A Handful of Mikado Sticks: On Pierre Joris’s “Interglacial Narrows”
By Sneha ChowdhuryOctober 13, 2023
Interglacial Narrows by Pierre Joris
In the section “Up to & Including the Virus,” the dream-poem appears under a date: “4/6.” The dated heading recalls Celan’s evocative line from The Meridian (1960): “Perhaps one can say that every poem has its own ‘20th of January’”—which is to say that the poem retains the mark of its provenance in history against the threat of its erasure. Despite repeating every year, the date leaves its singular mark in time, while also announcing its future. Joris’s dream-poem will return to haunt its reader every year as Celan haunts Joris. One cannot know for sure whether the mysterious date is the anniversary of the dream or something else, but its return during the time of the pandemic cannot be ignored. Perhaps Joris desires to connect with Celan because of his singular ability to respond to a crisis in his art.
The poem’s datedness is also its “poethics,” a striking portmanteau invented by Joan Retallack in her 2003 book The Poethical Wager, which Joris uses at different points in Interglacial Narrows to connect poetry and ethics, calling attention to poetry’s stakes in politics across time and place. What’s more, Joris’s playful reflection on this term in his Batty Weber Award acceptance speech, published in Always the Many, Never the One (2022), inadvertently reveals a valuable theory of translation: he uses this English portmanteau to explain his artistic stance even though it includes the sound “th,” which he is unable to pronounce in English. In other words, Joris inhabits a language for translation and for writing poetry in which he does not always feel at home.
Joris adopted the English language after leaving his home in Luxembourg nearly half a century ago. The resulting aporia (or internal contradiction) of feeling simultaneously at home in and estranged by a language has inspired a poetic practice that is fundamentally open to and inclusive of a wide range of styles and languages, from the Beats to Native American and Arabic poetry. His experience working in Algeria has been as much of an influence on his poetics as his travels across the United States. Joris describes his multifaceted poetic practice as “an open field,” a metaphor borrowed from the Black Mountain poets Charles Olson and Robert Duncan.
Published on the heels of Always the Many, Never the One, Interglacial Narrows engages many poets besides Celan in conversation about the pandemic. In “Up to & Including the Virus” (with the subheading “Diaretics 2020–21”), poems mingle with quotations, notes, and annotations. Revolutionary German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht offers, “History is written after the catastrophes,” while French-Tunisian Jewish writer Albert Memmi adds that “[p]oetry is the almond, / everything else, commentary,” and Edwin Torres, a Nuyorican poet, claims that “[w]hat knows you, infects you.” Recontextualizing these writers’ words alongside his own poems, Joris creates a complex tapestry of poetic and political reflections on the unfolding tragedy of the pandemic.
In addition to enriching his text with other voices, Joris engages in formal experiment and bold metaphor. A series of four short poems dated “6/27” exemplifies this:
The first five lines replicate the effect of playing with Mikado sticks. In the game of Mikado or pick-up sticks, a bundle of sticks is held vertically and then thrown in a random pile for the players to pick up one at a time without moving the others. Similarly, the first few lines of the poem give in to a random arrangement. The bracket breaking up the second line, the space before the word “meridian” (another unmissable reference to Celan), and the inconclusive, open bracket resemble Mikado sticks strewn on the table, subverting syntax and eliciting readerly confusion. However one deciphers these lines, one thing is clear—poetry is not meant to be straightforward. Language must constantly confront new spaces and layers of voices that invite reflection (in this case, the radio).
Like “open field,” words such as “border” and “territory,” from this poem and several others in Interglacial Narrows, suggest the importance of spaces and spatial metaphors in Joris’s work. In his former collection, Always the Many, Never the One, Joris developed the concept of “in-betweenness” inspired by the Nahuatl word “Nepantla,” which means to constantly be in between languages and cultures. In Interglacial Narrows (the title inspired by the Narrows, between Staten Island and Brooklyn), the concept of “narrows” takes center stage. Peter Szondi, a Celan scholar, has argued that Celan’s poem “Engführung” draws the reader into a reality that is not preexisting or familiar but constantly projected, making the reader’s encounter with the poem difficult and uncomfortable, like being in a narrow space.
For Joris, “narrows” becomes a guiding concept throughout the book’s four sections: it serves as a reference to physical places, a reminder of the inevitability of encounters in narrow spaces. In an untitled poem, translation intensifies the in-betweenness within narrows and evokes a sense of limbo:
the barzakh is all
paradise & hell
in fact, that fit
of the daily
The idea of “purgatory” seamlessly becomes the Arabic “barzakh” and the German “Fegefeuer.” This poem appears in the initial section of the book, titled “Lœss and Found,” in which the first word reads like a portmanteau of loss and less. An evocative expression for the art of translation, loss evokes what is less but also suggests what is not fully lost, what remains to be found.
“Homage to Celan,” the fourth section of the book, is a collection of poems written in 2020 to commemorate the poet on the 50th anniversary of his death. He would have turned 100 the same year. The unsettling symmetry between Celan’s birth and death resurfaces in the texture of the longest poem of the section, “The Book of Luap Nalec.” Joris opens the poem with an excerpt from German poet Gottfried Benn’s 1951 speech “Problems of the Lyric” (Benn was a renowned spokesperson for the Third Reich), in which he claims that “for lyric poetry there is no other object than the lyric poet himself.” Of course, “Luap Nalec” is a reverse anagram of Paul Celan’s name. If the object of Joris’s poem is the lyric poet himself, here Paul Celan comes to die so that Luap Nalec may be born:
the shifter, am spoken
these chambers -
but I must keep
on talking keep
what is is
on the vocal-cords-bridge, in the
with all that has room in it
even without speech?
The language is fractured and poses significant representational and speech obstructions to the speaker, as in the stammering “what is is.” The question in the last two lines refers to another Celan poem, “Stehen, im Schatten” (“Standing in the Shadow”), which similarly emphasizes the importance of conversation against all odds. In addition to referencing multiple Celan poems within this poem, Joris boldly translates Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71 from Celan’s German translation back into English without consulting the English original. To honor Celan’s German over the original text is the highest homage to a poet who lived and died outside his own language, in exile. Moreover, Joris conveys confidence in the intimacy between his own “poethic” English and Celan’s German.
Joris rarely references himself in his poems, but in one mind-bending meditation on the cormorant, he writes:
the only one
of my birds
& I worry
that I may be
The cormorant becomes a figure for language. When asked about the significance of cormorants in his work, Joris has noted that he is struck by their ability to fly straight in one direction while also intermittently shifting from their path to make “open-ended side-flights or -escapes.” Their movement creates a most fitting image for the character of Joris’s work. Although many of the poems in this collection point to Celan, other poems bear testament to Joris’s independent side-flights to other realms of poetry and writing that reveal the depth and range of his reading as well as his collaborative spirit. This poem, titled “Last Cor Poem,” might end on a note of self-deprecation, but these lines mark the deepest aesthetic concerns of Interglacial Narrows. Joris’s exceptional “more rant / than / core” is a modest euphemism for a multifaceted poetic practice that hasn’t settled for a singular approach but has embraced many cultures and languages. Beyond what he has offered Celan’s legacy, this poet-translator’s complex perspective and dynamic approach to the page is an indispensable gift to readers of contemporary poetry.
Sneha Chowdhury is a PhD student in comparative literature at Brown University.
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