Herman Melville – all cut up

Herman Melville

In the 1960s, encouraged by the American poet and painter Brion Gysin, William Burroughs began to experiment with a cut-up technique of writing. He would take a page from a novel by Graham Greene, for example, and cut it into four columns A, B, C and D. He would then rearrange the columns in an order such as C, A, D, B. and glue them to a sheet of paper so that he was able to read the text across the lines of the page CADB as though the words had been written in that order. What interested him was to see what new images and combinations were created in this new arrangement of words.

In an interview, Burroughs stated: “Any narrative passage or any passage, say, of poetic images is subject to any number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in their own right. A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images. Rimbaud images—real Rimbaud images—but new ones.”

Some months ago I tried a variation of this technique. Instead of cutting up pages, I consulted a concordance to the work of the American writer, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. I searched for usages of the words, ‘bone’, ‘dust’, ‘love’, ‘dream’ and ‘rose’. The text below is a compilation of those references as they occurred in my research.

Dust on the moth’s wing

She was bone of his bone
and his very bones
are as whispering galleries
He laid her bones
upon some treacherous reef
with the bones of the drowned
Not dust to dust but dust to brine
he is dust where he stands
he had dead dust for ancestors
the penalty we pay for being
             what we are—fine dust

Did I dream a snow-white skin
firmament blue eyes :
this beautiful maiden
who thinking no harm
and rapt in a dream was a dream
We dream not ourselves
but the dream dreams within us
How the firefly illuminates its body 
for a beacon to love
Long he cannot be
for love is a fervent flagellant fire
love is all in all—all three : red rose
bright shore and soft heart
             are full of love

Loved one love on
who fell into the very snares of love
Love the living not the dead
great love is sad
             and heaven is love

Dreams dreams golden dreams
: noon dreams are day dreams
Are all our dreams then in vain?
What dream brought you hither Romeo
And sweet Juliet what dream is it
that ails your heart ?
We are but dolls of joy and grief :
breathe grow dream die
             —love not

This earth’s an urn
for flowers not for ashes
Brush your tears from the lilies
and howl in sackcloth and ashes
as thoughts of eternity thicken
Duration is not of the future
but the past : we must build with
the calendar of eternities
Sad rose of all my days : a song sung
             on lips of dust

He’s seized the helm
eternity was in his eyes
Dash of the waves against the bow
and deep the breath of dreaming
Such perils that lie
like a rose among thorns
Her delicate white skin
tinted with a faint rose hue
             like her lips
like rose pearls that once bruised
against my aching skin
             left love stains

Your rose, my sweet
I unfold its petals
and disclose a pearl
yet the full-blown rose
is nearer to withering
than the bud : and Emily asked
             how far is it to hell ?

John Lyons


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