As a young child towards the end of the Second World War, Martonfi fled Hungary with her family as a war refugee. Though no one talked about such things at the time, she has since since learned that the town in Bavaria where she went to school was filled with Nazis from Czechoslovakia. Her family endured the siege of Budapest and many other dangerous experiences during this time.
In Salt Bride, she recounts these personal events as a poet. In her witness poems, she puts herself in the shoes of the hibukusha (Japanese atomic bomb survivors) and people displaced by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as well. She presents these and other subjects through her haunting, staccato-lined imagist verses, such as in this poem about victims of the atomic bombs:
“I played a piano in a wooden house
and then I saw my brother Akio digging me out carrying me outside on his back,
laying me down under a ginkgo tree
flies and maggots crawling on my body.
Like you, I forget.
We were children who will die once again.”
From “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts” in Salt Bride
“I don’t like to shout in my work,” says Martonfi. “I don’t shout about Nagasaki. I don’t shout about those iron shoes [a Holocaust memorial site]. I tell it like it is, but always with empathy. Because I found empathy to be the most important thing.”
An elimination is a poetic form where you don’t write the words. You erase them.
Take any stanza or paragraph with a rich, evocative vocabulary. I for example chose a few pages from James Frazer’s classic work of anthropology The Golden Bough. Any other kind of text can fit just as well as any other–the crazier or more meaningful, the better. Take something written by your favourite author or poet, or even an ad, if the text is to your liking. Any well-textured bit of literature you can find.
Either mentally or with a writing stylus–pen or pencil–underline individual words and punctuation marks. In order, write each underlined word down on a separate paper or another document file. You may also–if you so wish–take the via negativa: scratch out the words you don’t need.
See, you are now constructing a parallel text that has been buried within the original. You are using the author’s own words to construct your expression. This is called an elimination.
An elimination is a great way to break your inertia if you have writer’s block. It is also a fascinating exercise in how you can wittily reshape what someone else has said to fit your own agenda. Maybe this is as close a poet ever comes to becoming a politician.
Here you can find my own elimination of the first page of The Golden Bough, an epic of classical anthropology. I have reproduced the first two paragraphs of text of Frazer’s work for the purposes of demonstration:
“WHO does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is[in] a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi—“Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. The two characteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palace whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break the stillness and even the solitariness of the scene. Diana herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.
In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. On the northern shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on which the modern village of Nemi is perched, stood the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Wood. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. But the town of Aricia (the modern La Riccia) was situated about three miles off, at the foot of the Alban Mount, and separated by a steep descent from the lake, which lies in a small crater-like hollow on the mountain side. In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried[s] a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at
every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.”
Notice that I occasionally fix the tense of some verbs and make adjustments to minor words like ‘in.’ This is all I’ve allowed myself. Aside from a few added commas, every word and punctuation mark is in the same order as Frazer wrote it:
“Golden Bough Elimination: King of the Wood”
Know the scene. The golden imagination
steeped in a dream-like woodland lake.
Ancients in a green hollow forget characteristic
terraced gardens, break solitariness, linger, still haunt
this sylvan landscape. Tragedy on the lake
under the cliffs, perched. Sacred Diana of the town,
at the foot of the lake. On a certain time of day,
a grim figure carries a sword, and, warily,
a priest and a murderer
hold office till slain.
I have been a bit cowardly in my use of the form; I have transplanted many of Frazer’s original phrases into my own poem. The best eliminations carry the spirit of the primary text to an extent, but spin the author’s own words into entirely new, unlikely directions. The result is an uncanny effect where the author speaks vicariously through you. You can can link words together that the author has thought best to keep apart, in order to find mysterious hidden meanings; manipulate language to make the author’s words disagree with him- or herself; or, take the words of a prophet and spin them into something wild.
A poet may choose to hide their source text from the reader, although in my case, I chose not to, since I wanted readers to feel the significance that The Golden Bough might have for them.
I find that this technique is most visible in its effects when the text itself is well-known, like the first page of Moby-Dick or Hamlet’s soliloquy. Try eliminating a famous text such as these as an exercise.
Eliminations are like the excavation of a hidden message in the sands of language. They’re especially uncanny when you eliminate the words of a well-known historical figure, written during a particular, defining historical moment. What happens when you cut out words from Herodotus? From Martin Luther’s Theses? From Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? The past can speak with a new voice to us, even though, paradoxically, it uses the same words as it has always used. In a way, eliminations have the potential to construct strange ‘historical fantasies,’ alternate realities where the words of history and literature stand in the same order but are changed in their very substance into new meanings and forms–with a few simple nicks of a pen.
Two weeks ago, my seminar class on Michael Ondaatje got together to put on a fantastic presentation for Professor Robert Lecker. We were reading Ondaatje’s poem “Tin Roof” and instead of writing a four-page essay response, which we are supposed to do every week, Prof. Lecker told us to go do something as a group. Usually seminar students see each other in class, exchange pleasantries and ideas, and then go their separate ways without really learning about each other. The challenge was to buck the trend and surprise the prof with something we’d all organized.
We ended up agreeing to perform a tableaux, set in a bar, where we would each say a monologue that would be our existential response to the poem. We each chose a couple of lines from “Tin Roof” that inspired us. After we had written the poems/monologues over the weekend, we met on Monday to order them and come up with a strategy to put on the presentation. Various people brought in curtain drapes, candles, wine glasses, beer, wine, and whiskey. Then on the day of, we arranged the classroom into the bar setting and presented ourselves to Prof. Lecker, our audience of one, who we decked out in a Hawaiian lei.
Ondaatje wrote “Tin Roof” after suffering a divorce and period of silence in his writing career. He retreated to fellow poet Phyllis Webb’s cabin in Hawaii, the location where his confessional poem is set. The poem confronts despair and the violence of the poet’s existential anxieties, as he drowns in self-doubt and self-questioning, trying to seek a new foundation for his writing. The poem begins with the poet’s quest for “the solution” and ends with his realization,
I wanted poetry to be walnuts
in their green cases
but now it is the sea
and we let it drown us,
and we fly to it released
by giant catapults
of pain loneliness deceit and vanity.
The following is my personal monologue. I borrow lines from “Tin Roof” and some from other poems, such as “‘The gate in his head.'” I focus on the image of the gecko that the speaker of “Tin Roof” finds on his glass window–an image of voyeurism, the threshold between public and private lives, and a objective correlative that Ondaatje uses with some irony to critique the modernist value of impersonality.
I loved the fantastical image of this gecko turning invisible and how the gecko might have become a ghost briefly in the “Tin Roof.” Since large part of his work concerns the blurring of barriers between fiction and fact, Ondaatje is a writer who should be of interest to those intrigued by historical fantasties. I hope to include future posts about Michael Ondaatje as this seminar continues.
Prof. Lecker, who has these kinds of connections, has said he will present Ondaatje’s assistant with a copy of our monologues–which means with any luck, Ondaatje will read them himself and maybe even write back. We’ll see…
Last week’s launches for Scrivener Creative Review at Kafein last Thursday and The Veg at Le Cagibi last Friday were a success. There were many talented readers at both launches.
At Kafein for the Scrivener evening, speakers recited their poems like real hipsters in front of the electronic keyboard in the lounge area of the basement bar. There was Eric Foley, who I met by chance at an evening poetry reading for Summer Literary Seminars. I asked him to write a review and he did. Thankfully, he did not read his take on Curationism by David Balzer, but he did read us a piece he wrote during one of his travels in Europe. Then there was Greg Santos, whose book of poetry Rabbit, Punch!from DC Books is one of the books sitting on my shelf waiting for a reviewer to scoop it up. I might be able to find someone next semester to review it, but I was disappointed we couldn’t have featured a review in this issue. I might just review the book myself, if it comes to it. Greg might have been introduced to Scrivener due to one of my Tweets, or he may have known the magazine before that, but in any case, he got published in Scrivener and showed up at the launch. We were honoured to have him.
During The Veg launch, in the back room of Le Cagibi, I unwound after making a presentation on Leonard Cohen for my final Canadian Modernism seminar. Peach schnapps in hand, I walked up on stage and made a joke about this review that my mom had preserved from the 1980s within her own signed copy of The Book of Mercy. The book review itself isn’t funny, but on the other side of the clipping is a movie poster of Chuck Norris from Code of Silence, looking hell-bent on retribution. “I guess that makes it The Book of NO Mercy,” I said, and the audience laughed.
(This is especially funny for us lit students because Leonard Cohen–and his predecessor A.M. Klein–interrogates the problem of silence, and the codes that go with it, in his poetry: for example, Cohen’s poem aptly titled “Poem” in Let Us Compare Mythologies, in which “silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.” Plus pop culture plays a big part in Beautiful Losers, so its not like Cohen himself wouldn’t find this funny.)
While on stage, I recited some of the same poems I did for CKUT Radio earlier that week–my first time on the airwaves. I don’t know if anyone listened to it, but if you want to hear it in the archives, you can listen here (24 November 2014). I also threw in an old classic that Mark, the MC, was a little obsessed by: “Saint Francis of the Amazon.” The novelty here is in how St. Francis, well known to have preached to wolves and birds, is in this poem preaching to toucans and lumpy, fat capybaras. Actually, the poem is more of an imagining of an abandoned cathedral in the middle of a jungle and the animals that come to re-inhabit it, since the humans are no longer around. I also tried to measure the reactions of some more of my more wartime poems, which blend imagery of Middle-East warfare with mythology. During the intermissions at The Veg launch, we were also serenaded by two fantastic musical groups: Kainé, Fili and the Believing Box and Tiger Lilies.
All in all it was a great week for poetry and a great way to kick back and pat one’s self on the back at the end of the semester for a job well done. Can’t wait until next semester’s launches!
To see more photos, find Scrivener and The Veg’s Facebook albums:
My most recent poem to be published was printed in Read this Dammit!‘s January edition: “Janus: God of the Gateways.” You can pick up a copy on McGill campus in the news racks in the Leacock Building or at the MacLennan Library. I am quite happy that I was able to read it at the Paper’s Edge Coffee House at Burritoville last Friday. I was also able to read scene 1 of my novel, in which I feel quite confident. For your reading pleasure, here it my poem. Sorry if it’s a bit of a let down. It should speak to everyone who has ever raised his or her hopes too far for nothing, whether for a material pleasure or a relationship.
Remember my previous poem “I See You Too?” This one takes a similar but different angle.
This Monday marked the occasion of my second ever poetry reading, where I recited “Ice Breaker” (which is this Friday’s post), “St. Francis of the Amazon,” “Seagull,” and my final, uproarious poem “Anticlimax.” The venue was in the backroom of Le Cagibi (pronounced KAH-jeh-bey, or “KGB” in phonetic Quebecois French), a hipster, student-populated restaurant on St. Laurent. A fine venue as any, with some real character: a coffered tin roof, a wall of shelves holding candles, figurines of cats, and a strange trinitarian painting of the Virgin Mary, as well as a weathered set of metal chairs and tables with stripped paint. There was also a very non-mainstream, postmodern electric violinist with some haunting reverb and a celloist with a similar style. Excellent poets this year, with some excellently cadenced voices, stylistically and auditorially. Here is a recording of some of the voices (not me, alas) from CKUT. Just follow the link to CKUT from The Veg‘s Facebook post (click “Post” to see it). Then on the CKUT page, see the recording for 25 November 2013.
(Current issues seem to be inaccessible at the moment, but I am in the Veg’s Spring 2013 issue as well.)
.I’m looking forward for future events such as this one, but don’t know when the next will be because I’m graduating this semester! It was certainly an honour to read, to see my poetry and artwork in print, and to participate in literary life at McGill University, an institution that has turned out such infamous poets as Leonard Cohen, Irving Layon, A.M. Klein, and William Shatner (each with their own very different styles, to be sure!). Peace out!