PIERRE JORIS: Cartographies of the In-Between

edited by Peter Cockelbergh
Litteraria Pragensia (€12)

by Megan Burns

“There is no difference between inside and outside at the poem’s warp speed.”
—Pierre Joris, Notes Toward a Nomadic Poetics

Cartographies of the In-Between collates a number of essays by various writers about Pierre Joris and his life as a translator, poet, and manifestor of “Nomad Poetics”; it’s a collection that should prompt a studious return to Joris’s own invaluable contributions to poetic discourse. Editor Peter Cockelbergh had previously drawn a line between two of these works in a 2010 essay for Jacket, in which he points out that A Nomad Poetics introduces the poetic concerns of Joris and that Justifying the Margins fleshes out these concerns more fully (a newer version of this essay appears in Section V of Cartographies). Continuing in that vein, I would argue that not only are these two collections of essays germane to an understanding of Joris’s poetry, translation, and thinking about poetry, but that Cartographies triangulates these two collections, opening up the conversation to many voices. In order to understand Joris’s work and his inclusive approach to poetry, it would stand to reason that a full appreciation of his work would include a reading through his work by others, as well as an enmeshed reading and dialogue with his own words and excavations.

One thread to follow into the labyrinth is Joris’s decades long research and interest in the poetry of the Maghreb. An interview entitled “Maghreb, Algeria- géographèmes” conducted by Peter Cockelbergh, provides one way to begin to frame Joris’s interest in this; in addition, Mohammaed Bennis’s essay investigates the “Arabic Islamic Turn” in Joris’s poetry, examining the recent collection Meditations of the Stations of Mansour Al-Hallaj. This in turn can be read in concert with Joris’s own essay “On the Nomadic Circulation of Contemporary Poetics” found in Justifying the Margins, where Joris outlines his interest in three Maghrebi writers: Abdelwahab Meddeb, Habib Tengour, and Driss Chraïbi. From there one can gaze back into Joris’s past, etching out where his initial experience with these writings were formed. “A Memoir for Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine” (from the second section of Justifying the Margins, which includes five essays for friends of Joris who have passed away—including a touching tribute to Jacques Derrida and an intense recollection of poet Douglas Oliver) can be read in connection with Jean Potante’s essay from Cartographies called “Justification of the Margin: Luxembourg in the Poetic Work of Pierre Joris,” which details the influence that Khaïr-Eddine had on Joris’s early adoption of a life dedicated to poetry as well as a poetry written in a language other than the languages of his youth.

And so, it is “in-between” the readings of these texts that we gather a rounder and more textually rich understanding of Joris’s continued interest in the poetry of the Maghreb as well as poetry written in the Arabic language. Some of this is informed by the early, intense relationship of a young Joris with Khaïr-Eddine, while another layer consists of Joris’s need to right what he sees as an earlier error on Pound’s part in not looking further than the Troubadours for the seeds of language that influenced the Modernist writers: “the Western refusal, century-long, to connect the Mediterranean to open up to the Arabic, to envisage our lyric as also a diasporic entity.” It is a poetics that reads and understands language “horizontally,” to use Joris’s term, and one that allows him to view the poetry of the Maghreb, the poetry of Pound, Duncan, Olson and the Beats, and his own poetry as contemporaneous and involved in an ever-deepening conversation about language.

It is this search that leads Joris from his own written languages of French, German, and English to seek to understand Arabic—and not just Arabic as a language but in the way that an ethnographer must investigate how the language functions in the culture and environment. To that end as a translator, Joris seeks to piece together the threads of the “textum” as he terms it, the invisible threads of language that are woven together to create the final document. In the case of Maghrebi writers such as novelist Driss Chraïbi, it is the langue fourche, the “forked tongue,” that draws Joris’s attention. Joris takes into account the choice to write in the language of the colonizer, French, while remaining on the lookout for the “ghostings of Arabic” in the writing: “The colonizer’s language too is caught in an irresolvable double bind: no language is a house the writer can simply inhabit, the only home is found in the ever-shifting force field of the spaces of its internal contradictions.” This “basic law of nomadicity,” as Joris calls it in Justifying the Margins, echoes his earlier writings in A Nomad Poetics and thrusts us further, if we choose, into our archeological dig into Joris’s poetics and poetic interests. For example, the poem “The Work of Al-Ishk,” collected in Poasis, ruminates on the various threads running through Arabic language and history that spark Joris’s curiosity. Joris tells us in his introduction to his newly released volume of translations of Maghrebi poet Habib Tengour, Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader, that “Maghreb1” can be translated as “west” and following that path leads to the idea of traveling so far west that one becomes an exile—hence Tengour’s choice of a title for his reader. This etymology is another clue as to why Joris would be attracted to Maghrebi writers. While Joris has contended he believes translation is a responsibility, it’s no accident that he is drawn to “exiles” and to writers who choose to write in a language that is not their “mother tongue.”

To return to Cartographies, it is again Mohammed Bennis’s essay on Joris’s turn towards Arabic Islamic poetry that can further enrich our understanding of Joris’s own work. Bennis pays particular attention to Joris’s interest in early Sufi mystics, whose influence contributes an important tenet to Joris’s Nomad Poetics. The term “Mawqif,” which is used by Sufi Muslims to define the stopover or moment of rest between movements, is incorporated into Joris’s long poem Meditations on the Stations of Mansour Al-Hallaj. Bennis points out that the idea of stations as resting places conflates a term used by the Sufi Poet Niffari, while the title of the poem alludes to another Sufi Poet of the 10th-century, Mansour Al-Hallaj, who was executed for his use of language. It is easy to see why this mystic’s “poethics”—to layer Joan Retallack’s modern term on an ancient history—would intrigue Joris. Al-Hallaj spoke the words that loosely translate “I am the Truth,” but more importantly, he deigned to weave together the vernacular and the sacred, eventually paying the ultimate price. Bennis points out that even physically, the dip into Arabic requires a change in movement, a reordering of senses in order to get “used to the traits of letters that begin at the right hand side and move to the left hand side.” This movement on the actual page is a vital point, emphasizing Joris’s nomadic notion that one should always be moving. It is when one becomes complacent that the language suffers.

Al-Hallaj’s story is linked to that of Nimrod, who was punished for attempting to reach God via the tower of Babel; his punishment was the break in language, the cut or slice that separated a unifying tongue. “Nimrod in Hell,” the opening piece in Justifying the Margins, takes up Dante’s version of the figure, a character babbling what appears on the surface to be nonsense. Joris sets up unanswerable questions: Is this the Babel-language that we lost or simply the post-Babylonian language that makes translation possible? In either case, Joris believes it is more than just nonsensical blather. If all poetry is its own language, as Joris avers via Robert Kelly, then it is a poem we have yet to translate. Joris uses Al-Hallaj’s mystic terms in Arabic next to his English translations and he incorporates this idea of the “mawqif” into the form of Meditations on the Stations of Mansour Al-Hallaj, where he provides his readers with a contemporary landscape through which to view and embody this idea. He quite literally brings the form forward through a combination of translation and poetry and breathes new life into it, re-animating it as a viable “station” or meditative space for readers to experience. What the Meditations reveal is what Joris has always contended: that it all accrues and goes into the work. The research, the excavation of language, the translating of words at their most basic units, and the living that is done in between; these all join in the final “textum.”

In her essay “Before Babel” in Cartographies, Alice Notley returns to the image of Nimrod babbling and struggles with Joris’s contention that all writing is translation. Instead of translating, Notley defines her own writings as a “harnessing of the magic horse of sound, rhythm.” This in turn brings back the idea of babbling, the vibration that the body makes as it attempts to speak and our need to make sense of that which we find trapped in our minds. Notley’s stance is that before Babel is the same as after, in the sense that the poem travels out on sound, first and foremost. Translatable or not, the landscape of the poem allows us to transcend meaning and to function in a different realm than one defined by pure reason and narrative. This idea recalls another Arabic term favored by Joris, the “Barzakh,” which translates as barrier, veil, or curtain. It is used to name a connection from one to another or as the link between. In this example, I imagine that Notley accesses her poetry from a space similar to a “Barzakh,” a place hidden from us, and yet one in which the poet can move between, returning with the language. Notley and Joris would likely agree that there is a little magic involved in the exchange no matter what word is used to define it.

Joris’s interest in the Maghreb has reached a true pinnacle with the publication of his latest book of translations: Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader. Joris met Tengour at the University of Constantine while teaching there in the late 1970s. Presently, the two poets have been collaborating in editing the fourth volume of the indispensible Poems of the Millennium series of anthologies, due to be released later this year. In the “ReadySteadyBlog Interview” found in Justifying the Margins, Joris states “it is in questioning his [Tengour’s] work . . . that I recognize my own quests the most.” Tengour’s essay in Cartographies, “The Trace and the Echo,” describes their long friendship, and the editor notes that the descriptions are punctuated with passages from Meditations on the Stations of Mansour Al-Hallaj, which Tengour translates into French when composing his essay. Moving across languages, Tengour says of Joris: “Transcriber in an alphabet pieced together well away from metropolises. To discover in all innocence what digs into language.” And from Exile is my Trade, Joris translating Tengour gives us this: “He has woven the poem in secrecy. Months of retreat in the desert, at the mercy of winds, so as to conform to the tradition. Chaffing and the whip. The echo’s harshness initiates into tonal ruptures.” If we take Joris at his word, then this new collection of translations of Tengour’s poetry and prose is another way of understanding and experiencing the quests dear to Pierre Joris.

1 In Cartographies, “Maghreb” is spelled with an “e” while in Exile is My Trade, Joris begins to use the “Maghrib” spelling. The Arab spelling for al-maghreb is المغرب—consonants without vowels.


Meditations on the Stations of Mansur Al-Hallaj (Chax Press, 2012).

Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 (Salt Publishing, 2009)

A Nomad Poetics (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)

Poasis: Poems 1986-1999 (Wesleyan University Press, 2001).


Habib Tengour, “Exile is My Trade:” A Habib Tengour Reader, (Black Widow Press, 2012).

Poems for the Millennium Volume 4, Diwan Iffrikya: An Anthology of North African Writings from Prehistory to Today, eds. Pierre Joris & Habib Tengour (University of California Press, 2012).

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012