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Jack Galmitz's Views: A Preview

Beth Vieira

A king has the blind men of the capital brought to the palace, where an elephant is brought in and they are asked to describe it. "When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each of them and said to each: 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?" The men assert the elephant is either like a pot (the blind man who felt the elephant's head), a winnowing basket (ear), a plowshare (tusk), a plow (trunk), a granary (body), a pillar (foot), a mortar (back), a pestle (tail) or a brush (tip of the tail). The men cannot agree with one another and come to blows over the question of what it is like and their dispute delights the king. The Buddha ends the story by comparing the blind men to preachers and scholars who are blind and ignorant and hold to their own views: "Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing.... In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus." The Buddha then speaks the following verse:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim 

For preacher and monk the honored name!

For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.

Such folk see only one side of a thing.
(Udana, 68–69).

The Buddhist version of this Indian parable turns the blindness of the men into something metaphoric about how they cling to their views without seeing where they stand and how that stance works in relation to others who also have views. The Jain version, which concludes that all the blind men are correct, promotes a kind of knowledge that might be called "weak relativism," where views are equally valid no matter how much they conflict with each other. The Buddhist version of the story might be called "strong relativism" for contrast because the problem is seeing "only one side of a thing" and taking that as the whole. The tale, an admonition against sectarian views, implicitly suggests that if the men stopped clinging to their own views and cooperated instead, they might come closer to seeing more of the elephant, in a sense overcoming their own blindness.

The task of layering and corroborating views, though laborious and communal (perhaps never complete), is a form of strong relativism that Nietzsche called "perspectivism." Though not developed as a systematic epistemology, it, like interpretation, is privileged in Nietzsche's approach: "There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival "knowing"; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our "concept" of this matter, our "objectivity" be. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. trans. Maudemarie Clarke and Alan J. Swenswen. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998.)

Views, the collection of work by Jack Galmitz, shows the power of allowing perspectival seeing, the layering of views, to accumulate on a topic that might be a bit like an elephant in miniature—contemporary haiku. Like the blind men in the parable, people cling to their own views of haiku even though they have grasped just a part. Galmitz in tandem with fourteen poets follows Nietzsche's lead to allow "more affects…more eyes" to the matter.

Through interviews, book reviews, and critical pieces, Galmitz covers the poetry and larger concerns of a broad range of writers: paul m., Peter Yovu, Chris Gordon, John Martone, Ban'ya Natsuishi, Tateo Fukutomi, Tohta Kaneko, Robert Boldman, Marlene Mountain, Grant Hackett, Richard Gilbert, Dimitar Anakiev, Mark Truscott, and Fay Aoyagi. Each writer appears in exquisite specificity, as if Galmitz can disappear into each's shadow and yet at the same time be so active that he pulls them into the spotlight to take a fine-tuned look at the work each does.

As in Nietzsche's perspectivism, there is no forced effort to systematize the results. Galmitz resists trying to define or categorize via abstraction, and instead he moves along with each poet to focus on minute details as well as broad concerns, a combination appropriate for the genre of haiku. Even the very notion of what the genre of haiku is, too often taken for granted, is actually up for examination and questioning. For the most part, more traditional definitions of haiku are left by the wayside as rule-bound and restrictive rather than generative and expansive.

But that might be too simple a way to put it. Rather it is clear that relinquishing a pre-conceived idea about haiku outside of the actual work of active writers, who come close to grappling with that very question in almost every poem, produces a fuller picture. It is left to the reader to take up the layering of these views and see haiku as a living and changing practice pursued by a variety of artists.

One way Galmitz characterizes what poets do is to invoke Wittgenstein's notion of "language games." In part, the idea of language games was formulated to account for non-referential, definition-resistant tendencies in language. Language games account for multiplicity, lack of fixedness, and use or activity, where meaning is analogous to a move in a game.

And Galmitz shows again and again how to be a good player, willing to travel with the word's uses through "a complicated network of similarities, overlapping, and crisscrossing" (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 66). In many cases, we see him in between words, examining the spaces that define the lines of poetry, or parts of language such as dashes and letters in what Blake would call the "minute particulars" of creative labor.

Galmitz explores the effects of breaking up language with poems such as this one by John Martone:

winter coat
& gloves

Like other lineation effects, this poem creates multiple meanings. Here the deliberate lack of a hyphen produces the word "other," which might be said to stand for the possibility of othering not only in this particular poem but in each of the poems that focus on the slippage created by the concrete layout of the lines.

Attention to this level of creative labor not only gives us a strong sense of each poet; it also gives us what Tohta Kaneko calls "shiso" or "existentially embodied thinking." As Galmitz explains in "The Romance of Primitivism," the term is related to, yet also opposed to, an emptier concept of ideology. Whether it is the experience of the poet represented in the poem or the experience of the poem as represented by the poet, embodiment figures in these essays as part of the creative labor of the language game.

We can see embodiment from a concern with the form of the poem on the page. This concern is especially critical in concrete poetry, where the shapes of the words on the page are resonant with the way meaning emerges. Minimalist Mark Truscott gives us one of the many poems that plays with the effects of concrete poetry:

which is
which is

The repetition in the poem calls forward what might be called the iterative effect of language, an effect seen in other forms in several of the poets. For instance, Chris Gordon creates serial poems, all with a repeating line. Three series are looked at carefully: Invisible Circus, Chinese Astronauts, and the Crow. Two examples from Invisible Circus show the delightful language game created by Gordon's serial approach:

Your watch stopped when
You bought your ticket to
The Invisible Circus

The Invisible Circus
Goes from town to town
Never really moves

Gordon's own off-the-cuff remark, "Caveat emptor: Don't go to the Invisible Circus!" playfully cautions the reader to be alert, for as the investigation of the poetry goes on, we see the workings of the unconscious. As the title of the piece suggests, even the quotidian is superlative.

Repetition figures in a different way in the monostichs of Grant Hackett:

The spirit of the bell delivers a cry : : I stare into this world without peace
The spirit of the bell delivers a cry (I stare into this world without peace)
The spirit of the bell (I stare into this world) delivers a cry (without peace)

Hackett calls these transformations "Innerweavings," which Galmitz connects to one-line haiku poetry and also demonstrates the way the lines open up to possibilities that reject closure.

The visceral effects of language in repetition are just a few ways that some of the poets deploy embodied thinking. Even though there are points of overlap among the poets, as there would be in any language game, the poets take up these techniques for different effects and with different backgrounds. The tension inherent in written language between the visual and aural poles comes into play in many of the poems.

"Typology & Poetry: Richard Gilbert Experiments" pulls this concern to the foreground with close readings of poems such as this one:

a drowning man





A striking poem made all the more elusive by the typographical layout, which has the effect of slowing us down so that we almost gurgle out the letters as if we too are drowning.

At the same time we have poets like Peter Yovu, who, even though he makes use of the visual effects, admits that he prefers to read poems aloud. So at the aural pole we have poems like this:

mosquito she too
insisting insisting she
is is is is is

Though delightfully onomatopoetic, Yovu pushes the effects of sound in language, in Galmitz's words, as "somewhat dissociated from its meaning." An example of this dissociative effect is the following poem:

millionating beast
quadramillion hooves
drum down the groundskin

The poet creates neologisms to carry a large part of the effect of the poem through sound.

Sometimes when we follow these pathways into the poetry, the language games take over and leave the players without clear-cut agency over what they are doing, either as poets or interpreters. Instead of a sense of loss of control, these moments are presented as exhilarating, for they let in something larger, whether the unconscious, multiplicity, or a set of specific concerns (social, political, spiritual, natural). For instance, paul m. emphasizes how the creative process takes over: "I allow myself the freedom to follow the poem, and let it dictate its own structure."

The lack of certainty and multiplicity of meanings celebrated in this collection brings us back to the power of taking a perspectival approach, one that layers differing views. One of the central interpretive concepts might be best represented by the word aporia. From a Greek word that means "impasse," aporia has been used by such post-modernists as Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Luce Irigaray in close textual readings to show a key moment of indeterminacy that usually results not just in a layering of meanings but in the impossibility of making a determination. More radical than poetic ambiguity, aporia throws into question how meaning is made in the first place, again an uncertainty that is welcomed with exhilaration rather than a sense of loss. In a reading of a poem by Richard Gilbert, Galmitz concludes that again we encounter "an example of poetry as highlighting aporia as its central purpose; its playing with the deficiencies of language as its starting and ending point."

Though Galmitz does not claim that each poet is self-consciously post-modern, he does use post-modern thought to examine the poetry and to characterize the contemporary language game of haiku-informed writing. Jean-François Lyotard makes several appearances in Views as one of the influential post-modern theorists. Lyotard advances a notion of "metanarratives" that are quasi-mythological beliefs about human purpose, human reason, and human progress—parts of Modernism that are challenged by post-modern discourse. Lyotard in fact suggests that a pragmatic approach to experimentation and diversity be assessed in the context of language games, which is precisely what Galmitz seeks to do in Views.

So far we concentrated largely on the formal properties of poetry though as we've seen a lot more is at stake, especially about language and meaning. Post-modernist thought challenges many assumptions that might be taken for granted not only about language and meaning. Three topics stand out in this collection: nature, politics, and subjectivity. Though the topics overlap, each can be held up for partial viewing, often with the unexpected effect of aporia when it comes to an attempt to make definitive declarations.

Nature might be the most fraught topic since it is of course the most naturalized. This problem is compounded by assumptions about the genre of haiku, that it is a form of "nature poetry," with the tradition of using seasonal words, kigo, as well as descriptions of nature. These assumptions are taken on directly by Tohta Kaneko with a surprising revelation: the idea of an objective sketch attributed to Masaoka Shiki and then imported as a formative concept for Western haiku is actually based on a complete misunderstanding. While true that Shiki used shasei, "sketch," it was actually a student, Takaham Kyoshi, who advocated something "objective," which Kaneko calls "obedience to nature," to the poetry of "birds and flowers." Furthermore, Kaneko points to the "corrupting influence of modernism, insofar as it separates man from nature, sets them at strife." He instead uses the category ikimono, "living beings" in a way that allows for a less restrictive view.

It's important to let Kaneko's point sink in since the misunderstanding he foregrounds has influenced so many Western haiku writers. Though paul m. at first seems to align himself with a more traditional view, his interaction with Galmitz in his interview leaves us with something more complex. In relation to the "veneration for the venerable age of the universe," Galmitz playfully calls paul "a man with a visa," which captures what the title of the essay seeks to catch in "discarding the dividing line" between subject and object. Somewhat outside as a visitor, but allowed permission with a visa, paul m. can produce poems with or without explicit reference to himself, where the reader still feels the qualities of the poet.

small plot of land
the same sun
I was born under

sun on the horizon
who first
picked up a stone

Both poems can be said to line up with acts of veneration, and yet there is also the voice of questioning: both who am I? and who are we? The first question arises from the contrasts of huge expanses of space and time and the smaller awareness attributed to the "I." In the second poem, another ageless question hints at potential for destruction and aggression, a thing all living things share. Galmitz characterizes paul m. as "not only a man 'in' the world, but a man within which is the world." Not only does it address what may be a false dividing line, but it may be the most beautiful distillation of what it means to be an artist.

Though this description is far removed from a moment at which paul recites one of Galmitz's poems, for me it echoes at this very moment.

Inside of me
Bison are stampeding
Across the caves

The bison are simultaneously natural creatures, wild and furious, and yet they are art, the famous cave paintings. Whether out of veneration or violence or a combination of both, that primordial moment of the creation of art moves not just in caves but also through the poet, whose "inside" echoes the container of the caves. Galmitz is also "a man within which is the world."

"The world should not lie useless. It should be scooped up in the hands and sifted through the fingers and scored with the ridges of the palm." This sentence introduces his essay, "The Cultivated Field: Tateo Fukutomi's Straw Hat." Cultivation, what we do with nature, brings new worlds into being, not without memory of the old.

In a field
where buried axe-heads surface
tree spirits assemble

At such intersections, Galmitz muses, "we find our responsibility." And yet this sense of awareness is not overly moralized. In fact, similar to cultivation, it is a process that takes continuous labor and attention, even in the face of great odds:

Memory of the atomic bomb
every time the wind pulls off my hat
I put it back on

While Galmitz calls this haiku tragi-comic, it also emphasizes the action involved in cultivation, something that requires constant attention and repetitive action, here in cycles of memory, like that of the fields. But the wind blows in both places.

Cultivation of nature in the form of domination is just the beginning of the view of Dimitar Anakiev's work. Galmitz highlights a speech by Anakiev in which "capitalist haiku" is called out. This type of haiku turns out to be "dominated by dehumanized topics of nature." With some help from such neo-Marxist writers as Theodore Adorno, we get a clearer picture not only of the domination of nature but also of the actual separation of human from nature as ideological results. Later in the piece, we see how the human use of nature for ideological purposes is deeply embedded in the politics of war for Anakiev:

In the Balkans
at the calling out of "rustic"
swastikas sprout

The rural areas are not merely "rustic." They are where the far-right thrives on the basis of what Anakiev calls "goat's milk" philosophy, which symbolizes connection not only to the land but also to an ideology. A doctor as well as a film-maker and poet, Anakiev became one of the "Erased" during the war, a whole group deprived of identity, civil rights, passports, and respect. It is no accident then that the most passionate calls for politics in haiku come from Anakiev, both in his statements and in his poetry itself.

A big field of
cultural struggle: hens
are laying eggs again

Cultural struggle engages the poet in the social and political worlds that he already inhabits and is witness to. Galmitz turns to Adrienne Rich, who has called for poetry to take on its role as a social practice and to articulate the language of public pain. The poems of Anakiev serve not only as testimony to his own experience, but they serve a project of cultural memory for the war in the Balkans and also for World War II with German domination.

in the grey cloud
a shadow of death

It is hardly surprising that Anakiev finds excitement in Richard Gilbert's Poems of Consciousness in the development of "international haiku," something that embraces democracy and resists authority.

"Haiku as a protest" is shared by the poet Marlene Mountain as a partial summary of her life's work. Experimentation with the form and use of techniques like cut-up and crosswords is a strong feature of her work. But it is as a unique voice in feminist politics that underwrites so much of what she does. Mountain seems to create her own woman-centered language because it is clear that even language is not gender neutral:

thousands of women gather and talk in spite of language

To give a sense of how Mountain works with and against language to carve out a feminist politics, Galmitz cites this sequence from "womancrativa":

i am no beginning i am no end
i am chaoscoswommos
from my womwomb all is
from my gynitals all flows
birth of wom harvest of wom
shesharing I will make myself into ourselves
sheyes again I will shegive a big birth

When challenged in an interview about her insistence on feminist politics and throwing haiku into the political realm, she gives this tongue-in-cheek response: "Haiku can be a lot more than pears and yellow windows." And she finally answers by explaining that she is not "stressing the political" but rather "recognizing its existence."

A moment of particular interest occurs when Galmitz reproduces a letter by Haruo Shirane, author of the magisterial study on Basho, Traces of Dreams. Shirane writes of Mountain's work, "Great poets don't stick to the rules; they make their own. You belong in that company." He adds that "constantly seeking new horizons, new words, new emotions" is constitutive of the "haikai spirit." Since, as the saying goes, "the personal is the political," I want to turn next to the topic of subjectivity and the "new horizons, new words, new emotions" found there in so much of the work of Views. Any traditional notion of a "self" that is in complete self-possession and is self-creating and self-sufficient is undermined throughout the collection, whether by post-modern challenges to the production of this kind of subjectivity or by recourse to "othering" in language that takes the form of explicit references to psychology.

Galmitz uses the notion of an archetype, that of the Trickster of Native American mythology, to show the workings of the serial poem on the Crow by Chris Gordon:

a last few tricks ask the crow
a second glance at your wife the crow
cheats at love but not at cards the crow

Galmitz shows that the Trickster in the figure of the crow "transmutes the quotidian and thereby aids us in keeping alive." And true to the effects of the unconscious, Gordon cannot say definitively whether he is using the archetype or not. The unconscious figures prominently as the uncanny in Gordon's series on the Invisible Circus and as part of the surrealist irrational in the monostichs of Grant Hackett.

These concerns all come to the forefront in the final essay of Views, "Jouissance: The Poetic Achievement of Fay Aoyagi." Galmitz uses two difficult post-modern theorists, Lyotard and Lacan, to read Aoyagi's book, Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks. "Jouissance" is a critical term in Lacanian psychoanalysis. It pokes a little fun at the limited sexuality that Freud proposed in his drive theory since the release of tensions of that drive is only a crude version of the enjoyment and types of desire expressed by jouissance. Galmitz starts with the sense of loss that challenges this jouissance. In a haiku that lends itself to the title of the collection, Aoyagi writes

low winter moon
just beyond the reach
of my chopsticks

Galmitz ends a multi-faceted reading of the poem with this statement: "The ensemble of words may also refer to what exists just beyond her Japanese utensils, the world of the Other, as she is now in America, a foreign country." Loss sets in motion the workings of desire, which is attached to objects that Lacan describes as the "little other" and the "big Other."

Galmitz traces the workings of the unconscious from dark associations to this delightful one:

summer's end
I trade my wings
for fins

A moment of playful undifferentiation mimics the childlike world Lacan calls the Imaginary. But lurking all around these moments are the losses that accentuate them as precious. And poems often convey this loss in the form of lack or longing:

my yearning to spend a night inside a tulip magnolia

Though the poems of Aoyagi are intimate, she, like Anakiev, has the world of a war-torn nation lingering in her mind, with poems on the atomic bombs of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Nagasaki Anniversary
the constellation
we could never see from here

Hiroshima Day—
I lean into the heat
of the stone wall

These losses are also "just beyond the reach of my chopsticks."

Galmitz tracks a kind of development in which Aoyagi "matures into an awareness not only of the importance of existents other than her own, but to the fact that loss is ineluctable, that memory sustains, that 'selves' that once were are now recognized as merely masks."

I dress as the self
I left somewhere

The striking part of this realization, as evidenced in the Halloween poem, is that it remains relatively untroubled. Perhaps this is because the particular subjectivity presented here is only momentarily attached to little objects of desire and can instead see these attachments from the perspective of the Other. Galmitz describes a moment of jouissance as "a love that is never satisfied for an unattainable, uncircumscribed object," about this poem:

a "forever stamp" on a letter to the ocean

Here Aoyagi might be articulating what it means to be a writer, its exhilarations along with its impossibilities, all sealed together in this message-in-a-bottle haiku.

The challenges that face the writers are shared by the readers who receive these smallest of poems and attempt to decipher meanings inscribed on "a letter to the ocean." Luckily, the reader is guided by the openness and imagination of Jack Galmitz, who shows us how to play the language games of the poets and not foreclose on possibilities like the blind men with the elephant. The fourteen pieces that make up this collection of views demonstrate the power of allowing perspectival seeing to give us layerings of meaning rather than one singular message.

Beth VieiraBeth Vieira is a student of Zen, haiku, and Japanese. She received her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in Comparative Literature and Intellectual History. She was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley before resigning to pursue a career as a psychotherapist. She has published in Simply Haiku, Contemporary Haibun and The Heron's Nest. She has an essay on haiku in the journal fort da and a book-length collection of poetry in the anthology Burning Gorgeous. She lives in Santa Cruz, California, USA, where she spends much of her time with her first love, the sea.

* Beth Vieira's essay was first published as the preface to Views, by Jack Galmitz and is republished here with the permission of both authors.
* Views © Jack Galmitz 2012; publisher: Cyberwit.net; ISBN: 978-81-8253-314-1


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