Mindfulness––A Mantra and Afterword

by Eliot Cardinaux

Part I: Writing in, Writing out; Invention

In his book of essays, A Nomad Poetics, Pierre Joris writes of the necessity for poets not only to learn other languages, but to invent them. If it is possible to invent one’s own language, I have tried. It may as well follow that it is possible to learn—to write, indeed, even to speak in—those languages that others have invented.[1]


If I write “in Celan,” of course I am traversing that impossible space that Celan writes about in The Meridian, between an event’s (or a poem’s inception’s) non-repeatability in linear time, and the poem’s (reading), like the date’s, repetition as a suggestion of a point in cyclical time. Time, however, as it manifests as linear—in the dimension of history—pertains to contrasting ideas of fate and progress, and likewise truth, morality, and mortality.

What precipitated this “writing in” a language not wholly my own, began as a “writing out” of—not just the translation I was reading, though this is important too—rather, a dusty, old, worn out anxiety: of influence, of “out-writing” something, maybe myself.[2] These early attempts did not yield much, for obvious reasons. A poem of the kind that affected in me a need to write out of it, specifically—no matter from how deep a trace of which stemmed my own poetry—was not of my choosing; these remained—and some still remain—worn into and worn out of, like vinyl— scratched—on the surface of my memory, when and if I can find them, there.

What I mean is, without this poem or another before me on the table, I discovered an acute construction of my own, which stemmed from the trace of a fragment of another’s, from having once read it. There were periods where I was reading less, and hearing voices. Gaston Bachelard’s phrase concerning the poetic image, “a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche,”[3] comes to mind.

These poems were fenced in “properly,” so to speak, but could not be contained in their own edges. This sudden “salience”—“standing out,” or even, as I would describe it, on—“breaching” of the surface of the mind (or of, in fact, the poem), transferred quite naturally to music.

I oftentimes “misread,” yes, I’ll admit, or at least misremembered, if not outright misunderstood. But I didn’t put too much stake in it, and that being said, I don’t regret a single line. I was learning, and I discovered that each cluster of words that suits my liking held within it the tributaries of the source of my feeling and vice versa—like Joni Mitchell, as she felt about her chords, which others called strange, and she called feelings—and that’s how it came to be.[4]

A mantra and afterword:


There is nothing before me; that nothing that is behind me is the poem.

I am written: the perfect present in a passive voice, sighin’ of a dying fall.


In the way that Bach is heard outside of church and home—not as intended—if I perform rather than write (much in the way Glenn Gould approached the music of other composers—as interpreter), what leaves me “in writing?” Still only actions, nothing else, besides ink; perhaps another’s.

Part II: Acute, Universal Edges

Note: this, I hope, is not merely another iteration of that—rather (dry, dys/)functional pair (of fraternal twins)—(de)constructionism that I am trying to keep at bay. It is not their makeup and interaction but their terminology that I am trying to avoid. I like the construction, but it’s counterpart is best left up to another life.

When I first began extending the associations in my poetry beyond their obvious limits, I didn’t realize how connected they were—in relation to the whole—not only to form, but to harmony. Strange how blind we can be to the obvious roots of our understanding of poetry. Arnold Schoenberg, the way he wrote music—in his extending of the range of harmony into the stratosphere, so that the roots were no longer visible but retained their tangibility as source—having crafted the upper branches as a whole—other, in and of themselves—seemed to have found the most tightly constructed way of going about it, and it stemmed so deeply from the sort of Western European tradition that I was less familiar with at the time.

This way of approaching “harmony” within a poem seems to be rooted in my study of jazz, but it doesn’t land there; though, throughout my education, the idea that a chord could be extended to its outer extremities always seemed incredible, it was joked about as not being serious by many of my fellow students, or was sensationalized to a degree that made me uneasy. I realized—at the moment I began to stray from those norms—that it would require a whole other way of going about it than the foundation, albeit helpful, that I was taught in jazz theory courses at the Manhattan School of Music.

At first, when something like this began to happen in my writing and playing, I felt beautifully terrified, like I’d stumbled upon something dangerously new. But I realized over time that I had simply given the unknown a sort of framework with my hands to make a skeletal offering of it, maybe like Bach or Monk, or Charlie Parker had, in my own very small way. This was at the piano, at first, and then on a sheet of staff paper. Only later was I able to apply it successfully within the realm of poetry.

The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward as I heard Gerrit Lansing quoted, years later. I seem to remember wanting to write a tree out my window with a cigarette in my hand. My speakers in the car were lovely—and distorted—an old, worn out pair. Each time a sound breached the limits of my speakers’ capacity for clarity, I learned to distinguish it better as an entity sort of distinct in itself, from the way the music had been recorded. Maybe it was the beginning of a process, and maybe it was just the speakers, but I could feel it as somehow detached, or sever it in my mind, so it worked like counterpoint, but in the way that each one of Bach’s melodies could be heard on its own; so I felt it belonged to me, alone.

Joe Morris later helped me to understand how I was hearing, in this way—like Rilke said about his life—in concentric circles, extending the reach of what I could hear as melody, and conversely, melody teaching me to do that, by way of its universality and strength of unity; Tanya Kalmanovitch and Mat Maneri helped me with this as well.


No one knew what I was doing when they rode in that car with me. I just looked like I was focusing on the road. And then I transferred it to the piano.

I realized, eventually, I could do away with conventions in rhythm in favor of a sort of continuum—like Joe Maneri did, in his own way—“virtually”[5]—with micro-tones, -dynamics, and -rhythms, etc.—in which the wavering of the sound, of the wave of each beat within each sustained note, even within a series of chords, distinct from each other dynamically, for instance, could almost suggest where to dig, and where to drop—where to place—the beat. This was mysticism in sound and music, and reminds me of another book I read during those years, by Hazrat Inayat Khan.[6]

In that way I felt like an octopus, part of the sound, when I listened back; I really dug into it, dug it, and I got really good at it.

In the year or so leading up to the time I was working on Sweet Beyond Witness, I began to do this with poetry as well, so that each of the words in their associations were severed just enough from one another to form of the poem an image wholly other, yet harmonious. Like Kierkegaard said, “one must always remain a mystery, even to oneself.”[7]

This happened suddenly upon that “second sigh of relief” that Nedezhda Mandelstam talked about in her husband, when all of the parts of his poem had “clicked” and it was finished. After all, it had proceeded throughout the long editing process that Mandelstam himself wrote about: from that first—and only other—sigh of relief that came with getting the initial “burst” of the poem down on paper. In a way it made me think that the poem might have a mind of its own, which was a good thing, but it could be dangerous. In any case, it came up again when I read Pierre Joris’ account in “The case of the missing M,” that it was:

“…in the gap between mother-tongue/other tongue that I am written… this gap is liable to take my breath away … that interface between language and the world…”[8]

But then they could come into contact, these words—cause friction, rub up against each other, overlap, and “cause you to cry out!”[9] It was a wonderful thing. Especially through my doldrums in those days of only waking up to go to work, only to stare in front of a computer doing nothing; so I wrote:


Part III: Mindfulness––A Mantra and Afterword

In coming with the “acute,” I happened one day by chance upon the existence of a translation of Celan’s speech upon his receipt of the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960, The Meridian, by Pierre Joris—a speech of whose existence I was happily unaware. Again, I was confronted with myself, but this time in a better way. Joris later wrote to me that everything seems easy when you are 20, but now at 70, he realized, the very difficulty of Celan’s work was what made it so rewarding to translate.

When I take apart my inhabitation of a poem, or poems—after I read them back—of the ones I have written—at the very least in relation to that which is—“in Celan,” this acute taking hold of something—or rather, releasing it—has an inkling tied in it—to what Celan might have meant when he spoke of a “counterword,” a “cutting the string,”[10] and—to Büchner’s Lucile, from Danton’s Death, of whose famous line Celan wrote, “homage is being paid to the majesty of the absurd as witness for the presence of the human.”[11] Büchner himself a proto-Marxist, in his own way, was, most certainly, a revolutionary without a revolution.

My short piece based on Lucile’s famous phrase

Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote of her husband among others as not being radicals or revolutionaries at all; rather, they were poets. It was expected of them, not simply to be, nor was it simply accepted within them that they had to be “revolutionaries;” rather, to concur with not only their being labeled as such by the authorities, but to go along with their treatment as such; those were the rules.

This being a poet has a ring to it—with all the voices he heard—in which, Nadezhda discerned and identified the sound of a poem appearing at first as a sort of whisper of melody—i.e. in Osip, her husband’s, inner ear; what pent up frustration can be compared to the tension—indeed, in its very releasing—as it remains—created by it from without? Or created for it?

She wrote of her husband’s illness after his interrogation surrounding the Stalin Epigram—for whose recitation he was imprisoned, and later exiled—that she wished she had had a name for it. The diagnosis of PTSD, which I myself was given in 2008, takes on a gentler, far less sinister ring from this perspective. ““It” goes away,” as said the more experienced, former prisoners at the hospital where Mandelstam was being taken care of.

St. Lawrence, whom I’ve mentioned, has a river named after him, a place I’ve spent my summers since age one. And still I can’t commit to carrying this burden bestowed upon us by the world; in my admission, I have to look out the window and see that everything’s ok. That mindfulness indeed can be perceived as a sort of mindlessness in our age—is one of the pseudonyms for violence…[12]

However, to compare these times—we are now on the cusp of 2018, with an Orangutan in office for almost a year—with those of the Stalin-era poets in Russia, or those of the Second World War, as well as those who followed after, is dangerous to someone living in America nowadays, for multiple reasons. However lucky do we have it—to see into the minds, actions, and consequences of so many living in that age, through the words of its poets, and through the ones they cherished deeply, like Nadezhda Mandelstam herself, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century—is too often beyond our comprehension, beside itself.

[1]  As regards my poem “Again,” this sort of mantra—i.e. repeating of a poem after it has been written—is not an obsession, rather a necessity, to me. The story of St. Lawrence is that he was in charge of the church’s treasury, and when the authorities came to collect it—to slide it into the State’s purse, or whatever statesman’s pocket, so to speak—by then Lawrence had already disseminated it among the people. For this he was grilled alive, and his last words were something to the effect of, “turn me over, the other side’s not done!”

[2] See Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence. Also, from H.D.’s memoir of Ezra Pound, End to Torment, the metaphor of Pound’s “fencing with Yeats” still comes to mind, hard as I try to let go of it.

[3] See Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space.

[4] “How can there be weird chords? Chords are depictions of emotions. These chords that I was getting by twisting the knobs on the guitar until I could get these chords that I heard inside that suited me—they feel like my feelings. I called them chords of inquiry. They have a question mark in them. There were so many unresolved things in me that those chords suited me.” Joni Mitchell, as quoted in “Joni Mitchell: Fear of a Female Genius,” an article by Lindsay Zoladz, for The Ringer. Note: as stated in the article, Joni Mitchell’s particular way of tuning the guitar and playing open chords may also have been partly devised as a way to overcome the damage done to her left hand by Polio.

[5] See Preliminary Studies in the Virtual Pitch Continuum, Joseph Gabriel Maneri.

[6] Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Mysticism of Sound and Music.

[7] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, book I, section I.

[8] From “The Case of the Missing “M”,” Pierre Joris, from A Nomad Poetics, pp. 65.

[9] From my poem featured here, “Sonnet for the Sentries,” based on fragments from the essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” Walter Benjamin, Reflections, compiled by Hannah Arendt.

[10] “…of (the) art(ist) as marionette, an[d] iamb(-ically) five-footed creature without offspring” (my distillation); Paul Celan, The Meridian: Final Version––Drafts––Materials, transl. Pierre Joris.

[11] Ibid. The line Celan refers to is spoken by the character Lucile in Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, a play about the French Revolution and counter-revolution, when the counter-revolutionaries are on the guillotine: “Long live the king!”

[12] These quotations and anecdotes were taken from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s work of non-fiction, a memoir about her life with her husband, the poet, Osip Mandelstam: Hope Against Hope, Random House, 1999.