21 September 2007


cover image: Benjamin's Spectacles

Spring Ulmer: Benjamin's Spectacles, published by Kore Press 2007

Benjamin’s Spectacles writes into history, into shadow, into spring. Into, not through. History as in the times of Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Simone Weil. Shadow as the shadow in which nothing casts a shadow, nothing has substance or meaning. Spring as “May fled to a place so barren / as to be of no contest” or “April existed . . . in harm’s way . . . to pay the living / for the dead.” Or spring as the author, Spring Ulmer: “My mother comes in, stomping snow from her boots. / Where’s Spring? she asks.” Spring is nowhere in the snow, Spring is a muffler, silence, in the family, Spring wants to write herself into the shadows, out of existence, or perhaps to the only place existence can be found. If you read and find Spring here, you have paid the price, for this is one of the most bleak books of poetry I have ever read. One of the most bleak, and one of the most beautiful.

The obvious allusions in the book are to Walter Benjamin, and they are throughout. But let’s begin with the less obvious. In “Allegory I,” “Shadows beckon” as William Carlos Williams’s descent beckoned. And it is descent, to the ground, to the underground (digging her own grave was Antigone’s response). Williams’s spring occurs in the final grip of winter, on the road to a contagious hospital, but promises reddish, purplish things erupting out of the mud, into life and sun again. But in Spring Ulmer’s world,
i brace myself for the emergence of sun. it is beyond the horizon, blocked by what’s in front of me. soon it will be blocked by what is behind.
And in “Allegory II,” much later in the book, “Javelinas rummage through garbage, snorting, strewing compost,” and calling forth the sexually rummaging “Pig Cupid” of Mina Loy’s “Love Songs for Johannes,” but whereas Loy’s pig seemed a celebration of the messy physicality of erotic love, Ulmer’s javelinas strew the compost, making it unlikely to enhance growth, and Spring’s mother in the poem chases the pigs “through the streets in the darkness.” Erotic love in the poem is an impotent love involving misshapen bodies, darkened minds, and an erasure of both eroticism and love.

In a poem (and I read this book as a single poem), a book, a world without reason/raison (where the word even collapses, as raison is not reason but raisin, and the speaker doesn’t like raisons), a world of shadow without end, a world where there is “nothing but dust” and where the heart is “monstrously out of tune,” and where, in “The Mechanics of Reproduction,” “It’s hard to separate / one face from the next,” there is no hope, or, if there is, it is in the very act of disappearance, which brings the ground, the stone, groundedness. Benjamin’s dream, as retold in this book, is that language will be no longer able to make meaning, and instead become what grounds people, possibly what grounds people together. Because it is not in transcending, but in being a stone in a field (“B’s Lost Letter to A”) that you can “really absorb all the fieldnesses,” and
My own liberation comes
from being able to care

without caring
Not only do “We collapse / to uphold,” but, as a friend tells Benjamin, who in this poem seems to stand in for the author/speaker of the poems, “Your nothingness is the only experience the age may have of you . . . / You and your nothingness”

Much of Benjamin’s Spectacles is perfectly balanced, with perfect (though not closed) endings, off-kilter but so finely graceful that I find myself wanting more of a disturbance, less of an eerie coldness, more air. But sometimes, and to me this is where the book moves from good to stunning, poems threaten to break open from fullness, despite the suspicion that all is for naught. Such poems manifest “Poetry unhanging itself.” One of the richest is “Letters to the Dead.”

Fresh figs on the counter—
Fellini’s 8 ½—
What happens after betrayal?
I don’t want to hold a man’s hand—
The hunger it spruces—
That flying green—
A beetle shell—
A wish not to be windexed—
These excommunications—
Thimblefuls of relation—
Inner conversation—
Hopkins’ letters to the dead—
Heart-shaped leaves outside my kitchen window tremble—
How it disturbs me—
Knocking food off my fork—
Like a hair shirt—
A man withholding love—
Is this all he can give—
Am I ungrateful?
Gesammelte Briefe, Passagen-Werk, Berliner Chronik, Illuminationen—
The order of books on my table—
Smell of old pages—
The hunger-striker undoes his stitched lips—
Poetry unhanging itself—

In such poems (and there are several) language is willing to be messy, bushy, open, breathing. I wouldn’t quite say that such parts save the book, because it is indeed a very good book without them. But with them, stunning.

Spring Ulmer

In this shadow world dust world nothing world stone world of care without caring, gender blurs, the individual becomes linguistic counter (“B touches A’s lips”), the body is crippled, hunchbacked, sex is a matter of bodily shapes that fit together, but sex is impotent with no fruition, yet “spring” (or, at least once, “Spring”) is all over the place, not quite “busting out all over” as the song would have it, because nothing escapes the shadows, but in language the word “spring” occurs some 15 times in the book, at least 10 of them in the last third of the book. And while only twice does it name the author, it is more than tempting to read each “spring” as contributing to an identity that never quite takes place, that never can take place. Because “spring” is a word, and words ground us and keep us from meaning, but help us to commune, to absorb being (“all the fieldnesses”). We are not like, rather we are “B and E—two stuck typewriter keys.” In this shadow word world, I would willingly be stuck with the keys in Spring Ulmer’s first book. We are all here, with Benjamin and Brecht, and with another B unnamed in the book, but one with which I cannot help but associate this horror, and this communion with the hypocrite lecteur: Baudelaire. But let’s end with Benjamin, as the book ends:

when I was walter benjamin,
a woman helped drag me

up a mountain.
could that woman be this man?

I bow my head and let him stick the darts in.

Who is I? Who is he? Who is that woman? Who is this man? Aren’t we all them? Who bows to endure? Don’t we all?


At 5:01 PM, Blogger Deema said...

hello, i like this article, it told me more about english poetry, that i write but not really know about :)

At 8:36 AM, Blogger charles said...

Thanks, Deema. Your blog, "here," looks fascinating. I love the photos of Shanghai.

Poetry in English comes in all sorts of forms and manners. My own approach to contemporary probably began when I was 13 or so, but was speeded up considerably by introduction to the Black Mountain Poets (Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn) when I was 21 or so, which led me to a lot more. Lately I've been re-reading a lot of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

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At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 10:11 AM, Blogger 新年快樂 said...


At 10:11 AM, Blogger 新年快樂 said...



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