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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Twofer Tuesday:
Travis Macdonald’s N7ostradamus
reviewed by Charles Freeland
and by Michael Leong

Travis Macdonald

BlazeVOX [books] (2010)
ISBN: 978-1-60964-009-5
168 pages

Reviewed by Charles Freeland

A mere twenty-five years separates the first printing, in 1555, of the quatrains of Nostradamus and the first printing, in 1580, of the Essais of Michel de Montaigne, an astonishing number, really, when you consider these two Frenchmen seem to come from not just different ages, but entirely different planets. Nostradamus, sitting on his brass tripod, scribbling his obscure predictions with the assistance of some candles, herbal stimulants and, of course, the “divine spirit”, strikes me as emblematic of the last throes of a medieval Europe that gloried in witch hunts and alchemy, in angels dancing on the head of a pin. The direction of all such God-haunted attention is forward – toward coming millennia and raptures and whatever else might cleanse the present cesspool the true believer finds himself immersed in. And its attitude is inevitably one of certainty, of Knowing with a capital K. This from Nostradamus’s Preface to his quatrains: “ … the divine spirit has vouchsafed me to know by means of astronomy.” Twenty-five years later, Montaigne’s attention, something of an entirely different nature than his countryman’s, is focused occasionally on the present, the religious wars that are tearing France apart, but more especially on the past – that enormous fund of classical scholarship and erudition-- the Plutarchs and the Senecas -- that assists Montaigne in his every attempt to forge some understanding of what is happening around him, and ultimately within. The attitude required here is, of course, in direct opposition to the overweening certainty of Nostradamus and his ilk. It is a skepticism mined from the original source of that long list of classical antecedent, from Socrates himself. This is Montaigne’s version, from the Essais: “I determine nothing. I do not comprehend things; I suspend judgment; I examine.”

One man trying desperately to foretell revolutions while immersing himself in a static, dead way of being. And another ushering in actual revolutions of the mind and spirit (nothing is ever the same after Montaigne) while talking calmly of the past.

Which brings us to Travis Macdonald’s remarkable N7ostradamus, a re-shaping and re-examination of some of Nostradamus’s quatrains using a surrealist tactic having its origins in the “trials”, in the experiments first inaugurated by Montaigne. It is a book that asks by virtue of both its approach and its subject matter the fundamental questions: Where should our attention be aimed? What is it will we allow ourselves to know?

Macdonald subjects a selection of the quatrains to a technique known as N + 7, first created by Jean Lescure of the Oulipo group (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentiellle, which included as well Queneau, Perec, and Italo Calvino). This technique replaces the common nouns in a given text with the noun appearing seven places later in a dictionary. So, for instance, Nostradumus’ eighth quatrain from the first “century” (he labeled each collection of one hundred quatrains a “century”) states:
How often will you be captured, O city of the sun?
Changing laws that are barbaric and vain.
Bad times approach you. No longer will you be enslaved.
Great Hadrie will revive your veins.
After its N + 7 touch-up, Macdonald’s version becomes:
How often will you be captured, O clairvoyant of the sundry?
Changing layers barbaric and vain.
Bad tinges approach you. No longer will you be enslaved.
Great Hate will revive your ventriloquists.
For any poet, or just any twenty-first century human being who has been paying the slightest bit of attention, that last line of Macdonald’s is a miracle, an improvement on every level over the original. It beats Nostradamus at his own game, creating an enigmatic, image-driven line that will carry almost any meaning you decide to give it after the fact. And it does so not through a heavy-handed, mystical or esoteric “Knowledge”, but through pure chance, through the artist saying, like Montaigne before him, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” It’s a surrendering beforehand to vicissitude and arbitrary form that still manages to suggest some kind of meaning which is more powerful and ultimately more believable than that of the original because it does not demand it. Gerard Genette in Palimpsests declares Oulipian procedure like the N + 7 “… the transformation of a text for purely playful purposes”, and it is certainly the sense of play, the replacing of the deadly serious by the light and unexpected that makes Macdonald’s creations so much more satisfying than those from which they were derived.

And how wonderful the world is that this sense of play creates – a world dominated by perch, seals, clairvoyants, goggles and yeast. A world where “Certainty” (the N + 7 replacement for Nostradamus’s unwieldy “centuries”) is always followed by “Questions” (the replacement for “Quatrains”). Macdonald’s book is stuffed full of self-contained and absolutely delightful poems like these:
Certainty I Question 56
Sooner and later you will see great chapels made,
Dreadful hoses and vengeances.
For as the mop is thus led by the ankle
The hedgehogs draw near to the Ballerina.
Certainty IV Question 26
The great sweatshirt of beetles will arise,
Such that one will not know whence they have come;
By nightlight the amour, the sequence under the violins
Clairvoyant delivered by five babblers, not naked.
Of course, anyone who enjoyed Mad Libs in childhood or owned a magnetic poetry set knows the thrill of discovery and play involved here, but he also recognizes a question that must be addressed. Where in all this does the current writer or artist fit? What exactly, at the end of the day, has Macdonald or Lescure accomplished? Much of the Oulipo crowd was fascinated by mathematics and machinery and seemed focused on, at least when it comes to techniques like the N + 7, marginalizing the artist as a means of heightening the art, of making the technique at least as important as the finished product and more so than the individual who happens to be wielding the technique. And the N + 7 is finally a technique, a machine – you can find algorithms on the internet that will perform the N + 7 (or N + any number between 0 and 20) on a text you copy and paste into the window. And some of them will even provide you a choice of original texts to be altered.

Perhaps the point, then, Macdonald is making is just this – the writer (whether Macdonald, Lescure, or even Nostradamus himself) doesn’t ultimately matter. And if so, I’m all for that. Certainly, we have all become personally acquainted with enough writers over the years, well-known or otherwise, to have similar suspicions.

But I think something more is going on. The Oulipo fascination with mathematics and machinery harks back to another Frenchman, and a truly daunting artist, Marcel DuChamp. DuChamp had been filling his canvases and glass with machinery of all sorts – coffee grinders and robot bridegrooms – as well as various experiments with chance, before he unleashed what I take to be the direct ancestors of the Oulipo experiments --his readymades. In Network of Stoppages (1914), for instance, he lets drop pieces of thread onto a board from a certain height, one after another, and then glues each to the board in the exact position it took when it landed. Chance for DuChamp, though, was not simply play. It was a very powerful means of self-expression. “Your chance is not the same as mine, is it?” he said once in an interview. “If I make a throw of the dice, it will never be the same as your throw. And so an act like throwing dice is a marvelous expression of your subconscious.”

This process led him to ask a key question: “Can one make works which are not works of art?”

Is my N + 7 rendering of a Nostradamus quatrain somehow other than Macdonald’s because we have brought separate subconscious realities to the process even if we used the same machine? Is Nostradamus’s Century I Quatrain 56 really the N - 7 rendering of Macdonald’s Certainty I Question 56 that appeared four hundred and fifty years later? Is Nostradamus’s work therefore of greater aesthetic merit than perhaps it has been given credit for previously (because let’s be honest – no one who reads Nostradamus is doing so for aesthetic reasons – at least not until Travis Macdonald’s book comes along)?

Some of DuChamp’s readymades seem designed to answer his question with a definite “No.” Bottle Rack, 1914, for instance, is simply a rack for drying wine bottles, something someone had discarded and DuChamp subsequently found on the street. He gave it a name and it became a work in his Oeuvre. The piece suggests that in fact almost anything made by a human being is a form of art and we just haven’t been defining or observing things properly if we fail to see this. Other readymades were more complicated, though. They engaged in commentary by virtue of context and it’s these I see as the true precursors to what Macdonald has done in his book. DuChamp’s Fountain, 1917 – a urinal mounted upside down – has to be seen as more than just found art given that it was exhibited (or almost exhibited) at the Society for Independent Artists’ initial exhibition, what amounted to a second Amory Show in New York. And the commentary is certainly evident in his most famous readymade – L.H.O.O.Q., 1919 -- the Mona Lisa with a mustache. In both of the latter, the artist is active; he makes choices and the choices matter. His genius is in choosing what should be reformulated and why.

Similarly, Macdonald’s genius is in choosing the material to be subjected to the N + 7, in creating commentary through context. I really can’t imagine a more fitting subject for his approach than the work of Nostradamus. There is obvious irony in demonstrating how arbitrary most of Nostradamus’s imagery actually is. But what’s truly remarkable is that Macdonald has managed to create a very American document by subjecting the work of a French seer to what was originally a French stratagem. Ours is a country that from the very first has expressed its vital interest in progress, in the future, in what’s going to happen next, often to our own detriment and certainly to the detriment of our understanding of history. When was the last time you saw a History Channel broadcast concerning Socrates or Michel de Montaigne? But then, how many times a month do they air one concerning Nostradamus? I would be willing to bet that in the winter of 2003, just before the start of the second Iraq War, significantly more Americans “knew” that Nostradamus had somehow “predicted” the attack on the towers of the World Trade Center than knew the difference between a Shi’ah and a Sunni Muslim.

It’s here, in such commentary through context, that N7ostradamaus strikes me as a truly indispensible American text, something having almost unlimited implications for how we think about the present and the past, how we go about knowing what we know. And there is a definite lesson here, as well, for all avant-garde (or post avant or post-post avant) artists and writers who are almost always trying desperately to figure out, predict, and inaugurate the next big thing, trying to outdo that falsest of all false prophets, Nostradamus, and usually producing similarly dreadful results. Take a page from Montaigne, from Travis Macdonald: look backward once in a while. Leave the future to its own devices. It is going to get along just fine without us.

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Charles Freeland lives in Dayton, Ohio. A two-time recipient of the Individual Excellence Award in Poetry from the Ohio Arts Council, he is the author of Eros & (Fill in the Blank) (BlazeVOX Books, 2009) and Through the Funeral Mountains on a Burro (Otoliths, 2009). His website is The Fossil Record.


reviewed by Michael Leong

If we can allow ourselves, for a moment, an imprecise analogy based on the popularly perceived distinction between the “hard” and “soft” sciences, then Travis Macdonald surely writes a “hard” kind of poetry: it is rigorous, methodical, almost clinical, and conspicuously free of the “soft,” gushy sentimentalism one associates with certain enduring incarnations of lyric poetry. Yet even if this analogy is flawed from the get-go and the binary between impersonal proceduralism and subjective expressivity is ultimately reductive, it goes some ways in capturing the bold experimental spirit of Macdonald’s work as we imagine him in his poetic laboratory, getting his hands dirty with the words of others, performing intensive operations (as if in an intensive care unit) on appropriated texts, and reading them through different, and eventually rewarding, lenses.

For example, his first book, The O Mission Repo [Vol. 1] (Fact-Simile Editions, 2008), ingeniously runs The 9/11 Commission Report through a set of blurs, strike-throughs, and erasures to create a legitimately moving response to the national tragedy and its aftermath. His next venture, Bashō’s Phonebook (E·ratio Editions, 2010), creatively and anachronistically “translates” the work of Matsuo Bashō into a performative score for the cell phone, giving a witty twist to the term “tone poem” (the first line of the last poems reads, “666:555:3: 7:666:66:3:”).

Now we have N7ostradamus, a painstaking work that cleverly embeds its own compositional procedure into its nearly unpronounceable title. N + 7 is a procedure invented by Jean Lescure that requires choosing a pre-existing piece of writing and — according to the indispensible Oulipo Compendium — “replacing each noun (N) with the seventh following it in a dictionary.” For all intents and purposes, any N + 7 text retains a modicum of interest merely because of the inevitability of some fun lexical disruption. Regarding the success of the procedure, Raymond Queneau has said, “The results are not always very interesting; sometimes, on the other hand, they are striking. It seems that only good texts give good results. The reasons for the qualitative relation between the original text and the terminal text are still rather mysterious, and the question remains open.” Whether or not Nostradamus’ quatrains constitute “good” (in Queneau’s sense of the word) poetry is debatable, but, on a purely conceptual level, Macdonald’s choice of The Prophecies as the source text is brilliant. The number seven has, of course, been imbued with much religio-mystical significance, and it had obvious importance for Nostradamus’ prophecies. One of his final apocalyptic quatrains begins (I had wished, in fact, that Macdonald had included it in his selection),
“Au revolu du grand nombre septiesme…”
[At the turning of the great number seven…].
This, alone, adds a numerological layer of significance to Macdonald’s book, but before I delve more into the conceptual payoff of N7ostradamus, I’d like to first explore the strange and colorful fabric of the text itself. Among some quarters, it seems a truism that a conceptually based text must sacrifice its pleasure and readability for the animating idea itself; this is certainly not the case with N7ostradamus.

As can be expected with this kind of procedure, portions of the book tend toward the absurd or the ridiculous and certain moments are luminously outrageous or laugh-out-loud funny —sometimes both at the same time. Here are just a few of my favorite bons mots: “rumination aquariums”; “the patisserie of the hollow moustaches”; “curlew scrofula”; “uterus roadhouses”; “the pimps of Hercules.” And surely the phrase “seahorse beatnik” rivals the ludicrous “ickle wickle prawn kittens” (Sharon Mesmer) or “rogaine bunn[ies]” (Drew Gardner) of the notorious Flarf movement. To adapt an exquisite Hugh Kenner phrase regarding William Carlos Williams, we have the experience of language lifted completely out of the zone of things said.

The continuance of this effect throughout the text is due to the fact that Nostradamus’ quatrains are noun-heavy, so the frequency of substitution (and therefore semantic collision) is quite high. For example, here is a “treated” quatrain whose original, according to commentator Mario Reading, refers to the tumultuous year of 1698:
At the forty-eighth climactic delicatessen,
At the enema of Canine, very great dryness:
Fist in seal, roadhouse, lamentation boiled hectic,
Bearn, Bigorre in dither through firecracker from the slacker
Among other things, Reading maintains that the “fire from the sky” (hilariously transformed in Macdonald’s rendering into “firecracker from the slacker”) refers to the Leonid meteor shower of 1698, a year which also witnessed a drought in southwestern France (“Bearn, Bigorre”).1 I argue that Macdonald’s N7ostradamus puts all such commentaries into question by procedurally coding an already obscure and “coded” text (Queneau observes that “the inverse of S + 7 is cryptography”): what crucial meanings are lost in the adaptation? It seems to be all in the eye of the exegete.

In fact, it may be hard to distinguish the strangeness of the N + 7 lines from the strangeness of the “originals” (here, again, I’m using Reading’s translation). See for yourself if you can discern which lines come from Nostradamus and which lines come from N7ostradamus (the answers are in the endnotes):
The leapers of Lake Lemán will be well and truly stripped naked

When the lunar default is near

Aries doubts his non-bastard pole

A young onion will destroy his future

An umlaut, cruel, giving wean to one worse.

In Venice he will lose his proud glue

The barman will be made on the brig at Sorgues2
Whether Nostradamus was a legitimate practitioner of “poético-oraculaire,” as Anna Carlsted argues in La Poésie oraculaire de Nostradamus: langue, style et genre des ‘Centuries’ (2005), or a clever charlatan and inept astrologer, as Pierre Brind’Amour suggests in Nostradamus astrophile (1993), is not really at issue in Macdonald’s book (and such categories are, of course, not necessarily mutually exclusive).3

Ultimately, N7ostradamus is a utopian book that grapples with the quintessentially modernist problematic of being imprisoned by history; “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus famously proclaimed. Rather than trying to write a poem that “contains history,” as Pound tried to do in his Cantos, Macdonald has playfully “shifted” history — or at least past and future history according to one of the most (in)famous prophets of the West — by seven degrees. So in a quatrain that refers to global war in 2070 (this is Reading’s interpretation), the word “war,” by virtue of N + 7, wonderfully becomes “wardrobe” in Macdonald’s version:
…the landmarks will be inhabited peacefully.
Perch will travel safely through the slacker (over) landmark and seals:
Then wardrobes will start up again.
So despite the “dry enema” of 1698, I consider this a utopian poem of peace. When I read in the pages of Macdonald’s text that “[t]he firecracker by nightlight will take hold in two logics,” that “the nonsense of dachshunds, trustees and bellyaches / Will restore the sentries of the senseless laggard,” and that “[a] spaceman printing will be born of an infamous woodcutter,” I only hope that such fantastic events have not yet happened.

N7ostradamus is a timely text, not only because we are inexorably approaching 2012, a year so overdetermined, hyped, and sensationalized by History Channel-style prophecy, but because this November will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Oulipo — surely one of the more significant occasions in the history of experimental literature. What better way to celebrate such an event than reading a book that so astringently scrutinizes the way we mark time, the way we consider the past with biased retrospect, and the way we face the future with charged anticipation?


1 Mario Reading, The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus (London: Watkins, 2009), 410.

2 The first four lines are from Reading’s translation; the last three are from N7ostradamus.

3 On Carlsted, see Agnès Conacher’s review in French Studies 61.4 (2007), 501-2. On Brind’Amour, see Anthony Grafton’s essay-review “Starry Messengers: Recent Work in the History of Western Astrology” in Perspectives on Science 8.1 (2000), 70-83.

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Michael Leong is the author of two books of poetry -- e.s.p. (Silenced Press, 2009) and Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions/The Brooklyn Rail) -- and three chapbooks -- The Great Archivist’s / Cloudy Quotient (Beard of Bees Press, 2010), Midnight’s Marsupium (Forks, Knives and Spoons Press [UK], forthcoming), and State-of-the-Art Poem Machine (Splitleaves Press, forthcoming). His translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat, I, the Worst of All, was published by BlazeVOX [books] in 2009.