SAINT GHETTO OF THE LOANS by GABRIEL POMERANDDAVID-BAPTISTE CHIROT Reviews
Saint Ghetto of the Loans by Gabriel Pomerand. Translated by Michael Kaspar and Bhamati Viswanathan, Afterword by M. Kaspar. 118 pp, 50 of them illustrated rebuses.
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Lost Literature Series #1, 2006)
LIKE A ROSETTA STONE Anarkeyologies of the Future in a Lost Book’s Return to its Living Avant-Garde
For Roberto Bolano (1953-2003): Tireless investigator, participant in, inventor of, and lover of historical and his own fictional--especially obscure--avant-gardes, poets, books, lives.
For Michael Moynihan: historian, documentarian, writer/artist/musician among international undergrounds.
For Tim Gaze:
working with Lettrism’s futures, visual poet & publisher
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, one day I will tell your latent birth
--“Voyelles/Vowels”, Arthur Rimbaud
I want it understood that only the avant-garde of the intelligence itself preoccupies me, and not all the schools this avant-garde fits into. I dread the day when the name of the invention--which is a phenomenon of commodification--overshadows the real search for transgression . . .
Throughout my life, I’ve had no other goal than to be an extremist, at that battlefront which alarm clocks suggest even as they lure us into the traps of life.
--Gabriel Pomerand, in Saint Ghetto of the Loans
An Anarkeyological Time Line:
1798: Rosetta Stone found by French soldiers in ruined wall of an old fort. The Greek writing, one of three on the Stone, is a decree passed by priests in Memphis in 196 B.C.
1824: Jean-Francois Champollian, working from an inked and rubbed copy of the Stone’s texts, publishes book announcing his breakthrough in translating Egyptian hieroglyphics. He write that this complex system “is both symbolic and phonetic in the same text, the same phrase ,the same word”, opening a method to be put to use for visual/sound poetries of 20th Century.
1905 (ca.) Fellow painter Henri “Le Dounaier” Rousseau tells Picasso: “We are the two Masters of our epoch--you in the Egyptian Style, and I in the modern.”
1949: Cairo, Egypt. The Lettrist artist/poet/”Archangel” Gabriel Pomerand marries Roxane Chiniara, daughter of King Farouk’s Greek insurance agent.
1950: Pomerand publishes Saint Ghetto des Prets (Saint Ghetto of the Loans) in which he announces “We’re the new Egyptians.”
1954: Memphis, in its Tennesee manifestation. Elvis Presley begins recording his first singles for Sun Records. It is frequently noted retrospectively that the young Isidore Isou, founder of Lettrism in 1942/46, looks amazingly like the young Elvis Presley.
The history of the avant-gardes of the last 150 years--as any rummager and gleaner among the “dustbins of history” will tell you--is an immense, rhizomatic, international labyrinth of brightly lit passages, flickering alleys and obscure footpaths. Some are short cuts between well lit squares, some deviations from the walkways in shadowy parks, others weed-grown cul-de-sacs. There are cracked decaying Utopian playgrounds, mutant Maldororean organisms surging through shattered barrios, industrial wastelands in chemically etched ruins, art brut assemblages arising amidst junked conceptual and technological Installations, long “lost” manuscripts floating in the puddles and dust of forgotten publishers’ cellars, erasures of book print and wall grafittied palimpsests fighting their way free of enchaining imposed texts and whitewashings. And that’s in just the urban areas. Beyond lie the thousands of rural groups with their creations-solitaries, Bronte-esque families, communes, nomadic bands, all with their astounding outpourings. The life stories and works of untold numbers of as yet unsung creators lie patiently awaiting the light of a future--which can always be right this very minute--in which they will receive momentous recognition, or at very least a promising footnote. This is the stuff of legends, of myth, where the realities of historical discoveries, rediscoveries and fictions like those of the brilliant Chilean writer Roberto Bolano meet. (In Bolano’s works both historical obscure poets and movements and imaginary ones exist--each one heightening and illuminating, or corroding and making more sinister the other.)
Yet even in the age of the internet, in which one can electronically search and stalk the most obscure movements and figures, the barrier of translation still makes the views of the labyrinth differ from language to language, creating time lags and gaps in their “discovery”, reception and impact. And within a language, geography creates its own barriers--an avant-garde will be born, grow, flourish, disappear or continue into the present--be a well known feature of a landscape, a local culture, and yet not far off or to another language group, or dialect of the same one, be obscure, precious and remote.
Such has been for the most part, with a few exceptions, until relatively recently the history and influence of French Lettrism in the USA and other Anglophone countries. Some print and e-texts in English tend to either overexagerate Lettrism’s “obscurity” and “neglected”-ness, or, in some cases, take the opposite tack and over-inflate its historico-political role in 1960’s France and influence on other movements outside France. [1.] Ironically, this mimics the principal of “the minimum and the maximum” as laid down and employed by Lettrism’s still very much alive and productive founder, Isidore Isou. In his 1949 manifesto La Soulevement de la jeunesse (The Uprising of Youth), Isou had laid the groundwork for future events by being the first to propose the demographic of youth in itself as a potential revolutionary force. This was picked up on by the Situationists and other groups, developed further and put into action in Sixties France. While not one of the detonators of the explosions, Isou had already planted the time bomb awaiting the detonators’ putting it to use. As always, the more one learns of the actual history and works of Lettrism, the more interesting and inspiring than its minimal/maximal urban legend versions it proves to be.
This makes the bi-lingual appearance this year of Gabriel Pomerand’s legendary and very rare 1950 visual rebuses/textual booklength prose poem Saint Ghetto of the Loans a truly major event. It provides a kind of physical Rosetta Stone (in a doubled way) for each reader’s further anarkeyological researches into the past and living world of Lettrism, as well as inspiration for artists/poets in many media to do verbivisivoci work in and outside the range of media the Lettrists continue very much to work in. Ugly Duckling Presse couldn’t have picked a better book, in an excellent translation by Michael Kaspar and Bhamati Viswanathan, to begin its Lost Literature Series with.
Especially exciting is to finally be able to see/read the entire fifty pages of Pomerand’s rebuses, until now known only in reproductions of a few pages. What makes Saint Ghetto different from other Lettrist texts using rebuses is that side by side with them is their original French text (with above it the English). This is the book’s Rosetta Stone aspect for French readers--other Lettrist texts using rebuses came without their texts. Even those who read just a little French will find a great deal of pleasure and wild humor in seeing how Pomerand finds ways visually and via sonic puns to express a word, sometimes syllable by syllable, sometimes syllable by letter by syllable, sometimes letter by letter, sometimes all at once. [Editor's Note: You can see some images of Pomerand's rebuses at David Baptiste-Chirot's Blog.]
Even if you read no French, it is astonishing going though the pages and looking at the profusion of sometimes familiar signs and images, and ones invented and unknown, their arrangements in patterns that change from black and white reversals of fore/backgrounds and changings in the directions of the forms forming the “lines” of the writing. It’s like watching a movie from another dimension. Without any known rules to hold you back, you can start using the signs to create your own words and sounds to go with them, and create your own Lettrist performance. Since solving rebuses in your own language is quite a bit like playing charades, it’s not hard to imagine all the things you can dream up with the unknown linguistic meanings of signs in the way of sounds and actions!
And there you have arrived at one of the key ideas in Lettrist meta- and hypergraphics--the use of signs without meanings already known, bearing the potential for new languages, new ways of acting and being, a continually renewing creativity. This is also a key to Lettrism’s enduring existence and potential today, regardless of how well or poorly it is known.
Very often when a movement or artist little known outside its own culture is translated and disseminated into another language and culture, the potentialities their works unleashed in their own culture find a new soil to grow in. The impact can be quite great in all sorts of surprising and unexpected ways. Two or three years ago Tim Gaze, the Australian visual poet and print publisher of asemic, (and now also the on-line Avance, e-books of asemic and Lettrist-influenced work) sent me a letter and some visual poems by post, in which he wrote that from his view, Lettrism was what offered the most towards creating the future in visual poetry. I think Saint Ghetto may help Tim’s “gaze” into the future find many forms of realization.
Lettrism sprang from the head of Isidore Isou (Jean-Isidore Goldstein, 1925--) in the 1940’s in his native Romania, in a most appropriate way: via a revelation caused by a creative misreading. On the 19th of March 1942, Isou was reading a text by Keyserling in which he misread “ le poete dilate les vocables”. Since “vocables” in Romanian means “voyelles” (vowels) in French, the 16 year old Isou read the sentence as “le poet dilate les voyelles”. In a state of inspiration, Isou immediately wrote his first Lettrist manifesto and texts.
Inspired by the example of his fellow Jewish Romanian poet-PR man the Dadaist Tristan Tzara before him, Isou went to liberated Paris with a suit case of manuscripts, ready and driven to spread the New Tidings. In 1945 at a Saint-Germain soup kitchen for Jewish refugee orphans, he encountered the 19 year old French-born Pomerand, who became his “first disciple and friend”. Isou meant “disciple” in spirit and letter both: he brought with him a novel, soon to appear as his second published work, called l’Agregation d’un nom et d’un messie; “The Making of a Name, The Making of A Messiah”. Gabriel’s self-appointed role was to become the “cantor” and later the “Archangel” of Lettrism.
Isou in those days was a brilliant and very convincing speaker--a thread-bare, completely unknown refugee, at barely twenty he was able to get himself a contract with the prestigious publishing house Gallimard, much to the envy and shock of many insiders--and his effect on Pomerand was profound. In the Introduction to Saint Ghetto Pomerand writes:
I have to say it was Isou who set loose this new phenomenon that manifests as my understanding . . . we wandered the streets together, deep in debate, and he filled my head with a mess of ideas in which the surprise of youthful poetry, of theater, of erotology, of philosophy, of metagraphics, and perhaps, one day, of medicine, was expressed succinctly, too fast and mixed up for me to grasp anything except that which thrilled me the most: verse.
Isou’s ideas were set forth in the first manuscript he submitted to Gallimard, “Introduction to a New Poetry and New Music from Charles Baudelaire to Isidore Isou” Rather than the will to survive, Isou posited the will to create as the fundamental human drive. And since creation was God’s work--via creation humans can become gods. Was not Isou the messiah himself a living proof? (His 1950 metagraphic work is entitled Diaries of the Gods.) God-like creating humans could make a new paradise on earth, designing and constructing the architectures, arts, sciences, philosophies of what Rimbaud had foreseen and foretold as “the Splendid Cities”.
Isou’s basic principle regarding creation is that the arts go through alternating and mutually necessary phases of “amplitude” and “chiseling”. In Western poetry the amplifying phase lasted from Homer to Victor Hugo. The modern phase of chiseling opened with Baudelaire’s blasting away at poetic dross in language to get the modern world and its imagery and words into a new poetic form. Narrative is carved down to anecdote. From Baudelaire, there proceeds a continual and direct line of chiseling: of form into verse by Verlaine, of verse and anecdote into word by Rimbaud, of word into patterns of sound and spaces by Mallarme and of sound and space patterns into nonsense/nothing by Tzara. Isou’s arrival announces the ultimate act of making the letter alone the basis of poetry. And via the example of poetry, all the arts were to follow suit, in a far reaching chiseling, down to their basic building blocks. Once this base is reached, the Lettrist phase of amplification begins, contributing to a totalisation in the new forms of creation throughout all aspects of the arts, from household furniture to architecture, painting, film, writing, theater, sculpture, body art, performance art, music, urban planning. The effects of this totalisation are to be the extension of creation throughout all aspects of life. Creation will be continually transforming life, liberating it into new ways of being, new ways of creating. Everything will be affected--the sciences, economics, politics, medicine, mathematics . . . A new Utopian era will begin.
Isou’s vision of a totalizing, transformative creation can be seen as a chiseling decomposition and amplifying recomposition of Medieval religious festivals or Wagner’s Gesammtkunstwerk, though the forerunners much closer to his both in time and spirit are Marinetti’s Italian Futurism (founded in 1909, with a great many of its ideas and works in all media also still too little known in many ways in the USA), and the multi-media work of German artist/poet/performer/Merzbau architect/dramatist/layout designer/collagist Kurt Schwitters. Since he grew up during the Depression and chaos of the 1930’s and WW2, Isou (I am only hazarding a guess) may well have known very little of these two examples: the work he writes of in his first book is French.
Schwitters in a 1926 manifesto on “Consistent Poetry” had also isolated the letter as the basis for poetry:
Consistent poetry is constructed of letters. Letters have no concepts. Letters in themselves have no sound, they only offer the possibility to be given sound values by the performer. The consistent poem plays off letters and groups of letters against each other.
The Russian Futurist Zaum (trans-rational) poets Alexei Kruchenyhk and Victor Khlebnikov had even earlier, in 1913, produced a manifesto on “The Letter as Such”.
This calls for poems to be copied by hand by artists from the poet’s original ms. The emphasis is actually on the handwritten, and by an artist, production of the letters, rather than on the letters in and of themselves. Since handwriting can vary so greatly from person to person, mood to mood, its artistic use is to further break down the standardizations of type written/printed letters visually, as a means to liberating them from fixed meanings and ways of being sounded and performed.
Trying to get Lettrism launched into the poetry and /art world and above all get the attention of the media eye, the messiah and his archangel prepared their first provocations. Not surprisingly, Isou and Pomerand with their now small band of recruits met with opposition from some heavy hitters of the earlier Russian Futurist and German Dada avant-gardes.
On 8 January 1946, Isou gave a lecture at the Societe Savant which prompted a counter-demonstration by the famous expatriate Russian typographer, layout designer and book artist Iliazde, whose career began in the 1910’s, alongside the Futurists. Iliazde came equipped with materials to demonstrate that what Isou was doing was nothing new under the sun. The event and counter demonstration didn’t generate enough noise to get much notice. Later that month, on the 21st, another event generated far more publicity, really putting the Lettrists on the map. The former Surrealist Michel Leiris was to give a lecture before the Vieux Colombier premiere of the play La Fuite by Isou’s old idol, Tristan Tzara, who was gracing the evening with his presence. Led by Pomerand, who had rounded them up and purchased their tickets, a small group of Lettrists kept interrupting Leiris’ remarks by shouting “We know about Dada, M Leiris—tell us about something new! For example—lettrism!” ”Dada is dead! Lettrism has taken its place!” Taken aback, Leiris obviously had no idea what they were talking about. “You’re kidding! What!—You’ve never heard of lettrism?” “The Lettrists!” “Oh I want to hear them! Let’s hear the Lettrists!”
Drowning out Leiris and driving him from the stage, the Lettrists waited while the play went on. As soon as it ended, Pomerand strong-armed his way through the crowd, took the stage and announced that Isidore Isou, creator of the new Lettrist era in art, was going to present his theories and recite his Lettrist poems. Most people left as Isou took the stage, but those that stayed provided some fresh recruits.
The next morning the left-wing newspaper Combat ran headlines and copy: the Lettrists had carried the day in classic scandalous style. Overnight they had made a name for themselves in Paris and established their reputation as the first real new avant-garde of the post-War era.
To add insult--and a very serious one--to injury, the Lettrists later in 1946 came out with one issue of a journal called La Dictature Lettriste (The Lettrist Dictatorship). In a Paris reeling from the almost overwhelming daily revelations of new horrors left by one dictator, and with several others still in power, it was an appalling and calculated incitement. I think the title perhaps also had another meaning, however, referring to the “Dictator” aka “Pope” of Surrealism, Andre Breton, whose movement Isou had pronounced dead. The Lettrist “Dictatorship” mocked the deposed dictator and his vanished power and importance. “Ding dong the wicked witch is dead!” The Lettrist Dictatorship declares the end of other dictatorships could also be a way of reading the message--a bitter reminder that as soon as one dictator is gone, there is always another springing up.
Raoul Hausmann, one of the founders of militant Communist-oriented Berlin Dada (1918-1920/1), disputed inventor of photo-montage and sole inventor of Optophonic poetry, responded with a communiqué called “B.T.B”:
Some two dozen French and foreign upstarts have founded the “dictature lettriste” in Paris. They claim to be the inventors of the sort of phonetic poems we created between 1918 and 1921. But we have had an interview with them by the medium of telebrain (B.T.B.) and we reproduce it here for our readers.
Qu: h gf mjh ert gguhnjj . . . (questions and answers continue in this style for a page.)
Schwitters’, Hausmann’s, the Russians’ and Marinetti’s conceptions and uses of the letter are limited to literally what are accepted as letters in the languages which they are using. (Those of their alphabets, Roman and Cyrillic.) Isou’s conception of the letter is far more open and leads to an embrace of asemic writing and signs. Isou regards the letter as a pure sign without meaning, a condition for the possibilities of new and as yet unknown meanings. The asemic letter-as-pure-sign allows for the invention and use of endless new signs and letters as well as new uses for existing ones and for any past or present script, calligraphy, icons, symbols, hieroglyphs, etc. The creator can produce new alphabets, new languages, whose meanings may not yet be known, but whose apprehension as language is immediate. ( In the way one can look at a writing/script/calligraphy/hieroglyphics in a language foreign--or imagined--or “lost”--and not known to one, yet know immediately it is a language, by its layout, its visual arrangements.)
This desire--demand--for a direct, pure immediacy is impossible in the mediation of language: Lettrism therefore will deliver this “utopian” immediacy of communication via the performance of the asemic signs. Communication as a communal, shared experience of Lettrist immediacy becomes possible through the oral performance by a Lettrist sound poet. For this purpose, Isou and his “chief lieutenant” Maurice LeMaitre devised a system of approximately 130 signs indicating different sonic possibilities. While Lettrism is primarily considered in terms of visual poetry today, it’s essential to its spirit and not just its letters/signs, to keep this sonic performative element in the mind’s ears as it were--performing them aloud with oneself/others--when looking at Lettrist works.
Sound poetry performance was Pomerand’s forte and what he was primarily known for in the early years of Lettrism. He also was well known to the police for his penchants for brawling, obscenity, and public displays of indecency--various states of undress during and outside of performance. He was sued for defamation and sent to jail for various of his lectures delivered at a hall in the Societe de Geographie on such topics as “The Advantages of Prostitution” and pederasty. (As always, a few humorless individuals in attendance failed to get the “message” and complained of indeceny and outrage. Unwittingly, they had become part of the purpose of the pieces: to create a provocation and action in disturbing their complacency. To shake them from their torpor. Unfortunately, often complacency was easily disturbed but torpor not readily shaken.)
Pomerand was a late night regular and house star on the stage at the Tabou Club in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood, where Isou lives to this day in the same apartment he has since the 1940’s. The Tabou counted among its regulars Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, (usually gone by the time Pomerand took the stage), Juliette Greco, Jean Cocteau, Raymond Queneau, Boris Vian, and a mix of celebrities, faded aristocrats, existentialists, wealthy tourists, students, models, photographers, gossip writers, would-be artists and neighborhood characters.
When Pomerand’s turn came, the audience called for him “Koum Kell Kerr!”
and “Biniminiva!” Boris Vian--who played with his Jazz band earlier in the evenings and was the house and neighborhood historian--wrote that the slight, dark-haired, dark- eyed Pomerand was one of the surprises of the Tabou. When he was hurling with maximum confrontational force his Lettrist sounds into the world, Vian said, one asked each instant where that voice came from and if there would be any left for the next word--if there were Lettrist words--and if not, the next sounds.
Pomerand was writing a good deal of Lettrist poetry at this time as well as the Symphonie en K, which had choruses in a Lettrist work for the first time. Due to his lifestyle of the period, very little of this work has survived. Depending on the clientele and their whims and the sizes of their pocketbooks, Pomerand might stay for a while in a classy hotel--and then one day find himself back in the street, sleeping under bridges again. With all his writing, making paintings, performing and founding a Lettrist center at the Librairie de la Porte Latine, a Saint-Germain bookstore, it is amazing that Pomerand had any time and energy left to do the extensive researches he made and put to use in making the rebuses in Saint Ghetto. One gets the sense of a man burning himself up with a fevered, fervent passion--and at the same trying to be cool and detached, keeping an inner sense of equilibrium aloof, an eye in the storm in and around himself. It is this which Pomerand wants the reader to find expressed in his book:
This book is unusual and immobile, yet orderly as a caste. I’d love it, if in future, the organic world showed such an icy face, impassive and tough . . .
I’ve dug out from nothingness each of the signs that make up this work, like one obliged to invent wisdom. Impassive Brahman, thus do I picture my potential and future reader . . .
I dream of a book of mysteries equal to the arrogance and serenity in faces carved on pharoahs’ mummies . . .
Geometric priestliness, or the dream of a clear and obscure style.
What will no doubt strike the reader, at first, when considering the pictograms in this work, will be the geometric deliberateness of its images. I allowed myself no freedom in these expressions, as if contempt for my self and its weakness could perfect the quest for solemnity.
In the opening lines above and those that follow towards the middle of the Introduction, Pomerand sounds like a hardline High Modernist Elitist. He even writes of writing with gloved hands, which sounds very aristocratic, (or like a killer not wanting to leave any fingerprints) and of being caped and masked, as at a wealthy spectacle. Yet beneath these facades and masks--which Pomerand makes clear are both the written text to be clothed in pictograms and the flesh and blood of a woman’s body likewise “monstrously clad”--is a body--of text, of a woman, but also of Gabriel Pomerand, who seems to realize in the course of events that he has been mummifying himself, or allowing himself to be convinced to mummify himself. The organic body wants to break out, break free of borrowed and imposed, labeled signs, the signs of everything not directly one’s own. (His arrests for indecent exposure come to mind--) Back to the degree zero of oneself with nothing except a pen, a writing instrument. Smash the “icy face, impassive and tough” of that future world desired in the Introduction’s opening sentences. And to pass on this message to others via the prosepoem and rebuses of Saint Ghetto.
From wanting to be a Priest (or cantor or Archangel) the poet returns to facing the never ending rebellion of an anarchic “outlawed” artist. Pomerand’s illness forced him to retreat more and more from the violent and vibrant activities of his earlier life and social world, and becoming an outsider in this way also confronted him with having to question the absolute necessity of remaining part of a group identity and name. In the words of that great outlaw, convicted manslaughterer, grand larcenist, gallows escaper and officially banished poet Maitre Francois Villon:
“I’m biased against all laws impartially”.
Pomerand writes near the Introduction’s end:
I’d like to reflect on each and every word. I’d like not only to give each one a different subterranean meaning, but also to break its jaw and thus transform the face it apparently intends to possess forever . . .
I hope this book’s morphology borrows means from interior modes of writing and from diverse other manners to better expose its inner workings, the digestive system of the organism.
Moreover, I don’t insist too much on diverse means, for they’re as varied as the universe of graphics.
What’s essential is to not live on what’s inherited, to not accept ill-gotten gains, and to ponder the potential for other, richer meanings.
What’s essential is to reflect on each of these expressions and to find substitutes that go beyond an illustrated Larousse (dictionary).
In Saint Ghetto’s Introduction, Pomerand makes clear both his debt to Isou and Lettrism and also his independence as an artist and thinker in his own right. Heretically, Pomerand locates and expresses his interests, intentions, ideas and images in phrases which are highly charged and ambiguous at the same time. On the one hand, they sound like the words of an artist who has found himself via Lettrism, been liberated by it into new creation. On the other hand, they can be read as saying, Lettrism gave me a go ahead sign, but it was I found the way and made this map, of Saint Ghetto. And the map shows that the continual way of creation, the avant-garde, proceeds as something separate from whatever names are put on it, for these end up putting limits on the limitless, or price tags on objects in the market, labels on images in museums. In short, the avant-garde too can become a ghetto, by becoming attached to names, having names attached to it. And as “Saint Ghetto” one can end up worshipping at its shrines and trapped by the hold on one it has by the loans it doles out at exorbitant interests. In Maitre Villon’s understanding of the situation:
“What’s to do? Redeem again my pawned goods!”
No doubt Isou made me a sign once, in the course of I no longer know what lost morning, but not only have I alone made my work, but also all my tools, focusing especially on research fro a system of intrinsic figuration . . .
I want it understood that only the avant-garde of the intelligence itself preoccupies me, and not at all the schools this avant-garde fits into. I dread the day when the name of the invention--which is a phenomenon of commodification--overshadows the real search for transgression.
I love perpetual risk and effort of every kind, whether it is fighting against rules or against the nature of things.
Pomerand lived from day to day, under the bridge one night, in a posh hotel the next. Feast or famine, looking like a bum or dressed like a millionaire. (Vian recounts people’s surprise on finding the married Pomerand always immaculately shaved and coifed and dressed. His wife in their brief marriage, Roxane, to whom Saint Ghetto is dedicated, was the daughter of the insurance agent for King Farouk of Egypt.) Pomerand had a decidedly Villonesque character to him; in the words of Master Francois:
In my own country, I’m in a distant land
Beside the blaze I’m shivering in flames
Naked as a worm, dressed like a president . . .
I’m sure of nothing but the uncertain
Finding nothing obscure but the obvious
Doubt nothing but the things that are sure
Knowledge to me is mere accident
I keep winning and remain the loser . . .
I never work yet I labor
To acquire goods I don’t want . ., .
I’m biased against all laws impartially
What’s next to do? Redeem my pawned goods again!
People who knew Pomerand during those first roller coaster years noted that the only thing he ever could be counted on to always have in his possession was his beloved ball point pen, then new on the market.
If you look at the history of visual poetry in the West, you will find that very often periods marked by renewed interest in it, and many new explorations and creations in it, coincide with times of appearance of new technical means and techniques of transcribing, copying, printing, and distributing words and images. Saint Ghetto is also a child of the dawn of the ballpoint pen era.
After 1949, it was more than the uncertainty of his lifestyle that played a part in this growing inner independence from even his attachment to Isou and Lettrism. In that year, the same in which he converted to Greek Catholicism in order to marry, and began work on Saint Ghetto, Pomerand also learned he had tuberculosis. From the mid-Fifties on, he was quite ill with the disease (sometimes nursed by Juliette Greco) and also had developed a drug habit. (A lifestyle for which he was already well prepared.) He continued to paint and though expelled from the Lettrists in 1956 for “laziness”--despite his devoting his entire life to the movement from 1946-50 and writing five books and many pamphlets, participating in the movement’s most important demonstrations and events--his works continued to be shown in Lettrist exhibits into the 1960’s. (When the Lettriste Internationale split from the Lettrists in 1952, they had purged Pomerand immediately from their ranks on the grounds that he was a “falsifier’ and a “nullity”.) He produced a book for the Livre du Poche in the early 60’s and in 1966 his contribution to drug literature, Le D. Man, from his experiences with LSD. In 1972, he committed suicide.
Eerily, after singing loudly the praises of Saint Ghetto/Saint-Germain in the book’s first half, Pomerand envisions the horrors of its being turned inside out, the poets being hung, (the haunted shades of Villon), everything happening as though in a chiseling of the first half’s amplifications.
And, the final chiseling, after the exposing of the place as a simulacra which has replaced the original:
Besides there’s no Saint germain des Pres.
There’s only scenery . . .
Saint germain des pres is like Donogoo-Tonga, a neighborhood specially built for the needs of foreign clients--like Venice for American tourists- . . . .
Come firefghters. Come Machinists.
Carry off the scenery of Saint germaine des pres.
You see, there’s no one left, no one, but me, down on my luck, all alone like a dog howling at death in the solitude of an empty desert.
Ending his Introduction, Pomerand notes the doubled meaning at the core of his life’s goal: “Throughout my life, I’ve had no other goal than to be an extremist, at that battlefront which alarm clocks suggest even as they lure us into the traps of life.”
I find myself thinking of the entwined destines of Isidiore Iou and Gabriel Pomerand, two teenagers meeting over 60 years ago in a cafeteria for refugee orphans, even French orphans like Pomerand, arrived from Marseilles. One is advocating a continual renewal and revolution via creativity, the other, who becomes the disciple, is the extremist wanting to be at the battlefronts. One still lives in his apartment near their original meeting place, continually creating, the other, via this book’s bi-lingual reappearance a half-century later, still at the battlefronts.
But just as the alarm clock rings both for battlefronts and the traps of life, so Pomerand’s writing in his Introduction that he “dread(s) the day when the name of the invention . . . overshadows the real search” and that “only the avant-garde of intelligence preoccupies me, and not at all the schools this avant-garde fits into” has a chilling trap to it.
In this case, the trap isn’t life, but one’s place in history.
In 1946, in the scandalous Lettrist Dictatorship, Pomerand had written: “Dans l’histoire due lettrisme, j’ai ma place fixee a l’avance, cette place qui m’attend deja depuis toujours, comme un tombeau.”
“In the history of Lettrism, my place has been fixed in advance, that place which already has always been waiting for me, like the tomb.”
In honor of Gabriel Pomerand still being at the battlefront, read and look at his book to find him, his work made by his tools, his hands and in his own “write”. And also allow him to tell you about back home and his old friend still living and working there.
In both cases, Pomerand’s Rosetta Stones for you to find and learn the keys to the new hieroglyphs/hypergraphs of his and Lettrism’s.
And besides, since the history is not over, being in continuous creation, and Saint Ghetto back in circulation in the open air--can we really think that Gabriel Pomerand is in his tomb?
[Footnote 1. Those claiming Lettrism’s enormous role in May ’68 are confusing it with Situationism, which, as the Lettrist International, had split from Lettrism in 1952. The LI became the Situationist International in 1957, and played an important part in especially the student events beginning in Strasburg in 1966 with mass dissemination of a Situationist tract “On the Poverty of Student Life”, illegally paid for with University funds, and leading up to and including May 1968 in Paris. Via Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren, the SI had a huge and enduring influence on Punk. Though declared over with in 1972 by founder Guy Debord, the SI continues to inspire, influence, mutate and develop, as well as cause controvery and arguments worldwide. The Situationists’ direct influence on the slogans of May ’68 is well known; Lettrist influences showed up in the making of posters, most often by art students, also by some Lettrists. The poster art, seen in newspaper photos and on tv, influenced posters in other countries that year—USA, Mexico, Czechoslovakia for example. These events and their effects have been astutely mythologized since the interpretations of May ’68 began—in June ’68 of course. Except in mainly student circles in Paris, none of this mattered at the time to the rest of the fifty million people in France, 11 million of whom went on strike on their own. Due to strikes in the transportation, telephone, telegraph, mail, and for a period tv, very little was known for example in Arles, where I lived at the time, of what was happening in Paris. There was some radio news, but always taken with a grain of salt—who in such times would be telling you anything but what they themselves wanted to hear? Besides, everyone was enjoying a month on strike, including against news. I had been reading about Situationism in the newspapers in 1967-8 due to its notoriety from the Strasbourg “scandal”. Some tracts had even reached Arles. Living in Paris in 1969 is when I first encountered Lettrism, by chance seeing a small exhibition of works, mainly posters, attracted by the bright colors and dancing forms.
A Few Books in English With Accounts of Pomerand and of Lettrism
Lipstick Traces A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus--Dada, Lettrism. Situationism, The Sex Pistols, Punk as modern millenarian movements-lots of documentation, photos, quotes--
The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents From Lettrisme to Class War by Stewart Home a classic--also an assault on lot of the movements included, by a former Neoist--very sardonic humor--very informative-available online here
Manuel of Saint Germain des Pres by Boris Vian On the spot reportage, gossip, history, of the post WW2 years in the neighborhood--Pomearnd has page to himself with photo and brief handwritten sound poem--and several references to him--tons of photos--
The Tribe--interviews with Jean-Michel Mension, lots of photos--this is about the early days of the Lettrist International, after the split with the Lettrists--Guy Debord and company in what Debord saw as the golden age--
Some Lettrist Sites On Line
The major site in English, Kaldron at Light and Dust
Best site by far even if you know no French: the Site Officiel of Lettrisme--endless links to visual works, sound works, news of current exhibition and happenings—etc etc--profusely illustrated with Lettrist works and photos of Lettrists and Lettrist history--http://www.lelettrisme.com
Also a very good Italian site linked to this, in French and Italian: http://lettrisme.org
On-line Lettrist bookstore: http://www.lettrisme.com
As well as blogs--there is a blogger named “Pomerand” always busy with a lot of news and photos for example
For Situationism--the official sites with the original documents in English--and then hundreds of sites, links, blogs, music downloads, video etc
For Lettrist Sound Poetry and Films: ubuweb.com has excellent collection
David Baptiste-Chirot: born in lafayette, indiana, grew up in vermont. lived in gottingen, germany, arles & paris, france, hastveda, sweden, wroclaw, poland, boston and milwaukee. since 1997 essays, poetry, visual poety, performance/event scores, sound poetry, prose poetry have appeared in 90+ print journals, dozens of web journals and sites, 300 mail art calls. several books: found rubBEings (Xerolage 32) ANARKEYOLOGY (runaway spoon)REVERBERATIONS (Lulu) ZERO POEM (Traverse) tearerISm (singlepress) HUNG ER (neotrope) and chapbooks, work in many anthologies in USA and UK. google search david baptiste chirot / blog: davidbaptistechirot.blogspot.com. "I work with a profound faith and energy in the found, everywhere and always to be found."