortable in using it. The word “sacrifice” suggests that there was a point to the suffering or, at least, some sort of ‘purpose’ or underlying ‘meaning’. Instead (Rothenberg writes) ‘the word with which we spoke of it was the Yiddish-Hebrew word, khurbn‘. This word meaning “destruction”, and the poet’s preference for it, acts as a subtly subversive critique of most European/North American presentations of the holocaust. It also flies in the face of Theodor Adorno’s dictum that after Auschwitz there should be no poetry only silence. As Charles Bernstein points out in the preface to Triptych there is definitely a ‘negative dialectics’ at work in Khurbn. Whereas Poland/1931 was peopled with dynamic, bristling, headlong life which the poet presented with a gleeful chutzpah, Khurbn is the flipside of the shekel: a dark Sheol filled with ghosts, spirits and dibbiks:

all their lights went ou

their words were silences,
drifting along the horse roads
onto malkiner street

a disaster in the mother’s tongue
her words emptied
by speaking

Here we have an ultimate ’emptying’. The poet’s tone has transmuted into a voice of  witness. The poems have become a whispered  testimonial as opposed to the loud and percussive ‘ethnopoetics’ of Poland/1931. In that book the people had been full of somatic, gargantuan life. In Khurbn people are lonely wraiths who are positively spectral, existing in a shadow-land between life and death:

he picks a coin up
from the ground-bass

it burns his hand
like ashes it is rediscovers

& marks him as it marks
the others            hidden

he is hidden in the forest
in a world of nails
his dibbik fails him

Rothenberg explains that within the poems of Khurbn he was ‘allowing (his) uncle’s khurbn to speak through (him)’. So here we have, perhaps, a radically new approach to Holocaust verse-writing. If one quickly scans the most successful Holocaust poetry that has come down down to us over the past seventy years there seems to be one of two ways. One can either do as Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs did, which is create a totally new hermetic or symbolist language which deals with the horrors of the extermination camps in an indirect and implied fashion, at the edge of language and of what can be spoken or written. Celan, of course, took this to its furthest extreme by fracturing the substructure of poetic language itself. The other approach is that of Charles Reznikoff’s in his book-length poem Holocaust. That is the presentation of the Shoah in a clinical, documentary fashion. A totally ‘objectivist’ method stripped of adjectives and adverbs and offered with no commentary or gloss, but equally as powerful as the hermetic approach outlined above. Rothenberg’s ‘ventriloquist-of-the-dead’ approach in Khurbn seems to combine aspects of both, but is perhaps more in debt to Robert Duncan’s Passages sequence when it is dealing with the horrors of the Vietnam War. This is quite credible when one considers that the likely source for The Burning Babe title not only alludes to Robert Southwell’s Metaphysical poem in the first instance but to Duncan’s redeployment of the phrase in Groundwork to describe the naked Vietnamese girl-child who has just been napalmed. Likewise, Rothenberg’s poetry of the Shoah portrays this same meaningless carnage accompanied by its utter dehumanisation. This reaches a horrifying pitch in the litany-poem The Maledictions.

Let the holes in his body drop open let his excretions pour out across the room
Let it flood the bottoms of the women’s cages let it drip through the cracks into the faces of the women down below
Let him scream in a language you cannot understand let the word “khurbn” come at the end of every phrase
Let a picture begin to form every scream
Let the screams tell you that the world was formed in darkness that it ends in darkness

Even here Rothenberg has subverted the so-called ‘curse’ passages of the Hebrew Pentateuch in order to create something new for another time, another apocalyptic dispensation. In his ‘pre-face’ to Khurbn the poet declares unequivocally that ‘the poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry’. Almost twenty years after the subversive ‘dada’ of Poland/1931 we read a poet whose voice has fully matured with a far subtler form of shamanic subversion.

The Burning Babe, written between 2001 and 2006,is only twenty five pages long and acts as a coda or postscript to Triptych. Here we have the poet’s doppelgänger-twin re-imagined once more as he rises up out of the flames of the Shoah: an exultant Christ-child just as he is presented in much Western art. The sudden integration of Christian imagery and iconography might be surprising here until we realise that Rothenberg is once again subverting the preconceived colonial and elitist mythologies and transforming them into something far more interesting and applicable. In short unadorned lines we have a strange babe, glimpsed in churches, galleries and museums, presented in all his ambivalence:

the groom
a babe
in bright green shirt
& red cape
with a red sun overhead
& dark blue moon
when they have come together
nightly in the dark
& staring at herself inside the mirror
of his god eyes
what will she do to please him
how will the pressures of her body
rest on him
her breathing filling up the nursery
the crib in which he stands
or will a babe
hands cupped     go mad
with pleasure

The Marriage of Saint Catherine is typical of this short book. The shamanic eye is able to deconstruct a millennium of religious culture and create a new mythology for the 21st Century. The babe is as much a mischevious imp as he is a fledgling prince of heaven. Absurdity and irony is part of the literary cocktail that Rothenberg shakes here. The Burning Babe climaxes with a lengthy meditation on Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau house (a large piece of installation art) which brings together and sublimates the multi-various strands of all three books. The poet’s disregard here for conventional punctuation once more emphasising the strange, reconfigured age following in the wake of holocaust destruction:

from hannover to oslo columns rising up
in each a babe’s head reaching to the room
in which we sit we are the witnesses
ourselves from dresden to new york
from ambleside to hiroshima
guernica to auschwitz
where they grind their poems into the dirt
a passage from their time to ours
khurbn shoah holocaust

Jerome Rothenberg’s Triptych gathers together over thirty years worth of poetic experience and imaginative contemplation. As an exploration, confrontation and ultimate transformation of a poet’s ancestral and religious roots it is unrivalled. It is certainly this pivotal American poet’s major opus. The reading public must count itself blessed that Rothenberg, with the benefit of hindsight and retrospection, has finally collated and collaged this masterpiece of contemporary verse.

Mark Wilson’s first poetry collection ‘Quartet For the End of Time’ (Editions du Zaporogue) was published in August, 2011 (it is available to buy or download at His poems and articles have appeared in The Black Herald, The Shop, 3:AM Magazine, The Fiend and  Le Zaporogue. Mark is currently working on a second collection.)


About thefiendjournal

I was born in Blackpool, England and am currently based in Lancashire. Poems have been published in magazines in the U.K, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A and South Korea. A pamphlet; "MMV", was published in 2008. Hundreds of poems have been written in draft form, and multiple books are being planned and edited for future release. As well as editing 'The Fiend' I translate, paint and dabble in photography (images of which have occasionally been used here).
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2 Responses to The Shaman of Subversion: Jerome Rothenberg’s Radical Deconstructions – Mark Wilson

  1. Pierre Joris says:

    Excellent review of a superb book!

  2. Mark Wilson says:

    Many thanks, Pierre. It was a delight to write and hopefully more people will read Rothenberg’s literary masterpiece as a result.

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