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Eric Selland A Life of Accident and Contingency: Selected Works (2000 – 2015)

For me, poetry is of necessity incomplete, fragmentary, and discontinuous. I have often worked with invented forms of various kinds, but ultimately, what happens within the framework of a particular form is governed by accident and contingency. Before the period in which I produced the material appearing here, I spent ten years writing a long poem with seven syllables per line. (There’s an element of insanity in the poetic obsession.)

In the mid-nineties I was reading Adorno’s essays on Hegel and became fascinated with its dense, well-packed paragraphs forming a kind of architecture. This brought me back to another aspect of poetry which concerned me – the poem as object. In my mind’s eye I imagined perfectly square stanzas placed at the center of the white page, so dense as to be almost opaque. I imagined them as being something like those later sculptural works by Isamu Noguchi – blocks of stone, granite and basalt, in which signs of the human hand which shaped the stone are kept to a minimum. Just enough to bring the viewer’s attention to the “stoniness” of the stone. These two obsessions led to the writing in The Condition of Music.

The fragment is essential for me in the construction of a work. I believe that we work with a ruined language, and that by definition, we have only fragments to work with – the fragments of a dying civilization. In a kind of archaeological process, I dig up the broken pieces and attempt to put them back together, but they can never be complete.

And yet, especially in these works, I still had a very musical approach to composition. The sound and rhythm of language were very important in how a work was put together. Whether appropriated or popping up on their own, certain phrases or lines would get stuck in my head, and they insisted on getting into the poem. This was like musical composition, with various phrases taking their place in the sequence regardless of conventional meaning. Often I would hear a rhythm and sound, a kind of distant rumbling gradually approaching, the sound of speech but without words, and this would provide the framework of the poem. Later I would fill it in, often with found text.

The notebook or workbook is central to my process. This is where I collect bits and pieces of found text, sometimes lengthy quotations from my reading and whatever else I happen to collect. In recent years the visual element has also become important. Making a living as a translator, questions of language and meaning have been inescapable. One of the things that I have learned as a translator is that when it comes to meaning, context is everything. This question of context has been an important part of my process. I consider poetry to be a form of translation. The notebook is the site, something like the artist’s studio or the carpenter’s workshop, where I pursue my many obsessions, collecting bits and pieces, found objects, and seeing what fits. When I had an idea for a work (usually with a sense of its general architecture in mind) I would begin extracting material from the notebook and put it together like a collage (though the word “collage” doesn’t quite explain the process or the relationship between the fragments… an artist friend calls it “assemblage”, insisting on its physical nature).

The interest in poem as object, the visual interests and the process of assemblage may seem at first to contradict the elements of musical composition, the aural aspects, the lyric sensibility in the rhythmic flow of narrative sentences, but ultimately I think it’s a kind of tension between all these elements at work in the poem. Both a system of checks and balances and as a means of bringing a variety of materials into the work. It also becomes a question of texture, depth, density, etc. On the same token, fitting together the fragments is not a random process. I also include material from daily life, dreams, and so on.

I’m often asked about Japanese influences in my work being the close relationship with that culture and language which has spanned my entire adult life. I think the influence is there, but it’s rarely visible on the surface. It’s more the way I relate to language, and how, as a translator, I am always in a position outside all languages and all cultures. So in a sense to write poetry is to write in a foreign language. (I feel strongly that the position of the poet/translator/writer/thinker is essentially that of exile.) The works collected here are in a combination of prose paragraphs, shorter poetic lines and fragments, and these do sometimes take the form of haiku or haibun.

It was Arc Tangent in which the possibilities of collage or assemblage came to fruition. First, fragments were extracted from the notebook and input into an electronic file. Then the file was printed out and the fragments cut out into separate pieces of paper, which were placed in a Chinese basket. The pieces could then be physically manipulated to try out various juxtapositions. Work took place on the kitchen table, while alternate combinations and free-standing pieces which were unable to find a place were taped to the kitchen wall of the rickety old apartment building where I was staying temporarily. Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo of the wall.

Selections here move backwards in time, starting with the most recent book (Beethoven’s Dream) and moving back to The Condition of Music. I have found that even though I may use the same methodology, each book is very much influenced by time and place, and the type of work I was doing at the time. Meanwhile, the notebook itself has gradually approached a form of visual art, including images, collage and so on.

I believe that, in approaching poetry, we begin with its very impossibility. There are social and cultural reasons for this, as well as philosophical, linguistic, and technological… and yet we write, and we produce these things called “poems” – but that approach toward poetry, toward writing, toward some final answer to the question of what, exactly, poetry is, is endless. We will never get there. But we will continue writing the poem, searching for that something, for the essential word, for some essential meaning or image.

Eric Selland is a poet and translator living on the outskirts of Tokyo. His translations of Modernist and contemporary Japanese poets have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. He has also published articles on Japanese Modernist poetry and translation theory. He is the author of Beethoven’s Dream (Isobar Press, 2015), Arc Tangent (Isobar Press, 2013), Still Lifes (Hank’s Original Loose Gravel Press, 2012), The Condition of Music (Sink Press, 2000), and an essay in The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry (Copper Canyon Press, 2004). His translation of The Guest Cat, a novel by Takashi Hiraide, appeared in January of 2014 from New Directions Books and made it on the New York Times bestseller list.
/ | © alligator 2018

The cold sun hanging in the sky descends behind the glass buildings. The hills are near, green-gold as the day approaches solitude. An ending, free of worry. The essential clutter of existence. It is a certain burden – this Americanness. To raise the question more intently, more intimately. To process the image, which is inaccurate. One shape suggested a screaming mouth. He described it as a door, a way to leave. Exile and longing. Writing himself into the text of the times.


I wanted to write about the tools and the wood. We establish the horizons of expectation. Finding oneself again in movement. The condition of possibility. How then will it be possible to speak? Within the sphere I perceive bodies, yet appearing in person. My father appeared to me in a dream, angrily insisting that it was he who held the cure to memory loss. On the way to the bus small pieces of paper tumble, mix together and are lost, unrecognizable. Small feet ascend the stairs. What is the function of writing. What is direction, interiority. The heart of language. At the heart of the writing is a dream. The father speaks. That I am exposed.

[from Beethoven’s Dream, ‘Sketches’]

Our procedure has, in a sense, been circular. It is this future word. Impersonal, yet occurring just where we hear it, and where there is music. A little path that goes off into the woods, like an illustration in a children’s book. It is most near to us. How the objects form a set of overly heavy, discolored ensembles. They are set out in the room as if on a great plain in the desert of another country. They are broken or perhaps a bit offset. There is no straight line. I draw a path through the woods along the crest of a hill. I add some color, but abruptly stop. The sounds migrating toward the mouth like sediments. To recompose the image. The imagined self.


I am trying to come to a point. To maintain a single form. The tragic collision. To the extent that it becomes appearance. The real gift is time. Where we are again confronted with great complexity. The machinery begins, and the night begins, restless, interweaving. Thus the path followed by the electron turns out to be a parabola. The deflection of the electron from its initial path. He required the closeness of memory. An object moves from a point in space. Thus potential. Action or loss. Short, fragmented sounds are complete in themselves. To the degree of which the possible is approached. It’s a matter of the choices made.

To strip down the thing so as to retain only its naked reality.


The first invisible forces are those of isolation. There is the force of changing time. The existence of a substance. The intersection of two black sides of a square. Most profoundly they have influenced me in ways that have never met with the page. It is characteristic to pass through different levels. Like a series of awakenings. Grasping, taking hold. The text itself betrays the rhythm of the relation. Reveals a surface where the deeper wounds gradually emerge and become visible in the unpacked boxes, the old furniture and oriental curios. A sense of place. But would I have the courage to speak? In that context, they are all present. What we have to define.

[from Beethoven’s Dream, ‘Beethoven’s Dream’]

It bears witness to neither one nor the other. What cannot be stated, what cannot be archived, is the language in which the author succeeds in bearing witness to his incapacity to speak. But what does it mean to speak in a remaining language? Often it seems as though one were like another. They have always been there. I do not look at them. The passage between the outside and the inside. Now the twentieth century will be emptied. I do not exclude machines. Machines mean complexity. And then there are the advanced processes. Thus the higher terms in the equation diminish more rapidly than if there were no obstacle, but the beginning terms are unaffected. Accordingly, the terms in the summation diminish on both ends. Everything is already broken off

Outside the sentence
Rain is falling
As if a porous film
Set between waking and sleep.

The parched mouth and
Uneasiness of night remain.
It dissolves. The sickness does not dissolve.

Always the expected visit
The order to awaken
And selection

The water mark
Mirror in my sleep
Measuring the presence of light.

So in shame we are consigned to something from which we cannot in any way distance ourselves.


The slipper Artaud held in his mouth at the moment just before his death.

What remains is physical sensation
Physical memory
Connection to natural landscape

The priority of the whole

It is as if we are being told that it is only through the distortion of normative reality that we are capable of reaching its underlying truth.

[from Arc Tangent, ‘Arc Tangent’]

All I have ever done is move back and forth. Narrow streets of the old city cluttered with used bookstores and cafés, sleep pressing on the body, and thirst, cumbersome volumes of Chinese classics stacked on end. She orders sweet bean paste and green tea, and opens her book. The book she had not planned on buying. The book that came to her. Experience means to obtain something along the way.

Orientation of the lattice
Concept of diffusion
The distance takes place
This too demands an explanation
The pattern repeated.


Much in the spoken statements has a purely musical value. The process repeated till the end of the line then snap; drum snare, the accentuated note. As if I were a part of the rock. And I remember Queequeg and the little rooming house. All the intricate markings on the body. Swirls in the driftwood. Twisting, turning back. Thinkin’, not talkin’. At first he depended on the use of mathematical models of disorder. The two beams hitting the mark. Phase difference. To have experienced the street was like reading a text. You could go where you wanted and hear all this great shit. The form of distinction.


The force of these objects. That there is a strange kind of beauty in the steel frame construction bringing form to a building, the hills beyond visible through the skeletal shape. The sad beauty of the afternoon, and the automobiles, providing motion, endless motion. That we call it time and no matter how we try cannot understand.

Up till 2:00 a.m. listening
To the caller’s voice
First angry, now desperate

Then out for a breath
Of fresh air to see
Three deer in the city street
Come down from the hills
In this almost sacred quiet

The distances are more varied
First order of light
Trying to clarify what the questions are

[from Arc Tangent, ‘Table of Primaries’]

Finally to reach a single sound, as possible as its confrontation with silence. Outside intelligibility, there is a point of no return. I see a design drawn in a series. I see a distinctive character drawn into it, only nothing written. What does it mean, a straight line continuing its movement. The production of the line, but I don't know what. To end the project is to distance oneself from the machinery. Night walking on its own, away from a city, into a forest of ice. Forest of the human, where writing is discovered in the deterioration of speech. To have found ones home in despair, and then leave. What does it mean to understand? A stage nearer to the words. To live not with despair, but with complexity. Character is simply difference. A peculiar suspendedness. It is only the disappearance in continuation. The inner life of the note.

[from The Condition of Music, ‘The Condition of Music’]

The variety of workable means by which to manipulate objects. An empirical problem. For instance, how to drop numerous balls of a silicon based material, microscopic in size, onto a bed of film in perfectly straight rows equidistant from one another, perfect in form and functionality. Not a mystery, just infinitely complex. The material is often all we have.

The cost of bringing into history, of historical association. Writing in which pain is finally found and accepted. The recognition of pain embedded in the meanings.

I conceived the wreck and its landing. Not the beginning. The book laid open in the dream. Stairs to the rickety apartment building. The pain of history imbedded in the meanings.

The problem of where to begin when there is no beginning or ending, only writing.

There seems to be a desire to disappear completely, leaving only the work behind. In any form, completely, America which ignores him, sequentially as it suits. Here, self and landscape coincide.

Brahms Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas and Cello in F Major, second movement: blue light for a moment, the world opens up. Depth at which it seeks to cohere. The burden of its meanings. A world which is harsh and abrupt. Voice which speaks in complete inwardness.

[from The Condition of Music, ‘Other Orders’]

And then the whole is flooded with light. Different types of brush strokes applied to surface; notions of piling and gathering up. Doubling, looped through the framing. Is this an internal light which momentarily opens within him, only to leave a larger question behind as he proceeds toward the undefined, indeed the indefinable. Perhaps the answer is only in form, in musical prelude.

A reading that consists of an entirety

That he had always been well dressed (properly dressed) or so it was said

What happens is, first of all, one enters

                            Melding into
                            A memory of things
                            Outside of meaning

[from The Condition of Music, ‘Call’]