Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nomad, Meet Your Monad

Image by Enrique Chagoya: When Paradise Arrived, 1998.

This talk was presented as part of Los pies en otra tierra: Poetas exiliados y transterrados, a literary conference sponsored by Benémerita Autonomous University of Puebla, Mexico, October 28-31, 2008.

Paul Hoover
San Francisco State University

When I was born, in 1946, a majority of people in the U.S. lived on farms, and a subsistence farm could be purchased for the astonishing sum of $400, which was also the price of a new car. Before World War II, the percentage of Gross National Product that went to the military was small, and our army was the size of Sweden’s. There was no such thing as a credit card. My parents never bought anything on interest. They paid cash, as did most people. My mother established a large garden wherever we lived. We subsisted all summer on its produce of green beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, and fresh strawberries. When we briefly lived in town, where she could not longer raise her own chickens, my mother purchased live chickens and killed them herself using an axe and a tree stump. One day, the dying bird’s gymnastics left flowerets of blood all over the garden. After that, she covered the thrashing birds with a bushel basket. We ate in a restaurant once a year, on Mother’s Day. It was always the same restaurant. I always ordered the same thing, turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. We did not eat steaks at home or away, because, I believe, we could not afford them. For religious reasons, we didn’t drink alcohol, smoke, dance, gamble, or curse.

The situation has changed dramatically, but not because I migrated to another country. The country migrated beneath my feet, becoming a land of strip malls, fast food restaurants, corporatism, massive credit card debt, celebrity culture, wars for profit and world control, loss of individual rights, a compromised U. S. constitution, a diminishing number of union jobs, falling wages for average workers, and 50 million citizens without health insurance—you name it, the change has been for the worse. Because the military-industrial complex runs the country, we spend more money for our military than the rest of the world put together. Consumers rather than citizens, we have become reified (sadly, not deified) products of capitalism’s eternal happiness machine. It’s a form of internal exile.

How different would your writing be if you killed your own chickens and dug your own family graves? Would the word “postmodern” still make any sense? Would your writing be just a little closer to fate? You can’t imagine your way out of culture; it is what it is. The sorrow or joy you feel in it will become a part of your work, just as the scent of pine is part of the tree. No matter how far-reaching our knowledge of new technologies, we are still the ones who witnessed and ritualized in family, rooted in unique personal mythologies. Native culture offers comfort; commodity culture offers desire and fear. Because it’s commodity-based, U. S. popular culture lacks the silence and reverence of ceremony; noise and speed wins our attention. This is why poetry is so necessary.

My poetry collection, Poems in Spanish (2005), contains poems written in English as if in Spanish. I had long admired the great poetry of Ibero-Hispanic modernism, from Pessoa and Drummond de Andrade to Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda, and Sabines. Their work had sweep, dance, humor, and depth. For some reason, as a German Protestant idealist norteamericano raised in the Midwest, I felt at home with them. There’s nothing puzzling about it. Poetry is nomadic and seeks a universal condition. It would be nice, but too easy, to say that we all share the native culture of spirit, imagination, and words well used. But queso is not the same thing as cheese. It doesn’t sound, look, or taste the same. And simpatía isn’t the same as sympathy. Nevertheless, poetry’s aesthetic is one of errancy and discovery. We slip and slide through our words until finally we put meaning at rest in the form of the poem. A few days later, it starts to slip again. It has just read Don Quixote and wants to travel the roads of Spain with a joisting lance in hand. Of all the literary genres, poetry most enjoys a migrant condition. It revels in metaphor; its motives are transformational. The sonnet originated in Sicily, the pantoum in Malaysia.

Here are two of the works in Poems in Spanish:

The World as Found

“All these things the creator told me in Alabama.”
—Sun Ra

Mariposa, what a clean word is that!
It can fly around all day
and never get mud on its wings.
It makes a clean sound as it passes right through me—
almost nothing really.

Mud sprawls on the ground, completely helpless.
Who can ever respect it?

Mariposa, butterfly,
so pretty and maybe crazy,
like Blanche Dubois as a girl.
Even Schmetterling
has a cadence true to its ideal.

Words in my mouth
are preparing for summer,
giving birth to themselves again.

It isn’t rocket science.
Everyone knows their names:
barranco and embankment,
noises and ruidos—
get down on your knees and pray!
A beautiful woman is passing,
and, if you insist, a man.
Words of skin and bone.

Where’s my refuge and my trap,
Where do they go when I think them?
All day the words are at me,
coming and going and meaning,
and in the evening also.
It’s the traffic of the world.

But at night, if it happens
that I sink into her body,
there is no word, not even silk,
to tell you what I'm thinking.
Sound spills from my mouth,
shapeless all around us.

Driver’s Song

I shall never reach Danville, Ohio,
Danville distant and lonely.

Black car, small moon,
in the back seat beer.
Because I’ve forgotten the roads
I shall never reach Danville, Ohio.

Over the plains, through Indiana,
where I was lonely also.
Black car, yellow moon.
My dead father keeps watch over me
from an upstairs window.

What a long way from California
and in what a fast car—
invisible to the soul.

Ahead I see death moving slowly on the road.
I know I will touch her clothing
before I ever reach Danville, Ohio.

Danville, distant and lonely.

“Driver’s Song” is a direct appropriation of Lorca’s “Rider’s Song.” The works are parodic but highly serious, nomadic but close to home.

The poet and translator, Pierre Joris, writes in Nomad Poetics: “What is needed now is a nomadic poetics. Its method will be rhizomatic: which is different from collage, i.e., a rhizomatics is not an aesthetics of the fragment, which has dominated poetics since the romantics even as transmogrified by modernism, high and low. . . . A nomadic poetic will cross languages, not just translate, but write in all or any of them.” (5)

Following Deleuze and Guattari, Joris wants a wandering rather than rooted system, a search for nutrients by the poet as desiring-machine. The poet is her/himself multiplicity in a system in which “any multiplicity connected to other multiplicities by superficial underground stems in such a way as to form or extend a rhizome” (Deleuze and Guattari 1606).

Adorno offers a more compact model: “What appears in the work of art is its inner time. . . . The link between art and real history is the fact that works of art are structured like monads” (126). In Pythagoras, the monad is God; in music, it is a single note; in Gnosticism, the beginning or source of All; in The Four Quartets, “the still point of the turning world.” A nomadic trek begins with a dot on the map. The monad exists before the concept of unison, because in the monad there is no difference. First, there’s the monad (everything), then the many, then desire (the nomad) creates the work of art, which is structured like a monad. The monad speeds but at a standstill.

Poems in Spanish are translations of a kind. I have also recently produced a manuscript called Sonnet 56, which consists of 56 versions (traducciónes) of Shakespeare’s sonnet of that number. I would like to present the original and two translations. Noun Plus Seven (N + 7) is a writing game invented by Jean Lescure of Oulipo, acronym in French for Bureau of Potential Literature. It involves replacing every noun in the original with the seventh to follow in the dictionary. Haikuisation is the making of the original into a haiku. For instance, you could “haikuise” the novel War and Peace.


Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharp’ned in his former might.

So love be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyes, ev’n till they wink with fullness.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.

Let this sad interim like the oceans be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;

As call it winter, which being full of care,
Makes summer’s welcome, thrice more wished, more rare.

Noun Plus Seven

Sweet love game, renew thy forecaster, be it not said
Thy editor should blunter be than apple-jack,
Which but today by feeling is allayed,
Tonality sharp’ned in his former mildew.

So love game be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyebright, ev’n till they wink with fullery.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirochete of love with a perpetual dumbbell.

Let this sad interleaf like the ocotillo be
Which parts the shortcake, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banker, that when they see
Revelation of love game, more blest may be the vigilante;

As call it winter melon, which being full of carfare,
Makes sumpweed’s wellcurb, thrice more wished, more rare.


Love, renew thy force.
Thy edge should blunter be than


Adorno, T. W. Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. William E. Cain, et al (W. W. Norton, 2001): 1601-1609.

Joris, Pierre. Nomad Poetics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

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At 12:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 7:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 6:15 PM, Blogger Dean Faulwell said...

One of your best blog entries, Monsieur Hoover. I really like the succinct auto-biographical passage, which quickly morphs into a commentary on modern/post-modern society and culture.
I had recognized Driver's Song as leaning on Lorca's Rider's Song, but I actually like your poem better than the Lorca piece. Maybe because I know you and, though old, am not quite old enough to have known Lorca. In any event, Driver's Song is my favorite of the Poems in Spanish.

At 11:43 PM, Blogger Quoyle said...

i want to follow your blog. pls help

At 9:38 PM, Blogger Tomasz Chmura said...

I enjoyed reading this blog and I have to say that I will be coming back hungry for more.

At 9:45 PM, Blogger Perry Strange said...

I've never read Lorca, but I like your Danville.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

The farm to strip-mall narrative is brilliant.

At 10:09 PM, Blogger D.A.A.D said...

Wow great! I do write as well, but after reading this I doubt it. Let's say I pretend to write. Please take a look at my blog a comment what you think about the writings, I would appreciate it. http://relatosytales.blogspot.com/


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