Tag Archives: poetry

“This Is Belgian Chocolate” by Philip Meersman, Three Rooms Press 2014

8 Aug


(This review originally ran in the Brooklyn Rail. And yes, that is a Magritte on the cover.)

As I began composing this review, I typed the word “language” incorrectly as “linguate”: tongue-shaped. According to the glossary of orchid terms — a lexicon based on the taxonomic works of Linnaeus, which I found, of course, online — the word refers to the shape of certain orchids.  My “mistake” then seemed serendipitously appropriate to a discussion of Philip Meersman’s extraordinary (indeed, multi-linguate) concrete, visual and sound poetry: his work is tongue-shaped, and shaped by tongues.

Meersman is a Belgian-born poet and performer with an international reputation.  His oracular work, often written in several languages, both partakes of and reinvents the languages with which he has come into contact via a personal touchstone of radical openness that grants readers access as co-creators/-translators.  Instead of a Table of Contents, Meersman supplies a “Writer’s Cut” with no page numbers, suggesting that one meander around for a while.  The piece that opens the book, “Declaration of Art Entering Into Force On the Date of Publication,” is a contract between the poet and readers/listeners:

Philip Meersman, Poet-Performer; [etc.] Considering that it is important, in

order to ensure the maintenance of artistic relations, that performances

should not commence without previous warning; That it is equally important

that the existence of a state of art should be notified without delay to other

Artists; Being desirous of concluding a Convention to this effect, have agreed

upon the following provisions:

Article 1: The Contracting Artists recognize that the performances must not

commence without previous and explicit warning, in the form either of a

reasoned declaration of art or of an ultimatum with conditional declaration

of art.

A footnote explains that the audience, as signatories, comprise the “[etc.]” of the first line.  The contract contains eight articles, and is both a written and visual conceptual performance located in the desire to explore (and to gently pillory) ideas of permission: what is or is not acceptable in a “state of art?”  (The reader/potential signatory is also invited to imagine what that “state of art” is, and what the experience of living inside of it might be.) There is even a place for the ambivalent in Article 2:

Neutral Artists, nevertheless, cannot rely on the absence of notification if it is clearly established that they were in fact aware of the existence of a state of art.

The idea of artists relying on an absence of something to confirm what they were, to begin with, cognizant of, is wholly charming.   

The first section of the collection playfully deconstructs the elements of Belgian chocolate in French, English and product code. “This is Belgian Chocolate/Ceci c’est du chocolat belge” is a list poem of codes for all manufactured Belgian chocolate, and “Chocopromo (Belcolade)” is a lyric chant, in English, of the products of the Belgian chocolate manufacturer Belcolade.  The collection’s next section, “L’Origine du Monde: Genesis 11:1-9,” refers to the Tower of Babel story, where humanity’s common tongue was confounded by an insecure Jehovah — the real original sin, perhaps.  The first poem in that section, “Message To a Past (For Voice, Morse and Wailing),” is a fascinating piece that incorporates Morse Code:



Ah-bout-you ou-ou youwouwauwwawau


have I IyayaI IyayaI lyayal lyayaI I have


never ever ever eve ever ever never




written wrote wrung never ever written not knot no

To “read” a piece like this requires that the reader hear and incorporate sounds which seem like opposites on the spectrum of expressive communication.  In this context, though, the visual sense of the poem interpolates those two ends and imparts information, especially after you do a little Googling and find out that the first two lines are “SOS.”

Meersman’s style and thematics suggest Khlebnikov and Marinetti, with a bit of Yevtushenko’s “The City of Yes and the City of No” and Voznesensky’s “New York Bird” thrown in.  Visually, the concrete poetry of Khlebnikov and Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen also come to mind.  Meersman is a visual artist as well, so the look of the poems on the page — the balance between white space and text — is important to the reading/hearing.  The book’s design recalls the work of Lazar Lissitzky (El Lissitzky), the Russian artist, designer and architect who influenced the Bauhaus and Constructivist movements.  One poem, Multzumess (a pun on the Romanian word “mulțumesc”/thank you), “a simultaneous poetry writing experiment,” was composed with several other poets at a literary conference in Romania in 2009. Essentially, it is a “heard poem,” transcribed from mishearings, comments, jokes and jibes written in a notebook by Meersman and other attendees at the conference while panelists were speaking on a dais.  Massively playful, the poem sprawls anarchically across fifteen pages and utilizes at least four known languages and several more fonts.  Such fluid play recalls Zaum, the linguistic experiments of Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh (who declared in his Declaration of Transrational Language [1921], that zaum could “provide a universal poetic language”).

I’m mindful that I’ve been mainly comparing Meersman’s work to that of long ago poets, schools and movements, and I’m mindful also of the end-games, rooted in historical circumstance, of those schools and movements.  I agree with critic and scholar Brian Reed who wrote, in a Jacket piece of April 2005 (about Elizaveta Mnatsakanova’s 1983 article, “Khlebnikov: Limit and the Unlimited Music of the Word”): “Khlebnikov’s arguments . . . suggest that once freed of limiting particulars people will at long last recognize that they are ‘continuous links in the universal soul’ and part of ‘a single entity.’ This liquidation of historical memory and individual difference in the name of communal uniformity might have appealed to an avant-gardist in the thick of a civil war, but it looks very different today, in the wake of nearly a century of mass murders carried out by totalitarian regimes . . .”

True.  But might not striving to be free of limiting particulars via a universal communication — shaped by tongues describing a radical openness — be a worthy intention of poets once again? If this is Meersman’s goal, he has both quietly and loudly succeeded.


Reading Tonight at the Rubin Museum . . .

21 Sep

… with some stellar folks, to celebrate the digital release of Allen Ginsberg’s “Holy Soul Jelly Roll” on Rhino Records: http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1893

Leaving Degraw Street

20 Jan

After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012.  Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and very generously gave us a reasonable time to vacate — he told us of his plans four months ago.

But now the countdown winds down: 10 days . . .

5 — Visitors

The last week of July, 1992, my mother and eight year-old nephew, Nicholas, stayed with me for a week.  The purpose of the trip was to maybe find them a place in Brooklyn, as my dad had died two years before and my mom was raising Nick by herself (my sister, Nick’s mom, had disappeared around 1987).  I didn’t want them to be alone, but I couldn’t move back there, so I thought getting them an apartment near me was the optimal workaround.

I had taken Amtrak to Chicago to get them, and then all three of us took the train to New York.  As we rode in a cab from Penn Station (their first New York City cab ride), I pointed the Empire State Building out to them, at the end of the 34th Street urban canyon.

“It looks so small,” my mother said, disappointed.  “I thought it would be big . . . bigger than the Sears Tower.  You would think, after all that’s been written about it.”

“Where’s King Kong?  Ha-ha!” said Nick.  Judging by the expression on his face, he was clearly very satisfied with the building’s appearance.

The first thing my mom did her first day in Brooklyn was to go to the Key Food on Fifth Avenue and buy the same kinds of groceries she bought at “the Jewel” (“the Jewel” = what every single Chicagoan calls the Midwest chain grocery store officially named “Jewel”): coffee, Polish sausage, rolls, coffee cake, lunch meat, hot tamales, and Dippity-Do (“wave set”).

She also bought a selection of Brach’s candy for Nick, which still came in the famous red and white striped bag.  (I didn’t even know you could get Brach’s candy at the Key Food.)

We visited the other Nick, my landlord, at his office on Carroll Street, just off 7th Avenue: “Big Nick and Little Nick,” he smiled, and I imagined “Little Nick” living in Park Slope, going to school down the street from me.  I imagined picking him up and walking him home on a cool fall day, the dry leaves blowing around the brownstones, having dinner with him and Mom (canned spaghetti and Mott’s apple sauce, probably) in the kitchen of their new place.  I had a friend — a former student of mine from my days at Brooklyn College, actually — who was a realtor, and she set up some apartment showings for us in Park Slope.  The places were nice, but after the third one Mom didn’t want to look at any more.

“I don’t wanna move here, Sharon,” she said, as we walked back to my place, past the Square Stores on Fifth Avenue.  “I don’t know no one here.  I’d be all alone.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “I live here!  You’d be a few streets away.”

“Oh, you’d be goin’ to your poetry readings and what-have-you . . .”

“Do you think I go to readings every single minute of every single day?”

Diffidently, she retied her blue and white kerchief behind her head and that was the end of that.  I could tell they wouldn’t be moving to New York.

Nick went with me everywhere that week.  David and I took him to Two Boots for pizza and he stood with the other kids at the big window with a view of the kitchen and watched the guys make pizza.  He clutched the little piece of dough the cook gave him all the way way.  At my yoga class in Manhattan the next day he did the exercises and chants along with everyone else.  Ravi Singh, the teacher, always turned the lights down low once the class began, and back at home Nick told Mom, “I did aerobics in the dark!”  As we entered the subway to catch the R train to the Staten Island Ferry terminal I thought, “I will always remember my mom walked here.  Her energy will always be here, at the corner of Union and Fourth Avenue.”

David and I had a party in the back yard for them.  We invited my downstairs neighbor Al, my friends Bart Plantenga and Deborah Pintonelli, and a few others I can’t remember now.  Nick made little drawings on Post-Its — portraits of everyone at the party — and went around trying to sell them for a dollar each.  I think Al developed a crush on my mom.

When their visit was over I went with them to Penn Station to get the Amtrak back to Chicago.  Nick cried.  I cried when I got home, taking the sheets off the cot he had slept on in the living room, picking up the big watercolor drawings he was working on which were scattered all over the living room floor.  I loved him so much.  What would happen to him if his grandmother died?  For many years we lived with this uncertainty, and it colored almost the entire decade of the ’90’s for me.   But that color was itself colored by love.  A few days after they left someone gave me, as a present, a deck of tarot cards.  I pulled a card at random; it was the Ace of Hearts, depicted as a small but brilliant heart rising from a jeweled chalice.

Twenty years after that visit, ten years after my mother’s death, I still see her in her navy blue Midwestern windbreaker and blue and white kerchief going down the Union Street subway stairs: holding on to the railing, going slowly, a step at a time, and Nicholas holding her other hand.

“Glowing Bright As Nirvana” — Remembering Lydia Tomkiw

15 Nov

bart plantenga and I reminisce about Lydia at Cher Bibler’s new litsite: