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“neither wit nor gold” (from then)


Ammiel Alcalay

March 2011

Kevin Kinsella

Everything has come before and will again,
But only the moment of recognition is sweet.
—Osip Mandelshtam, from “Tristia”

Everything has come before and will again,
But only the moment of recognition is sweet.
—Osip Mandelshtam, from “Tristia”

In “The Word and Culture,” his seminal essay from 1920, Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam asks—and answers—“Why identify the word with a thing, with the grass, with the object that it signifies? Is the thing master of the word? The word is Psyche. The living word does not signify a thing: it freely selects as its dwelling-place, so to speak, this or that objective significance, its concreteness, its dear body. And the word wanders about in the vicinity of its thing like a soul around its discarded but not forgotten body.” The same goes for memory itself, suggests Ammiel Alcalay’s new book “neither wit nor gold” (from then). While putting together a manuscript of work written between 1975 and 1990, Alcalay, an American poet and scholar, became dissatisfied with the notion of “selected poems.” So he started sorting through photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, journal entries, and newspaper clippings from the era, and incorporated them into his book. The result is a personal investigation into the relationships of text/image and time/memory.

For Alcalay, “neither wit nor gold” (from then) is not so much “a trip down memory lane,” as a statement about the present and how a body of work might be made not only to cohere but become “the carrier of messages no longer available.” Not surprising from the founder and general editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a program of the City University of New York that makes available essential but virtually unknown texts “to expand our knowledge of literary, cultural, social, and political history.”

Alcalay grew up in Boston, but the contents of “neither wit nor gold” were composed in and about New York, where he currently lives and teaches. With a few exceptions, the poems comprising this collection are culled from work produced between 1969 and 1970. But they don’t so much present Alcalay’s static memories of this period, rather they evoke the perpetual act of remembering or recognition—one that somehow puts the reader in on the act. For instance (and this collection is full of instances), Alcalay juxtaposes an underexposed and blurry photograph of Jack Delaney’s restaurant with the following brief poem, from which the book takes its title:

rust and time nor wit nor
gold abet the
old song’s burden
part prophecy part
longing the hanging
garden a shadowy
dream the world
grows so very old
though once we
too were young

But then, one really can’t call it a juxtaposition, as that term suggests a calculated pairing. The combination, like any page spread from the book, is more a random pairing than anything else, like two discreet items surfacing simultaneously in a pool only by chance.

While it is easy to compartmentalize a poet’s work in distinct chronological categories (“juvenilia,” “early,” and “mature” work), Alcalay’s slim collection reminds the reader that poetry—if it is indeed poetry—doesn’t just go away as a poet matures or moves into another direction. Rather it takes its place among the primordial stuff of poetry—memory—itself. As Mandelshtam put it: “Poetry is the plough that turns up time in such a way that the abyssal strata of time, its black earth, appear on the surface.” This so-called black earth—memory, poetry—is continually upturned—to the extent that it becomes extra-temporal. It lives on to impose itself on the past, present, and future.

And if a poet’s work cannot be compartmentalized along a temporal continuum, neither can it be separated from the ephemera of the day of its composition—in this collection’s case: concert photographs, diary entries, university transcripts, and newspaper articles, among others. It must always walk in the “vicinity of its thing.”

“neither wit nor gold”(from them) isn’t a book about memory, per se, rather an exercise in the very act of remembering, an act that invites readers themselves to tread in the vicinity of someone else’s memories and, happily, to get their hands dirty.

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