Rachel Blau DuPlessis

In the Wunderkammer: Recently Published Work by Anne Blonstein


Since Anne Blonstein is a British poet who has lived for the past twenty-plus years in Basel, she has crossed back and forth between English and German in her daily life. In this lingual zone, she also works in and through French and "a little Italian" (CWN 7). Thus she is saturated in the three official languages of Switzerland, living on the border between them and her mother tongue.

One key way that the multi-lingual enters memory's morning: Poems 2000-2003 (Shearsman Books, 2008) is through the individual titles of the poems. These occur in at least four languages (la vida verde—Spanish; vier goldene Ringe—German; fragmentary blue too—English;…ou l'ombrelle verte—French). Although not every title has a color word in it, these particular titles do illustrate the motif of color, a very marked repeated gesture in the book as a whole. Virtually every poem has a color word in it. Another significant source of the titles in this book is, as Blonstein's notes tell us, phrases from German translations of Hebrew Scriptures (MM 85-86). She is, in short, "criss-crossed…by languages" (CWN 7). Blonstein says this in her introduction to a book being written at about the same time as this book was composed. correspondence with nobody was composed in 2000-01; memory's morning is dated 2000-03. Both were published in 2008.

An interesting ambiguity is cued by the title words. memory's morning seems to concern what can be remembered about any one day (or sets of days brought together by the poem into one represented day and its night). But we know almost from the beginning that "mourning" is the underside of "morning." And so it will prove.

memory's morning is a book of about 70 poems, one to a page, with a "sonnet" look or feel. The sonnet is one of the few fixed forms that (like the haiku) is also a genre, and it was invented in the late medieval period by Giacamo da Lentini, a Sicilian lawyer, or so the story goes. Whether he was a lawyer or not, the poem maintains a singularly forensic attitude, proposing argument in a tight space, tending toward verbal compression, strict outline of exemplary images, and most important of all, the turn (volta) in which a pivot of argument and feeling, logic and emotion is made rhetorically palpable. In Blonstein's book, a goodly percentage of these poems do have fourteen lines, but they vary the sonnet's conventional structural practices with several voltas that make the work porous and unstable in argument. In fact, argument is not her goal: to have examined "exilic dreamscape" is one; to be (punningly) "wrecked on sures/ of domesticity is another" (MM25, 46).

However, as editor Jeff Hilson has noted in his introduction to the recent Reality Street Book of Sonnets (Reality Street, 2008), the asymmetries and instabilities especially of the Petrarchan mode of the sonnet are notable. He calls attention to the "off kilter" aspect of this fixed form as an avatar of the innovative works his anthology foregrounds (Hilson 17). Blonstein also destabilizes and defamiliarizes her "sonnets." She thereby makes company with those innovative poets who resist any vestige of "the politics of form" that doom the sonnet to a soporific traditionalism (Hilson 10).

Blonstein's sonnets often have three parts, not either two (Petrarchan/ Italian) or four (Shakespearean/ English). The third "part" is sometimes only one line, but however it is handled, it involves some break or split in the middle of the poem signaled by white space. The sonnet being a notably rich genre within literary history, so too its use in sequences of a loosely narrative arc. Blonstein's book could well be viewed as a "sonnet sequence"—which in Renaissance tradition are often about love, sexuality, time, death, and the urgency of being. These rubrics, specified in particular ways, constitute some of the thematic markers here.

These poems also seem to shimmer on a border. The poems are liminal and have the brightness and evanescence of dreamed material intermingled with something nominally more solid—daily life. The works notate various parts of daily life—work life, literary life, relational life. The texts seem to want to make a third space, a third way, a third "stanza" or room in which material kept apart (job/personal life; dream/waking life, fantasy/reality) are fused together. This might be the reason for the invention of a multiple-volta "sonnet"; in all these works, Blonstein communicates a sense of "between"—an evanescent, mobile space in time, fixed only temporarily by holding these works on the page.

Her confronting the sonnet in memory's morning marks only one of the times Blonstein has faced that most native British (Shakespearean) yet most European (Provencal, Italian, French) form. It is a form appealing to Blonstein possibly because her own career mirrors the sonnet's border-crossing behaviors. Another of Blonstein's uses of the sonnet occurs in a project that, as I have already hinted, is interleaved with this one, correspondence with nobody, written in 2001 although it, like this book, was not published until 2008.

The two projects are enfolded into each other in ways that probably only Blonstein can finally elucidate. correspondence with nobody is a tour de force text based in the rabbinical textual and hermeneutic practice of notarikon. Notarikon is a very lettristic practice, interpretive in trying to invent the words implicit behind the letters of a single word. In it, as in many other contemporary practices, reading becomes writing; the two practices are continuous versions of each other, loop into and around each other. In notarikon, all the letters spelling one individual word are used as the initial letters to generate other words. If a word has three letters, the notarikon derived from that word will expand into three words. As is easy to see, but hard to comprehend, each letter of the original will necessarily multiply textually into the same number of words. Any notarikon will necessarily proceed in this baroque, elaborative fashion. It is an endless multiplier of making, or poesis. Notarikon illustrates (and draws upon the fact) that language is a secret maze we can barely fathom and that it contains an infinitude of openings and potential passages.

Blonstein based her notarikon on a selection of Shakespeare sonnets as translated into German by Paul Celan (and published in the Insel-Bücherei Series as number 898). Taking each German word of the Celan version of a specific sonnet (whose original is, of course, in English), Blonstein uses the spelling of that translated word as a cue to a new word in English beginning with the same letter. An example would be the German words "Nicht Angst" (translating the Shakespeare "Not my own fears…" of sonnet 107). Based on Celan's N-I-C-H-T and A-N-G-S-T, these are expanded in notarikon by Blonstein as: "Now imagine crystal hands talking. a night green signaling tension" (CWN 65). Thus this method strikingly reverses the condensation of both her models, engaging in a proliferation, fractal in its intricacy, in which tight seed units split open and give rise to plethora. In this mode, to cite Ezra Pound's mot, "Dichtung"—the making of poetry—is not "condensare" (or verbal compression) but rather a form of elaboration and proliferation. Indeed, Blonstein's work in correspondence with nobody has taken sonnets and opened them out into long discursive meditations; the practice of notarikon dissolves genre and the other poetic markers of the original into sheer textuality and extent. A sublime respect for letters, for writing, is seen in the sublime smashing and reconfiguring of the words into letters and back then into words. The conservation of matter does not apply to language. This finding remains astonishing no matter how commonplace. Letters make more words. Language defies the laws of physics.

The practice of notarikon creates a striking disproportion between one text and another in the guise of illuminating or responding to the source text. It is like the disproportions of literary criticism in general (writing a tome about a poem), but with a spiritual aura. The rabbis, with this hermeneutic procedure, were motivated to find further secrets of the universe hidden in God's word, since notarikon is, of course, only correctly conducted on sacred text. The Celan focusing and interpreting Shakespeare in German is treated by Blonstein as a secularly sacred text. The act of expansion makes overt what may be said (or what she postulates) to be hidden in the text, and thereby she is revealing strange secrets inside language. Blonstein has conducted this practice in some cross-over realm between the sacred and the secular. Such a practice says that no text, no matter how important, is ever finished and completed, but rather continuously generative and almost magical. By subjecting the source text to an act of expansive unfixing, something rather demonic as well as something quasi-sacred has happened.

Blonstein's lettristic intensity treats every mark made by this talismanic German poet and translator (or this fusion of Shakespeare-Celan) as a clue to hidden universes of meaning. These are, however, meanings that she invents, elaborates, or constructs by choosing her own words for his letters. But there is a tension around the original. Which original? Are these secrets in Shakespeare or Celan, or are they Blonstein's version of the secrets of our culture (one of which is the occlusion of female artists)? These changes of scale construct a mystical claim (and a literary chain) very intimate and particularized—Blonstein's homage to these writers puts herself in their zone. In the process of this translinguistic notarikon, first Blonstein links Shakespeare and Celan to her own work, and then she continues the chain of language inventions they have begun. This is at once an act of hubris, and act of critique, and an act inflected with the strained humility of approaching the sacred. Humility and pride intermingle.

A different homage to Paul Celan occurs within memory's morning—it may be one key aspect of the mourning in this book. Celan committed suicide in Paris in 1970. At the center of Memory's Morning is a four-sonnet set called "Chorus Without" that alludes to Celan's last moments, a following in his footsteps, tracing his last days. This pilgrimage was made by Blonstein in mid-April 2000, thirty years after Celan's death. The poem is both homage and a record of a self-invented mourning ritual. In the first poem, like Mexican Day of the Dead mini-plates, the poem says "i [lower case] had piled a dish invoked for ash with foods/ as sticky as their names, mouth-fitting" (MM 30). It is possibly I am wrong both about the source of the ritual and about my guess that the foods are dates (fruits of the date palm), but the spirit of the Blonstein gesture is clear. The question of dates (as a pun on time) is particularly apt. The next poem, alludes variously to the cultures of the Middle East, as when the poet says "i bought/ Turkish pastries from a narrow shop beneath his third home…"; this is an homage to dailiness and the habitual even amid the sadness and the mourning endemic to Celan's work. The third poem tries to hear and see the intensity of Celan's poetic choices: "painted each syllable-leaf in fremder/ hues" (MM 32). The German word fremd (fremder is the comparative) means alien, foreign, peregrine, strange, weird. This word calls up Celan's foreignness, living in one language, but writing in another (a parallel with Blonstein's life in Switzerland). The "fremder" is also apt to Celan's metaphoric kennings or word-combinations at the root of his poetic practice. The final poem puts a stone on the grave of Celan, which is precisely a token of mourning in Jewish tradition. However, the true grave of Celan is the Seine, into which he jumped. So Blonstein states: "i heard a splash. i'd thrown into the water a stone"… "the stone came/ from another country" (MM 33). It is as if she herself is the stone as well as the bearer of the stone.

memory's morning pretends it is a one-year record of days (although it was written over four years). Each poem is like a site, place, or "room" (stanza) and, simultaneously, one date on the calendar in which collect materials of time and space. Perhaps the fundamental mode for these poems is pictures from an imaginary museum. This attempt to remember or to awake into the memory of times and places (memory's precise morning) is also parallel to the attempt to recall dreams when one awakes: "another iceberg broken from dreams" says one poem (MM 39) or "she woke this morning into a red/ muslin balldress she may never wear" (MM 49).

These poems are interior landscapes, still lives of "the artist's room" with absolutely no distinction made between dreamed material, remembered material, cited material, seen images, imagined scenes, word resemblances, puns, associations, daily habits, notations of things done or said. The work exists in a passage among these elements—the reader moves from room to room or from bit of time to bit of time. This work seems both locally unified and generally random—it is unified by repeated motifs such as the general shape of the poem, or the repetition of materials like color words. Among the motifs, indeed, being the very essence of liminality and uncommunicability, are the narrative and images of dream which provide the poetics for the individual works—inexplicable linkages and juxtapositions, bright visionary moments (often in short phrases) with no sense of being located in cause and effect statements, in an on-going narrative, or in particular uni-directional arguments.

Here are some examples of the ways that Blonstein deals with the "boxes" of any day or day plus dream. One poem set on a train says that the speaker could be thinking of the horrors of the boxcar transport of Jews in the European genocide, but says she won't (MM 77). Another poem remembers what a bright three-year-old said to her mother about time (MM 42). Yet another poem discusses what "i" (lower case) as editor said to an author, "asking him/ to consider not characterizing mice/ as ‘stupid'. he refused" (MM 51). Another poem begins with a mutated citation from a famous poem by Goethe "Kennst du das Land…" changed into the far less ecstatic or romantic: "do you know the language where the mutations/ blossom…." (MM 78). Yet another recounts vision or dream mixing plenitude with longing: "in the folds beneath/ an eye she found angels and children dancing on/ dissonant pearls" (MM 23). The differences in zone, tone, diction, and image of these units and their sutures are very marked.

What kinds of things happen here? There is love and sex. There is regret and isolation. There is friendship and conversation. There are colors—colors in almost every poem—as if the author were tracing the one hue that saturated one particular day. There are pearls as images of lost children and childlessness. There are many shadow traces of the Holocaust, usually set out as ash or smoke. The phrase "kept a grammar of ash" (MM 38) represents a key vow for Blonstein as a consciously post-Holocaust writer, whose every joy is haunted (as these poems show with their mix of highs and lows). There is a repeated persona—Miriam—who is a prophet and dancer, sister of Moses and Aaron. The foregrounding of "Miriam" repeatedly in this work is a claim to the strength of Jewish women artists and poet-prophets. These motifs combine and recombine:


in the shadow of words
neglected danced with miriam on a page peeled off
from a stone. syllables flew with ashes into flax lungs


she planted yew trees in these sentences

                                                        (MM 55)


And there are "angels"—who appear here and there. This figure might also be some force that brings the dream to its dreamer: "every dream depending/ mortally on moments it angeled" (MM 79). This is also a striking pun on the angle of vision.

I have already noted the connection between the poems as days, rooms, and visual art. Film experiences are another analogy. All seem to be "projections" (MM 23) of (or in) a "room" in which these things are collected and may be said to occur. The poems seem to be the residue left by "a week of uncut dreams. trilingual reels/ i have watched or blended me an actor in episodes/ projected on the negative side of quiet days" (MM 21). So the individual works are each a poem-screenplay ("scrimplay" is the punning neologism, MM 21). These scrimplays note all the multiple levels and opacities of what exists in what we call reality.

But what concept holds this book together? Is it only a "diary" of sorts, based on the day-night representation of a time span? I think the book as a whole is a personal Wunderkammer, a cabinet de curiosités. This is a real site in real museums and a real genre at one and the same time; it has certain "historical" rules. Wunderkammern were prototypes of museum collections before the Museum of Ethnology, the Museum of Natural History, and the Art Museum split off from each other. A Wunderkammer aimed to be an encyclopedia of the known world—in this book for Blonstein, one may see this as a personal and historical world. Such cabinets collected natural objects (corresponding to Blonstein's BA in natural sciences, and her PhD in genetics and plant breeding). A Wunderkammer also included art objects, tokens and weird things of one sort or another: marvels, oddities, fragments, "wonders"—things to wonder at—all with the purpose of collecting a microcosm of what was known at a given time, and of offering a zone of memory, memorializing, reminders. In part, the wonder in the Wunderkammer was to mark what is still unknown—scientifically and emotionally. Anyone who has saved things (an old button, a marble, a ripped piece of lace, a child's toy, a shell picked up on a far shore, or a rock that looks like it has writing on it) has made her own Wunderkammer.

memory's morning is such a Wunderkammer.