By Norbert Ruebsaat | October 6, 2005

Stan Persky’s The Short Version: an ABC Book (New Star Books) is a “Miscellany” which Persky defines as a book “composed in alphabetically arranged entries of indeterminate length that can run from an aphorism to a complete essay or story.” He got the idea for the form from Polish Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz who published Milosz’s ABC’s in 1997-98 when he was in his mid eighties and wanted to remember the “faces, voices and things” which threatened, if not written about, to disappear from the world.

Received ideas about genre categorization, Milosz noted, would constrict his enterprise. Behind Czeslaw in the genesis of this form stands Roland Barthes, whose 1977 Roland Barthes Persky acknowledges as inspiration for the literary prose form in which the author is both object and subject and can write (or write) “about anything worth writing about.” The alphabetical ordering becomes a literary conceit, which, among other accomplishments, cleverly echoes the encyclopedia form that ushered in the European print age.

As I read and reflected on The Short Version, which includes lengthy essays on Persky’s mentors, Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer, I heard smart echoes also of the serial poem form that Blaser and Spicer and Robert Duncan invented in San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s to compose “books” in which “individual poems are at once independent episodes but….should echo and reecho against each other.”

I’ve been a fan of Persky’s work since I stayed awake all night reading his first “literary” (episodic) book, Wrestling the Angel, back in 1976 and was startled at the audacity with which the author eschewed conventional boundaries between poetry, prose, journal entries, anecdotes, stories, essayistic digressions, etc and created a genre-bending, yes, mélange–ordered, in this instance, not alphabetically but by that other early-days-of-print convention, the dated (and often signed, and salutorally headed) “letter.” I was trying at the time to figure out whether to be a poet or a “writer” and Persky’s “book” offered a way, it seemed, of becoming neither or both of these. I have continued to lie awake at night reading or waiting to read Persky’s ensuing series of genre-bending books (Buddy’s, his 1989 “Meditation on Desire” was a masterpiece, and the 1997 Autobiography of a Tattoo was a close second) and The Short Version, even though I am older now, kept me alert into the wee moments as well.

I did feel this one worked less well as a coherent book in the Spicerean sense than the other two did: it reads a bit, at times, like a “true” (as opposed to literary) mélange in which arbitrary titles have been placed, in keeping with the alphabetic stricture, on occasional pieces written initially for other venues—most notably the Web zine dooneyscafe.com to which Persky regularly contributes. This is not to say, though, that there are not some brilliant pieces in here—for example, Persky’s literary essay on Robin Blaser’s often hard-to-understand poetry, and his Homage a Walter Benjamin, which takes us into the heart of both authors’ “inner city,” Berlin—and handily fits into the Bs. One could go into a whole Perskyesque digression here about how Web publishing has “tweaked” once again the genre traditions that come down to us from the early days of print (and causes us at times to want to recapitulate this history “textually”) but I’ll say something instead about Persky’s vocal line, which, more than the genre-bending, I suddenly realize, is what keeps me awake and breathless.

Stan told me once he did not become a poet after his apprenticeship with Spicer and Blaser because he did not “feel the line.” He could not “get” the breath control, or whatever it was that Ezra Pound and the others proclaimed was the source of “poetry.” Persky did understand sentences, however, or at least came to understand them, including, I think, their breath patterns, and so, after a sojourn in journalism, he developed the literary prose form inspired by Barthes (and, more latterly, Milosz) at which he has in my opinion become a master. (Milan Kundera, among others, reminds us, by the way, of the Platonic idea that the cadences of verse lead as us easily into shit—which Kundera calls also kitsch–as they do into “Heaven.”) Most recently, Persky has posted a series of prose pieces called New York Poems on the dooneyscafe.com Website and these, with their subtle nod to Garcia Lorca (whose The Poet in New York inspired Jack Spicer’s first serial poem, After Lorca, which Spicer called “translations” of the Spanish poems) and to Spicer himself (who first taught Persky what a “book,” whether it “translates” poetry or prose, could be) perform an elegant triple entendre which comments on and in its own way recapitulates not only genre history but also the history of language-producing technologies.

After finishing the Short Version I leafed around in Roland Bathes’ Image-Music-Text and read these sentences: “The ‘grain’ of the voice is not—or is not merely—its timbre; the significance it opens cannot better be defined, indeed, than by the very friction between the music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and nowise the message). The song must speak, must write—for what is produced at the level of the genosong is finally writing.” A tricky line of thought: it was Marshall McLuhan who reminded us, in his famous “rear-view-mirrorism” theory, that we don’t understand what a medium is doing to us until its hegemony (power and control) is replaced with a new medium. We now know, with “The Internet,” that books were—and are—a form of the imagination which, as Barthes points out, fused speech and thought, the breath and the image in a—silent—template in which the joins between these different modes of perception were—and are—rendered unapparent. Or silent. It’s not until we “translate,” between media technologies, between forms, between genres, between the spoken word (of “poetry”) and the silent word (on the “page”) that we begin to notice the peculiarities by which and through which we compose and have, in our history, composed a world.

After refusing to decide whether to become a writer or a poet I became—and at times still am—a translator. I translated aural texts, operas and plays and poems, from my first language, which is German, into my second language, English. It was a lot of fun because I had been doing this, I discovered, all my life in my mind, and now I could do it on the page and then hear it spoken and even sung on stage by “English” speakers and singers who did not know that, secretly, they were speaking and singing German, my truthful language. The truth, which according to Hindu philosophy is acoustic, was my and the original author’s wonderful secret. The German literary tradition, by the way, probably like the Polish, has been less resolute in separating the professions of “poet” and “writer,” which, since Shakespeare, has haunted English literature. The German word Dichter, has, since Goethe’s time, described both kinds of authors, and the word Dichtung which, literally, means “thickening,” or “compressing,” “densifying,” can refer to all written and printed and spoken “texts,” as Barthes would call them. The categories “poet” and “thinker,” Dichter und Denker, are also more conflated, pressed together, in the German literary tradition than they have been in English. And, I am happy to report, in a final postscript, that Persky, one of my true literary heroes, currently lives part time in Berlin and has started to write, so I am told, some apprentice pieces in German.

1268 w. October 6, 2005


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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