[Wgcp-whc] Pierre Alferi, OXO, FRI SEPT 10

Jean-Jacques Poucel jean-jacques.poucel at yale.edu
Fri Sep 3 11:22:47 EDT 2010

Dear Friends,

Welcome Back everyone! Now that the semester is underway, let us resume reading and discussing contemporary poetries and poetics. As Richard noted earlier, this fall will feature discussions with the poets C.D. Wright, Pierre Alferi, and David Shapiro. We'll also have a session led by our very own Hilary Kaplan (poet/translator/scholar) devoted to the work of Brazilian experimental poet Angelica Freitas.

Our first session of the semester will be held this coming Friday, Sept 10, in our usual location (WHC 116) at the usual time (3pm-5pm). We will be discussing Pierre Alferi's third book of poems (Kub Or [1994, POL]) in Cole Swensen's English translation, OXO (2005, Burning Deck). Copies of that book have been made available to group members in the WHC office. If that stock is exhausted, and you would like to acquire a copy, Amazon still has some in stock. 

Pierre Alferi will visit the working group the following Friday, September 17, also at our usual time (exact location to be determined). 

In addition to considering the volume OXO (and a couple reviews of the translation--see bottom of page), it may be useful for us to read some of Pierre's prose and to become initially acquainted with a short film or two. To that end, I am sending a PDF containing the concluding pages of To Seek a Sentence (translated by Anna Moschovakis), a sort of ABC of writing Pierre penned in 1991. Those pages are followed by Craig Dworkin's "Accents Graves/Accent Gravés," a brief article that situates the translation of OXO, in the French-American objectivist exchange. 

In addition to teaching, writing poetry and novels, Pierre has also been writing and producing short films or cinépoèmes and films parlants (talking films). We may wish to ask him about these projects when he comes to visit. To my knowledge, not one of those films has been subtitled, but, as you will see from the first of these two streaming links, these short films build heavily on atmosphere.

Short films 

Hoping to see you Friday,

ps- For those of you who read French, I am also attaching a brief letter the French poet Marie Borel writes to Pierre about his various work; it is part poem, part critical appraisal, all friendship. 

Here's the whole semester's schedule at a glance:

WGCP Meeting
Friday, September 10 , 3 p.m.
Readings: OXO By Pierre Alferi
WGCP Meeting, Pierre Alferi Visit
Friday, September 17 , 3 p.m.
Readings: OXO By Pierre Alferi

Related Event: Jean Valentine Poetry Reading
Wednesday, September 29, 4:00 pm
Beinecke Library, 121 Wall Street
Yale Collection of American Literature Reading Series
Contact: nancy.kuhl at yale.edu

WGCP Meeting: a Discussion of the work of Angélica Freitas, led by translator Hilary Kaplan
Friday, October 8, 3 p.m.
Readings: Angélica Freitas readings TBA; essay by Hilary Kaplan

WGCP Meeting
Friday, October 22, 3 p.m.
Readings: C. D. Wright work TBA

WGCP Meeting: C. D. Wright Visit
Friday, November 5, 3 p.m.
Readings: TBA

WGCP Meeting
Friday, December 3, 3 p.m.
Readings: David Shapiro work TBA

WGCP Meeting, David Shapiro Visit
Friday, December 10, 3 p.m.
Readings: TBA

For easy reference, working group activities, the minutes of our sessions, and other resources are located here: http://wgcp.wordpress.com/

Review of Oxo by John Couth.  
Pierre Alferi: Oxo
(Translated by Cole Swensen; Burning Deck, Providence, R.I., 2005; paperback, 60pp, $10; isbn 1886224668)

Pierre Alferi has published four books of poetry in his native French: Oxo is the translation into English by Cole Swensen of his third book (Kub Or, 1994). Although it would have been interesting to have the French original on the page opposite the translated text, it's evident from the acknowledgement that poet and translator have worked in close collaboration. (Also one can make out the case for exclusion of the originals on aesthetic grounds because, for this book to work, its presentation must remain visually sparse and tightly conceived.) The language style that results is informal, American and spare.

The book's structure relies on the notion of the bouillon cube, with each poem two dimensionally reflecting a side – but this is no conventional regular hexahedron, rather one reliant on cube as in root, in this case a cube root of seven. Each poem is made up of seven lines of seven syllables, with each section containing seven poems. These comprise the 'cube' which Alferi offers to imaginative dissolution.

In Hebrew the number seven represents completeness and totality; in Oxo, the poet seeks to make complete, to give shape, pattern to disparate experiences of daily city life – the seven sections represent the completeness, the totality of the ordering system. The floating impressions of a succession of external and internal experiences require structure if sense is to follow, poet and reader work side by side as the generators of such order and understanding.

An idea of what's being attempted is signalled in 'preface', the seventh poem in the book:

here is seven times seven
times seven times seven a
far-fetched grunge idea for
you in hard cubes of almost
anything goes like on T.
V. in fact it's almost as
good as compacting the trash


It's 'a grunge idea . . . like on T.V.' and like TV the book combines all things together regardless of connection or harmony; the unifying principle is the medium, as here it's the bouillon 'compacting the trash'. The artefacts of the low and high cultures of the Paris cityscape are ordered within the book like a succession of adverts within a commercial break which jostle for our attention while sequentially contributing to a greater picture. The book's final poem, entitled 'coda', talks about the absorbency of 'tampon words', at once both redolent of personal and cultural reference, which need to be 'unfurled', dissolved in our psyches if we are to glimpse beneath surfaces. Interpretively, we must create the 'boiling water' in which to dissolve these poems that represent to us the variety and intensity of experiences we daily encounter but may fail to make mean. Alferi suggests that just as under scrutiny the poems will continue unfold new meanings, so too will experience. It's like greedily supping the bouillion:

ah it's so very ah how
absorbent these tampon words
made to be unfurled so
quick one more one last one quick


The book's first poem introduces the notion of a shuffled 'flip-book', which fits appositely with our experience of the rapid succession of scenes that ensue, that and the cinematic technique of the jump cut. Playing such a central part in contemporary life, it's little surprise that the media should occupy Alferi's attention – cinema, TV, the Walkman, advertising are reduced to their cubes of scrutiny.

But everything's worthy of attention. In 'regular', the poet focuses on the meaning-full, important sounding, quasi-scientific language of a health product ad, replete with its evident vacuous inability to deliver – the 'if' of the poem's beginning creating the logical uncertainty of what the 'low low price of regular' can never buy:

if it's true that it contains
quite naturally the enzyme 
necessary for modern
life then this built-in leak-proof
agent protects enriches
the ozone layer at the
low low price of regular


Other of the poems in the 'shuffle' deal with street and commercial life, politics, music and the ways in which figures from high culture, such as Charles Ives and Flaubert, can inhabit a consciousness in the present:

. . . all I can tell you
is that life which paces you
in the distance as Paris
once did me will but too late
be completely fulfilling.

the france of henry james

Oxo expresses Alfieri's determination not to be paced 'in the distance'.

The tone of the poems range from humorous, satirical, affectionate, resigned, committed; alienation is never an issue, with the poet at all times prepared to engage intelligently with the variety of experience/reality he encounters. The language throughout is spare and precise, as one might expect given the strictures of form, almost devoid of tropes, closer indeed to what Aristotle might have described as rhetoric. The cube device allows for nothing wasteful – dissolution of the bouillon is only possible through the reader's engagement.

Review of OXO by Joyelle McSweeney         http://www.constantcritic.com/joyelle_mcsweeney/oxo/
Pierre Alferi with photographs by Suzanne Doppelt, trans. by Cole Swensen, Burning Deck, 2004

Wednesday, October 20th, 2004

Three cheers for Cole Swensen and her consistent effort to bring contemporary French poetry to an English-reading audience. Her latest labor, OXO (the French title is the more pungent Kub Or), is the second Pierre Alferi title Swensen has translated, and it renovates the space- and shape-conscious dynamics of the earlier volume, Natural Gaits. Natural Gaits explored the physics of the vertical column of text; accordingly, concern with speed and sequence self-consciously directed its apparent currents of thought. With OXO, Alferi compacts and converts this frame to a more abstract and yet culturally fraught shape: the square, at once the paragon of inhuman perfection and the model of human rationality; at once the window through which one peers at one’s urban neighbors, and the shape of the tidy, well-kept box that is one’s own apartment, one’s own self-concept.

The overall form of OXO is deliberate and ingenious, and is ably implemented by the book’s elegant design. An airy, thinlined, textless square appears on the first page of the volume and six times thereafter, at the beginning of each of seven sequences of poems; each poem takes up only that much space on the page as is bounded by the square. While the title, which in English is a brand-name bullion cube, directs us to think of the book as a conceptual cube, with seven sequences of seven poems of seven lines each, it is the square we move through so deliberately to get through the text. Moreover, the book is without page numbers and the inscrutable squares do not present us with an ideology or hierarchy for reading the poems that follow; they merely mutely, and acutely, present them. The strangeness of this irreducible structure is the dominant experience of reading OXO, rather than the expansive volume a mathematical cube connotes.

As for the poems themselves, they are boxlike, consisting of seven occasionally enjambed lines with an italicized undertitle below. The relationship of the title to the poem it underscores is deliciously inconsistent. Sometimes, the undertitle will provide the metaphorical key to the poem one has just read, as in this poem which appears in the first sequence:

because they crawl flat on their
bellies held only by the
brittle voice of another
down here on earth it’s heads names
ads hear-say in place of steps
it weighs or it jams too much
to groove with the jellyfish


Here a series of phrases establish a sideways, horizontal motion which stresses the difference between above and below, bottoming out in the final image of those depth-traversers, “the jellyfish.” The undertitle, “roofers,” appears as the “answer” to the riddle of the brief poem whose lines could be re-read as riffing off their crawling figures; at the same time, the image of the roofers sprawled like benthic life opens up a vista across rooftops of an urban seafloor, which by implication reworks the sky as sea.

Other poems in OXO posit a less apposite relationship between the poem and its title:

there’s still the liquid pleasure
of the demonstration of
the insult gratuitous
as stomping on cherries as
pissing on a tree you find
enough to cry over in
the gas good the sausage bad

chirac resign

Here the undertitle seems like a detail pulled out of the “demonstration” scene recorded (and the word “demonstration” seems to pun at the poem’s overall interest in demonstrating a writing as well as a seeing process). At the same time, the status of the undertitle as a command is like a second movement for the poem, a second speech act which veers off in another direction. The undertitle is more pointed, more concise than the verse, which gets diffused in bourgeois matters of stomping fruit or eating a disappointing lunch. In this case the undertitle has linguistic activity apart from just explaining the poem or renaming it. It throws a dart in another direction.

If there is one shortcoming in the poems of OXO, it is that they more than occasionally charm. The petite, humorous poems have the cleverness of bonbons. A rotation through the poems of Parisian types (the gallery owner, the cafe owner, the street vendor) and sites (the cafe, the cinema, the ground floor shops) plus a piquant concern with literature give the poems a definite Decadent flair. Yet Alferi’s tongue is firmly in-cheek on the subject of national/literary lineage:

ah how these lines of whalebone
unfold are read and refold
with the faint sound of firing
a salute when it’s just wind
without rain the reverence
for this foolish foolscap and
its morose literature

mallarme’s umbrella

Indeed, it is through their lack of ponderousness that the poems of OXO escape the heavy savor of Decadence.

Finally, while total experience of OXO casts the reader as a habitual flaneur/voyeur, a concern with cinema and its ability to create an illusion of motion from a series of static units runs through the volume and proposes, by implication, an alternate version of the book in which the individual poems form a continuous thematic or narrative motion. For the most part, OXO resists this engineered arc. However, and tellingly, in the central section of the book, cryptic photographs by Susan Doppelt are annotated by a series of undertitles which may be read together and thus add up to the kind of seven-line poem found elsewhere. This central section, then, represents a recycling and remaking of the energies employed through the rest of the book, here compressed and pressed into tantalizing service of the visuals. Alferi’s ability to render his intellectual and aesthetic speculations in productively mutating forms leaves the reader hopeful for a future installment, and indebted to Cole Swensen for the intelligence, flexibility, dedication, and skill she brings to these translations.

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