Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Jérôme Melançon : Translating (against) the Current Regime: An Interview with NAFTA on Manríquez’ Commonplace (Whitney Celeste DeVos, Zane Koss, and Gerónimo Sarmiento Cruz)





Jérôme: First, I want to thank all three of you for taking part in this interview! I’m still getting a lot from Commonplace / Lo Común and I’m hoping that this collective interview will be an opportunity to reflect on Manríquez’s work as a poet as well as on your own work as translators.

I'd like to begin by picking up a few threads in your foreword, by interrogating your own presentation of your work as translators. What does it mean to say that a book anticipated its own translation? And why write a foreword, as it seems to insert itself ahead of this anticipation, and not an afterword?

Gerónimo: The idea that Lo común anticipates its own translation as Commonplace develops from the work that Hugo García Manríquez (HGM) had previously published: both his translations into Spanish of key texts of US poetry and his poetic engagement with the NAFTA treaty reveal his involvement in an ongoing conversation, literary and otherwise, between Mexico and the US, Spanish and English. In a way, we could say Lo común enters the conversation aware of this shared transnational space, aware it would follow the path of circulation and transformation of other texts that in turn contributed to its creation. As translators, we knew such conditions were part of any engagement with HGM’s work, and that our translation would likewise entail an extension and contribution to this transnational conversation. In other words, this was a prefatory understanding of the circumstances and acknowledging it was the point of departure for generating a translation and, later, reading it.

Zane: I think, too, that it’s important to think about this quality of anticipation as one that’s fundamental to the conditions that Hugo chronicles here, both in terms of the global circulation of capital (here, represented by military hardware) and the transnational scope of ecological disaster. Our era requires (necessarily produces?) texts that anticipate their own circulation across languages in this context. It’s great to call attention to Hugo’s work as a translator – which I imagine goes mostly unnoticed in the anglosphere, as all translation works tends to be, despite his recognition as a poet here – but his previous book of poetry, Anti-Humboldt also stages this sort of always-already-in-translation position as well, given how it recycles language from the multilingual text of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Whitney: I’ll try to briefly say a little bit about both, the generative ways that Hugo’s poetry and translation anticipate the creation of new works that can sit alongside existing ones in an ongoing transnational dialogue. Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, which Hugo has translated into Spanish, works similarly, a creative homage to the queer, anti-fascist Andalusian poet who famously traveled to New York and Cuba in 1929-30. Poems in English about Lorca make up a genre of their own: one, I think, that has always anticipated translation into Spanish, not only because of the celebrated poet’s origins, but because of the transnational solidarity anti-fascist struggle requires. At the same time, Lorca’s dialogues with poets “across the pond” anticipate his translation into English as much as Spicer’s own dialoguing with Lorca. Parts of Spicer’s text (I’ll resist calling it an “original”) require Hugo to translate Spicer translating Lorca’s “Oda a Walt Whitman.” (Though, important to point out: the dead Lorca, who “authors” the introduction to After Lorca writes: “It must be made clear at the start that these poems are not translations.”) From Spanish to English and back again to Spanish, each language is enriched by transnational crossings whereby “originals” become unmoored from poet, translator, and national literary tradition. Imagine how Spicer’s text would be altered—and how Spanish and English would be altered—if someone were to translate Hugo’s version of Spicer’s Lorca into Portuguese. Or Náhuatl, for that matter. Along similar lines, Anti-Humboldt’s procedure generated two distinct poems examining the neoliberalization of language in English and Spanish. But of course the original trade agreement appeared in English, Spanish, and French, and so the bilingual Anti-Humboldt implicitly invites a third “reading” of NAFTA using the French version of the now-‘defunct’ treaty: a treaty which, it bears mentioning, had three official signatory nations, but heavily impacted Central America, the hemisphere, and the planet. Lo común, which includes Maya K’iche’, reminds us of the many languages spoken in the Americas in which NAFTA did not officially appear: languages which preceded and—in many but not all cases—have outlasted the treaty, but whose communities NAFTA and USMCA affect nonetheless.

Jérôme: I won’t say that I haven’t thought about the need for a French translation of the text, and for a corresponding poem to be written from the Canadian perspective. It seems to me that as much as NAFTA was discussed when it was first brought forward, it’s now disappeared from our vocabulary – how many people have heard about the USMCA? And what’s left of the idea of a common territory, aside from mentions of Turtle Island? Living as you do across the three countries, and moving as you currently are, what do you see of this common place?

Gerónimo: My first reaction is to wonder about the need to dissociate NAFTA/USMCA from the genealogies of Turtle Island and the idea of a shared territory. And I do question my reaction: Detroit does remind me of rural Mexico. From its inception, NAFTA was devised as a governmental technique with a top-down implementation meant to ease the flow of certain commodities, people. I guess that more than shared, that top is one and the same across the three countries. To live or have lived under NAFTA meant experiencing the flexibility of national formations to accommodate the needs of capital: my memories of NAFTA in the nineties only have to do with sharedness inasmuch as we were flooded by US products we imagined ourselves consuming simultaneously as others did outside Mexico. And still, now, the underside of this artifice feels much more real: the utter impoverishment of rural Mexico, the devastation of local agriculture by transnational corporations. This points to something actually shared, something that lingers too elsewhere, like the cities of the rust belt, communities abandoned via outsourcing and sweatshops abroad. What we share—I think less of a territory and more of this persistent devastation. I agree, NAFTA has faded from public discourse, but the experience of its impetus we share without the need to name it.

Whitney: I think, in some ways, this is exactly what Lo común (read as follow-up to Anti-Humboldt) is getting at: “With constant moments / such as the company Sig Sauer / that delivered 7,384 firearms to Mexico / In 2015: 3,060 assault rifles, 505 / machine guns and 3,819 pistols.” This moment—one example of the mundane flow of military hardware across US-Mexico lines—details a particular transaction that took place under NAFTA without explicitly naming the treaty. Lo común, as we point out in the introduction, binds such moments to “221 animals on the brink of extinction,” underscoring what Gero has poignantly named as “this persistent devastation”: the roots of which are capitalist epistemologies that turn lifeforms into objects, “that irrational, subaltern / dead matter,” to be exploited, sold, traded, and discarded. Lo común’s invocation of the Popol Vuh, and Hugo’s emphasis on “the rebellion / of the objects and animals / against human endeavors,” summon contestatory Indigenous epistemologies, ways of being and knowing intimately related to, if not ultimately inseparable from, Turtle Island. To return to the question, and to echo Gero, Polanco reminds me of parts of Manhattan. Or London. Or Hong Kong. Not everyone experiences daily life through the lens of devastation, even if we all share the same devastating reality.

Jérôme: If Manríquez practices an excavation into everyday life, what does translation do with these excavated artifacts? How do you as translators escape the tendency and temptation to appropriate these artifacts and more generally the commonplace, and so maintain the poet's original movement of resistance in your own contexts?

Gerónimo: In my view, translation continually aims to balance the general and the singular. Whatever knowledge or artifact emerges from these excavations, there will be aspects about them that will communicate a shared perspective or understanding and others that will mark differences or ruptures. The mention of a temptation to appropriate already assumes a sense of property that is at the heart of translation and of the everyday: to whom do these excavations belong? Isn’t there, in the recognition of a commonplace, an already shared reality that allows for and upholds these excavations? These questions were central to our work as translators in that they allow us to test the everydayness of a national reality in another language, another nation. The conceptual gambit behind our translation is that these excavations reveal specificities of a Mexican reality as much as they reveal generalities of the national situation as such, devoid of a specific content or qualifier, and thereby of a shared everyday life prevailing beyond state borders.

Whitney: Speaking on a granular level: Lo común includes several acronyms referring to the organizations that make up the Mexican state. The SAT, the Mexican tax administration, would be the equivalent of the US IRS or the Canadian CRA. We wondered what to do with these, knowing the phrase “the SAT” wouldn’t signal to an anglophone reader the same way it does to a Mexican reader. (I once met a very truculent, all-black rooster hilariously named SAT.) And yet US readers will relate to the phrase “the IRS” in a very similar way. (I can’t speak for “the CRA,” though I imagine it generates similar antipathies in Canada.) These acronyms are specific to national realities and yet they—or, more precisely, the bureaucratic bodies they represent—govern our lives, they contribute to a kind of shared reality under the regime of the nation state: indexing the general as much as the singular. With the aim of bringing readers into contact with the mundane, deeply relatable specificities of Mexican bureaucracy, we decided to leave the acronyms as they appear and include an “acronym glossary” that follows the introductory note. It’s worth pointing out that, in Hugo’s text, that which makes up lo común—the shared reality Gero speaks of—relies on translation(s). Weapons like “Glock” and species like “Ara macao” exist in the Spanish version already-translated. Section 5 cites the successful uprising of non-human entities in the Popol Vuh, reprinting the grindstones’ onomatopoetic charge of human-led exploitation alongside Francisco Ximénez’s and Dennis Tedlock’s translations of the K’iche’. The lines appear in K’iche’ alongside Spanish and English versions, preserving the singularity of the source and calling forth revolt in colonial languages. So the negotiation we, as translators, make between general and particular is itself at the very heart of Lo común, a plurilingual text whose logic is driven by “aspects gathered together.” Here I think it’s important to move away from the metaphor of “excavating artifacts” and toward something like “mobilizing histories” precisely because Lo común, following the Popol Vuh, resists treating these non-human entities as artifacts or objects or inert. They have voices that detail their struggle and articulate their intent to avenge the violence perpetrated against them. And so they are agents of history and offer us a case study in collective action: “within that revolt exists an imminent historical lesson.” And, as it turns out, it is here, within these lifeforms, that Lo común locates “the basic / operation of poetry: the interruption” or that “movement of resistance” you mention, Jerôme. 

Jérôme: You also point to your resistance to the nation as it is imagined and what it enables, in all three NAFTA countries. You respond by turning to "the contentless form of the nation prevalent throughout the globe." (8) What do you personally oppose in the nation, and how do you stand against it? How much of this position goes into your translation?

Whitney: Nations are geopolitical fictions whose borders are enforced and maintained by constant violence and surveillance. I, we, believe freedom of movement should be guaranteed for everyone. Instead, citizenship status, along with socioeconomic class as well as proximity to whiteness, determine one’s relative (in)ability to move across national lines. I, we, unequivocally oppose this global quotidian reality which structures conditions under which we live and work and organize. I think all of us, Hugo included, are cautious regarding the extent to which poetry can intervene in the deadly daily machinations of global capitalism. And yet, and yet — (to quote the last line of a favorite haiku by Kobayashi Issa, transl. Robert Hass) nations are, as Benedict Anderson famously argued, also “imagined communities.” That is, these socially-constructed geopolitical fictions are propped up by sharedand competingnarratives about what it means to belong and who is allowed to belong to a state. In other words, nations beget nationalism(s). And vice versa. We are uninterested in reifying the nation as the basic unit of social life or nationalism as a desirable horizon of political possibility. And one way this happens is through literature. Culture is an expression of social life, its limitations and potentiality. Yet social life, lo común, does not rely on the nation as a form; in fact, the nation is perpetually being exceeded by all the ways it fails at securing its own borders. I think these shared positions make it into our translations, but they’re more noticeable in the texts we choose to translate.

Jérôme: To further develop this point, could you expand on how you view this other nation – and so place this book, your translation, your own writing, and perhaps the work of other poets in the context of the countries in which you've lived? Is this a utopian sense of the nation? What does it mean to have this book available in English in all three countries?

Whitney: Gero stated it beautifully in relating “the national situation as such, devoid of a specific content or qualifier” as constitutive of “a shared everyday life prevailing beyond state borders.” Rather than conjuring a utopian sense of the nation, this is a way of stating that the nation represents only one possible form of organizing people. An inherently violent one. The nation structures everyday life around the globe, regardless of citizenship status or statelessness, even as the ramifications of national and inter-national violence are unequally distributed, globally and locally, in predictable ways. Acknowledging a shared, if uneven, terrain of struggle also allows us to recognize the ongoing ways that communal everyday life under the current regime, lo común, exceeds borders. That is to say, other worlds are possible. Are already in motion. Gladys Tzul Tzul, a Maya K’iche’ sociologist, coined the term “archipelagos” to describe Indigenous communities in the Americas whose reproduction of communal life “confronts the totalitization of capital and the nation state throughout the entire continent.” My own translation practice in Mexico—which Yasnaya Aguilar Gil describes as “not a single nation… an artificial nation, a state made up of many oppressed nations/peoples”—has been focused on the literatures of these communities.

Jérôme: Now, to turn to the work more generally, there are many questions I will not ask, because you've already asked them of Manríquez. I'm more interested in what you make of these poems, this collection, and what it becomes as you make it your own. To begin: why translate the title, Lo Común, by "commonplace" rather than "the common" or even "the commons"?

Zane: We had initially rendered the title as “The Common” – or was it “The Commons”? When we’d presented that version to Hugo, he’d wanted to change the title so as to stake out some degree of difference from the wave of poetry and poetics volumes that had been released in the preceding years under those titles. Certainly, that shift in emphasis draws attention to other aspects of “common-ness” – i.e mundane everydayness, rather than, say, a shared inheritance that typically gets coded as being “outside” capitalism or, at least, oppositional.

Whitney: Yes. At one point the title was The Commonplace, but we nixed the direct article, which allows the word to be read as an adjective or, more abstractly, a noun. As I remember, Hugo wanted to underscore language itself as commonplace: that is, the shared and at times trite stuff that constructs—and allows us to represent—our everyday lives. In Spanish, the “lo” of “lo común” is a neutral definitive article, a fancy way of saying it expresses something abstract in relation to the adjective it’s paired with [común: ordinary, common, communal]. So a more direct translation would be “what’s common” or “that which is common.” The English compound word common-place, on the other hand, contains within it the idea of place and, in this context, place-making through language. So, while being hesitant about signaling in a way that suggests grafting a concept from medieval Europe onto a Mexican altepetl, I do think Commonplace / Lo común invokes or points towards this idea of “the commons.” Literally, the book portrays how Mexico City was constructed on top of chinampas: an agricultural system of floating islands, still used in Xochimilco, whereby small-scale farmers collectively grew their crops. More figuratively, “the commons” in the sense of an autonomous self-governing of a place (and language in particular). Given that Hugo is (the communist poet) Sean Bonney’s translator, and had just finished or was completing his translation of El lenguaje de las barricadas[3] , a posthumous selection of Bonney (who wrote a multi-book long poem called The Commons, originally subtitled “A Narrative / Diagram of the Class Struggle”), it seems not-in-the-spirit of Lo común to fully disarticulate the two. On this note, it’s important to mention that the quotidian pervasiveness of capitalist violence, for Hugo, is also lo común. Militarized police states, as much as the languages we speak, create and constrict our conditions of possibility. Lo común asks what it means to create art, especially literature, while acknowledging that these interrelated forms of capitalist violence—from primitive accumulation to military force to domestic violence to mass extinction events—irrecoverably shape our language and therefore, our realities.

Jérôme: Can you tell me about your practice as a translation team, itself made up of poets? How do you make translation a common work?

Whitney: Generally, we begin by trying to get a complete draft down, which is a collective—if at times uneven—process. So far, we’ve worked using Google docs, each of us adding to a draft whenever we are able to. (Sometimes, for me at least, it’s easy to forget who translated which pages.) Then, all of us make comments &/or suggestions & ask questions in the margins of the document, where a conversation begins to take shape. Some of those threads are “resolved” via the comments function in Google, but many of them get carried over into subsequent discussions we have together over Zoom in real time. I think what makes translation a common work, for me, is not only this collaborative process, but the iterative act of consensus-reaching it requires.

Jérôme: Have you had any disagreements about a specific passage that have informed or even transformed your view of the work (that is, the book, and your own translation)?

Whitney: Yes! So much so that afterwards we jokingly came up with a second acronym for NAFTA: “No America Fraught Translation Argument.” One memorable point of disagreement (particularly relevant here) was the Spanish word “discusiones,” which could be translated as “discussions,” “debates,” “quarrels,” “arguments,” or “disputes.”

Zane: This particular “discusión” was memorable for its irony. I think, too, for me, these discussions have been particularly useful for uncovering nuances that I had not previously considered. I am the least fluent in Spanish of the three of us, and can sometimes plow ahead a little too recklessly without considering alternative translations. Having to mediate between Whit and Gero in multiple disagreements on the scale of “discusiones” really underlined the sheer plenitude of possibilities contained in any single line – or word even! It’s a lesson that’s useful not just as a translator, but also a poet that maybe skews a little too far toward “first thought, best thought.” Working collaboratively in this way, nothing is taken for granted. No decision is easy. This leads into the next question, but working with just Gero (on Max Rojas’s Cuerpos), it’s easy to say “yes, no, I don’t care” at each disagreement; with three of us, inevitably one of us occupies each of those positions for every debate. You have to have a good reason for your preference – good enough to convince at least one of the other two. (I should say, for all that, we’re still friends, we still love each other, we still get along great, and this whole process has been endlessly fun even if frustrating!)

Jérôme: How does translating this work, with this group, compare to your other translation experiences?

Zane: To restate the above, translating as a trio – Cerberus-like – often makes for a slower pace. There are more schedules to coordinate, more opinions to negotiate between, fiercer disagreements. At the same time, with more hands to do the work, something that may have been set aside for longer gets picked up sooner by whoever has the energy. Also, that plenitude of opinions means we can get really deeply into the act of interpretation that’s at the heart of translation. If I’m the only one working on something, I’m not going to linger on anything that seems straightforward or unambiguous, but which for someone else might not seem so straightforward. With three heads, nothing really escapes that attention. Something will always seem fraught or ambiguous to at least one of us. With other things I’ve translated, I’ve gone through the whole thing, then sent it to a friend for editing. (That friend is almost always Gero or Whit, in any case.) It’s much simpler with more ownership over the final product to make determinations over what changes or stays the same. With sharing that responsibility equally, we all have to be able to stand by it.

Whitney: I love this and agree whole-heartedly. It’s been really interesting to watch as our own approaches to translation evolve and come into contact with one another. We each have, I think, a fierce commitment to a radical politics of language. But those politics differ, at times, and are constantly being re-honed in real time: through translation, research and scholarship, and living our daily lives. What remains constant is a mutual commitment to the circulation of texts across national lines, in North America and throughout the hemispheric Americas more broadly. There is, among us, a shared sense of wanting to contribute to and expand existing nodes and circuits, to participate in and bring together different communities and readerships. And a solidarity with and mutual respect for the many scholars, translators, and poets whose own work anticipates ours: many of these people have guided and mentored us, individually and collectively. Motivated by these ongoing, transnational conversations, we’ve come up with a number of project ideas that—we are well aware—will take years to carry out. While many collaborations have as their object the completion of an individual project, with NAFTA there’s a sense that the work doesn’t end when a text is finalized and proofed. We’ve got a draft of something else in the works already.

Jérôme: The book opens and closes with the same two pages of cut-up poetry, which you maintain as such. How did you decide not to translate, annotate, or explain this poem?

Whitney: The cut-ups, or collages, weren’t part of the original text published by Meldadora in 2018; Hugo created those pages after we’d finished the translation. He was inspired, I think, by the opportunity to return to Lo común as Cardboard House began to format the book in a bilingual edition. So there wasn’t actually a conscious decision on our part not to translate them, since they hadn’t yet been brought into being at the time we were in the thick of translating. But they did ultimately go untranslated for practical (deadline- and production-related) reasons. That said, I think these multilingual text-images can signify in any number of ways. Perhaps most obviously, by appearing un-translated (in Spanish, French, and Maya K’iche’) they book-end the text as a translation; and perhaps, being as they are untranslated, some readers might find in them a hint at “untranslatability” or, at the very least, a resistance to 1:1 correlations. They also invoke, in a certain sense, a kind of fragmented (and, again, multilingual) architecture not unrelated to the content of the poem. Using found text from Lo común’s many source materials, the collages work to emphasize the materiality of text as well as the vast body of pre-existing works that precede and undergird any ‘new’ text, especially a documentary one. There is, of course, an Objectivist tradition invoked here, in line with Hugo’s greater body of work, as well as post-Objectivist/documentary strands of avant garde poetry and poetics. Hugo mentioned, somewhat jokingly, Susan Howe when he first showed them to me. And in a sense, Lo común, à la Howe, delves into an archive, though Hugo’s is an archive of a very different sort.

Zane: I appreciate what Whitney says here about how those collages foreground the documentary sources of Commonplace. At some point, we were trying to determine how to translate a particular architectural term used to referred to some aspect of Palacio de Bellas Artes – possibly “mascaron” – and in searching for what actual feature of the building the word referred to so that we could understand the referent we needed to refer to in a legible way, I stumbled across a scan of Hugo’s source text on Google Books. I had not, to that point, fully realized how much of the poem reproduces (and performs critical detournements with) prior texts, but the collages foreground that process for the reader. I think it’s a question, too, of distinguishing between types of sources and uses of those sources: how could we translate the collages, given the way they foreground the literal materiality of those words. To translate the collages would mean to occlude, once again, that source material. We could no less translate the paper the original documents appear on. (And in any case much of that collages’ text reappears elsewhere, both as poem and translation.)

Jérôme: As a way of closing, and opening our readers to their own reading of this book – what does this poem do? What do you see it do on the page, within language, and in the world?

Zane: One thing I think this poem does, and does so the more time I have with it, and think about it, is to inaugurate a form. I mean this, perhaps, in the old sense of it, of creating a mode of approach that allows others to follow in a particular path. It’s replicable, in a sense. The way the poem weaves back and forth between the bureaucratic, the scientific, the personal, and, especially, the more autotheoretical – the tone with which the poem interrogates itself as it unfolds–has been profoundly influential in my own writing since we began the translation. When I finished reading through the poem for the first time, I thought it would be a worthwhile task to simply re-write it for a different context, replacing SAT with CRA, as Whitney suggests above, or Cozumel raccoon with Vancouver Island marmot, Hugo’s mother with my own, etc. For obvious reasons, this was a bad idea. But the way in which these elements come together in the poem opens interesting new possibilities for what we might do in poetry. It makes other poems possible, in other contexts, with other materials. It inaugurates a form.

Whitney: The poem is deeply concerned with history and its transformation by means of (1) collective action and (2) linguistic representation: as one of the refrains goes, “we push history to the side / turn it into our own indexicality.” Indexicality refers to a sign pointing to (indexing) some element (“aspect”) in the context in which it occurs. A photograph of a chair indexes that specific chair in that particular place in that particular moment. In Hugo’s line, the linguistic sign ‘history,’ conventionally understood as referring to a narrative of past events in chronological order, is cast aside by an eponymous “we” who together transform ‘history’ into a relation: one between what the text calls “continuous moments” (always-already “sculpted” by state violence) and representations indexing those moments. In Lo común, the world (capitalist society and its countless signs) produces us and we reproduce the world (the capitalist system and its countless signs) and/or alternative worlds (and their signs). In terms of literature, this means: “When writing, we do not / romantically confront the blank page // Rather, the confrontation is historical”. Appropriating ‘history’ (“turn[ing] it into our own indexicality”), suggests a kind of relation whereby history is at once context-dependent (capitalism sets the context) and collectively-assumed—lo común in the sense of the communal. Pointing at certain “continuous moments” constitutes a transhistorical community-in-formation. Appropriating ‘history’ (“turn[ing] it into our own indexicality”), we continue to forge a path of ongoing collective struggle, “reactivating insurrection.” In part, by taking “the side of the forms of language that / sprout from the riot.” And through insurrection itself.






Whitney DeVos is a translator, scholar, and poet. In addition to her collaborative work with NAFTA, she is co-editing Ruge el bosque, a multi-volume multilingual anthology of Latin American ecopoetry. The first installment, on the Southern Cone, appeared with Caleta Olivia in 2023; a second volume, on Mesoamérica, is in progress. She currently resides in Mexico City, where she is learning Atzacoaloya Náhuatl and translating Tlalkatsajtsilistle/Ritual de los olvidados by Martín Tonalmeyotl. More of her work can be found in ASAP/Journal, Chasqui: revista de literatura latinoamericana, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Latin American Literature Today, POETRY, and SAPIENS Anthropology Magazine, among other places.

Zane Koss is a poet, scholar, and translator. He is the author of harbour grids (Invisible, 2022) and co-translator of Hugo García Manríquez’s Commonplace with Gerónimo Sarmiento Cruz and Whitney DeVos. His poetry, translations, and essays can be found in Jacket 2, tripwire, Asymptote, the /temz/ Review, Chicago Review, Guernica, and elsewhere. His next book of poetry, Country Music, is forthcoming from Invisible Publishing in 2025.



Gerónimo Sarmiento Cruz is a scholar, translator, and poet born in Mexico City and residing in Lexington, KY, on the occupied lands of the Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Osage people. His work can be found in Fence, Post45, Chicago Review, and Action, Spectacle.



Jérôme Melançon is a poet, critic, translator, and scholar who lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His third chapbook, Bridges Under the Water, was published in August 2023 with above/ground press. He is also the author of three books of poetry, published with Éditions Prise de parole and with Éditions des Plaines.

Read Jérôme’s review of Commonplace.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Laynie Browne : from Extremely Busy Afterlife




Company isn't possible if you aren't inhabiting yourself.

I love my pen unconditionally.

Really?  What if it stopped—.

Even discarding broken things is challenging—when we have a history.

Your pen is an instrument with no free will or agency.

Are you saying I want all my relationships to be—.

Not at all—loving your pen is a start.

I have an enormous capacity to—.

And it fucks you up—until you cannot tell your feelings from those of others.


Can you appreciate yourself as much as a pen?

Much more—.

You're just having a moment—in a glade of moments.

I messed up some dates.

Your near aftermath of me leaving is like a blanket in reverse.

I hate it.

Just remember that this proximity to death will lesson as it increases.

That makes no sense.

You keep forgetting you aren't in fictive mathematical crying often.

Not obsessed with tears—like I was. Am I doing it wrong—missing you?

Everything is wrong—you feel wrong in your every move—just remember that's all fiction—just like my death is fiction.

I wish this were a novel.

You won't write it—.

That's not what I mean. I wish I could wake up from the accumulating losses.

Yes that's precisely what I advise—and any time you fall into—predicament—wake up—again.




The waste of a word.

Wasted word?

Thrown over by waiting, wastrels.

The word you won't mention.

No naming words.

The word impedes every precipice.


Not to be hijacked—but to go on igniting pinafores—attending emptiness.

Calling former varieties of starlight.

To stand nearer to—.

An inclination requiring discrete and otherworldly illumination.

But when you speak to me—.

Light scatters everywhere—so much of it—I can see only—.

The color blue yesterday was a signal.


I'm just trying to communicate by whatever means possible.

Tripping on words again.  Words are transitory.

And doubt—.

Another form of contraction—try this—stand in your own.


Belonging with no belonging—.


A friend spoke of accumulation.

And I replied in grave vowels and then—appreciations.

What if you spent an entire day writing letters—by hand—and sent them to persons.

As a constitutional practice—yes—I'll write to L with one of our conversations and to B with whatever I can—images—and to those you owe a book.

You could make a book of letters but start small—the idea of being your hand relating to paper as person.

A winter project for everyone.

To combat the smallness of screens.  How they constrict bodies.

An aside as every side—and I could write beside the fire.  Who has time to write letters.

The one with no time—no distinctions—plenty of unnamed words.

Correspondence was something else—to be sent without expectation.

To send an errand—a visitation—a thread by hand. However—handed—re-install the opposite of precipice. 

Sad—that accumulation of losses—and then—looking up at the sky taking to my father.

And the blue started to light up everywhere—startlingly and unmistakably.

Then a blue 'M' and I thought—that's not from my father—it was from you—.

Like when we wrote our book and I told you—don't worry—the title will light up.

Your blue aura arrived today—so I can see through your deepening—woodstove.

Don't forget my sage advice—get on with your fucking life—and also the way I used
          to say on the telephone—tootle-loo.


I want to write a letter to each of your letters.

What you want is your sisters to approximate sentences.

I want to take all of your good advice.

You recognize something in my voice—but I'm the younger sister not the older.

Attempts at slowing thoughts swirling like marbled paper.

My advice isn't good—isn't advice—you are reading my private letters.

I must go through everything—but not "things."

Distracted by 'the time of year thou mayst in me—.'

Commercialism of leaves as the new curbside cereal.

Not cerebral but fragile. 

Not soft or pliable—fire.  Who you were wasn't paper.

Pine, love is not a distanced stitch.

As if hands made anything farther or further.

The difference being—a grace one wishes for especially when meeting calamity.

Ok, all, call, amity.

Words inside of words.

As a calling.

Like a blue couch is a plush threshold.

A bird, an eyedropper, a flower captive in a book.

Like this one.

In a frilled collar.

Fritillary—a tribe of butterflies in the sub family Heliconiiae. Yesterday you saw her—cloudless sulphur-pierdae.

There is a question I want to ask—which is—.

As long as the words are unanswerable.

Several questions, actually all of them illegible.

Or—they frighten themselves away.

Let's start with where you are or are going to be at any given time.

I had what I wanted and couldn't bear it.

Of course—but snap out of it—you also saw how discernment is useful but doubt can be poison and your body isn't always the best judge of itself.

Though honesty isn't anything to be afraid of. SO you want to know how to be many places at once or how to be still and—.

Everywhere—so you don't have to keep rushing.

What is the exact amount of movement—.

To un-spell sinister plots against—now.

Concocted by—?

Humans are inordinately sacrificing of our best gifts.

Do you still call yourself human?

I speak in every tense at once—so what does it matter—.

So you call yourself many things—.

Not the rain.

Which ruins a sacred walk.

Waters it—so stop considering anything to be solved and don't move impulsively.

Move how?


And then—.

This other rising you describe—why don't you trust—'relax.'

Only fire lately.






Laynie Browne’s recent books include: Practice Has No Sequel, Intaglio Daughters, and Letters Inscribed in Snow.  She edited the anthology A Forest on Many Stems: Essays on The Poet’s Novel. Honors include a Pew Fellowship and the National Poetry Series Award. She teaches and coordinates the MOOC Modern Poetry at University of Pennsylvania.

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