Why are we looking at this—what does this have to do with poetry (writing poetry) now? Said in class with some exasperation by a student. The this doesn’t matter. Its matter could be anything. It’s the exasperation that makes it/this crucial. The exasperation inspires this writing. Feeling it, taking it in, from her into me, mine own body. The crucial, the this—I am writing on a folded 8 ½ x 11 page, on a hardbound book on the couch. The book is André Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism, published by the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, in 1969. Originally published in Paris, France by Jean-Jacques Pauvert éditeur as Manifestes du Surréalisme in 1962. Translated “from the French” by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane.

I am about to remember Richard Seaver, who died recently (well, in 2009, not that long ago) and am also wondering who of the duo had translated what, when my pencil dropped and slipped down between the arm of the couch and the seat, never to be seen again. Ah, that’s why I thought he’d recently died—his memoir, edited by Jeannette Seaver, his wife, has recently appeared: The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the 50s, New York in the 60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age, and it had been a topic for a moment, at least on NPR.

I think to myself again that I would like someday to read this memoir. Maybe in the summer—still thinking of summertime as “halcyon” days. I look up “halcyon” just to see if it’s still there. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary tells me that as a noun, it’s a kingfisher (now I need to reread Olson’s “Kingfishers,” What does not change / is the will to change); and as an adjective it’s calm, peaceful, happy & golden. Ah.

But a kingfisher. It is actually “a bird identified with the kingfisher and held in ancient legend to nest at sea about the time of the winter solstice and to calm the waves during incubation.” From Middle English alceon, from Latin halcyon, from Greek alkyon, halcyon.

The legends are

Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers”

Or myths. A poet once declared to me “the mythic in poetry is dead.” Never say never.

“Alcyone or Halcyone 1. Pleiad, daughter of Atlas and Pleione, and beloved by Poseidon. 2. Daughter of Aeolus and Enarete, and wife of Ceÿx. [How to pronounce it???] Her husband perished in a shipwreck, and Alcyone, for grief threw herself into the sea, but the gods, out of compassion, changed the two into birds. While the bird alcyon was breeding, there always prevailed calm at sea.”

A Smaller Classical Dictionary
Editor: E. H. Blakeney
London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.
New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
First published in this edition 1910
Last revised and reset edition 1937
Last reprinted 1946

The “Preface” to the 1910 Smaller Classical Dictionary tells us it’s been revised “in the interest of completeness.” The idea of completeness has been revised to the incompleteness that is now.

And all now is war
where so lately there was peace

Olson, “The Kingfishers”

In Tom Clarke’s version, (Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co. 1991), the constellation of the poem was built around a party, a drunken curator of art talking about the “blue of the kingfishers’ feathers,” the “cultural revolution,” Mao Zedong [Tse-tung] and his army having taken Beijing [Peking], Nanjing [Nanking] and Shanghai, and Mao’s “call to action,” “la lumière de l’aurore est devant nous! nous devons nous lever et agir!” (dawn’s light is before us! we must get up and act!)

I thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said
la lumière

but the kingfisher

de l’aurore

but the kingfisher flew west

est devant nous!

he got the color of his breast
from the heat of the setting sun!

Olson, “The Kingfishers”

Reading through the xerox of a paper (“The Aesthetics of Singularity”) by Fredric Jameson—in typescript no less—I come across a paragraph on “the installation” (“the end of other projects such as oil painting or the statue”). Jameson goes on to note that the installation might "include a number objects of different kinds… a painting perhaps, but also a rug, books, food, an old piece of furniture,” etc. More or less what I’d done in “The Living Room, 1950s,” an installation I made for the exhibition put together by Steve Dickison called “Poetry and its Arts: Bay Area Interactions 1954-2004,” hosted at the California Historical Society.

Bernadette Mayer visiting in "The Living Room"

As Jameson says, the installation (or the constellation of a poem) “lies in their combinations and their relationship.” He goes on to aver that “It is space rather than presence.” The installation is akin to the constellation of a poem, taking objects and stirring them together, blending disparate materials—in the case of the poem, words, fragments, whole sentences, ranging from the mythological, philosophical, scientific, social, emotional, physical, the multiverse—in space. Space rather than presence? Why not both?

In class, we’d been reading, among other things, Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto,” published in 1909, all bravura and bile, starting with “the army of hostile stars,” etc. And Dada, some of the sound poems. But more about that later.

With what violence benevolence is bought

Olson, “The Kingfishers”

Originally Published: March 6th, 2012

Norma Cole is a poet, painter, and translator. She was born in Toronto, Canada, and attended the University of Toronto for her BA in Modern Languages and MA in French. Her translation works include Danielle Collobert’s Journals (1989), Anne Portugal’s Nude (2001), and Fouad Gabriel Naffah’s The Spirit God and...