Thursday, May 10, 2012



“0% APR” in sedna by Michael Helsem
(no publisher, no place, 19 May 2005)

0% APR

Coil rosg, druidicals bijoux firm
Phantom fury slack.

Inform our cosmic civil war, Gray.
Much logic

Much smoking mirror. Gibbous
Chalkydri hazaj

Bling hazaj amid tumulus rock
And Rolaids a maskful cairn

Would bring us topaz portal out of

11   16   04


Aristotle, Metaphysics: Being is said in many ways.

Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”: the concepts of quality and value—and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself—are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theatre.

Howard Singerman, Art History, After Sherrie Levine: [Rosalind Krauss’s] ‘expanded field’ maps out and articulates that frighteningly unjudgeable space **between** the arts—and perhaps between art and criticis—that Fried dismissed as theater. 

Thomas Pynchon: It’s all theater …

I’ve been having a bit of a discussion with John Armstrong over at Bebrowed’s Blog about Readerly Anxiety. He raised the issues of genre (which is, if nothing else, a widely-used guide when it comes to how to read something—is it fiction, non-fiction, satire, etc?) and the question which I paraphrase as “What am I doing as my eyes move across the page?”

 When I read Singerlam on “that frighteningly unjudgeable space” **between** the arts I immediately thought of our discussion and began to wonder—maybe Readerly Anxiety is the only truly appropriate response to art now. Maybe a Greenberg/Fried kind of purity that will enable us to categorize/assimilate/”get comfortable with” a work is over. Maybe that was modernism. Maybe we're somewhere else now. Maybe we simply have to live with anxiety of not KNOWING—which is different than, e.g., not reading, of course.

Yes, of course this is old news. But it’s the kind of news that stays news, or at least has stayed news for the past 30 years of so.

Though I tend to forget it, and to question my not knowing as if it’s some kind of failure on my part. You will have followed me into that slough of despond if you have been reading my readings so far.

But I remember it now.

Reading “0% APR” seems to be a particularly appropriate moment to bring these reflections to the surface, since it offers little obvious purchase. I will work through it the way I have worked through the more typically lyrical (or anti- or pseudo- or meta-lyrical) poems I have read so far. It too is lyrical in form and music, and even in language, though I can’t quite place most of the words …

“0% APR”. A quick Google search tells me that “APR = Annual (or annualized) percentage rate, typically of interest on loans or credit.” And that “this is used to determine the percentage of interest one pays to the lender.” I don’t need Google to tell me that APR goes to zero when products don’t move. Hard times.

So it’s possible that this is a poem “about” hard times. It was written in 04, a year after our invasion of Iraq. In those days, as in these, there were hard times aplenty, more than enough to go around.

It’s also possible that the title is part of a sales pitch, and that the poem is being offered interest-free.

Which leads to a possible pun. Perhaps the poem is “free of interest.” Which could mean something like without meaning. Which could mean something like Frank Stella’s “What you see is what you see.”

“Coil rosg, druidicals bijoux firm / Phantom fury slack.” I don’t think normal semantics works here. This could be a homophonic translation of some poem, if so, I have no idea which. Or it could be the kind of poem that sets one word beside another, to push language to the point that old semantics break, and new associations, which could lead to new forms of thought become possible. Or …

[I am being a little faux-naïve here, in order to spell things out. It’s not as if I haven’t, you haven’t, we all haven’t, seen poems that look like this before. We’ve seen them for the past 30-40 years … Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to figure out what to do with them each time …]

I think what I will do is proceed word by word, more or less, then see how these words make sentences, since the appear in sentences. “Coil”, as the first word, presents no problem. Yet. Though I don’t know if it’s a noun or verb. Followed by “rosg”, I still don’t know, because I don’t know what “rosg” means. Question: do I have to know what it meant in 2004, when the poem was written? Which is a way of asking about what we do when we read. DO we read in the now, or in the then, or in some kind of combination? I find myself reading this poem in the now, actually, after the 07/08 financial collapse. I don’t mean by that the simple fact that it’s the now now, but the sense this poem is presenting to me seems to come from a time of crashed economies, failed wars, etc. Though I get ahead of myself … Anyhow, Google won’t even try to define “rosg” for me; it’s either “rose” or risqué”, apparently.

But I do hear “rust” in “rosg” … 

So, “coils rust”, or “rust coils”, or nothing like that, then “druidicals bijoux firm”. This phrase is why the poem seems to come from a post 07/08 world. I read this phrase as if it means “magicians (creative accountants) present our crashed economy as if the firms which comprise it are still jewels.”

Please note my “as if it means”. I think that’s as close as I’ll ever get, to as “as if.” I realize that the only way I can proceed through this poem without leaving it at pure sound (which perhaps it is) is to “as if” it … I do not pretend for one moment that I have uncovered THE meaning of this poem.

“Phantom fury slack.” Following the above, this would mean something like “though the coils rust, creative accountants keep the system going, and keep the 99% (remember Occupy) from lunching on the 1%. The fury is phantom because it’s a show-biz fury. People feel more helpless than mad.

If part of reading is projecting, I’m projecting my ass off!

Given (!) my reading to this point, the next line is reasonably easy, and works for the time when the poem was written as well as it works now: “Inform our cosmic civil war, Gray.” 

“Gray” would seem to refer to some sort of deity, since this is more or less the language with which epics typically begin. “Gray” is a good name for a deity that is neither here nor there, nor, perhaps, anywhere, on neither side of the “cosmic civil war” —which would refer to what Samuel Huntington referred to (ridiculously, but that’s another story) as “the clash of civilizations.”

The next “sentency” bit read “Much logic / Much smoking mirror.” This would refer to the leadup to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There was a sad logic to the Afghan invasion. Who didn’t know on 9/11 that we’d hit someone in retaliation, whether they deserved it or not? The smoking mirror reads in relation to “smoke and mirrors”, which were obviously used to believe in the first conflict and to get us into the second. It’s a bit richer as written, because it also contains within it the notion of fires, destructions, etc. And the possibility that the two “civilizations” that were clashing had more in common than we’d been led to suspect.

Gibbous / Chalkydri hazaj / / Bling hazaj amid tumulus rock” could easily read as a description of the middle-eastern-language speaking desert-like setting for the wars.  Hazaj doesn’t just carry the sound of “Hajj”, it also happens to be “a quantitative verse metric frequently found in the epic poetry of the Middle East and western Asia.” (Google again). As best I understand it, this poem is not written in hazaj meter, but I think it’s the sound that’s suggestive …

As for “tumulus rock”, a tumulus is “a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves.” It is where our (our? Well, someone’s) Middle Eastern ambitions were buried (that we were not going to “win” was obvious even as early as 04 – it was obvious before the invasions, really).

“And Rolaids a maskful cairn” is a bit of a monkey wrench for my reading so far. But a little ingenuity could finesse it. A cairn is A mound of stones erected as a memorial or marker.” This echoes the tumulus above. The Rolaids are to keep us from feeling our queasiness as the body counts mounted and they served to mask the burial of our hubris.

“Taqiya / Would bring us topaz portal out of / Chaos”. “Taqiya” = “taqiyyah (religious doctrine), in Islam, the practice of concealing one’s belief and foregoing ordinary religious duties when under threat of death or injury.” ( Taqiya in this case is like the Rolaids. And here it’s not particularly an Islamic practice. It’s ours. It’s the lies we tell/told ourselves so that we could believe there was a way (a “topaz portal”) out of the mess.

I have to admit that, were I not writing this, I would have been content to read this poem for the music, which would have sufficed and which would have given me pleasure. I normally don’t try to parse what I read in such detail. But I kind of like this reading, tho I reiterate that I don’t pretend that it’s THE reading, or that Helsem would recognize a word of it.

Nevertheless, we get what we can. Oh, and I don’t know whether this is relevant, but it fits. According to Wikipedia:

·         A possible war crime by a U.S. Marine in FallujahIraq, is caught on film by an NBC camera crew. The marine shot and killed an apparently unarmed Iraqi while in a mosque(NYT) (ABC US) (The Independent)
·         US troops have launched a major assault of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul following insurgents gaining control of key sites. (BBC)
·         1,052 prisoners have been captured in the US assault on Fallujah, approximately two dozen of whom are non-Iraqi(The Independent) (The Nation)
·         Margaret Hassan, the Irish-born aid worker kidnapped in Iraq, is believed to have been killed. A tape apparently showing her being shot has surfaced. (BBC)
·         White House officials announce that Condoleezza Rice will be nominated to succeed Colin Powell as Secretary of State(BBC)


[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days.  While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another.  So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review.  To wit: NEXT.  And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]

John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.


  1. Michael-apologies for typo which I'll correct.

    John, obviously, this may change your reading :)


  2. Sorry, Michael; got it right in my discussion, tho.