Posts Tagged ‘Pink Reef’

A Conversation With Robert Fernandez (Re-printed)

This interview, conducted by Zach Savich, originally appeared on this site on June 20, 2011. We re-print it today as part of our feature of Robert Fernandez’s poetry leading up to his participation in the PXP 2013 Symposium in New Orleans. Please check back tomorrow for a more recent Q&A, and again Thursday for a series of plates from Robert’s book, Pearls Before Swine — AS

It wasn’t quite warm enough to sit outside but I sat outside and read Robert Fernandez’s first book of poems, We Are Pharaoh (Canarium Books, 2011), my bench bisecting school groups on their way to the greenhouse. Inside, they must have seen iridescent petals different to the touch than you think and sturdier, and the overflowing hanging bleeding hearts: Robert’s poems feel similar to that flora, forged of lush and crisp careening forms that show “Dionysian” and “relaxing” can be synonyms, that a “ring of keys” can be a “meadow,” that art can shimmer in “plates of hunger / & luminosity” with desperation that is also empathy. They left me, like good books do, unable to read for the rest of the afternoon.

Instead, I sent Robert some interview prompts—not questions, but concepts his book brought to mind. He responded to a few of them with incredible depth, and also sent us a poem from his forthcoming collection Pink Reef (Canarium Books, 2013). I’m pleased to present Robert’s thorough, thoughtful answers here, preceded by a poem from his first collection.

—Zach Savich

Hell Me Down

We take stock of the forearms:
They are like red snapper, slick
And sharp; they are like glass.
You see I am falling through

My pleasure like an intimacy
Of mirrors rubbing against
The face and you cannot uncut
The stomach: it is a die.

Here is the heat because we must begin.
Red rainbow spread like a hawk’s gills;
Red rainbow tied off in its black holes
Which dot the ceiling because it is enough.

A nurse raises
Her beak from my chest:
All my vultures are warm
And with gold discs for heads,
All my vultures are form.

Lord find me,
Who is another? Where is the flesh
Of gain? Venture and thighs
Of gold and living glass?

I forget that I consented to wander
To wander by the pier; I consent
That I wander and am like paper:
A black kite wet with night.

Grid I am good and like the Aeon,
A child playing with colored balls.
In the hall because they know me,
The young ones, the eternally. They see

The stela in the flesh of my throat they divine
The throat-rod and its glyphs. Bright to burn
And nurse on cold marrow-like light:
It is midnight and I am speed cut

Into thirds of day; I am threes everlasting &
Hells of foment. Then I stand like eternal resistance
Like hell. No one who walks over this
Ground senses it is sound: look again:

We find ourselves on the shore
And the flame follows us it flows
Through our speaking it is here.
I have failed again, I am no longer I am failed.

I am first to run aground I am seen.
Let us style vital light: New moon again but I am light;
We are not otherwise we are seen.
How shall I stand how shall I be seen?

The morning curled around us like warm like
I am clasped by infinite waters, I am seen.

1. Tradition, the lyric

The lyric is a perilous topic, one that turns poets and critics into priests arguing for either the sanctity or insidiousness of the genre—if it can even be agreed that it is a genre. Let’s grant that it is possible to traverse 2,700 years—from Archilochos to Shakespeare to today—and still arrive at a set of intact lyric conventions. Some of the most salient characteristics of the lyric might be: compression; the sense of an “I” speaking to a “you”; apostrophe; hyperbole; associative logics; distinct experiences of time—e.g., a sense of simultaneity/the ecstatic; refrain; heightened imagistic and/or sonic intensity; constructedness (formal, metrical, etc.). The lyric is non-narrative, non-dramatic, non-didactic.

While genres are indeed useful in establishing frameworks of intelligibility, I’m less interested in cataloging and comparing traits than in posing questions about the lyric I can’t safely answer. For instance: Is it possible to think of the lyric as not only a set of genre conventions but as an accord that seizes on a given material—whether language, paint, or bodies—under the right conditions? Something is possessed by lyricism, it becomes lyrical. Or is the lyric a mode of revealing (say poiesis, i.e., the kind of making that aligns with nature as springing-forth) in which things emerge in the light of their constitutive foreignness? Which is to say, is the lyric language that, while seeming to come as naturally (as self-directedly) as leaves to a tree, presents a surging, elusive world? Is the lyric-as-song simply language echoing its own immanent emergence and passage, language resonant with the bare fact that things are, that existence is, rather than is not? And can the lyric even be considered an event—something other than the mere sum of its parts—without overlooking historical context or losing its integrity as a genre?

Whatever the case, it seems reasonable, as Jonathan Culler has argued, to think of the lyric as more than just “overheard speech.” Lyric language might as convincingly be described and accessed as a kind of haunted singing which makes that which is most familiar to us, language, strange, and in so doing reveals the human being’s essential strangeness—reveals that one is constituted by difference and always at home in otherness. This would amount to a reversal of that problematic strain of the lyric that fatuously seeks to make the home and its inhabitants all the more intimate and familiar. We could speak of the lyric as an artifact capable of registering and transmitting the experience of modernity; of the lyric that poses alternatives to capitalism’s nefarious effect on the human capacity for valuation—namely, its reduction of everything to the status of a commodity. There is a sense of lyric language as the language of birth, joy, or upheaval; of love, intoxication, or praise (in line with which, we might consider the lyric’s relationship to things, to naming). While poetic genres like the ode, hymn, or elegy may deal more narrowly with these concerns, with each it still feels as if we’re safely within the terrain of the lyric. Of course, we shouldn’t smugly or recklessly employ the term if that means overlooking other practices or genres. And one wants to stay alert to the dangers of passivity and euphony, which as Celan pointed out “more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horror.”

Although the lyric is hard to pin down, it is clear that it would be rash to simply abandon such a rich and potentially transformative reservoir. I think that in We Are Pharaoh lyric language is often in conflict with itself. Conflict is in any case structured into the language of an epoch that pitches itself toward disaster even as survival (the preservation of both one’s life and one’s way of life) is held up as its foremost priority. The book’s particular forces and concerns attempt to mirror this logic. Units of sonic and imagistic intensity are either disparately constellated or constrained by formal logics and the logic of micro-narratives, initiating a struggle between erotics and necrosis, figures and their dissolution, or, alternatively, suggesting a desire for style as transformation. Perhaps the language’s intensity, as your email put it, is a function of its conflicting urges to erase, transform, and affirm itself.

Valuing tension in the poem has a bit of a controversial history. Nevertheless, in my work I consistently find myself trying to establish the conditions under which something like a struggle might emerge. Struggle is of interest to me in that, if it takes, it appears endless, ongoing, alive, and that it asks that the work submit to its own design and pursue its own values.

2. Grandeur, the sublime, who’s real

I’m less interested in grandeur as such than in embracing language as desire, abandon, laughter. To hell with anyone who feels it is their duty to discipline excess or ambition. This is, after all, art. Why feel guilty, ashamed, or frivolous for pursuing what kindles, spurs, and gives pleasure? Furthermore, it may indeed be possible to invest in questions of vulnerability and responsibility while also attempting to engage a spirit of joy and courage. When, at sixteen, Rimbaud says of the poet “Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnamable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!,” the “adult” in me winces, but I also remember that a sense of innocence and serious play are vital to both one’s work and one’s world.

As to the sublime: We generally understand it as a staggering, ineffable limitlessness, correct? I admit that I feel invested in poetic language as a coming up against or an unfolding of limits. These days the sublime would seem to be more relevant in a consideration of the apparatus of global power than the awesomeness of nature. And yet that coruscating fog of integrated military, economic, institutional, and media technologies may in fact be unthinkable (it certainly can’t be met face to face). Maybe it would be interesting to reinvest in a sense of the Romantic sublime, to seek out fresh astonishment in the presence of some visually arresting primordial immensity. The problem is that we’re so accustomed to spectacle that such immensities, if not immediately placing one at risk, are only likely to elicit the tourist’s array of uninteresting clichés and inanities. Dread is arguably a more productive starting point for thinking about one’s shared finitude. It presents itself in the poem as an experience of our exposure to a groundless and irreconcilably unfamiliar world. One takes up residence in the unknown and unknowable, sustained by supports/activities (e.g., language) that are inherently uncertain, at risk. These supports, which bear the burdens of the past, provide only a temporary ground upon which a work or world might be situated.

In technological modernity, we can track an ongoing sense of being haunted—by language, images, commodities, bodies. And yet it’s increasingly easy to feel, especially if one has a seat at the table, untroubled, fleshed, streamlined—all crispness, fluency, and versatility. However, it’s also very easy to feel—this especially if one does not have a seat at the table—like a zombie or an animal (I would say “ghost” but ghosts sometimes speak). I’m interested in the ease with which one can pass from fluency to paralysis (and in the difficulty of passing back again) as well as in the trouble of effectively articulating either (each, in different ways, are conditions in which language has withdrawn). If Pharaoh otherwise tilts toward grandeur, it’s less about grandstanding and more about exploring the liberating potentials of generosity, love, and, as I said, innocence and courage.

3. Landscape

I had actually recently been thinking about certain poets (Stevens, Crane, Bishop, Brathwaite) for whom there is arguably a relationship between landscape and time. We find ourselves in the poem, say, as in the petrified remains of history—language reveals itself as time and appears brittle or crushed or powdery; there is a sense of language as fossil, heaving, or dispersal. Or we are in the poem as in some intricately contoured present, a radiant immediacy of detail and sensation (“infested / with tiny white sea-lice…,” “fresh and crisp with blood”). Or we occasionally sense the presence of an inhuman outside and its non-time or other-than-time: “A gold-feathered bird / Sings in the palm, without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song…”

I grew up in Hollywood, Florida (the exact landscape of Larry Clark’s Bully). Whatever landscapes have been imprinted in me are Florida landscapes and Caribbean landscapes. Using the word “imprinted” (a very Romantic notion) makes me realize—this with the hindsight of seven years spent in the Midwest—that it does feel like some psychic plates were stamped with the repeated exposures to those skies. On the ground, there are ports, diaspora and ethnic communities, spectacles of wealth, wealth disparities, varieties of speculative investments—none of which would radically distinguish the place from any other but for the fact that all are glazed in a near-beatific tropic luminosity and in the candied light of a distinct South Beach nihilism.

Ironically, We Are Pharaoh is probably more directly indebted to these environments than is my second manuscript, Pink Reef.

from Pink Reef


I will reform,
re-encounter love’s law
I will follow
after the bright
seeds of marrow are
shaken from the thigh
& the thigh placed
on a stick in
the faceless gallery
I will devote,
for thou hue
thou gravel
thou hearse—
the blood oranges
so bright
because they are
against a white
the blood oranges
so bright
because they are
against a white
the blood oranges
so bright
because they are
against a white
the blood
cold and light
cold and light
cold and light

The question of landscape is no doubt also a question of boundaries, of limits and of the varied efforts to differentiate what one is from what one is not. The dangers of such efforts extend from the interpersonal and political to the ecological. It seems to me that poetry not only shatters illusory integrities, it helps make the outside that is already inside more raggedly manifest.

With that, Zach, I’ll say my thanks to you and the THERMOS editors for the prompts and this forum.

Alex Walton on Robert Fernandez

To kick off the second week of our feature of Robert Fernandez’s poetry, we’ve asked friend-of-THERMOS Alex Walton to write about Pink Reef. — AS

A Note on Pink Reef

Usually I’m thinking about this part of the Marvell quote: “Meanwhile the Mind, from pleasure less, / Withdraws into its happiness […] Annihilating all that’s made / To a green Thought in a green Shade.” But in the ellipsis, between “happiness” and “Annihilating,”

                    The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
                    Does streight its own resemblance find;
                    Yet it creates, transcending these,
                    Far other Worlds, and other Seas;

— which a perhaps worthless gloss once told me Marvell references a “then-current doctrine” of pseudozoology in which each land-animal was supposed an aquatic complement: horses and seahorses, mermaids, mermen, and people. (Sir Thomas Browne frowned on this theory in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. He did not stamp it out.) Charming and bizarre theory, I remembered it this weekend, thinking over Pink Reef, the second book of poems from Robert Fernandez– what quality does the ocean have that makes us look for our resemblance there– not our exact semblance, not saltwater Narcissi, but in uncanny form, the seahorse looking the horse in the mouth. We have a persistent sense of an obscure submarine self-sufficiency, a completeness unto itself, which must, if complete, contain some reprised versions of our own lives, intelligences, constructions. And threatening as it mirrors: “Few eyes have escaped the picture of mermaids.” (–Tho. Browne again.) When at low tide that wettest trope of sublimity retreats, we are confronted by a spitting, crawling, particoloured yard of hissing jellies and festery barnacles, Ernst Haeckel’s sweet-shop, you know it, one is uncomfortable among these forms of life which (animal or vegetable? or mineral? industrial trash washed back up?) if they reprise or repeat our life, may do so satirically; difficult to tell. Pink Reef (whose pink is what – human? blood in the water? coral encrustation?) has that uncanniness and that pulsing, hissing life to it; the encounter of “streight its own resemblance find” just as it occurs between the mind, in its withdrawn happiness, and the annihilating thought. “How strange to be called F-e-r-n-a-n-d-e-z.”

A “candied light of a distinct South Beach nihilism” (Fernandez, ex-Floridian, in an interview) showing through the title, through dolphins variously quartered or apostrophized, does not imply any ruminating on this or any other attitude, landscape, system. Not ruminating anything: active with coral’s living, distributed vigor from the smallest scale upward; a restlessness through, not with, poetry; the questing-in-place through which spirit might appear, not as an apparition before but as the appropriator of ourselves and our material reality, together, in an objectively audible coach. (Conch?) Beyond this self-requirement to be ceaselessly in motion, to posses by music whatever material is at hand (and regard everything possible as material), it gives no proscription as to what may occasion, or carry, poetry. Forms expedited: flat-rate, compact, signature confirmation; not book- or bulk-rate. To be free from feeling that poems ought conform to their own idea of lyric, or virtuosity– is virtuosity; for these poems to attend to and certify their individual rhythms goes far further into poetry than any hovering attempt to subvert or interrogate Poetry.

                    I have compared thee, O my love,
                    to a smear of gold teeth in Pharaoh’s chariots

in one place,

                    & clop, clip-i-
                    ty clop

in another. I would like to mention the Polyhedron as a figure here, “Polyhedron” being the title of the first poem in Fernandez’ first book, We Are Pharaoh: “Intending to begin at the billowing page,” beginning instead at interlocking angles, joined surfaces, “Think of the bardo as 2,700 intersecting tiles”; in other words think of an intermediate state, the space between you and anything, as if states themselves were something angular, irregular, and investigable as Durer’s solid. The sections of “Polyhedron,” the poems in Pink Reef, fit that way: shared edges (returned images and objects: blood, roe, discs, violets, many more), and heavy repetition inside individual poems. Across one face of the solid flashes clear imagery; its opposite side quotes a joke; the adjoining side detourns it; one’s metaphor becomes another’s ground; those turned part way away, grow obtuse and thin in perspective, but stay in sight. “Imagines itself a Cadillac- / mouthed cupid” — which is fantastical, impossible, and then, when the grille becomes a grill— an image of intense complexity and vivacity. What returns does so not as gratuitous hieropanting [sic] but as the seams and edges of that solidity we feel or desire to feel in reality. There is, throughout, an obstinate insistence on a material reality of such density that each thing slides out from another like rows of overlapping scales, as if the fact of overcrowding were the source of the metaphoric faculty. But the testament of that reality is not in trying to apply fixative to a single transcendent image; it is, rather, in the sound one makes of it. As in Zukofsky when Zukofsky says:

                    One can go further, try to dissect capillaries or intelligent nerves– and speak of the image
                    felt as duration or perhaps of the image as the existence of the shape and movement of the
                    poetic object. The poet’s image is not dissociable from the movement or the cadenced
                    shape of the poem.

That “cadenced shape,” I mean, is not only how and where we encounter ourselves (our voices), but how we can be made to feel the entrenchment of things in themselves. Not unrelatedly, Pink Reef’s alternations between the flesh as hunks of meat under a dicey MRI and at the flesh as intricate, delicate systems of separate (nervous, skeletal, circulatory) self-life-support clarify that the view that seems more gruesome is in fact less terrifying, in the sense that a true vision of the working circulatory systems is far more unsettling than the sight of spilled blood.

Rimbaud, his verve, fired pupils, drunken boat knocking between everything that could be in language as language, is a precedent spirit, and when Robert quotes (not, I should say, without reservation) his statement that the poet might, for instance, “die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things [n.b. “charging through” not: “seeking to name” -AW]: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!” it is clear that the show of fragility and the show of intensity are unavoidably one; one is already a bull, already in the china shop. Poetry is the ensuing. And the china, Rimbaud’s opulence, is in Fernandez’s poems compacted and recapitalized by available, mythic brands: “Cartier chariots strung with pearls”; “ecstasy’s Versace”; Chanel; Jeff Koons; “a pearl farrari / [approximating] the angel of history.” It makes sense: all that toil and cash to pack a whole atmosphere into the brand-name each season; which name, redeployed in poetry, can spread perfume with concision.


                    one who flatters a lyre
                    clips the spine’s fused discs,
                    spreads the mind’s bloodied butter
                    on flat, brittle, cold dry toast

But wait:

                    just the smiles
                    (just the smiles)
                    just the smiles

Here and elsewhere, whether exactly echoing or wholly departing, each line responds to the line before with as much attention as the mind might bring; but it is the ear attending. This may sound obvious. It is a rarity in poetry. Pink Reef is a pleasure: a record of a hypnotic attention, not hypnotized, that makes things dream awake. “Look in thy ear and write!” (Zukofsky-Pound-Sidney). If the variety of, if the extent of, a fantastic imagination is coextensive with the variety we see in reality, it endures for us with that reality: much in the way it is the Ocean’s magnitude, more than the incidental existence in it of seahorses, lions, and other such complements, that seem to make it promise a total complement of the terrestrial. That alternately primordial and avant-lapsarian “soup is / all the good stuff / mixed in.”

Living Review: Robert Fernandez’s “Pink Reef”

For this living review of Pink Reef, I talked for awhile with Dan Rosenberg about two poems from the book. It was a natural tack to take: our respective poetry classes recently read the book in common and discussed it at length in an e-mail exchange, part of the PXP program that Robert Fernandez will participate in a couple weeks from now.

The nature of the living review is to occupy a wider swath of time than ordinary in living with and thinking about a book. The dialogue that follows is, then, a beginning — something Dan and I will return to in time, as different poems or different ideas strike us. Please find the poems discussed, reprinted from Pink Reef, below the text of our dialogue. — AS


AS: [“I am shrill”] feels to me, even early on, like a departure from the general tenor of Pink Reef. The speaker is isolated as he appears to me to be in most of these poems, but is in a distinct physical space, behind the veil of a waterfall, bringing a strange lucidity to the act of perception.


DR: It’s funny that you’d refer to it as “lucidity,” since lucid is derived from lux, light, which plays such a central role here.


AS: Right. But I’m thinking of it in terms of the other kind of lightness — like a feather falling. I think of snakes, for instance, as having a sort of heaviness about them — a gravity, a specific weight. But with all this water and color falling around, the snakes cooling themselves seem to me to be relieved of that heaviness. They become cool in the way that water becomes mist. They are light. Perhaps in the sense of illumination that you mean, as well.


DR: I wonder if this poem unites the two? When my students wanted to talk about this one, they focused on the permeability of the landscape here, how the repeated “take their color” shifts from a literal reading (“falling water / & the sky” do lend color to things) to more imaginative and impossible bleed-throughs. The odalisques receive not just the reasonable color that comes from light refracted in water, but also the unreasonable but suggestive color reflecting from the snakes.


AS: I’m struck by how unified the poem actually is, how direct — whether or not it’s unifying the different sorts of lightness we’re discussing. The litany of things you mention, each of them giving color to the odalisques, seem at first to be conditional, suggested — but in fact there’s nothing conditional about the poem. It’s pure statement. The act of perception is over at the outset, isn’t it?


DR: I agree entirely that the language is unconditional, potent here — but I actually tend to think of this poem as a process of discovery, as the magic by which perception is transmuted into beauty. There is something so insistently visual about this poem despite its opening claim to shrillness. It seems obsessed with the interpermeability of landscape and body (or am I just obsessed with that and seeing it here?), of the material and the immaterial. I know that Robert claims among his predecessors the surrealists, and I can see their fundamental project of bringing together public and private realities as a driving force here, and in the book in general. (That’s another of my obsessions. Do I just love this book because it lets me think about what I want to think about?)


AS: [“we become soft”] is another poem I’d call “insistently visual” — another poem water moves through. In this case it wells up, it comes pooling through blue holes with all the weight in it that I saw drained from [“I was shrill”]. The speaker’s condition is more complicated here, however. The poem opens with a surreal transformation of the plural speaker into “soft / light in purple wafers,” but then that plural speaker disappears (almost) entirely into another permeable waterscape.


DR: Does the speaker disappear, or is the rest of the poem a litany of transformation? Grammatically, we could read this poem as a list of things the “we” becomes — which, indeed, erases the speaker by making them everything.


AS: I think that’s probably the most interesting way to read the syntax, but it’s not definitive — I can as easily see the transformation you’re talking about finish off in the second couplet.


DR: Yes, or even the first.


AS: And it’s this richness of choice in terms of how to treat the speaker as transformed into or observant of the waterscape that makes this the more satisfying poem of the two we’ve discussed.


DR: Are you trying to start a fight, Stallings?


AS: See, [“I was shrill”] is rich and direct in its sonic qualities, and I take a lot of pleasure in that. But while the series of statements that make up its landscape of perception are interesting, and resolve in another purity, the beauty of rainbow light, I’m ultimately left with a single understanding of that landscape, a single perceived thing that hinges on each listed thing’s relation to the odalisques. But in [“we become soft”], the complexity achieved by the transformation of the plural speaker into “soft / light in purple wafers” carries through the rest of the poem’s opening out, suggesting and then attaining a spiritual level that the first poem, for me anyhow, does not.


DR: I agree on the relative syntactic stability of the first poem, but I have to take issue with the notion that such stability limits the landscape to a single significance. When I think about how that poem unfurls I find myself following trails of thought — how this poem creates its physical reality, how it’s a poem of creation, how its gleeful embrace of the impossible goes unremarked (as if all this color-swapping is natural, as it might be in a dream), etc. — all buoyed by the sonic and imagistic pleasures you described.


AS: What you’re saying is that you see the first poem as also attaining a spiritual level. And I would agree with that, upon reflection. The two poems are more similar even than I’d thought to begin with, perhaps. Their motions are different, their syntaxes are different, but they’re aimed in a direction that is, if not exactly the same, similar. Like most of Robert’s poetry, they move with, or toward, spirit.

from Pink Reef

I am shrill,
barking through

a waterfall
at black rock

these odalisques
on the moss

take their color
from the falling water
& the sky

take their color
from the snakes
that cool themselves

& drink
between the rocks

take their color
from the fine

the rainbow’s

from Pink Reef

we become soft
light in purple wafers,

a depth of

blue holes

in the limestone

& spirits,


from limestone punctures,

manta rays,

in limestone fountains