Robert Mueller: Anna Shukeylo’s Urban Diaries

How to Do Urban, by New Yorker of Choice


Two young women, art students, funnel into the bleak and lead-like dreary light of the subway car grasping in their hands, by the frames on which they have been crafted, smallish paintings (maybe 12 by 16).  Apparitions they are, the young artists, and holdings of the imagination, their finished images that I may never have the opportunity to observe again.

In New York City one can still think of opportunities not as tearless moments to rebuild upon destruction and demolition, but rather as the unexpected and normal continuance of spirit, (perhaps still) unlike any emanation of spirit anywhere else in the world.  An assertion of this kind cries out hotly to be contested, but it more or less stands, if the current exhibition of Anna Shukeylo’s Urban Diaries, at the Morningside Heights Branch of the New York Public Library through January 3, 2013, gives its indication.

Special people like to feel special by taking note of their surroundings.  Commonly people riding the subway trains in New York City take no notice of anyone around them, are not concerned about their subterranean existence.  Special people, especially in the dullness of these surroundings, do take note, but again by common agreement not so far as to talk to strangers, as is well and good.  You could talk about one of the paintings, however, because it was indeed special.  It displayed not exactly ground and foreground, but rather, when backed by the subway’s dim disinterestedness, more foreground, being the sharp colors of a musical instrument depicted on the canvas, against less foreground, the different oranges and peaches and reds arranged in geometrical blocks, just as music itself takes geometrical form, and especially that of the instrument depicted in this one artist’s mind, and spectacularly the nature of its realization of the music in frames known succinctly as “bars”.  As was obvious, the painting was, and is (though I may never study it again), special.  Being special admitted of compliments, even in the subway-train environment.  These pleased, and even where people are total strangers they could please, the comment or two that also elicited mild, and to be sure politely concealed, annoyance.

Of such trimmings of contrast and guardedness, Anna Shukeylo’s scenes in New York City include riding in subway cars populated by effaced and remotely and abstractly noted passengers.  As such, her tributes to meaninglessness are hardly special.  On their facelessness, they are not special.  The impersonality of her figuring, perhaps its anti-personality, would seem ever more extensively to be bred of an insight about urban living tired enough to make it unremarkable.  

Yet this assessment does not entirely hold.  You could call it a strategy, for there is pleasure indeed, and it lies in the coloristic patterns, even though similarly ranged from piece to piece.  Something in them stands out persuasively, as an effect to be special and to feel special in amongst all the drabness and the no doubt oppressive spiritual exhaustion thereof.  In other words, the colors stand out by seeping through, enriching themselves into interest and specialness and into some measure of sought-after New York City joy.  

With a couple of exceptions, the artist uses acrylic on mylar, and hence by way of screening and trickling the known impressions down, by way of everywhere glopping, or if not that forming, she discovers her technique for charging the urban experience, in a way that could only be New York.  That New Yorker’s bearing may be a claim (Ms. Shukeylo is from St. Petersburg), only one of a few good claims, for this exhibition of artworks at a local branch library, a claim that even if open to dispute takes part in being special.

The paintings sport a filmy surface, aqueous in its texture, that is apparent and much noticeable though not immediately appealing for all that.  Thus “Momentum”, by way of offering its comment on urban depiction, has a downward pull, and is about as remote and silted and sickly as you can get picturing platform and entombing tunnel, with deep feel of mausoleum.  At the same time a yellow streak flashes excitedly through the awareness of dreary prospect.  Yellow, not known particularly for being lively and cheerful, can of course be so and manages that quality here, with grand sweep and arching, asserting point.

The remoteness in “Wednesday”, not so very different, falls upon huddled ghostly figures preparing for an undefined beyond.  Thus the patchwork of vague forms haunts, is fearful as it traps you towards the left side of the frame, though here too with a relieving touch of yellow.  Elsewhere spreading patches and pools of yellow, and yellow paint strokes scratched a little ineptly and therefore a little glaringly across the scene, provide impetus.  Further relief comes from the balancing against the yellow of complementary colors violet and pink, where they spurt quite beautifully into the upper-right corner.  Such vivid blocks of color, if you will, appear out of the way but prominently.  Along the same border of the frame streaky and watery blues in emphatic and various shades drop into a quieting extension of the pool effect still dominated by yellow.  All of this placing of pools of color with their complements and contrasts gives the painting spirit and even its own kind of panache, but not a specialness of the kind that emerges in “Tuesday Morning”, a companion piece where Ms. Shukeylo uses a similar range of colors and likewise makes use of quieting shapes along the floor of the panel.

As subway scenes generally do, “Tuesday Morning” retains some subterranean feel of a blackened and morbid atmosphere, although the train seems to be travelling at an elevated stage of its journey.  In daylight regardless, the figures are effaced, and not a little scary, so that much is conveyed in the way of oppressive urban depicting, but in the pool-shapes that support the flooring a shifting movement from a dirty, dark blue to comforting aqua helps to create a balance against the patches of contesting colors.  One of these is a surprising red.  Nevertheless, it is again yellow, resting in other parts of the scheme, that holds the balance, and these moments of odd brightness, whereas not nearly as obtrusive or flashy as in “Wednesday” and “Momentum”, are elegantly placed, and serve toward a shaping, not quite a pattern but an engaged placement of sufficiently inspired ordering as to achieve the special, as if that were what the painting was about; and that is what it is about if we feel it, if in and through observing it we sometimes want to be special and feel special.

Thus in “Wednesday” it is a striking overall compositional balance that delivers specialness in and amongst the drab and the dreary.  And it does so with great success.  The artist, in New York City, wanting to be special and to feel special, as it might seem in these paintings, accomplishes her task for us as her viewers, even as her select viewers.  She, the exhibition, the spirit that lights them up in our special place, our landmark that is the Morningside Heights Branch of the New York Public Library, all find pleasure and a kind of glory by means of form, by putting the form and the assertion into it, by undertaking with exuberance, however unlikely for those who are not New Yorkers (we think), to make it special.




                New York City        
            December 2012
Copyright© 2013, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.

Robert Mueller has been a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor of essays and poems to this web­site jour­nal.  His poetry appears also online in Blackbox Manifold, Mad Hatters’ Review, Ink Node, Moria and else­where.  Of major print pub­li­ca­tions, there are poems by Robert Mueller in First Intensity and American Letters & Commentary, the lat­ter also pub­lish­ing reviews of his.  Having earned a Ph.D. in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture from Brown University, he has con­tributed poetry reviews and essays to many pub­li­ca­tions, often bring­ing other lan­guages and thus also distantly-​​related texts and sources into the picture.



Donal Mahoney: Why We Write

Why Did You Write That?


Anyone who has written fiction or poetry probably has been asked at one time or another, “Why did you write that?” I’ve been asked that question and I have never been able to provide an answer.

Some writers may set out to write a poem that will address an important question about life, such as who we are as human beings and what purpose, if any, we have on Earth. I have never tried to write a poem like that. Nor have I ever written a poem knowing in advance what it might say. I just write down “words” that come to me, provided I like the way they sound and like their “rhythm” when heard together.

I might be sitting in a diner or in my living room and “hear” a few words that sound as though they belong together and so I jot them down, often on a napkin or scrap paper. Maybe an hour or a week later, those same few words will “give birth” to a few more words that seem to fit with their “parents” so I add them to the scrap paper.  When I have enough words, I make my first conscious decision to do something with them. I add verbs or nouns and whatever else is needed to add structure. Eventually I have sentences which I then break into lines, according to sound and inflection. End breaks are important to me. Next I try to determine what the poem, if anything, is trying to say. And that’s not always easy.

I have never been impressed with adjectives and adverbs. I like concrete nouns and strong verbs that drive those nouns wherever they need to go. Sometimes they never go anywhere. Sometimes they “sleep” for a long time, technically alive, but not developing into anything. It’s as if they were an ovum needing semen to become an embryo. But no matter how long a group of words may lie dormant, I never abort them because some day I may know what to do with them and they might develop into a poem.

By themselves words exist “in potency.” In the right poem, they exist “in act.” Big transition, all for the better.

Once my “heard” words are in sentences, I try to arrange them in the first draft of a poem. The sound of words bumping into each other, one after the other, is paramount for me. At its best, the sound would be lyrical but it doesn’t have to be as long as there is a “rhythm” of some kind that I can hear. I have no interest in the “meaning” of a poem in gestation, although I hope to discover meaning when the poem is finished or almost finished. Sometimes, however, I have to inject “meaning” so I can finish the poem and not lose the words that prompted me to write the piece in the first place.

When I come back to a first draft of my “heard” words, I always find the text needs surgery. So I begin to search for whatever message might lie in those early lines. If I find I actually said something meaningful, I’m not surprised. Over the years, I’ve sensed a process in which a poem bubbles up in my subconscious and then slowly takes shape in my mind. Part of this process I direct, and part of it just happens.

For once, I’d like to write a poem on purpose about an idea, major or minor. I’d like to know the point I want to make in a poem before I start making it. But I don’t ever recall writing a poem with a purpose in mind. I started writing poems around 1960 and now it’s 2012, and the way I work hasn’t changed: I “hear” a few words while doing something else and their arrival always surprises me. They’re like a gopher popping out of a hole. If I were a painter or photographer, I would paint or photograph the gopher. That strikes me as far less laborious than jotting down “first words” on scrap paper in the hope they will eventually mature into a poem.

It’s amazing to me, for example, how one of my earliest poems, “In Break Formation,” which appears below, ever got written, never mind accepted and published by The Beloit Poetry Journal in 1968. The panic attack that occurs in the poem actually happened to a woman in a kitchen while I was with her. At the time, neither the woman nor I knew she was having a panic attack because nothing bad had happened and neither of us had ever heard of a panic attack. Every other detail in the poem, however, I had to fabricate over time to make the poem come together and “work.” To accomplish this I used the three words I “heard” at the start–“in break formation”–and the image from an old World War II movie that I “saw”–namely, planes in the sky diving in a diagonal line, one right after the other, toward a target somewhere below.

Any poem I write I write to satisfy me–not anyone else. If I’m lucky, an editor will publish the poem, and that’s wonderful. If a reader or two likes the poem, that’s a bonus. But I write only for myself, to satisfy my own ear, to “finish” a given poem so I don’t have to think about it anymore. However, six months after the poem is published, if I read it again, I’m apt to find something “wrong” with it. And so I begin tinkering with the “finished” text to eliminate the flaw. Sometimes I can make the fix. But sometimes my efforts result in a new and different poem. It was Dylan Thomas, I think, who said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. For me, Mr. Thomas was right.

Completing a poem has always been more important to me than saying something important. Maybe it’s like making a vase on a potter’s wheel without concern as to what the vase might be used for. I admit to this now because I hope one day to be able to answer the well-intentioned person who might ask me how or why I wrote a certain poem. Not long ago I saw Philip Levine, former U.S. poet laureate, on public television. The interviewer asked him if he knew where his poems “came from.” Mr. Levine looked embarrassed and finally said he had no idea where his poems “came from.” I share his ignorance, in the best sense of that word. If I knew where poems came from, I would go there with a big suitcase or maybe just a laptop.

I don’t understand how or why my way of writing a poem works for me but I would like to know if anyone else writing poetry works in a similar fashion. I’d also like to hear from any poet who knows what he or she will write before starting a poem or what the ending will be before the first line is written. For me, that would be like knowing from the moment of conception the gender and personality of a child I had fathered. Some day technology in obstetrics may make that possible. But I don’t think technology will ever explain in advance the DNA of a poem.


In Break Formation

The indications used to come
like movie fighter planes in break
formation, one by one, the perfect
plummet, down and out. This time they’re
slower. But after supper, when I hear her
in the kitchen hum again, hum higher,
higher, till my ears are numb,
I remember how it was
the last time: how she hummed
to Aramaic peaks, flung
supper plates across the kitchen
till I brought her by the shoulders
humming to the chair.
I remember how the final days
her eyelids, operating on their own,
rose and fell, how she strolled
among the children, winding tractors,
hugging dolls, how finally
I phoned and had them come again,
how I walked behind them
as they took her by the shoulders,
house dress in the breeze, slowly
down the walk and to the curbing,
how I watched them bend her
in the back seat of the squad again,
how I watched them pull away
and heard again the parliament
of neighbors talking.

— by Donal  Mahoney


“In Break Formation” was first published in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Vol. 19 No. 2, Winter 1968-69, Box 151, Farmington, ME 04938.


Copyright © 2012, by Donal Mahoney. All Rights Reserved.

Donal Mahoney has had work published in Spinozablue and various print and electronic publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his earliest work can be found at



Between the Notes

Bang on the Chasm


by Robert Mueller



I am wondering about new jazz and new art music, and separating them entirely for the convenience of entertaining these thoughts. I am thinking about consorting with a difference even though what I have to say about one has to be true of the other (again assuming for the purpose that they are separate). Specifically as a matter of degree I want to distinguish new jazz as a living production that arrives currently, spontaneously in the club or spontaneously also at a jam session or recording session, from the same scenario for new art music, which comes to us as a product, or object, that, when it arrives, may arrive in a public performance, but not currently. Rather, there is a delay, for reflection to take place, and even if it were to take place in the few moments after the performance has ended (that is, right then and there), it nevertheless arrives in the mode of delay.


I wonder, then, about how different histories of musical performance and different avenues of musical expression feature the same experience and the same happiness; on the other hand, we do and may feel their trending in distinctly different directions. And for music extending backward through our modern era, we most definitely approach the experience in reflection. There of course would be no limit to the timing of the reflection, and the more and more and the longer and longer the new art music audience reflects, the more the composition (granted that it has to be performed to be a composition of any standing (true?)) goes into maturity, and, in short (or long), it becomes better received, better served.


With jazz, on the other hand, you may believe that it is incumbent upon the musicians themselves, as true artists, to mature over a long stretch of time before the magical moment arrives in its wondrous form. Thereafter, it is not so much a matter of reflection as of new artists continually, after their own advance to maturity, trying it out.


Now one feature that makes the series of new art music, presented four times a year by the Locrian Chamber Players at Riverside Church in Manhattan, wonderful is the fact of the audience not having time to reflect. Though every bit concerned about the proceedings, the audience may enjoy the moment, and is encouraged to do so. In other words, good will and a communal spirit are maintained because of the rule that all pieces (“piece” not a jazz term particularly) to be performed must have been composed within the past ten years. Thus no opinions of approval or disapproval ought, in good faith, to form, and only friendly interest, along with educated attention, is appropriate. The listener will react in any event, but a spirit of curiosity guides this event, and of fun, and the audience perhaps cannot, or should not, adopt a critical approach valuing this or that piece as good or bad, since you cannot know in the first place. You cannot know that the music might not grow on you later.


Having said all that, and to break the rule shamelessly, I will express my view. But first a word on the atmosphere in the room at this recent presentation. The feeling of stuffiness was not overwhelming. The feeling was in fact airy: the outside balconies high high up, the breathrestoring views over the Hudson, the high pitching of Gothic point in the room’s pleasant surrounding beneath a modest crossing vault. We took the new sounds in and prepared ourselves to reflect as well as we could, but a cordiality of surface mirrored a delighting that is not far from, in its own way, a gathering. In its own way, it was current.


Now as to the listening experience, it is true the audience is clamped down on floor chairs; but there is a proscenium stage and velvety curtains, possibly not functional, and a door in the back wall which, if memory serves, sports some wriggling conical designs that make up the transom.


Now as to my view, or opinion, entered prior to reflection on this occasion, even prior to presence, I am especially drawn to the music of Julia Wolfe, whose composition for piano titled Earring was performed by Jonathan Faiman. The date was Thursday, August 25, 2011. David Macdonald, the director of the series, apologized for the fact that not every piece on the program was composed within the past ten years. He said he would never do it again; but too late, and so we must break the rule again, gently, and talk about Julia Wolfe’s Earring from 2000.


It is in fact the case that Mr. Faiman did not encounter too much difficulty performing the piece. It was that sort of event, that sort of composition, in a simple style, however much there for the taking and reflecting. In Earring, we mean to note, there is a slapping and clacking rhythm out of the highest keys and a growing rhythm not far down the keyboard in the left hand. The cross-altering rhythms do not match, and because of the lighter density they match even less, marking a purported minimalistic improvement over tendencies, gorgeous as they may be, featured in the compositions of the great 20th-century American composer Elliott Carter. But although he is still going strong, I am going back a little (again), and so let me say merely that there is a difference in Earring’s rhythmic ultra-freedom in terms of the openness encountered over the slight derailing, slight in view perhaps of this constant tapping. That is to say the two hands clash all right, but do so in spirit, and in good faith and form, in the way of the further possibilities already covered in the “Bang on a Can” approach that, to go back again, Julia Wolfe helped to formulate during the 80s.


I suppose her innovations for the music scene, a New York scene, can apply to almost anything, but they generally for “Bang on a Can” mean that if anything goes you can endorse the best in music because you are looking for music that does not settle for a pre-defined mold. Surely that is the case; surely it is true you can find the best in music that way.


So in this piece Earring by Julia Wolfe, whose title points to freely evaluating Nietzschean “erring” as well as emancipated listeners’ “hearing,” the pianist’s right hand at the very top of the keyboard slaps and taps and tangos and tongues, and all the while, not in tandem, not quite joining, the languider notes of the better harmonized left hand become fuller and richer and fuller and richer and, then, it was over. Over already? Over. In God’s eyes, it was the funniest darn miniature, a veritable minute waltz (well, maybe two minutes), against a backdrop of headlands, enormous but brittle, standing out but porous, seen through the floating, above the silent acres of water Julia Wolfe has defined in her silence, a backdrop for the anti-sublime, a perimeter for palliating to seek the prayer of the poem of the divine music. Divine new art music, but not only, but not only after.


The other compositions on the program for August 25, 2011, and dates, were Night Psalm (2009) and I’m Worried Now, But I Won’t Be Worried Long (2010) by Eve Beglarian, Embracing the Wind by Robert Paterson (2000 (also more than ten years ago)), Ostinati by David Macdonald (2009, 2011, one recent date for each ostinato), THERE’S NO PLACE (2008-’11) by Colin Holter and Black Bend by Dan Visconti (2003). Eve Beglarian, Robert Paterson and Colin Holter were in the audience, and David Macdonald was not only present but he ran the show. Thank you, David.


New York Composers: An Excerpt


Copyright © 2011, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.


Jill Magi: Labor Lost and Found





by Jill Magi


Last fall I found myself at the gate of an archive. Remembering something from my labor and union past and thinking about my work life at present, I came across the on-line finding guides for the Wagner Labor Archive at New York University. The writings here are a warm-up to my trip into that archive. As of this spring, I’ve been inside, but that writing—is it poetry?—is slow to come along. For now, I’m using exposition to trace the outline of a shape I do not yet know.


November 4, 2008

On the day of an historical election, after weeks of hearing the word “socialism” used as a weapon (as they bail out the banks), I am anxious. So to offset this feeling, I browse around the internet—a way of tuning out, not unlike a drug, or a prayer that I will find the thing I need—

I come across the site of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. It is one of the few places inside Bobst Library that is open to the general public. (Pick up a pass at the door that reads “Tamiment” and carry it with you wherever you go.) Scrolling through pages and pages of linear feet of “radical America.” A virtual tour: exhausting, seemingly exhaustive, but probably not the full story—

I am thinking of the word “resistance” and of the historian Robin D. G. Kelley who has pointed out the problem in believing “that the only struggles that count take place through institutions.” There are stories passed on, in everyday people trying to uphold the contract, in silences too, and when there is no contract.

What will my Labor be?


A Thru-Hiker’s Handbook

In 1998, days after my grandmother died, I read The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook to the Appalachian Trailfrom cover to cover. Robert Pinsky said that he used to read the dictionary as a child—the joy of words with no plot. Comfort in the catalogue, its delightful open field of choice, chance. Comfort in the document that resists the conclusion of the documentary—so if traffic and weather radio reports, sound recordings of the Hudson, or framing the changing sky may be our art, then perhaps—I’m plotting now—why not these finding aids, this record of labor? A fetishistic compositional move born out of a sense of endangerment? The archive: perhaps above all else, a record of a belief in inscription. Paper, articles, brochures, audio tape. Materials able to be filed, boxed, measured out in feet. Collecting, submitting, hauling, believing in “the work.” Endangered waste turned into—

FOIA” translates

Freedom of Information Act”


Acquired from the FBI

The librarian has faith that the searcher exists and so prepares for her to enter; I want to bring the finding aids to you. I highlight, copy, paste. Do you recognize a name? A workplace? How many radicals in your blood? Have you heard from them recently?


February 23, 2009

Dear Reader:

Did you think this book would be about childbirth? It might be fine to think about exhaustion, struggle, making a certain kind of love and effort tangible, new life, to hold the archive’s books in cradles, measuring out linear feet, first steps—



as cultural expression,

pace of,

patterns of,

and pleasure, as



January 29, 2009

I hustle around the newly renovated halls of one University where I teach, getting ready for a new semester. This time, I’m registering to take a class; I’m on the other side.

There is a new welcome center that feels like a gallery—floor to ceiling windows, street-level, colorful details with the school logo lining one whole wall, flat screen computer monitors invite me to “check the status of your application.” To get to the registrar and bursar’s office, I walk down a set of concrete steps into a basement. The door to the boiler room, ajar, and it smells, in this stairwell, of burning fuel or wet paint or a combination of the two. I exit the stairwell and the air is stuffy. The light is fluorescent and down here there are no windows. Some of the same design accents—orange counters, signs in dark grey Helvetica—are present, carried over from the gallery-like space upstairs—

remembering the old university building across the street that housed admissions, registrar, bursar, cafeteria, all on the first floor, with windows to the street, all emptying out into a shared lobby space where professors criss-crossed with librarians, janitors with students, administrators with clerical staff, adjuncts and full time, going to the library, going to the bursar, going to class, going to eat, talking to each other, or at least seeing each other. A Rauschenburg print alongside a thumb-tacked roommate request with tear-off phone numbers; posters for gender studies colloquia alongside “Used Textbooks for Sale.” Perhaps that sense of “commons” was always disingenuous—

In this new basement space accessed only by workers and the students who they’ll end up “serving,” six workers, all people of color except for one, sit behind counters in the heat, serving students, processing registrations, taking money, delivering news that the loan won’t cover everything or the credit card won’t go through—


Sometime in the Fall of 1995

I remember a poem that my friend J. wrote over ten years ago and brought in to our graduate poetry workshop. For me, the poem keeps resurfacing. I remember lines something like this:

to Brooklyn, he said,

where they used to make things

not faxes

The speaker of the poem is making small talk with a cab driver on her way home. She struggles to get in to the cab, carrying bags:

my skin stuck to the vinyl in the heat

In our workshop there was discussion for a long, long time about the words for the mechanics of that moment when she tries to slip into the cab, over the seat. Everyone was looking earnestly for the best and most true verb. And I’m thinking now that the poem had to do with production, labor, and the artist’s body. She is noticing, moving through these internal and external geographies, getting stuck, aware. This is her position, living in Brooklyn where the rent is (was) affordable.

Back in the workshop, already trained to treat words as things, we apparently didn’t have the desire to speak to the subtext, the story under this poem’s surface—though maybe our interest, all of us “investing” in our writing, should have been high. I am thinking of what is unspoken in this field of labor, devoid of things—


March 4, 2009

Dear Cecilia,

Lately I’ve been noticing what “being an artist” means in the shape of things—how there’s no money in it yet so many young people from the middle class are flocking to art schools. I remember Laura Elrick asked about this in her talk at Segue a couple years ago: “What explains this surge in artistic production and product?”

Here’s something I said a couple weeks ago at a gallery talk on “Need, Demand, and Desire: Reevaluating the Artists’ Artifact”: The ultimate artifact these days is the artist’s body itself, I believe. This body I write from—this is what sells in colleges and universities. I stand as a testament to the middle class, liberal democratic fantasy of “being an artist.” My body says: “artists exist.” Yet, if this society was truly as interested in these ideas of art, freedom, and individual expression that it seems to want to display, then why are artists’ and working people’s lives becoming more difficult? Maybe there is a direct relationship between the real lack of choice and the landscaping of the appearance of freedom and self-expression. More lack, more landscaping.

What do you think? Write back when you have the time—



Work, as cultural expression,

day as unit of,

distinction between,

and hobby

distinction between,

and labor,

distinction between,

and leisure,


February 18, 2009

I’m thinking of Andrea Fraser’s performance and essay, “Isn’t This a Wonderful Place? (A Tour of a Tour of the Guggenheim Bilbao)” on the museum now built not as a traditional disciplinary institution—modeled after arcades and prison designs, but as open and airy, the patron moves about freely, the emphasis is on big spaces, choice, the color white, the presence of glass—an architecture that says “freedom,” just as the artist supposedly “chooses” to resist the capitalist world and its entrapments.

My poetry classroom is on the 4th floor, it has glass walls, and every week, prospective students and their parents parade past and look in. Maybe the liberal arts education is in some ways similar to the contemporary museum or “galleria” shopping mall?


Sometime in the Spring of 2007

A story: when I was a writer in residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, I participated in the “open studio” weekend along with the visual artists. I framed and hung some works. I put a stack of my books on a table. I worked on this book, Threads, for ten years. It cost $15. All weekend I sold one book, one book was stolen or went missing, and I sold a framed work on the wall for $800.


Continued: January 29, 2009

After I wait in the registration line marked off by color-coded Tensa barriers, I am told that I have a hold on my record and I am given a number to call. The woman who writes the number down on a customized school-logo post-it, is holding her head, saying “I can’t take this smell. I have to talk to my supervisor.” I tell her “I’m sorry” and I am, but I know that my saying so hardly helps anything.

Upstairs, where there’s cell phone service and fresh air, I sit and make the call. I am put on hold for a long time and give up, walk over to the welcome desk, and ask someone if they can help. “Sure!” There’s a wall featuring a chalkboard—just one way the room denotes “school” even as all writing surfaces throughout the university have changed over to whiteboards—and on this wall, above the welcome desk, someone has written “Information!” in bold lettering. I tell them my situation, adding that I am “faculty” (I leave out the “part-time” detail) and they say “Oh, no, nothing we can do” and “Yea, that happened to me once” and I want to tell them that I don’t need them to make me feel like part of a group. But they are there for just that: no function except to provide a feeling of service, an impression that things work.


worker, older,

reevaluation of life by older,

restructuring of bodies of,

rivalries between,




Sometime in March

Today after class, a student invites me to check out “The Poetry Brothel” where you can hear a poet read and then, if what you hear pleases you, you can pay that poet money and go into a room and get a private reading. I wasn’t sure if I was being invited to pay or get paid—either way, I said no and asked him if he had ever heard of Andrea Fraser’s controversial video piece of she and an art patron having sex for a set price. The student had not heard of her—he wrote down her name as I spelled. Another student we rode the elevator with said she knew some sex workers and so she objected to the venue’s name and premise. I noticed that the entire exchange happened without argument or even the inclination that there would be one. When the elevator doors opened, everyone said “Bye! Have a good weekend!”

[ . . .]


(Special thanks to Ellen Baxt, Tisa Bryant, Tonya Foster, Jennifer Firestone, and Joanna Sondheim for their feedback and their encouragement.)

Jill Magi works in text and image and writes essays as well. Her books include Threads (Futurepoem 2007) and Torchwood (Shearsman 2008). Forthcoming is the text-image-essay project Poetry Barn Barn! (2nd Avenue Press) and an essay in The Eco-language Reader (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs). She teaches at City, Goddard, and Eugene Lang Colleges.


Copright© 2009, by Jill Magi. All Rights Reserved.



Poetic Synchronicity, by Sean Howard

Poetic Implications: Synchronicity and The Language of Meaning

A Personal Reflection by Sean Howard

Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Cape Breton University

November 2008


A few months ago, I began work on a project I’ve been putting off for over a year: an account of my time in the clutches of what Jungian analysts call the ‘puer aeternus’ complex, or neurosis; an inflated sense of the self as a precious, creative but foredoomed ‘eternal youth,’ destroyed, to quote Jung’s colleague Marie-Louise von Franz, by a chronic “unadaptedness,” which “frequently results in early death”{{1}} if not shaken off by the sufferer’s mid-twenties – the age, incidentally, I told myself as a teenager that I (like two of my heroes, Shelley and Keats) would die. After struggling through a long, difficult section on the central dilemma confronted (and shirked) in the complex – ‘how to truly be yourself,’ or ‘how to not be someone else’ – I tried to relax with a novel – The Black Book, by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk – and read, almost immediately, the following:


For by now I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that none of us can ever hope to be ourselves: that the troubled old man standing in that long line, waiting for the bus – he too has ghosts living inside him, ghosts of the ‘real’ people he once longed to become. That rosy-cheeked mother who’s taken her children to the park on a winter’s morning to soak in some sunlight – she too has sacrificed herself, she too is a copy of some other mother. The melancholy men straggling out of movie theaters, the wretches I saw roaming along crowded avenues or fidgeting in noisy coffeehouses – they too are haunted day and night by the ghosts of the ‘true selves’ they longed to become.


The major recurring dream of my childhood – from the age of about five until my early teens – was of waking up, as a young man, alone in a high Tower: in a room, or cell, with no door. This ‘dream-me,’ I felt sure, was the pale, noble youth – the captive ‘prince’ – I was bound to become. The novel continued: “Yes, once upon a time there lived a prince who’d discovered that there was one question in life that mattered more than any other: to be or not to be oneself…”{{2}}

As a shock went through me, I was reminded of the time, a few years ago, I was working in the Cape Breton University library. Or, rather, not working, but pacing the aisles, feeling (not untypically for me in libraries) suddenly depressed and panicky; at, I think, the sense of something – the only thing that matters – missing from all the millions of words around, and within, me. Without looking at the title, I pulled a book off the shelf; a volume of the Collected Letters of Sir Horace Walpole, the eighteenth century British politician – something I would never have dreamt of reading. Flipping it open, I went straight to this sentence: “I wanted you with me extremely; you would have liked what I have seen.” Who this ‘you’ was, I couldn’t say. As a summation of – and outlet for – my feelings, though, the phrase was perfect; I, certainly, could not have expressed myself so well!

In both these cases, the ‘meaningful coincidence’ occurred at a moment of psychic vulnerability, a wounded openness: a disturbed version of what Keats called, in a famous letter to his brothers, a “negative capability” to sense other presences, to be without being your customary, interposing self:


At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…{{3}}


In an earlier letter, Keats argued that, quote, a “man should have the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world.”{{4}} This ‘point’ is, I think, the ‘mature’, self-conscious ego; the developed negative, so to speak, of the uncapturable, unframeable Self. For Jung, the healthy ego is a ‘storm lantern,’ the ‘little light’ of awareness; a limited revelation of the far vaster world around, and within, us. Consciousness, that is, is useful as a mode of experiencing, not explaining, reality; just as, perhaps, Wittgenstein sees philosophy as a revelatory, rather than reductionist, mode of thought, modestly illuminative of mysteries that can’t be dispelled, simply said or thought away. For babies and young children – incapable of yet putting ‘too fine a point on things’ – experience is the only explanatory framework available; if something is marvelous, or terrible, that’s what it is: why or how (or whether it ‘really,’ positively, is) is beside the (blurred and diffused) point. And poetry is, on this reading, a state of relapse to this condition: at once the place you meet the world (without egotistic preconditions), the gesture you greet it with (the raising of the ‘storm lantern’) and the response you receive – the messages you have the ‘negative capability’ to record.

In his book Honoring the Medicine, Kenneth Cohen talks about the religious, and I’d say philosophical, significance for all Native American tribes of the ‘fontanel’, the “soft spot” or “membraneous space”{{5}} at the junction of the four parietal bones in the skulls of human infants. “The Great Spirit’s breath – the soul,” Cohen writes, is understood to enter “the body at birth through the fontanel” and leave “at death through this same point, now hardened. The Hopi believe that the fontanel, kópavi, is a vibratory center that communicates with the Creator. In the Lakota language, the fontanel is called pe’wiwila and peówiwila, ‘little springs on the top of the head,’ suggesting the sacred springs through which spiritual powers can enter or leave the earth.”{{6}}

Keats, I believe, thought of poetry as – or, rather, felt it to be – a ‘soft spot’, an interface or opening, of this kind. Certainly, his idea of ‘negative capability’ resonates strongly with the ‘poetic ecology’ of Native American science: the decisive commitment of indigenous natural inquiry to the primacy of experience over explanation; the exploration of implications rather than the pursuit of explicit, definitive accounts. The ‘laboratory’ of Native science, to borrow a word coined by the Chickasaw scholar James (Sákéj) Youngblood Henderson, is the “langscape,” the place where words and world, things and thoughts – cosmos and microcosm – meet, the common ground of expression and experience. In his essay ‘Empowering Aboriginal Thought,’ Henderson explores the ‘langscape’ of the Míkmaq people, the juncture of no less than eight ‘realms’: the Deep Earth Lodge; the Root Lodge; the Water Lodge; the Earth Lodge; the Ghost Lodge; the Sky Lodge; the Light Lodge; and the Ancestors’ Lodge. Each of these levels is “interconnected” with, and transformable into, the others; all, in fact, are themselves lodged in the Sacred Realm, envisaged as a mandala or sphere – a circle, like the fontanel, open at the centre – which the Míkmaq claim not to understand but rather stand within. “These realms,” Henderson writes, “are not outside each other but are interactive,” and it is this “interaction” that is “important, rather than the different parts themselves.” “Thus,” he continues:


[T]he sacred space is considered as a transforming flux that constitutes an indivisible web of meanings. The Míkmaq can perceive the web, and occasionally they can experience reflections of the realms. The total order, described as an indivisible world, can best be understood in English as the implicate order. Traditionally, the Míkmaq have translated this order into the English words ‘the most’ or the ‘great mystery’ or the ‘great silence.'{{7}}


The term ‘implicate order’ was introduced by the American physicist David Bohm in his 1980 book Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Shortly before his death (in 1992), Bohm met Henderson and other Native thinkers and saw in both indigenous epistemology and languages a beautiful way of ‘capturing’ (or, rather, enacting) the creative relations between whole and part, form and flux, central to ‘his’ vision of the unity of nature; his “new notion of order” which he belatedly but happily realized had been appreciated by many peoples for many millennia.

Rather than – as in reductionism – a process of violent (and violatory) penetration, mental and experimental, into the ‘heart of matter,’ Bohmian physics, and Míkmaq metaphysics, celebrates the interpenetrability of different levels of being, or different aspects (explicit forms) of the same underlying reality (Jung’s transcendent, and thus unapprehendable, unus mundus). For Bohm –


space and time are no longer the dominant factors determining the relationships of dependence or independence of different elements. Rather, an entirely different sort of basic connection of elements is possible, from which our ordinary notions of space and time, along with those of separately existent material particles, are abstracted as forms derived from the deeper order. These ordinary notions in fact appear in what is called the explicate or unfolded order, which is a special and distinguished form contained within the general totality…{{8}}


And for the Míkmaq (in Henderson’s account):


The realms of flux create a flowing, transforming existence. … [E]lders and thinkers relate each realm to the entire movement. They describe each realm only to understand the overall process of change. Energies or forces of the realms change with transformation. These transformations do not always cause physical changes; they often cause changes in the manifestation or behavior only of those who are aware of the subtle changes. If there is no change or renewal, then the energies or forces waste away.{{9}}


Is it possible that synchronicities can be seen in this light as sudden, dramatic exceptions to the rule of “subtle changes” – as “transformations” which do “cause physical changes” as they become explicit, reveal the implications of the crisis shaking us loose from our customary, ‘positive’ selves? And, if this is plausible, might we not also view metaphors as synchronicities of a kind: momentary (mercurial) illuminations of the ‘secret’ connections, the intimate relations, between people and places, mind and matter, physics and psyche?

[[1]] Marie-Louise von Franz, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus, Inner City Books, 2000, p. 7.[[1]]

[[2]] Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, Trans. Maureen Freely, Faber and Faber, 2006, p. 204; originally published, 1990.[[2]]

[[3]] Letter to George and Thomas Keats (his brothers), December 21, 1817; quoted in Andrew Motion, Keats, Faber and Faber, 1998, p. 217.[[3]]

[[4]] Letter to J. H. Reynolds, November 22, 1817; Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, p. 430.[[4]]

[[5]] Oxford Canadian Dictionary.[[5]]

[[6]] Kenneth Cohen, Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing, Ballantine Books, 2003, p. 51.[[6]]

[[7]] Henderson, op. cit., pp. 258-259.[[7]]

[[8]] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Ark, 1983, p. xv.[[8]]

[[9]] Henderson, op. cit., p. 258.[[9]]



Sean Howard moved to Nova Scotia from England in 1999. His poetry has been published in Canadian journals including Geist, Other Voices, Quills, Prairie Journal, The Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review and Prairie Fire as well as zafusy (UK) and 4AM Poetry Review (USA). Sean holds a Ph.D in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, UK, and is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University, pursuing research interests in nuclear disarmament and the philosophy of science. A recent paper – ‘Very Different Butterflies’: The Scope for Deep Complementarity Between Western and Native American Science’ – was published in ‘The Pari Dialogues: Essays in Science, Religion, Society and the Arts’ (Pari Publishing, 2007). To view some more of Sean’s poetry on-line, visit


Copyright ©2008, by Sean Howard and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.


David Haan: Irony


Rumormongers have hypocritically insinuated that I make use of cheap irony. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I employ only the finest quality of irony, procured at great expense, its like not to be had discounted. In fact, I do not entrust supply to outside provisioners, but participate at every stage of manufacture, from the selection of raw material (unalloyed, never scrap) through its refinement—forged under sublime pressure, even tempered, under controlled heat, by a process of my own invention. Despite all due precaution, irony can become corrupted, so the results of all this effort may well never see the light of day. Only the most resilient irony, without discernable imperfection, is suitable to any proper craft.

Nor do I use it sparingly. To be effective, irony must be thickly applied, preferably in many layers, and meticulously worked in to its foundation so as to become integral to the final product. Those who speak of corrosive irony are really attesting to deficiencies of material or workmanship. It’s often forgotten that the first function of irony is literally to protect the underlying matter. This has been obscured by the success of irony as a decorative element.

The importance of presentation must not be denied. Raw irony is unattractive—dull and base, it sends the wrong message. This should not be confused with the pure, simple affect achieved by the so-called Socratic method, made to seem rudimentary through its minimal, flat finish. Irony can also be polished to a high gloss, though usually augmented by a thin adherent coating to maintain its surface integrity.

For more ornate treatments, the devil is in the details: to assume a pleasing shape, the substance must be respected, even as it is moulded, but irony is no less versatile for all that. Whether chiseled to a fine edge or otherwise carved, or etched with acid, it readily accepts a variety of designs. But the key to superior irony is texture. Smooth, stippled, sawtoothed, or scored, it is essential to compensate for the inconstant densities of the material, lest the result leave a motley or clouded appearance. Superficial asperity can be enhanced with a dry wash, or light varnish—heavier treatments tend to mask the desired impression.

The display setting should be chosen to show the finished product to its best advantage. Shifts in perspective and lighting angles can produce dramatic effects in the denouement. Understatement may have its virtues, but flirts with the possibility that finer aspects of the irony will be overshadowed. Hidden irony may elicit a shock of recognition, but this is transient, and better saved for those times that occasion truly demands.

Whatever the current fashion may be, mock irony is to be assiduously avoided as a breach of taste. Its defects become apparent even under cursory examination, to say nothing of the sceptical eye of the connoisseur. It deceives no one.

I trust that this demonstrates my approach to irony is not to be gainsaid. I take irony very seriously indeed. And when I say that, I mean it.


–by David Haan


Copyleft 2008, by David Haan and Spinozablue. Used by Permission.

Yahia Lababidi: Monks of LA

The songs of both these artists are generally perceived as music to slash your wrists to, and playing either of their records at a party signals its certain death (or yours). To their intensely loyal cult following, in the privacy of their bedrooms, they sing to each alone. And by making their anxieties public, these artists are Saviors to brethren of solitaries. Both are literary types; one is a novelist and poet, while the other as a librarian’s son was steeped in literature since youth. Yet both are not great poets, by the admission of one and despite the protestations of the other. Still, when they wrap their yearning around their words and make them sing, they are achingly lyrical. With a kind of duende (dark creative force) for a muse, both are poets of aloneness and longing, disaffection and death. And both have been away, for several years. One retired to a monastery, where he was given the name Jikan (Silent One), while the other has been living in monastic seclusion and silence. At the monastery, the former referred to himself as a bad monk on account of his other residence, in L.A. The latter, once regarded as quintessentially English, now resides in self-imposed exile in the same city



The Great Miserabilst



Stephen Patrick Morrissey, former front man of the seminal 80’s band, The Smiths, and currently a solo artist regarded as one of England’s most articulate lyricists, is one of L.A.’s two bad monks. As a singer-songwriter, Morrissey shares a prefix with terms like: morbid, moribund, morose etc… Dubbed The Great Miserabilist and Pope of Mope (among other less flattering or imaginative epithets) he was without a record label for as long as seven years, following the lackluster reception of his studio album, Maladjusted. Since then, he’s come back with two well-received new records, You are the Quarry and Ringleader of the Tormentors (although according to him, he’s never been away; it’s his listeners that are back).

Whatever the case, Morrissey was back in form, and both albums were works of heart. Musically more experimental, by his standards (with a flute solo, samples and electronic beats) and vocally more confident (full of gorgeous swells and trills) Quarry was a swishy affair, with 12 new unrequited love songs to life, indifferent lovers and, in keeping with tradition, the grave. Situating him in familiar territory. “Under slate-grey Victorian sky/ here you’ll find / despair and I,” he warbles plaintively in Come back to Camden, reminding those who strayed of his quietly harrowing emotional charm.

Lyrically, Morrissey is still the “bee’s knees” (as he once sang of himself): acid wit, intelligent, mournful and humorous at once. All filtered through “[his] self-deprecating skin and bones” as he croons on the searing I have forgiven Jesus in Quarry. With his penchant for titles that threaten to make the songs redundant, a cursory glance at the track list says it all; Irish Blood, English Heart, for example, is the name of the first released single from Quarry. Emotionally ambivalent and riddled with contradictions as ever, Morrissey is spurning sympathy in How could anyone know how I feel, while on another track, the misanthropic This world is full of crashing bores he desperately wonders why no one ever says to him “take me in your arms and love me.”

It’s like something straight out of one of Beckett’s tragicomedies: “Don’t touch me! Don’t question me! Don’t speak to me! Stay with me!” (Estragon, Waiting for Godot). Laugh till you weep. But, Morrissey has always been at his most beautiful when he’s pining, for love and understanding, a lost England, or life itself. (In an old Smiths song, The boy with the thorn in his side, he asks: … And when you want to Live/ How do you start? /Where do you go?/ Who do you need to know ?)

One wonders what would become of this poet of aborted passions if he were actually to get what he wants. Which partly accounts for the shock value of his latest offering, Ringleader. Much has been made of his uncharacteristically blunt sexual declarations and the candor with which he expresses them (the oft-quoted explosive kegs between his legs). And, it is disorienting to hear him finally giving himself a break and speaking plainly of desire -given his addiction to confessing in code, innuendo, and retractable hints. Now, he finally spells it out. There is someone. With legs. And he’s in between them. Gasp?!?

But, I suspect, what is equally affecting next to his trance-like exhilaration at finding love-sex is the number of times, and manner, in which he addresses ‘God’. Has Morrissey found faith, too? Did he always have it, and shied of uttering it, as yet another ‘love that dares not speak its name’? Dear God, he sings over a church organ with such clarity and transparency of heart, such naked emotion that the eyes well with tears, please help me.

For all his single-minded and long enduring despair, Morrissey seems an unlikely candidate for a spiritual seeker. Yet, despite himself his latest release, Ringleader of the Tormentors is another remarkable testament to his version of seeking and spiritual restlessness. (Nevermind, his sublimely staggeringly arrogance: forgiving Jesus on his previous album, and asking Him, mid-sex act on the current one, if this kind of thing has happened to Him).

In his own words, Morrissey’s still ‘turning sickness into (un)popular song’, and his capacity for contradiction remains undimmed. It’s the same old S.O.S/But with brand new broken fortunes he sighs on Life is a Pigsty over the bleak patter of falling rain, only to declare triumphantly: At Last I Am Born, in a march-like anthem of the same name. The pain, hasn’t really left him, however; it spills richly over from one song to the next.

On Ringleader, he calls it by it’s proper name–Can you stop the pain?–again and again, and with varying emotional inflection–menace, yodel, heartache–so that one suspects he experiences some form of voluptuous joy in the mere repetition of the word itself: ‘pain’. Characteristically, he remains death-haunted throughout Ringleaders; very likely, feeling most intensely when he suffers and seeing best through life’s illusions when longing for the end. “The future is ended by a long, long sleep” she sings, not unhappily.

Mercifully, the rest of the music on Ringleader is as robust, unpredictable and loaded as life, itself. Given all that seems to be going on, behind the scenes, ole Morrissey manages to (vocally) match this new music’s stride, having it appears found new life himself. At last he is born!