On Words Apart by Jonas Mekas

 

This is my contribution to Message Ahead: Poets Respond to the Poems of Jonas Mekas, published last year by Rail Editions.

 

Jonas Mekas, American: Notes on Words Apart
by Carter Ratcliff

 

Jonas Mekas published Words Apart, a book of poems, in 1967.  Reappearing this year in a new translation by the poet Vyt Bakaitis, the collection feels timely—and that is strange.  Words Apart is more than four decades old; moreover, it testifies to Mekas’s thoughts and feelings, his state of being, at an even earlier period: the years just after the Second World War.  Released from a Nazi labor camp as the war ended, he settled into the role of philosophy student at the University of Mainz, in southwestern Germany.  Nonetheless, he felt adrift—psychically, if not literally—until 1949, when he and his brother Adolfus were resettled in Brooklyn by the Refugee Organization of the United Nations.

Words Apart falls into five sections, all of them divided into subsections of varying length.  Mekas’s lines are startlingly short.  Each contains just a word or two, except for lines that present a hyphenated fragment of a long word.  Stanzas, therefore, are extremely thin.  The visual effect is of language unfurling into a void, extenuating itself as it goes.  There are few metaphors in Words Apart, few similes or poetic devices of any sort.  Yet these stripped-down works display none of the narrative or expository impulses that would turn them into prose.  They are poems unshaped by poeticisms, utterances addressed to a world where a “man” sits

deep in

orchard

shade

. . . watching

appletrees

the heat

struck

vibrate,

sky

all

trembling

linden.

                                        (I, 3)

A bit later in the book,

There

are

times

I’ll

feel

a breeze

fresh

on my

fingers

or

eyes —

and

far

less

often,

drops

of

light

spray

—ing

sparks,

briefly

throw

light

on the

whole

horizon —

then go

all

dark

again —

(II, 7)

          The poet’s sharp focus on fugitive sensations illuminates his isolation in self-awareness.  His perceptions are all he has, and sometimes these diminish to nearly nothing.

The night

gets

deeper

and

deeper.

I lie

there,

alone,

eyes

open.

Darkness

falls

on black

windows.

(IV, 7)

At “noon / -day’s / fla- / ming / shore,” the poet sits “alone, with no / thoughts / in mind.” (IV, 12) As “The sun’s / last rays” fall, he is again “alone” at water’s edge. (IV, 16) In an unnamed harbor, he stands “alone,” looking “at a / city / burning / at noon.” (IV, 20)

The word “alone” recurs not as an anguished refrain but as a calm acknowledgement of a fact comparable to the facts delivered by Mekas’s observations of rocks and boulders, lighthouses and cafés, a snake only momentarily visible, a bee feeding at leisure on clover.  Neither threatened nor engaged, the poet navigates the world with seeming ease, and yet he belongs to it only contingently or perhaps not at all.  Tracing a “shoreline, alone,” he says that he is “far / from / home, / far/ from / home.” (IV, 17) For reasons never stated, there is no possibility of return.  Mekas is a “lone / soul / with no / place / to go.” (IV, 20)

Forsaken by the past, marooned in a present disconnected from any future, the poet has inoculated himself against nostalgia.  There is only the moment, inflected by feelings of loneliness, physical sensations, and the visible things—other human beings among them—that give the poems of Words Apart their subject matter.  These drifting, sometimes flickering phenomena have no backdrop, social, cultural, or historical.  Slowly, one realizes how strange this is.  Most poems emerge, however circuitously, from a coherent world.  Mekas’s do not, as the poet is acutely but never bitterly aware.

“In the Woods,” the second section of Words Apart, begins with this declaration:

 I,

 too,

now

halfway

through

my life,

entered

a

dark

woods,

lost

track,

saw

no

more signs . . .

(II, 1)

In this darkness, we see clearly the precision with which Mekas reprises the opening of Dante’s Inferno.  For the earlier poet also speaks of having reached the mid-point of his life and finding himself in a dark wood (selva oscura), unable to find a clear path (diritta via).  Soon Dante encounters three beasts—a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf—each laden with symbolic meanings as sinister as they are obscure.  As he continues his journey, symbols proliferate, meanings intertwine, and soon we are enmeshed in a pattern of historical allusion and theological speculation so vast and complex that it takes on the scale and speculative richness of a cosmology.

Mekas’s Words Apart contains nothing comparable, nor does this book rest, like the Inferno and the entire Divine Comedy, on a foundation of allusions to earlier poetry.  Dante rewrites Plato, Virgil, Augustine, and the entire tradition of medieval Romance.  Mekas invokes Dante’s “dark wood” to let us know that he rejects the machinery of symbol and literary reference fully and deliberately, in favor of imagery that reflects an immediate, isolated now.  For this is all that feels real to him, all in the bleak years after the Second World War that has the power to compel his belief.  When, toward the end of Section IV, Mekas writes

Day’s

done,

heart’s

stable.

Here

lies

the wine

-red

sea

(IV, 19)

it may seem that he softens his rejection of European tradition by acknowledging Homer, who so often describes the sea as “wine-dark.”  But he is doing the opposite, echoing Homer only to extend to ancient times the range of the cultural inheritance he rejects.  From 1949 to the present, Mekas has understood himself as the sort of American who inhabits a fluid, improvised present devoted to the future and its precedent-free possibilities.  Mekas realizes these possibilities chiefly in film.  He is a major figure in the history of avant-garde cinema in the United States.  Yet he has always written—the list of his publications includes autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, and poetry—and his style in both of his mediums has always tended toward unadorned clarity.  Hence his filmic and poetic imagery join to make it plausible to see him as a late recruit to Imagism, a movement launched in the 1910s by a small band of American and English poets determined to rescue poetry from the extravagant metaphor and decorative surplus cultivated by late Victorian poets.

The idea of Mekas as an Imagist gains strength from a choice Bakaitis, his translator, made at the outset of Words Apart.  The Lithuanian title of the book’s first section is “Vaizdai,” a word that could be rendered in English as “views,” “vistas,” “appearances,” “spectacles,” or “images.”  By choosing the last of these, Bakaitis brings the Imagists to mind and prompts us to ask if Mekas belongs in the company of Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (HD), William Carlos Williams, and other members of the group.  He does not and, in seeing why not, we see Mekas a bit more clearly.

Passionate reformers, the Imagists insisted that poetry must attain a new clarity, concision, and freedom not only from traditional meter but also from the echoes of metric tradition to be heard in vers libre. The goal was specificity. Each conjunction of word and world must record a unique moment of experience. [1] So far, Mekas and the Imagists are in accord.  They diverge on the plane of ultimate meaning.  Pound wrote in 1918 that “an ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”  If it is truly instantaneous, the ‘Image’ gives the reader “a sense of freedom from time limits and space limits.” [2]  It is not obvious, at first glance, how to reconcile these pronouncements with Pound’s best-known Imagist poem:

                                  In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in a crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough. [3]

For this imagery ushers us into a well-defined place, the Paris Metro, and evokes Springtime, the season when trees flower.  To feel unconstrained by the poem’s “time limits and space limits” we must agree in retrospect with Pound’s prediction, made in 1918, about the best poetry of the twentieth century.  “Its force,” he said, “will lie in its truth.” [4]

Pound means neither the truth established by scientific experiment nor that of the ordinary observations that guide us through the world.  He appeals to an idea of timelessly transcendent truth—Truth with a capital “T”—that is rooted in Platonism.  The Neoplatonist Plotinus, Renaissance and Baroque theorists, and Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries all argued that art and literature can be vehicles of—or windows onto—Truth of this exalted kind.  And their arguments persist, much revised, in certain strands of modernism.  Pound and the other Imagists were, if not strict Neoplatonists, then heirs to this ancient faith.  Like Plotinus, they believed that a poem or painting succeeds by revealing an essence: the ultimate, absolute, and immutable Truth of its subject.  Mekas signals his awareness of this tradition in “Remnants of a Journey,” the third section of Words Apart.

During a journey by airplane, he says:

 
Now
I
know
it’s
true:
 
like
cloud
wisps
I fall,
the night
through.
 

9.

It’s
not
that
I’m
even
so
sure!
 

As
before,
I just
don’t
see
any
brink,
and
I
know
it’s
not by
my
own
force
I
fall.
 

But
I’m
through
 

looking for
the essence,
 

or
raising
questions,
 

and take
all evenly
in
as
a gift,
with
 

the same
wonder
at
sun
-sets
as at
humans,
 

or
the night’s
black
-ness.

(III, 8, 9)

 

With this passage, Mekas renounces the quest for essences.  Or, as he says elsewhere, he rejects Europe’s “logic and reason” (II, 7)—his metonym for the Platonism that infuses the art of Michelangelo, the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the theories of racial essence that provided European fascism with its metaphysical underpinnings.   In the aftermath of his and Lithuania’s encounters with Nazi Germany, Mekas extricated himself from two and a half millennia of European metaphysics.  Thus he joined the company of such American non-metaphysicians as the pragmatist John Dewey, the ironist Andy Warhol, and Merce Cunningham, choreographer of ordinary movement.  Separating himself from such New-World seekers of Old-World essences as Ezra Pound and the other Imagists, he became, in a way, more American than they were.

 

[1] .  Ezra Pound, “Affirmations: As for Imagisme” (1915), reprinted in Ezra Pound: Early Writings, Poems and Prose, ed. Ira B. Nadel, Penguin Books, 2005, pp. 292-96

[2] .  Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect” (1918), reprinted in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. Vassiliki Kolocontroni, Jane Goldman, Olga Taxidou, The University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 374

[3] .  Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro” (1912), Personae: The Collected Poems of Ezra Pound, New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926, p. 109

[4] .  Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” p. 378

About carterratcliff

I am a poet who writes about art and everything else.
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