This piece is about 18 printed pages long.
What names or signatures “underwrite the grand design” (GW 272)?
By what key texts and to what extent is Ground Work under-written?
A few days before giving a brief paper with the intriguing title of “Son écrit d’un texte parlé” at a “French Theory” colloquium held on 5-8 May 1977 in Belgium, Robert Duncan wrote his Australian pal and fellow-poet Chris Edwards. The conference would feature such notable speakers as “the theorist Derrida (at present a rage in American circles)” and some of the most vocal members of “the Change group” and the Tel Quel circle. With a note of urgency in his remark, Duncan pointed out that besides an essential “kindred strain, [...] the art needs too the foundational — to address the ‘ground’ — and the declaration and carrying through of an architecture.” Duncan’s constant grappling with the origin of creation (poiesis), his perpetual attempt to find, found, and sound the ground(s) of his restless poetic practice is embedded in his (at times abyssal) grounding in intertextuality. After considering Transmissions, Gleanings and The Ground, Duncan soon decided to entitle Ground Work his ultimate work in progress, which is predicated upon a process of go-between best expressed as “reading-writing,” a physical scriptuary practice mostly recorded in the author’s (circa) eighty-five notebooks made up of reading notes, first drafts, essays and lectures, phonetic drills and drawings, notes in French and Greek, dream data and travelling expenses along with the odd “dear diary” entry. In the wake of Joyce’s and Pound’s groundbreaking late works, Duncan’s primarily serial and derivational late poetry demands not only painstaking critical assessments but also archival and genetic investigations into the works’ avant-texte. Coined by Jean Bellemin-Noël (Le Texte et l’avant-texte, 1972), this basic concept for modern genetic criticism suggests that the reconstruction of the writing process hinges on the study of “the operations by which, in order to form itself, something transformed itself, all the while forming that locus of transformation of meaning that we call a text” (quoted in Genetic Criticism 46). As explain Deppman, Ferrer and Groden, it also emphasizes the “critical construction” of the gathering of the “noncanonical texts,” namely drafts, notebooks, typescripts, correspondance etc. As a late modernist himself (still surfing on the first wave) and indefatigable reader of his modernist chrestomathy (with texts by Pound, Williams and H.D., as well as Stein, Joyce and the French symbolists, among others), my sense is that Duncan’s “reading-writing and then writing reading” process – as a way to work the ground of tradition as well as ground his own work in language – gave rise to the poetics of an extraordinarily creative “genreader” (Rabaté 196). As there is only room here for a few soundings and probes into this modernist ground-work, the handful of Passages and poems chosen here all emerge from one specific ground, crucial to Duncan’s ultimate series, that of the symbolist (pre-)history of modernism.
In an attempt to circumscribe the field of “traditional” metaphysics and replace it with his ontology of being, Heidegger encountered repeatedly der Satz vom Grund, the principle of reason, which adumbrates Leibniz’s reply to his baffling fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Taking his cue from Leibniz, Heidegger is hopeful to manage his ontological leap (another meaning of Satz) above or beyond the ground (or its potential absence, i.e. Ab-grund or abyss) through a meticulous inquiry into the polysemic resourcefulness of the word Grund.[3a] In asking what he holds to be the broadest, the deepest and most fundamental question (“Why are there beings rather than nothing?”), Heidegger invokes the “ground” as reason and meaning, as the site for the commingling of foundation and substratum, all the while underscoring the originary dimension consubstantial to the notion of primal foundation: “Why are there beings at all...? Why – that is, what is the ground? From what ground do beings come? On what ground do beings stand? To what ground do beings go? [zu Grunde gehen (fig.): to be ruined] (Introduction to Metaphysics 3). The philosopher’s insight into this notion seems to “rhyme” with Duncan’s Ground Work, a word whose full philosophical (and poetic) possibilities Duncan would in turn re-work throughout his later writing life.
To seek the ground: this means to get to the bottom [ergründen]. What is put into question comes into relation with a ground. But because we are questioning, it remains an open question whether the ground is a truly grounding, foundation-effecting, originary ground [Ur-grund]; whether the ground refuses to provide a foundation, and so is an abyss [Ab-grund]; or whether the ground is neither one nor the other, but merely offers the perhaps necessary illusion of a foundation and is thus an un-ground [Un-grund]. [...] This why-question does not just skim the surface, but presses into the domains that lie “at the ground” [“zu-grunde” liegend], even pressing into the ultimate, to the limit; the question is turned away from all surface and shallowness, striving for depth; as the broadest, it is at the same time the deepest of the deep questions. (IM 3-4)
Duncan’s primarily serial and intertextual writings entertain more than a merely fortuitous relation with Heidegger’s ontological inquiry. Digging into Duncan’s palimpsestic texts, it becomes clear that the “Ground Work” is fraught with a tension between Ur-grund, Ab-grund and Un-grund. Consequently, the “genetic reader” in search of the primordial sub- or ur-text is faced not only with exploring the textual groundwork but also the potential risk of encountering groundlessness, namely of arriving at a textual ground which in turn proves to be chimerical, and only one stage of an infinite intertextuality. Inquiring into Ground Work’s groundwork entails running this risk. My concern is not so much to provide solid grounds for the “origins” of Duncan’s poems. Rather, in an attempt to understand his conception of writing as laying foundations, I am only aiming at laying bare and exhibiting little patches of ground or layers of intertext as a reconstruction of the “reeling and writhing” process (Duncan loved Lewis Carroll).
Duncan rarely discusses Heidegger — or “continental thought” in general — and when he does, it usually offers him an opportunity for rebuttal, as in the letters to Chris Edwards following his immersion in the French intellectual circles at theory’s high tide in May 1977 or as in this notebook entry:
Nov 10, 1982
Before the War : Preface, The Ground.
It is strange that we may take reading-writing and then writing reading in turn to be a ground of being. I mean to touch in the word — Being — the resonance of Heidegger’s contemplations and speculations; and still, back of the chord I would sound, the over-there vacuity of the term. For I am not a philosopher, I have not the earnest of the calling. Philosophies, religions or linguistics, enter my work as mountains, lovers, the sea, trees, weathers, household, heart, recalls and announcements, histories and reflections of good and evil, come into its courses: for the lure of a creative potentiality. A poetry, an alliance or allegiance to the deep-going transcendant plurality of processes I see.
Surely, in pointing to the gaping “over-there vacuity” that he sees at the core of Heidegger’s theoria (contemplation), Duncan’s reference to Heidegger’s ontology as “a mere locution, an indeterminate meaning, intangible as a vapor,” was meant “in a purely dismissive sense” (IM 42). Interestingly (and unwittingly?), the poet adopts a distinctly Nietzschean stance which is integrated in — and recuperated by — Heidegger’s demonstration, as he seeks to show the full implication of this emptiness, ultimately attributed to the forgetfulness or oblivion of being in the history of metaphysics (IM 27).[5a] As a mere “seeker after origins” and “student of a poetics” (notorious self-definitions) Duncan nonetheless shares with Heidegger (and Whitehead for that matter) a common ground — namely that of Pre-Socratic philosophy. In his letter from 31 May 1978, Duncan emphasizes: “I am, after all, a poet not a responsible philosopher. If I search Heraklitus, Empedocles, Parmenides it is because I sense some revelation of poetry there. Whitehead and Heidegger write like poets.” On 27 September 1978, the poet would return to his initially frustrated dismissal of ontology or theory “as such,” in a more nuanced conjunction of philosophy and poetics: “Did I overstate in order only to affirm what a primary business Poetry is in its own right? [...] I do after all read and reread James, Whitehead and Heidegger as sources not only of inspiration but of taking measure of concepts and of how I see the world.”
The phrase “ground of being” appears namely in Heidegger’s commentary on the schema of the four delimitations of being. Placing “thinking” (the most fundamental of the four distinctions) beneath “being,” he adds: “This indicates that thought is the sustaining and determining ground of being” (IM Manheim 196); Fried and Polt translate this way: “This indicates that thinking becomes the ground that sustains and determines Being” (IM 210). After which Heidegger recapitulates: “Over against thought [being] is the underlying, the already-there” (IM Manheim 202); Fried and Polt: “Being, in contradistinction to thinking, is what lies at the basis, the present-at-hand” (IM 216). Being is ultimately understood in the sense of ousia: constant or enduring presence.
Thinking, and by extension Duncan’s poetic practice as “reading-writing and then writing reading,” creates the condition (ground) for a return to the underlying and enduring “already-thereness” (being). The poetic (creative) activity is seen as the reworking of the ground of an underlying, already-there enduring presence: that of “other” texts. This is conveyed by poems that are rooted in a multilayered intertextuality, in the “already-thereness” of the hypertext and by extension of the language structure. As garantor of an ontic-ontological difference, the poetic ground-work also creates the possibility for otherness to emerge. Let us venture into this “foreign field” (Letter to Chris Edwards) inasmuch as it is the ineffable topos from which Duncan writes. His dialogue (often a polylogue) with the other poets “takes place” in the non-ground of the inter-text, the interlingual gap, which may be conceived as a communal site of relations.[6a]
In “Ancient Reveries and Declamations/Passages 32” Duncan’s poetics of quotation turns into a generative machine as the hypertext seems to set the whole poem in motion. Opening on quotes from “John Adams, marginalia to Court de Gébelin’s Monde primitif,” a late XVIIIth century encyclopedic work about the origins of language and myth, the Passage proceeds with a quote from John Adams’s notorious atheist cry in 1816:
“Let the human Mind loose!
It must be loose!
It will be loose!”
Here one needs the name, the Spanish Jesús, or Iacchus
Iésus. Say no more than the sound of the rime leads back
from the American cry “Let the human Mind loose!” to the
Jesús, Bridegroom of Saint John of the Cross, or to the
French /y/ of Iacchus Iésus in Gerard de Nerval’s ancient
theogony “parée de noms et d’attributs nouveaux”. (GW 19)
The poem indulges in a self-referential comment on the phonemic shift at work here, in keeping with the Poundian tone-leading of vowels. Iacchus-Iésus appears in Nerval’s works, namely in his account of the life of Quintus Aucler in his portrait gallery of Enlightenment mystics and excentrics, Les Illuminés (The Illuminati). Better known in France under the name of Christ, explains Nerval, Iacchus-Iésus is linked to the mysteries of Eleusis in Egyptian mysticism (OC II: 1158), and which are key to Pound’s mysticism as shown by Leon Surette. Duncan’s translation of Nerval’s mystic sonnets “Les Chimères” (first published in the Duncan special issue of Audit/Poetry in 1967) was already part of an ongoing series of close readings of his poetry and prose, as passages from “The H.D. Book” (1961) or “Passages 32” (1969) testify. Duncan’s quote (“parée de noms et d’attributs nouveaux”) was drawn from “Isis,” the fifth short story of the 1854 volume Les Filles du feu (The Daughters of Fire), which also comprised the sonnets of “The Chimeras” (OC III: 622)
Toute religion qui succède à une autre respecte longtemps certaines pratiques et formes de culte, qu'elle se borne à harmoniser avec ses propres dogmes. Ainsi la vieille théogonie des Egyptiens et des Pélasges s'était seulement modifiée et traduite chez les Grecs, parée de noms et d'attributs nouveaux [...]. Mais voyez combien d'assimilations aisées le christianisme allait trouver dans ces rapides transformations des dogmes les plus divers! (OC III: 621, my emphasis)
As a lexical insert this citational fragment fulfills a function pertaining to a modernist poetics of quotation reminiscent of Eliot and Pound. Indeed, we may think of “Le prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie” from “El Desdichado,” the most legendary of the Chimères originally published at the end of Les Filles du feu. Nerval’s alexandrine appears precisely among the last lines of Eliot’s The Waste Land, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” and which Pound radically edited (WL 69). Coming full circle in this citational periplum, the line is turned into a scathing onslaught on Eliot at the onset of Canto VIII: “These fragments you have shelved (shored)./‘Slut!’ ‘Bitch!’ Truth and Calliope/Slanging each other sous les lauriers” (C 28). Duncan’s Nerval, therefore, does not come without strings attached. In following this lead, the reader enters a dizzying “circle of Signators” (GW 249), as he is caught in the vortex of intertexual poetics. Moreover, the last two pages of Duncan’s Passage are revealed to be thoroughly underlied — and in a sense underwritten — by Nerval’s short story on the Egyptian goddess Isis, and also by the poignant account of Nerval’s chimerical wonderings and real or imaginary stealth among the ruins of the Temple. The palimpsestic layering takes on a new twist as it is combined with a twofold translation. Thus the French poet’s prose resurfaces through a range of textual strategies. First, the Nervalian under-writing emerges in a plaited quotation/translation from section III of “Isis” (GW 21; cf. OC III: 617):
les deux autels
à droite et à gauche
of which the second, the left, remaind
d’une conservation parfaite
The underlying text looms anew through a rewriting of the original, where Duncan replaces Nerval’s “almost religious impression upon [his] second viewing of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii” (OC III: 617), and the poet’s subsequent detailed reconstruction of his entrance into the Isiac sanctuary, with his own entrance into “the text itself where [he] came to it” (GW 21).
It is worth noting that Nerval’s depiction of the architectural beauty of the Temple of Isis is immediately preceded by a disclaimer at the beginning of this section of “Isis,” where the poet — somewhat ironically — warns against the risk of spoiling the first impression inspired by monuments by dint of reading erudite accounts in history books (cf. OC III: 617):
Perhaps by reading too much beforehand, one risks spoiling one’s first impression of celebrated places. I had visited the Orient with nothing but the memories, already lazy, of my classical education. (A 133)
Moreover, Nerval’s reconstruction of Isis — a reversal of the myth where Isis gathers the limbs of Osiris (to paraphrase Pound’s serial essay published in The New Age) — is “construed” in architectural terms in the following passage, where the poet draws a distinct parallel between the re-erection of the ancient Temple after an earthquake and his own attempt to re-member the nightly ceremony:
I do not know if any of the three statues of Isis in the Naples museum was found on this same spot, but I had admired them the day before, and joining to them the recollection of the two paintings, nothing prevented me from reconstructing in my mind the whole scene of the evening ceremony. (A 134-135)
Duncan conceals the next quote in his translation of Nerval’s depiction of the riches from the Temple housed in the Museum of Naples (starting with “A gilded Venus, a Bacchus, numerous Hermes”). This passage is in turn intertwined with a quoted fragment drawn from the description of the sun and moon casting a dim, eerie light over the ruins of the Temple at dusk (“ces deux astres qu’on avait longtemps adorés dans ce temple sous les noms d’Osiris et d’Isis,” OC III: 618). Finally, the poem switches back to an unmarked translation until the end (“Child of a century...”), only departing from the original source on two occasions. By keeping the word “ensemble,” which is found in English in other contexts (musical, for instance), Duncan leaves in a trace of the original, a word with a foreign taste, possibly hinting at an underlying textual ground. Secondly, he performs another transformation of the Ur-text by substituting “the scientists” for “les philosophes” in the closing lines of the poem:
will I find myself traind to believe
as our fathers, the scientists, have been
traind to deny? (GW 22)
That “Isis” itself — which we may be tempted to view as the Urgrund — is a collage of texts should be borne in mind. In spite of Nerval’s disavowal, it is well-known that the poet supplemented his fantasized memory snatches with extensive readings. In truth, a translation of German archeologist C. A. Böttiger’s “Die Isis-Vesper” makes up the end of section I and all of section II of the final version of “Isis.” Furthermore, a passage from book XI of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, one of Nerval’s (and Duncan’s) favorite books, makes up the third through fifth paragraphs of the fourth section, those immediately preceding Duncan’s snatched fragment from Nerval’s development on the Greeks’ appropriation of the ancient Egyptian theogony. In both cases, what could be mistaken as a primal ground surrepticiously caves in under genetic scrutiny. What’s more, in the two examined types of intertext — Eliot’s conspicuous use of Nerval and Nerval’s unavowed (even disavowed) resort to Apuleius — Duncan, who knew the source texts well, surely knew where his ground was. Nerval’s unsignaled use of Apuleius, however, is likely to remain unnoticed by most readers as it is imperceptibly woven into the poet’s style. Besides, Duncan’s treacherous, half-said handling of quotations and translations — which partly turns the intertextual clues into red herrings — may induce unwary critics to quote him when they are in fact unwittingly quoting Duncan quoting Nerval. 
Just as “Passages 32” is underlied by Nerval’s “Isis,” Duncan’s “An Interlude of Winter Light” (1975) is underwritten by Mallarmé, whose “Don du poème” laid the groundwork for Duncan’s poem. In contrast, however, the reference to both author and text is explicit. Mallarmé’s underwriting of Duncan’s poem does not simply consist in providing spectral fragments and ruins of “ghostwriting” in the textual substratum of the poem, as was the case with the Nerval Passage, but in offering the warranty of a proper name — the hallmark of a “signator.” Interestingly, Duncan’s faintly surreal poem takes on a burlesque dimension as the anecdote of the poem’s genesis unfolds under the reader’s bemused gaze. Mallarmé’s intrusion onto the scene of writing is carefully staged through Duncan’s account as he is disturbed by “the old crone sitting next to [him]” while attending Maurice Béjart’s mise en scène of Pli selon pli, the lyric-symphonic piece that Pierre Boulez dubbed his “portrait of Mallarmé” and in which the composer quotes Mallarmé’s “Don.” In an attempt to translate onto the poetic space Duncan’s account of his neighbor’s untimely questions during the Béjart Ballet performance (“‘What does ‘Idumaean’ mean?’” leading to “‘Who is the child of Idumaean Night?’” GW 153), the poem becomes interspersed with Duncan’s asides following his own dire confession (“I do not know”) and his subsequently misleading inklings: “It has to do with Mount Ida,” suggests the poet before allegedly confusing “Idoménée” with “Idumée.” Here again, the rime prevails: (mis)lead by vowel sounds the poet complicitly reminds his reader that “where paronomasia begins, there may be mirage” (SP 210). In an intricately staged confusion resulting from his unleashed demon of homophony, Duncan follows the trails of his initial bafflement from Ida to Idomeneus and finally Idumea. Woven together, these musings make up Duncan’s “child of an Idumaean night,” that is his poem, which he re-christens “the phantom begotten of Idumaean Night” in his transfiguration of the original (GW 156). Mallarmé paraphrases the gist of the poem’s origin in a letter to Mme Le Josne dated 8 February 1866, relating that his sonnet evokes “the sadness of the Poet before the child of his Night, the poem of his illuminated wake, when wicked Dawn shows it is only funereal and lifeless: he brings it over to the woman who will vivify it!” (OC I: 691, my translation). The lifeless offspring of Mallarmé’s nightly labor is his long poem Hérodiade — from Herod, who was a native of Idumea (or the Land of Edom in the Hebrew Bible)–, which he is already working on in November 1865 at the time when the “Gift” was written. Published as late as in 1883 in Verlaine’s “Poètes maudits,” the poem’s title went through a series of transformations, from “Le Jour” to “Le Poëme nocturne,” “Dédicace du Poëme nocturne” and finally “Don du poëme.” 
t’apporte l’enfant d’une nuit d’Idumée !
Noire, à l’aile saignante et pâle, déplumée,
Par le verre brûlé d’aromates et d’or,
Par les carreaux glacés, hélas ! mornes encor,
L’aurore se jeta sur la lampe angélique.
Palmes ! et quand elle a montré cette relique
A ce père essayant un sourire ennemi,
La solitude bleue et stérile a frémi.
O la berceuse, avec ta fille et l’innocence
De vos pieds froids, Accueille une horrible naissance :
Et ta voix rappelant viole et clavecin,
Avec le doigt fané presseras-tu le sein
Par qui coule en blancheur sibylline la femme
Pour des lèvres que l’air du vierge azur affame ?
While Mallarmé’s “Don” is only partly and partially translated in “Interlude” (cf. GW 156), Duncan’s recording of his puzzlement informs the greater part of the derivation: “such is the Demon of the Psychopathology of Daily Life” (GW 155). He thus returns to Freud, whose reading of interferences as meaningful insights arguably inspired the “poetic disturbances” configured in “An Interlude” as well as the compelling sentence concluding his introductory essay to Bending the Bow:
For these discords, these imperatives of the poem that exceed our proprieties, these interferences — as if the real voice of the poet might render unrecognizable to our sympathies the voice we wanted to be real, these even artful, willful or, it seems to us, affected, psychopathologies of daily life, touch upon the living center where there is no composure but a life-spring of dissatisfaction in all orders from which the restless ordering of our poetry comes. (BB x)
Enmeshed in this inmixing of allusions is also Mallarmé’s prose poem “The Demon of Analogy,” which in turn winks at Poe’s “Imp of Perversity,” a poem known to French readers in Baudelaire’s translation as “Le Démon de la perversité” (cf. OC I: 1335). Although Duncan resents “the curious insistent old woman,/ignorant Muse” for leading him “to mis-take, to mis-/ understand” (157) the abstruse reference, she is above all “the facilitator for the rest of the poem” (Davidson 176). Whereas Nerval’s in-fluence remained subterrean, “Mallarmé’s creative malaise,” soon mirrored in Duncan contingent poiesis, pervades the poem’s ground. This foregrounding not only discloses the original source in a way reminiscient of the ontological status of truth as aletheia (unconcealedness), but it also opens the poem to the in-cident of “foreign matter”:
[ Swiftly, this
foreign matter comes into the emptiness of Idumaean Night,
name mistaken for name, person in place of person, the child-Zeus, the
father-Idomeneo, the two Minoan princes come forward to fill the blank I
drew for the matter of Edom.] (GW 155)
Commenting on this poem in Ghostlier Demarcations, Michael Davidson depicts the writing process as the inclusion of “the ‘foreign matter’ of contingency,” as well as the irruption in the poem of the “marginal material” comprised of various “etymological and philological speculations” (176-177). Complementing Davidson’s take on textual and sexual politics of marginality, I would further argue that the key to this poem lies in the embedded geneses of hypertext and hypotext. In choosing to incorporate the Pléiade’s editorial commentary of Mallarmé’s impossible – hence gruesome – gift into his poem, Duncan grounds the endogenesis of the Idumaean “Gift” into the exogenesis of his own text.
[ So at last the poem returnd to the Don du Poème where I found in the notes to the Pleiade edition Denis Saurat’s commentary which tells us that Idumée is the land of Esau, Edom, and that the Kabbala relates that Esau and the kings of Edom (Zeus, then, and the kings of Crete) were pre-Adamic, presexual, reproducing themselves without male or female, not being in the image of God. “Le poète fait son poème seul, sans femme,” Saurat tells us, “comme un roi d’Idumée, monstrueuse naissance.”] (GW 156)
Duncan’s partly rewritten translation of Denis Saurat’s “La Nuit d’Idumée” (NRF, 1931) quoted in the first Pléiade paratextual notes (OC 1945: 1437) appears immediately before the passage underlied by Mallarmé’s gift. In the passage from Mallarmé’s Idumaean night to Duncan’s transfigured night, the “Don” is turned into a “spectrographic” poem: “the phantom begotten of Idumaean night” (GW 156). In Given Time, where one of the key texts is precisely Mallarmé’s “Don,” Jacques Derrida contends that the gift is the “figure of the impossible”:
If there is gift, the given of the gift [...] must not come back to the giving [...]. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics, the gift must remain aneconomic. [...] It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible. Not impossible but the impossible. The very figure of the impossible. (GT 7)
About “Don du poème,” Derrida observes that “like its dedication, which gives itself by giving nothing other than the gift in question with no possible oversight of that performance, this ‘Gift of the Poem’ would be as the gift itself, enacted; [...] the kings of Idumea were supposed to reproduce themselves without sex and without woman” (GT 58).
The poem is compared to a work that would have been born from the poet alone [...]. ‘Horrible naissance,’ says ‘Don du poème,’ a birth in which the child, that is, the poem, finds itself thus given, confided, offered — to the reader to whom it is dedicated, to its adressee [...] but by the same token to [his wife] who in her turn, in exchange, will give it the breast [to breast feed, donner le sein]. (GT 59)
Because it is haunted by the ghost of the Mallarmean poem’s ghastly birth, Duncan’s “Inter-lude” grows in the between of the intertext, here relayed by the “Demon of Incident.” “The Demon of Incident” appears in another Mallarmean “Passage” titled “Jamais” (GW 151), written after the celebrated, but much dreaded, throw of the dice (“Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard,” OC I: 367). In his insightful article entitled “Late Duncan: From Poetry to Scripture,” Norman Finkelstein emphasizes that Duncan substitutes a meaning-charged “IT” for Mallarmean chance:
For Mallarmé, the poet has no choice but to risk meaninglessness; every poem he writes is a throw of the dice. But for Duncan, the return to the Void is a return to the source of meaning. That meaning is ultimately inexpressible, but it is there nevertheless. […] If for Mallarmé a throw of the dice will never abolish chance, then for Duncan, no throw of the dice can abolish “IT”, his term […] for the Numen or Source of meaning that exists beyond the world of chance. (357)
“Jamais” is a tribute to Zukofsky’s “lucidity”, and it stems from Duncan’s disbelief or mistrust of chance, in life and as a meaning-producing writing procedure. Duncan shares with Zukofsky and Wittgenstein a mystic conception of language as a form of life, and poems as life forms of an essentially organic language.
In his letter to Chris Edwards from May 30 1978, Duncan makes this statement:
is a crisis in the discourse.
But Rimbaud is a crisis in poetry. Baudelaire I take to be the ground in which the trouble is at work. And there I am determined to stay (going no further in reading than I can learn by heart), learn my waters before I take soundings up stream or down stream.
Duncan’s use of Baudelaire’s underwriting takes many forms. Be they in the guise of the proper name or poem titles, translations and quotations, the “Baudelairean words” are scattered around Ground Work. Some lines from Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) become classical inserts making up the richly-encrusted materia poetica: they form insightful probes into the poem’s genetic ground but they do not act as the “major mover” of writing. Take for instance “Toward His Malaise” from the series “To Master Baudelaire” (GW 199):
upon the edge of what
we never knew then
you made clear was there
in the human condition — your Ennui
plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde,
that we would never have come to, yet
in the depths of Poetry
I have so long ever gone to and ever
returnd myself from, beyond
In this poem, Duncan slightly modifies the Ur-text drawn from Baudelaire’s famous address to his “hypocrite lecteur” and adapts it to his addressee. Baudelaire’s spleen — his sickness of living, springing from a sense of infinite boredom blended with malaise (un-ease or dis-ease) — resurfaces in the last verses of “In Blood’s Domaine” along with a scattered stanza from the poem “L’Horloge” (“The Clock”), which tolls for the ill-starred poet approaching “Death’s customs.” As put admirably in Michael Palmer’s new introduction to the combined edition of Ground Work (also in Jacket 29):
“To Master Baudelaire” establishes the tone of malaise and infection that will prevail in much of what follows. [...] We are in the full atmosphere of Baudelaire’s “spleen.” He will reappear in one of the darkest and strangest of the Passages, “In Blood’s Domaine,” where the “Angel Syphilis” and the “Angel Cancer” preside over “the undoing of Mind’s rule in the brain” and where “cells of lives within life conspire.” We have arrived at the heart of darkness, where Form has been infected by “scarlet eruptions,” and where another language prevails.
At the apex of Duncan’s synthetic intertextuality thus combined with naming and signing, Mallarmé’s “horrible naissance” and Rilke’s “Jeder Engel ist schrecklich” (“Every angel is terrible,” Duino Elegies 12) conjoin in a momentum of sublime imagery contaminating the poetic language of “In Blood’s Domaine”:
Gift of the Poem,
has brought into my body
this sickness of living? Into the very Gloria of Life’s theme and variations
my own counterpart of Baudelaire’s terrible Ennuie? (GW 251).
The feminized supreme scourge of modernity — Ennuie — takes on the value of a feminine allegory. Furthermore Duncan’s repeated use of the added mute “e” throughout the manuscripts may be pointing to the unstable or undecidable sexual identity of the Ennui — the evil within the self or the figure of a daemonic Other. The unsounded (and unsound) letter “e” is also the sign of the primacy of the graphemic over the phonemic in this instance, where the “e” ending Baudelair-e and terribl-e contaminates the self-blossoming flower of Ennuie. Depicted as a syphilitic angel of modernity, Baudelaire indeed contaminates the whole final volume of Duncan’s poetry. He is one of the “Signators” underwriting the work. Duncan confides: “each day I secure the meaning/of my name in yours” (GW 204).
Published in Roots and Branches, “After a Passage in Baudelaire” is a riff off “Fusées XXII” (OC I: 663) that prepared the groundwork for “Quand le Grand Foyer Descend dans les Eaux” (GW 248), which will be focused on (the italics are Duncan’s; I emphasize the translated fragments of hypertext in bold):
QUAND LE GRAND FOYER DESCEND DANS LES EAUX [Passages]
“His attempted suicide seemd
to purge his nature of depression and despair”
having to do with spelling, with error, with words. . . .
La scène monte et . . . what is today's beauty?
this wetting of the world tearful
and into leaf-flame flares -rocks, trees-
mélange de principes dreams also of this order
letting go into a lovely litter
elle s'épanouit en tons mélangés
Narcissus alone comes to see
les arbres, les rochers
his face destitute in beauty
les granits se mirent dans les eaux . . .
based on other functions a music still
water means to reflect
rain drops interrupt the mirror . . . y déposent
bare in winter cold face in summer clothed
into shadow close
the poem mounts toward a stem in time
staring down into its foliage
the sap rises to see
it's Death lingering mine
(returning to Baudelaire)
he is staring down into his book
looking at what he has written just now
the entire passage has to do with color
the thought of suicide before
takes on light and shade near and far a
way. The eye
dwells on the horizon.
This Passage takes its cue from Baudelaire’s “On Colour,” a dazzling critical essay published with his writings on the 1846 Salon. Like the poems grounded in intertextuality involving Nerval and Mallarmé, Duncan’s “Foyer” consists in a transfiguration of the original text, the presence of which remains undisclosed, as its fragments are interlaced with and translated into the original passages. I emphasized with italics the fragments that are quoted verbatim in Duncan’s “Foyer,” while I wrote in bold type the passages that are (loosely) translated and absorbed in Duncan’s Passage.
La sève monte et, mélange de principes, elle s’épanouit en tons mélangés; les arbres, les rochers, les granits se mirent dans les eaux et y déposent leurs reflets; tous les objets transparents accrochent au passage lumières et couleurs voisines et lointaines. [...] Quand le grand foyer descend dans les eaux, de rouges fanfares s’élancent de tous côtés; une sanglante harmonie éclate à l’horizon, et le vert s’empourpre richement. [...] Cette grande symphonie du jour, qui est l’éternelle variation de la symphonie d’hier, cette succession de mélodies, où la variété sort toujours de l’infini, cet hymne compliqué s’appelle la couleur.” (“De la Couleur,” Salon de 1846, OC II: 422).
Ariadne’s thread runs secretly through the Nerval,
Baudelaire and Mallarmé derivations. Duncan’s transfiguration of
Nerval’s extatic depiction of the interplay of light during the
“whole scene of the evening ceremony” over the stricken temple of
Isis is inoculated into the Baudelaire Passage by means of paronomasia (Poundian error? Pun on the Seine? Probably both): the rising sap (sève) in the essay on color is blended
with the scene (scène) of the Nervalian
sunset. Immediately following
“What is Romanticism?” appears the French poet’s astonishing
analysis of color and light in open space, where “all things, changed
second by second by the displacement of shade and light, [...] are in perpetual
vibration,” before they unleash a visual feast at sunset, “when the
great hearth descends upon the waters” (OC II: 423). This circulation of
the light and of sap, the transformation of golden nuances into red-blood at
sunset, offers another underlying connection through the word foyer, which means
metonymically the fire of the brazing sun, the hearth of the fire-place, and the
household or home. It is connected with the impossible economy of the gift, from
oikos (“home, property, family, the hearth, the fire indoors”) and
nomos (“law”), which “implies the idea of exchange, of
circulation, of return” (Derrida GT 6). Moreover, this anticipates
Duncan’s fascination with Jabès’s demeure in
(“foreign”) language. In “An Eros/Amor/Love Cycle,”
Duncan writes: “This foyer — this language — burns within
language” (GW 223). Between foyer and foreign, Duncan’s elected
asylum is the threshold (seuil). This distinclty Jabèsian word is not
unlike Duncan’s open and transient poetic locus, the
Duncan’s movement of writing is not driven by a teleological aim, or an urge to “make it cohere” (C 116: 816), but, rather one “to copy this palimpsest” (C 116: 817). This movement is taken in the double-bind of witnessing its continual, processual birth, a movement forward, and the undercurrents of a drive toward the archè, the origin. The works’ genetic bedrock not only lays the groundwork for the poems but also encapsulates Duncan’s metamorphic poetics. Further, I wish to suggest that some of the notebooks could be regarded as a work with a plasticity of its own. And conversely, the published poems (the conventional literary product) ought still to be read as notebooks, as a groundwork for an illusory Book to come. Duncan’s late writings take “place” on an unfathomable ground, that of the archè and the archive. Duncan writes in 1980 in NB 66:
In the heightened awareness of the spelling present in letters along with the evocation present in phonemes and with the casting of what we call meaning, image, content, concept in the semiotic fabric[,] we lose ourselves in the work. The intellect is drawn into the net, lured by the flame, so that the poem is written over an abyss.
Duncan’s radically open form is predicated upon a dual practice of reading writings and writing readings, involving what I described as “genreading” and “underwriting.” In Ground Work especially, but not only, Duncan designed the corpus of a unique “genreader” among the poets of his generation. Evolving a genetic-based poetics of derivation (of which “An Interlude of Winter Light” certainly is one of the best examples), Duncan foregrounds a writing process anchored in the layering of countless readings and re-readings of master or hyper- texts that in turn underwrite the “grand collage” (BB vii). Finely woven together, the myriad prose and verse scribblings produce – from the heretic margins of modernism itself – one of the most challenging (and rewarding) collages of postwar American poetry.
A des heures et sans que tel souffle
Toute la vétusté presque couleur encens
Comme furtive d'elle et visible je sens
Que se dévêt pli selon pli la pierre veuve