Poetry, knowledge, imagination
Note: The writing of the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman is so tightly bound up with images, so rich in ways of seeing, that it may sound odd to say that he first mattered to me as an invisible voice on the radio, long before I familiarized myself with his books. Of the latter, I only knew The Dancer of Solitudes, a beautiful meditation on the art of the flamenco dancer Israel Galván, brimming with quotations from Rilke, Valéry, Mallarmé, and García Lorca, among others. Having no background in art history, and immersed as I was in the work of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet — much of whose aesthetic can be summed up in his admonition to “beware of images” — I somehow persuaded myself that the bulk of Didi-Huberman’s corpus was off limits. (As it turned out, the impetus for Jaccottet’s first major poem — a 1946 Requiem written in revulsion after a friend showed him several photographs of Resistance fighters tortured and killed by the Nazis — was not unlike that for what is perhaps Didi-Huberman’s best-known book, Images in Spite of All, about the four surviving photos from Auschwitz; but therein lies another story…) That was before I became aware of the nightly interview program Du jour au lendemain, hosted until July 2014 on France Culture by the writer and broadcaster Alain Veinstein. Didi-Huberman’s prolific publishing rhythm meant that he featured as a guest to speak about a new book at least once or twice a year. These conversations made a deep impression on me, beginning with their tone; I was struck by the gentleness of Didi-Huberman’s voice, the thoughtfulness of his diction, even the potency of his silences — “refuges of intensity,” as Veinstein said when they spoke about Blancs soucis, whose very title is drawn from a line by Mallarmé. Didi-Huberman clearly set great store by Veinstein’s status as a poet, and his responses to the latter’s questions already emanated a quiet poetic charge that I would find again in the books, once I allowed myself a proper look.
And looking was largely what they spoke about: the world itself through Didi-Huberman’s eyes, but more especially the ways in which literature, and poetry in particular, enabled him to articulate his looking. The lines of poetry that abound in his texts, he told Veinstein at one point, are not so much citations as incitations, constantly challenging him to refresh his perspective and recast his writing. Likewise, the montage of images in his books is indissociable from the work of phrasing embodied most intensely in poetry. It is consequently possible, even essential, to see Uprisings, the current exhibition curated by Didi-Huberman at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and organized around the theme of collective emotion and revolt, as a direct extension of the talk published here, “Poetic uprisings,” which finds him back in the company of poets and reflecting further on his own creative and critical practice. If I felt compelled to translate it for any number of reasons, I mainly felt comfortable doing so to the extent that it echoes, both in style and substance, the episodes of Du jour au lendemain that had provided my own point of entry into Didi-Huberman’s work. — Samuel Martin
Poetic uprisings (poetry, knowledge, imagination)
Poets, specialists in poetry, have invited me to speak to them, with them. I’m extremely touched, and at the same time at a loss. What to say? And above all, how to say it? I’m trying to imagine the implicit request behind this invitation. Am I being asked — as an “essayist,” a man of history, of learning, of theory — to tell the story of my experience with poetry? To tell even that part of my life would take far too long. In an effort to be brief, I’m going to scatter a few stones (this, already, in recollection of the Piedras sueltas, poems by Octavio Paz read during adolescence), laying out seven lapidary points, each of them subject to being questioned, developed, and deepened in our exchange. And in doing so, I won’t refrain from the simple pleasure of (re)citing several fragments of poems long cherished.
Zero: the poem far more than the novel. I struggled considerably with the form of the novel, as with that of theatre (even in verse). As a child, I understood almost nothing of the classic plays taught at school, and still less of the thousand characters and convolutions of War and Peace. For a long time, I thought that literature was far too complicated for me. I therefore began by reading simpler texts, scientific and then philosophical texts. My initiation to poetry came late and was certainly steeped in philosophy: Mallarmé first of all, but after and according to Hegel, via — as I well remember — Jean Hyppolite’s article on Un coup de dés, which he said he imagined as “Hegel’s Logic calling itself into question.”
One: the poem as a gift of thought-phrases. Phrased thoughts, thoughts in rhyme or rhythm. For instance, I can get the impression of touching the most intense form of the dialectic from three lines of Mallarmé copied out almost at random:
I shall lap at the unguent your lashes cry,
To see if it gives to the heart you smote
The impassiveness of stones and sky.
Dialectics, in effect: in the first line, it is a question of collecting ardently on one’s tongue (mucous membrane of sensual love, amorous organ of poetic language) the salt of the loved one’s tears, in the act of two bodies struggling together, bound by some common pain or passion. In the second line, it is a question of devising an experiment “to see,” and to see what? — not just “what that gives,” but at the same time the gift concluded in and through that common pain. In the third line, the poem reveals itself to be that gift of linguistic tongue (spiritual body, organ of thought), having attained the “impassiveness” of absolute things, those things that are absolutely (and not personally) beautiful. The dialectic of the poem, its act of thought, its fundamental knowledge: transforming our pain, your emotion, my gaze, into its impersonal splendor, by which I mean the detached, crystalline, monadic splendor — and yet simultaneous complexity — of a glimpse [une aperçue] phrased in writing.
Two: the poem as a gift of apparition-approaches. Why is it that things, beings, spring forth more clearly, appear more clearly in a poem? Whatever the case, at the time when I was attempting to describe the hysterical women of the Salpêtrière Hospital, I went so far as to cite without quotation marks, in order to make the women spring forth more clearly for my reader, the following passage from Lautréamont:
There goes the mad woman dancing by, vaguely recollecting something. The children follow her, hurling stones as though she were a blackbird. She brandishes a stick and makes as if to chase them before continuing on. She’s lost a shoe along the way, and doesn’t notice. Long spider legs twist around her neck; they are, in fact, her hair. Her face no longer resembles that of a human, and she cackles with laughter like a hyena. She lets slip tatters of sentences, in which, were they stitched back together, very few would find a clear meaning. Her dress, torn in several places, moves jerkily around her bony mud-covered legs. She drifts onward like a poplar leaf, carried away by the whirling of her unconscious mind, herself, her youth, her illusions and former happiness, which she sees once more through the mists of an intelligence in ruins.
(To give an indication of my own approach, it was enough for me to add to the sentence “The children follow her, hurling stones as though she were a blackbird” a phrase referring to Charcot and his assistants: “The men follow her with their eyes …” — as though it were a question of a work of art.)
Three: the poem as a gift of seeing-words. Taken separately, no doubt words are blind. But certain ways of combining them, certain expressions to make them take a stand, certain phrases, in short, become capable of sight. It’s not the French word pan by itself that makes us see something in Vermeer’s painting through Marcel Proust’s text, or the word rigole by itself that makes us see something in Rembrandt’s painting through Jean Genet’s text, but rather the particular rhythmical montage of language that these words come to articulate at the right moments. Having understood fairly quickly that looking wasn’t simply an optical affair, since one also looks with phrases, I have based all of my efforts, all of my approaches (historical or philosophical) to the image, on a heuristics of theoretical and descriptive language, constantly playing with the literary conventions within which, ever since the ekphrasis of antiquity, discourses on art have too often confined themselves.
I have thus read and reread the famous letters from 1871 in which Arthur Rimbaud says over and over that in poetry, it is a matter of “finding a language [in order to] be a seer, […] to make oneself a seer, […] to turn into a seer,” and to arrive — “one day, I hope” — at what he refers to bluntly as an “objective poetry.” For years, I didn’t begin a single one of my texts without having read something by Charles Baudelaire beforehand. It wasn’t a question of citing poems in epigraphs the way that one adds a cherry to the cake of philosophical thought; it was a question of looking at an image with the words of a poet whom that image, remarkably, seemed to me to be summoning. Given various current practices in art history or criticism, I could only refer modestly to my efforts as “fables.” Hence, in order to phrase my act of looking at the ash imprints invented by Claudio Parmiggiani, I had to “follow with my language” — the way one “follows with one’s eyes” — phrases found in Lucretius (the man who had the audacity, all but unique in the Western world, to lay out an entire philosophical system in the form of a single — albeit gigantic — poem), Mallarmé once more, Rilke, Paul Celan, and José Ángel Valente:
Watch carefully whenever shafts of streaming sunlight are allowed to penetrate a darkened room. You will observe many minute particles mingling in many ways in every part of the space illuminated by the rays and, as though engaged in ceaseless combat, warring and fighting by squadrons with never a pause, agitated by frequent unions and disunions. You can obtain from this spectacle a conception of the perpetual restless movement of the primary elements in the vast void […] Such commotion also implies the existence of movements of matter that are secret and imperceptible.
Nothing more, breath remaining, end of speech and gesture joined.
The existence of the terrible in every particle of the air. You breathe it in as part of something transparent; but within you it precipitates, hardens, acquires angular, geometrical forms in among your organs […] And within you there is scarcely any room; and it almost calms you, to think that it is impossible for anything of any great size to abide in those cramped confines […] But outside, outside there is no end to it; and when it rises out there, it fills up inside you as well […] in the capillaries, sucked as if up a tube into the furthermost branches of your infinitely ramified being. There it arises, there it passes over you, rising higher than your breath, to which you have fled as if to your final resting place.
Four: the poem as a gift of desire-memories. Quite simply because the rhythm of the phrases is imprinted with repetitions and memories, and overflows with differences and desires. I read and reread every poem (or nearly) the way I watch the Ninfa of Aby Warburg pass through the widest variety of images from antiquity and modernity, or the way I endlessly reread Charles Baudelaire’s “À une passante”: as coming from very far away, bearing memories, and yet ungraspable, and thus bearing desires away, and thus yet to come. Hence the importance of montage — of de- and re-montage — as a formal technique for juxtaposing heterogeneous spaces and temporalities. I’m not surprised to read in a recent text by Christian Prigent, a great poet of desire, the following words concerning the memorial technique of writing:
Extraction and recycling require techniques. Each text has its own. A work is the product of a kind of formal bricolage, determined and unending. Cut-up is one such technique. Except that it is neither solely nor primarily a technique: it is a principle (ethical and political more so than aesthetic). It invites you, primo, to recognize that to write is to work with a signifying material always-already constituted; and deuzio, to cut into the “old lines” [an allusion to William Burroughs] in order to disassemble the material, transform it, and reassemble it another way, from a simultaneously playful and critical perspective.
Five: the poem as a gift of perception-knowledge. All of the history and theory of images from which I’ve learned the most — I’m talking principally about the work of Aby Warburg, Walter Benjamin, and Georges Bataille — proceeds directly from a poetic notion of the imagination as the generator of a fundamental knowledge, and not merely as a “fantasy” of the tiny creative I. This is the imagination as Goethe understood it, between compositions of versified language and collections of pebbles intended for grasping the meaning of Urphänomen (some two centuries, then, before Emmanuel Hocquard, in his Théorie des tables, came to label himself a “translator of pebbles”). It is also, more or less, the imagination as Baudelaire envisaged it, a “near-divine faculty that perceives first of all, outside of the [usual] philosophical methods, the secret and intimate relations between things, the correspondences and analogies.” It is, finally, the imagination as Benjamin invokes it, when he opens the field of knowledge in order to “read what has never been written.” If there is a “reading prior to all language,” as Benjamin proposes, then there is doubtless a poetry of pebbles, of stars, of bark — of images, no less.
Six: the poem as a gift of anguish-gestures. Here is a kind of poetry. I transcribe it, and yet it was written by no one:
Sudden exhaustion. Slowly I bent down.
Unknown presence, tears flowed
To see, in my memory, bending over my weariness,
Her tender face
As she had been on that first night.
A mad desire to throw myself into her arms.
Existence and affection living on in me,
And certainty furthermore,
Throbbing like a physical pain
Of a void that had destroyed that existence.
I struggled to bear the ache of that contradiction.
To these pangs, cruel though they were,
I clung with all my strength
Along a supernatural, inhuman channel,
Like a furrow, two-fold and mysterious.
This is a cut-up from a famous section of the Recherche du temps perdu, when the narrator, who one evening is bending wearily over his boots, feels the image of his grandmother — his dead grandmother — rising toward him, in the moment when she had bent over him in turn. By restoring this episode of memory as a consonance of bodily movements, Marcel Proust invites us to reflect on this extended “bending,” to reflect, consequently, on what a poetic history of human gestures might look like, between pathos and action, struggle and desire, the despondency of grief and the outpouring of love, etc. It is precisely this history that Aby Warburg sketched out in his atlas of images, Mnemosyne, a collection of visual rhymes conceived as a journey — problematized, temporalized — through what he called the “formulas of pathos,” or Pathosformeln (at the same time that Ernst Robert Curtius was envisaging the history of literature through the lens of the relatively similar notion of Toposformeln). I am not surprised that it was a poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who best captured the affective dance of the bodies he so loved to film.
Seventh and final scattered stone: the poem as a gift of gentleness in revolt. A thread joining Rimbaud’s “Letters of a Seer” — in which one finds, for example, a “Parisian War Song” in homage to the Paris Commune — and Pasolini’s Corsair Writings, which, as near as can be to the demands of Brecht (author, in his Kriegsfibel, of lyric poems placed alongside war documents, which he called “photo-epigrams”), Benjamin, or Mayakovsky, are political interventions and journalistic reports calling for revolt in the name of gentleness, as one could already see in 1963 in the extraordinary poetic and political montage of La Rabbia. Thus words and images come together, work together, to make our thoughts rise up in what you might call a gesture of unarmed insurrection, an insurrection through bursts of language and vision. An insurrection borne in all popular poetry — the cante jondo of the Andalusian Gypsies, for instance — by the rhythmic beating of lament as it, too, rises up:
Not knowing it, I trampled
a flower upon her grave,
from the flower came an ¡ay!
that pierced me through the soul.
1. I referred to the draft of this text during a public discussion that was part of the “Entretiens de la revue Po&sie,” with Michel Deguy, Muriel Pic, Martin Rueff, and Laurent Zimmermann, on December 8, 2012, at the Maison de l’Amérique Latine. [The original French text was published in Po&sie, no. 143 (2013): 153–57. — SM]
2. Jean Hyppolite, “Le coup de dés de Stéphane Mallarmé et le message” (1958), in Figures de la pensée philosophique, vol. 2 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1971), 878. [All translations from the French are my own. — SM]
4. [Didi-Huberman has spoken elsewhere about his preference for this unorthodox usage; casting the word “glimpse” as a feminine noun (une aperçue) rather than a masculine one (un aperçu) allows him, he says, to better convey the elusiveness of the fleeting apparitions most memorably exemplified by the woman in Baudelaire’s poem “À une passante,” mentioned later in this text. — SM]
Jordan Abel's 'Injun'
Note: above, a video of Jordan Abel giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Alex Porco’s response to Abel’s talk appears below.
Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel’s 2016 book of poetry, Injun, is a rhetorical analysis of “pulp propaganda” and a decolonizing application of the Tzara-Gysin “cut up.” Put another way, the book ostensibly asks: what if we sent Bernays rafting on the Nass River of Northern British Columbia to toss his Freudian guts out? “It will come to him as his own idea” — as in a dream.
Injun is a demonstration of what Ming-Qian Ma calls “counter-method” poetics, or the performance of “poetry as rereading.” Recent examples include Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House Books, 2014), Moez Surani’s Operations (BookThug, 2016), and Hugo García Manríquez’s Anti-Humboldt (Litmus Press, 2015). Abel rereads American westerns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with hokey titles like The Lure of the Dim Trails, Gunman’s Reckoning, Riders of the Silences, Two Boys in Wyoming: A Tale of Adventure, Desert Gold, and Sunset Pass; or, Running the Gauntlet through Apache Land. Abel’s book is a demonstration against the Rollo Martins of the world, a.k.a. Buck Dexter, author of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe. “In normal circumstances [Martins] is a cheerful fool.” He means well, producing sentimental fictions that shape public opinion about Indigenous peoples, about the landscape and property, and about settler history and violence.
Using Project Gutenberg’s digital library, Abel identified 509 uses of the slur “injun” in “91 public domain western novels with a length of just over ten thousand pages.” Next, he subjected the uses of the slur to chance-based cut ups: “Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five-word clusters. Sometimes I would cut up a page without looking. Sometimes I would rearrange the pieces until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together.”
His long poem’s arrangement becomes increasingly scattered. Abel’s visual prosody scissors against syllabic stress patterns: “si lvertip // b” or “bl o ody gor ge.” Eventually, letters are loosed entirely from semantic units, i.e., the word and line. Finally, even the directionality of the page is turned upside down. The mirrored guts of (my/our) English. Abel’s rereading moves rhythmically from symmetry to asymmetry.
Similarly, his vocal performance moves from mono to multichannel audio, generating an insipative force that serves as a counterpoint to the page’s increasingly dissipative and multidirectional visual prosody. Abel reads, records, and layers vocal tracks that overlay, interrupt, and dislocate the “place” of meaning. His mouth, teeth, and tongue are concealed beneath an outlaw’s bandana. This costuming serves two purposes. First, the bandana makes it impossible to fix the source of Abel’s voice(s) to his body. Like Nsiga’a Halayt, he summons the supernatural. Ghosts in the (colonial) machine of Logos. Second, he mocks the iconicity of a stock character type, i.e., the outlaw, in western pulp novels.
Abel’s long poem is also supplemented by a series of poems — “notes,” he calls them — that list the results of similar keyword searches of those same novels: words like “whitest,” “frontier,” “truth,” “gold,” “territory,” “money,” “scalped,” and “redskin.” Furthermore, in an appendix, Abel includes an erasure poem: every sentence that includes “injun” in each novel is collected into a prose assemblage; however, the slur is erased from the text, creating empty spaces to be reinhabited with alternative modes of representation. (They’re also spaces through which I, as a Canadian, confront my own complicity. Caesurae.)
“These novels,” says Abel, “put up a wall around how we could think about this particular time period, the settlement period. It’s very necessary to return to these kinds of narratives. I find the genre of westerns to be so frustrating. It’s a genre that is still being written … still romanticized.” Injun is his second attempt at engaging with the western. His previous collection, Un/Inhabited, examines contexts of use for the word “uninhabited.” As he explains in remarks made at the Avant Canada conference, Un/Inhabited imagines “public domain [texts] as an inhabitable body of land.”
(Dream vision: last night, I imagined that Abel concluded his trilogy with a Cage-inspired mesostic reading through his database. In the dream, he slips into a room, with a bayside view, at the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel — now, in fact, closed — and switches out the dresser drawer’s copy of the Bible with his new book. The room’s guest: Daniel Snyder. The book’s title: Mr. Abel Goes to Washington.)
The injurious representational regime of the pulp western tacitly encouraged white North Americans to despise the Other — as much as they would eventually come to love bacon for breakfast and the “Howdy, partner” salute, with a canonical tip of the lip of a Stetson. “Injuns in a heap,” writes Abel, and, later, “injun s mu st hang.” In section l of his long poem, an italicized voice announces,
let’s play injun
and clean ourselves
off the land
same old gun handed business
Abel adduces a correspondence between the treatment of Indigenous people and other horrors of the twentieth century, that is, the holocaust and lynching (“same old”). He points to the myth of purity that’s disseminated via mass culture’s (so-called) benign entertainments and that authorizes violence as “play” in the settler’s imagination.
In other words, Jordan Abel ain’t (thankfully, finally) your Canadaddy’s “old stock” Duncan Campbell Scott.
1. Abel, qtd. in Chelsea Rooney, “Jordan Abel: Un/Inhabited,” Project Space, September 25, 2014.
8. At Avant Canada, Abel participated in the conference session titled “Unsettling Appropriations.” The title of his performance was “The Place of Scraps.” His fellow panelists included Rachel Zolf (“An Appropriative Poetics of Canadian Settler Discourse”), Christine Stewart (“Acting As If You Have No Relations: Žižek, Christianity, the Avant-garde, and Living on Turtle Island”), and Shane Rhodes (“X”). Susan Holbrook was the panel chair. The event took place on November 6, 2015, in the Studio Gallery of Brock University’s Rodman Hall Art Center.
On Christian Bök
Note: above, a video of Christian Bök giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Vanessa Place responds to Bök’s talk in the essay that follows.
Something like that. The point is that one should never defend oneself against one’s critics. One’s critics are always right. They may be knee-deep in it, but they are always right. Right, though, about what? I take no issue with Stephen Collis’s critique of Conceptualism, as I understand it via Christian Bök’s rejoinder, with which I also refuse to quarrel. But what, my darlings, are we quarreling for? Or over, or, better yet, around? It seems to me — which is a lovely feminine position to take — so insular, so subjective, and so easily dismissed, that there is a structural engagement at stake that is rather more than either Collis or Bök overtly bargains for. Because, like all card games, the big money is in the back. Bök is right, of course, that Conceptualism is famously thievish in a Robin Hood sort of way — and Collis is right, naturally, that there is a certain amount of personal frisson that accrues and is capitalized upon in this form of thieving. Our outfits are uniformly fabulous, the goods are there for the getting, and the dollops of personal celebrity sufficiently intoxicating/infuriating for everyone’s fun. But, again, my pets, never look at the right hand when the cards are being shuffled. What’s missed in this game is the questioning of its precepts: that dialectic is an apt description of the contemporary engagement, that there is an alternative Western political subject, or could be any aesthetic expression that could rightly trumpet itself from beyond the walls of its birthplace. Moreover, and more to the point (and we do so love a good sharp point), to assert a signification that is coincident with authorship is the very structure of all that prevails. In other words (another point of adoration, for what’s authorship if not a word count), to argue about this interpretation or that interpretation as being the better interpretation is a sucker’s game: the real money is in refusing to interpret. To be a lousy signifier, one that simply refuses to work properly, to hold the position of the one who knows or knows better, who fails to spin the sign just so you will think this or that or the other is far more unsettling to the contemporary mind than the business as usual of convincing this one or that one that there is this or that notion to be derived from the work or worker, like a wee ingot of meaning, and once we can easily reduce either work or worker to their proper Sein, we need do no more than trundle along, celebrating or condemning as we see fit. And we do see in fits, that much is for certain. For the proper move today is no longer dialectical but trilectical: we live lives that are as constituted in our fits of self-regard, which is always infused with the tisane of the social, and the social always mediated, and the mediation, always interlarded with the joie de suivre of current capital. And current capital capitalizes on the widget-one as the common unit of production and consumption. Put another way, social media trades on your tirades, on you representing yourself, or at least looking nice for the camera in your phone. Otherwise its advertisers cannot sell you stuff or sell your stuff to its advertisers. We happily participate in this, even and including excoriations of capitalism on social media; it then knows to pimp Verso books and Benjamin bifocals, or Esty knick-knackery and PETA promotions versus Tory tea cozies and tech stock pick primers. It does not particularly care, nor do I. I am happy to dress for the evening, to play and play along in my suspicion that interpretation is, like beauty, in the sockets of the beholder, that it will be, like history, written and rewritten to endless turns of edification and renunciation, and that no one will be forever the wiser, though we will all be sufficiently entertained. To my delight, the constant collaboration between those who know and those who know better plays itself out like an endless bad date or doomed romance, with the other sweetly hissing, “You see, I know you better than you know yourself.” To say that Conceptualism is politically noxious mistakes the smell of burning flesh for the flesh that is burning: but tell me again, my piglets, what I am supposed to think and how you would have me be. That will make all the difference that we can possibly stand. Which may be the promise of Conceptualism.
On Ron Silliman's monsters
Note: above, a video of Ron Silliman giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Erín Moure responds to Silliman’s talk in the essay that follows.
I’ve been asked to comment on Ron Silliman’s excellent talk “Your Monsters Are Our Monsters: The Problem of Borders and the Nearness of the American Avant-Garde.”
In Silliman’s “L-shaped talk,” the shape itself merits consideration. A small l is very singular, like 1, like I. A capital L, however, walks out of itself, first creates the singularity of 1, l, I: then walks away from it.
Who makes an L by drawing the second line toward the center? Who lifts their pen (a hegemony) to draw a line against itself? No, we draw the line continuously and it walks away from singularity.
Where is Silliman’s line walking? Away from the moment of his conversation into an “infinitely larger project,” which surpasses him and includes all poets, all borders, not effaced but ever present (verticalized at times with walls) and not describable (nor does he try) because the infinite is something that can’t be spoken without making it finite, because to speak of something you must be in some way positioned outside, and the infinite does not permit of such positioning.
Already eight hundred languages in NYC homes, and their cacophony sustains (only univocality topples). The irritability of borders and bordered beings everywhere creates not absence but resurged borders made of dead and injured beings, between Palestine and Israel, between Africa and Europe, Serbia and Hungary, the US and Mexico. If a country finds its definition by what it tries to keep out, it dooms itself, for languages infiltrate borders and thrive in homes, and humans cross thresholds regardless of the danger and this is poetry.
The issue is not whom we poets imitate inside the walls of English. It is not that of feeding one hand to the lion while tapping on a keyboard with the other. It’s to be migrant or a-drift, to acknowledge the migrant deaths that sustain our privilege on the planet, even the privilege of this very conversation.
The crux can still be located perhaps at the doorway of the house, not that of the nation, for individual decisions are involved, and individuals can drift over a threshold successfully — perhaps like Chus Pato writing a language descended from itself (“Old Portuguese” is Galician, for Galician is the root language of Portuguese), who speaks now in English (someone has translated her) — not effacing the borders either of the house, or of the inside/outside of the human person, that undividable, for if you divide an individual, it dies. It can only self-divide, a bit at a time, imperceptibly.
Inside, we are all of us blood and messy (#Iamschmuck); outside, marked by colors and impure. Inside the house, we remove our shoes so as not to bring the outside in, the colours and contaminations, the iterabilities, the people dying in order to be people dying (for the deaths of failed crossings are beyond reason). We who remove our shoes do so because our shoes are not pretty. They stink of feces and the ooze of plants.
As we sit in the house, fields outside are getting drier. Who will feed whom, who will listen to eight hundred languages at a time when species are dying out? The animals we think of as without language were never mute. And there is no way to listen to all languages; we can listen only to some and then listen to those who are listening to others. Outside, the seas are rising but we can’t live on seas (Drift, Zong!), and on terra firma today it’s drier. We are already the Vikings of Greenland, the Twelve Tribes of Easter Island or of Israel, and we see (sea) as readily (red) as ever, but time will not part waters for us.
Que podemos facer. Eu, xa, non teño resposta, nin fame para buscala. Son das persoas que achegan á morte e que morrerán antes do desastre. Miro xa ás nenas, aos nenos. Que van facer. En que idiomas? Ou xa pasou o tempo das palabras humanas …
What if we were to listen, particularly to the languages we suppressed? Listening means letting speakers learn to speak again and do their speaking to move perceptibly onward, not just to “overcome” the deaths and ruin. Here I point to indigeneity in the forms it will assume. I point to what could happen in the wake of the genocidal actions that were residential schools. This first. Without it, no poetry can matter.
Pouco me importa se ninguén me escoita. Para min, o mundo civilizado sempre fora unha miraxe. Son unha sucia en botas sucias. Credes que un día terei fame? Son unha infame.
Do you really believe that I would lift my pen and turn the line back to itself? Nor does that lion on the porch need to enter. When it feels a hunger in its rage and scrupulous othering, it will ravage its own arm.
Rachel Zolf's 'Janey’s Arcadia' in Winnipeg
Note: above, a video of Rachel Zolf giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Heather Milne responds to Zolf’s talk in the essay that follows.
Rachel Zolf’s poetry jolts readers from their comfort zone and into a contact zone where they encounter a poetics that is semantically “readable enough” but that conveys its urgency primarily on an affective level through shock, defamiliarization, and a poetics of glitchy error. What Zolf has called “mad affects” are experienced in readerly, textual encounters with her work. They also happen when the text moves off the page and into the realms of the aural, the visual, and the performative.
When Zolf reads aloud from Janey’s Arcadia, she reads the glitches; they come across as an embodiment of grief or repudiation made manifest in what sounds like sobbing or retching. These glitches carry traces of the trauma of colonial violence, as Zolf’s body becomes a conduit for the transference of affect.
She has made a short video translation of three poems from Janey’s Arcadia using pilfered National Film Board of Canada footage. She has orchestrated polyvocal actions in several cities in North America. These actions bring the poems from Janey’s Arcadia into the fraught space of the contemporary settler city. They become embodied, collaborative acts of resistance.
I participated in one of these polyvocal actions in November 2014 in Winnipeg, the city where the poems in Janey’s Arcadia take place. We met outside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), a controversial, newly built, government-run museum. The CMHR has refused to call Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people a genocide because it has not been officially recognized as such by the government. This was the same government whose leader at the time claimed that Canada has no history of colonialism and refused to call a government inquiry into the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The CMHR has been built where the Assiniboine River meets the Red River; it is an ancient gathering place for Indigenous peoples and now the site of the museum, a market and a hotel. Three months before we gathered, the body of fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine had been found in a bag in the Red River a short distance downstream from the museum. That autumn, a group called Drag the Red had been searching the river for the bodies of missing women.
We assembled on this historically, spiritually, and ethically freighted site on a freezing cold day in November. With the imposing glass and tyndall stone structure of the CMHR towering over us, we performed our polyvocal action. We were acutely aware of the museum’s security cameras trained on us, but nobody asked us to leave. We were an alliance of writers, activists, artists, and academics. Some of us were settlers, wanting to “look into our own backyard” to grapple with the injustice of the settler-state in which we are complicit. Others in the group were Indigenous writers and activists engaged in a politics of decolonization.
The action began with a smudging ceremony and a prayer song led by Anishinaabe drummer Ko’ona Cochrane. We then stood in a circle facing away from one another and began the polyvocal part of the action. We read simultaneously; our words met and clashed in the cold November air. Zolf read the words of the white settler women from the poem “What Women Say of the Canadian North-West.” Ko’ona Cochrane read the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women who appear in the same poem, while Colin Smith read language from police reports related to the cases of missing and murdered women. Katherena Vermette read a Chrystos poem that she had modified to include references to Winnipeg. I read from “Vocabulary to Come,” a section of Janey’s Arcadia that Zolf composed using words lifted from the writings of fur trader and explorer Alexander Henry.
The polyvocal action felt like an invocation as well as an intervention that responded to the museum as an institution, the site on which it is built, the crisis of missing and murdered women, and the layered and violent colonial histories of Winnipeg and Canada. In the circulation of affects as discursive relations that happened in the context of this polyvocal action, I experienced what Zolf calls “ec-stasy” or shifting beside and beyond myself. It felt like a transmission of mad affects, a political and poetic contact zone, and a powerful actualization of a poetics of witness. It was a confirmation of the political and ethical stakes of Zolf’s approach to poetry and her ability to facilitate charged encounters that move her work powerfully from page to world.