Mudlark Flash No. 122 (2018)

A Redacted Poem
and an Unredacted Essay

by Stephen Bunch

Approximation1 from Cuneiform
Found on a Neolithic Bowl2

Deep inside winter we clean
and sharpen our tools,3
preparing to carry them
into new sunlight.

Where we live the atmosphere
is red and translucent.
Our blood is never farther
than a casual thought4 from the surface.

Each summer we emerge
with hopeless optimism,5
stabbing shovels into crust,
swinging bright blades against dark growth.

Soon enough the roots and branches
will forget6 us, and then we will be gone.7,8

1 This piece is not intended as translation as it is thrice removed from the original cuneiform. Instead, it is meant to be a poem derived from an translation, which itself was derived from a rendering of the original translation of the cuneiform glyphs.

2 Archaeologists have been unable to determine if the bowl was used ceremonially, in food preparation, for storage, or for some other unknown purpose.

3 The glyph rendered “sharpen our tools” also could be taken to mean “sharpen our weapons,” but the later agricultural references suggest the former (although what I have presented as “dark growth” could be any of the following: “forest,” “the enemy,” or “nightmares”).

4 Regarding “casual thought,” parts of the inscription are worn, leading the original translator, archaeologist , to suggest that this glyph could represent “sleep” or “consciousness” or, alternatively, “a wound.”

5 “Hopeless optimism” may seem an oxymoron, although I would suggest that it makes a certain fatalistic sense, the optimism needed for day-to-day living, the hopelessness an acknowledged awareness. The first of the two glyphs behind this phrase means something like “the sun always sets.” The second means “the sun always rises.”

6 From a graduate student’s translation of a transcription of a tape-recorded interview with Professor : “We cannot know if the abstract phenomenon of ‘forgetting’ was recognized ‘consciously’ in Neolithic spoken languages or in the cuneiform, and the glyph in question could as easily represent [garbled] of a line drawn in [garbled] or ‘growth’ or ‘a dark [garbled]….’ A translator is constantly reminded of the [garbled] of knowing.”

7 The anonymous translation from which I have created this “approximation” was found in a collection of as yet uncatalogued papers, the provenance of which is uncertain, held by the at the University . The paper on which the translation was handwritten has what appear to be coffee stains obscuring the last few words. I have had to take liberties in my treatment of this final clause, relying in part on the “best guess” recorded in the previous note and on my sense that the bowl’s inscription was meant as a kind of memento mori, a reminder of human mutability. Being a scholar of neither Neolithic cultures nor cuneiform, I admit the possible, even likely, fallibility of my word choices both in the final clause and throughout this “approximation.”

8 .

* Shortly after this poem appeared in my collection Transmissions from Bone House (Woodley Memorial Press, 2016), I was notified by the National Security Agency (NSA) that the poem had been tagged in a project called Digital DNA (Documents Needing Attention). Although Transmissions from Bone House has never appeared digitally, except in drafts exchanged between the editor and me, this poem had been posted in earlier versions in online workshops and discussion boards, which explains how it was caught up in the Digital DNA sweep. Apparently, the NSA, using algorithms beyond my ken, had identified in my poem sensitive information related in some way to national security.

The NSA letter informed me that all online digital iterations of the poem had been redacted and that all future publications of the poem should include these redactions. (I was informed that the current print version in Transmissions from Bone House need not be redacted because a) so few copies were in circulation and b) books and their readers are in sharp and probably irreversible decline.)

As I reviewed the redactions, I could find no obvious explanation for them, as they seemed to have no bearing on what I would consider national security. For the most part, the redactions were names of persons (translators, archeologists) and places (libraries, geographic locations). The poem itself was untouched; only the footnotes were redacted. Ironically, my editor had suggested omitting the footnotes when the book manuscript was in process. I insisted on retaining the notes, as I wanted to make a statement on the paradox of language as the only but unreliable tool for the acquisition and retention of knowledge. These redactions have underscored that irony.

Musings Among the Ephemera

for Ed Sanders

As a graduate student at the University of Kansas, I was initiated into the cloisters of the Spencer Research Library, where I learned something of the history of the book and had the opportunity to see and hold books that were printed long before any European ever set foot in Kansas. The Spencer’s holdings include a page from a Gutenburg Bible (Mainz, Germany, 1455, volume 2, folio 113, Ezekiel 18.1-20.7), a sizable collection of medieval- and Renaissance-era manuscripts and books, and much more. More on the “much more” later.

My earliest experience in the Spencer reading room was in connection with a class on allegorical poetry of the Renaissance. (Side remark: If you have any interest in allegory, I highly recommend the central text for that semester, Angus Fletcher’s Allegory. It is one of the best, most readable pieces of scholarship I’ve encountered. Get this: a full one third of the book is footnotes—I measured the page-inches—and the footnotes are great!) But back to my story. My assignment was to study several 16th-century emblem books—a genre of the time which combined engravings of iconic emblems (e.g., eagles) with mottos, often in Latin. (This was my only opportunity, other than my annual revisiting of Catullus’ carmina, to “use” the Latin I had acquired as an undergraduate.) To inspect these antique books, I would identify the volumes I wished to view (anyone still remember the card catalog?), turn in my request at the desk, and then take a seat in the reading room. Kind of like placing an order at the local lunch counter and then staking out a seat with your order number in the dining room to await delivery. Each seat at the reading room’s tables had a book stand with velvet “snakes.” The snakes, filled with fine sand or some other weighty, granular substance, were to hold the open pages in place to minimize handling by the peruser. After a few minutes the librarian would arrive with the requested tomes, on a wooden tray! Then she would place the volume on the reading stand and explain the use of the snakes.

§ § §

While I cherish the memories of those hours spent gently turning the pages of centuries-old emblem books, hours during which I was transported to a different time, place, and world view, I want to turn to the Spencer’s special collections, in particular its New American Poetry Collection, a treasure trove of “ephemeral productions.” Here’s the library’s description of the collection:

Begun in 1963, with the intention of preserving the ephemeral productions of the local antiestablishment poets, this has solidified into the collection of a particular set of movements in contemporary American poetry. Often taking a fugitive and fragile form but sometimes coming out as fashionable limited editions, the publications stem mainly from four schools: the Black Mountain College group, the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York “Beats,” and the Kansas Connection. The several thousand items of the collection include issues of over 500 separate little magazines and the productions of many small presses. While attempting to provide as broad and representative a selection as possible, we place special emphasis on poets who have had some connection with the local scene—Kansas poets such as Michael McClure, Charles Plymell, Ken Irby, William Stafford, Ronald Johnson, and the adopted Kansan, William Burroughs, and frequent visitors such as Allen Ginsberg (and others of his circle) and Jonathan Williams, The Jargon Society publisher.

As an aspiring poet who went to school on Donald Allen’s New American Poetry and Robert Kelly’s A Controversy of Poets—two early-’60s anthologies that attempted to document what was happening in American verse at the time as well as making widely available the work of many poets who had previously been seen only in hard-to-get, limited circulation fugitive publications—I was in heaven as I browsed the index cards (that’s right, index cards) in the Spencer catalog. Pamphlets, magazines, and books that were legend to me were there for the asking.

• Edward Dorn’s What I See in “The Maximus Poems,” Migrant Press (1960).

• Several titles from Auerhahn Press, including Philip Lamantia’s Destroyed Works (1962); Charles Olson’s Maximus from Dogtown—I, with foreword by Michael McClure (1961); McClure’s Hymns to St. Geryon (1959) and Dark Brown (1962); as well as titles by Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, John Wieners, and others.

• Several titles from Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Books, including the first edition of Olson’s Maximus Poems (I have a copy myself, though it’s well worn—just as I never thought of keeping my baseball cards in plastic envelopes to protect their value, so too did I not think of my Maximus as something to lock away but rather as something to read, reread, thumb through, and carry with me on the bus or in the airport) and Robert Creeley’s A Form of Women (1959).

• Handbills and broadsides commemorating poetry events from San Francisco’s North Beach to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. One example:

Announcing Mad Monster Mammoth Poets’ Reading for Auerhahn Press!!!, Sat. Aug. 29, 1959, 8:30 pm, North Beach Spectacle!!! at Garibaldi Hall ... The second of its kind! ... Given to help support ... The Auerhahn Press ... A great moment in the San Francisco Renaissance of poetry. — The readers are B. Boyd, R. Bremser, K. Doyle, L. Ferlinghetti, B. Kaufman, P. Lamantia, R. Loewinsohn, C. MacLaine, M. McClure, D. Meltzer, J. Wieners, and P. Whalen. — Also announces ‘a spectacle of Objects’ featuring the painters B. Conner and R. LaVigne.

• Recordings (get thee to the listening room), including McClure roaring his “Ghost Tantras” to lions at the San Francisco zoo (with lions roaring back) and a Ginsberg reading in Wichita, broken up by a police raid for obscenity, all caught on tape.

I don’t know how many hours I spent pouring over these “ephemeral productions,” but one occasion stands out. Since my high school days in the mid-sixties, when I first discovered the records of the Fugs, I had been fascinated and inspired by the music, poetry, and tender revolutionary righteousness of Fugs cofounder Ed Sanders. A native of the Kansas City area, Sanders as a young man transplanted himself to the Lower East Side, where he opened his Peace Eye Bookstore. In the back room of the Peace Eye was a mimeograph machine from which spewed the seminal productions of Fuck You Press, and in particular Sanders’ influential poetry publication Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts. (There is a nice recounting of this piece of publishing history in Donald Kane’s All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Publishing Scene in the 1960s [University of California Press]). In the card catalog of the Spencer, I found listings for several issues of FY, as well as such other Fuck You Press offerings as Bugger: An Anthology of Buttockry, Cantos 110-116 of Ezra Pound (cover by Joe Brainard), A valorium edition of the entire extant works of Thales!, and many others.

Covers of Fuck You / a magazinne of the arts

Ed Sanders' Catalog

I filled out my call slips, took them to the front desk, found a reading table with a nice view of the hillside above Potter’s Lake, and awaited the delivery of these poetic treasures. Soon the librarian arrived with her wooden tray bearing the issues of Fuck You. I have no idea what she must have thought as she placed the first issue on the reading stand and asked if I was familiar with the use of the snakes. As mentioned earlier, FY publications were produced on a mimeograph and stapled along the left edge. The cover art consisted of hand-drawn hieroglyphics, as I recall, everything from Egyptian figures such as the eye of Ra and Horus hawks to (prominently) ejaculating phalli. To the librarian’s credit, she followed protocol precisely, just as if she had been delivering one of those rare 16th-century emblem books. (By the way, A valorium edition of the entire extant works of Thales! was a single mimeographed page of hand-drawn Greek characters.)

Later, when Sanders was visiting as a writer-in-residence, I mentioned the Spencer collection, and he told me that the acquisitions librarian during the ’60s, Terence Williams, was one of many librarians across the land who helped keep Sanders and other poets going during their lean bohemian years. Library budgets were bigger in those days and poets with mimeograph machines were cranking out all kinds of “product” to buy milk for their babies and fuel their revolutions. During that conversation I mentioned that I’d been thinking about starting a magazine. Sanders encouraged me and recommended that I be sure to sell subscriptions to libraries. He was right (special thanks to SUNY-Buffalo and EbScor Subscription Services, and to Sanders, who contributed poems to my first issue in 1978).

The Spencer catalog is online now. I wonder how many other readers have filled out a request for Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts since I last beheld those storied texts. In any case, those issues are in safe keeping in the Spencer’s climate-controlled vaults, under the watchful ministrations of dispassionate librarians, and protected by velvet snakes.

Stephen Bunch lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas, where he received the 2008 Langston Hughes Award for Poetry from the Lawrence Arts Center and Raven Books. His poems can be found in Autumn Sky Poetry, The Externalist, The Literary Bohemian, Fickle Muses, IthacaLit and Umbrella. From 1978 to 1988, he edited and published Tellus, a little magazine that featured work by Victor Contoski, Edward Dorn, Jane Hirshfield, Donald Levering, Denise Low, Paul Metcalf, Edward Sanders, and many others. After a fifteen-year hibernation, he awoke in 2005 and resumed writing. Preparing to Leave, his first gathering of poems, was published in 2011 and Transmissions from Bone House, his second, in 2016. Bunch can be found on the Map of Kansas Literature near L. Frank Baum and Gwendolyn Brooks. [He reports that property values tanked when he moved into the neighborhood.]