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Coda: Pages from an R.D. Book: Time and the Anthropocene

Coda : Pages d’un livre sur R.D. : le temps et l’anthropocène
Stephen Collis


Cet essai, composé à la manière des carnets de Duncan, rend hommage au poète en relisant The H.D. Book comme un traité sur le temps aux prises avec l’élaboration d’une poétique donnant la réplique au défi lancé par Charles Olson dans « Against Wisdom as Such », pour concevoir l’acte d’écriture poétique comme tentative de « courber le temps ». Suivant ce raisonnement, on s’attache à montrer qu’il est nécessaire de voir la poétique duncanienne au carrefour du temporel et du spatial, tant elle est façonnée par la simultanéité autant que par le collage.

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April 29 2019

1I first read The H.D. Book some 25 years ago, finding in it a politics of poetic form – a conception of the polis and political life that only poetry has seemed capable of articulating. In returning to the Book this spring, however, it struck me that it is also very much a book about time – a book which offers a theory of time, and a book which pins that theory of time to the particular times the poet was writing in – times which remain, and have become only more so, our own. This made all the more sense to me when placed in the context of Olson’s “Against Wisdom as Such” challenge, to which The H.D. Book responds – I would argue – at length. Returning to the source of this argument in their letters, recently published in a volume edited by Robert Bertholf and Dale Martin Smith, I cite the following as both this talk’s belated epigraph and, essentially, its “thesis” as well. Olson writes: “This fact that time is a concrete continuum which the poet alone – I insist – alone practices the bending of” (Olson 43).

2The first thing I think of here are the “bent” times we are currently living in. David Wallace-Wells, in The Uninhabitable Earth, writes: “time is perhaps the most mind-bending feature [of global warming], the worst outcomes arriving so long from now that we reflexively discount their reality” (Wallace-Wells 13). The hallmark of the so-called Anthropocene is its untimely temporality: certain aspects of the future are here already – “locked-in,” history written before it arrives – just as the past is strangely present too – the distant past of fossilized organic life that we have dug up and burnt over the past few centuries, but especially frantically in the past few decades – thereby setting a fire that already burns in the decades of the century ahead of us, working our endarkenment on multiple time-scales at once. I will return to these sorts of questions shortly; all I want to mark here, at the outset, is the untimeliness of the present, which Duncan prefigures in a number of ways.

April 30

3Olson, in introducing the “bending” of time, references Jung and the concept of synchronicity and insists that poetry is “simultaneous”: “whatever is born or done this moment of time, has the qualities of this moment.” Olson’s initial critique of “wisdom” here is that it “isn’t a measure,” where measure is “time (rhythm is time, no? ‘flow’ I think rhein, the root, means ‘to flow.’” Duncan, Olson continues, has “proved” this in poems, that are not “in time,” not written merely “by time (metric, measure),” nor are they actually of the impossible (from Olson’s perspective) timelessness of “wisdom,” but rather are poem “of time,” embodying the “moment impressed.”

4While Olson appears to articulate two different notions of time here – temporality as “concrete continuum,” which I take to implicate space, and temporality as “flow” and “measure,” I will focus more on the former – on the idea that time has plasticity and substance; that it is material that can be bent. Let me begin by locating Duncan’s discussion of time in The H.D. Book, and by clarifying what conception of temporality we may be dealing with here.

5One, in fact, finds a discussion of temporality everywhere in The H.D. Book. This is in large part because Duncan’s reading of modernism is guided by Pound’s dictum that “all ages are contemporaneous” (Duncan 2011, 114) – a mantra he frequently cites and elaborates upon. I will offer only a few examples. “The drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate,” Duncan writes (Duncan 2011, 153), through a “dissolving of” the “boundaries of time” (Duncan 2011, 155). In H.D.’s work in particular Duncan finds a palimpsest of “time over time” – “a layered consciousness in which all times and worlds are to be found” (Duncan 2011, 106). Parallel to this, Duncan locates in the characteristic modernist texts a desire “to keep present and immediate a variety of times and places” (Duncan 2011, 168) – “These poems where many persons from many times and many places begin to appear [...] are poems of a world-mind in process,” he writes (Duncan 2011, 196).

6This is only a brief excursus, and I could go on, but even from this small sample we can draw certain conclusions. One is the influence of Gertrude Stein and the idea of the “continuous present” (which Duncan of course cites). The other would be Duncan’s extension of his Freudian thought into a wider cultural history: “The time of a poem is felt as a recognition of return,” he writes, “It resembles the time of a dream, for it is highly organized along lines of association and impulses of contrast toward the structure of the whole” (Duncan 2011, 99). In fact, all the various temporal threads of modernity combine and entangle here in Duncan’s thinking – Marx and the arrival, at last, of the proletariat on the stage of history, as well as the inevitable repetition of revolutionary practices as he outlines them at the beginning of the Eighteenth Brumaire; Nietzsche and eternal return; Freud’s return of the repressed; and Einsteinian relativity – all shaded of course either by a new reading of, or loss of faith in, social and technological progress – all this composing the flattened temporality that holds Duncan’s attention. But he sees in this potential temporal seizure the possibility of “an eternal order that challenged all other orders” (Duncan 2011, 67); “a unity of real time in which many apparent times participate” (ibid. 321).

7The temporality that allows the poet to bend time in this way, I would argue, is related to Einsteinian relativity. It’s this Olson has in mind when he writes of “measure” – behind him, William Carlos Williams in “The Poem as a Field of Action” (1948), asking:

How can we accept Einstein’s theory of relativity, affecting our very conception of the heavens about us of which poets write so much, without incorporating its essential fact – the relativity of measurements – into our own category of activity: the poem. (Williams 283)

8Duncan, of course, cites this passage in The H.D. Book (Duncan 2011, 188); I will not attempt any physics here, but will instead lean on the philosophy of time. Adrian Bardon, in A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time, notes the long-standing contest between “dynamic” theories of time which emphasize movement, change, and the flow of events from the future, through the present, and into the past, and the “static” or “tenseless” theory, which “treats time a lot like space” and sees past, present, and future as relative “subjective, perspectival terms” (Bardon 87). It’s this latter theory which is supported by the theory of relativity, and in which “All events exist timelessly in an eternal, unchanging order” (Bardon 88). Duncan, like Olson, would appear to subscribe to a temporal order which combines aspects of both the dynamic and static model – that is, a sort of movement that is perhaps best described as “bending” within an “eternal” and spatialized order or continuum. Duncan writes:

History itself, no longer kept within the boundaries of periods or nations, appears as a mobile structure in which events may move in time in ever-changing constellations [...]. Present, past, future may then appear anywhere in changing constellations, giving life and depth to time [...] a mobile and passionate impermanence in which Time and Eternity are revealed as One. (Duncan 2011, 173)

9The perspective from which – or the practice through which – “history” may “appear” mobile, and events shifting through “changing constellations,” I argue, is poetry. Poetry is a keeping of the relative measures, a bending of position relative to which the past ceases to be past, the future, future – all interpenetrated by the “movement” of the poetic series.

May 1

10I come back to this, present, bent almost broken temporal moment we live in now, with its threatening endarkenment. What Duncan writes of his high modernist forebears I feel I can now write of Duncan too: “Their threshold remains ours. The time of war and exploitation, the infamy and lies of the new capitalist war-state, continue” (Duncan 2011, 183), the threat of “total destruction” (ibid. 189). The long shadow of perpetual war – and a war not of one people against another, but – Duncan is clear on this – a war against life itself – against “world ecology” – it is this war that Duncan constantly positions himself before, spatiotemporally – before the war – one of the most common phrases in The H.D. Book.

11From here, I want to sketch out just three points. First, in terms of time, Duncan is most commonly focused on the return and recovery of the past in the present. Pound’s “all ages” are mostly past ages that are returned to “contemporaneity” (just read the Cantos). H.D. also weaves back from the present, to the past, back into the present. Where there is futurity in Duncan – where the future bends into the present and the past – it is largely an apocalyptic futurity related to the destructiveness of modernity, a moment in history “written upon verges of a total war to come, about which we can do nothing and which we can imagine only in terms of total destruction” (Duncan 2011, 189). There are numerous links that could be followed: to Duncan’s visionary “Atlantis dream,” to the specifics of the terror of looming nuclear annihilation – and the parallels between this and the growing terror now of climate catastrophe and the sixth extinction – to the fact that Duncan constantly weaves together war and time, carefully dissecting what war in fact does to and with time. The founding moment in this regard would be the narrative, set a Berkeley when Duncan is nineteen, about skipping mandatory R.O.T.C. drill – the bell for which he hears but chooses to ignore – to instead read poetry with Lili and Athalie in the first chapter of The H.D. Book: “Away toward duty, the one command of the State over us, the dutiful students went. In time. Toward the eleven o’clock drill. To march in time” (Duncan 2011, 64). To which Duncan opposes a different way to “keep time” – not of marching “to be prepared for War,” but a keeping of poetic measure – for “a moment of a poem was an eternal thing, from which many phases of itself radiated into time, where we might enter our share in a man’s isolation.”

12But – my second point here – the apocalyptic “nightmare content of our times” (Duncan 2019a, 119) is that “Man Himself, the species, has [...] rejected his commonality with the living” (Duncan 1995, 222). I have written, elsewhere, that the liberatory path forward now must be discovered in our solidarity with other forms of life, referring to this potential new revolutionary subject as the “biotariat.”1 Part of Duncan’s temporal project is to bend human and nonhuman times together so that “all the old excluded orders must be included,” “the animal and vegetative” amongst them, “admitted” at last “in the creation of what we are” (Duncan 2011, 154). It is easy to get carried away by Duncan’s fervor on this point – it is, he writes, “the contempt for the vision of the world ecology and animal life and for Man’s work and identity therein, that brings us to the brink” (Duncan 2019a, 120); “Man is but a species among many species. The ultimate intent of life is larger, and we will as men be judged in the courts of the evolving forms of the DNA” (Duncan 2019a, 130); “I’d like to leave somewhere in this book the statement that the real ‘we’ is the company of the living, of all the forms of Life Itself” (Duncan 1968, iii-iv). This is where, I think, Duncan is most timely in his untimeliness – most carefully jointed to these out-of-joint times. It is also where Duncan gives voice to a particularly radical ecopoetics, avant la lettre.

13And a third point. Like Marx, Duncan finds the proverbial silver lining or unanticipated epiphenomenon in a highly fraught historical development: where Marx saw the emergence of class consciousness and the ultimate rise of the proletariat from capital’s having gathered urban masses together for factory labour (sowing seeds of its own doom), Duncan, too, sees a possible “world ecology” and “symposium of the whole” as the potential outgrowth of the “imperial expansions” of modernity:

In time, this has meant our ‘when’ involves and is involved in an empire that extends into the past and future beyond times and eras, beyond the demarcations of history. Not only the boundaries of states or civilizations but also the boundaries of historical periods are inadequate to define the vital figure in which we are involved. (Duncan 2011,154)

  • 2 I have in mind the UK’s immigration policy, which has been widely written about and criticized. See (...)

14This is, I think, a central paradox of our times – part of the complex which hinders us in taking the needed action from within the “hostile environment” (as Duncan calls it, prefiguring contemporary immigration policy2) wrought by capital and empire. What has been called the Anthropocene simply builds the problem out: we recognize our common vulnerability as part of the totality of species threatened by a mass extinction event – just as we, this one species, lock in our common fate, still oblivious to our entanglement in a single fabric. Our ability to think through this paradox, to engage “the vital figure in which we are involved,” is, perhaps, everything now.

May 3

15Duncan, in the passage I have just quoted, is again focused on time – by the “sense of all times indwelling in our time” (Duncan 2019a, 138). The boundaries of historical periods have burst; we have never before knowingly lived through a transition to a new temporal era – however artificial such a notion is – it burrows into us now, returns us to the long tradition of apocalyptic thought – the difference being that we can measure the apocalypse now (in tons of carbon emissions), plot its course (feedback loops and tipping points), calculate its outcome (degrees of warming).

16It would seem it is impossible for me not to read Duncan as a harbinger of the Anthropocene and its climate catastrophe. But what is it I’m wanting to say? That in these bent-out-of-shape times, Duncan’s practice of bending time is – characteristic? A salve? I would in fact suggest that Duncan points us to poetry as a way of thinking the flexibility and contiguity of time; I am not suggesting it is a “solution”; merely an appropriate form of thinking the now, in all its convoluted mutabilities. “The secret of the poetic art,” he writes, “lies in the keeping of time, to keep time designing or discovering lines of melodic coherence” (Duncan 2011, 378) – “intensifications of pattern in history” (Duncan 2011, 379) – “the presence of one time in another” (Duncan 2011, 380).

April 20 2020

17I come back to this daybook – a sort of homage to Duncan’s own – almost exactly a year later. The times feel both the same, and utterly different. But temporality is still very much at the forefront of my sense of what the moment means: the stopped time of isolation, the slow time of quarantine, the bent and refracted present, stretched out so that we cannot yet see its moving limit, cannot locate ourselves in a mobile time.

18What these pages lack, focused as they are on Duncan’s working through of his temporal thought in The H.D. Book, is an exploration of the same in his poetry. I can offer, here, just a glimpse, but what I would like to claim is that by taking Duncan’s temporal poetics seriously, as fundamental, in fact – a legacy of his meeting the challenge Olson posed – one reads a characteristic aspect of Duncan’s poetry slightly differently. I mean here his grand collage: what readers of Duncan have so often thought of – and Duncan himself frequently referred to – as a collage (with all its juxtaposed spatiality) is also, just as significantly, a synchronic simultaneity – a “contrapuntal communion of all things,” as he writes in “Orders: Passages 24” (Duncan 1968, 78). It is not simply textual fragments or diverse references that are being tesserated together in a spatial field, but a bent temporal field in which the poem allows instant travel between discrete temporal moments. I think this is most apparent in Duncan’s mid-1960s prophetic anti-war poems – the prophetic mode being by definition one of time-bending, directly linking, in meaning making ways, particular pasts to particular prophesized futures from the ground of a fraught and shattering present.

19“Orders” has as its present context the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic, captured in the repeated refrain: “From house to house the armed men go / in Santo Domingo” (Duncan 1968, 77-78). The US intervention, which began with troops landing on the island on April 28 1965, must have seemed an extension of the country’s imperial activities in Vietnam – a parody thereof, perhaps, just as the “armed men go” line parodies Eliot’s women “Talking of Michelangelo” in “Prufrock.” Duncan bends time from this topical present to touch upon such bloody precedents as the 1209 CE massacre at Béziers and the contrasting West African epic Gassire’s Lute, originating perhaps in the kingdom of Wagadu, which flourished from circa 300-1100 CE, and which, set “against” (as Duncan writes) the contemporary events in Santo Domingo, as well as those of Béziers, reveals a contrasting “commune of communes” (Duncan 1968, 77) – a principle of cosmic connection found only in song. In terms of prophetic vision, Duncan refers, via Proclus’s commentary, to Plato’s eternal and unchanging universe from the Timaeus, within which the fragile and changeable qualia of historical events are mere “corruptions” of the unchanging higher order. So Duncan bends several temporal planes together in order to deliver his condemnation of present events, using time, as it were, to lift his poetry outside of time, and so reach the “good of the intellect” (Dante’s il ben dello intelletto from Canto III of the Inferno, referenced in the opening lines of Duncan’s poem) – his own communal interpretation of Plato’s cosmic vision:

    There is no
good a man has in his own things except
  it be in the community of everything;
        no nature he has
but in his nature hidden in the heart of the living,
in the great household.
    The cosmos will not
    dissolve its orders at man’s evil. (Duncan 1968, 79)

20Crucial to the poem’s vision is that this “communion of all things” is not only a “chrestomathy” – a collage woven of disparate textual passages – but that it is also at once “contrapuntal”: a simultaneous performance of multiple discrete songs that “sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole” (Rahn 177). To weave the whole – to sing towards a cosmic totality, as Duncan strove to do, despite Olson’s uneasiness about the sort of “wisdom tradition” such an ambition would seem to entail – is as much a matter of space as it is time, as much collage as it is synchronic counterpoint. Indeed, I would argue that the same mixing of spatial collage and synchronous counterpoint reveals the true shape and motive tension in all Duncan’s major visionary political poems in Bending the Bow, including “The Fire: Passages 13,” “The Multiversity: Passages 21,” “Up Rising: Passages 25,” and “Passages 26: The Soldiers.”

May 7 2019

21The last chapter of The H.D. Book begins with an apocalyptic vision: “Glimpses of the Last Day,” Duncan writes, invoking Bosch and Brueghel, “a countryside with fields and hamlets laid waste by war or by industry and mining” (Duncan 2011, 547).

For I have never seen a city under fire, but hitch-hiking thru West Virginia and Pennsylvania, I have seen such desolate and wrathful landscapes at night where man’s devastating work has raised great mountains of slag and left great pits in the earth, burning wastes and befouled rivers that appear an earthly Hell. (ibid. 547).

22In the environmental movement’s critique of fossil capital, this would be standard fare. Duncan, however, turns from this to the poetry and poetics of time – to Pound and H.D. again, and to Olson and “Against Wisdom as Such.” From a dream and vision of “last days,” Duncan comes back to Olson’s comments on time-bending so that – even amidst the apocalyptic vision – he would draw “not conclusions but beginnings” (Duncan 2011, 569). It is telling that, in going over Olson’s commentary, Duncan says very little about “wisdom” itself – the focus, again, is on time. I think what Duncan is taking from Olson here comes down to this: “that a poem is one example of a man-made continuum” (Olson 263).

23Poetry allows the poet to model the plastic continuum of time – to make a “man-made” version of time; it thus might enable a potential thinking through and beyond the apocalyptic. Duncan calls poetry “a pending material of the need for a new transformation” (Duncan 2011, 531). “In the vocation of Poetry, some poetry yet to be calls us” (Duncan 1995, 215) – always calls us, always pending – poetry bends the future back like a bow, although it is a bow with no arrow in the notch, no target in sight, but rather a tension we must hold onto.

May 8

24I want to end on what is perhaps a more quotidian point – a point about the duration of a poetry reading. In a “Preface to a Reading of Passages 1-22,” Duncan describes his serial poetry – as he does elsewhere – as “a series having no beginning and no end” (Duncan 2019b, 302). But this collapsing together of past, present and future, as I take it, occurs here in the continuum of a reading, comes “out of the total ground of the poem in the presence of its auditors” (Duncan 2019b, 304).

In the true form of the poem all its parts co-operate, co-exist. What we hear at last has long proceeded what remains of what first we heard. It is our own Memory-field as we listen in which the truth of that form is created, in which, as we comprehend the form, all its parts are present in one fabric. (Duncan 2019b, 303)

25However abstract and difficult the idea of “static time” may be – however complex a temporal poetry Duncan wanted to imagine – however untimely the Anthropocene’s unfolding apocalypse might seem to us – poetry, the poet contends, gives us access to a bendable time, and therefore to a “fabric” we all share. We can feel it – we can to some extent grasp it – as the time of a reading unfolds, and the words that have proceeded, and the words yet to come, contend in a space that is the poem’s real unfolding.

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Bardon, Adrian. A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Bertholf, Robert J. and Dale M. Smith. Eds. An Open Map: The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017.

Duncan, Robert. Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968.

Duncan, Robert. “The Delirium of Meaning: Edmond Jabès.” Robert Duncan: A Selected Prose. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf. New York: New Directions, 1995. 208-226.

Duncan, Robert. The H.D. Book. Ed. Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Duncan, Robert. “Man’s Fulfilment in Order and Strife.” Collected Essays and Other Prose. Ed. James Maynard, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019a. 220-230.

Duncan, Robert. “Preface to a Reading of Passages 1-22.” Collected Essays and Other Prose. Ed. James Maynard, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019b. 302-304.

Olson, Charles. “Against Wisdom as Such.” Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Rahm, John. Music Inside Out: Going too Far in Musical Essays. Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 2000.

Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: Lafe After Warming. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019.

Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1969.

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1 See, for instance, (accessed 29 October 2020)

2 I have in mind the UK’s immigration policy, which has been widely written about and criticized. See, for instance, (accessed 29 October 2020).

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Stephen Collis, « Coda: Pages from an R.D. Book: Time and the Anthropocene »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Stephen Collis

Simon Fraser University
Stephen Collis is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including The Commons (Talonbooks 2008), the BC Book Prize winning On the Material (Talonbooks 2010), Once in Blockadia (Talonbooks 2016) and Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten (Talonbooks 2018). In 2019 he was awarded the Latner Writers’ Trust of Canada Poetry Prize in recognition of his body of work. He is also the editor, with Graham Lyons, of Reading Duncan Reading: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Derivation. He lives near Vancouver, on unceded Coast Salish Territory, and teaches poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University.

Stephen Collis est l’auteur d’une douzaine d’ouvrages de poésie et de prose, dont The Commons (Talonbooks, 2008), On the Material (Talonbooks, 2010) qui a obtenu le BC Book Prize, Once in Blockadia (Talonbooks, 2016) et Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten (Talonbooks, 2018). En 2019 il a reçu le Latner Writers’ Trust of Canada Poetry Prize pour l’ensemble de son œuvre. Il a également édité, avec Graham Lyons, Reading Duncan Reading: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Derivation. Il vit près de Vancouver et enseigne la poétique et la poésie à Simon Fraser University.

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