The sea doesn't have to be a wall

Photograph taken by Havana poet Marcelo Morales on August 14, 2015. It depicts poet Richard Blanco with an enthusiastic crowd on the occasion of the reopening of the United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Courtesy of Marcelo Morales.

Innocence is important
It has meaning
It can give us
Hope against the very winds that we batter against it.

— Jack Spicer, from Admonitions (1958)[1

At the function dedicated to reopening the US Embassy in Havana, Richard Blanco read from a poem that declared: “No one is other, to the other, to the sea, whether / on hemmed island or vast continent, remember.”[2

His poem, “Matters of the Sea,” projects optimism about unity and renewal — or is it didacticism? — diplomacy? All of the above? The seascape serves as a common space: 

No matter what anthem we sing, we’ve all walked
barefoot and bare-souled among the soar and dive of seagull cries.
We’ve offered our sorrows, hopes
up to the sea, our lips anointed by the same spray
of salt-laden wind.[3]

In the print copy of this poem, now published in a bilingual chapbook, its subtitle (“A Poem Commemorating a New Era in US-Cuba Relations”) is immediately followed by data corresponding to the function: August 14, 2015 / United States Embassy / Havana, Cuba.

The multidirectional symbolism of Blanco’s presence at the embassy that day could be a subject of an entire analysis in its own right, beginning with the reflection on otherness that I’ve foregrounded here. Blanco’s poem is written in a vocabulary addressing all of humanity, yet can be applied to Cuba-specific issues. His translator, Ruth Behar (a researcher and writer who is well known for her studies of Jewish Cuba, among other topics), recalls that when writing the poem Blanco took up a remark she had recently made about the island: Behar proposed that the historical “diversity of peoples and cultures on the island is so deeply rooted that no one is ‘the other’ to anyone in Cuba.”[4

Seen through the sea

When read at the embassy for an audience theoretically dominated by Havana residents, the poem could project special meaning for Cuban families divided between the island and diaspora. At one time the otherness produced by their spatial divisions signified political opposition and was addressed through a vocabulary of revolution versus exile. Later, with global realignments associated with 1989 and the segue into the twenty-first century, Cuban diaspora continued to diversify and to take on more economic pulsations. In both models, the sea can be more associated with division than unity.

Blanco: “We all belong to the sea between us.”[5]

Cuban outsiderdom across generations has cut more than one direction across the waters. Blanco’s birth to Cuban parents in Madrid gives him one biographical origin “outside” the island. The fact that he was raised in Miami connects him to a second exteriorized Cubanness, pegged to one side of the mental bridge linking and opposing Miami to Havana. 

In a preface to the poem Blanco offers more rhetorical revision that enhances his public stance: “The sea doesn’t have to be a wall.”[6] His reconfigurations of the water, their repetitions, their very functionalism all seem appropriate to the context of the event. I cannot imagine the intense pressure on Blanco’s shoulders that day, and at intervals ever since, or the immensity of listeners’ need for him to embody grace.

In his reading at the embassy, where he officially represented the United States, Blanco simultaneously gave voice to and washed across multiple forms of otherness. On the US side Blanco previously held the public responsibility of reading “One Today” at Barack Obama’s January 2013 swearing-in ceremony, so for some viewers, his public symbolism is permanently heightened by the many layers of meaning attached to the US inaugural event. Back in 2013, Blanco was not only described as the first immigrant to serve as inaugural poet but the first Latino, the first openly gay person, and the youngest writer to serve in this capacity. 

These descriptors reappear here and there throughout the companion texts to “Matters of the Sea / Cosas del mar.” The biographical note included in the chapbook portrays a poetic identity shifting between various points of opposition: “The Cuban Blanco or the American Richard, the homebody or the world traveler, the scared boy or the openly gay man, the engineer or the inaugural poet.”[7]

Seen from the ground

In the audience outside the US embassy that day in 2015 was thirty-eight-year-old poet Marcelo Morales.  Like many island-based Cubans, Morales was deeply curious about the effect of recent pronouncements by the Cuban and US governments about change to come. He took his camera and photographed Richard Blanco amongst the islanders who assembled at the event. Morales, who like most island writers had little acquaintance with Blanco’s earlier work, was pleasantly surprised by how much he liked Blanco’s reading and took in the spirit of optimism and unity that carried the day.

Attuned to his environment, Morales had already been incorporating a patient interrogation of change and its emotional ripple effects into his own work, which moves in search of epiphany and along the borderlines between self and society. When he heard Blanco speak, Morales had recently completed The World as Presence / El mundo como ser. Like that book, which was published in the fall of 2016, his current, unpublished work in progress continues to read less as a completed argument about change than as an ongoing meditation. 

While Morales leaves space for hope and faith in his work, there is also space for their loss. In notable contrast to the governmental environment for Blanco’s reading, Morales includes lines indicating overt suspicion of all politicians. It’s doubtful that selections from The World as Presence would ever be read for anyone’s state function. Morales is more interested in how history unfolds on the ground, with the ants in the cracks in your kitchen floor; he writes a history witnessed by the audience members outside the scope of power, not what is seen from the vantage point of the podium.[8]

History looms in spectacles of image and power clashing with the quieter lines traced by everyday life:  the dual announcements by Raúl Castro and Barack Obama in December 2014, the opening of the embassy, the visit to Cuba by Obama in 2016 … the bizarre fact of a Chanel fashion show in Havana (viewed by locals at a slight distance due to heavy security), the first US Carnival cruise ship traveling from Florida to dock in Havana in more than fifty years. A favorite new topic for Morales: the transformation of design aesthetics shaping the experience of walking through Havana streets.

He is increasingly taking photographs to pair with his work in progress. The photograph of Richard Blanco at the embassy is one of many he collected in his explorations of the past year. Morales also photographed Barack Obama’s black car, known as “The Beast,” moving through Havana. He pores over the pixels, arguing that the head silhouetted in one window must be that of the president himself. 

Throughout this period from 2014 to nearly the end of 2016, in the media and in the arts, the dual US-Cuba developments and discourses of change have produced total symbolic overload, comparable to the overload around Blanco but on a larger scale. The death of Fidel Castro on November 25 generated a nuclear explosion of symbol, commandeering front-page news around the world despite the fact that he had stepped down from national leadership in 2008. His death provoked many remarks about the end of an era. Yet the key item at the center of US-Cuban relations, the economic embargo of Cuba, had not changed. 

Embargo embargo embargo / Emigration

This news usually comes as a surprise to US citizens who ask me questions about working with islanders: most assume that our government immediately dropped its economic embargo of Cuba back in December 2014.

The Cubans whom it impacts don’t have the luxury of confusion. The embargo has been tinkered with, tossed around among horse traders. An edit here, an edit there. It is now possible to pay visiting Cuban artists and writers something for their work, for example, instead of being limited to covering their basic travel expenses. Jet Blue ran the first commercial airline flight to Cuba in more than fifty years on August 30, 2016 (travelers from the US who fit into categories of exception from the embargo’s travel ban previously had to go on tiny government-approved charters).

These edits are reversible details that may or may not become irreversible if they get far enough, quickly enough. Changes can depend for part of their effect on decisions made locally in Cuba, whose own government wants some measure of control over its future. In the US, meanwhile, Congress would have to take action to end the embargo. The biggest news as 2016 comes to its close, though, is the election of Donald Trump. While Trump himself has not previously been a supporter of the embargo, his campaign appealed to conservative Cubans in Florida by stating it would overturn the changes enacted by the Obama presidency. After the election results appeared this November, Miami’s Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Herald immediately ran a story about the potential reversal of course on Cuba, soon followed by a November 9 article pointing to a resurgence of doubt and distrust toward the United States amongst Cubans on the island.

Yosbel Ibarra, a lawyer who advises businesses on financial and contractual arrangements with Cuba, told an audience at the Americas Society in late July that perhaps the most influential change to have actually occurred by summer 2016 is the removal of Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. Whether or not US businesses will be able to move forward on new projects with the island, Ibarra explained, Cuba’s revised status made it easier for firms from other nations to seek US-linked financing of their own Cuba projects.

Most of the island poets with whom I spoke in the interval from December 2014 to July 2016 told me they had experienced “change” as uncertainty, and it appears that uncertainty translated into severe anxiety for the population at large. Emigration surged after the dual government announcements about renewed relations to come: see this December 2015 report from the Pew Hispanic Center for statistics about a rise in emigration from the island to the US during the first year after the dual announcements about a change in US-Cuba relations. It does not give the whole diasporic trajectory for the island during that time, since Cubans had also been emigrating to other parts of the world. 

As 2016 chugs forward with still no end to the embargo, thanks to opposition from select figures in the US Congress, some islanders have told me they’re losing faith that the embargo will end. In mid-July, announcements went out about rationing of energy in Havana, a return to a practice from the island’s harsh “Special Period” of economic collapse in the 1990s. The immediate question they provoked is how severe the rationing might become this time — for example, how much electrical service might be routinely cut to Cuban homes.

Meanwhile word was getting out about maneuvers by US politicians such as Marco Rubio to eliminate the Cuban Adjustment Act, which would make it harder for Cuban emigrés to obtain US green cards. As these different factors merge, the result is accelerated exodus, a historically significant new wave of emigration that continues to diversify the faces of Cuban American life.[9]

Asking the question

In June 2016, Jacket2 editor Michael Hennessey asked me to write a short piece on any “cultural changes that have come about in the poetry scene now that US-Cuba relations have changed.” 

First, a clarification for readers unfamiliar with contemporary Cuban culture: from the perspective of contemporary criticism, the “scene” has long been on the move. Cuban studies criticism increasingly acknowledges not only island-based contributors but diasporic and transnational phenomena. For more from Blanco and Behar on their experiences since the embassy event, see their joint blog, “Bridges to Cuba.” (The June 21, 2016 guest entry by the well-known political scientist María de los Angeles Torres is particularly interesting; she has long been involved in exploring possibilities for connecting diasporic Cubans back to those still living on the island. Writer and translator Achy Obejas contributed a piece in August about the concept of “return” that is English dominant, interjected with relatively minimal yet carefully selected moments in Spanish.) 

As a result of this multiplicity, the potential scope of the inquiry is enormous.  For this article I limited the focus. I sent questions to an array of writers still resident in Cuba, most but not all living in Havana, the specific “scene” where I have contacts due to the nature of my projects to date, and I’ve translated their responses. I also sent questions to a set of other translators and critics here in the United States: people who bridge poetic scenes and therefore run into US-Cuba cultural issues consistently. 

The reactions to my inquiry about the lives of poets varied. There’s no unified narrative. Questions about changes in Cuba-US relations, and whatever changes in Cuba are resulting from them, elicit reactions ranging the full gamut from optimism (be it spontaneous, innocent, or strategic) all the way to cynicism. Several people were a bit uncomfortable, one admitting that she finds the issues “crude.”

Some writers, while understanding that there are practical aspects to this question about what had changed for them in the past year and a half, refused to address the ins and outs of everyday life, preferring to speak more directly of poetry itself. Others were more willing to comment on everyday issues, and some linked these spheres of experience. The diverse textures of these responses, and the implied strategies chosen by writers in their responses, are themselves of interest. 

Reina María Rodríguez sent me an email apologizing for her lack of a contribution, which I believe to be, itself, the most honest of contributions. She had been staying in Miami with a family member and was preparing to return home to her modest Central Havana neighborhood. This meant she was going on errand after errand in search of “more and more” items needed across the waters. The transnational circuits made viable by diasporic family life were working overtime. Rodríguez added, “I’m wiped out.  Now they’re starting the blackouts again there! They say it’s a second Special Period — but did we ever really get out of the first one?”[10]

Another respondent described sending any response whatsoever to me as the poet hoeing away at the ground in a desperate bid to find a place in North American cultural terrain — a metaphor that was probably inevitable in the moment, with its intense public awareness of surging emigration. The poet, José Ramón Sánchez, is hardly alone in viewing rhetoric about “opportunity” with sardonic humor. I’m reminded of the landscape in a poem by Omar Pérez, actually entitled “Opportunity” (“La oportunidad”). It goes back a few years but retains its relevance, as excerpted here:

each opportunity brings with it a chore: repeat after me
& the threat that it won’t come again
“you don’t see opportunities like this every day”
though in reality the days r one big military parade of opportunities
I’m a desert for opportunities
&, for you, an oasis
                                    (my translation, from “The Race”)[11]

cada oportunidad trae consigo su tarea: repeat after me
y la amenaza d no volver
“oportunidades como esta no se ven todos los días”
aunque en realidad todos los días son un desfile militar d oportunidades
oy un desierto para las oportunidades 
y para tí, un oasis
                                                (de “La carrera”)

Rito Ramón Aroche took a different approach. He opened the longest of his responses with the statement, “What it is for me may be what it’s like for everyone.”[12]  

Aroche, who works for the Cuban Book Institute and therefore relies on the average sort of salary available to workers in cultural fields, went on to explain that his “salary continues to be negligible” and adds, “I’m not among the people who have dealings in all the possibilities that have opened up. I live from my salary and sometimes from my royalties, which are not extensive, not by a long shot. Of course you see a change in people, the possibility of fixing up their homes for example. But I see a struggle against all kinds of racism, as well as discrimination around gender and race, against lesbians and gays. Everything is changing but it must continue, because that process takes material shape in people’s minds. The most influential of all: the notion that you’re important if you have money and own a lot of things.”

Earlier in 2016 Aroche had already sent me remarks from a conversation with fellow poet Julio Mitjans, emphasizing two troubling verbs: ningunear and invisibilizar: to render someone no one, to render someone invisible. I remembered speaking with Mitjans in Havana back in February. We talked about the existence of official state initiatives to improve the lives of LGBTQ people in Cuba, but also about Mitjans’s sense that discrimination has by no means been erased in these realms or others. 

“Change,” seen through this lens, could well mean a resurgent culture of rendering islanders invisible. This process occurs not only along economic lines, aggravated by privatization and other repurposings of formerly shared space, already visible in this excerpt from a 2008 work by Reina María Rodríguez, but along additional sociohistorical divides.  

Running the opposite direction is a gradual swell of interest in a broader range of island poets: a new visibility. Take Aroche’s own writing. He has a long list of poetry collections with an experimental lean, well known on the island but less so abroad. I’m doing new translations of his poems now in response to solicitations. For example, he has a poem featured in Americas Quarterly’s July issue, others in the June release of Dispatches, and two more coming up in the second issue of Seedings (Duration Press). Steve Miller’s Parallel Editions team is creating a collaboration that blends a bilingual version of Aroche’s Scaffoldings (Andamios) with images by the artist Alejandro Sáinz. Aroche saw one of his poetry collections, Límites de Alcanía, reprinted by the Dutch publisher Bokeh in January 2016. He had a new book in production this year, Libro de imaginar, coming out with the publishing house Ácana in Camagüey.

Aroche’s case is a reminder that for all of the real problems that undeniably existed during this time span, there continued to be significant energy in terms of events and new publications on the island and in diaspora. Some venues continued established practice and others attempted to grapple directly with US-Cuba relations or the notion of change in Cuban communities at home and abroad.

The Havana book fair, or Feria del Libro, took place in February 2016 and drew many international speakers as well as a slate of locals. As in the case of many literary conferences in the United States, the real action may not center so much on formally scheduled events as on activities happening informally around the city, such as meetings with writers, translators, and editors from abroad. 

This is, at least, true for poets. Not all of the local readers were even notified about their appearances on the program, leading to frustration. Two who saw their event descriptions after the fact would have had only three or four minutes to speak on complex subjects. They pointed out that the book fair can hardly serve as a serious affair for them under such circumstances.

This is not to dismiss the fact that various presentations of poetry editions did take place. Nor is it to discount the massive turnout. Each day I went to the Feria, there were considerable crowds. Most simply were not flocking there for the latest in contemporary poetry. Organizers draw a lot of families and children with colorful tents, activities and publications for children, and food stands. Other events are incorporated into local educational programming for adults, such as panels featuring publishing industry representatives from a variety of nations. Local media coverage this year favored books put out from other sectors, such as the military, usually with some degree of party-oriented political argumentation.  

Visitors comprise part of the flurry at the Feria del Libro and its extension into the city. I include mention of several here because I was on a panel with some of the translators bringing modern and contemporary Cuban poetry into English right now.

Margaret Randall has a large anthology of Cuban poetry, Only the Road / Solo el camino, from Duke University Press that appeared in late 2016. This is far from her only activity for the year. At the February 2016 book fair she read from a newly released collection of her own English-language poetry, and she presented a different book on Cuba from Duke about which you can see more here, in addition to seeing a summary of Randall’s own striking role in US-Cuban history. 

In in response to my July 2016 inquiry, Randall reflected:

I do think that the reestablishment of relations between the US and Cuba in December of 2014 has made a difference with regard to interest in Cuban poetry on the part of US publishers and readers. I actually began working on, and sold, my anthology to Duke University Press before that, but I have placed four books by individual authors since. The truth is, there is quite a revived interest in all things Cuban, but often not the most important things … One hears so many people saying things like: “I want to get there before it changes” and such. Travel advertisements feature the most superficial aspects of life on the island. So I feel the interest in poetry is exciting. It is a way of making available a more in-depth take on the country.[13]

Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, another speaker on our panel, is a writer of more than one location who nicely demonstrates the way that “Cuba” and “Cuban America (US)” can intertwine within the transnational experiences of a single person. Originally from Cuba, where he began his literary career both as a Spanish-language poet and an anthologist, Rodríguez is now a professor at Kenyon College in Ohio. Yet he returns regularly to Havana, where he has family and maintains literary contacts. Rodríguez participates in international poetry communities more generally and recently won the Loewe Foundation Prize for Despegue, a collection of short, evocative poems published in Madrid by Visor Libros.

Victor Rodríguez Núñez and Margaret Randall at the 2016 Feria del Libro
Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and Margaret Randall at the 2016 Feria del Libro, by Kristin Dykstra.

Also on our panel was his Kenyon colleague, translator Kate Hedeen, who brings an extensive knowledge of Latin American poetry traditions to her projects. Hedeen recently edited and translated the anthology Nothing Out of This World: Cuban Poetry 1952–2000, published by Smokestack Books and recognized with an English PEN award. In August Coimpress brought out a complete collection by Rodríguez, in Hedeen’s translation, entitled tasks.

In a 2015 interview with me, Hedeen had already remarked on a contrast she witnessed between sensations of “change” in the US and in Cuba. Her perspective was informed not only by her profession but by family interactions and extended visits to the island, since she happens to be married to Victor Rodríguez. While she observed that US residents tended to perceive the pace of change regarding Cuba as rapid — fueled, I would guess, by the still widely believed but erroneous idea that the US economic embargo had ended — Cubans on the island experienced its motions as slow, and Hedeen already saw a push/pull dynamic driving a strong current of uncertainty.

In summer 2016 I asked Hedeen what had changed over the past year, particularly in zones of poetic activity. She saw an ongoing contradiction. In terms of how Cuban poetry travels abroad, contradiction begins with a general lack of awareness, even amongst Spanish-language readers, about the range and depth of Cuban poetry. She explained:

In 2015, the Spanish poetry publisher Visor brought out an anthology called El canon abierto. The selection was academic in nature, a kind of survey of almost two hundred professors from one hundred universities regarding who were the best poets born after 1970 in the Spanish-speaking world. Not one of those forty poets was from Cuba. Those of us who translate contemporary Cuban poetry know this simply cannot be the case; poetry has and — this should be emphasized — continues to flourish on the island. This kind of disconnect, of isolation, of separation is just one example of what characterizes the Cuban “situation” currently and for the past twenty-five years. A constant struggle to break through ignorance, barriers, stereotypes, both here and there.[14]

On the other hand, Hedeen observed, another whole wing of literary reality coexisted with this scenario that was more in keeping with Randall’s hopes. There was a tremendous flurry of activity in the first half of 2016 alone — increased attention from journals, publishing houses, and prize competitions outside the island, and many new books coming out of Cuba, including work timed to appear for the book fair. She named some of the same Havana events and poetry publications that I’m remarking here in more detail.

Another point of origins for crossing the waters lies with the O! Miami Poetry Festival. An invitation went out to a set of island poets that is still unusual, but no longer unthinkable: a reading uniting four Cuban poets from the island with four from Miami. The title of the mid-April event explicitly referred to bridging the long-divided cultures of Cuba in the context of change, where Cuba and Cuban America can intersect in new ways. It was organized by the writer J.V. Portela (editor of Jai-Alai) and moderated by two prominent figures in Cuban poetry: José Kozer, who is from Cuba but has long lived in the United States, and Reina María Rodríguez, who is still associated with her famous rooftop home in Havana but has a daughter living in Miami’s diaspora. Soleida Ríos, Marcelo Morales, Oscar Cruz, and José Ramón Sánchez represented the island side of the bridge. Representing the “exterior” dimension of Cuban poetry were Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, Yosie Crespo, Carlos Pintado, and Joaquín Badajoz. Photography and video of the event were featured at the urban art and culture magazine Dominicana en Miami.

Morales afterwards told me that his perception of the Bridge event bifurcated: it seemed absolutely normal as group readings go, yet absolutely different at the same time.[15] Such combinations of ordinary and estranged experience fueled his new work in progress.

Leading up to her O! Miami trip, Soleida Ríos was already having a busy year.

Poets Soleida Ríos and Nanne Timmer (visiting from Holland) met for the first time outside an event at the book fair.
Poets Soleida Ríos and Nanne Timmer (visiting from Holland) met for the first time outside an event at the book fair. Photo by Kristin Dykstra.

A book that Ríos inspired, El retrato ovalado (Oval Portrait), debuted at the Feria del Libro. This collection of texts generated collaboratively by women was formally edited by another contributor, Jamila Medina Ríos, but is attributed to “Soleida Ríos + 34.” It seems designed to push against the actions of ningunear and invisibilizar through the production of a different, temporary sort of anonymity within a crowd.

Ríos considers El retrato ovalado a utopian gesture. She describes the book’s structure as “choral,” a performance that she prompted, preferring this vocabulary to that of a traditional “anthology” with an editor. She called for emotional and conceptual nakedness in writings with no set genre. The list of contributors includes some diasporic writers as well as others based in Cuba — Blanco’s friend and translator, Behar, is one of the US-based writers with a segment here — and the women are of varied generations. Some contributors come with established publication patterns as poets, but others do not.

Some pieces look like conventional prose or poetry; others adopt alternative forms, such as lists or chronologies or artistic reflections across fields. Sandra Ramy, who wrote the final piece in the book, is a contemporary dancer who often collaborates on improvisational, interdisciplinary, and experimental events with writers and musicians. Her text opens with light falling on a staged scene, where the speaker will be playing the role of a hen, and closes with queries about the value of theatrical expression for actors and audiences.

Sandra Ramy performing at a café, accompanied by poet Omar Pérez on drums. Photo courtesy of Omar Pérez.
Sandra Ramy performing at a café, accompanied by poet Omar Pérez on drums. Photo courtesy of Omar Pérez.

Each text has a title but names of authors are withheld in the body of the book, so if you read this anthology in conventional fashion from beginning to end, encountering its progression of distinct genres and styles, you will not know who wrote which piece unless you happen to be familiar enough with someone’s style to pick it out. As a result, attention devolves to the maneuvers of each text and the dialogues and gaps generated between them; an índice or table of contents at the back allows for deferred identification of authors.[16]

Ríos told me that she had been interested in generating energy, stimulating projects. She too admitted that the current frenzy around “change” created anxiety and said, “I’d like to not be afraid, and in a way I’m very afraid (and I try to hide it from myself, saying: in order for something to change, really change, there must be crisis, but I don’t know how long crisis must last). For some time I’ve told myself the most important thing is to exist, and what that really means is attaining sovereignty over oneself.”[17]

She continued to think about the matter and sent me follow-up notes, beginning with the statement that for Cuba and the US to sit at a table together and debate is civilized and conveniente “in every sense” (the word translates not only as “convenient” but also “advisable,” “proper,” “best”). The important thing “is to restore our connections, spiritual force, the thing that articulates the individual self and the nation. That engenders my fear (a certain fragility manifests, the one I see in the newspaper) but also stimulates my actions.” She remarked that the only actions she could take lie in the terrain of poetry with what remains of utopia, describing those remains as beloved and golden. In addition to El retrato ovalado and her latest poetry, another current poetic “action” was a public game Ríos invented for children to do with their families: mapping ceiba trees around Havana.

Ríos concluded with a reflection on her personal experience of the present: “I don’t think any greater crisis can come than the one I already lived. I lived an itinerant life, with no other option, for an entire decade (1975–1986). Due to my nature and the brutality of that sort of life, I suffered a considerable weight of intolerance, which is becoming something of the past.” 

The two remaining participants in the O! Miami “bridge” event this year, Sánchez and Cruz, are younger writers who have been coediting the well-regarded little magazine La Noria for some time while building their own poetic trajectories. Back issues of the print magazine are posted online at InCubadora.

The coeditors bring a more youthful generational perspective to literature than many of the island poets known abroad to date. Diplomacy and innocence are not viable attitudes for them to inhabit at present. 

They also write in locations other than Havana. Sánchez and Cruz live in Guantánamo and Santiago respectively — that is, towns located in “Oriente,” shorthand for the more rural eastern side of Cuba. It is seen as far from the cultural energies and access offered by Havana and often credited with a different style of Cuban culture.[18]

Both were looking to see if new possibilities manifest on the horizons of change. While Internet service had expanded on the island, especially through new Wi-Fi access points, it couldn’t yet be called good. Still, Sánchez had a new blog housed by the publisher Hypermedia. There he posted a short piece about aspects of his Miami visit, which was his first experience of the United States. 

His utopian desire for “great quantities of food” in the US is the stuff of dreams, the most innocent of expectations. Sánchez portrays a loss of innocence: there would be no free food after he arrived at his hotel. Food was for sale, and advertised everywhere, mostly out of his reach. He retains a sense of humor in his delivery but the point is made. In a context that remains unthinkably expensive for those islanders who have no diasporic relatives nearby or any other way to access US dollars, the stark contrast between our economies can cause a first-time visitor’s initiation into capitalism to crash down with the dark humor of hazing. 

Cruz joined Sánchez for some walks through the streets of Miami, and after reading that blog post I recalled a photo Cruz sent me in April 2016.[19]

"Hambre en la Calle Ocho" (Hunger on Eighth). Photograph of José Ramón Sánchez in Miami.
“Hambre en la Calle Ocho” (Hunger on Eighth). Photograph of José Ramón Sánchez in Miami, courtesy of Oscar Cruz.

Sánchez went on from O! Miami to a May conference at Brown University with the straightforward title: “Cuban Transitions: What’s Left Out?” Sánchez spoke about the subject of Guantánamo, a focal point for his latest poetry. Once again, there is a stark geographical and political divide at issue, most obviously due to the historic lines drawn in Cuban sand around the US Naval Base at Guantánamo. Division runs all throughout the dynamics of imprisonment too. 

Sánchez responded to my query with a list of his recent poetic concerns:

Expansion of system of reference.
Use of references as symbols.
Ample deployment of characters.
Blend of politics with private individuality.
Ever more shameless exhibition of politics and private individuality.
Conversion of documents into poems, and of poems into reports.
Cynicism, mockery, irony, sarcasm, caricature, even turned against myself.
Creation of a militarized poetics:
via theme (Gitmo naval base), and via the cutting, strong, and even authoritarian rhythms and tones of the poems.
Quest for a maximally entertaining poetry.[20]

Sánchez has begun to attract critical attention (as well as preliminary interest in translations) with new projects exploring the fractured symbols of his region. Esther Whitfield, a specialist currently at work on a full-length study of cultural depictions of Guantánamo, knows his new poetry well and sent me this overview in the wake of the Brown conference:

José Ramón Sánchez’s Gitmo project breaks new ground, not only in naming the US Naval Base — rarely present in Cuban literature due to its political sensitivity and distance from the cultural metropolis of Havana — but in imagining the experience of those who have lived and worked there in the past, and are detained there now. Sánchez draws from a haphazard archive of childhood memories, official documents, and detainee writing to create a “second-hand poetry” of “the words of others, images others saw for me.” His attempt to occupy another’s place, when that other is detained at the base, charts Guantánamo as a continuous space, defined by community rather than hostility.[21

In 2015 Hypermedia published some of these poems, along with others by Sánchez, in The Cuban Team:  Los once poetas cubanos, an anthology edited by Cruz. The book opens with an introduction in which Cruz does not mince words, offering a performance of the anthologist’s selective search for quality, coupled with his stated lack of interest in large swaths of Cuba’s contemporary poetic scene. His approach does not strike me as unexpected or odd, since it reads as a part of the swashbuckling tradition of the literary anthology. The editor as enfant terrible has a tradition outside Cuba, and various island anthologists have courted controversy with sharply defined positions in recent decades. 

Within Havana, the Cuban Team anthology is proving controversial. It seems that the flap turns less on Cruz’s selection of poets, generally recognized to be strong, and more on the tone of his introduction. (Caveat: It is entirely possible that people struck a diplomatic tone with me regarding the contents because they knew I had translated pieces in this anthology for other projects already.)

I speculate that these polemics around editorial language should direct attention toward broader concerns that may remain pressing and relevant for years, far beyond any one publication or person. For some time writers have referred to a rising tide of exclusions, economic and otherwise, surging through island society. Where frustration and anxiety are understandably on the rise, editorial gatekeeping will sound and feel exponentially more loaded. 

Other explanations can fold into this scenario. The conscious plays on authoritarian expression that Sánchez describes, for example, may be heard by others without their intended irony, as a continuation of the same old authoritarian delivery from the next generation. Other reactions may be informed more by an ongoing distaste for sharp critical polemics in Cuban poetic circles, to which another poet will point at the end of this article. 

Hypermedia has been looking into the possibility of a bilingual edition, and if the effort succeeds, English-language readers will have a chance to reflect on the introduction and selection for themselves — perhaps comparing these poems to selections they find in the latest bilingual editions from Randall and Hedeen, the earlier anthology edited by Mark Weiss for the University of California Press, or offerings elsewhere in English such as bilingual editions from Cubana Books and the University of Alabama Press.

In keeping with his editorial style, Cruz is not afraid of introducing brusque statement into his poetry either. It can be deliberately brash, staccato, contrarian. He responded to my query by examining how questions of change or political context can be addressed through reflections on specifically poetic language, a choice that sheds further light on his determination to adopt a clear stance.

I’ve always been inclined to intervene in political and historical matters through the poem. From my first book forward (Los malos inquilinos) I’ve felt this need, but the rhetoric of political discourse is such a turnoff that it can kill off anyone’s desires. Then I decided to seek out an oblique route: irony, parody, laughter — see La Maestranza. I incorporated large amounts of cynicism and humor into the texts, through a language as minimally rhetorical or tidied as possible, aware that this would pick a fight with the reigning tradition in Cuba. A tradition that is verbose and saturated with symbol. I think this kind of approach manifested most in tandem with my work on very strong authors like José Ramón Sánchez and Legna Rodríguez, the latter through her own singular perspective.

Through the pages of La Noria we carried out politics with the body. We rewrote the sexual history of heroes from the obscene class. We demonstrated that Cuba was a poetically stilted and static country until we introduced civility, corrosion, sex, indecency, and showed that the reigning lyric status quo was ineffective. We also incorporated a musicality into the texts that is often lost in our poetry. Not that of Guillén but of Eastern Cuba’s barrioteros. Low-class music from the urban margins. Conga. Pornopop singsong. Danceable insolence. There you find some beats that today are heard with greater force in the educated community. This generated and will continue to generate rejection, and it looks a lot like what Cubans want: liberty. Expressive sovereignty. The right to oppose.[22]

The barriotero term to which Cruz refers is conventionally used to denigrate certain Cubans as uneducated and inarticulate — other to the world of the “letrados,” the “lettered” islanders whom I’ve translated as “the educated community” above. Class components are also sedimented into the wordplay. Cruz mentioned that that his “clase obscena,” or obscene class, is a rewriting of “la clase obrera” (“the working class”).

"Un guajiro en Miami Dade" (A guajiro in Miami Dade). Photo of Oscar Cruz.
“Un guajiro en Miami Dade” (A guajiro in Miami Dade). Photograph of Oscar Cruz courtesy of Fernando Sánchez.

The closer: Ismael González Castañer

Extended responses arrived from Ismael González Castañer. I had suggested to Ismael that it could be helpful to have a little context on the life of a poet as well as his thoughts on how that life might be changing now, but that each poet should decide what kind of reply seemed most relevant. Ismael took me up on the whole idea and sent an introductory sketch about the writer’s life, as well as a statement in direct response to the main topic entitled “No ha cambiado nada,” or “Nothing Has Changed at All.” 

González was born in Havana in 1961 and brings a distinct urban tone to his writing. He’s the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Disfuerzo in 2012. He has won Cuban awards not only in the poetry category but also for the genres of testimonial and essay. A set of his poems appears in English translation, by Todd Ramón Ochoa, in Weiss’s The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry.

Together his statements speak back to many dimensions of the remarks from everyone else. They counterbalance the optimism that seems necessary at certain times and places — the idealism accompanying Blanco’s appearance at the embassy, most obviously, and the working optimism which is likely to be needed at regular intervals if the embargo is ever to be dropped by the US Congress — with incisive wording.

I’m the literary adviser at a cultural center. My role is to run workshops for children, youth, and adults interested in reading and in creative writing, stories and poems mostly. I also attend to the book section: I coordinate with bookstores to offer talks, book presentations, and sales for the community.

Our intellectual life (and our salary) is rounded out with service as jurors in competitions at all levels, evaluating or editing books, publishing articles and reviews from time to time in Cuban and international magazines, reading our work at cultural institutions and activities by invitation, conferencing, and giving classes about History and Political Culture. The best part is traveling outside Cuba.

Today, as a fifty-five-year-old, I read and write during mornings and afternoons between daily activities of foraging for food and money. I work on a computer but have never been able to inspire poetry on a machine: ever since I was young I’ve had a callus on the middle finger of my right hand from writing with a pencil. I do read directly from a screen now.

My writing combines discourses that are versicular and prosaic; it negotiates fixed expressions, commonplaces, hackneyed themes; it creates or recreates words — considering words in English or other languages; recycling ones in existence; it dissolves metaphor; it intertexts; experiments with rhythm; mixes popular culture with “high” culture. Today, as before, my objectives have been, one: to write in ways both unconventional and odd to stimulate a nondiscriminatory reading of alternative texts that throw — as well — light on reality or truth or god; and two: to compel interaction from the reader. I always want my texts to function at once as supports for the word and transports or outlines toward other mediums; want other expression, like performance writing, to need them as an intermediary.

But nowadays I sing and performatize less and prose more. The main news is that now I’m weighed down under the imagination and fantasy typical of those who write for children and young people, and I prepare my attack.[23]

In his next reflection on the lack of change for poets in Cuba, written in July 2016, González will refer to the most recent poetry competition for La Gaceta de Cuba, for which he served as a juror.

Nothing has changed at all; since the fear of polemics is ongoing, the critic’s fear of creating enemies, of making a mistake, being found out — even though regulatory authority permits the critic (unlike the historian) to allow feelings to interfere in his work.

Nothing has changed at all; since our reader continues to confuse communicative legibility with the reading of art: the reader does not want to become a coauthor, does not accept transmodern conceptions of poetry.

Nothing has changed at all; because many a poet continues without changing style from one poem to another, knowing that each poem asks for its difference. So that the poet takes no risks, following the same “little path” as always, the same “little tune.”

Nothing has changed at all; because there is a proliferation of poets who write without mystery, with a great making or lexicalizing of phrases, a lot of commonplaces, resulting in stale themes and a profusion of platitudes. And that class of poetastro [step-poet] receives prizes from poets whose poetry has shifted to a hermeneutical level. In the name of diversity and visual and experimental poetry, liberty and vitality, freshness and rupture; in the name of the nonsense of Ernst Jandl and -isms from the avant gardes, poet-jurors who are already on another horizon of meaning, do not question themselves (or do so for their protegés) about whether all “stimulation of thought” can be considered poetic; whether all future poetry will have to be “quasimetatextual,” whether poetry “in the direction of the unknown” is free from critique.

Nothing has changed either in the most important and interesting poetry competition (La Gaceta de Cuba): it suffered newly from the mal gusto [bad taste] of la malía (a pejorative term that I use to characterize la mala poesía [bad poetry] and los malos poetas [bad poets]); so out of ninety-eight manuscripts submitted, only eleven were named finalists, and out of these, we recognized three with prizes and two with mentions. The themes are the same as always: identity, family, the country’s harsh reality, and how to abandon-her, abandon-it.

Ismael González Castañer outside a book fair event in 2016
Ismael González Castañer outside a book fair event in 2016. Courtesy of Kristin Dykstra.

1. Jack Spicer, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, ed. Robin Blaser (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1999), 59.

2. Richard Blanco, “Matters of the Sea / Cosas del mar,” trans. Ruth Behar (Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), 7.

3. Ibid., 9.

4. Ibid., 19–20.

5. Ibid., 5.

6. Ibid., ix.

7. Ibid., 28.

8. For more on Morales’s collection The World as Presence / El mundo como ser, see the introduction to the bilingual edition (translations and introduction by Kristin Dykstra [Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2016]).

9. For more on the Act itself.

10. Reina María Rodríguez, email message to the author, July 11, 2016. The blackouts of the 1990s had a direct effect on poetic history in Havana by way of Rodríguez, leading to the development of “La azotea” or “The Rooftop” as an alternative (nonstate) gathering space. Her apartment building was in a zone where the electricity remained on while other areas went dark. She has remarked to me that she didn’t have a lot of light at her rooftop home — sometimes only one working lightbulb — but it was enough to host readings and events with poets and artists.

11. Omar Pérez, La carrera / The Race, trans. Kristin Dykstra, forthcoming in a fine art edition from Red Hydra Press.  An earlier version of this translation appears at The Recluse 11 (June 2015).

12. Rito Ramón Aroche, email messages to the author in March, June, and July 2016.

13. Margaret Randall, email message to the author, July 11, 2016. About the four smaller-press books, Randall wrote that two will come out from Red Mountain Press in Santa Fe, one from Igneo in Miami, and one from The Operating System in Brooklyn.

14. Kate Hedeen, email message to the author, June 17, 2016.

15. Personal conversation with the author, May 4, 2016.

16. The table of contents often appears at the back of Spanish-language books, rather than the front, so that component is not unusual.

17. Soleida Ríos, email messages to the author, July 8 and 16, 2016.

18. Keep in mind that in recent memory Cuba has the lowest Internet connectivity in the hemisphere, so while coeditors Sánchez and Cruz have had some access to technology that allowed them to be in touch with Havana and people abroad (to solicit work by email and to receive invitations), technology has not had as powerful a compressive and connective effect as it does elsewhere, a reminder that it is still possible to over-fetishize aspects of globalization. 

19. “Guajiro” is a term for people from the Cuban countryside, who at times have been used in island art and culture to represent national identity.

20. José Ramón Sánchez, email messages to the author, June 8 and July 6, 2016.

21. Esther Whitfield, email message to the author, June 13, 2016. Whitfield published an article from her manuscript in progress as “Cuban Borderlands: Local Stories of the Guantánamo Naval Base,” in MLN 130, no.2 (March 2015, Hispanic Issue), 276–97.

22. Oscar Cruz, email messages to the author, April 14, June 9 and 11, 2016.

23. Ismael González Castañer, email message to the author, July 4, 2016.

On Etel Adnan's 'The Arab Apocalypse'

From page 7 of ‘The Arab Apocalypse,’ which Etel Adnan began writing in January
From page 7 of ‘The Arab Apocalypse,’ which Etel Adnan began writing in January 1975 in Beirut, two months before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War.


“Doesn’t the act of looking at an object become also one of its definitions?”[1]


L’Apocalypse arabe is a book-length poem composed in French by the Arab American poet Etel Adnan. It was published in 1980; Adnan’s English translation first appeared in 1989. Of the several rubrics under which The Arab Apocalypse may be read — hybrid text, visual poetry, surrealism, translation, postcolonialism — it is its nature as a work of witness that most commands my attention. Not least because it was written in response to and in the immediate context of the Lebanese Civil War (which broke out in 1975), but also because these other strands (the visual, the surreal, etc.) make the act of witnessing a provocative challenge to any notion of stability that may — innocently or otherwise — attend questions of representation in literatures of witness. In so doing, the text becomes a disaster in the process of witnessing disaster.

Beirut the Yellow in its forest of guns 12 and May and 75 MUTE SEWN CITY // The sun has its mouth stitched with barbed wire STOP butcher's Arab sun // A sun of iron walks in a forest of guns an eye bursts open STOP / Ishi cried this morning STOP I counted up to 5 STOP the sea is on the phone // yellow sun exterminated ancestor sun green spring purple sun quasar[2]

Carolyn Forché defines poems of witness as those that “bear the trace of extremity within them, and they are, as such, evidence of what occurred.”[3] Certainly, as the lines above indicate, The Arab Apocalypse offers evidence of violence, but to use the word “evidence” might suggest something like an objective — or at least unaffected — observer recording that which happens outside of her, offering to us the legible document of a holocaust. While I would not claim that Forché’s definition leans toward this paradigm, I would emphasize the ways in which “the trace of extremity” is borne by the poem of witness: how do its speakers, languages, and forms enact or become infected by the horrors to which they testify? I wish to read Adnan’s poem as one that doesn’t simply represent but becomes — and in becoming, weeps, interrogates, admits complicity, embraces; bears out, on the page, traces of extremity. Of the poem’s composition, Adnan says it began (one might say simply) as “an abstract poem on the sun” — 

A yellow sun      A green sun      a yellow sun       A red sun        a blue sun / a sun      A sun a blue a red a blue(7) 

— but then the war broke out and “took it over.” She says, “I was so inhabited by that ominous sense of disaster, of madness, that only that way could I express it. … I was writing on explosion per se, on apocalypse per se and I saw it in color.”[4] The abstract poem becomes overcome.


There are at least three major ways in which the overwhelming and overwhelmed quality of The Arab Apocalypse radicalizes the genre of witness. Firstly, perception itself is a radical means of being in the world. Secondly, it is not clear how many witnesses there are, how stable they are, or even how human they are. And thirdly, language seems to ingest the violence it meets and, rather than record it, expels it out in sonically and visually fraught lines of meaning and nonmeaning.

That merely looking at the world might constitute a radical strategy should become more clear if one considers that Adnan is also a visual artist — and an immensely prolific one, perhaps most well known for painting California’s Mount Tamalpais over and over again, but never in quite the same way. In her artist’s statement Journey to Mount Tamalpais, Adnan quotes Ann O’Hanlon, of the Perception painters among whom she came of age: “To perceive is to be both objective and subjective. It is to be in the process of becoming one with whatever it is, while also becoming separated from it.”[5] In the intersubjective encounter between mountain and human self, both are constantly changing, even into one another. This philosophy and praxis is at work throughout Adnan’s oeuvre, and certainly also in The Arab Apocalypse, though the number and nature of the events “looked at” is extreme: they include the events of the first year of the civil war (1975–76), particularly the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Tall al-Za’tar and Quarantina, as well as other conflicts in the Middle East and around the world; the plight of Native Americans in the United States is evoked often. The speaker of the poem, presumably human, though never clearly identified as a single being,[6] seems to merge or identify with the violence, as though by a strange force of attraction, and at one point even declares: 


It wouldn’t be fair to explain away the surrealist logic at work here, but there is the sense that the speaker has become an amalgam of two major figures in the scene of the poem: the victimized Native American and the decaying sun. Simultaneously, the speaker is also the force that “plunges” (usefully? destructively?) Beirut in light (the beneficent light of the sun? the terrifying light of manmade weapons?). 

Meanwhile, another narrative appears variously in the background or foreground of the poem: the disaster — slow and certain — of the sun: 

The radio says History allocated 10 billion years to the sun / the SUN  has already lived half its age (42) 

In other words, even as the sun illumines terrestrial, human-sourced catastrophes, it itself undergoes catastrophic change. Violence and decay are not merely being witnessed; they infect the very process by which we observe and record. 


Even stranger is the fact that this dying sun appears to be actively involved in human affairs — or at least those of the speaker. As when the “I” climbs “the column … the mountain … the cloud … the sun” and as a result sees “masked men execute a carnage” (33), the sun seems to actually be facilitating the work of witness, granting the speaker a privileged vantage point —

I climbed the highest tower to look into the sun / My hair caught fire  My eyebrows burned!  But I saw / tornadoes covered with flames  storms  viscera  circles of magic  / The sun put its head into its hands filled with tears                O yellow victory!(62) 

— or even, through a strange kind of intimacy, becoming a collaborator in the poem:

I tell the sun stories it answers it sends new messages   I decode(17) 

And while this collaboration seems at times productive and even friendly, at other times the relationship is adversarial, as though the sun and speaker were mythic rivals: “I took the sun by the tail and threw it in the river. Explosion. BOOM” (20); “I smothered the sun with an iron bar disfigured its words   tore its face / And mine. Big black holes” (49). A major innovation of this text, then, is that there are at least two witnesses, one human and the other nonhuman, and that they are intersubjectively involved in the unfolding catastrophes. Thom Donovan suggests as much when he writes that Adnan, like Aimé Césaire, makes “the earth [her] collaborator, [her] texts/persons solar anuses (little suns shooting out of every orifice)”;[7] I want to take the argument further and say that the sun, as collaborator, is the other witness of the apocalypse, one who is at times sorrowful, “put[ting] its head into its hands filled with tears,” and at others wreaking havoc on the people of Beirut and of the world.

Or rather, to pull back a little, the sun plays so many roles[8] in the text that it is impossible to fully encapsulate its energetic, un-Apollonian, leaky character. Even to suggest that the speaker and the sun are two neatly delineated dramatis personæ is a fiction external to the text, for there is a powerful moment in which the one becomes the other in a kind of antisublime of material transformations: 

My right eye is a sun my left eye is a sun my ears two suns // my nostrils two suns       I have the sun on my forehead STOP // my feet are two suns STOP EACH FINGER is a sun / a sun at each toe STOP a sun in the arms in the anus in the neck / my feet two suns my ears two suns my nostrils two suns / and this sun at the mouth cancer until the end of the stars (25)

Even so, it is important to me to think of the sun as a witness to human politics. This is partly because I read Adnan’s sun not as some casual pathetic fallacy but as the endpoint of an extreme logic in which who else but the sun is left to witness us, and partly because the sun gives us a model, somewhat detached from our human selves, whose agency as a witness, whose dual ability to testify and to be cruel in testifying, we can critique:

An eye dreads the sun is an eye(7)

This dread is found in the very first poem. And then later, the sun’s gaze is explicitly cruel; it shaves away complexity:

the sun is a camera which operates only in black and white / white white white is the color of Terror(59)

The camera metaphor is carried through to show the sun’s complicity in the violence, its transformation into an “executioner” —

the sun is counting the earth's rotations  automobile wheel / and on the Palestinian's head rolls a truck / a concrete roof collapsed on 500 bodies / and the sun took a picture for the C.I.A.'s archives / sun camera majestic lens Prince of the gaze / white white white is the result of the sun's clicking / when teeth become as white as eyes / the sun  executioner  focal point of death  goes into action / blood has no color in the torture-chambers / infrared rays make writings on the calcinated bodies of the Arabs(59) 

— while the CIA seems to me a synecdoche for the world outside the Arab apocalypse (which has not ended), a way of implicating us all. And (or, however) the sun, as perpetrator,[9] is also a brutalized victim. It becomes the tragedy it sees:

the sun is an Arab corpse(32) 

That is to say, as much as I call the sun a witness, it is not possible to keep this meaning stable. Elsewhere the sun is “a Syrian king riding a horse from Homs to Palmyra,” “LUCIFER,” “a shark pursuing stars in the sky’s seas,” “a traitor,” “a verb,” and “Nothingness” (9, 29, 33, 40, 43, 73); the sun’s meanings are mutant and cancerous: 

from the center of the sun a tree sends a message BZZ BZZ BZZ BZZZZ a cancer grows / On its neck the tree carries cancer but a solar cancer solar baby(17)

A site of semiotic excess, the sun keeps ingesting — “cannibal anthropophagus” (19) — and expelling its meanings. And it too can be ingested and expelled: “eat and vomit the sun” (19), the poem commands us.

And finally, there is the prospective death of the sun, a critical future because

the sun will extinguish the gods the angels and men / and it will extinguish itself in the midst of its daughters / Matter-Spirit will become the NIGHT / in the night in the night we shall find knowledge love and peace(78) 

Night is an important time for Etel Adnan (it is also the title of her most recent book). Because light is Dionysian, violent, excessive, and imbalanced, it cannot sustain us; it is night that better nurtures our thinking. The emphasis on a perpetual night marks yet another radical aspect of the book because, in a way, witnessing is routed through a far-distant time, when the sun is visibly dying or has died already. Adnan’s record, if we can call it that, of the Arab apocalypse is not that of a survivor who remembers or a journalist who is apart from the violence, but one who is actively there, seeing, suffering, and even perpetrating; it is thus also a record of something acknowledged to be endless by the calendar of human history, of which we can only make sense when we arrive at some sort of cosmic finality of time. It is, as Thom Donovan writes, “An impossible remembrance. The remembrance of the body which experiences the pain of the cosmos. … What Jalal Toufic calls ‘undeath’; undeath as a condition of possibility for remembrance, and for bearing witness to human and non-human (cosmic, terrestrial) cruelty.”[10


As there is the radical nature of perception and ways of figuring witness, there is also language, which must enact them. But: 

the language-circuit has burned STOP(43)

The decidedly visual nature of the poem insists on its own kind of radical looking, inviting the reader to witness something like the apocalypse of language. Language as material bears within it “trace[s] of extremity,” which is why it has been important here to provide images of the text rather than to transcribe the spacing and glyphs in some other way. 

The Arab Apocalypse appears between orange covers, on landscape-formatted paper. A fair bit of white space surrounds each of the fifty-nine sections (for the fifty-nine days of the siege of Tall al-Za’tar, perhaps). The poem is in a hybrid language of English (or French) and the poet’s hand-drawn glyphs, many of which look like arrows directing the eye this way or that, telling the hand to turn the page. Other glyphs look like mutilated or setting suns, flowers, spirals, or exaggerated punctuation marks. The linguistic text is sometimes verbless, syntactically simple. Caesurae and the telegraphic word “STOP” take over from conventional punctuation. Long strings of the vocable “HOU” howl through the text, an eerie wind. The capitalization of these and other words grants them a power, a darkly festive air. The page is a theatre in which language acts out scenes from the apocalypse.

Of the glyphs, Adnan says, “the signs are my excess of emotions. I cannot say more. I wrote by hand, and, here and there, I put a word, and I made instinctively a little drawing, a sign. … Maybe it is because I see these apocalypses … because my first thought is always explosive. It is not cumulative.”[11] Like the speaker and the sun, the glyphs are not stable. For example, even in the same section, they do not look exactly alike in the three editions of the poem I have:




Whatever the glyphs looked like in the original French edition, to keep them looking exactly the same in the English translation would have been to disregard the dynamics of the glyphs, which came, as Adnan says, instinctually, as though approximating the force of external events and internal responses to them. So, I assume, the glyphs cannot be “fixed” in the way of linguistic paradigms, and they must be translated from French (the second glyph above is from a French edition) into English, but also from one edition to another, where, for example, the page size is different (the third glyph is from the Etel Adnan Reader, which has different page dimensions). Each performance of the play is new. 

That “the language-circuit has burned” can be taken to mean both that language fails and that its usual mechanisms (circuitry) are insufficient. It must perform its dual capacity and incapacity to signify. Just as the glyphs are sometimes impossible to interpret, other features of the poem may be too easily interpreted, or interpreted in more than one way. For example, the telegrammatic “STOP” in poem VIII (i) acts as punctuation: it invites us to pause and consider two images, the first surrealistically precise (“an anemic sun loses a tooth a day”) and the second impossibly vast (“the war”); and (ii) issues an injunction: “STOP the war.” 

an anemic sun loses a tooth a day  STOP  the war(21) 

Or else, a string of the same word or vocable may generate an excess of meaning or sound, the text seeming to cry out of the page. In poem XXXV, two long strings of “STOP” and “HOU,” separated by a stanza, act as magnetic poles, perversely translating meaning into sound, or generating an agonistic field in which they oppose one another:

STOP [x10] / a sun airborn a sun airplane circles up there ... / there is no water no plasma no air there is the radio / there are star fish streaking in the night / the Tuaregs arrive motorized empty-handed / HOU [x10](54)

As such, language too is a disaster and a witness, bearing “extremity” within it, being outraged. 


(i) Read aloud:

I made gestures, arms flagellating, and hands jabbed the air finding release in spastic display. I supplicated. I improvised finger-mudras and worked taut, awe-inspiring expressions upon my face. […] Thus I put my whole body into the codes and lingual soundings of this animated and visual text, her Codices. […] I took the text’s ideograms as clues for performance and chanted “HOU HOU HOU HOU HOU” and “DOUM! DOUM! DOUM!” […] I spooked myself.[14

(ii) Read the sun.

(iii) Read with the eyes of the living and of the dead.

I've been in love with a corpse(72) 

(iv) Read the glyphs.

It is impossible, but read the glyphs. Or: it is possible and read the glyphs. Readers seem divided on the issue. Caroline Seymour-Jorn says they are “enigmatic symbols that make reference to some hidden meaning.”[15] Sonja Mejcher-Atassi says they “do not represent anything other to the written text — visual as opposed to verbal — but rather emphasize the visual aspect of writing.”[16] Jalal Toufic says they are partial translations of the linguistic text that may jolt the Arab illiterate “into, at last but not least, learning to read — and then actually read.”[17]

I think the glyphs are partially intelligible. The arrow here verbs the meeting of the sun and sea in conjugal ecstasy: 

A yellow sun a sun   toward the sea a sun reckless and in love with the sea(9)

And here arrows mark cosmic flight paths:

Paris - Jupiter   New-York - Saturn  Bagdad - Mercury   STOP(28) 

And here a pink dove shatters a human face:

A pink dove shattered      A solar hair in its beak(25)

But this intelligibility is inconsistent, idiosyncratic. The more abstract glyphs seem simply to denote bursts of energy or suggestions for the eye to move. They are loud; they communicate the urgency, the necessity of this text. But: 

Once I visited a class taught by Eleni Sikelianos. We read about half of The Arab Apocalypse aloud, a poem a person, round the room. No one moved the way Anne Waldman did, but we did read aloud and we paused. I noticed how different people read the glyphs differently, but in silence. Some paused noticeably. I certainly did. And there was in that silence another power. I kept thinking of the glyphs as a lost language of the future, the language for when “in the night in the night we shall find knowledge love and peace” (78). But was even this too intelligible? 

(v) Don’t read, but look. 

At the text. At the world around it. 

1. Etel Adnan, Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz) (Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo, 1993), 22.

2. Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse (Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo, 2006), 23.

3. Carolyn Forché, introduction to Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, ed. Forché (New York: Norton, 1993), 30.

4. Adnan, “Woman Between Cultures: Interview with Etel Adnan,” by Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas, January 8, 1987, qtd. in Lisa Suhair Majaj and Amal Amireh, introduction to Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist, ed. Lisa Suhair Majaj and Amal Amireh (Jefferson: McFarland, 2002), 18.

5. Adnan, Journey to Mount Tamalpais (Sausalito: Post-Apollo, 1986), 11.

6. In fact, in poem XXII the speaker claims to be all of the following: “the prophet of a useless nation,” “a sniper with glued hair on my temples,” “the terrorist hidden in the hold of a cargo from Argentina,” and “the judge sitting in every computer shouting FREEDOM IS FOR WHEN?” (41).

7. Thom Donovan, “Teaching Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse,” in Homage to Etel Adnan: Lifetime Achievement Award, Small Press Traffic Literary Arts Center, San Francisco, ed. Lindsey Boldt, Steven Dickison, and Samantha Giles (Sausalito: Post-Apollo, 2012), 37.

8. “Adnan clearly uses the strength and intensity of the sun as a metaphor for colonial powers … [while the] sea, moon, earth and various specific groups of people, such as the Hopi and the Palestinians, variously represent the brutalized, colonial subject. … At other times, the sun seems to be a more general symbol for the violent potential of human beings. … However, Adnan’s sun also appears at several points … as wounded, or deteriorating, or even dead. … Finally, Adnan’s sun sometimes seems merely to be an element of a larger universe that follows its own cycles and is completely indifferent to the travails of human beings on earth.” Caroline Seymour-Jorn, “The Arab Apocalypse as a Critique of Colonialism and Imperialism,” in Majaj and Amireh, Etel Adnan: Critical Essays, 38–39.

9. See also: “O sun which tortures the Arab’s eye in the Enemy’s prison!” (10); “the besieged Palestinians walk on all four / the Great solar Circle has encircled them in its iron ring / And tired of words they begin to bark” (54).

10. Donovan, “Teaching Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse,” 36.

11. Adnan, interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist, in Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions, ed. Obrist (Milan: Skira, 2014), 81.

12. Adnan, L’Apocalypse arabe (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006), 33.

13. Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse, in To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader, Vol. 1, ed. Thom Donovan and Brandon Shimoda (Brooklyn: Nightboat, 2014), 195.

14. Anne Waldman, “Sunken Suns,” in Homage to Etel Adnan, 92–93.

15. Seymour-Jorn, “The Arab Apocalypse as a Critique of Colonialism and Imperialism,” 43.

16. Sonja Mejcher-Atassi, “Breaking the Silence: Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie-Rose and The Arab Apocalypse,” in Poetry’s Voice — Society’s Norms: Forms of Interaction between Middle Eastern Writers and their Societies, ed. Andreas Pflitsch and Barbara Winckler (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2006), 208.

17. Jalal Toufic, “Resurrecting the Arab Apocalypse STOP [THE WORLD],” foreword to Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse (Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo, 2006), 7.

Poetic uprisings

Poetry, knowledge, imagination

Georges Didi-Huberman at an October 2014 interview for the SON[I]A podcast series at Radio Web MACBA (Museu de'Art Contemporani de Barcelona). Photo by MACBA.

Note: The writing of the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman is so tightly bound up with images, so rich in ways of seeing, that it may sound odd to say that he first mattered to me as an invisible voice on the radio, long before I familiarized myself with his books. Of the latter, I only knew The Dancer of Solitudes, a beautiful meditation on the art of the flamenco dancer Israel Galván, brimming with quotations from Rilke, Valéry, Mallarmé, and García Lorca, among others. Having no background in art history, and immersed as I was in the work of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet — much of whose aesthetic can be summed up in his admonition to “beware of images” — I somehow persuaded myself that the bulk of Didi-Huberman’s corpus was off limits. (As it turned out, the impetus for Jaccottet’s first major poem — a 1946 Requiem written in revulsion after a friend showed him several photographs of Resistance fighters tortured and killed by the Nazis — was not unlike that for what is perhaps Didi-Huberman’s best-known book, Images in Spite of All, about the four surviving photos from Auschwitz; but therein lies another story…) That was before I became aware of the nightly interview program Du jour au lendemain, hosted until July 2014 on France Culture by the writer and broadcaster Alain Veinstein. Didi-Huberman’s prolific publishing rhythm meant that he featured as a guest to speak about a new book at least once or twice a year. These conversations made a deep impression on me, beginning with their tone; I was struck by the gentleness of Didi-Huberman’s voice, the thoughtfulness of his diction, even the potency of his silences — “refuges of intensity,” as Veinstein said when they spoke about Blancs soucis, whose very title is drawn from a line by Mallarmé. Didi-Huberman clearly set great store by Veinstein’s status as a poet, and his responses to the latter’s questions already emanated a quiet poetic charge that I would find again in the books, once I allowed myself a proper look.

And looking was largely what they spoke about: the world itself through Didi-Huberman’s eyes, but more especially the ways in which literature, and poetry in particular, enabled him to articulate his looking. The lines of poetry that abound in his texts, he told Veinstein at one point, are not so much citations as incitations, constantly challenging him to refresh his perspective and recast his writing. Likewise, the montage of images in his books is indissociable from the work of phrasing embodied most intensely in poetry. It is consequently possible, even essential, to see Uprisings, the current exhibition curated by Didi-Huberman at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and organized around the theme of collective emotion and revolt, as a direct extension of the talk published here, “Poetic uprisings,” which finds him back in the company of poets and reflecting further on his own creative and critical practice. If I felt compelled to translate it for any number of reasons, I mainly felt comfortable doing so to the extent that it echoes, both in style and substance, the episodes of Du jour au lendemain that had provided my own point of entry into Didi-Huberman’s work. — Samuel Martin


Poetic uprisings (poetry, knowledge, imagination) 

Poets, specialists in poetry, have invited me to speak to them, with them.[1] I’m extremely touched, and at the same time at a loss. What to say? And above all, how to say it? I’m trying to imagine the implicit request behind this invitation. Am I being asked — as an “essayist,” a man of history, of learning, of theory — to tell the story of my experience with poetry? To tell even that part of my life would take far too long. In an effort to be brief, I’m going to scatter a few stones (this, already, in recollection of the Piedras sueltas, poems by Octavio Paz read during adolescence), laying out seven lapidary points, each of them subject to being questioned, developed, and deepened in our exchange. And in doing so, I won’t refrain from the simple pleasure of (re)citing several fragments of poems long cherished.

Zero: the poem far more than the novel. I struggled considerably with the form of the novel, as with that of theatre (even in verse). As a child, I understood almost nothing of the classic plays taught at school, and still less of the thousand characters and convolutions of War and Peace. For a long time, I thought that literature was far too complicated for me. I therefore began by reading simpler texts, scientific and then philosophical texts. My initiation to poetry came late and was certainly steeped in philosophy: Mallarmé first of all, but after and according to Hegel, via — as I well remember — Jean Hyppolite’s article on Un coup de dés, which he said he imagined as “Hegel’s Logic calling itself into question.”[2]

One: the poem as a gift of thought-phrases. Phrased thoughts, thoughts in rhyme or rhythm. For instance, I can get the impression of touching the most intense form of the dialectic from three lines of Mallarmé copied out almost at random:

I shall lap at the unguent your lashes cry,
To see if it gives to the heart you smote
The impassiveness of stones and sky.[3]

Dialectics, in effect: in the first line, it is a question of collecting ardently on one’s tongue (mucous membrane of sensual love, amorous organ of poetic language) the salt of the loved one’s tears, in the act of two bodies struggling together, bound by some common pain or passion. In the second line, it is a question of devising an experiment “to see,” and to see what? — not just “what that gives,” but at the same time the gift concluded in and through that common pain. In the third line, the poem reveals itself to be that gift of linguistic tongue (spiritual body, organ of thought), having attained the “impassiveness” of absolute things, those things that are absolutely (and not personally) beautiful. The dialectic of the poem, its act of thought, its fundamental knowledge: transforming our pain, your emotion, my gaze, into its impersonal splendor, by which I mean the detached, crystalline, monadic splendor — and yet simultaneous complexity — of a glimpse [une aperçue][4] phrased in writing.

Two: the poem as a gift of apparition-approaches. Why is it that things, beings, spring forth more clearly, appear more clearly in a poem? Whatever the case, at the time when I was attempting to describe the hysterical women of the Salpêtrière Hospital, I went so far as to cite without quotation marks, in order to make the women spring forth more clearly for my reader, the following passage from Lautréamont: 

There goes the mad woman dancing by, vaguely recollecting something. The children follow her, hurling stones as though she were a blackbird. She brandishes a stick and makes as if to chase them before continuing on. She’s lost a shoe along the way, and doesn’t notice. Long spider legs twist around her neck; they are, in fact, her hair. Her face no longer resembles that of a human, and she cackles with laughter like a hyena. She lets slip tatters of sentences, in which, were they stitched back together, very few would find a clear meaning. Her dress, torn in several places, moves jerkily around her bony mud-covered legs. She drifts onward like a poplar leaf, carried away by the whirling of her unconscious mind, herself, her youth, her illusions and former happiness, which she sees once more through the mists of an intelligence in ruins.[5]

(To give an indication of my own approach, it was enough for me to add to the sentence “The children follow her, hurling stones as though she were a blackbird” a phrase referring to Charcot and his assistants: “The men follow her with their eyes …” — as though it were a question of a work of art.)

Three: the poem as a gift of seeing-words. Taken separately, no doubt words are blind. But certain ways of combining them, certain expressions to make them take a stand, certain phrases, in short, become capable of sight. It’s not the French word pan by itself that makes us see something in Vermeer’s painting through Marcel Proust’s text, or the word rigole by itself that makes us see something in Rembrandt’s painting through Jean Genet’s text, but rather the particular rhythmical montage of language that these words come to articulate at the right moments. Having understood fairly quickly that looking wasn’t simply an optical affair, since one also looks with phrases, I have based all of my efforts, all of my approaches (historical or philosophical) to the image, on a heuristics of theoretical and descriptive language, constantly playing with the literary conventions within which, ever since the ekphrasis of antiquity, discourses on art have too often confined themselves.

I have thus read and reread the famous letters from 1871 in which Arthur Rimbaud says over and over that in poetry, it is a matter of “finding a language [in order to] be a seer, […] to make oneself a seer, […] to turn into a seer,” and to arrive — “one day, I hope” — at what he refers to bluntly as an “objective poetry.” For years, I didn’t begin a single one of my texts without having read something by Charles Baudelaire beforehand. It wasn’t a question of citing poems in epigraphs the way that one adds a cherry to the cake of philosophical thought; it was a question of looking at an image with the words of a poet whom that image, remarkably, seemed to me to be summoning. Given various current practices in art history or criticism, I could only refer modestly to my efforts as “fables.” Hence, in order to phrase my act of looking at the ash imprints invented by Claudio Parmiggiani, I had to “follow with my language” — the way one “follows with one’s eyes” — phrases found in Lucretius (the man who had the audacity, all but unique in the Western world, to lay out an entire philosophical system in the form of a single — albeit gigantic — poem), Mallarmé once more, Rilke, Paul Celan, and José Ángel Valente:

Watch carefully whenever shafts of streaming sunlight are allowed to penetrate a darkened room. You will observe many minute particles mingling in many ways in every part of the space illuminated by the rays and, as though engaged in ceaseless combat, warring and fighting by squadrons with never a pause, agitated by frequent unions and disunions. You can obtain from this spectacle a conception of the perpetual restless movement of the primary elements in the vast void […] Such commotion also implies the existence of movements of matter that are secret and imperceptible.[6

Nothing more, breath remaining, end of speech and gesture joined.[7]

The existence of the terrible in every particle of the air. You breathe it in as part of something transparent; but within you it precipitates, hardens, acquires angular, geometrical forms in among your organs […] And within you there is scarcely any room; and it almost calms you, to think that it is impossible for anything of any great size to abide in those cramped confines […] But outside, outside there is no end to it; and when it rises out there, it fills up inside you as well […] in the capillaries, sucked as if up a tube into the furthermost branches of your infinitely ramified being. There it arises, there it passes over you, rising higher than your breath, to which you have fled as if to your final resting place.[8]

Great, gray,
like everything lost, near
sister shape.[9]

It wasn’t you, it was your remains. […]
Your body wasn’t you,
what survived in the end
was transparency.[10]

Four: the poem as a gift of desire-memories. Quite simply because the rhythm of the phrases is imprinted with repetitions and memories, and overflows with differences and desires. I read and reread every poem (or nearly) the way I watch the Ninfa of Aby Warburg pass through the widest variety of images from antiquity and modernity, or the way I endlessly reread Charles Baudelaire’s “À une passante”: as coming from very far away, bearing memories, and yet ungraspable, and thus bearing desires away, and thus yet to come. Hence the importance of montage — of de- and re-montage — as a formal technique for juxtaposing heterogeneous spaces and temporalities. I’m not surprised to read in a recent text by Christian Prigent, a great poet of desire, the following words concerning the memorial technique of writing:

Extraction and recycling require techniques. Each text has its own. A work is the product of a kind of formal bricolage, determined and unending. Cut-up is one such technique. Except that it is neither solely nor primarily a technique: it is a principle (ethical and political more so than aesthetic). It invites you, primo, to recognize that to write is to work with a signifying material always-already constituted; and deuzio, to cut into the “old lines” [an allusion to William Burroughs] in order to disassemble the material, transform it, and reassemble it another way, from a simultaneously playful and critical perspective.[11]

Five: the poem as a gift of perception-knowledge. All of the history and theory of images from which I’ve learned the most — I’m talking principally about the work of Aby Warburg, Walter Benjamin, and Georges Bataille — proceeds directly from a poetic notion of the imagination as the generator of a fundamental knowledge, and not merely as a “fantasy” of the tiny creative I. This is the imagination as Goethe understood it, between compositions of versified language and collections of pebbles intended for grasping the meaning of Urphänomen (some two centuries, then, before Emmanuel Hocquard, in his Théorie des tables, came to label himself a “translator of pebbles”). It is also, more or less, the imagination as Baudelaire envisaged it, a “near-divine faculty that perceives first of all, outside of the [usual] philosophical methods, the secret and intimate relations between things, the correspondences and analogies.” It is, finally, the imagination as Benjamin invokes it, when he opens the field of knowledge in order to “read what has never been written.” If there is a “reading prior to all language,” as Benjamin proposes, then there is doubtless a poetry of pebbles, of stars, of bark — of images, no less.

Six: the poem as a gift of anguish-gestures. Here is a kind of poetry. I transcribe it, and yet it was written by no one:

Sudden exhaustion. Slowly I bent down.
Unknown presence, tears flowed
To see, in my memory, bending over my weariness,
Her tender face
As she had been on that first night.
A mad desire to throw myself into her arms.
Existence and affection living on in me,
And certainty furthermore,
Throbbing like a physical pain
Of a void that had destroyed that existence.
I struggled to bear the ache of that contradiction.
To these pangs, cruel though they were,
I clung with all my strength
Along a supernatural, inhuman channel,
Like a furrow, two-fold and mysterious.

This is a cut-up from a famous section of the Recherche du temps perdu,[12] when the narrator, who one evening is bending wearily over his boots, feels the image of his grandmother — his dead grandmother — rising toward him, in the moment when she had bent over him in turn. By restoring this episode of memory as a consonance of bodily movements, Marcel Proust invites us to reflect on this extended “bending,” to reflect, consequently, on what a poetic history of human gestures might look like, between pathos and action, struggle and desire, the despondency of grief and the outpouring of love, etc. It is precisely this history that Aby Warburg sketched out in his atlas of images, Mnemosyne, a collection of visual rhymes conceived as a journey — problematized, temporalized — through what he called the “formulas of pathos,” or Pathosformeln (at the same time that Ernst Robert Curtius was envisaging the history of literature through the lens of the relatively similar notion of Toposformeln). I am not surprised that it was a poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who best captured the affective dance of the bodies he so loved to film.

Seventh and final scattered stone: the poem as a gift of gentleness in revolt. A thread joining Rimbaud’s “Letters of a Seer” — in which one finds, for example, a “Parisian War Song” in homage to the Paris Commune — and Pasolini’s Corsair Writings, which, as near as can be to the demands of Brecht (author, in his Kriegsfibel, of lyric poems placed alongside war documents, which he called “photo-epigrams”), Benjamin, or Mayakovsky, are political interventions and journalistic reports calling for revolt in the name of gentleness, as one could already see in 1963 in the extraordinary poetic and political montage of La Rabbia. Thus words and images come together, work together, to make our thoughts rise up in what you might call a gesture of unarmed insurrection, an insurrection through bursts of language and vision. An insurrection borne in all popular poetry — the cante jondo of the Andalusian Gypsies, for instance — by the rhythmic beating of lament as it, too, rises up:

Not knowing it, I trampled
a flower upon her grave,
from the flower came an ¡ay!
that pierced me through the soul. 

1. I referred to the draft of this text during a public discussion that was part of the “Entretiens de la revue Po&sie,” with Michel Deguy, Muriel Pic, Martin Rueff, and Laurent Zimmermann, on December 8, 2012, at the Maison de l’Amérique Latine. [The original French text was published in Po&sie, no. 143 (2013): 153–57. — SM]

2. Jean Hyppolite, “Le coup de dés de Stéphane Mallarmé et le message” (1958), in Figures de la pensée philosophique, vol. 2 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1971), 878. [All translations from the French are my own. SM]

3. Stéphane Mallarmé, “Tristesse d’été” (1864), in Œuvres completes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), 37.

4. [Didi-Huberman has spoken elsewhere about his preference for this unorthodox usage; casting the word “glimpse” as a feminine noun (une aperçue) rather than a masculine one (un aperçu) allows him, he says, to better convey the elusiveness of the fleeting apparitions most memorably exemplified by the woman in Baudelaire’s poem “À une passante,” mentioned later in this text. — SM]

5. Comte de Lautréamont, Les Chants de Maldoror (1870), in Œuvres complètes, ed. Pierre-Olivier Walzer (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), 136–37.

6. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. Martin Ferguson Smith (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), 38.

7. Mallarmé, “Igitur” (1869), Œuvres complètes, 434.

8. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1904–1910), trans. Michael Hulse (London: Penguin Classics, 2009), 48.

9. Paul Celan, “Alchemical” (1961), in Corona: Selected Poems of Paul Celan, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Barrytown: Station Hill, 2013), 61.

10. José Ángel Valente, “Death and Resurrection,” in Landscape with Yellow Birds: Selected Poems by José Ángel Valente, trans. Thomas Christensen (Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, 2013), 173.

11. Christian Prigent, L’archive e(s)t l’œuvre e(s)t l’archive (Paris-Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe: Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, 2012), 16.

12. Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu — Sodome et Gomorrhe (1922), ed. Pierre Clarac and André Ferré (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 755–59.


Jordan Abel's 'Injun'

Note: above, a video of Jordan Abel giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Alex Porco’s response to Abel’s talk appears below.


Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel’s 2016 book of poetry, Injun, is a rhetorical analysis of “pulp propaganda” and a decolonizing application of the Tzara-Gysin “cut up.”[1] Put another way, the book ostensibly asks: what if we sent Bernays rafting on the Nass River of Northern British Columbia to toss his Freudian guts out? “It will come to him as his own idea” — as in a dream.[2] 

Injun is a demonstration of what Ming-Qian Ma calls “counter-method” poetics, or the performance of “poetry as rereading.”[3] Recent examples include Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House Books, 2014), Moez Surani’s Operations (BookThug, 2016), and Hugo García Manríquez’s Anti-Humboldt (Litmus Press, 2015). Abel rereads American westerns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with hokey titles like The Lure of the Dim Trails, Gunman’s Reckoning, Riders of the Silences, Two Boys in Wyoming: A Tale of Adventure, Desert Gold, and Sunset Pass; or, Running the Gauntlet through Apache Land. Abel’s book is a demonstration against the Rollo Martins of the world, a.k.a. Buck Dexter, author of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe. “In normal circumstances [Martins] is a cheerful fool.”[4] He means well, producing sentimental fictions that shape public opinion about Indigenous peoples, about the landscape and property, and about settler history and violence.

Using Project Gutenberg’s digital library, Abel identified 509 uses of the slur “injun” in “91 public domain western novels with a length of just over ten thousand pages.”[5] Next, he subjected the uses of the slur to chance-based cut ups: “Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five-word clusters. Sometimes I would cut up a page without looking. Sometimes I would rearrange the pieces until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together.”[6]

His long poem’s arrangement becomes increasingly scattered. Abel’s visual prosody scissors against syllabic stress patterns: “si     lvertip // b” or “bl  o    ody gor   ge.”[7] Eventually, letters are loosed entirely from semantic units, i.e., the word and line. Finally, even the directionality of the page is turned upside down. The mirrored guts of (my/our) English. Abel’s rereading moves rhythmically from symmetry to asymmetry.

Similarly, his vocal performance moves from mono to multichannel audio, generating an insipative force that serves as a counterpoint to the page’s increasingly dissipative and multidirectional visual prosody.[8] Abel reads, records, and layers vocal tracks that overlay, interrupt, and dislocate the “place” of meaning. His mouth, teeth, and tongue are concealed beneath an outlaw’s bandana. This costuming serves two purposes. First, the bandana makes it impossible to fix the source of Abel’s voice(s) to his body. Like Nsiga’a Halayt, he summons the supernatural. Ghosts in the (colonial) machine of Logos. Second, he mocks the iconicity of a stock character type, i.e., the outlaw, in western pulp novels.

Abel’s long poem is also supplemented by a series of poems — “notes,” he calls them — that list the results of similar keyword searches of those same novels: words like “whitest,” “frontier,” “truth,” “gold,” “territory,” “money,” “scalped,” and “redskin.” Furthermore, in an appendix, Abel includes an erasure poem: every sentence that includes “injun” in each novel is collected into a prose assemblage; however, the slur is erased from the text, creating empty spaces to be reinhabited with alternative modes of representation. (They’re also spaces through which I, as a Canadian, confront my own complicity. Caesurae.)

“These novels,” says Abel, “put up a wall around how we could think about this particular time period, the settlement period. It’s very necessary to return to these kinds of narratives. I find the genre of westerns to be so frustrating. It’s a genre that is still being written … still romanticized.”[9] Injun is his second attempt at engaging with the western. His previous collection, Un/Inhabited, examines contexts of use for the word “uninhabited.” As he explains in remarks made at the Avant Canada conference, Un/Inhabited imagines “public domain [texts] as an inhabitable body of land.”

(Dream vision: last night, I imagined that Abel concluded his trilogy with a Cage-inspired mesostic reading through his database. In the dream, he slips into a room, with a bayside view, at the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel — now, in fact, closed — and switches out the dresser drawer’s copy of the Bible with his new book. The room’s guest: Daniel Snyder. The book’s title: Mr. Abel Goes to Washington.) 

The injurious representational regime of the pulp western tacitly encouraged white North Americans to despise the Other — as much as they would eventually come to love bacon for breakfast and the “Howdy, partner” salute, with a canonical tip of the lip of a Stetson. “Injuns in a heap,” writes Abel, and, later, “injun s       mu    st    hang.”[10] In section l of his long poem, an italicized voice announces, 

             let’s play                      injun
and clean ourselves
             off the              land      

same old          gun handed business[11]


Abel adduces a correspondence between the treatment of Indigenous people and other horrors of the twentieth century, that is, the holocaust and lynching (“same old”). He points to the myth of purity that’s disseminated via mass culture’s (so-called) benign entertainments and that authorizes violence as “play” in the settler’s imagination. 

In other words, Jordan Abel ain’t (thankfully, finally) your Canadaddy’s “old stock” Duncan Campbell Scott. 


1. Abel, qtd. in Chelsea Rooney, “Jordan Abel: Un/Inhabited,” Project Space, September 25, 2014.

2. Edward Bernays, Propaganda (Brooklyn: Ig Publishing, 2004), 78.

3. Ming-Qian Ma, Poetry as Re-Reading: American Avant-Garde Poetry and the Poetics of Counter-Method (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2008).

4. Graham Greene, The Third Man and the Fallen Idol (New York: Penguin, 1977), 13.

5. Jordan Abel, Injun (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2016), 83.

6.  Ibid.

7.  Ibid., 18, 24.  

8. At Avant Canada, Abel participated in the conference session titled “Unsettling Appropriations.” The title of his performance was “The Place of Scraps.” His fellow panelists included Rachel Zolf (“An Appropriative Poetics of Canadian Settler Discourse”), Christine Stewart (“Acting As If You Have No Relations: Žižek, Christianity, the Avant-garde, and Living on Turtle Island”), and Shane Rhodes (“X”). Susan Holbrook was the panel chair. The event took place on November 6, 2015, in the Studio Gallery of Brock University’s Rodman Hall Art Center.

9.  Abel, qtd. in Rooney, “Jordan Abel: Un/Inhabited.”

10. Abel, Injun, 9, 17.

11. Ibid., 14.

A fool for a lawyer or a client

On Christian Bök

Note: above, a video of Christian Bök giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Vanessa Place responds to Bök’s talk in the essay that follows. 


Something like that. The point is that one should never defend oneself against one’s critics. One’s critics are always right. They may be knee-deep in it, but they are always right. Right, though, about what? I take no issue with Stephen Collis’s critique of Conceptualism, as I understand it via Christian Bök’s rejoinder, with which I also refuse to quarrel. But what, my darlings, are we quarreling for? Or over, or, better yet, around? It seems to me — which is a lovely feminine position to take — so insular, so subjective, and so easily dismissed, that there is a structural engagement at stake that is rather more than either Collis or Bök overtly bargains for. Because, like all card games, the big money is in the back. Bök is right, of course, that Conceptualism is famously thievish in a Robin Hood sort of way — and Collis is right, naturally, that there is a certain amount of personal frisson that accrues and is capitalized upon in this form of thieving. Our outfits are uniformly fabulous, the goods are there for the getting, and the dollops of personal celebrity sufficiently intoxicating/infuriating for everyone’s fun. But, again, my pets, never look at the right hand when the cards are being shuffled. What’s missed in this game is the questioning of its precepts: that dialectic is an apt description of the contemporary engagement, that there is an alternative Western political subject, or could be any aesthetic expression that could rightly trumpet itself from beyond the walls of its birthplace. Moreover, and more to the point (and we do so love a good sharp point), to assert a signification that is coincident with authorship is the very structure of all that prevails. In other words (another point of adoration, for what’s authorship if not a word count), to argue about this interpretation or that interpretation as being the better interpretation is a sucker’s game: the real money is in refusing to interpret. To be a lousy signifier, one that simply refuses to work properly, to hold the position of the one who knows or knows better, who fails to spin the sign just so you will think this or that or the other is far more unsettling to the contemporary mind than the business as usual of convincing this one or that one that there is this or that notion to be derived from the work or worker, like a wee ingot of meaning, and once we can easily reduce either work or worker to their proper Sein, we need do no more than trundle along, celebrating or condemning as we see fit. And we do see in fits, that much is for certain. For the proper move today is no longer dialectical but trilectical: we live lives that are as constituted in our fits of self-regard, which is always infused with the tisane of the social, and the social always mediated, and the mediation, always interlarded with the joie de suivre of current capital. And current capital capitalizes on the widget-one as the common unit of production and consumption. Put another way, social media trades on your tirades, on you representing yourself, or at least looking nice for the camera in your phone. Otherwise its advertisers cannot sell you stuff or sell your stuff to its advertisers. We happily participate in this, even and including excoriations of capitalism on social media; it then knows to pimp Verso books and Benjamin bifocals, or Esty knick-knackery and PETA promotions versus Tory tea cozies and tech stock pick primers. It does not particularly care, nor do I. I am happy to dress for the evening, to play and play along in my suspicion that interpretation is, like beauty, in the sockets of the beholder, that it will be, like history, written and rewritten to endless turns of edification and renunciation, and that no one will be forever the wiser, though we will all be sufficiently entertained. To my delight, the constant collaboration between those who know and those who know better plays itself out like an endless bad date or doomed romance, with the other sweetly hissing, “You see, I know you better than you know yourself.” To say that Conceptualism is politically noxious mistakes the smell of burning flesh for the flesh that is burning: but tell me again, my piglets, what I am supposed to think and how you would have me be. That will make all the difference that we can possibly stand. Which may be the promise of Conceptualism.