I was recently invited to write a critical essay on a single author. I told the editors of this literary journal that I don’t readily write critical essays but that I would be interested in finding another way into it. The editors gave me the green light to do so, and I started thinking about a strategy for this, and then my close friend Stacy Doris died. Stacy had been sick for a long time and she had been fiercely fighting back the worse of her cancer and its treatment for many months. So, even though her passing wasn’t a shock, it was still a shock for those of us who were close to her. Even today, I find her death unfathomable and difficult to process because, in part, her character was so much larger-than-life.
Shortly after her death, I was invited by a friend to contribute something for an anthology of writings about Stacy. These two possibilities collided. What follows, then, is a memoriam and something like a meditation on the poetry of Stacy Doris. The essay—which I’ll frame later—is not really an essay at all, but a translation of the first pages from her long poem KNOT.
SOME CONTEXT & SOME TEXT:
Early on, in the mid-90s, there was an under-appreciated overlap with today’s Conceptual Poetry located in a handful of poets, mostly women, working in radical appropriation. These poets (Doris, Spahr, Ngai, Rosenfield, Grim, Neilson, Morrison, Goldman and others) were taking their lead from Appropriation Art of the 1980s and a new wave of feminist theory. It was a distinctive shift from collage poetry because the appropriated source material was fore-fronted in new, whole cloth, unexpected ways. For Stacy, we can read this in the video game language of Kildare and the array of appropriated traditional poetic forms (with Michael Jackson as the central character) in Paramour.
Kildare was published in 1994 by Roof Books and to the community of poets of my generation in New York City at that moment, it was a big and surprising step forward. The book appropriates the form of computer games and some of that language to create a playful, complex arena of simulated language. Its disjointedness echoes the Language Writing that we all grew up in, but the shift in how this new work grew out of media culture was something else:
MUNCHED ON THE LAGOON...
(blued) elkboys autosuck
Why the hat?
TiK glides, from snowcap, down to their mobile
(with a (cold) pizza)
GORE OX Chris Scissor
8 8 6 8
In playability and shift.
In terms of this new radical appropriation—where entire books were composed with found materials—several books with an affinity to Stacy’s would follow: Melanie Nielson’s Natural Facts (Potes & Poets 1996), Juliana Spahr’s Response (Sun & Moon 2000), Kim Rosenfield’s Good Morning—Midnight— (Roof Books 2001).
Doris’ writing always moved restlessly forward, and each project surprised its readers with unexpected turns. But at the core of her art, Stacy repurposed forms—forms of poetic antiquity and contemporary media. The appropriation of language often took a back seat to these formal borrowings. One strategy for reading Paramour(Krupskaya 2000), for instance, is as an album of poetic forms dating back to antiquity but recharged with themes of popular culture (via love and sex). In a playful, is-this-for-real, preface that simulates a literary preface of some other era, she writes:
To the Reader
This is a very conservative book. It was written between 1995-2000
in the South of France and in North America by a willful female author,
who, nagged and baffled by questions of poetic form’s future, set out,
as if she had all the time in the world on her hands, to catalogue, through
strategies of parody and vivisection, an eclectic variety of Western prosodic
models. For subject-matter the theme of love, certainly the most prevalent
topic of poetic traditions, was readily selected.
If the main theme of Paramour is love, then the agent of this love is Michael Jackson. The variety of poetic forms borrowed in Paramour is head-spinning, and no single example does justice to her purposeful excess of forms, but still... here’s a favorite... a riff on Blake’s The Little Black Boy:
Second Slogan Poem
A Song for Twins
My mother take me on the under side,
Where I am black, but wow, my stuff is white!
White as ice cream is the little flood,
Under my neck, all whipped up nice.
My mother lead me underneath a bush,
And, sitting down on top the heaving part,
She lift me in her lap and kissed my mush,
And reaching to the place, she puff a lot:
And Blake’s original...
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black, as if bereav'd of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east, began to say:
Doris’ works often resonates in the dialectic where she embraces classical verse and, at the same moment, creates a playful criticality therein. If Rimbaud shouts from the mountain to be absolutely modern, Doris’s work is persistently postmodern in its simulation and pastiche of repurposed forms.
A TRANSLATION OF SORTS:
KNOT (University of Georgia, 2006) is a very different poetry book for Stacy. The playful simulation of the earlier books is replaced by a strategy of conceptual disconnectedness. I use the term conceptual here, because of the pre-text concept she follows: to personalize grammar by misusing it: for instance, confusing verb and pronoun agreements. It is this aspect of KNOT that interests me most—how Doris’ personal relationships get inside of this distressed grammar.
What follows, then, is a "translation" of the opening 9 stanzas of Stacy Doris' KNOT into monosyllabic English. There are a few reasons why I chose to approach Stacy’s work in this way. Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, I was searching for another way into writing critically. The translation-as-essay asks the reader, as a third party, to look closely at these translation choices, side-by-side. My critical relationship with Stacy’s text exists in the subtle shifts and fissures of meaning. Most of my attention to the poem is on the level of grammar. This is not a random strategy; KNOT is driven by its own inventive misuse of grammar—it is a long poem that radically and consistently misuses grammar to reflect a more personal disruption and trauma. The confusing subject-verb disagreements and misplaced possessive apostrophes in KNOT directly parallel issues of life and death additions and subtractions. For instance, what do we do with the ungrammatical “anyone explode”...is it a command? Has the singular turned plural? A similar problem occurs in “What gather’s radiation”...
Bitten, feasted upon, anyone explode. Breaks out thus released where
What gather's radiation. We's nullify, and so caught, repeat. Freed, we laps...
Secondly, the idea of approaching critical writing as translation struck as me as a move that Stacy’s might have employed on her own. Stacy’s love and investment in translation and languages has been well documented (she is fluent in French and Spanish and studied Greek and Arabic). Her translations of contemporary French poetry are enormously valuable, and her own novel La Vie de Chester Steven Wiener ècrite par sa femme—is widely read and appreciated in French. The novel is a Cassanova send-up—part Jeff Koons, part Proust—where Stacy writes about Chet’s everyday life, from his childhood suburban poodle to the artfulness of how he puts away the dishes.
Thirdly and lastly, the idea to respond to Stacy’s writing via a translation is an outgrowth of a communication that we were having months before her death. She had sent me a version of her new manuscript Fledge and asked if I could read and comment on it. I wrote to Stacy in October that her new manuscript was beautiful and I didn’t really have any specific suggestions. I did, however, have one macro idea... what would the text feel like if it were all monosyllabic? I explained that I read this work as a continuation of her concerns in KNOT, and I thought that the single syllables could speak to the aloneness that overwhelmed my reading of the Fledge. As it stands, Fledge is carefully concerned with meter and syllable counting, as Stacy borrows again from classical poetic traditions. We had a long phone conversation following this email—even though she rejected my suggestion, she was so pleased to discuss, in detail, that I was proposing.
Shortly after this phone conversation, I saw part of our email correspondence appear in another context. Stacy and I are part of an ongoing collective of poets and artists called Collective Task where each month we are given a task to complete by one of the members of the group. The “task” for this particular month was A Grammar, and Stacy sent the following excerpt from my email that translated a few lines of Fledge into single syllable words:
We must be the big thing
spoon its self with
its self in your bright coats
and not the pond keeps
set not this
nor that as we
sweet-coat time since looks
creep up the sweets
the sweets stems
—Stacy Doris with Rob Fitterman
The following translation-essay-memoriam of KNOT, then, is in the spirit of this correspondence. First appears my translated text NOT followed by the original excerpt from KNOT. I recommend that you read them side-by-side as closely as possible.
NOT (A Translation of the opening pages of Stacy Doris’ KNOT)
what would it mean to remain forever
faithful to what is never present?..
. “Vanishing Remains” – Eduardo Cadava
A New Life
Can’t. Wrought as a thing in stone, ripped, thus each place
Gem to gem what fits with what. Lots of throat stucks or blocked
From breathe. Pure so, one can’t pass here drunk, each hair
Soaked dyes so light laced, they mixed with touch, then
Guilt for death’s gain; mocked in a not fair not just. For us, a
Are a crash a way in? When if not a soul, can’t they cause a crash,
With no way in, seed, or the right food? Gone off too soon, no place,
Range hides more with the tear of—was it a shirt? If we were not
Spin our own selves, was some soul? With draws? A kiss? What might be’s
Small and round, a thing bought.
“Tick, tick,” says the cat. “Tick.” Here’s a gift. Here’s a bunch of gifts,
The real in the night of tricks. Here’s a box, a cold dome, so warm this, now. A thing
with its eyes sealed looks at what can’t be seen clear. If the lids burst: a bright light.
Here’s a rose, top file, then. In dream it’s hard, to plague,
And where else it is with ease or soft. A drag. Is this a charge? With a
Switch? You shows up where a soul makes you’s. Or else it is a drape,
Here of red. A soul comes and draws in a new soul, filled, put back. If not
A burn, slight, an itch, all this in the hand, grown large, no heed to
A pinch goes on so that my shirt—was it a dress, milk?—turn to a scrim.
A screen’s death, where shift files feels crash, though what you see.
To see is not true, just the end.
In some far place, all things null. Sparks mix the night falls now,
And bombs in part start sound; thus the we that we keep. In bright light, cells
Say which ones clash and which ones hide. Change. Some one, numb, sheathes in
What can’t be grasped. But touch cures. In each touch, we takes shape as
Dwell’s axe is. So some one not your hand lines us, a wrap means a rope.
“Song” and “form” each note, these makes serve law. So in a
Realm with no time, there’s slip’s chance. To take on or put up with what
What shifts to dust, to take on how one drown’s, how one could swim on and on. To give up
You’s a state of no change, soaked and not in a round, dazed of soak’s
With bring back, in lost way’s out to fixed. Cost’s fix cuts, a share
For those who won’t see a new one or less one, so make them up as meek.
Then live on for a long time pre date’s rip. Sent back. The gun’s shots stands
For hope, so free’s on and on.
To be raw, a safe net. Down to too small to see. Safe heats what it keeps safe
From a crash. Drawn to the strong lid of ash. A small hope aims at
Faith. Marks or wounds them thus, as a rope too cuts off.
from Stacy Doris’ KNOT
A New Life
Inconceivable. Wrought as a monument, forgery thus, everywhere
Crystallized to carbon and tinkering. Many throats silted or blocked
From breath. Purely so, with inadmissible drunkenness, each follicle
Soaked poisons so radiantly laced, they mix with touch, became
Guilt for part of demise’s richness; a ridicule of judgment. For us, a
Are collisions entrances? Even if inhuman, can’t they merit collapse,
Without ingress, seeding, or proper nourishment? Detonations, no order,
Range increasingly discrete with the tear of—was it a garment? If we aren’t
Propelling ourself, was somebody? With magnets? A kiss? Whatever’s
Small and round, a purchase.
“Tick, tick,” says the cat. “Tick.” Here’s a present. Here’s a collection.
The real Halloween. Here’s a gift, an igloo, so incubate, now. Something
With its eyes sealed inspects obscurity. If the lids burst: luminousness.
Here’s a flowering, top-secret, then. In imagination it’s hard, to invade,
And elsewhere easy or soft. A disappointment. Is this electric? With a
Switch? You shows up where somebody makes you’s. Otherwise curtaining.
Present of red. Anyone comes and colors in another, filled, replaced. Unless
A burning, slight, an itch, all along the knuckles, expand, unconcerned.
Pinching continues until my’s cover—was it a dress, milk?—becomes scrim.
A screen’s demise, where sifting files texture’s collapse, through noticing.
To see is not credulity, just dissolution.
Into some distance, everything empties. Explosions riddle nightfall’s now.
And bombs partly originate sound; thus echo unending. In radiance, cells
Determine clashes and covering. Convert. Somebody, numb, sheathes in
Incomprehension. But touch medicates. In each caress, we takes shape as
Dwelling’s axis. So another’s hand insulates us, cocoons meaning cordons.
“Harmony” and “form,” each song, these constructs serve law. So in a
Realm independent of time, there’s disequilibrium’s chance. In accepting
Erosion, embrace drowning, anyone could indefinitely swim. In giving up
You’s a permanence, soaked rather than encircled, confused of saturate
With restore, in lost recourse to fixing. Reparation’s repartition, a sharing
For those who won’t recognize others, so invent them as subservience.
Then living forever predicates eruption. Repatriation. The bullets stands
For blessing, so freedom’s enduring.
Exposure’s a safety. Stripped to the invisible. Security heats what it protects
Into bursting. Attracts to the lasting cover of ash. Any benison targets
Believers. Marks or wounds them thus, as winding too cuts off.