Pierre Joris

[Extract from An Autobiographical Work in Progress]


Is not dice cup. The repetition is exact, the desire or aim is to avoid disaster,
shipwreck. The sound repeats at intervals of 10 seconds. The time it took to type this
sentence. Which one? Not this one. In the darkness of late night — or is it early
morning? — the foghorn abolishes chance. The cargo ship that lies at anchor in the
Narrows, bow towards the open sea beyond the bridge and beyond that beyond too,
is called the Minerva. It has an owl’s profile painted between the anchor hole and the
M that opens its name. You do not see it. It is a memory.

Cup of plenty. Light comes up. Every ten seconds the foghorn. Not a siren, no sirens
here on or in the water. Can a siren go into the water?

The ship’s name, so Vesseltracker informs on closer inspection, is Minerva (the family
name, the company name?) Julie (first name?). Minerva Julie is from Greece, or at
least flies a Greek flag; she is 183 meters long with a beam of 32.0 meters. She is
moored, not at anchor. A vessel is said to be moored when it is fastened to a fixed
object or the seabed, or to a floating object such as an anchor buoy. A mooring buoy
is a white buoy with a blue band. While many mooring buoys are privately owned,
some are available for public use. Always check before tying to any mooring buoy.

Day’s here now. Trust your eyes. Julie, Julie is invisible. The foghorn, inaudible, must
have stopped. Julie is a large orange vessel. “Autobiography is a goldfish,” someone
wrote and the line keeps coming back. Across the street there is a pond, murky to say
the least, but if you stay and stare long enough, you will catch, out of the murk, from
time to time an orange flash: the back of a goldfish breaking surface. Whose life?
Disappears beneath the shabby lotus leaf. Whose autobiography?

That was yesterday. Walk by the pond today and it is an empty oblong with black mud
at bottom slowly drying up. Only fair: the falling leaves reveal more and more water
surface across the narrows, so the pond can go until the leaves come back. Where
have the goldfish gone? Looks like the turtles went first. “Someone took them home,”
someone said. But the goldfish, the goldfish? They will have have disappeared into
someone else’s autobiography. I cannot approach them at this point, not from this
angle. We will see. She says, “the lotus flowers, where have the lotus flowers gone?”

The foghorn has not sounded since that first time. The weather has held a straight
course, you may say. Light morning gusts across the narrows. This morning Sinbad is
not a sailor but a tanker out of Barbados. Tanker, tinker, sailor, spy — who’s the most
polluting of them all?


Avoid the Canine Costume Contest, but don’t miss the Harvest festival. I missed both
this year. As you enter the Narrows Botanical Garden, the signs say the same thing in
several languages — Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic — namely: Do not cut the
flowers. Or so one is lead to believe, for who knows what the signs say? Maybe the
Chinese sign says “Do not cut the red roses, take only the yellow ones,” or the
Russian “Cut any flower but don’t get caught.” Whatever it does say, it will be better
than the romantically syrupy prose the NBG people use to describe the place: “Four
and a half acres of lush parkland, hugging the sparkling waters of The Narrows, transformed
through the artistic vision of neighbors and the dedication of a community’s volunteers.” It is
probably, no, certainly true from a certain angle, but the language is loose. “Sparkling
water” I’d want to drink, but no matter how much I appreciate the Narrows’ mixture
of Ocean & Hudson, I will not drink it.

But I am partial to the small tree stand right after the shady tree-lined alley leads into
the park. We are told that it was once thought that the ancient Dawn Redwood tree was
extinct, until a grove was rediscovered in the Shui-hsa-pa Valley, in the northwest
corner of Hupeh Province, in China, in the 1940’s. The five trees in the Redwood

Grove of our Narrows Botanical Garden evoke the magic of an ancient Druid grove,
or so the p.r. wants to make us believe. They are said to grow to well over one
hundred feet tall — and they will, just as I will watch them doing so. As I am
watching them now, naked as any birch or beech, I remain surpassed at my constant
surprise seeing deciduous needle trees, so much the Northman and his evergreen
pines, sapins, Tannenbaums and so on.

Turning my back on the sparkling or not waters, I walk past the only street-side Lily
Pond in our good City of New York and up 71st to 5th Avenue, cross the street, turn
left walking north for another few blocks. Trees on my mind. A good part of my
youth spent following father into the woods of Luxembourg, hunting for deer and
hare, boar and fox, rabbit and pheasant, being taught the name of the trees we stood
behind waiting for the game, or leaned against tired from walking, by him or by my
grandfather, mother’s father, the farmer, often along, rifle over shoulder, pipe in
mouth. I knew the names back then, and still do for the most part (though would be
hard-pressed to remember them all), but the problem has always been one of
translation: the orality of the mamelashen only vaguely and often inaccurately
overlapped with the German of the early school- or Naturkunde- books I bought at
the Librairie Kessler.

Soon the trees became unrecognizable when their French names were added just a
few years later. It was hard to hold on to a single tree with 3 or 4 names: ‘eng Bich’
was a Rotbuche or hêtre commun — but did it become a birch or a beech tree? I’m
still uncertain, wavering like trees in a strong wind. But I do know that ‘eng
Summereech’ was a ‘Stieleiche’ though ‘summer’ (summer, indeed) was in no way
translatable by ‘Stiel’ which means ‘stem’ or peduncle and is thus, yes!, closer to
French where the tree is known as ‘chêne pédonculé’ — which we were not taught in
nature-class as the homophonic hilarity of ‘pet d’enculé’ would have had the class
rolling in the aisles. So we were taught that ‘eng Wantereech’ was (weirdly enough) a
Traubeneiche — as if winter (Wanter) and grapes (Trauben) were able to translate into
each other! — becoming a Chêne rouvre south of Thionville, (a durmast or sessile
oaktree in Anglophonia as I was to find out later). We accept nouns as self-possessed
and numinous enough, but adjectives are to be distrusted and so I wanted to know
what “rouvre” meant. The word seems to come from the Latin “robur,” meaning
strong, robust; the three consonants r.b.r. of the Latin word probably gave the French
common noun “arbre,” tree — by phonetic deformation, the specialists will say, for
how could a northern word be seen to follow triconsonantal semitic grammatical rules
and possibilities? The scientific botanical Latin would of course have been easier, if
we all still learned Latin & used it as lingua franca, but at that idea my grandfather
would have laughed so loud the pipe would have fallen from his mouth. Still, there it
is called Quercus petraea and the eternal boy in me hears that immediately as querky
petrification, which may describe the language but not the tree.


Stopping at the corner of 4th and Bay Ridge Avenue, I walk into Yanny's diner for a
quick lunch and a long wreate (a read & write session, which is, or, better can become,
a rite and a ride with a double you — me & who I read — in front of it). Forget about
trees for awhile, concentrate on a book that has just arrived in the mail. Munch &
read. Perfect day. 

Photo by Anne Faber

Photo by Anne Faber





Pierre Joris is a poet, translator, essayist & anthologist who has published some 50 books, most recently, Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press and The University of California Book of North African Literature (volume 4 in the Poems for the Millenniumseries), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited & translated by Joris and Pierre Joris:  Cartographies of the In-between, essays on Joris’ work edited by Peter Cockelbergh, came out in 2012. Forthcoming are Barzakh — Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press),  Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan (FSG), & A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly, co-edited with Peter Cockelbergh (Contra Mundum Press). His The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials by Paul Celan (Stanford U.P. 2011) was awarded the 2013 MLA Aldo & Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature). With Jerome Rothenberg he edited Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1 & 2The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. He lives & works in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte. Check out his website (pierrejoris.com) & his Nomadics Blog, as well as his latest (pre-anthology) book of poetry Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj.

poetryBarzakh Mag