Big City Lit Reviews

Pierre Joris's Poasis: Selected Poems 1986-1999

(Wesleyan University Press)

Keep Moving
by Richard Pearse

Pierre Joris is formidable by many measures. In thirty years, he has published twenty books of original poems, including this, his second Selected Poems. Multilingual, he has translated Jean-Pierre Duprey, Habib Tangour, Paul Celan, and rendered Carl Solomon, Julian Beck, Kerouac, Corso, Sam Shepard, and Melville in his native French, fourteen volumes of translations so far.

His four books of prose range, as restlessly as one would expect, among literary criticism and political, cultural, and communal commentary. Their titles signal his motives: Another Journey, The Book of Demons (with Victoria Hyatt), Global Interference, and Toward a Nomadic Poetics. He has also edited five poetry anthologies, the best-known being Poems for the Millennium (with Jerome Rothenberg). He is a comprehensive man of letters, in the voracious Pound tradition.

In Poasis, whose title is characteristically ambiguousóhis poetry to date, as-is; poesis knocked on its ass; etc., his wry, peripatetic erudition samples from many tongues ("In another stolen language/here we go again"). In a voice that can veer in a syllable from the oracular to the funky, he recalls not only Pound but Celan, Herbert, Duncan, Olson, and the Beats. He is American by decree of passport and academic address (SUNY-Albany), and also in his hunger for the new and impatience with the old, the tried and found untrue. More accurately, he is the ultimate self-exile, reacting against the leftovers of European colonialism and the red-, white-, and blue-plate specials of globalism. His weapons include his linguistic arsenals and his sense that words, however provisional, are our only hope: "There is nothing human beyond words & words are the only gate we have."

Through the boundaries of nations and their political lies, a poem by Joris breaks and points multidirectionally: It takes in the static of the world's short waves, faces the stark alternatives of the desert and ocean, and turns laterally to face its brothers fore and aft, turning his oeuvre into one sequence. He is always alive to the next word:

in this dream too
you have to add a line
your place is between
the already written
& the unwritten,
in the white empty space.

Such writing-as-living is demanding, but never defeated:;

not to worry:

you had your birth given you
you will be given your deathó

in between
keep moving

His words impel a continuous disequilibrium. A favored word is clinamen, 'inclination toward the other.' Turbulence, a book excerpted here, is an ode to the flux which impels the writing hand-eye-mind-spirit to rove, alert to the evolution of all life. And his lines move too, often skeletally:

the hordes follow alpha
horizon down

or they go the other way, drive to the margins in prose-poem blocks of energy, key phrases stressed by repetition:

"bend backwards to be God and encompass it all. The flowers of winter the flowers of winter traceries musk of repetition symphonic the phonic be enough or all you can handle the single voice is always two as it hears itself in its saying we are never alone never all one you are your own echo echo.”

Joris repudiates "yourappian Kulchur," though "the Reagan States" of the '80s and after are no better. Least reliable are the old creeds: "How come, in matters of religion, this last of the new people are always, always trying to bind their asses to ye old substatum and willing in the worst way to buy into any second hand wisdom?" Home is a delusion, any homecoming "a reminder of a broken promise." He finds the desert truest to our condition, as it defies political boundaries and impels "the daily move/the daily oasis." Its spaces echo our own: "Wandering creates the desert." There our journeys, inner and outer, find their provocation:

Do not retrace your steps. The earth is round, you cannot avoid it. But keep on going on. Nomad visits.

At times I wished that Joris would turn toward the comic implications of his insatiable paradoxes, that he had the gift of cosmic- and self-mockery of, say, Beckett. As Frank O'Hara wrote of and to V. R. Lang: "You are so serious, as if/a glacier spoke in your ear." In Joris's ear, it is the desert that speaks, as it spoke to [D. H.] Lawrence at his life's end. No comedy there eitheróand none wanted.

But to stress this lack is to overlook Joris's crucial commitment to the space ahead and to the word as "life-raft," a commitment that makes him an excellent translator and editor. His move toward knowing, always word-impelled, never complete, has an undeniable urgency:

We live in


duins in
charge of

our coming &

(Richard Pearse is the author of several books of poetry, most recently, Private Drives: Selected Poems, 1969-2001 (Rattapallax Press). He is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.)