Photograph by Hiro Fukuda.All rights reserved.
See our e-interview with Tony Barnstone.
This selection from Barnstone's Readymades includes several series along with prose introductions and afterword. All of the various series are represented with the exception of the Columbus series. A selection of Readymades from the logs of Columbus is online at Exquisite Corpse
Books at bn.com by Tony Barnstone
Online work by Tony Barnstone
“The Video Arcade Buddha”
translations of Li Po and Tu Fu
“The Poem Behind the Poem: Literary Translation as American Poetry”
“Technology as Addiction
Review of Arthur Sze's “The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998”
Reviews of Barnstone's “Impure,” by Karlene Miller
“Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America” by Elizabeth Blakesley Lindsay
Tony Barnstone website
Readymades is an actively avant-garde book, constructed according to an experimental method of composition, based upon reductive printmaking technique and Dada provocation. I think of the poems as modernist, not postmodern, in that the roots of the method go back to Marcel Duchamp's readymade constructions, Picasso's use of “found objects,” and the active use of collage in Paterson, The Cantos, and The Waste Land. These are poems constructed according to a theory of creativity that actively embraces the infusion of randomness and chaos into the writing process, though, to be honest, I like my final product to evince a mastery of that chaos, not a submission to it.
I'm including here several poems from the Zarathustra series, which is based upon Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, and was constructed through a reductive/additive method of collage and active misprision. In this process, I collected phrases from Walter Kaufman's marvelous translation of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and from another translation by R.J. Hollingdale, reducing individual essays and aphorisms down to their figurative and argumentative core. From this series of phrases the poems were built in a variety of different ways. I collaged phrases from several different essays together, added connectives, changed person and tense, collapsed together snippets from wildly different contexts, twisted and transformed the sense and imagery, added my own lines, and thus from the generative nonsense of the selected phrases I built up a new sense. In rare cases this product was close to the original, a skeleton of the original argument and figurative structure. But I distrust the readymade that too easily seems “ready,” that is already made before I have a chance to craft it. Perhaps I'm not ready to give up the act of making. Thus, I found myself harvesting a random scattering of words and short phrases from the original text to use only as a kind of yeast to make the poem rise. The process was one of creation through betrayal, of finding new paths through this forest of words. Pretty wacky, I know, but I find that this peculiar process has allowed me to take on new voices and a new palette of imagery, and that there are certain pleasures in adapting the rhetorical strategies of philosophy to those of poetry. I love Nietzsche's figurative excess, and was excited by the possibilities inherent in the allegorical parable structure. I especially enjoyed his bilious epigrammatic and aphoristic attacks upon his critics and enemies—such disdain, such vehemence, such marvelous put-downs!
The figs are falling from the trees
and when they fall their red skins burst.
It is so beautiful
I am wounded by my happiness
but you have forgotten how to be silent
and how to eat.
You sit in your swamp and speak from the reeds
as the frog sings its song from the black pond.
You want to scratch out my eyes
so I can't see my own body.
You are the bite on which I gag.
You are a cheap clock ticking off
the things you're afraid of.
Be afraid of me.
I will wind and wound you
till you whir for me
in a dizzy whirl of human bones,
the violence of the hammer against stone.
I am the spear that I hurl against you,
till like a paper bag your words tear open
and you lie uprooted and broken in the sun.
After the spasm I rub my sleepy eyes
and walk away
naked as the fig I roll on my tongue.
Vision of Milk
Because I wished I were wise,
because I wanted to become air,
because I am in love with zeros,
I swam in deep light-distances.
I saw my shadow wavering before me;
I saw a footpath of light.
I saw clouds like swelling milk udders;
they flowed like milk into my hands.
I watched the pregnant moon give birth to the sun,
and I saw the blood.
I watched the world drown in shallow waters,
and I caught that little whiff of carrion,
and it almost destroyed me,
but instead it made me stronger,
because even a wound has the power to heal,
because to live does not mean to be sick,
and because the galaxy is a woman and she is good
I took her breast in my hand and I drank.
You're not much of a man.
You are my shadow.
You whitewash your soul.
Splash-cloud, scream-throat, flutter-wings, bluebottle.
Ink-fish, pen-hack, pickpocket, ragpicker.
Lamefoot, lazybones, sigh-bag, smuggler.
You flutter and whine like mosquitoes.
Must I break your ears
to make you listen with your eyes?
Hollow nut, you still want to be cracked.
I will bury you well with my own hands.
I have lived in solitude as in the sea;
now I would climb ashore.
I come from coldest waters naked as a red crab
to prick you with my claws.
Crushed, everything had been crushed.
My eyes were open, but I was asleep.
I was asleep, but my soul was awake.
My strange soul had been conquered
by sleep, the thief of time.
It drank me up and left me drunk
with visions, tossing on bedsprings,
wings fluttering from a broken backbone.
It was the death rattle, white flesh
of peeled eggs, the eyes rolling back.
My fingers pawed the dark loose earth.
While I slept, the world stripped down
to its fine black bones, and I saw it as it was.
In the morning I was still drunk,
scrabbling through fragments of dream,
a clutch of roses, a smear of feathers,
looking for evidence of the crime.
I drank strong tea that didn't clear my head,
and watched ants and cockroaches shifting in the kitchen
until even my body's fallen hair
created a monstrous sign in the sink.
I don't trust the language of the mind,
so I go for a walk in the woods.
I want to listen to the language of a forest
so lush it stains the mind green.
I want to learn to be still
like a fox hiding inside his own form.
But I never make it to the woods.
I lie down beneath a grapevine
and suddenly feel as if I am falling,
or is it that time is flying through me?
I am tied to the earth by a spider thread;
no stronger ropes are needed.
I hear the rustling of a lizard.
The smallest things make the best happiness
because the world is perfect.
It has stung me in the heart.
The world is a golden ball like a grape.
With a touch of the hand it would drop off the vine.
Psalm of the Mirrors
I had dinner with a young woman
who was mad about God.
I told her I've learned to walk without a crutch,
and in any case, was never certain
whether I was a mistake of God's,
or he a mistake of mine.
She told me I am a reflection of God,
but I think he has my nose.
She talked about surrender and resignation, etcetera.,
prudence and industry, etcetera,
the virtue and wretched contentment
of raising children in my own image.
I don't want to multiply myself;
that seems bad taste to me.
Still, I might believe in a God who could dance,
who let out a laugh once in a while.
I might believe in a God like this young woman,
this riddle who let herself be guessed,
who pressed against the impression
she made on my skin
as if she wanted to become me.
Moral: I think she liked me because I wasn't like her.
Moral: The body reflects pleasure inward.
Moral: I wrote her an after-dinner psalm.
Moral: I am distorted inside this glass.
The fountains are louder at night.
It takes a mind of darkness to know them.
The suns fly like a storm in their orbits.
They fly along the arc of their own cold will.
You think they want to give milk to you,
but they would crush you like an atom.
They drink their own flames
and their light sears the skin.
The universe is a glow worm.
Only the dark ones suck at the breasts of light.
The ice is all around you,
your hand burns with ice.
You burn like the rest of the universe,
and your flame is brilliant only at night
when something dark inside you
sings like a well of cold water.
The following poems are from the “Untitled Series.” Readymade composition is a kind of crazed paleontology in which the poet assembles bone fragments from dinosaurs and rhinos and last night’s chicken dinner and applies putty and concrete and papier-mache to them until they cohere into a new animal whose natural habitat is the imagination. In these poems I was “trying to breathe fire into what had already expired.” Each sequence has a tendency to bring to life a different sort of imaginary animal. I created the “Untitled Series, along with a series of prose manifestoes, as an attempt to generate an ecosystem that could accommodate them all. This series masquerades as parts of a book (dedication, table of contents, author’s note), while meditating upon the techniques and esthetic issues of the “readymade.” The individual poems rebut other sequences, echo and argue with the manifestoes, and thus perhaps find the essence that joins together these diverse texts: an unusual technique of composition, and the attempt to make the dead walk and breathe and feel in these lines.
Table of Content (A Love Poem)
I dedicated myself to the limbs I found,
rearranged them on the table till they formed
new bodies, and I flew my kite into the storm
seeking the sky-electricity I'd need to mend
the crack of rapture where they came together,
trying to breathe fire into what had already expired.
Even a tarantula has the integrity of its poison,
but the little monsters refused to live.
So I left the city and returned home
to you, tracing the circumference
of your body and carrying
a new commandment: be.
All night we sailed the polished air,
lost all sight of land
as the world closed like a hatch,
so beautiful it made us shiver.
We were flying fish in the darkened room.
At ten o'clock at night I thought I saw a light
but it was just your shining limbs
swimming to the underside.
And after all the words,
the unwritten text of the sheets,
it came down to this: a process of composition
in which you and I together made one poem.
Aphorisms on the Avant Garde
Wheels roll inside my lids.
My ocean heart pulses signals.
My mind buzzes calculations:
I am trying to read myself.
If I can read myself, perhaps I can write myself.
“The important thing is to create.
Nothing else matters.”
Why is it that I believe that?
So many of my friends tell me they have a horror
of copying themselves.
One said, “Sell yourself nothing.”
One said, “Write a poem, then destroy it.”
In the old days poems used to be a sum of additions.
Now a poem is a sum of destructions.
There is no such thing as a finished poem.
To finish a work is to kill it, to rid it of its soul.
I was told I could make the clock of my life
hold its breath if I spoke it aloud.
But when I caught the stench of eternity
I heard laughter behind the angel mask.
To the Reader
while I sleep, nursing the light in my belly.
Someone has opened the cellar window
and, wavering behind glass,
flies from the blue television squabble
to dig inside the fridge.
What might I find in this receptacle
for emotions that blossom in the sky,
skitter in like a scrap of paper,
come wrapped in a spider's web?
No, don't tell me.
Better not to understand.
Who can really follow the path followed
by the brain in materializing a dream?
There was a man who tried to fathom his love
by measuring her limbs.
Whatever is put inside the hallucination machine
I find myself holding a bruised peach,
feeling for the rot.
I squeeze the yellow flesh,
trying to read the fruit,
rubbing its bumblebee fur with a thumb
and reaching for the knife.
On the Author
Patient as a cow
but asks, “what good is my happiness?”
Does not know how to live
Hears ice in laughter
Wants to walk away from this world
Thinks he is a tree hollowed out by rot
Wishes he were wise
Lives inside his body
Pulls his ears to see if he is at home
Floats light and foolish as a butterfly or a bubble
battered by invisible winds
Says in his defense
“a God is dancing through me”
Hiroshima Burning: On the Process of Composition
On November 1st, 1995, I received an invitation to have dinner with Brigadier General Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay and leader of the 509th Composite Group. It was an invitation I had deep reservations about, not least because my wife and inlaws are Japanese-American. Nonetheless, pulled by some sense of morbid curiosity, a need to look in the face of history, I went. From a long night in which much was said, at dinner and later at a public talk he gave, many of his words stayed with me. General Tibbets is the one man I know who really believes in the bomb. Perhaps he has to. At our strange dinner, I asked him what his response was to those who have questioned the morality of the decision to drop the Bomb in several recent revisionist histories. A pugnacious, white-haired fellow with protruding ears, he looked harmless, like one of the seven dwarfs, but he is a forceful presence, clearheaded, with a powerful memory, and his reply was fierce: “You can't rewrite history .... If people could only see the attitude we had, the patriotism, and the sincerity of our beliefs today.” He is a patriot with not an ounce of doubt that he did the right thing. He believes in the story of the army: honor, duty, following orders, necessary violence. And he believes in the official story of the bomb—that he is a hero who saved a million lives, that the bomb had to be dropped on a city, not on a demonstration site, and that those who were killed got what they deserved. When asked if he had any qualms about dropping such a devastating weapon on a civilian population, he said something that still eats at me: “All people were fair game .... There is no such thing as separating the innocent from the guilty, because everyone is guilty. The days of knights meeting out on a field and fighting one to one is over for a long time now.” My last glimpse of General Tibbets is of an old man, no wiser now than he was fifty years before, raising his hands in a victory clasp as he walks offstage and the applause swells. The central poem in the Enola Gay sequence, “The View from the Enola Gay” was constructed through a process of trimming down and then rearranging the General's public statements, flowers in a nuclear bouquet. The other poems are constructed largely out of public statements, diaries, songs, etc., by scientists, politicians, musicians, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki witnesses and victims. In these poems I arranged the pieces, sometimes using meter and rhyme to give them coherence, but added relatively little of my own voice, feeling that what I wished to do was to create a cycle of poems narrating warring points of view on this human tragedy, but to remove myself from the process as much as possible.
A morning beautiful and sweet
A morning beautiful and sweet, and clad in undershirt and drawers
I watched my garden through the doors flung wide, the sunlit, shimmering leaves.
Then the stone lamp lit up just like a bright magnesium flare. I plucked
a large glass shard out of my neck and looked at it. I called my wife
as the house sagged and began falling, everything tumbling to the floor.
We ran out through the house next door and tripped on something and fell sprawling.
We had tripped over a man's head. Excuse me, please! Excuse me, please!
I cried to him hysterically. There was no answer. He was dead,
his body crushed beneath a large red gate. I ran through the street bare.
Where were my shirt and underwear? Our city was on fire, and our
neighbors walked around like ghosts, their arms held straight out from their bodies.
Then suddenly I saw their bodies had been burned black, that they were hold-
ing their arms out to stop the sting of friction. Now a naked man
ran by. I couldn't understand what thing had happened, what strange thing.
The bright light stuck into my eyes
The bright light stuck into my eyes
like twenty dozen pins. Back then
I was just four, but now I'm ten.
We ran into the street, and I
saw that my dad was charred like fried
meat above his waist. Some friend
put oil on him. I thanked him in
my heart. My mom got sick and died.
Back home, everything was broken
but we lived there. At two a.m.
one night my grandmother awoke
when dad called out for some sweet yams.
Very well, she said, and put some on.
It's done, she said. He didn't move.
I touched him to see what was wrong.
His skin felt cold. And then I knew.
Mother was burned into white bones
Mother was burned into white bones
while praying at our Buddhist altar.
I was just five. I don't remember.
I can't recall her face, but some
days at the silent wooden post
that marks her grave I pray to mother.
The post says nothing and I go
home, leaving her some pretty flowers.
I had my chopsticks to my mouth
I had my chopsticks to my mouth
when the big bang and the sharp flash
hit us. Things fell inside the house.
My dad had glass stuck in his back.
We ran outside through flames and dust.
My grandma ran into a post and died.
I think my mother must have touched
some poison thing. Later, she died.
I tried to cross the railroad track
but it burned me, so I jumped back.
At the river people were burned black
and crying, water! But those who drank
the water died. Later, my sister's
left thumb was ready to drop off,
and then a boil was on my brother's
head and if you pressed it slightly, pus
oozed out. My mom could only lie
in bed. I felt so sad. My mom,
she had a baby boy and died
with him. Only his head was born.
It was as if someone had shot a flash
It was as if someone had shot a flash-
bulb picture just two inches from my eyes.
It stung my cheeks, as if I had been slapped
hard in the face. I must have lost some time,
because I woke up in a shattered house.
Then stumbling down the street, I heard the people
crying help, but I could not help, and now
I passed by a stalled streetcar of dead people
and felt the yellow burns across my face
and body. Odd. The flesh was hanging free.
I tried to pat the skin back into place.
Some people were so charred I could not see
if they were lying face down or on their backs.
They didn't look like human beings. But they
were still alive. I thought, who could do that?
And then my heart filled up with bitter hate.
People lay along the rivers screaming.
The sky was red. Hiroshima was burning.
My friend's red mouth was open wide
My friend's red mouth was open wide
in fright. She couldn't speak a word,
her teeth knocked out. I saw the blood
splashed on my breast. It wasn't mine.
Another friend was crushed and cough-
ing blood. I tried but couldn't help her.
So strange. I saw some naked soldiers,
their skin scorched black and hanging off.
About this time my girlfriend died.
I saw the freight trains full of coal
ignite and blaze up high and boil
with fire. They lit the hill all night.
A long time later, the sun dawned
on the dead city. The black smoke
still steamed out from the bodies broken
on the sidewalks I walked. I saw
a child cry Mom! and shake its mother's
numb arm. I saw a black thing then
which anyone would think was dead.
I heard it whisper “water, water.”