Viscusi and Queneau: The Combinatorics of Poetry

Reviewing Daniel Levin Becker‘s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (‘Anticipatory Plagiarism‘, London Review of Books, 6 December 2012) allows Paul Grimstad to take a tour through the wild and wacky world of experimental literature by way of some of the usual suspects. Most notably, Georges Perec and Oulipo (‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’; ‘workshop of potential literature’) The latter, ‘the group devoted…to inventing, analysing and sometimes applying constraints for the making of literature’ was founded by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau; Becker is the newest member of their now-fifty three year old collective.

It  is Queneau’s work that most interests me today. Grimstad points out that:

Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes is a set of ten sonnets, such that latent in the design are 10^14–or one hundred thousand billion–potential poems. Queneau said that if read a sonnet every minute in eight-hour shifts every working day it would take a million centuries to finish the book.

Queneau’s work finds resonance in Robert Viscusi‘s epic poem, Ellis Island, which is ‘about’ immigration, America, places in the mind and in the heart. (I have blogged about Viscusi’s work on this blog before, especially his ‘novel’ Astoria.) It exists in two forms: a stable text and a dynamic, generated, evanescent one. The former is divided into fifty-two books each containing twelve sonnets of fourteen lines each. That makes for a total of six hundred and twenty-four sonnets; from this ‘raw material’ new sonnets are generated by picking a book, a sonnet, and a line fourteen times. The result is a new sonnet, which ‘goes away’ once a new sonnet is generated. The number of possible combinations, 624^14 sonnets, is staggeringly large. (Viscusi acknowledges his explicit debt to Queneau in his introduction to the book’s two forms.)

The following is a random sonnet I generated for this post. The numerals in the left column indicate book, sonnet, and line numbers that identify the source of each line in the stable text.

38 4 1 you see soon a great narrative paisley spermatomorph on the face of the silk tie
7 3 2 lights came up in the theater
46 7 12 we need to make a great nation we said to one another
12 8 6 when the sea is death he says polish your shoes
17 6 8 play with their musical gifts when you can and expect a visitor
36 5 9 the audience enjoys it because wife and husband both end happily
21 2 3 on the way home it fell on the sidewalk and broke leaving a stain
22 5 1 each of these persons has another side as you have
19 1 6 each such routine constitutes a remaining wall of your prison
49 6 10 thus taught beato roberto and this i have in my own life repeated in brooklyn
29 7 11 i was lying on the ground trying to remember times i used to be happy among beans
45 9 7 flies to new york returns five days later finds his daughter speaking italian
6 1 3 each one endowed with an epic willpower
50 7 1 one of the main things about freedom is it’s hard to enjoy without money

The potential for serendipitous discovery of a ‘new’ poem is immense’ more to the point, for a moment, we become poets ourselves.

Note: By a lovely coincidence, George Perec wrote a novel called Ellis Island.

No Matter Where You Go, There’s Home: Robert Viscusi’s Astoria

This morning, while out for a errand-laden walk–visiting the pediatrician’s office, shopping, and getting an influenza vaccine shot–in this bizarrely gorgeous East Coast January weather, I ran into my friend and Brooklyn College colleague, the poet Robert Viscusi, with whom I work at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities. I admire Bob for his erudition, wit, and writing, have learned a great deal from him over the years, and consider my meeting-time jousts with him among my most enjoyable and intellectually rewarding campus experiences ever, so it is to his work that I devote this brief note.

I own two of Viscusi’s books: the difficult, yet rewarding, quasi-autobiographical novel Astoria, which introduced me to, among other things, the Stendhal Syndrome, and provided an acute, poetic glimpse of the Italian-American experience that seemed to speak directly to me, also an immigrant to the US; and the short collection of poems titled A New Geography of Time.  The inscriptions on the latter reads, ‘To Samir Chopra, From the land of the sphinxes, Bob Viscusi, 10/17/12, Brooklyn.’ But it is to the former that I am paying attention today.

When I began reading Astoria, I found immediate resonances: it is a tale of loss and discovery, of parental connections and sunderings, of new beginnings, and pasts left behind. It is about mothers and sons, and families, transplanted. It is not an easy book; when I first reported this to Bob, his response was to suggest reading it aloud. I complied; it worked. When a poet turns his hand to a novel you must not follow him all the way; continue reading him as you did before. For as Viscusi describes Astoria in the prologue:

It’s sort of a novel in the form of a poem in the form of three essays about the meaning of history.

I mentioned the Stendhal Syndrome above. What role does it play in Astoria? Quite simply this: the narrator of the story suffers from it. He was first afflicted at the tomb of Napoleon in Paris, two years after the death of his mother. He discovers she is, to him, Napoleon. As he moves through this world, he finds that his journeys, no matter how far-flung, never take him beyond Astoria, her home, a Napoleonic empire. He carries her, the strongest and most distinctive imprint on his persona, a ghost in the corpora, with him, wherever he goes. But she is Astoria, so he takes Astoria everywhere. Some of us want to go home but are told we can never do so; yet others, it seems can only go home again and again.  As Buckaroo Banzai might have said, ‘No matter where you go, there it is.’

Home, of course, is our most familiar resting place, where we seek to return, for comfort and succor in times of adversity, when confronted with the world’s strangeness. It sticks to us like a skin. The immigrant’s journey’s are often termed a sloughing off of this cover, but as Viscusi notes, it persists, screening, vetting and transforming, quite uniquely, everything that seeks entrance into our bodies and minds. Astoria  shows us among (many!) other things, how we take our homes and histories with us, wherever we go.

Grazie Professore!