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Vocabularies, Fractals, and Semiconductors

(Sketch for a chapter of Leaf Mosaic)

by Karl Young

In 1964 or 65, I started making lists of French words that I had to look up more than once. Some were stubborn and didn't seem to stick in my memory even after I'd added them to one of my lists. I didn't keep the lists formally, but rather on scraps of paper and index cards. Sometimes I used them as book marks or taped them to my refrigerator door in the hopes that I'd remember them better if I looked at them regularly. I made poems out of these words, usually setting the list itself as a parameter: I could use only the words on the list. Seeing language as a living entity with which I and millions of other people had interacted and continued to shape, I wondered if there was some sort of magic in these words that kept me from remembering them, or something in my own psyche that resisted them. However much related projects changed and went through various baffles, this principle remained somewhere in the picture. My sense of language as a living entity grew deeper as time went on.

Most of the early poems composed from these lists didn't work at all. The earliest that I still consider poems began with editions of individual works, rather than lists I made from multiple sources, including conversation and random reading. This made me wonder if the words in individual works didn't carry some of the significance of the work even in small and random configurations.

Jackson Mac Low's use of what he called systematic chance processes further encouraged my sense of language, and individual works, having a kind of intelligence of their own. In some instances, this seemed to work by finding a means of tapping into this intelligence and letting it continue in a different dimension or amplifying or revising what it had originally carried. With some sources (particularly in government, business, and other repressive documents), breaking up syntax liberated the words to say what they meant, rather than what they concealed.

Non-syntactic lists of all sorts seemed an opportunity to go in a different direction, spinning a syntax of their own out of their disjunction. During the early to mid 1970s, I compiled extensive, and at times exhaustive, poems out of such lists. For the most part, these didn't work unless there was some element of relation in the base list. Something that seemed to work well enough came from lists of items with their correlative significance, running from vocabulary lists with equivalents in other languages to lists of items with individual terms or brief phrases glossing their relations to their uses or to an external frame of reference. One set of poems that had its merits came from a list of flowers and their symbolism. This made an appropriate set of love poems for a lady who liked gardening.

As I followed this line of thought, there were times when there seemed nothing left to say, though the need to speak persisted and remained necessary. There were also times when the world seemed too full of joyous posibilities to say anything without some sort of guide. This becomes particularly important in an age of information overload.

The first important work that came from the need to say something when there was nothing left to say presented itself to me in Leo Frachtenberg's Lower Umpqua Texts. This book contained stories told by what Frachtenberg thought were the last members of the Kalapuya - Lower Umpqua Indians of the North Western United States. The "texts" came from a few people who were senile or dying of consumption. As stories and memoirs, these texts seem pathetic - the last mumblings of a race that had succumbed to genocide, and simply flickered a bit before the doomed light went out completely. Following scholarly practice, Frachtenberg included a list of all Lower Umpqua words at the end of the book. The list was organized according to the order of the Roman alphabet. Sometimes related words followed in strings, since they contained the same initial components. At others, the alphabet acted as a randomizing principle. However garbled the texts may have been, the words, freed from senility, disease, and the vagaries of the recording anthropologist, seemed to reveal glimpses into a sane and healthy way of life. It seemed that what was left of the language had more to say than the texts Frachtenberg collected.

In making a poem out of Frachtenberg's vocabulary list, the parameter I set was that I could begin anywhere in the list, and end anywhere, but between the point of beginning and ending, I had to follow the order in which the Lower Umpqua words appeared in Frachtenberg's vocabulary list. I fudged a bit on this in the last poem in the series. The name for the book that rose from this project is To Dream Kalapuya, a conjunction of dream and people that came from two words in the list.

Some of the works that follow these formal ideas pull stories into the poems. I wrote the book while staying at Jerry and Diane Rothenberg's summer house in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. This was a happy time for me - generally a time when a lot of ideas and projects were coming together. On a smaller temporal scale, the months spent at Jerry and Diane's were beatific. My companion and I could spend days in which she was wrapped up in her painting, and I in writing. We could have fun driving around observing curious sites, and a session of viewing the stars before going to bed put a great cap on the days. We could spend a week or so in the country, then drive a bit over an hour to get to New York City, where we could have an equally great time in urban mode. I don't think I would have been quite as in tune with the magic in the words of the source for my poem without being in a similarly happy state of life.

In the early 1990s, I put my complete book on-line at Spunk Collective's library, and a few years later, mirrored it at my Light and Dust site. At this time, I still assumed that the Kalapuya were extinct, and mentioned this in a note on the book. A few days before Christmas, 1996, I got the first of a number of e-messages from Kalapuyans who told me that they were not extinct and had no intention of becoming so. The reason for the assumption was that at the time Frachtenberg wrote, people not in what amounted to a concentration camp went unnoticed. The women were listed simply as "squaw" on official documents, and the men had good reason not to identify themselves as Kalapuyan - then, as in the 1990s, they had no intention of becoming extinct. The reason I heard from these people was because search engines had listed the web page under "Kalapuya" and "Lower Umpqua," once again following a seemingly imperialistic and detached listing pattern not unlike Frachtenberg's. Kalapuyans may not have felt very much interest in quirky experimental poetry, but when these people went on-line, they found the book by looking for references to themselves. The first word I got from a Kalapuyan, via the new magic and spookiness of electronics, made a great Christmas present. Magi follow strange paths.

However much I wandered away from the lists of words I made as a student, I kept coming back to French sources. I'm not sure why - perhaps this has to do with links to my first lists. It probably has something to do with the relative ease with which I could read French in comparison to such languages as Chinese. It also allowed a kind of relief in that I could work with more fully understood social and literary milieux than those I'd worked with from other sources. Eventually, I came to see these as forming a book of their own. In this group, I move from the simple structure of dialogue in "The Game of Love and Chance" to more complex fracturing and reassembly. "The Flies - The Game Is Up" more or less suggested itself while rereading Jean-Paul Sartre's, Les mouches and Les jeux sont faits, which I first read as a student. This poem is made of four columns. Grammatical structure remains constant in each column. Following a pattern I see in Sartre, the first column in the first half of the poem consists of the repeated, exhortatory phrase "now is the time." The last column in the second half repeats the phrase "cool it down." That frames the work in Sartre's exhortations followed by suppressions. The teaming and chaotic imagery of the central columns suggests what's most important to me in Sartre, a fascination with the world's patterns that transcends the limitations of Existentialism.

In this poem, reading maintains the familiar left to right, one line at a time pattern. In other poems, I pursued the kind of restructuring of eye movement and text flow I explored in visual poetry. "The Square" consists of sets of squares, the corner of each of them assigned to poems drawn from works as follows:

Corneille's Le Cid, upper left; Moliere's L'Avare, upper right;
Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie, lower left; Duras's Le Square, lower right

Each represents a different attitude toward life. A logical reading pattern would move between the corners in a Z pattern, though any reading order would create a different tonality in the work. The Z pattern declines from heroics to resignation in a dull existence. Readers who feel like moving against the accustomed left to right, top to bottom order, could see it as a struggle of aspiration. This poem I originally thought of as a performance score. It has never been performed, and perhaps that's all for the best. Still, the performance instructions should emphasize the nature of the poem not simply as dialogue, but what I'd have some fun calling quadrologue.

In the 1980s, I became aware of Chaos Theory. In some respects, this seemed like a codification of what I'd seen in the work of Ezra Pound and Jackson Mac Low, and had worked with in various ways myself, including the way breaking down a verbal structure and allowing it to reassemble itself produced an order unique to it, usually resembling essential, underlying contours of the original. Seeing these ideas so codified gave impetus to the last works I did in this mode. It also gave me the name of the book for the poems based on French sources, Fractals.

I began "Three, Hiroshima" as part of the International Shadows Project in 1989. This, too, goes into to the territory of the need to speak when there's nothing left to say. My main sources were Gustav Flaubert's Trois contes and Marguerite Duras's Hiroshima, mon amour. Duras, whose elegant prose makes particularly good sources for work that relies on the latent intelligence of chosen words, provided what to me was an inadequate and stilted response to the bombing of Hiroshima and the nightmares of W.W.II. Flaubert provided something like a background in responses that foreshadow future limitations, despite the fact that this set of stories has been reworked by all sorts of people since. I follow the trajectory of each of the three stories in the three parts of my poem, just as Gertrude Stein and others followed them in other works derived from Flaubert's coda. If Flaubert and Duras provide inadequate responses, so do all others who've tried, including me. In the face of unmitigated evil, words fail; but the need to speak does not. Perhaps this need affirms our humanity.

Given its social orientation, I stayed with the right to left, top to bottom reading order, only moving away from it slightly in the third section. In other works, such as René, the last of the French Fractals, I tried keeping a distinct semantic continuity in separate columns, allowing the columns to either flow horizontally into each other in a natural manner, or to resist such a passage. The column on the left comes from rearrangements of words in Chateaubriand's René. The column on the right consists of personal musings that resemble Chateaubriand's romantic brooding. Descriptions of water heaters make up the central column, informing and making fun of the lugubrations around them, but not doing so without what can be called literal warmth.

I did a number of poems like René as what I thought of as semiconductors: poems with breaks that could alternately be read with and without fluency. Sometimes they kept one unit from merging with another, at others they encouraged it. As in a computer chip, the operative action came from switching on and off. Jackson Mac Low, who suggested publishers for some of these poems, was intrigued with the idea, and encouraged me to try structures that consistently functioned both ways at once. I'm not sure this is possible, but working with that potential in mind assisted in the composition of such poems.

I started making notes for a longer work after I had stopped doing the poems based in French texts, and had essentially stopped writing. What I had in mind was an elegy for all those who had been killed or maimed by the 20th Century wars centering on Vietnam. My source text was Wagner's Ring Cycle, and in this case, the vocabulary came not directly from the German, which I do not read, but from translations. I wanted to use at least eight columns per opening of this work, each spread across two pages of a book. In this instance, the way the columns would wander in and out of each other should mirror the socio-political interrelations of the 1960s. This was an era in which everything seemed to run onto everything else, and trying to break down the period for analysis loses several of its most important characteristics and dynamics.

At the end of 1991, I became ill, beginning with pneumonia and bringing asthma and bronchitis into it. A tentative diagnosis at the beginning of the new year brought in the possibility of my own death. Thinking I might not have much time left, I wrote the first part of The Ring of Indochina, which I titled Orange Gold very quickly in something of a daze. These poems, again, have an uncanny way of pulling personal stories into them. The first column on the left reconfigures words from translations of Das Rhinegold. The next columns deal with the following subjects and sources: 2. the formation of gems under heat and pressure; 3. the Buddha's "Fire Sermon" and Hsun Tzu's The Art of War; 4. the use and consequences of the use of Agent Orange; 5. descriptions of the nature of fighting the war from tunnels; 6. the sources and techniques used in plastics manufacture; 7. the passages in Codex Boturini dealing with the Mexica Aztec's near annihilation and rebirth during the Colhua Wars; 8. measurements of time as part of industrial technology.

I produced Orange Gold as a book during my recovery. I did sketches for the other three sections, but couldn't bring them to a conclusion. Perhaps that's just as well - leaving the work incomplete, as the Indochina Wars will remain unfinished until those of us touched by them die and future generations find some way to recover. The incompleteness may also suggest further possibilities that the reader could imagine.

Given the breadth needed for the work, I can't reproduce it on the web or without using larger pages than most books hold. I have, however, put together several columns that would have gone into the final work. The first three columns come from part 2, and deal with highs and flying. The fourth column comes from part 3, the nature of heroism. Here is the order of the columns: 1. drug use among troops; 2. The Paris Commune, with its implications for revolutionary action and for French colonialism; 3. the moon shots that grew out of the Cold War and took place while the U.S. was massively engaged in its war with Vietnam; 4. excerpts from speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The inherent intelligence of language may always remain a mystery. Virtually any sincere writer will tell you that in many situations the language itself contributes significantly to the act of writing. Once you start, the language will to a greater or lesser extent take over part of the process of forming itself into a poem or essay. Writing thus becomes a form of dialogue or collaboration. I'd like to think that finding new ways to set up and explore such collaborations clarifies them in some sense. It seems just as likely that they're what clarifies me. Something as simple and dull as a student's list of words can lead to 30 years of exploring an unexpected direction in poetry. A millenium ago, troubadors began poems with nothing but lists of rhyming words, seeing them as a framework for poems they'd build inside the frame.

On-line Vocabulary and Fractal Poems:

To Dream Kalapuya
The Flies. The Game Is Up at Mary Sands' Jack Magazine.
Three, Hiroshima
"Two Couples" from Group Portraits at IsiBongo Magazine, issue guest edited by Michael Rothenberg.
The Barber of Seville at Marc Weber's Sugarmule Magazine
Sketches from The Ring of Indochina

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