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Michael Farrell reviews

The Rothenberg Variations
by Pierre Joris

Wild Honey Press 2004

Michael Farrell lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has poems in recent issues of Heat, Southerly and Fulcrum. His book is ‘ode ode’ (Salt Publishing 2003).

This review is 680 words
or about 4 printed pages long

the lyrical never says die honour Jerome Rothenberg on his 70th birthday ...

As far as Pierre Joris’ variations are variations on a theme, they are so on the theme of Rothenberg rather than a theme by; they are variations on arrangement, closer to Cage’s mesostics than anything by O’Hara, for example. They were made from each 7th word of the first fifteen poems of Rothenberg’s first and last books. Joris admits to ‘excisions, additions, subtractions and divisions’.

‘where sun still black

fish smells us in

the long city

at large in the wound

of our curving vagina’

(stanza 1 of rothenberg variation # 1)

‘large thumb  a drop
he but body
old cupped in
the cruel’

(stanza 2 of rothenberg variation # 13)

Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris

These resemble the cool, post-language post-imagist minimalism of Douglas Messerli; alternatively the enigmatic expression of a medieval witch or fairytale serf. I don’t have the benefit of possessing Rothenberg’s first and last books, merely his New Selected Poems, to measure the relative disjunction; Joris’ gifts of chance seem to offer an objective take: returning Rothenberg to himself in objective form. Excisions etc aside (the very names of these changes suggest a scientific / mathematic method), the adoption of a chance procedure as a tribute may seem a very particular if not downright subjective approach.

Is the number of variations (fifteen) a coincidence? Not only does my edition of Rothenberg’s New Selected Poems cover a fifteen year period (1970-1985), but it contains the previously uncollected ‘15 Flower World Variations’:

‘in wilderness I am
       that only melon
& splitting
       sending vines out

In The Rothenberg Variations Joris demonstrates an example of ‘a nomadic poetics’: argued for in his recent book of that name (Wesleyan 2003). The process of taking the 7th word evokes a moving across the terrain of Rothenberg’s work: not so much from oasis to oasis picking a date or jewel of water (emphasising the picker’s aesthetics or sensuality) but whatever’s found at pre-determined distances: whether it’s sand, dung or a coke can. Writing becomes a tribute to language rather than to the self:

rothenberg variation # 4

everything gives as

horses give a language

a town gives tigers

a scarf gives voice

a church even gives heart things

no, a thunderbolt on a fish

who quakes & raises us

pursuing heart things

a way


a language


but a way

Such an approach suggests modesty, while at the same time a kind of global democracy: i.e. one that comes from the world rather than is imposed on it. (And if we can select only so much from the world why not every seventh element? And if we want to honour the world then why not with itself?) The variations are not a tribute to Joris’ ability to emulate or parody Rothenberg’s style; nor an attempt at portraiture, at evoking memories of Rothenberg’s life, nor one to come to terms with his contribution to world poetry (Joris and Rothenberg collaborated on the two volume Poems For The Millenium). Yet even to read them in this negative way is perhaps oldfashioned. They are examples of Joris’ skill in composition as well as a lid dip to Rothenberg’s original word choices. They suggest the original poems still have life. Though its radical nature has profound implications, their presentation in the form of a Wild Honey chapbook suggests both the work’s gift nature and small claims. The dj-as-artist concept has peaked, the remix has been replaced by a return to the original (rock) song: albeit in a heavily retro style. Audiences want new feelings; the lyrical never says die. But it does say it belongs to noone, and that it’s made of words:

rothenberg variation # 15

sang 1907 loneliness

boldly the ice chameleons

ground teeth, he space

with geisha ghosts

we lost       a flag a frog too

but his hat

scratching a green doubt

his gang too

all sang / wept       found

the babe’s transforming

dares the left moon

boy moves

against him but by him

of him

speaks sweet napoleon

a freedom

bones transforming

Michael Farrell

Michael Farrell

Michael Farrell lives in Melbourne. He has poems in recent issues of Heat, Southerly and Fulcrum. His book is ‘ode ode’ (Salt Publishing 2003).

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