Cecil Taylor on/poetry
After my first firsthand encounter with Cecil Taylor’s work in Charlottesville in November 1986, I never would have imagined having a series of extraordinary experiences with him across the decades that followed. Seeing him that first time, a two-hour solo concert during a thunderstorm, I didn’t realize music could exist in such a different aesthetic universe — concert as a poem: words, movement, and sound, ominously beginning, “A stroke, the night.” I had been exposed to all kinds of music and was a student of jazz via courses centered on the Smithsonian Collection, which included something of Cecil’s work, but experiencing it live was as if someone from another planet came down to embody what music and performance could be — that every norm could be reshaped, if not broken altogether. I was in graduate school at the time, coincidentally reading D. H. Lawrence’s senses of Whitman (“breaking a way ahead … pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life,” a “strange camp at the end of the great high-road”) and fused it to awareness(es) that began to grow during the concert. Cecil’s “Avant Hard” (a phrase I wrote in a journal that night) spirit and actions (finger, corporeal, and mind ballet, letting sounds out of his body that are there) were intensely appealing, far removed from anything I’d known previously, a mystical event for me (“we look for the light light light”) that dramatically certified Cecil as an artist of untouchable, seemingly unapproachable quality, a type of wizard/master operating on an entirely different register.
Five years later, a housemate in Santa Cruz had acquired a tape of Cecil’s poetry, Chinampas, which completely blew our minds. Shortly thereafter, through our work with We Press, we met a poet named Trudy Morse, who was part of one of his Workshop Ensembles, and We ended up releasing a piece of theirs on one of our cassettes. Meeting Trudy was a fortuitous connection, as she was working closely with Cecil; perhaps a type of gravitational relationship was developing. After moving to Albany, still under the spell of Chinampas and with Trudy’s encouragement, I finally communicated with him, writing, in essence, a gushing fan letter with questions. Cecil responded with a series of phone calls and an invitation to meet at his Brooklyn home for an interview in September 1994. Why? He explained that no one had ever approached him wanting to discuss his poetry. About half of our 400 minutes of conversation on the subject was published in Hambone 12— one of my most treasured publications.
I saw and heard Cecil perform many times during the 1990s, and at one point he and I made plans to construct and issue a collection of his poetry, although it (disappointingly) never came to fruition. Nonetheless, my admiration is total (and I am overjoyed to hear rumor of a typeset manuscript, finally, more than twenty years later). His readings at the Poetry Project during this period were phenomenal events that left a permanent impression on me, projecting language so intricately and musically, gathering forces and spirits to exalt “the power of utterances / as system / as meaning.” To be in his company was always an occasion of great fortune.
Late last year I read an announcement for the April 14–24, 2016, Whitney Museum of American Art’s Open Plan exhibition dedicated to Cecil. I did not, for a moment, imagine being part of it, and was most surprised when Jay Sanders, a Whitney curator, contacted me in January about participating. I accepted the invitation and set out to prepare something engaging.
I found the cassettes of our conversation, boxed in silence for more than twenty years. A couple of them had decayed in places, though overall they were in decent condition. Digitizing them, I listened carefully and made notations on a printed transcript. Listening a second time, I collected fifty-two samples of things he said with regard to poetry and what might be construed as poetics, including two passages that did not appear in Hambone. We talked about many things the night we met in Brooklyn, and revisiting the dialogue was an expansive experience, to say the least.
In advance of creating these audio samples, what I would do with the material was unclear. The idea to make an interactive, multitrack apparatus for the exhibition performance arose during the process. Using Ableton Live software — a component of my practice in various capacities over the years — turned out to be the perfect choice.
Then, as I experimented with layering Cecil’s words about poetry, it seemed wise to include some of his poetry alongside them in order to create a more broadly indicative sound collage. Since most people who know Cecil’s poetry are familiar with the Chinampas recordings, I shied away from them and instead found a few examples on YouTube and transformed video to audio. To those, I added my documentation of one of Cecil’s Poetry Project readings, and recordings from a poetry performance he did in Troy, New York, provided to me by George and Susan Quasha.
A few decisions about selecting content and organizing and preparing the material had to be made along the way — some hierarchizing was in order — though these aspects of the project were not especially difficult, because Cecil says so many elegant and interesting things. Coupling his comments with poetry, shifting back and forth between the two forms, enables fuller context to emerge. A ten-channel audio sketch suitable for museum presentation — on an April 22, 2016, bill with Tracie Morris and Susie Ibarra, Fred Moten, Jemeel Moondoc, and Ensemble Muntu — came together without excessive turbulence, requiring mainly copious amounts of time for technical preparation. Its title, “improvised is how the voice is used,” is part of Cecil’s answer to a question about improvisation in Chinampas.
To explore our “improvised is how the voice is used,” visit us.
— Chris Funkhouser
Poetics of veil-piercing on a corporate planet
Ten years into tortuous research surrounding a modest seventy-three-acre plot of toxins sitting quiet some hundred feet from the house where I grew up, diffuse obsessive e-digging struck metal hydroxide sludge. In the wilds of Justia.com, suddenly clear-cut by my more sophisticated search strings or their more precisely targeted algorithms, I came upon a document titled “Town of Oyster Bay v. Occidental Chemical Corp., 987 F. Supp. 182 (E.D.N.Y. 1997).” This seemingly dry discussion of several motions by the US District Court of Eastern New York details one moment in a struggle by the local township to recuperate the costs of capping a noxious dump — a primal dread/seduction complex for us kids, known to neighbors in roughly endearing terms as the “sump.” Unlined, the “landfill,” as the document euphemistically calls the hole, had been stockpiled and occasionally ignited with several decades of unrestricted agricultural, cesspool, commercial, demolition, industrial, and residential waste: approximately three million cubic yards of refuse reaching depths of ninety feet below the surface. It occupied about half of the reticent real estate across from us; abutting the dump was the locus of a decommissioned copper mill, an Inactive Hazardous Waste Site unto itself, and one of the cells’ premier providers of industrial sludge.
Gash in the Upper Glacial Formation and Magothy Aquifer, fount-in-reverse of postwar economic miracles of aerospace engineering, corrugated containment, lighting, electricity and telephony, photography and imaging, shipping, mass suburbanization, and “plastics,” the dump was shut when found to be polluting the groundwater with so-called indicator chemicals — for example, alarming levels of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and lead. The Environmental Protection Agency added it to their National Priorities List for remediation in 1983, and after a two-part Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study ordered that a geosynthetic membrane cap be constructed on top. In the mid-1990s, facing the costs of containing the toxic threat, the town went after the major offenders, whose highly identifiable names and aliases, defunct and current, follow Occidental in the case proper (the latter company formerly known as Hooker Chemical Corporation, of Love Canal renown).
Having cobbled together this seemingly straightforward narrative in fits and starts over the course of a decade, I suddenly began to perceive the legal underpinnings of what I’d come to call the Great Chain of Irresponsibility, existing previously only as an atlas gone haywire in the brain, transcribed into lines upon lines upon shredded veins of propertyscape, with the syntactical guidance of Alice. Piecing together the shrouded contents of the site manually, in the literal sense, had become a means of dealing with the leakage of fact that I could periodically stomach — to retether ducts of disinterred data to one another, preserving the anxiety of haphazard disclosure while scoring retribution in the form of plaint.
The court’s discussion opens by stating that the landfill was situated “within 1.25 miles of more than one thousand residences and less than 150 feet from a local elementary school.” The residents and students conjured in absentia by this sentence, communities riddled by cancer clusters and other concerns on the cheap margin of an elsewhere affluent suburb, are otherwise missing from the document, being what business dryly names “externalities” — side effects of commercial or industrial activity that affects third parties, omitted from any evaluation of cost. Instead, the “persons” represented in the case are corporations and the Town of Oyster Bay, while the injuries under consideration are “continuing injuries to real property.” Somewhere amidst the deferred reader’s late-breaking addenda of panic and rage, teeming in the guts of this document was a debate about the limits of personhood whose terms took some time to understand: it turned out that the case, charging companies with environmental and human health offenses stretching back decades, tested the bounds of a contested juridical act known as “corporate veil piercing.”
Slowly I came to apprehend that financial responsibility for the containment of contaminants eked via underground plume or gas migration could be assigned only through dogged determination of the extent of legal liability on the part of corporations or successors to corporations that dumped. Some of the corporations in the Town of Oyster Bay’s action were operating under new and improved aliases; others were officially “dead and buried.” They therefore exceeded the limits of culpability according to the fiction of corporate personhood. This situation led me and my verses to a research digression on pipelines of so-called personal liability.
A longstanding legal fairy tale — one that has been receiving fresh attention in the wake of the Occupy movements and opposition to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — posits that the corporation is a person with remarkably impermeable limits, so that in many cases only the corporation itself, and not its shareholders, directors, owners, or subsidiaries, is responsible for its deeds. Enforcement of this notion dates back to an 1886 case before the Supreme Court, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which due to either offhand commentary, clerical mistranscription, or outright forgery, expanded the application of the Fourteenth Amendment — adopted after the Civil War to grant emancipated slaves full citizenship, which states that “[n]o state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws” — to commercial or private groups of people acting collectively. Despite the nation’s enduring qualms in extending these constitutional rights to all citizens, somehow corporations, as “artificial persons,” or APs, have been granted the theoretical rights of natural persons ever since, while being cordoned off from their successors to evade responsibility for civil wrongs we’d have little trouble ascribing otherwise. It is as though the corporation as person were sealed with a geosynthetic membrane cap around its fictional skin and sphere of action.
This virtual geosynthetic membrane cap is picturesquely referred to as a “veil” in legal terms. The Eastern District court, determining who should pay for sealing off the neighborhood dump, had to determine first of all whether to “pierce the veils” of new and improved corporations — that is, whether they should hold the alter egos of enterprises like Hooker and Columbia Corrugated Container Co. responsible for the waste disposal of their “predecessors-in-interest.” Piercing the veil is the most litigated issue in corporate law. In 1926, Justice Benjamin Cardozo wrote of this ambiguous legal terrain,
The whole problem of the relation between parent and subsidiary corporations is one that is still enveloped in the mists of metaphor. Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched, for starting as devices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it. We say at times that the corporate entity will be ignored when the parent corporation operates a business through a subsidiary which is characterized as an “alias” or a “dummy.” All this is well enough if the picturesqueness of the epithets does not lead us to forget that the essential term to be defined is the act of operation. Dominion may be so complete, interference so obtrusive, that by general rules of agency the parent will be a principal and the subsidiary an agent. Where control is less than this, we are remitted to the tests of honesty and justice.
Certain tests of honesty and justice lead courts to acknowledge the collusion of parent and child companies as polluting agents even if the subsidiaries don’t look like dummies, since, as Cardozo writes, only by acknowledging the overarching continuity of enterprise “can we overcome a perversion of the privilege to do business in a corporate form.”
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 — otherwise known as CERCLA, and more colloquially as Superfund — was a historic bit of legislation by Congress that made it possible for courts to recognize the perversion of treating artificial persons as if they were natural: as if, that is, the strategic transformation of a corporate brand over time could limit its accountability for a record of environmental harm. Following the first Earth Day and Nixon’s establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and in response to highly publicized disasters such as Love Canal and the Cuyahoga River fire, Superfund made trailing and capping our local slough of poisons possible: it established protocols for dealing with closed or abandoned hazardous waste sites (Response), taxing the chemical and petroleum industries (Compensation), and setting aside the money as a trust fund for the treatment of environmental hazards. CERCLA also launched a strict and retroactive definition of liability to ensure that businesses responsible for the release of hazardous substances would bear the burden of cleaning up toxic pollutant spills, sparing taxpayers the (monetary) cost of their poisoning — for the dissolution of a business into the ground signals only the beginning of its debt to those who live near the grave.
In the 1997 Oyster Bay case, CERCLA served as justification for piercing the veil of the allegorically named Great American Industries. But Supreme Court interpretation of the Liability Act has since the ’90s been eroding reliance on federal common law in favor of state laws that favor corporations and their guises. The push toward deregulation of business environments on the part of states to attract economic investment has been identified both as a “race to efficiency” and, using the words of a famous 1933 dissenting opinion by Justice Louis Brandeis, as a “race to the bottom” — a metaphor confounding in the context of excavating a dump, but which refers to underbidding states competing for business investments to lower taxes. Interpreters of the law who resist piercing the corporate veil in line with CERCLA’s aims have insisted that imposing a strict notion of liability will interfere with commercial relationships, and that citizens are not to worry, since it is in the best interests of states not to befoul their natural resources. Moreover, the number of Superfund sites added to the National Priorities List has steadily declined, so that the question of going after polluters in sheep’s clothing will no longer arise so frequently. The Superfund tax expired in 1995 and, facing Republican opposition in both houses of Congress, has not been reauthorized; it has been expected for some years now that the trust fund’s agenda will be restricted to more visible and immediate emergencies in the near future, and that states will be expected to take up the slack by cleaning up environmental hazards on a voluntary basis. EPA personnel themselves are more and more baldly tied to institutions like the Federal Enterprise Institute, supported by the interests of companies such as Koch Petroleum, ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical. We have been obliged, this month, to conjecture about whether the EPA will exist at all under the imminent regime, and at the time of revision have learned that it will be headed by a man who has spent the bulk of his energy as attorney general acting as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” actually suing the agency for seeking to curtail emissions of greenhouse gases and methane (and simultaneously challenging the constitutionality of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act).
Meanwhile, there are myriad additional routes through which a corporate person may dodge the gaze of justice. The copper plant next door to the dump, for example, passed lucratively through the invisible hands of an exalted empire of benefactors whose names festoon galleries, performance halls, hospitals, and centers for environmental engineering in my current city, a third of a continent away; the toxic property transferred hands through another finance-boosting paradox of owning and not owning via a sale-and-leaseback deal. Having changed ownership multiple times, the fenced-off property is now being touted in watercolors as the future plot for a smart-growth New Urbanist hamlet of world-class “live, work, relax and play” spaces.
Incoherent subjecthood papered over with green new names and suits; splintered trails of agency nourished by continuous flows of capital, and spiked by volatile organic compounds: umbilical ties gone awry under corporate, if not corporal, protection by the law. Real-estate mogul president-elect passing management unblindly onto kids who form part of his political transition team and show up in meetings with prime ministers, though it’s “visually important” to keep domestic and foreign policy decisions separate from business dealings, to keep the parent corporation apart from the child. (Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Jason Chaffetz to Hillary Clinton, pressing for emergency hearings: “If you’re going to run and try to become the president of the United States, you’re going to have to open up your kimono and show everything.” On Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest: “We’ll let him get sworn in and see how it’s structured.”)
How does one stand up for justice in a republic dominated by immunity in the name of the person on the one hand, brand kinship and disavowed nepotism on the other? We ought to take a cue from Thoreau’s “strict business habits” in confronting the fresh cloaking of agency as it roves through time and space:
Our moulting season, like that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives. The loon retires to solitary ponds to spend it. Thus also the snake casts its slough, and the caterpillar its wormy coat, by an internal industry and expansion; for clothes are but our outmost cuticle and mortal coil. Otherwise we shall be found sailing under false colors, and be inevitably cashiered at last by our own opinion, as well as that of mankind.
As long ago as 1854, Thoreau perceived that the manufacture of new cortices served mostly to immiserate operatives: “the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.”
When the law fails to recognize the continuity of exploitation on a corporate planet, we need to forge the chronicle ourselves; we must produce the crisis. Laboring in our solitary sloughs, and then out loud. We can work against the oath of amnesty and resulting stasis of depoliticized citizenship in relation to past crimes that presses against any resistance in moments such as those following a contentious election or civil strife — an oath that led Roberto Rossellini, for example, to participate in the easing of internecine national tensions by replacing the final firing squad of Italian Fascists that kill Don Pietro in Rome: Open City with a squad of Nazis, others.
The crisis we need to induce in ourselves, to become ready to shed our mortal coil (archaic for confusion or tumult), and to call out the false colors of adulterating corporate interests, calls for poetry understood in the broad sense to breach the walls of the polis — now more than ever. All that which Socrates mistrusts in the poet — lamentation, hilarity, pleasure, words spoken against rules, fear of the dead, generating conflict in the lower parts of the psyche — militates against the fiction of personhood with corporate immunity from yesterday’s misdeeds. The corrosive discourse of poetry can pierce geosynthetic membrane caps, and it can articulate the indigestible contents of those outside the text of the arguable case: the contents of innumerable natural persons who deserve reparations, yet reside beyond the purview of a system of justice driven only to recuperate its own face-saving expenditures. The tragic worldview that poetry can fuel just might induce systemic crisis by exposing the material foundations of the fact that “many happy men are unjust, and many wretched ones just, and that doing injustice is profitable if one gets away with it, but justice is someone else’s good and one’s own loss.”
Meanwhile, the poetic fallacy of a coherent lyric person must also continue to be pierced in favor of industrious focus on the forces, the substances, the spills that breach and bind us. The dump across the street was no exception, only a fleetingly technicolored example of the rule: the common landscape all of us inhabit now is a repository of the tainted entrails of corporate persons, open field of exits and entrances ajar. And unless we conspire to dig the now-brittle inflatables of the ’70s out for public reoccupation from their museum depots, we the people are a chorus of input-output devices, witting or non.
The I/O of The Republic of Exit 43 proposes that landscapes understood systemically are impossible to pin down as wholly “site-specific” phenomena, and that corporate and lyric persons are impossible to contain. Every isolated site, every I is a sprawling accident of disaster capitalism, with its state-sponsored “resiliency” taking the place of amends, and peddled fantasy that externalities are infinitely renewable through fresh coats of paint, through attitude and breathing exercises. I/O as lips of the common hole in progress that speak from the bottom, and lowd.
I/O: denizen of the recycled public lot next door to the slough absorbing noxious acronyms and schooling by turns, seeking late to force the residue of chemical and literary histories to accrue to one another in a cogent plaint. As if somehow all of pastoral and urbane civilization so named were liable for this quiet emergency — all being convoked to replay their part, to combat.
To give this abject exit the name of Republic, in the absence of public works and even of infrastructure. An aspirational gesture, and one that remains open to sentence and question.
1. For more background, see Howard Jay Graham, Everyman’s Constitution: Historical Essays on the Fourteenth Amendment, the “Conspiracy Theory,” and American Constitutionalism (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1968).
5. See E. Scott Pruitt’s LinkedIn page.
Those interested in theorizing lyric must tread lightly these days, for a great deal of recent critical energy has been invested in sounding the historical and interpretive contours of this “super-sized” modern genre. Much of this work seeks to disrobe lyric of its transhistorical pretensions, revealing by way of materialist critique that what we took for an enduring genre is actually a product of deeply codified — and distinctly post-Romantic — reading practices. Thus when we attempt to write “the history of the lyric,” as Virginia Jackson explains, we are confronted primarily with “the history of the ways an idea has become a genre and the ways in which that genre has been manipulated by poets and critics alike.” The task of responsible lyric scholarship, then, is to “render the intricate turns in the history of the lyric or of ideas associated with lyric” and thereby “testify to the tremendous malleability of the term.” This essay attempts to identify one such “turn” in lyric’s history — a twentieth-century or media technological turn — but it also quite recklessly courts this same historicist critique by suggesting a tentative definition for the transhistorical lyric; or, to hedge only slightly, a definition of one function the poems in the Western literary tradition we have hitherto called ‘lyric’ seem to perform, and to perform well: lyric poems index the phenomenal present.
In making a claim for this distinctive capacity of lyric, I rely on a few prominent theorists who also see fit to argue for the validity of a live and persistent (if always dynamic) lyric tradition, and who not only emphasize the genre’s special relationship to the present, but do so partly by identifying the constitutive role of deixis in lyric. Deictics, about which I’ll have more to say below, are those little indexing words like this and that (demonstratives), here and now (spatial and temporal adverbs), and you and I (personal pronouns) that “refer to a present situation of utterance and its speaker rather than to a fixed object, concept, or reality.” According to Jonathan Culler, “the importance of such deictics as technical devices in poetry can scarcely be overestimated,” for they “bring into being a voice and a force addressed.” Roland Greene concurs: “lyric must rely on deictics to maintain and adjust its internal process, to found fictions.” “Whenever we use the terms now or here or I or you,” observes Susan Stewart, “we find ourselves immersed in the ‘now’ of articulation, the ‘here’ of the space in which speech is spoken, the ‘I’ of the speaker, the ‘you’ of the listener. It is … not just that such terms are context-dependent: they themselves define and create the circumstances of specific contexts.” By virtue of their “paradoxical” ability to establish a totally particular context (‘now’ meaning 1:37 pm) and simultaneously retain meaning across various contexts (‘now’ meaning nowness), deictics are largely responsible for lyric’s capacity to image speaking persons that are intelligible for different readers, and across time — that is, to create iterable effects of presence, “one of the fundamental possibilities” of the genre.
The indexing to which Culler, Greene, and Stewart refer can be described as rhetorical in nature, which is to say it bears upon the address of a lyric speaker — to absent listeners, for example, or readers, or wind, or the speaker’s own self. But I’m here to contend that one of the legacies of poetic modernism — a legacy that maintains an as yet undertheorized relationship to emerging media technologies in the twentieth century — is the removal of lyric’s indexical capacity from the dimension of rhetoric to that of language-in-use, the poetic medium itself. Many twentieth-century poetries — beginning in English perhaps with the Imagist experiments but more evidently in successive avant-gardes — abjured or subverted the “pronominal forms,” modes of address, and discursive impulses associated with lyric exemplars of the past, but precisely on account of this shift of emphasis from a presencing rhetoric to a presencing language, the short poem’s ability to make present did not disappear. As a result, those poetries we’ve termed ‘anti-lyric’ or ‘avant-garde’ because they sought to explode any number of received Romantic or ‘lyric’ values (like formal integrity, expressive subjectivity, an orientation toward speech, etc.) may prove less anti-lyric than we supposed. After modernism we can observe a tendency among poets to avoid the rhetorical devices upon which lyric had hitherto relied for effecting presence, and instead, to avail themselves of speech’s own debt to deixis, its indexical dimension, thus managing still to foreground the present situatedness and relatednesss of speaker, listener, or reader. According to this hypothesis, we find in the wake of poetic modernism not an entirely different valuation of lyric — for these lyrics are still doing what we know lyrics do well — but rather the discovery of a different site of lyric activity: language’s absolute dependence on the phenomenon of indexicality, and its ceaseless presupposition of presence. This is lyric by other means, and all language is lyric language now, or so we’ll have reason to suspect.
As I attempt to delineate the nature and stakes of this indexical lyric, I must sideline the essential questions of when exactly this modern lyric impulse arose, of what poets precisely it attracted, of its relationship to existing accounts of poetic modernism and to theories of poetic signification like those of Heideggerian phenomenology and de Manian deconstruction, and of its continuing significance for poetic makers today. Though clearly, if the argument below stands up, it will not stand for long without serious answers to these urgent questions. In the meantime, I offer the preliminary example of George Oppen, a poet whose abiding concern for the phenomenological present and whose innovative resistance to the expressive model of lyric credit him as an especially helpful guide to this new lyric present.
On April 9, 1964, George Oppen gave a reading with David Ignatow at the Guggenheim in New York for the recently inaugurated reading series of the Academy of American Poets. The recording of the event is one of the earliest in the Academy’s now extensive audio archive, the establishment of which the previous year signaled an important shift in the organization’s mandate: while the Academy’s stated mission since 1934 had been to promote contemporary American poetry, in this audio archive we see a new tandem interest in preservation as well, an interest amplified by the decision to house the new reading series in the impressive new modern art museum. Indeed Oppen is picking up on this institutional impulse for preservation when, by way of excuse for including in his reading several poems from his first book, 1934’s Discrete Series, he quips: “I also decided to give myself a retrospective at the Guggenheim” (7:42). It’s a joke trimmed with poignancy though, for after Discrete Series Oppen did not publish another book for twenty-eight years — years of political action, military service, and exile in Mexico. One wonders, then, for whom in his 1964 New York audience was Oppen still something of the prodigal poet, returning to avail himself of the engaged art that as a younger man he had abandoned, attempting now and again to wield, as he speaks in “A Narrative,” the poem with which he opens his reading, “a substantial language / Of clarity, and of respect” (7:20).
We hear in this recording the effects of a markedly overdetermined concern with presence, a concern enforced by prerogatives institutional, technological, and poetic. Firstly, the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim are institutions whose mandate is the documentation of the historical-aesthetic present, the contemporary, and in this case, of the presence of the poet’s embodied voice, a voice returned lately to the scene of American poetry “as from the dead.” Secondly, I’ll propose we consider audio recording itself a “technology of presence,” a term employed by Michael Davidson to describe “those systems of production and reproduction within which the voice achieves enough autonomy to regard itself as present unto itself.” The speech sounds inscribed by a technology of presence deliver “a hybrid voice,” one that effects the presence of a speaker by re-presentation, but also “deconstructs” or gives the lie to presence via the necessary intercession of the machine, registering the extent to which presence is only ever an effect. Finally, I’ll suggest that lyric poems like those written and read out by Oppen are also technologies of presence, though they do not require tape recording or any media supplement beyond speech to be counted as such.
So how is lyric like audio reproduction? In his discussion of the gramophone, Friedrich Kittler returns repeatedly to the German poet laureate Ernst Von Wildenbruch and his poem “For the Phonographic Recording of His Voice,” which the poet duly recorded on wax cylinder in 1897, and which concludes, with eager hope for the new technology: “So listen to the sound of what I declare, and Ernst Von Wildenbruch’s soul will be laid bare.” According to Kittler, though the poet in his embrace of the machine is “desperate to equate the Real (his recorded, but mortal voice) with the Symbolic (the discourse articulated in his verses), and in turn equate the Symbolic with the Imaginary (the poetic spirit of creation within him),” he mistakes just how radically the epistemological ground has shifted under his nineteenth-century feet. As a result of the media technology’s ability to capture the “alphabetless trace” and so produce “reproduction[s] authenticated by the object itself” — reproductions, that is, of “physical precision” that refer “to the bodily real, which of necessity escapes all symbolic grids” — “the real takes the place of the symbolic.” In other words, because the gramophone remains oblivious to the symbolic order of meaning and semantic reference, it captures only the real — streams of uninterrupted discourse and uninterrupted streams of everything else, “pure sounds rather than … words and notions.” Consequently, no matter his laureate pedigree or Romantic aspirations, “when Wildenbruch spoke into the bell-mouth, the phonograph stored indices rather than poems.”
Indices rather than poems. We need not subscribe wholesale to Kittlerian media theory in order to see the wisdom and utility of this particular claim. When Kittler distinguishes between indices as real impressions and poems as symbolic constructions, he draws upon the semiotic system of Charles Sanders Pierce, for whom the index, as opposed to the symbol or icon, “is a real thing or fact which is a sign of its object by virtue of being connected with it as a matter of fact and by also forcibly intruding upon the mind, quite regardless of its being interpreted as a sign.” Debate persists among critics over the precise nature of this “connection” between indexical sign and referent. Is it necessarily physical, or temporal, and how reliable is this connection? All agree in any case that the index, in Kris Paulsen’s words, “has a real and necessary connection to what it signifies, unlike the symbol’s arbitrary connection.” Photographs, footprints, weathervanes, ‘index’ fingers, and disease symptoms are all emblematic indices, evincing a “real and necessary” — that is, a nonarbitrary — connection to what they purport to signify. For Kittler, then, Wildenbruch’s recording, as a result of the “real and necessary connection” secured by phonography’s mode of mechanical inscription, produces not the poem “For the Phonographic Recording of His Voice,” but an index of the phonographic recording of his voice and everything else registered by the machine in the moment of utterance, noise included.
When phonographic records begin spinning, Kittler observes, “the death bell tolls for poetry.” But as indicated above, lyric poems have always maintained an indexical function, one on which they rely for their effects of presence. If these two indexical capacities — the way phonography, as a technology of presence, establishes a “real and necessary connection” between playback and original sound, and the way lyric deixis presupposes a present of utterance — can be thought together on mutually agreeable terms (such is our task here), then perhaps we have a case not of poetry’s death-by-media, but of something more like competitive negotiation; technological media have outstripped lyric with respect to the latter’s foremost cultural function, the indexing of the presence of persons across time. How did twentieth-century lyric poets and their readers respond to this altered media environment? Perhaps by rethinking how poetic language might go about effecting presence in the first place. A poetics like Oppen’s, I argue, signals a retooling of lyric’s relationship to speech or language-in-use, and the charging of that lyric language with some distinctly phonographic aspirations.
After his brief “retrospective” at the Guggenheim, Oppen reads the new poem “Psalm,” from which he will draw the title of his next collection, This in Which, to be published the following year (12:24). In this “signature” poem of Oppen’s, the speaker witnesses a group of “wild deer bedding down” in the “small beauty of the forest” and is moved to psalmic praise for the animals’ very existence in proximity: “That they are there!” The speaker faces the deer — he both confronts them and grants them a face — by subtly contrasting their “Effortless” eyes with the slightly more effortful activity of their “mouths”: the “soft lips” that “Nuzzle,” the “alien small teeth” that “Nibble” paths, “Tear at the grass” and “Dangle” its roots. This astonished scrutiny gives issue in the final stanza to a revelatory moment of ars poetica:
The small nouns
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.
The “this” in which both the “wild deer” and the crying “small nouns” find shelter is of course both the “small beauty” of the “strange woods” and the smaller beauty of the poem itself. According to Cyrena Pondrom, Oppen himself described “Psalm” as part of his “continuing struggle to point to the irreducible reality of the objective world around us, and to push through the impediments of acts of reference and perception.” In an interview, when asked after the precise nature of the “faith” to which these “small nouns” attest, Oppen responds:
Well, that the nouns do refer to something; that it’s there, that it’s true, the whole implication of these nouns; that appearances represent reality, whether or not they misrepresent it: that this in which the thing takes place, this thing is here, and that these things do take place. On the other hand, one is left with the deer, staring out of the thing, at the thing, not knowing what will come next.
In holding fast to the belief that his “small nouns” can in fact “identify [their] object and assure us of its existence and presence,” Oppen espouses an explicit “faith” in indexicality, in the nonarbitrary or “real and necessary” relation between word and world. The poet himself “cries faith” in language’s capacity, guaranteed only by “the existential presence of a given speaker,” to point to reality, to throw up a temporary bridge over the abyss sundering sign from referent.
Oppen’s allowance in the above quotation for “misrepresentation” may seem odd at first, particularly for so conscientious a poet, but in fact it argues his refusal to privilege the symbolic over the indexical. The achievement of this poem lies not in its representation — what the poem points to — but, more basically, in its capacity for reference to the world outside the poem — the fact of its pointing at all: “that the nouns do refer to something.” To be sure, “Psalm” means symbolically as well, but its indexical force remains indifferent to semantic content or representational accuracy. Not right or wrong, but real. In distinguishing between the symbolic and indexical modes that work alongside each other in lyric, we can borrow the useful reminder issued in a different context by Paulsen to those visual theorists who would confuse the indexical and iconic modes: the index is not a “mark of resemblance, proof, or truth, but rather … an instance of relationality, interpretation, and decision.” Elegantly, passionately, “Psalm” demonstrates the indexical fact of this relationality: “they are there,” we are here, and there exists on faith a “this in which” we both are. But to understand exactly how it is that these “small nouns” perform their indexical function, how this results in persuasive effects of presence, and how such effects differ from those made possible by the rhetorical maneuvers associated by Culler, Greene, and Stewart with familiar lyric protocols, we need to pop the hood, as it were, of this poetic language by recourse to the lessons of pragmatic linguistics.
In his 1976 essay “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description,” linguist and anthropologist Michael Silverstein sets out to describe “the elaborate meaning structures of speech behavior” that are left underanalyzed by traditional grammatical or “semantic” (or symbolic, in Peirce’s terms) approaches to the study of any culture’s linguistic behavior. The “key” to such a functional and “pragmatic description of language” is the index. In the course of his argument Silverstein discloses the subtle machinery of signification at work in that type of index most germane to our discussion, the deictic, also known as a variety of “duplex sign,” “referential index,” or “shifter,” because the word’s “reference ‘shifts’ regularly, depending on the factors of the speech situation.” These deictic utterances operate, Silverstein explains, via a logic of “presupposition.” Take the phrase ‘this table,’ for example, uttered in the course of conversation. The deictic ‘this’ “presupposes” either the “physical existence” of something called ‘table’ or a “prior segment of referential discourse” in which this thing called ‘table’ has been spoken out. It’s an act of taking-for-granted, and “the use of the deictic … is maximally presupposing” in so far as “some aspect of the context” must be “fixed and presupposed … in order for the referential contribution to be made,” that is to say, in order for the words to refer at all. And crucially, the presupposition of this referent — be it a table, a person called ‘you,’ etc. — also entails the presupposition of “the speaker or hearer location” relative to that referent. So the phrase ‘this table’ not only presupposes the existence of furniture in the world or in recent discourse, but also something of a person’s relative proximity to that furniture, for the deictic is as much about where we are — where I am relative to ‘this,’ where ‘you’ are relative to me — as it is about the existence of any particular referent. Indeed, deictic phrases draw us into an awareness of presence by making the fact of our position with respect to an entity a precondition for meaning-making.
Thus Oppen’s slightly more enigmatic phrase “this in which” must also presuppose the presence of a referent and the speaker/hearer’s relationship to that referent. Otherwise the deictic utterance appears “uninterpretable and confusing.” What, then, does “this in which” presuppose? As I suggested above, the “this” in which the “wild deer / Startle and stare out” refers quite simply to the world of the “small beauty of the forest” and to the world of the poem itself, Oppen’s “faith” being that these are one and the same world, and that his “small nouns,” like all good indices, prove somehow contiguous (“a real and necessary connection”) with the world of the deer. Oppen’s “this” takes for granted or creates perforce such a common world, and this deictic presupposition is here figured as an act of “Crying faith.” We see this logic of presupposition on clear display in the exclamation “That they are there!” — a phrase that precisely presupposes, on penalty of unintelligibility, that they are there. And like all acts of faith, it’s serious business, this act of indexical presupposition. In “The Occurrences,” a poem from This in Which that would seem to caption the grazing deer in “Psalm,” the poet writes:
At the roots
Of the grass the creating
Now that tremendous
A “plunge” indeed, from the very heights of meaninglessness, of language unanchored to any relational context, to the hard ground of meaning and reference — this on which one stakes a social life.
There are words that mean nothing
But there is something to mean.
Not a declaration which is truth
But a thing
Which is. It is the business of the poet
‘To suffer the things of the world
And to speak them and himself out.’
The speaking out of “things” with those “words that mean nothing” — this is a passionate act inextricable from the speaking out of oneself, because the deictic utterance presupposes our own presence in the same gesture as it presupposes its object of reference. No description, no matter its vividness or expressive detail, will reveal to me where I am unless that reference is anchored in the “plunge” of deixis. By contrast, when Oppen speaks, or when we speak Oppen’s bald words, “They who are there,” I cannot forget where I am: I am at the other end of a pointing finger, and thereby made present to this act of reference.
In the final poem of This in Which, appropriately titled “World, World —,” Oppen decries the “Soul-searchings” and “medical faddism[s]” that are “attempt[s] to escape, / To lose oneself in the self.” He advises:
The self is no mystery, the mystery is
That there is something for us to stand on.
The index is how the poet reaches for this ultimate ground of reference, and the reader too is invited — nay, obligated by the logic of presupposition — to stamp her feet, so to speak, in search of this “something for us to stand on.” If like Davidson we characterize a technology of presence by its ability to make one present to oneself, just as a tape recorder plays back one’s own voice, then deixis, which effects an experience of the lyric reader’s situatedness among others, affords the reader a handle on that same necessary distance or estrangement. “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves,’” the poet begins his great 1968 long poem, “Of Being Numerous,” recorded at Long Island University in 1966 (1:06). We might understand “see,” in this case, as Oppen’s shorthand for index.
Oppen may be our great poet of the index for how firm and fast he pledges his art to the empty deictic’s indexical capacity, for how adamantly he refuses the pull of the narrowly semiotic, fictional, impersonal, and rhetorical, and for how he restores to twentieth-century poetry, under the newer auspices of indexicality, the cultural work of lyric presencing. But the indexical lyric neither begins nor ends with Oppen’s magisterial example. All language, I proposed at the beginning of this essay, is lyric language now. Such a claim sounds either banal or preposterous until we register the fact that indexicality actually undergirds all speech behavior. In the guise not only of demonstratives and adverbs, but as pronouns and verb tenses too, indices constitute “the ground floor of the semiotic architecture whereby language allows users to talk about specific ‘things,’ including each other.” Pointing and presupposing, positioning and presencing: this is what speech must do to mean in the first place. Lyric language, then, is language becoming aware of its utter dependence on the ceaseless presupposition of a speaker’s presence.
Let’s return in conclusion to the Guggenheim in 1964. There some volunteer from the Academy of American Poets pressed the RECORD button and just like that established a “real and necessary connection” between George Oppen’s embodied presence and the audio playback available to posterity, and if we’re not troubled by digital intercession, this is an indexical connection we can effortlessly renew by merely refreshing the PennSound page in our browser. Lyric indexes differently, but not so differently that indexicality fails to offer itself as a conceptual field of encounter between technological media and lyric poetry. Whereas sound reproduction technologies index by way of material inscription, lyrics do so according to the pragmatic logic of presupposition; the speaker presupposes, or exercises a necessary “faith” in, a contextual present where meaning becomes permissible. In both cases, though, what seems to be at stake is the effecting of the persistence of voiced personhood across time. Media maintain the distinct advantage of ease: the button pressed, the volume raised. But perhaps one story to tell about lyric in the media age — this is the story of the indexical lyric — is how poetry so movingly measured up. Directly after “Psalm,” Oppen reads his “Guest Room,” which concludes with a view “Of the dawn / Over Frisco” (15:59):
— And yet the things
That happen! Signs,
Promises — we took it
As sign, as promise
Still for nothing wavered,
Nothing begged or was unreal, the thing
Happening, filling our eyesight
Out to the horizon — I remember the sky
And the moving sea.
Thank you to Tom McEnaney for his very helpful response to an earlier draft of this essay, and to the Jacket2 editors for their excellent guidance in the revision process.
1. Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, eds., The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 452. For a useful review of the “New Lyric Studies,” I suggest Stephen Burt, “What Is This Thing Called Lyric?,” Modern Philology 113, no. 3 (2016): 422–40.
9. W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982),7. Johnson’s study of ancient Greek lyric and its relationship to modern poetry makes a case for the “centrality of rhetoric for lyric”: “What is essential, then, to lyric is rhetoric, and essential to this lyrical rhetoric … is the pronominal form and lyric identity, the dynamic configuration of lyrical pronouns that defines and vitalizes the situation of lyrical discourse” (38, 23).
10. Here I’m shamelessly indulging the critical habit of “lyricization” as defined and forcefully critiqued by Jackson and Prins: “a process that began before the Romantics and continued long after them” by which “stipulative verse genres that once belonged to neoclassical taxonomies or to certain communities or to specific modes of circulation gradually collapsed into a more and more abstract idea of poetry that then became associated with the lyric. The audience for that more abstract, lyricized poetic genre eventually became literary critics, as professional reading practices displaced popular or local verse reading practices.” Jackson and Prins, “Avant-Garde Anti-Lyricism,” The Lyric Theory Reader, 452. Perhaps somewhat perversely, the present argument risks complicity in this long project of abstraction precisely in service of a richer historical-materialist account of modern poetry and its twentieth-century means of signification. If I unduly “lyricize” in my embrace of an abstract lyric category via one low-bar sine qua non (that is, lyric’s capacity for indexing the phenomenal present), I do so in hopes of better understanding the specific transformations undergone by poetry’s cultural work of presencing alongside other transformations in the greater media environment. For a persuasive response to the “lyricization” argument, see Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 84–85.
11. In Peter Nicholls’s terrific discussion of modernist lyric, Oppen serves as one example, alongside Susan Howe, of poets who have “made their work a register of the constraints and limits of the lyric mode.” Nicholls, “Modernism and the Limits of Lyric,” in The Lyric Poem: Formations and Transformations, ed. Marion Thain (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 187.
14. Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 129, qtd. in Peter Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 4.
22. Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce 3/4 (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1960), 359, qtd. in Kris Paulsen, “The Index and the Interface,” Representations 122, no. 1 (2013): 94.
25. Burt Kimmelman, “George Oppen’s ‘Psalm’: Manifest Things and a Poet’s Words,” in “All This Strangeness: A Garland for George Oppen,” ed. Eric Hoffman, Big Bridge 14 (2009).
28. Peirce, Collected Papers, 359. Nicholls offers a deeply instructive account of these indexical “small nouns” and their relation to Heideggerian “pointing” in his George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism, 73–74.
31. Michael Silverstein, “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description,” in Meaning in Anthropology, ed. Keith H. Basso and Henry A. Selby (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), 11, 19.
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)
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.
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.
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?”
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”)
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”)
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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). 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.
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. Courtesy of Kristin Dykstra.
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]).
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).
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.
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.
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.
“Doesn’t the act of looking at an object become also one of its definitions?”
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.
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.” 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” —
— 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.” 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.” 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, 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:
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 —
— or even, through a strange kind of intimacy, becoming a collaborator in the poem:
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)”; 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 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:
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:
This dread is found in the very first poem. And then later, the sun’s gaze is explicitly cruel; it shaves away complexity:
The camera metaphor is carried through to show the sun’s complicity in the violence, its transformation into an “executioner” —
— 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, is also a brutalized victim. It becomes the tragedy it sees:
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:
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
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.”
As there is the radical nature of perception and ways of figuring witness, there is also language, which must enact them. But:
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.” 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.”
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:
As such, language too is a disaster and a witness, bearing “extremity” within it, being outraged.
CODA: SUGGESTIONS FOR READING THE POEM
(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.
(ii) Read the sun.
(iii) Read with the eyes of the living and of the dead.
(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.” 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.” 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.”
I think the glyphs are partially intelligible. The arrow here verbs the meeting of the sun and sea in conjugal ecstasy:
And here arrows mark cosmic flight paths:
And here a pink dove shatters a human face:
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.
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.
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).
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.