Reviews -- Shame : A Collaboration

..."[W]hat may be the most original – and deeply fascinating – text in Kelly’s quartet [of recent publications] is a long prose collaboration with the German-born Swiss poet Birgit Kempker, called Shame.... Kempker is 21 years Kelly’s junior, so that the project engages not just language, gender & geography but generations (or perhaps, in scare quotes, 'history') as well. This book ranks with Lyn Hejinian & Leslie Scalapino’s Sight, as one of the most ambitious & fully realized collaborative poems ever written. The text is 118 pages long, presumably with Kempker & Kelly alternating passages, Kempker writing in German peppered with English, Kelly writing in English peppered with German. Those are the right-hand pages of the book. On the left are translations of these passages, English into German & vice versa so that the total book comes in at around 240 pages. The 'salted' passages of English in the German texts (und vice versa) are left in their original tongue in these translations, but positioned in italics. Actually, it’s more complicated that this, in that both poets felt permitted to respond in the midst of their translations and these are also included, in italics & bracketed by slash marks. ...The tone of this project is extraordinary – abashed & shame-faced, guilty & perpetually self-flagellating, a work of extraordinary masochism – and a text as erotic in its own way as any of the novels of Kathy Acker’s. This, you might point out to M.L. Rosenthal were he still alive, is really what confessionalism means." -- Ron Silliman,

"After reading Shame/Scham I felt compelled to augment the publisher's statement, 'Above all, Shame/Scham is a collaboration.' True, but its ambitious and complex so much more. Through the synaptic-like prose passages, one has the pleasure of witnessing the commencement, development and fruition of a dialectic marriage between two bodies of language. ...The collaboration/relationship of Shame/Scham begins as many do, one person nervously sounding the other, attempting to anticipate his/her responses, feelings and/or opinions, the other answering similarly...."Kempker writes, 'Reading means" to make room for fear', to which Kelly responds by asking 'Aren't we ashamed, also ashamed, to have feelings?'...After establishing many of the motifs of the book, both Kempker and Kelly lengthen their responses as they grow more comfortable in each other's company and begin to confront their differences. The rhythm of the prose accelerates, as the pace of feelings demands an equally paced response. The subjects revolve around revelation (historical, religious, sexual, psychologically, imaginative), violence and shame, and the textual resistance to the reader strengthens.... Through the previous groundwork formed by the meditations on shame's embodiment within the individual, the authors are able to confront the disparity of their own sexual politics through the filter of Rilke. From these moments, the authors realize their final stage of relation, the acceptance and embrace of each other's subjectivity....--James Belflower, First Intensity (#21, 2006)

"Shame shapes," says Kelly to Kempker and vice versa, as they take turns shaping shame. They keep sliding into each other's sounds, images, associations--as the shape-shifting beast melds two authors, two languages. One tongue ceases to feel a foreign one, after Robert and Birgit persuade us, through their provocative projections, that shame in all its permutations is in fact our common native tongue. -- Mary Caponegro

Shame is a radical text of the 'third mind' collaborative genre, multivalent and operational. What is our shame? What is our ambivalence of imagination, confession, sexuality, history? Who takes responsibility, who notices, apologizes or hides? Kelly and Kempker's bilingually enfolded meditation revolves, pivots, torques, litanizes in stunning American German language space. These poets face the shameful world before them (gegenüber / literally 'facing opposite') with passion, erudition, brilliance. There's nothing like this stretching out there. 'Haut plappert' / 'Skin chatters'. 'Shame is waiting.' -- Anne Waldman

Miraculous epistolatory transformations of that painful pleasurable emotion alchemically into sheer lucidity. -- Hakim Bey

From Joshua Corey's blog [Cahiers de Corey] on Shame:
In spite of a cold, made it out here yesterday and immediately took a 6 train downton to see the Elizabeth Robinson / Robert Kelly reading at the Bowery Poetry Club. ...The ventilation system rattled like ice in glasses throughout Elizabeth's measured, witty, and quietly charismatic reading. ¶ Robert Kelly was something else again. With his leonine appearance, deep and velvety voice, and the legacy of a lifetime of poetry behind him, he cut an extraordinarily impressive and yet charming figure. He makes a life in poetry look like the only life to live. A compelling reader who persuaded me as I've rarely been persuaded that I was in the presence of a genuine visionary, almost a Blake—a Great Poet. He began with a remarkable poem about Moses as stutterer from his new book Lapis that made me want to go out and buy it immediately. But I was blown away by the selections he read from another new book...: a book-length collaboration with the German poet Birgit Kempker called Shame.... Apparently they wrote the book in e-mail correspondence with each other and then each, though hardly a master of the other's language, translated the other's contributions. The parts Kelly read had German and English embedded in them (Germglish?) and the theme, which he claimed at one point to be the theme, the theme of the Odyssey and Hamlet and dozens of other classics of world literature, was the return of the repressed. He read from the last section of the book—a tour-de-force meditation on a shameful childhood memory, on Proust's Madeleine-as-Magdalene, on the shame of trespassing on the borders of the invisible, that had me and I'm guessing most everybody else breathless.

A review by Carey Harrison from READY STEADY BOOK (
Picture a composite face divided down the centre, uniting a beautiful German muse to a fierce-looking, white-haired Celtic bard, and, behind the face, a literary collaboration between one of the finest of contemporary German writers and the American poet who for many is the greatest English-language poet since Ezra Pound, writing alternate sections on a common theme. This theme is shame. Muse and bard hold between them, like a bedsheet that must be folded, their theme and their shame at veiling and unveiling it. With each act of folding the two authors come closer and closer to each other and their most intimate pain. Moreover, the sheet is double-sided. On one side is Schande, German for shame, since Birgit Kempker writes her mostly prose sections in German in this remarkable book; on the other side, in alternating passages of no less poetic prose, Robert Kelly responds by addressing shame in English. Meanwhile either author translates the other's confessional outbursts into his/her native tongue, so that Shame/Schande, the book, consists of facing pages in German and English, respectively. The book is thereby present twice: all of Kelly and Kempker's meditations face each other across the seam, on one side in German and on the other in English. Composed in an exchange of emails (the co-authors did not met until after the work was completed), Shame/Schande is less a collaboration than a conversation, a correspondence not unlike the letters between prospective marriage partners in the age before instant communication. Here we have a prince, and a princess, as it might be, who have never met and yet are risking everything on a life together. Who are they, and how much dare they tell each other of who they are? On the other hand, how much dare they hide? As a topic for an exchange of poetic meditations, shame compels a narrative: first, evasion and disguise, then a disrobing, and at last, the shameful truth. Being poets — Kempker, the sphinx of Basel, is also a prose writer and media artist, Kelly a novelist as well as a poet — they long to tell the truth, or more precisely to be told by the truth, so it isn't long before we penetrate the mine of excuses and reach the coal-face. There, like an ancient devise, we find man and woman, face to face. I put a spell on you are the opening words of the book, written by Kempker, for whom the heart of shame is her experience of unfreedom, the unfreedom of the captive heart. For Kelly, it is freedom that lies at the heart of shame, the ruthless freedom of the errant heart. Can these two shames ever hear each other? Reading Shame is like listening in on a terrible domestic confrontation couched in allusion. You left me! Cries the woman. I had no choice, cries the man. Shame is sudden, always lurking, and little altered by circumstance. Shame is a recurrence; a short, painful story. Shame is a long one, 235 pages. How will our collaborators maintain the confessional trajectory? Mystery is intrinsic to the process, and our twinned authors are mystagogues by calling. Shame is a mystery, in the sense of a rite; it is not a darkness, and we know all too clearly what it is that binds us in shame; as we know that light alone will not release us. The narrative of Shame and its repeated alternating returns to the confessional — to each contribution could easily be added an initial "Bless me, father…" — proves to lie in the doubled dialogue the book offers us, a dialogue not only between alternating riffs but also between author-as-translator and his/her victim, the author being translated. The fact that Kempker and Kelly not only write their section but translate each other's utterances provides the book with its richest intertextual as well as intratextual matter. For monoglot readers, both sides of the conversation lie on the page, entire, German on the left-facing pages, English on the right, like a perpetual dialogue des sourds. For the polyglot, the book discloses a second conversation, since Kempker and Kelly translate each other's contributions with an author's élan no less than a translator's solicitude. As translators both authors attend to each other's musings with love and attention; at the same time, both tangle their own motifs with their correspondent's, and permit the bilingual reader to study a further, secret confessional text to be found by comparing the original and the translated versions. Kempker plumbs the pain of being left, Kelly of leaving. How well do they hear each other? How, when not only two souls but two languages are communing, will they overcome the obstacles to communication? First there is the necessary, fertile imperfection of all translation from one language into another, a process not so much cursed as blessed by loyal and devoted alteration. (What would an exact rendering be, if it were feasible, but an oxymoron, a black hole, an evacuation of meaning and a self-denial of the translating language? Happily it isn't possible, except in sad dreams of monoculture.) We look gratefully, then, to the willed and wilful inappositeness in Kelly's Kempker and Kempker's Kelly. It is a continuation of the conversation; and a continuation of the not-quite-hearing-right that is all conversation. Secondly, there arises the question of deliberately not hearing. Did one K misread, misunderstand the other K, or prefer, as we all do, to speed the chase by rewriting the other's thoughts, the better to address their real substance? How like a court of love, a you-first mutual accounting of the heart, this book is! And the third veil that hovers between the reader and the twin texts is the restraint that either K shows, when translating, when resisting the urge to dance off with the text, when curbing the harmonics which the very process of translation rouses; when admonishing him and herself, in turn, to be faithful! What a deal of shame, in the very process of translation! At last transgression gets the upper hand, and we glimpse the genesis of future shame as the translator makes amorously free with the interlocutor's words. Ich hoppel im Liebesfeld, writes Birgit Kempker, throwing open (perilously vulnerable Kempker!) the singular range of hoppel, a word with close relatives in English, ranging from hop —more often in discomfort than delight, in German — to hobble. Robert Kelly translates: I lollop around the field of love, a delicious image, with a sound to match. But Kelly has yielded to the enticements of a passing verb-maiden, and run off with the lady. Lolloping love is no closer than cousin to hoppel-ing love, and aptly so: rather than expressing Kempker's hobbled love, Kelly juxtaposes Kempker's love and Kelly's love, Kemper's hoppel-ing shame and Kelly's helplessly lolloping shame. Buried in Shame, tracing Kempker and Kelly's modulations not only in the way they address the theme when it's their 'turn' but in the way they re-dress each other's meditation, in translation, lies the conversation a listener holds with the material or he or she hears. Shame belongs on every reader's shelf — and no-one will easily set it aside who sees the book's remarkable cover, on which one half of a Kempker-face meets the other half of a Kelly-face to form, out of two strikingly disparate physiognomies, a startlingly homogenous (if implausible) face, one that somehow suggests that each of us is really like this, if only we could peel back one hemisphere of skin to show our twin within. And who could let pass this opportunity to read the oracular, multitudinous Birgit Kempker, the very spirit of German culture resurgent, peerless, as it always was, in its breadth and depth, as the agile Kempker returns the ball, confession by confession and invention by invention, while the incomparable Robert Kelly, whose song only acquires greater sparkle and deeper resonance with each passing year, obliges Kempker to reach deep and draw high and wide in her voluminous imagination. Sometimes it's a duel, sometimes a duet. Now their song is antiphonal, at other moments it's like listening to Chet Baker's trumpet winding itself, vine-like, around the trellis-staves of Gerry Mulligan's baritone. It is the best volume of poetic prose I have read in a long time, beautifully presented by the publisher, and it will endure. Carey Harrison's novels include Egon , Richard's Feet , and most recently Justice.

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