THE BOOK, SPIRITUAL INSTRUMENT
edited by Jerome Rothenberg & David Guss

"Thought is made in the mouth," said Tristan Tzara, and Edmond Jabès: "The book is as old as fire and water" —and both, we know, were right.

I wrote that in 1977, I was coming out of a shared engagement with the history & present possibility of song & speech as the basis for a new poetics of performance. But I was also involved (in thought & in practice) with the still living presence of the book & writing--an involvement that I clearly felt some urgency to voice. Along with that was a need to understand both vocal & visual language in all their manifestations & extensions, & it was this need, this desire, say, that formed the basis for what I & others had recently been speaking of as ethnopoetics. Still more there was a recognition that any exploration of language that took us into what I came to think of as areas of deep culture (wherever found) was at the same time a descent into the domain of deep mind, or, if I can say so without blurring the issue, into the domain of spirit as such.

It was considerations of this kind that led me to work with David Guss on the assemblage that follows. In doing so there were two widely separated guides who brought the connections together in my mind: the Mexican (Mazatec) shamaness María Sabina & the pivotal French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Unlettered & speaking only Mazatec, Sabina conceived the key to Language & to her own Language-centered chanting in the form of a great Book of Language or as "little luminous objects that fall from heaven" to be caught "word after word with my hands." Both of her images rhymed for me with others that had come to us principally from Mallarmé--the latter as if it prefigured the typographical castings & recastings of his master poem, Un coup de dès; the former his vision of the book as "spiritual instrument… the [single] Book that every writer worked at even without knowing…the Orphic explanation of the Earth, which is the poet's only duty."

What Guss & I set out to do, then, was to assemble a number of such rhymings: historical & contemporary instances from cultures (both literate & oral) that offered alternative visions of the book, set side by side with Mallarméan & post-Mallarméan experiments with what Karl Young, as a latterday practitioner, speaks of below as "bookforms." The beginnings of such a comparative--& ethnopoetic--project went back to Alcheringa, the journal of ethnopoetics that Dennis Tedlock & I had co-founded in the early 1970s. With an eye toward deeply rooted works & practices that could (re)illuminate our present workings, we left room for instances of traditional or early written art: paleolithic calendar notations, Egyptian & Mayan hieroglyphs, recastings of Bible & other Jewish bookworks, Old Norse runes, & Navajo pictographs (to name a few that come immediately to mind). It seemed clear--as Alcheringa moved into its final breakup--that this was an area in need of further exploration. For that I struck out on my own in A Big Jewish Book (later revised as Exiled in the Word), where I could focus on the written alongside--& drawing from--the oral, & with a strong awareness of how central the book was in that highly charged, sometimes over-determined context. And I found the same play--between oral & written torahs--entering not only my own work but that of other contemporaries & friends: Meltzer, Hirschman, Duncan, Schwerner, even one, say, like Jabès, so centered on "the book" that we forget the almost equal value that his work gives to "the voice."

In the years immediately before & after I separated from Alcheringa, I had assisted Charlie Morrow in the formation of the New Wilderness Foundation, which sought--not only in music, which was Morrow's mainstay, but across the spectrum of the arts--to explore the relation between old & new forms of art-making. As an offshoot of the foundation & a follow-up as well to Alcheringa, Morrow backed me in launching a successor magazine, New Wilderness Letter, to offer occasional but pointed coverage of matters that concerned us then: the poetry & art of numbers, of dreams, of signs & signing in the language of the deaf, & so on. I set out our intentions as follows in the opening "statement":

…The editor--a poet by inclination & practice--recognizes poesis in all arts & sciences, all human thoughts & acts directed toward such ends: the participation in what the surrealist master André Breton called a "sacred action" or what Gary Snyder defined as the "real work of modern man: to uncover the inner structure & actual boundaries of the mind." The New Wilderness Letter will therefore not be specialized & limited by culture or profession but will be a report, largely through the creative work itself, of where that process takes us.

With that as opener, an advisory board of sorts--more avant-garde & art-centered than that of Alcheringa--started slowly to form, consisting (by the end of the venture) of David Antin, Eleanor Antin, Helen Mayer Harrison, Newton Harrison, Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow, Jackson Mac Low, Steve McCaffery, Linda Montano, Charlie Morrow, & Pauline Oliveros. From the seventh issue on I was joined by Barbara Einzig as associate editor, & from the tenth by Einzig & David Guss together.

The eleventh issue of New Wilderness Letter (1982)--& the last one in its original format--consisted of the work presented in the present publication & subtitled, after Mallarmé, The Book, Spiritual Instrument. It was our intention here to show ";the bookČ on a level with those other forms of language & language-art that Guss & I, as independent assemblers, had earlier engaged in bringing forward. Guss's work as translator & editor had spanned a range from The Selected Poetry of Vicente Huidobro to translations (& later to field studies) of the lore & rituals of the Makiritare people of Venezuela, & the breadth of his understandings was exemplified in The Language of the Birds, a gathering of works--ancient & modern, mythic & historic--that touch on the intercommunication of human beings & other animal species. By 1982 he was studying folklore and anthropology at UCLA, while I was living down in San Diego & teaching between campuses there & elsewhere in southern California. The desire to bridge the gap between poetics & ethnopoetics and to extend our discourse to the full range of visible languages was by now intense.

The opening wedge came from Michael Gibbs's translation & visual commentary on Mallarmé's Le livre, instrument spirituel, which not only brought us back to the first modernist breakthroughs but also provided a context in which those breakthroughs corresponded to an ancient sense of book as sacred object. We were visited at the same time by Eduardo Calderón Palomino, a remarkable artist & traditional curandero from Peru, who not only was a book reader in the usual sense but (at David Guss's suggestion) had also given a full & articulate discussion of his mesa (healing altar) as an assemblage of objects that could be read the way one reads a book. In our minds, then, Calderón rhymed with Mallarmé in much the way that María Sabina did, & that rhyming suggested a series of links, a web of ancient & modern possibilities that could be woven into a new display or book. And, since I had previously published excerpts from María Sabina's chants alongside Henry Munn's germinal essay, "Writing in the Imagination of an Oral Poet" (New Wilderness Letter 5/6), we didn't return to her but looked for other examples to bring into our mix.

Those other examples--many gathered in earlier explorations--fell quickly into place. On the ethnopoetic side, J. Stephen Lansing's essay showed the intricate connection between written text & its necessary sounding in traditional Balinese performance; Dennis Tedlock drew from his translation (then in progress) of the Mayan Popol Vuh a series of comments on the nature of the book & writing; Tina Oldknow offered (as "Muslim Soup") an account of the efficacy of written (sacred) words when the material used in the writing is removed & decocted in an herbal mixture; & Karl Young provided a speculative analysis of the Mixtec Codex Vienna, one of the surviving illuminated books from ancient Mexico. At the same time Young appeared again with an illustrated set of his own sculptural "bookforms," reflective of a widespread contemporary concern with the physical & graphic dimension of books & with the text as printed surface. A similar concern with "bookforms" (writ large) was Alison Knowles's monumental The Book of Bean, a walk-through work enhanced in the presentation by her own remarks & George Quasha's accompanying "auto-dialogue [reflections] on the transvironmental book." Additional writings & commentaries came from Fluxus artist/poet Dick Higgins; from Jed Rasula in a string of definitions & pata(pseudo)definitions of Greek derivatives associated with the text & speaking; from Edmond Jabès, whose interview displays a typically Jabèsean connection between the hypostatized book & the desert (= wilderness in other contexts); from David Meltzer, like Jabès (but independently) the creator of imagined rabbis & their imagined dream books; from Gershom Scholem, a setting forth of the interpenetration in mystical Judaism of "oral tradition and the written word" & from Herbert Blau, a supplement to Lansing's "sounding of the text" & a wide-ranging yet personal discussion of his own & others' practice in a theater of (always) heightened means. Finally, Becky Cohen provided a series of striking photo portraits in which a number of contemporary American poets are shown in the act of reading, making of the book (as it were) "an instrument of performance."

In saying all of this there is no attempt of course to claim completeness then or now. Rather, as the editors of a magazine addressed to a particular time & place, we hoped to suggest a number of instances of how the idea of book could be considered & reconsidered. The work, we thought, would be successful if it led to still further considerations & connection--even more so if it encouraged new works &, at a time of (merely) technological &/or mechanical breakthroughs, reminded us that the spiritual-in-art, but more pointedly its connection to deep mind & deep culture, might still be our concern. The approach in these pages is to that degree ideological, so that our attempt, say, to maintain an interface between the book & its performance is to be read against the history of those (supposedly) unalterable Books--the Bible foremost--that served, when used as such, to enslave rather than liberate the mind. It is in the amassing of alternatives--both old & new--that we may find our surest antidote to what that still portends.

Jerome Rothenberg
Encinitas, California
May 1996

 

 

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