Ewa Ziarek


Ewa Plonowska Ziarek

“‘To Be Continued’...: Conversations On ‘The Life and Letters’ with Irving Feldman”


“You are not Irving Feldman, are you?”  I asked the only guy reading ArtVoice at the Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue. From the look he gave me–‘ have you lost it, lady?’ – I gathered he was not you.  Luckily, you showed up a few minutes later and recognized me– “you must be Ewa,” you said.  You checked me up on the web; I brought with me your Collected Poems. Once we started to read and talk about All of Us Here, we forgot to order coffee.

A poetic counterpoint to George Segal’s life-size plaster sculptures, to his “plaster casts of real people,” All of Us Here still remains for me one of the most captivating, philosophically and artistically most challenging, of your long poems. Haunting from the beginning to the end:

“they are motionless, they are mineral, and white.

And therefore, in  reluctant recognition of

an order of immobility so old

that death itself must seem the junior partner,

our rich laughter turns to chalk and powder

in our mouths, and we yield this place to them” (CP, 225)

And so we did.


It was perhaps not by chance that what precipitated this gathering of “all of us here” on Elmwood Avenue was your “My Olson Elegy.” It appeared as an attachment to your e-mail parodying  the ironies of the institutionalized celebration of “Olson Now” in Buffalo.  You were as provocative and acerbic in your e-mail as you were in your poem “the glowing memorialists.” Competitive gestures of self-aggrandizement  masquerading as  tributes to another poet: “Three weeks, and now I hear!/What a headstart for the other elegists !”  (CP, 75).  (Retrospectively, I think that line–“What a headstart for the other elegists !”–was always somewhere at the back of my mind whenever we argued about irony in your poetry.)  But then in the middle of biting irony the elegiac tone inserts itself quietly and has the last word in the poem:

“now you are heavier than earth, everything

has become lighter than the air” (CP, 77)


What has followed was a long exchange of e-mails.  Rereading this electronic correspondence I’m surprised about how many ideas we touched upon, argued about, reflected upon. Poetry of course; but then there were horror movies (which I never watch), and restaurants and rivers, and the best choice of cars, discussions of irony, fine distinctions between snobbish irony and the fighting irony of common people, feminism and election politics, fado music and opera, potentiality and bliss. Not to mention hikes on the Goat Island. I can think of nothing better than transplanting and arranging here some of the excerpts of that correspondence.  With additional  comments, of course (how could I refrain?).  Giving gifts already given, which, I hope, can be enjoyed again.


“Dear Irving,

Here I am, waking up at five o’clock in the morning and thinking about your reading last night. As always, different selections of poems create new constellations, which disclose new threads.... new connections I haven't noticed before. I must confess I have a rather diasporic reading your version of a  prodigal son in “The Life and Letters,” a reading colored perhaps by Krip from “Beautiful False Things,” a poet hearing himself reading in translation and eating his own tongue in that instance of madness.   Anyway, your prodigal seemed like an immigrant son writing letters to his mother, perhaps because his condition reminded me of endless migrant letters sent home, letters faking reality to which one does not quite belong and trying to confirm the fantasy of “having made it over there”–a reassuring fantasy for the parents back home:

“Then from out there and for years the prodigal

wrote back to them–indolent letters, lying

about jobs, a wife he found, kids they had...”

My favorite lines come in the last part of the poem:

“An old piece of paper.

Wrinkled. Worn.


But there, between the words, in the smeared void

he saw his sentence spelled out” (CP, 279, 282)

On another level I was thinking about the strange relation/contradiction (?) between prodigal letters leaving home and squandering paternal inheritance, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the anxiety of influence that clings so possessively to the self- proclaimed inheritance from various famous “Others”-- Scylla and Charybdis of writing to be avoided?

Listening to your public reading  made me realize (again)  how hospitable your poems are to the multitude of voices, stories, personae. The world of the Coney Island, New York City’s streets, art galleries and the voices of other poets and artists, not to mention the intimate voices of relatives and friends. Dante side by side with Louie from Florida asking urgently about Buffalo weather in “the Call”:

“I guess he’s asking about the family

he left behind–do they miss him,

the wind and the rain and snow

the immortals from long ago? and after all

what good would it be to survive alone?

And so I tell him what he wants to hear,

“Lousy, Lou, the weather’s worse every year” (CP, 263)

And then on a slightly perverse note  about I was thinking about Blake , since so many of your poems begin with the crashed, trampled, or destroyed innocence (“They,” for instance)–a destruction  that calls for a witness. And then your ironic rendition-- (here comes irony again; despite your many disclaimers, and we can argue about it some more, an ironic tone is such a frequent counterpoint in your work to elegies and “gentle” reconciliations )-- of the faked regaining of “innocence” in “ In Theme Park America.”

Well enough of my raw rambling...Have a wonderful time in Hawaii and let's get together when

you come back.




I still can’t believe you persuaded me to watch a horror movie! I HATE all horror movies and, no, I didn’t like BUG either. In fact, I watched it in the kitchen, with my back to the TV screen most of the time. But then having an opportunity to talk about  horror, death, ecstasy and knowledge–that’s quite a different story. By the way, Irving, “violence and bliss”–will that not bug those on the lookout for ‘moral intensities’ in your poems? I hope it will, and I mean it as  praise.

On Thu Feb 7 15:43 , Irving Feldman sent:

“Dear Ewa,

To continue...tentatively...about your interesting suggestion linking complete knowledge, mortality, horror: In and of itself complete knowledge (of whatever world, no matter how

minuscule) satisfies the condition of mortality, i.e., further living would be superfluous, otiose; and complete knowledge wouldn’t be horrible ? on the contrary, it would be (as in the case of Dante’ s preparatory periplum) the threshold to the highest bliss, to new life. I can imagine this is also the case with Aggie in  Bug.  She is blissful in knowing fully and finally ? but what she knows is the triumph of the alien within her, and this is horrible. Bliss and horror together (expressed perhaps in her declaring herself the mother of all mothers)! Amazing. I hadn’t thought of this before. (In “Ivan Ilich”  they’ re sequential, not simultaneous: the pain,  the sum of all his lifelong evaded pains, precedes his joy.)

So, I can imagine Aggie’ s self-immolation to express her consummation--she knows everything! and at the same time it aims to destroy the inner alien in the instant before it becomes her entirely, becomes both the contents and the vessel, and gives birth to itself in its quest to infect the world, to make the world over as itself.

It seems to follow from this that, in destroying the alien, she achieves a second, transcendent bliss because to know she is destroying it is the final piece of knowledge she lacked, indeed hadn’t known was there to be known. (Hers is an evolving knowledge, an evolving bliss.)

(I can see the flames as purifying fire, as her knowing made visible and consuming what she knows, turning the tables on the alien by subsuming it: knowing her, it thrived in her ignorance; now it dies in her knowledge.)

My “Honors” poem seems quite otherwise: there death is wholly unknowable since it’ s portrayed as unable to know/ what it cannot understand: ungraspable life.  So, its radical otherness: we can’ t know what can’ t know us. And the ‘ more-than-mortal [and less than immortal] outcry’  at the end is wholly ignorant ? and doomed ? in trying to transcend, through sheer force, what it cannot know. It is, as it were, a cry without a context.

Warm regards,


“Dear Irving,

Thank you for sharing your reflections..." a cry without a context"–an intriguing way of putting the experience of transcendence. One can't do away with that cry, even in the final scene of the movie; I wonder to what degree it undoes any pretension to complete knowledge

Anyway, looking forward to the reading.


On Wed Feb 20 11:41 , Irving Feldman sent:

“Dear Ewa,

Interesting question whether a “cry”  survives the characters at the end of BUG. Maybe such a cry can be seen figured in the final immolating flames which destroy the conspiracy theorists’  false world of a totalizing context and, in the blackness of an eye’ s blink, leave a purged space in which a new world will begin. Not, then, the lyrical “outcry”  (in  Honors!...) of asserted being in the contextless void created by unknowable death. BUG’ s dancing flames are, in contrast, alive with the promise of the new life to follow.

Of course, complete knowledge is a fiction, and the conspiracy theorist’ s specific delusion lies in confusing his fiction with reality. The c.t. can be taken as an extreme example of someone for whom “the world is text.” But I wonder whether works of art in general can be seen as fragments or sketches or compressions of what is felt to be a completely known world  what I called in a poem  a world of revelation.  I can imagine what Nabokov called “esthetic bliss” deriving from this.

Which leads in, to me, interesting directions, as, for example, the misunderstood nature of  mimesis and  realism ...

Need I say that I abhor anything complete, totalizing, or even definitive  (The last part of “Flight from the City” is, precisely, about that, and ends with a scream  I won’ t try to characterize now.) Have just been trying to understand the mindset of conspiracy theory (and its cousin, ideology), and learning a lot in doing so.

A domani! Irving”


“13. Forbidden: hairsplitting, pessimism, fantasy.

14. Enjoined: knowledge, good humor, the exchanging of gifts” (from “A Player’s Notes,” CP, 142)

Amidst the talk of horror and bliss, the exchange of flowers. Prodigal transplanting from one garden to another, Gail’s bouquet of old English roses, which survived the onslaught of Japanese beetles on my kitchen table, inserted themselves from the very beginning into our conversations.  These were parallel acts of translation, generosity, quotation.  Not without their own risks– Echinacea plant eaten by the deer! – and delightful surprises– the small offshoots of the ancient lilac bushes taking roots in my garden. The daring flight to the universal of magenta Cosmos interrupted by a transient face of the day lily.

“On Fri May 2 18:14 , Irving Feldman sent:

Dear Ewa and Kris,

Gail has left a bouquet of flowers for you behind your house.




There it was, it was bound to happen, once Messiah showed up  unexpectedly, we started to argue (politely, of course)  about transcendence.  And immanence.

27 march 08

“Dear Ewa,

“I wonder if you know The Writer’ s Almanac, where Garrison Keillor reads, on NPR, a poem a day. This Sunday he’ ll read my poem ‘ The Dream.’  writersalmanac.org will podcast it on iTunes. Strange choice for Easter Sunday. Not so for a secular Easter Sunday.

Warm regards to you both, Irving”

“Dear Irving,

Congratulations on having your poem red on The Writer s Almanac, nested between Handel’s “Messiah” and American science fiction. We missed the reading on the actual Sunday but could listen to it on the Internet. “The Dream” fits strangely between these otherwise incompatible

trajectories-- one could even say that your Messiah, shunned like a beggar or turned away by

the overworked mother working on worldly festivities, creates a mocking wrinkle in the

religious messianic traditions and in science fiction traditions, both of which  can take us away from discovering new possibilities in our world. As you say, a  very interesting choice for a secular Easter Sunday, especially, given the  framing ( Handel, etc) preceding the actual reading, which resonates with our previous conversations about transcendence, irony, and conspiracy

theories/complete knowledge.  I’ve been thinking about the way our most recent reflections on

potentiality somehow re- phrase, or perhaps make more dynamic, the previous discussions, which, whether it’s transcendence or irony, presuppose a static conclusion, a conclusion either affirmed or undermined (as in the case of irony). My favorite lines you quoted:

“we don’t want to be halted by identities,

we want to go on becoming in wonder”

suggest that a link between possibility and ecstasy lies in the movement, the  movement of language, becoming, and desire. A horizontal movement rather than a vertical one? Or both at the same time? 

Forgive me for going gone on. All I wanted is to say is to thank you for sharing your reflections... As for the dinner, April 12 is a Saturday and that evening would work for us very well. So let’s meet there at 6:30?

Till then


“Dear Ewa,

Perhaps vertical and horizontal ecstasies can be distinguished in this way: the vertical are rapturous, while perambulatory (and dancing) ecstasy is like the ecstasy defined in this little poem of mine:

For J.M., His Poems

“To prove that ecstasy can be kind,

your charm lifts us into new worlds

without demanding

we leave everything behind.”

So, the sweet-tempered, rather than tempestuous, strollers of ‘This couple strolling here.’  And also, and oddly, the ecstasy offered in the Messiah’ s door-to-door ministry in ‘The Dream’  ? offered, and then fulfilled by my mother in the small, domestic heaven-on-earth she creates. (I intended something different from your reading of the last stanza: her chores are transformed, given a gentle, abiding transcendence, by her wish to make everything  festive.)

Finally, with her compassionate penny and cake, she redeems the shunned, homeless redeemer. Thrilling to me to imagine this: Messiah has taken the coin, he holds it in his fist, and walks along eating the cake! And so the parable is completed: he has been brought into and stays in relation.

This view of Messiah I made explicit in an earlier poem, ‘Progress,’  where (in section 2) he is contrasted with universalizing revolutionary rapture. I was trying to answer the question: Why is Messiah’ s coming so retarded? Because he must win the assent of each person. And that takes a long time.

(I attach the poem, since I omitted it from the Collected. The muralist Siqueiros was a Communist and was involved in the murder of Trotsky in Mexico City.)

Still much to say about irony and transcendence and stasis and other topics, but I fear I’ ve already taken you too far from your work.

I leave tomorrow (through Tuesday) for Los Angeles and my son and his family. Emailable there, as usual. Will make the Byblos reservation when I get back.

Warm regards to you both,



Somewhere along the way, my work on feminist aesthetics of potentiality and Woolf provoked another exchange of letters and conversations. Rather than to comment on it, let me juxtapose a fragment of my prose, which you have heard rehearsed in several different orals versions, with your reflection on “the ecstatic openness of poetry”:

“Although Woolf shares with Agamben the desire to distinguish and to rescue a potentiality from the will to power, she nonetheless presents us with a fundamentally different problem, namely with the liberation of potentiality from impossibility and historical waste. What is at stake for Woolf in the question of potentiality is the survival of women’s unrealized capacities despite their destruction, despite the perennial opposition of “you cannot.” Haunted by the hostile voice “whispering in her ear, “Women can’t paint, women can’t write” “can’t paint, can’t write” (To The Lighthouse, 48, 159) and the demand that “they all must marry” (49), Lily Briscoe, for instance, hardly finds the courage to continue painting. It is very fine but politically crucial distinctions between unrealized capacities, unrealizable capacities, and the destroyed capacities, since in the case of femininity this distinction has been systematically erased and reduced to the absence of potentiality. Although Agamben begins his essay “On Potentiality” with the reference to the female Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, who, standing outside the prison to hear the news of her imprisoned son, utters “I can,” he does not pursue this feminine inflection of possibility in the face of  its destruction. In so doing, he misses the opportunity to interrogate not only the relation between potentiality, impossibility, and gender, but, more fundamentally, the relational aspect of Akhmatova’s feminine and poetic “I can” uttered in response to the question from another woman, also waiting in front of the prison to hear the news of her family, who asks the poet “Can you speak of this?”  One can imagine multiple significations of this question, ranging from desperation and impossibility (how can one speak of this) to the urgency of the almost impossible request imploring the female poet to witness and speak about the destruction to which she herself is subjected. And what is crucial in this scene is that Akhmatova’s “I can” is a response to this imploring question from another woman rather than the pronouncement of her capacity or her own initiative. This means that potentiality cannot be understood, as Agamben seems to suggest, in terms of the isolated subject and what he “can or can not do,” because it is a fundamentally relational concept, emerging from the encounter with another “you.”(From  Ziarek, “Woolf’s Aesthetics of Potentiality”)”

On Fri Mar 21 15:58 , Irving Feldman sent:


Dear Ewa,

Your appreciation of “Ecstasies”  is finely put and suggestive, and has set me thinking about ecstasy and openness as well as the “poetics of potentiality”  more generally. I seem to have taken these up in a number of poems, but two, in the light of your remarks, strike me particularly.

The ending of “This couple strolling here”  (in  All of Us Here )presents with its virtual crowd of strollers  a gentle, subtle (and literally perambulatory) vision of ecstatic openness:

“we don’ t want to be halted by identities,

we want to go on becoming in wonder.”

In “ The Tower”  (in  Fresh Air ) the human ladder (of firemen, as it were) reaches up, like a successful Babel, to snatch away the prerogatives of jealous heaven, and so rescue ? and achieve ? the human ( ‘His daring that makes the world come true’ ):

‘Arms uplifted,

he holds the whole sky open,

plucks the radiance from the fire,

the baby Now from the sky’ s never!’

And a bit later, ‘we, set free, have walked away/ on the sand’ s radiant

reaches  and  NOW/ the little kids go racing after/ and smack up geysers,


What these two very different poems suggest is that the poetics of potentiality doesn’t describe a self-sufficing contemplative state but  the movement implied in ecstasy, implicit with going on, with new acts and choices. As does  potentiality  itself, filled with gravity at its height, prepared to flow into kinesis.


Dear Irving:

“A gentle, subtle vision of ecstatic openness”–I can’t imagine a better place to suspend for now this collage of quotations and letters.

Have a wonderful Birthday and  a sweet piece of cake (but remember to share it with a shunned Messiah should she/he show up). Hope this day will open for you plenty of new potentialities just as your work opens them for “all of us here.”

To be continued...

With warm wishes,