As I am a poet-scholar, or, a person who reads and a person who writes, a person who researches and a person who invents — a person who teaches and a person who edits — I can only consider the question of the poet-scholar from the inside — and so, what follows is a subjective and gendered account of the position of the poet-scholar in the form of a list numbered 1–10.
1. I entered the academy in order to become a better poet. I never saw the two activities — scholarship and poetry — as divided; rather, as woven. Though I also thought of art or art-making as belonging to the street, the kitchen, the church, the performance space, the hallway, the subway, the bar, I never imagined that by entering the academy, by becoming a scholar in whatever limited way I would, I would be moving away from poetry.
2. In our culture at this time, a scholar generally has a place, a home, a position, a job, an acknowledged societal role. A poet has none of these things and must either forego them or find them through other activities. I was a mother. And I needed a job. Or there were these children, and they needed a mother. Or I took a job, one might say, in order to address the situation in which “a woman seeks a writerly life in a society still concerned with guarding and protecting the gendering of literary production.” Or I became a scholar because I was a poet and pregnant.
3. I was pregnant in the library, falling asleep with my face on the table.
4. The poet-scholar makes her materials, her sources, evident in her poems. She also, in her scholarship, makes her pleasures (pleasures in language) evident. In this way, she places an emphasis on her own body as a material object to be considered, as a source of pleasure to be considered, if not by others (for who knows?) then by herself.
5. The poet might “play,” but her vector aims toward grief: to acknowledge, justify, and make available to others the essential experience of grieving in and through and perhaps for language. The scholar might “work,” but her vector aims toward joy: to acknowledge, justify, and make available to others the essential experience of joy in and through and of language and knowledge, the language of knowledge.
6. And yet the job of the poet is pleasure. The job of the scholar is pain. We could say we bring these two beings together in one body, thus neutralizing or balancing them.
7. The poem constructed of research situates the poet in a library — out of the bedroom, the field, the kitchen, the office, and into the library where she finds materials in order to transform them. We could call this the “integration of power as an interiorized constraint.”
8. I fell asleep in the library to the ongoing autobiography of the male body. A chronology of labor, sex, violence, and accident — I took this archive as a truth and I took it as a fiction.
9. If I am a poet-scholar this means I can renovate my kitchen. I can “meet the Dean,” I can carry a gun to class. I can lock my office door. This means I can shit in the faculty bathroom. I can name the Shakespearian heroines. I can chair the Salary Committee, I can listen to boys and girls as they cry on Adderall. I can order a laptop to be delivered. I can consider King Solomon and Markolf the Fool. I can read French but not German. I can drink at night.
10. I am a poet-scholar — this means I read the archive. I read the archive and then I make an archive of daily activities and moods. Or I make an archive of the letter T, made to stand for “tree, telephone, tensile, trail, and trial.” I read an archive of the male body, and then I write an archive of breasts: the ancient breasts of the swimming women, the new breasts of the dancing girls. I read the archive of shooting deaths and labor theory and I write an archive of imagined installations and letters to the women I’ve envied. I read the archive of male desire and I write an archive of the spit in my mouth, an archive of my mother’s mouth, opening for the spoon, of my daughter’s mouth calling from the bed. I entered “the academy” pregnant.
This essay originally appeared in A. Bradstreet. Thanks to editors Chloe Garcia-Roberts and Mia You for permission to reprint the piece here.
A musicological poetics
Trouble Songs: A Musicological Poetics is an investigation of the appearance of the word trouble in twentieth- and twenty-first-century music. It is a book-length project, comprised of three parts, each broken into modular chapters, or Trouble Songs, which build on one another as a series of albums, but are also intended as remixable and programmable singles. What follows is a compilation that spans those three parts. The project looks at the ways “trouble” signifies (and resists signifying) all kinds of trouble — from bad luck and disaffection to infidelity, impotence, destitution, and the specter of death. In doing so, it explores the role of the trouble singer, who performs a particular, nuanced role in the communities through which s/he (and/or the song) passes. The trouble singer can be imagined as a modern troubadour who sings not of courtly love, but of the modern (and postmodern) condition, and of all that ails singer and audience. This figure is not quite a soothsayer, but an invoker of “trouble” in place of trouble — the performance is in this sense a ritual transformation. The song is a spell that conjures trouble in a temporary form that can be dis-spelled, if only for the length of the song. Thus, the trouble singer can speak the unspeakable by replacing it with a generic (and relatable) term. Meanwhile, the trouble singer delivers a sense of (quarantined) authenticity that is also guarded: the community is shielded from trouble by “trouble,” and “trouble” hides the singer’s trouble as well.
This poetics of trouble is grounded in readings of particular songs, poems, and cultural events. The three parts of the full-length, unpublished manuscript Trouble Songs: A Musicological Poetics break down (with exceptions and variations) like this: part 1 establishes essential concepts, part 2 focuses on reading individual songs, and part 3 explores Trouble Songs that do not include the word “trouble.” The following samples the full manuscript, usually in original sequence, though the song readings are threaded through the selection to help suture gaps and present a unified remix. Where “trouble” does not appear, trouble often follows.
Trouble Songs: An invocation
But before long, the words lost their sense completely, becoming little more than a means to regulate breath — which, she soon supposed, was as good a use for them as any.
— Ted Mooney, The Same River Twice
Denaturalization of one’s personal and cultural premise.
— Caroline Bergvall, “Middling English”
Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days / It seems like trouble going to follow me to my grave
— Bessie Smith, “Downhearted Blues”
Language is not only a means for saying, language is what we are saying. Record, we say, and we mean album, or we mean vinyl, or we mean history. Let the record show. That we say record and not CD, tape, album, or document is integral to what we are saying. We place ourselves in history, and we place history in ourselves when we use particular language.
History exists as Trouble Song and is troubled by its representation. Distinctions between Trouble Songs collapse into versions, iterations, variations, and interpretations. Just so, trouble is inescapable, and can be only partially elaborated. To speak the word “trouble” is to invoke trouble. The “Trouble Songs” project is such an invocation and elaboration. When we say “trouble,” we refer to the history of trouble whether or not we have it in mind. When we sing trouble, we sing (with) history. We sing history here; we summon trouble.
A Trouble Song is a complaint, a grievance, an aside, a come-on, a confession, an admission, a resignation, a plea. It’s an invitation — to sorrow, frustration, darkness. It’s part of a conversation, or it’s a soliloquy, and it’s often an apostrophe. The listener overhears the song, with sympathy. The song is meant for someone else, someone dead or gone. The singer doesn’t care who hears, and the song is a dare. Or it’s a false wager — to speak trouble is to summon trouble, but it’s already here.
Trouble is loss — or the threat of loss, which is the appearance of loss. A Trouble Song is impossible speech; it speaks about the inability to speak. Trouble is a lack of what once was possessed, a desire in absence, an absence in desire. Trouble is the presence of absence, a present of loss. It is impotence and despair, but a Trouble Song is not a negation or a denial. Its admission is its invitation. Trouble is spoken not only in resignation and exasperation, but also in defiance. Trouble is spoken as a challenge to death and defeat. In a Trouble Song, there is history, but there is no past — trouble is here and now. Which is to say, there is history, but it is not (the) past.
Trouble has a cousin: problem. They are related, but not by blood. The problem can be articulated, while trouble doesn’t need an article, slips away from the most slippery terms, escapes parts of speech, without leaving us. “Trouble” is the signifier that refuses to signify, or will only call itself. Trouble is its own copula. When we sing trouble, we are inextricable with it — and indeed we sing along as we listen. Troublemaker and trouble are one. To trouble is to haunt, and a haunting cannot be grasped, only felt. The problem can be grasped, if not resolved. It’s strictly nominal, and can be designated. Trouble is free to change form, to embody the problem. The latter can lead to trouble but cannot become it. Trouble has no limit, no end. Like suffering, it is transferable, even and especially upon death. Trouble is what gets you.
The word is an evocation, but it is also a talisman. To summon “trouble” is to replace trouble with the word — to have the word instead of trouble. “Trouble” is a magic word, an incantation that protects the singer, and the listener, from trouble. The word also replaces description. Context in and around the song may bring us closer to the real trouble and its sources, but such investigations also bring us closer to danger and ruin — the danger and ruin of history. “Trouble” is in harm’s way, or in the way of harm — it is between the singer and actual trouble. Or the singer keeps us behind him as he faces trouble, turns to whisper “trouble” over his shoulder. If we peek around him we are on our own. Or the singer embodies trouble, stands between us and the real, facing us. “Trouble” is the singer, “Trouble” is his song; trouble is behind him, “trouble” is before us. We step around “trouble” to face the real at our own peril. We have been warned by the song.
If trouble runs through song it runs through time. The body of Trouble Song, when considered as such, is a single text, the map laid over the territory of history. Time collapses into this text. Trouble Song is its own genre, or it is the collapse of genres. It is genre trouble.
“Country Blues,” Dock Boggs
Come all you good time people is the only way it starts. The banjo may have been playing forever — waiting for the singer to arrive, or indifferent to his presence — : a stage. Or the singer is the instrument of the (infernal) banjo. Still, it is impossible to decide whether the voice or the banjo comes first, though both does not seem to be an option. The dynamics are too irregular, too separate, for simultaneity. The third instrument, recording static, holds them together.
One or the other, the voice or the banjo, might be in a different world. Or they are not in the world together, or they are each in a world that is not this one — three worlds.
Forty dollars won’t pay my fine. The song goes around and around, insisting that it play all night (for it is always night in the song, always night when the song plays, though the song is always playing — the song doesn’t stop; we stop listening to it). Money can’t reach it, and we can’t believe the singer can reach heaven, though he sings to us from the afterworld, where corn whiskey and pretty women surround him, sweet heaven when I die. Meanwhile, before or after, pretty women is a-troublin’ my mind. He’s in a prison cell, he’s in a hole in the ground, dead drunk and buried by all us good people, (he’s) grinning his empty grin at us. It shines through the soil we throw on his face.
When I’m dead and buried / My pale face turned to the sun …
The singer calls us around while he has plenty of money. As long as his pockets are full, we drink along. When the money’s gone, so are we. He’s gone too, all alone with a woman drinking to his memory:
Last time I seen my little woman[,] good people,
She had a wine glass in her hand,
She was drinking down her troubles
With a low-down sorry man.
Her trouble is a man, and she’s drinking with a trouble man, and she’s drinking her troubles, and he sees her as he dematerializes. She joins the invisible chorus of betrayal, along with a woman who promises to bail the singer out of jail but never gets around to it before she leaves the song. We, good people, join the chorus as we leave, and we can never leave, and our voices dry up in our throats. Boggs too is both here and not here, as we are there and not there.
If I don’t quit my rowdy ways / have trouble at my door. There it is now, Boggs’s fingernails scratching the banjo’s face, digging at the dirt scattered there. If I’d a-listened to my momma[,] good people / I wouldn’t a-been here today. Wherever he is, we can find him in the soil of the song, that too-shallow grave we pass right through if we don’t watch our step. If we do (watch our step), that death’s-head keeps nodding away at us. Come all you good time people …
Modes of trouble — terms — elaboration, embellishment, embodiment
Now heavens. Or should I perhaps give up troubling to correct such nonsense altogether, and simply let my language come out any way it insists upon?
— David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Delivery format/conveyance, temporality, part of speech (n. vs. v. etc.), representation/non-representation (and replacement), referential vs. poetic language, vocalization/enunciation: all of these are integral to what is being said (or elided), and to the nature of trouble’s appearance (as “trouble,” or as inference of trouble).
A semantic constellation: genre, general(ity), generic, gender. Trouble may be a man, a woman, a transgender person, a situation, an atmosphere, a condition — trouble is contingency, in a word. To speak of Trouble Songs is to invite genre trouble (via genre consciousness).
Is trouble (inter-)culturally transmittable? Is trouble historically transmittable? Is trouble chronological? That is, can it be discovered or elaborated along a line of time, according to a logic of transport and association?
Trouble is a hiding place. The singer does not have to reveal what is behind the song. The Trouble Song is a veiled confession: nothing but trouble. Or, it’s a veiled threat: nothing but trouble in here. In that sense, is it a threat to the singer, the listener, or both? When is trouble the agent, or the subject, and when is it the object of the song?
If “trouble” replaces trouble, the song might replace the singer (or the subject). The song travels over time, transcending the moment of its conception or documentation, moving out of its context but carrying a context. Judith Butler summarizes the philosophical tradition of mind/body dualism with reference to “relations of political and psychic subordination and hierarchy”: “The mind not only subjugates the body, but occasionally entertains the fantasy of fleeing its embodiment altogether.” If trouble is the anchor of the flesh, the predicament that is embodiment in an antipathetic world, song — and in particular, Trouble Song — is the entertainment of flight: from trouble, from embodiment, along the float lines of signification.
When “trouble” replaces trouble, the singer enacts a relation to embodiment that the listener uses as a model for her own displacement. She is good and gone in song, as Jason Lytle of Grandaddy sings in “Lost on Yer Merry Way,” which begins, Trouble with a capital T. Escape is a trick of language — in the second verse, the line morphs into Trouble with people like me, which is followed by Tie ’em down and then they vanish instantly. If the song remains, if it plays over time, the vanishing is a continual present to the listener.
The concern is not just — and not primarily — what “trouble” is (what it means, what it refers to) in a Trouble Song, but to investigate/analyze/diagram/trouble/vet/consider how “trouble” is used grammatically, which pronouns and characters it relates to, who delivers and reports trouble (cf. also subject/object orientation), etc. In his ethnomusicological study of working-class Texans’ identification with country music, Real Country, Aaron Fox considers modes and representations of affect — what these Texans talk about when they talk about “real country”:
“Feeling” and “relating (to)” are diffuse, integrative, summarizing ideas. These terms, which fulfill a variety of grammatical functions, often appear to refer to essentialized, ineffable properties of social and aesthetic experience: if you have to ask what “feeling” means, in other words, you’ll never know, and that’s the point. “Feeling” is an inchoate quality of authenticity. But this phenomenological knot can be analytically untangled to reveal an orderly, dynamic, and elegantly binary semantic field.
Of course, the language of the academic clashes with the phenomenon under consideration, but simply put, Fox is coordinating two fields: verbal expression and embodied emotion. The singer relates to his audience — imparting a lyrical story, articulating emotion, connecting to common experiences — and the audience responds in kind — feeling it, singing along, moving to and being moved by the song.
The trouble singer also presents an “inchoate quality of authenticity,” which we — and she — might call “trouble.” We can ask what it means, but the singer can’t — or won’t — tell us any more than her song does. She relates by genre, or generically. Her trouble and ours might not signify the same way, and the Trouble Song accounts for this in its open feel (sic) of meaning. Perhaps What is trouble? is not the right question. Instead, the singer asks — or replies — What’s your trouble? and the audience responds in kind. This rapport is the mutual feeling, the sharing, of trouble.
Retying the knot: What does “trouble” do/mean for the singer vs. the listener(s) — what role does the trouble singer play, and how do listeners charge/change the song (and how is that complicated by the lag and historicity afforded/effected by recording, along with complications of time and race displacement)? Here we (re)enter the trouble space. Whose trouble is this anyway?
These are the songs people call “the sad, slow songs,” and they typically tell of troubled moments in life: heartbreak, despair, regret, aging, leaving, desire for forgiveness, shame and sin. Such songs evoke an intensely felt sense of location and temporality.
Consider the ethos and ambience of the Trouble Song as distinguished from a phenomenological classification of songs that include “trouble” in their lyrics. Cat Power’s The Covers Record includes “trouble” songs, but is a collection of Trouble Songs in that the songs are infused with the climate(s) of trouble. It is significant that one of the “trouble” songs (which is also a Trouble Song) is a Dylan cover (“Paths of Victory”), since Dylan is especially attentive to the Trouble Song mode/mood.
Down the line
John, I // sd, which was not his / name, the darkness sur- / rounds us …
— Robert Creeley, “I Know a Man”
If, as has been suggested, trouble has a cousin — problem — it may be true the two might be confused for one another. The singer — the trouble singer — knows better, but isn’t telling the truth she knows. Problems have solutions, at least ’pataphysical ones; trouble is insoluble, even in/with whiskey. José González (as trouble singer, if not speaker) sees problems down the line, and knows he’s right. We hear trouble in the echo from “Trouble on the Line,” and we hear it in his voice, even as he promises problems.
A clue, then, to the difference between problem and [trouble] (or problem as trouble, or vice versa): a problem has a solution, but problems presents a series — potentially a whole lot of trouble. So “Down the Line” hides trouble: first in its title, then in the song — absence, then replacement. But the refrain that swallows the song — Don’t let the darkness eat you up — is all portent and no pretending. It’s also, after many listens, a cumulative warning — not an affirmation, as at first it might have seemed. The darkness is coming, the darkness has come, the darkness is here.
And here we are, in trouble again.
Trouble Song as speech act and magic language: The trouble condition and the talismanic effect
But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
These signs of distress signify distress only indirectly: what they indicate first is the effort to avoid showing distress.
— Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger
The artist’s sitters present themselves with an attitude and a sartorial flair, that, as the critic Kobena Mercer has argued, attract the gaze yet also defend against primitivist projection, carving out a space where the self and its aesthetic construction can take center stage.
— Huey Copeland, “Barkley L. Hendricks: Figures and Grounds”
Just as a man (and a character in a film) might hide his distress in a gesture of distress, a singer might hide his troubles — and himself — in an aestheticized (and potentially anesthetizing) evocation of “trouble.”
“Historical images, like mass-cultural ones, are hardly innocent of associations: indeed, it is because they are so laden that they are used.” So too is “trouble” laden and useful. But does it necessarily reference identification in the listener? And if “trouble” operates as a shield for or against trouble, might it also operate as a shield against the listener (or for trouble in another sense), a way to protect the private concerns of the singer or speaker — a way to protect trouble? Indeed (and in addition), “trouble” might protect the speaker from the singer, whether or not by design of the songwriter.
Consider the case of the cover, in which the singer might not (be able to) access the original trouble, or might more or less intentionally redirect “trouble” to her own trouble (or her own indication of trouble, which may itself be enmeshed in character representation). In this cluster-case, representation merges with production (and/or reproduction). What of Walter Benjamin’s aura remains in such handed-down “trouble,” and how might this be further complicated by cultural appropriations of Trouble Songs (by singers and by listeners)? If the aura or authenticity of “trouble” fades in this exchange, does the Trouble Song paradoxically become a more powerful (or, at least, effective) shield or talisman against trouble? Furthermore and at any rate, in all of these possibilities and contingencies, the Trouble Song may absorb the condition as trouble (that is, as part of its trouble condition).
The poet John Ashbery sings of this trouble condition in his long poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”:
As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.
In the trouble light, we are tempted to ascribe the Parmigianino convexity effect to a distortive affect of trouble. As with any cover, Ashbery converts his subject with an objectifying gaze, which is the troubling of representation, if not the trouble of representation.
In the next book Ashbery published after Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1977’s Houseboat Days, the second poem, “The Other Tradition,” calls trouble by name as it concludes
… You found this
Charming, but turned your face fully toward night,
Speaking into it like a megaphone, not hearing
Or caring, although these still live and are generous
And all ways contained, allowed to come and go
Indefinitely in and out of the stockade
They have so much trouble remembering, when your
Rescues them at last, as a star absorbs the night.
We might look back in search of the referent of “this,” and we can attribute it to a forest, or the idea of a forest, or the way “the idea of a forest had clamped itself / Over the minutiae of the scene,” and we will certainly find other candidates for “this”-ness, and perhaps this is also part of the trouble condition. We too (like they, whoever they are) have trouble remembering, or we hone in on “this” “remembering,” losing ourselves. So there is pleasure in “trouble,” just as trouble itself may be a source of pleasure, at least temporarily.
I’m new here: The trouble with covers
If most covers risk attrition, or the loss of potency, there are still examples of amplification, of powering up. Johnny Cash did it with Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt,” dialing bathos to pathos. Every singer wants to make it her own, just as every listener makes it her own — again, the listener commands and informs the singer, a ritual enacted at the end of every rock show, when the hits are called out by the audience. Post-Cash, Gil Scott-Heron amplified an already affective version, making Smog’s “I’m New Here” sing truer. Homage and interpretation, Scott-Heron’s cover reveals the aspiration of Bill Callahan’s (convincing) pretensions. Also distinguishing itself from the “Hurt”/“Hurt” dialectic, Scott-Heron’s version of “I’m New Here” leaves open the option/desire of hearing the “original” again, even while casting quotes around it. Which is to say there is a difference between making it your own and stealing it, as there are different modes of stealing it. Both Cash and Scott-Heron steal it, but in the latter case, the stolen object is, magically, still in its original position, if not its original state.
Classic blues attempts a universality that earlier blues forms could not even envision. But with the attainment of such broad human meaning, the meanings which existed in blues only for Negroes grew less pointed.
— LeRoi Jones, Blues People
In Blues People, LeRoi Jones (not yet Amiri Baraka) attends the transition between the individuated, private “primitive blues” that followed emancipation and the subsequent white supremacist reaction that was Jim Crow — the transition between integral developments in blues as a result of privacy and independence, to the extent that they were newly available to black Americans in the late nineteenth century, and the nuanced disillusionment of qualified freedom — and the professionalization of blues music that followed. As black Americans were both relatively free to move around the country and desperately (and itinerantly) in search of work, blues became an occupation (or a side job), rather than primarily or only a mode of personal expression made possible by the solitary alienation of the free(d) black American.
If emancipation allowed black Americans to be by themselves, together or separately, and to cultivate private lives not strictly circumscribed by servitude, it also led to the development of a public blues form that communicated in a way that was not at issue in private blues. Black American slaves were not allowed to freely express their interiority in all its complexity, but their experiences were also limited by their circumstances. They did not have free time; generations of slaves born in America only knew servitude, and had little more to sing about. Emancipated black Americans had broadened, if not necessarily liberated — from racism, hunger, destitution — experiences. As blues developed from personal and personalized self-gratifying expression to public performance, its modes of signification also developed and diversified. The audience inflects the material, or the performer inflects the material toward (and away from) the audience. Perhaps before there is an audience, and particularly an audience composed of Others, there is no material — or, in Jones’s terms, there is expression, but no artifact (30), no song as song object.
At any rate, by the early twentieth century, blues becomes public exhibition, and it takes on a universal inflection that is “less obscure to white America,” a “classic blues” that is “less involuted, and certainly less precise” (87). Considered in the “trouble” light, this universality is analogous to a generality of reference that charges lyrical utterance. What trouble? Your trouble. The singer can protect herself while forming a performative bond with the listener. In effect, she sings to herself while singing to others, but the song does not necessarily sound or mean the same thing to both parties. Still, the self- and other-audience both inflect the song. As Gertrude Stein has it in Everybody’s Autobiography, she writes for herself and strangers. This emergent form of disjunction with and from the self is what leads Luc Sante, in “The Invention of the Blues,” to describe the blues as a development in American modernism. Here we are spanning time, but it is a contingent, cumulative, even self-reflexive time. Blues forms are certainly aware that they are being followed (by themselves and by other, stranger selves).
One kind favor (“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”)
On behalf of the dead, the living are nostalgic for life. The dead bear this patronage as they must: they sing on. The song does not change when the singer leaves the world, though we hear a strain previously hidden to us. Perhaps the singer preempts our concerns with instructions, but they twist in the passage. Bury my body by the side of the road formerly implied You treat me so mean. Now it signs off, What do I care?
Blind Lemon Jefferson (shown at right, circa 1926) has a last request, one kind favor he’ll ask you over and over until the recording passes completely into the aural fog that already obscures his appeal. We can’t imagine the man alive, singing the song, paying forward the tribute he demands — and it is a demand, polite as it sounds. It also comes across plaintive, so we shroud him in longing for the breath he expels in the song. But the request itself, see that my grave is kept clean, resists our sentimentality even as it appears to beg it. The clean grave is no tribute to life, and the dead have no use for flowers or songs. The one kind favor is asked of you, but you disappear in the request itself. You become witness without a body, or you pay forward when you too pass into the fog.
Lou Reed stretches Jefferson’s two-minute-forty-two-second plea into seven and a half minutes of recording static transmuted into guitar feedback, texture, and sustain. He knows the singer is dead, even if he’s thinking of Jefferson. He also knows he too will pay forward the request. Meanwhile, Jefferson sings on.
Blues is a music with trouble on its mind. The concerns and preoccupations of blues address — sing from, sing to — emotional and material conditions that may inform the Trouble Song. The question of who can sing the blues — which people, which culture has a right to the form, or even the mode — gets us into genre trouble, which is where we want to be if we are to locate the Trouble Song transmission in the present. Jones kills two blues with one stone when he writes of “the peculiar social, cultural, economic, and emotional experience of a black man in [1920s] America.” He continues:
The idea of a white blues singer seems an even more violent contradiction of terms than the idea of a middle-class blues singer. The materials of blues were not available to the white American, even though some strange circumstance might prompt him to look for them. It was as if these materials were secret and obscure, and blues a kind of ethno-historic rite as basic as blood. (148)
On one hand, this makes us wonder how to categorize the country blues (and the “Country Blues”) of (white) 1920s Virginia mountain balladeer Dock Boggs. On another hand, we wonder about later blues-inflected singers like Karen Dalton and Chan Marshall, who might be double-struck in Jones’s formulation (“black man”).
As Luc Sante will later do in “The Invention of the Blues,” Jones talks about the blues, in its classic form, having a “twelve-bar, three-line, AAB structure.” Sante goes on to say “Although the term ‘blues’ came to be applied to any minor-key lament — in the 1920s and ’30s to almost any kind of song — the authentic blues songs are those that hew to this structure.” No music is authentic for long, and authenticity is a historically acquired quality. And yet, music is made. Songs follow other songs, stealing from one another, appropriating and misappropriating terms (and lines) and forms. Surprise in song is a function of recognition: it is the strange or wayward element, this mismatched detail, the anachronism or stray, the wrongness that fits in a way that changes the blood (flow) of the listener. The recognizable is made strange, but the strange is also revealed to be recognizable, or rendered as such. As the strange is recognized, it is incorporated into experience. As the song travels, as it is reencountered, the surprise is transformed into nuance, into style. This is what Sante calls innovation, which is based on deliberate decisions of individual artists, as distinguishable from “the inherited or instinctive moves of people following tradition without questioning or altering it” (196). However, here we also refer to the movement of the song as it finds us here, today. We recognize the way the song has come, to the extent that we know its (and our) history. It is an artifact covered with fingerprints which texture its surface and contribute to the depth of its surface. The song sings to what we know, but it also sings the past away, in its insistence that it has come for us, that it came for us all along. That it encodes a past that acts on us is as important in the moment we encounter the song as our apprehension of any turn of phrase or musical gesture. As we sing along, as we carry the song to others, we aid its travel, and we add (our baggage) to its cargo, further burdening it with the marks of our touch.
Blues, whether classic or derivative, sing trouble. In blues, we find Trouble Songs. We also find them in country, in rock, in folk and rap and anywhere else we find songs, and language, and “trouble.” We also find trouble where we cannot locate “trouble.” The Trouble Song is an example, or a mode, more than a genre — just as a particular blues is also a song, one that is perceived within a necessarily limiting generic category and may be heard outside those bounds. We hear a song as blues until it gets hold of us, and then we don’t care what it’s called. We can only sing. If genre is a claim to contested terrain, the Trouble Song rolls through that terrain, gathering, mulching, and fertilizing its grounds. The process does not tend toward purity, rather admixture and cross-pollination. Borders are traversed, and territories are ultimately reconfigured. Maps, like songs, change.
You know that I’m no good — Amy Winehouse and the trouble barrier
Or, the semipermeable :trouble: membrane
How long is the lifespan of someone who grows up in public? Winehouse (shown at right) died at twenty-seven, a luckless seven years after her debut album, Frank, turned eyes and ears in her direction. As a child actor, she was not unaccustomed to attention. Frank reintroduced an enormously talented, anachronistic vocalist who belted and cinched her own material, and assured all mics that she had more to give. She backed it up with 2006’s Back to Black, as she reached beyond Frank’s jazzy frame, embracing R&B, soul, ska, and ’60s girl-group pop. Damn. And damned by her own hand — she wove and wavered stories of dissolution and ache, popping her eyes under flared eyeshadow that obviated an eyetooth wink.
On July 23, 2011, sighs were mixed with flip are you surprised comments in the culture web, as her media carcass was sewn up for the day. Details would be forthcoming, but the judgment had been cast years ago: another cracked doll for fame to toss onto the pyre.
But a funny thing happened to anyone who put the music on again. It sounded fifty years old and right now, not always in the same song. A few days later, it sounded back from the pyre, side two to Phases and Stages’s side one: at turns degraded and destroyed, and back in the game. Climbing out of the whole mess. The strength of her voice became re-apparent. She sounded alive. Proud, in pain, alive. Broken, alive. Once again, her voice the best rebuttal to the worst footage of her we could find. The candor of her music made us fresh — who were we to think she wanted us to know her?
Here, we have her at her best, so overfull and leaning in we know there’s more. Now, Back to Black is another old soul record — we can’t believe it ever ends.
Trouble with history
History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it — and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it.
— Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
For Barthes, here, history is transported, or perhaps replaced, by a photograph of his mother. The photograph — and its version of history — excludes him not (only) because he is not in it, or because his mother is dead, but because he does not remember her outfit. It is clothing before him. His mother in the photo cannot conceive of him.
Does the song know we are there? Does trouble recognize us, or merely occupy our minds? Can we conceive of a song without hearing it in our heads? There is no trouble that is not called. Awareness is existence. No troubles is a negative value positively rendered. It is equal to Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days, just as They’ll wash your troubles, your troubles, your troubles away is an accumulation. Trouble is history, and history is hysterical. The borrowed song is evidence of our nonexistence. The song comes before us, carries past us. We sound out trouble as we take it in. We absorb the sign of our absence, asserting ourselves as such. I’m not there is also a negative value positively rendered.
This is the trick of history, the illusion of historicization. Not there is not here. To historicize is to assert that one exists — a hysterical claim. The Trouble Song sings trouble away, then, as it sings before the self. Rather than sing the song here, the singing I transports itself to the song. No troubles, no self, and vice versa.
So the Trouble Song without “trouble” is a wish fulfilled, already happened. The “Trouble” Song is neutered, or imagines itself so. This is the lie of the present: now is neutral, a free wheel between past and future. If the “Trouble” Song is demystified language, all surface, the broken spell, it is a reassertion of (it)self. It is a pathetic I was there that trades the past for the present, or puts the present away. It is the failed cover, the thin wrap under which the self appears to gleam. It is a false preservation. It is a desperate attempt at meaninglessness, a willful forgetting. The Trouble Song makes the singer disappear; the “Trouble” Song makes the song disappear. Neither succeeds in making trouble go away.
Trouble is not the word, it is the singing. Unspoken language has no magic. Speech cannot act without us, but words can make us disappear. I was there is a sleight of hand that reveals But now I’m gone. In Nausea, Sartre is translated by memory: The record is scratched; perhaps the singer is dead. If Gil Scott-Heron has died, have your troubles, your troubles, your troubles washed away?
The secret rider
Perhaps we carry trouble of which we are unaware. A repressed anxiety, forgotten debt, secret rider, death’s envoy. An old record absorbed as a gift. Someone else’s father, the father of a friend, a strange father, perhaps an uncle, plays along with “Trouble in Mind.” Credited here to Bobby Blue, this countrified blues standard is the last track on Asleep at the Wheel’s Texas Gold (1975), whose cover image is a reverie on the text-masking from Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. This “Trouble in Mind,” like numerous versions of Richard M. Jones’s 1924 composition, assures itself, through vicissitudes and permutations, that the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.
As ever, there’s a dusky comfort to the line. The sun doesn’t yet shine through the blue house. Anyway, it’s the singer who is blue, though he makes room for this confusion. The sun will shine in his back door and take his blue mind away. Will he be facing that back door, gazing at what’s gone, when that sun rises? Will he see it over his shoulder? Or will it sneak up on his ass? Perhaps this is a vision of trouble catching up to him, the last light we wish to escape. If we don’t believe him, it’s because we know trouble won’t leave us alone with our thoughts for long. We’re more convinced the 219 train can pacify the singer’s mind, as he lays his head on the lonesome lines of his false, jovial song.
The song is scratched on the record, caught in the throat. The record is scratched; perhaps the singer is dead. To sing trouble is to sing with the voice of the dead, to voice the death the singer carries. If the singer takes the song, as Johnny Cash does, as Chan Marshall and Bob Dylan do, he takes death as well. He does not sing the song alive, nor does he revive the dead singer. He becomes the dead singer, his own. It is a version of death that he sings. And all who hear, hear their own death.
After all, “Trouble in Mind” is a suicide song, a self-negating comedy. The singer reports his own death, sings himself away in each verse, laughing to keep from crying. It’s the last song he’ll ever sing, and if you buy him another round, he’ll sing it again: ’Cause I know the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday. If the trouble, the blues, is in his mind, and the sun can take it away, can light up the blue, it needs a way in. This is the singer’s secret rider, his clause: the microphone is a weapon pointed not at the audience, but at himself. He exhales death, but there’s a report through the back of his skull, letting the sun shine in.
St. Vincent (center) performing Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the Bowery Ballroom, 2011.
Annie Clark, becoming “Kerosene”
Set me on fire. Or, “ST. VINCENT covers BIG BLACK at BOWERY BALLROOM NYC May 22 2011.” As of April 6, 2013, the video registers 125,391 views on YouTube. Presumably, this represents at least 125,000 conflagrations. Annie Clark and her band set off through Big Black territory, covering not only the song, but also perhaps the performance documented in another video on YouTube, “big black — kerosene.” This is a song Jerry Lee Lewis wrote before he killed one of his wives, Albini informs the crowd at the bottom of his breath, before he and his band angle into the performance. Albini appears to be covered in blood. His guitar is slung around his waist. Another guitarist walks in place as he carves out his part. Albini paces, hacking away at his dick. The bassist is all over the E string, winding the song. The drummer punches his drums. I was born in this town / Lived here my whole life / Probably come to die in this ____ / Lived here my whole life. Ominous whine, murderous complaint. There’s kerosene around find something to do.
Someone is on fire. Someone is set on fire. Annie Clark carries her guitar higher on her torso, high on her belly, at her solar plexus. It is a shield, and it will become a badge. It is a shield for the song, shielding her from it. It is the shell of the song, encasing her. She is carving her stomach. She is scratching the chakra aligned with Survival Issues. Or it is Manipura, city of jewels, associated with dispelling of fear and the power to destroy the world. Or create it. The solar plexus absorbs prana, or life, from the sun.
Annie Clark is ablaze. She shakes her head, Bill Pullman/Balthazar Getty’s transformative Fred/Pete gesture in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Before this moment, Greil Marcus might say the band is looking for the song, or playing it. Then the song plays them. The band is aflame, whereas Big Black is merely on fire. The precedent is a pack of boys, and one boy on fire. The latter is the voice of Kerosene.
If in both versions, Kerosene is girl and fuel, and in the former version, the boy sets himself on fire, or sets upon Kerosene, the only thing to do in this town, as all the boys have learned, St. Vincent is the apotheosis of Kerosene, not merely the living flame, but the singing flame. She is fire, is a flame, and as she touches the boys, she loses herself. This is her risk, her wager. Kerosene and the boys, the boy and the girl, becoming-flame. They consume themselves with otherness, and with the other.
The rest is two videos, a dancing pile of ash, flames in the eyes of the crowd.
XXII: Trouble on the line
Poem XXI of Spring and All concludes “so lascivious / and still” and segues into XXII, “so much depends / upon” — the rest is on every schoolchild’s mind, or used to be, perhaps. People who don’t think they’ve memorized a line of verse can say most or all of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheel Barrow,” only it isn’t called that, and the only “the” in the poem indicates some (white) chickens.
This may sound finicky or even ingenuous, but here’s the trouble: we don’t know what we know. We have the words but forget the form that keeps them coming back to us. Worse, we don’t have the context. XXII is not a stand-alone poem, it’s a proof. It’s in conversation with the “poem” before it, but also with the “prose” that follows.
Let’s see this Trouble Song in prose stanzas, rather than graphs.
And how about a word from our sponsor?
The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold. These things are normal — essential to every activity. But they exist — but not as dead dissections. (75)
From here Williams proceeds (as he has preceded) to show us what he has done, and what he wants to do. Spring and Allis like that, a manifesto in action. Whereas Charles Bernstein in “Artifice of Absorption” shows and tells us what he has been doing since at least 1976’s The Veil, while proceeding with a poetics that is surface and depth, Williams sets a program for what his poems will be by the time he finishes the present collection. He describes his poetics into existence, nearly abolishing the distinction between poetry and prose while insisting on that distinction:
[T]here is no use denying that prose and poetry are not by any means the same IN INTENTION. But what then is prose? There is no need for it to approach poetry except to be weakened. (77–8)
But then: “Is what I have written prose? The only answer is that form in prose ends with the end of that which is being communicated” (78). And here let us pause to admire that isolated question mark. Is it a typesetter’s error? No, it must be real! Or must anyway be real, even intentional!
Is Williams’s prose approaching poetry? Aspiring to it, even? And these are different aims: The first is an address, a correspondence; the second is perhaps what Williams describes as ends with the end. Let’s put a fine point on it: Poem XXII becomes itself, XXII, because it breaks the barriers of form while making form matter (again and henceforth). The prose that follows is free to see itself as poetry: as form and sense.
We remember the prose, in prosaic line breaks:
So much depends upon
A red wheel barrow
Glazed with rainwater
Beside the white chickens
How different this is from “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens”! Three stanzas we love for their koan-like demeanor, their question as (unpunctuated) statement. Just what is it that depends upon what, again?
What we have here is a structure that makes sense: four stanzas of two lines each, always three words followed by one, with the following nearly palindromic syllabic scheme: 4/2 // 3/2 // 3/2 // 4/2. More to love: the modernist insistence on the level playing field of lower case.
Those partner lines to each couplet are the most consistent formal element of the poem. Always two syllables, always a revelation without being a surprise. They always dangle and usually hinge. The first (“upon”) is the most formally obvious but also the most catchy. Even if we don’t remember the line breaks, Williams taught many of us how to break lines between the first and second stanza of this poem. Revelation, though, (be)comes cheap after a while. Prepositions make for obvious line breaks, particularly when they get visual (as in the tired “over /” and “under /” break). But this one has more than the sweetness of first blush. The stanza break is excruciating if you look too closely at it. Our dangling prep hangs over a cliff — depends upon what? — then gives us this marvelous red wheel
Compare Williams’s meticulous but somehow naturalistic breaks to the prosaic parsing we recall. One poem is memorable (and memorizable), and the other is bland as fuck. A forgetful one. So we remember something we can no longer take seriously, while remembering it wrong, but only remembering it because of the formal precision of the original, which we cannot see.
Once we look at the form, and consider it in context (“The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold” takes on the force of dramatic imperative rather than description; our hinges keep us whole), the structure speaks to us. The koan becomes an illustration.
XXII is not an imagist poem. Nor does it present an image, but the image of an image. One thing becomes four, but it also becomes words, and a poem.
If we insist on investigating the image, we find three things right away:
One thing becomes four formally, but maybe imagistically, three things become four. But our three-count only counts the last three stanzas, cuz that’s where we see things clearly. Stanza 1 is all so much and depends on, so we don’t see ourselves seeing through language, or thinking we do. The fourth thing is language. We see it in the form, as form.
What depends on what? Does the wheel barrow/rain water/chicken need language, or vice versa?
As the language goes on to say, “There is no confusion — only difficulties” (78).
Death’s head, proud flesh
Death shadows text and trouble emerges, even as it recedes; or the dead recede from trouble, leave it behind for the ones who can’t do without it.
January takes another light. Just as David Bowie’s last two videos, for “★” and “Lazarus,” foreshadow the obvious only after Bowie’s passing, a poet who departed with even greater haste left the sleepless remainder with death-charged books.
The American poet C. D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil, in a passage from the previous decade that made the rounds of the living in the wake of January 13, 2016 feeds, writing her headstone, anticipating ours: “Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are all going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.”
Like Bowie, Wright left us with new work, though her next book of poetry, ShallCross, was forthcoming at her sudden passing, so its consolation was yet a promise. Nor was its maker likely to thumb her nose, hand us her bejeweled skull, and return to her wardrobe, only to reappear with rags binding her eyes, blind buttons winking over the top, as in Bowie’s final, looping testaments.
In the days after Wright’s and Bowie’s deaths, those who mourn the poet and rock star with the particular, half-guilty displeasure of those who know them only by their works, a number that now includes us all, they dance together into the cabinet. Those left at the station will get there soon enough.
Meanwhile, we refrain, with the last book of poetry we do have: “the year in which this particular round / of troubles began.”
1.[return] that we were there
2.[return] Speaking of “the dispersed, intensely regional transformations” of English as it is used and altered over time, Caroline Bergvall (shown at right) reports: “This transport flows across both diachronic and synchronic routes, sheds as much as it drags historical account along with itself.”a The term diachronic refers, in linguistic study, to “the historical development of a language,” while synchronic refers to a descriptive approach to the state of language at a given time (Oxford English Dictionary online). Trouble Songs, as a study, explores the continuum between these approaches, which makes it essentially diachronic in scope, though there will be moments of synchronic reflection, particularly within the moment of song. To return to and reiterate Bergvall, “This transport flows across both.”
a. Caroline Bergvall, “Middling English,” in Meddle English (Callicoon: Nightboat Books, 2011), 14.
3.[return] History, Trouble Song
4.[return] To say She troubles me, or She is trouble — or “She was trouble,” as private dick Philip Marlowe, via Raymond Chandler, says in The Big Sleepa — is to bind two things that were different, but have become inseparable. Untie them, and they are still linked. To be in trouble is to be. (Copula is etymologically linked with couple and copulate; all of these forms are intimately linked with trouble.)
a. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (New York: Vintage Crime, 1992), 17. Originally published in 1939.
5.[return] On the title track to his country gospel album The Troublemaker (1976), Willie Nelson is the song, which names him, an outlaw hippie Christ, as he sings it.
6.[return] It might also, as will be explored, protect the singer from the prying I of the listener.
7.[return] a name, an embodiment
8.[return] an eponymous song title, and the substance (insubstantial as it may be) of the song, framed by titular quotation marks
9.[return] of which he sings
10.[return] the song, the representation of trouble which we witness
11.[return] body, text, map — a mixed metaphor, or a signal fluidity
12.[return] Speaking to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Joan Retallack writes, “[T]o make ‘gender trouble’ is to act up as subtext: that is, to perform sub-versions: parody, pastiche, ironic mirrorings, deconstructive replications. … [But to] make real gender trouble is to make genre trouble.”a
a. Joan Retallack, “:RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM: (three essays onto shaky grounds),” in The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 112.
13.[return] Here, let us sing the book, though elsewhere Trouble Songs (no italics) will be treated as a project, ongoing, a song about a song (so the quotation marks have not yet come to roost).
14.[return] and always already
15.[return] This cover is influenced by versions and visions of Boggs by Greil Marcus, particularly in Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (New York: Henry Holt, 1997), and his “Old Weird America” course at The New School.
16.[return] Transcription fails delivery: peee-puuuuull … Trouble Songs style for quoting lyrics is italics, to indicate they are sung — slanted and inflected — and that they do not belong to the singer (are borrowed, transmitted, paid forward, lost). Quotations from texts other than songs are treated with standard quotation marks.
17.[return] Lee Smith’s The Devil’s Dream presents Satan’s laugher as music, played by and playing the players of the song.
18.[return] See/hear Lou Reed’s version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” in which Reed plays (on guitar) the recording static from Jefferson’s 1928 record, as collected on volume 3 of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). Reed’s revisitation appears on The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited Vol. 2 (2006).
19.[return] The comma makes sense, but Boggs eschews (or transcends) the comma.
20.[return] Got me singing yeah! as Marvin Gaye had it (“Trouble Man”).
21.[return] an extended outline format, a set of expanding propositions, invitations to trouble space
22.[return] A point in the Oxford English Dictionary’s constellation of meanings for “gender” binds it to genre: “Kind, sort, class; also, genus as opposed to species. The general gender: the common sort (of people).”Compare to “genre”:
a. Kind; sort; style.
b. spec. A particular style or category of works of art; esp. a type of literary work characterized by a particular form, style, or purpose. (Oxford English Dictionary online)
23.[return] Once genre enters, the room is gendered (that is, troubled by gender, or gen[d]re).
24.[return] “We’ve got to show them we’re worse than queer / SUCK MY LEFT ONE SUCK MY LEFT one” (liner notes) hollers Kathleen Hanna on Bikini Kill’s “Suck My Left One,” from the self-titled debut EP. At the time (1991), a wave of feminist punk, dubbed riot grrl (later mass-mediated as Riot Grrrl, that third r adding a cartoon growl — or purr), acts up during grunge’s USA-via-Seattle, crowd-surfing big splash, as Bikini Kill leads the charge into boy-strewn waters. Defiantly unladylike, Hanna belts out lines like Eat meat / Hate Blacks / Beat your fucking wife / Its [sic] all the same thing (“Liar”), troubling the waters of American commercial culture and calling women to the stage. The last song on the EP is a live recording of “Thurston Hearts the Who,” featuring Molly Neuman (credited as molly germs), who is invited onstage to recite a hostile review while the band plays the song (ostensibly for the first time) behind her. Neuman created the zine Girl Germs, along with Allison Wolfe, with whom she formed another influential riot grrl band, Bratmobile. Bikini Kill takes its name from a zine written by Hanna and the band’s drummer, Tobi Vail (who will be a founding member of Ladyfest, a feminist nonprofit arts and music festival). At the turn of the millennium, Hanna further troubles genre and gender with Le Tigre. The group layers electronic elements, including programmed beats and samples, with minimal traditional rock instrumentation to create feminist agit-pop, accompanied live by multimedia performances. The original trio includes a filmmaker, Sadie Benning, and another zine maker, Johanna Fateman. Benning is replaced by the band’s projectionist, JD Samson, between the group’s 1999 self-titled debut and its 2001 followup, Feminist Sweepstakes (both of which are released on the queer label Mr. Lady, itself an invocation of gender trouble). Samson goes on to raise genderqueer awareness in her dance music project (with Johanna Fateman) MEN.
25.[return] Misappropriation is (an) appropriation.
26.[return] Yes and no. Discovery leads to (or from) recovery, and an inevitable recovering; all things cannot be present — or accounted for — at once. This is concept trouble, or the trouble with concept(s).
27.[return] And how does this relate to signification?
28.[return] Cf. Willie Nelson, The Troublemaker, which, as noted, (also) (explicitly) replaces the singer with the album. The Is is silent (and/or replaced by a comma).
29.[return] if not the
30.[return] Here let us say “political” encapsulates — and embodies — the world that is the case, as Wittgenstein has it. Or: the body is the case, and the song will be the body, as “trouble” will be the word that is the case. And: the footnote is the case/song before (and after, and beneath) the case/body.
31.[return] Judith Butler, “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire,” in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 12.
32.[return] And does it appear as the sign of a disappearance — of trouble, of the singer or subject?
33.[return] We could say writers, and we could say transcribers, or we could invoke conjurers (though perhaps only performers have the power to conjure, even if they need a spell).
34.[return] Aaron A. Fox, Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 155.
35.[return] though it comes out Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days
36.[return] Fox, Real Country, 88.
37.[return] Which is to say, trouble (and gen[d]re) may be in the house — here, consider verse and chorus as stanzas, or rooms — even when “trouble” is not in evidence.
38.[return] troubled by format for all those listening to The Covers Record on CD
39.[return] A list of trouble-saturated musicians and albums would be a long one, but a few notables spring to (this) mind (this moment): Dusty (Springfield) in Memphis, Judee Sill, Smog, Syd Barrett, Bonnie Prince Billy, Love — and of course, most of blues and much of country music (a study of the dynamics of trouble in rap and hip-hop could overfill its own volume). Every music list is a process of exclusion. The reader of a list makes her own, largely in opposition to the trigger list. All the better. Note also: Trouble might just as likely be a mood as a mode — a passing fancy, or the wake of (if not the waking from) one. Dylan has recorded at least twenty-four songs with some form of “trouble” in the lyrics (and countless Trouble Songs that do not mention the word), several of them far better known than “Paths of Victory,” which appears on Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Vols. 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. Dylan has also recorded “Trouble Songs” (songs with “Trouble” in the title) like “Trouble” and “Trouble in Mind,” and has avoided “trouble” by replacing it with “worry” in “Someday Blues,” his version of Muddy Waters’s “Trouble No More” (also worried by the Allman Brothers).
40.[return] Of course, ’pataphysics describes imaginary solutions to imaginary problems. (Thanks to Talan Memmott for the distinction.) And Trouble Songs are in our heads, if not only in our heads (like trouble itself, whatever it may be).
41.[return] The couplet that opens “Down the Line” is a variation on the AAB blues form, where I know that I’m right takes the place of the A-line repetition, simultaneously providing the B-line.a Such replacement is exactly the problem here. Repetitions (with slight differences) of the coming same mistake twice refrain will underscore the blues-form adaptation.
a. If we hear the line this way. If we believe the lyric sheet rather than our ears, the line is I know they’re not mine. It’s a better line, if perhaps less formally suggestive in a musicological sense (cf. the blues connection). On the one hand a hard rhyme (line/mine) replaces a more intriguing and less stable off rhyme (line/right). However, the lyric sheet version intensifies interpersonal tension and positions the singer more explicitly as harbinger. The insistence of I’m right suggests disharmony and doubt, but they’re not mine is an ominous twist, even a threat. Close listening has the line both ways in the song, and the ambiguity is an improvement on either line.
42.[return] and as reverb in the telephone game of floating versions (on March 8, 2014, an All Music Guide search retrieves 913,215 results for “trouble on the line”; by the time the echo drops “trouble,” results are 1,316,216)
43.[return] Promises, promises …
44.[return] that is, hidden trouble
45.[return] We — including the singer — may have troubles, but we don’t need them to have worry. Trouble is trouble enough.
46.[return] The opening couplet, then, might be an attempt to avoid the AAB refrain (and the problems the couplet foretells) — where the repeated first blues line, which often sets up a problem as a series (or same problem, different day) that is repeated (or repeatedly foils the singer), would be the same mistake twice.a The attempt seems to fail in several ways. We might hear that same mistake as the false assurance of the second line — in either variation, though it is particularly poignant on the lyric sheet. Either the first two lines are the same mistake twice (reiterated as I know I’m right) or the second line reads the first incorrectly (where they’re not mine fails to recognize problems as one’s own, and the sage is a fool). By song’s end, the problems of repetition (particularly if repetition — AAB — was to be avoided) worsen in accumulation, as the song is reduced to one line repeated over and over. Who then is the you in that line?
a. As the second song on In Our Nature, “Down the Line” might itself be the same mistake twice, and it might be a (failed) corrective to the first song, which also flirts with the repetition-compulsion death drive of the AAB blues form. How long, / How long are you willing to go suggests the AA form, and subsequent lines deliver a poetics of the B line (with a nod in the mirror to AA repetition): Punch line after punch line leaving us sore, leaving us sore. Here the B line substitutes the blues’ self-deprecatory comic relief with word play as suffering as eternal recurrence.
47.[return] and cumulus, as gathering and compiling clouds-becoming-darkness
48.[return] Thanks to Claire Donato for sharing this observation.
49.[return] or cover
50.[return] Hal Foster, “Against Pluralism,” in Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1985), 29.
51.[return] A related concern revealed (or, paradoxically, uncovered) by this conceit: Is “trouble” the shield, or is the singer the shield, or is the song the shield?
52.[return] John Ashbery, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), 68.
Parmigianino, Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524).
53.[return] abetted — or conjured — by Ashbery
54.[return] Some poets indicate when a stanza break does or does not coincide with a page break, but few indicate whether a hanging line is a matter of typography or intention. See Lyn Hejinian’s The Cell (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992) for examples of clearly intentional hanging lines. Compare to the poems in C. K. Williams’s Tar (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), which habitually hang, perhaps only (if not certainly) by exceeding the width of the page.
55.[return] John Ashbery, “The Other Tradition,” in Houseboat Days (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 3.
56.[return] Here we are tempted to throw clarity to the wind and say “‘this’ referent,” which improves upon the range and flow of sense.
57.[return] See Joshua Clover’s chapbook (with accompanying multivocal music-mashup CD), Their Ambiguity (Ypsilanti: Quemadura Press, 2003).
58.[return] “Their Ambiguity” also appears in the collection the totality for kids. Warning: Their ambiguity will remain, though they might refer to poetry and revolution. Note also: “The content of the town is our pleasure; everything that remains is form, // though one could say the same thing about the totality for kids.”a
a. Joshua Clover, the totality for kids (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 55.
59.[return] on Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002), part of a six-session covers clinic on song stealing; the song originally appeared at the end of Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral (1994)
60.[return] Originally, the song appeared on Smog’s final album, I’m New Here (subsequently, Bill Callahan recorded under his name); Scott-Heron made it the title track of his “comeback” album from 2010 (he had not made a studio album in fifteen years, and his previous album followed a twelve-year hiatus). No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / You can always turn around / … / And you may come full circle and be new here again, Scott-Heron sang with an authority Callahan cannot muster, despite how his (Callahan’s) version sounds.
61.[return] Bill Callahan’s cover of the Smog version, “performed at the benefit Letters to Santa, Second City, Chicago, December 15, 2010,” according to the YouTube video posted December 19, 2010, turns around on itself, a reflection of and on a reflection, an eye reflecting itself in a clogged sing (sic). The song is no longer his, but he remembers it well.
62.[return] LeRoi Jones, Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed From It (New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1963), 87. It should be noted here that Jones distinguishes between “classic” and “country” blues singers: “While the country singers accompanied themselves usually on guitar or banjo, the classic blues singers usually had a band backing them up” (90). He also notes that classic blues, which was dominated by great female singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, was recorded years before country blues singers, who were “almost always men” (91). Jones notes that the “best-known country singers were wanderers” seeking employment, while women could not and did not need to move around the way men did. Not only were there societal and familial restrictions on her movement, but a woman could “almost always obtain domestic employment,” which meant she did not need to travel for work (91). Of course, there was a sense of glamour and prestige associated with the entertainment field and traveling shows, which was a draw for classic blues singers, “providing an independence and importance not available in other areas open to them — the church, domestic work, or prostitution” (93).
63.[return] though perhaps no man can be denied the privacy of his mind, or of sleep — not for long
64.[return] This is complicated by the race record era of the 1920s, during which time country blues singers were eventually recorded (again, after classic blues was recorded). Not only did the proliferation of phonographic records provide a blues artifact, but it circulated country blues, making its more private expressive sensibilities public. “Classic blues was entertainment and country blues, folklore” (105), but both had become artifactual (and commodified) by the late ’20s. They also became ripe fields for floating signification, doublespeak, and encryption, all under the sign of accessibility.
65.[return] which projects and reveals trouble
66.[return] which flows along the line of alienation specific to commodity forms in production and consumption, to which performance points
67.[return] and more specifically, country blues, particularly because he concerns himself with the innovations of individual, primarily male, itinerant musicians
68.[return] Luc Sante, “The Invention of the Blues,” in Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990–2005 (Portland: Verse Chorus Press, 2007), 177–206.
69.[return] or our agenda: if the dead keep singing, they sing for us as much as they sing to us
70.[return] In Robert Johnson’s version of this floating lyric, he grants permission — You may bury my body down by the highway side — then translates the line sotto voce, Baby I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone. But he’s already made the accusation, also from the side of his mouth, You know you ain’t doing me right. We believe everything this man says, after his claim that he walked with the devil. He sells it with the (unhidden) strain in his voice when he sings Me and the Devil. That me is every bit as terrifying and unspeakable as I’m gonna beat my woman until I get satisfied.a It’s certainly leagues scarier than the Devil (which is not comforting company). Here’s a man beyond kindness, and here’s the song for which he traded his soul: “Me and the Devil Blues.”
a. So unspeakable, for Gil Scott-Heron, that in his version of the song, he sings the line I’m gonna see my woman until I get satisfied.
71.[return] Much later, Bob Dylan will ask one kind favor, that you allow him just one more chance, but Jefferson knows he’s already had his last chance.
72.[return] though it does nothing to disperse its affect; on the contrary, it binds us, or hides us together
73.[return] or putting a down payment on it; the song, though, is free, as is the use of the lines he takes (and gives), so though he expects a return, he can’t receive it, and gives away his song, even if it isn’t his to give
74.[return] One kind favor I ask of you suggests “if it isn’t too much trouble,” but as we will see and hear, it might just be trouble enough.
75.[return] “No trouble,” we reply.
76.[return] or hand off (trouble or no trouble), though you don’t benefit from the gift; perhaps you pay backward, though Jefferson can hardly benefit, except as legend in our minds — and who benefits from that?
77.[return] The song was recorded live for The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited. Songs from Smith’s anthology were recorded by multiple artists during three concerts in 1999 and 2001, then released in 2006 as a four-CD box set. If you search today for Reed’s version, it will undoubtedly carry a new date — October 27, 2013, the day Reed passed into the fog of the song.
78.[return] Here, then, is where the kind favor is advanced. The singer passes his request (if it isn’t too much trouble) to the next singer (and listener), keeping the grave (and others in turn) clean, keeping the song (also a grave, or at least a headstone) in the world, wherever that is.
79.[return] trouble, indeed
80.[return] as Greil Marcus characterizes him in Invisible Republic (20).
81.[return] As it is published in his 2007 collection Kill All Your Darlings, the essay carries the compositional date range of 1994–2002.
82.[return] Jones, Blues People, 62; cf. Sante, “The Invention of the Blues,” 177. AAB refers to an end-rhyme scheme and verse structure as well as describing the whole-line, perfect-rhyme (repetition)-plus-punch-line blues form. A classic example is “Downhearted Blues,” written by Lovie Austin and Alberto Hunter, and performed by Bessie Smith:
Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days (A)
Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days (A)
It seems like trouble going to follow me to my grave (B)
In this case, the AAB structure can be described as AAA, in terms of end rhyme (if the days/grave slant-rhyme is recognized). We might imagine an original (here: debut) performance in which the singer calls the A-line, the audience repeats it with her, and the singer answers with the B-line. In that case, we might imagine a floating-lyric composition, where the audience recognizes some or all of the parts — taken from “the great body of ambient tropes known collectively as the folk-lyric” (Sante 185) — but the whole is original.
83.[return] Sante, “The Invention of the Blues,” 177, 178. Sante also identifies the structure with “line length of five stressed syllables” (177).
84.[return] as singing changes the flow of blood, bulging the veins of the neck, pouring oxygenated blood on the brain
85.[return] and again, the singer is also a listener, the listener a singer
86.[return] We can also, if only for a moment, hear songs or parts of songs into the blues, even if they float on outside of it. And, of course, we might hear (or sing) the blues as a poem.
87.[return] To listen to her B-side cover of Phil Spector’s “To Know Him Is to Love Him” is to know, know, know and lose time and place; to hear “Rehab” is to nod no, no, no in 2006. To know and not know, to no — this is trouble, with Amy Winehouse.
88.[return] Willie Nelson’s 1974 broke-up-and-get-it-together concept album breaks it down side-to-side.
89.[return] The B-side “Valerie” is the crook-fingered siren calling us to the vault; we barely register the rattlesnake warning at the end of the track.
90.[return] from Gil Scott-Heron’s “Lady Day and John Coltrane” (1971)
91.[return] Dylan borrows the title and rewrites the song. His version appears as the B-side to 1979’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the lead-off single from his born-again Slow Train Coming. If trouble is a death’s head in the back of the mind, Dylan’s A-side, with its concession, It may be the devil, is the service announcement that sets trouble aside for a moment.
92.[return] Ask Lot what he thought when his wife turned to stone, Dylan offers (and commands) in his version. He skips the sunshine in the back door, still warning: Dont look back (as ever, he leaves the apostrophe behind, or leaves behind the apostrophe, taking it with him on his way out).
93.[return] or 2:19 — time or number, it will surely come
94.[return] or ease (Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash et al.), or satisfy (Lightnin Hopkins), as other versions have it
95.[return] to make a refrain of Sartre’s Nausea
96.[return] Dylan’s version reads what he leaves out, talking to the other side and concluding:
Satan will give you a little taste, then he’ll move in with rapid speed,
Lord keep my blind side covered and see that I don’t bleed.
97.[return] Johnny Cash prefaces the line with Life ain’t worth livin’
98.[return] which Nina Simone follows with If the Lord don’t help me
99.[return] Thanks to participants in two New School Graduate Writing Program seminars, Deep Surface (fall 2012) and Making Text (spring 2013) — two discussions covered in this version.
100.[return] 329,726 views
101.[return] or, the bassist marshals the E string, bearing the song.
102.[return] Here the “town” (if not the town) disappears.
103.[return] solar plexus, shield
104.[return] So says Wikipedia.
105.[return] as all the boys have taught her
106.[return] Thanks to participants in the New School Graduate Writing Program seminar Deep Surface (fall 2013), where some of these readings took shape.
107.[return] Or is it Chapter XXI, or just XXI?
108.[return] Do we dare call it enjambment? No.
109.[return] William Carlos Williams, Spring and All (New York, NY: New Directions, 2011), 74. Originally published 1923.
110.[return] Let’s be careful here in anticipation of what follows XXII.
111.[return] Is prose poetry in sentences? Yes, prose poetry is in sentences. As for prose, let’s say prose is poetry that doesn’t know how it sounds, unless it’s prose poetry, which too often still doesn’t know how it sounds, distracted as it is by its lack of line breaks. All writing knows how it looks, but some poems look like prose.
112.[return] and call out our bad education, which will proceed to cast XXII as an isolated riddle; the trouble with us is we can’t see and read at the same time
113.[return] Better in previous editions (though New Directions’ 2011 standalone volume is commendable in numerous ways, including C. D. Wright’s feeling-it intro — method if not methodical, and better for that) by a ligature (perhaps courtesy of an expedient typesetter): Spring & All.
114.[return] Bernstein notes that he completed his essay in verse in 1986; it formed the front-and-centerpiece of his essay collection A Poetics (1992); dates become important later in this sentence.
115.[return] Poetry, then, is not only prose that hears itself; it is prose that sees itself and shows what it says.
116.[return] If we think of this in terms of blues annotation (or a schematic version of blues scholarship), we have an ABBA structure, which is more properly palindromic.
117.[return] because unbearably exquisite, like a hair so fine it pierces your eye
118.[return] and twenty-three years later, Paterson will insist “no ideas but in things.” Let’s play the numbers game: Spring & All first arrives in ’23, Paterson twenty-three years after that. XXII has twenty-two syllables, and its middle two stanzas go 3/2, 3/2, which is backwards and slashed for 23 23.
119.[return] found much later, in the first stanza
120.[return] Recall Rosmarie Waldrop, who repeats in “Alarms & Excursions,” “language speaks for us.”a Let’s just say language speaks us, and call it a day.
a. Rosmarie Waldrop, “Alarms & Excursions,” in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: ROOF, 1990), 46–47. On page 47, she elaborates her initial proposition: “So, while language thinks for us, there is no guarantee that it will be in the direction we like.”
121.[return] for Danniel Schoonebeek and Claire Donato
122.[return] The song includes a choral provocation — Somebody else took his place and bravely cried: / I’m a blackstar — possibly an open invitation meant for Kendrick Lamar, whose 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly was an acknowledged model for the sound Bowie wanted for ★.a Reports that Kanye West almost immediately announced himself as Bowie’s torchbearer via Twitter were greatly exaggerated, perhaps an opportunistic Yeezy backlash that reflects the shadow side of Bowie’s blue-eyed-soul appeal.
a Though if Bowie has an alter-ego legacy, let it be mutable as he was, and more so. Let anyone wear the mantle of gender-abstract changeling — turn and face the strange — with or without guitar.
123.[return] Here with apologies: We all die, some sooner than others. The videos present a death rite and a temporary resurrection, a visiting wraith, respectively.
124.[return] C. D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 61. An inch higher on that page is a declaration of poetics that serves as a Trouble Songs credo: be critical and sing.
126.[return] Almost secretly available at the time (compared to the elaborate promotion for ★), however, was a new book of poetics, The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All, released like Bowie’s album the previous week. A companion volume to Cooling Time, which mixed poetics in prose with line-broken poems in clear homage to William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Wright’s new prose work borrows also from sequencing techniques she used in poetry books and encouraged in the work of her Literary Arts students at Brown University. For example, as included in the book, her introduction to the 2011 facsimile edition of Spring and All is broken into multiple sections, as is a reflection on her friend and Brown colleague Robert Creeley, and an essay first published online in 2011 at The Volta (aka Evening Will Come), “In a Word, a World.”a Those sections are each given a page, and the essays are interspersed among the volume so one is in effect reading all of them at once, if she reads the book from front to back.
a This latter essay is notable not only for its excellence, but for the way its multipage online layout anticipated Wright’s formal, modular sequencing technique in the 2016 poetics volume.
127.[return] Bowie’s final character, Button Eyes, visually captivating if not as smartly attired in language as The Thin White Duke. David Jones, rest in peace.
128.[return] C. D. Wright, One With Others (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2010), 14. Poet and teacher C. D. Wright, rest in peace.
According to Chilean poet Juan Luis Martínez’s groundbreaking art object La nueva novela (The New Novel, 1977), “The universe is a phantom’s effort to become reality.” In July 2014 I found that phantom. His name is Juan (Luis) Martinez and he is a retired journalist and aid worker for the International Committee of the Red Cross. This Swiss-Catalan writer currently resides in the Valais Alps, 200 kilometers from Geneva, and he had never read more than a passing reference to his Chilean double — which he largely ignored — until I first spoke with him on July 29, 2014.
Juan Luis Martínez (Valparaíso, 1942–1993) is widely considered to be the most experimental poet of the Chilean neo-avant-garde of the 1970s and ’80s. During his life he published only two book-objects: the collage work La nueva novela (1977) and the artist’s book La poesía chilena (Chilean Poetry, 1978), which announced the death and burial of his country’s past and future poetic inheritance. Juan Luis Martinez (Palamós, Spain, 1953–), on the other hand, published numerous books of poetry in French from 1973 to 1993, having moved from his native Catalonia to Geneva at the age of four. That their poetic legacies were so intimately and secretly linked for nearly forty years would only become apparent outside of Dimond Library in Durham, New Hampshire in late 2013. And while there are certainly other JLMs of note, even literary and artistic ones — such as an expressionist Spanish painter (Navas de San Juan, Spain, 1942–) and a novelist (1950–, a professor of zoology at the University of Oviedo, Spain) — the Martínez/Martinez case has engendered a transnational literary detective story that revolves around appropriation, translation, and apocryphal authorship.
It goes something like this:
When Juan Luis Martínez died in 1993, he instructed his widow to burn all of his unpublished poems. True to the letter of his wish (but perhaps not to the spirit) Eliana Rodríguez — Brod to Juan Luis’s Kafka — has periodically made public either previously-published texts or larger collections of her late husband’s visually oriented artwork. The first of these publications, collected under the title Poemas del otro (The Other’s Poems), was released by a university press in Santiago ten years after Juan Luis’s death. The second, Aproximación del Principio de Incertidumbre a un proyecto poético (Application of the Uncertainty Principle to a Poetic Project, 2010), includes a series of fifty-five pictograms allegedly composed and ordered according to the precise combinatorial procedures of the I Ching. Finally, in September 2012 — coinciding with an exhibition of Martínez’s objets d’art at the September 2012 Biennial in São Paulo, Brazil — Eliana published the monumental, xeroxed-collage work El poeta anónimo (o el eterno presente de Juan Luis Martínez) (The Anonymous Poet [or Juan Luis Martínez’s Eternal Present]), which commemorated the twentieth anniversary of Martínez’s death with its publication in Chile in March 2013.
In October 2013 I was revising my book on Chilean poet Juan Luis Martínez — the first English-language monograph on Martínez’s work — when I was struck by the inclusion of a review of a book titled Le Silence et sa Brisure (Silence and Its Breaking) in The Anonymous Poet (or Juan Luis Martínez’s Eternal Present). The review was published in 1976 and describes a work by a Swiss-Catalan poet also named Juan Luis Martinez (with no accent mark); the following page of The Anonymous Poet is comprised of a facsimile of a card catalogue entry for Silence and Its Breaking, taken from the collection of the French-Chilean Institute of Valparaíso. I subsequently used the online library database WebCat (with expanded search parameters) to find out more about this book, which was published in Paris in 1976 by the now-defunct Editions Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Out of curiosity, I requested Le Silence through interlibrary loan, and my surprise when I received it could not have been greater. If the initial poems had a ghostly familiarity to them, they should have: I was shocked to realize that the seventeen poems contained in Silence and Its Breaking were very nearly exact translations of the first section of the Chilean Martínez’s book The Other’s Poems, published posthumously some twenty-seven years later.
Upon recovering from my initial surprise, my first impression was that these poems must have been written in French by the Chilean poet, which meant that Poemas del otro (2003) was composed of translations to Spanish of these poems, originally published in French in 1976. Alternatively — as Chilean journalist Pedro Pablo Guerrero later suggested to me via email — I wondered if Martínez had written these poems in Spanish and sent them, clandestinely, to a Chilean friend living in exile in Paris during Pinochet’s dictatorship. With nearly half of the Chilean intelligentsia residing in Paris following the bloody 1973 coup d’état, Martínez very easily could have entrusted the poems and their translation to an exiled compatriot. Or, might the Chilean Martínez have discovered the Swiss-Catalan Martinez and together they collaborated on these poems (as a kind of Situationist joke or prank)? Perhaps “Juan Luis Martinez” was an invention or avatar of Juan Luis Martínez, an orthonym that recalled Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s extensive use of heteronyms.
And so on.
Only adding to the ominous nature of this find was the fact that the Swiss-Catalan Martinez’s final book was published in 1993, the same year as the Chilean poet’s death. A few years prior, Martínez had published two of these ostensibly political poems prior to the plebiscite that would put an end to Pinochet’s dictatorship. During his only travel outside of Chile — invited to Paris in 1992 as a part of a group of Chilean writers — he read the poem “Quién soy yo” (“Who I Am”) as his self-introduction, which, as I discovered, is a translation from what appears to be the original (French) text. In this way, Martínez could only self-identify by way of the other Martinez’s words, which rang true with the Chilean poet’s ethic of literary disappearance and self-erasure as an author.
I felt relatively confident that Juan Luis Martinez existed without having any hard evidence to support this assertion. After all, I knew that the Chilean Martínez read French but needed a translator when psychoanalyst and philosopher Félix Guattari visited his house in Villa Alemana in 1991. I also doubted that a well-known bande dessinée (Swiss adventure comics) author such as Daniel Ceppi — with whom Martinez collaborated on two occasions (Ceppi adapted Martinez’s short stories) — would work with a Chilean poet whose French was not up to the task. Plus, I just did not see Martínez as being interested in something like bande dessinée, even as part of an elaborate, multidecade hoax.
In the face of these uncertainties, in July 2014 I published a short book in Chile called La última broma de Juan Luis Martínez: no sólo ser otro sino escribir la obra del otro (Juan Luis Martínez’s Final Trick: Not Only Being Other but also Writing the Other’s Work), which summarized my findings and put forth the theory that the Chilean poet translated and appropriated extant works by the Swiss-Catalan Martinez. Chilean journalist Pedro Pablo Guerrero interviewed me for an article in the newspaper El Mercurio, titled “Juan Luis Martínez y su doble” (“Juan Luis Martínez and His Double”), which was published July 20, 2014. Guerrero and I searched high and low for Martinez. We emailed his editors in Geneva and in Paris only to be referred to other editors. A Mr. Michel Moret at Editions de l’Aire in Lausanne provided us with Martinez’s last known address and telephone number in Geneva as well as the lead that Martinez worked for the Red Cross in the 1990s; while the number was out of order and the address was no longer current, we did speak with an acupuncturist/physical therapist named Juan Martinez (the only Juan Martinez in the phone book in Geneva, according to Guerrero), who was definitively too young to be the Swiss-Catalan poet. And an editor at Les Humanoïdes Associés (a major French bande dessinée publisher) gave me Daniel Ceppi’s email address, but he never responded to me. On top of it all, Martínez’s widow was not returning my emails.
I desperately needed confirmation of the existence of Juan Luis Martinez. As I racked my brain for ways to track down Martínez’s double, should he exist, I received an email from an Ecuadorian journalist who currently lives in Brooklyn, named María Helena Barrera-Agarwal. She had read Guerrero’s article in El Mercurio and provided me with key information that would fact lead me to Martinez, albeit with some slight geographical detours. She told me a tale of three Martinezes, which she outlined in an article that she would soon publish online: a Spanish painter living in Switzerland, a Chilean poet, and a Swiss-Catalan poet-journalist who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Her short article on “the saga of the three Martinez,” as she called it, mentioned a documentary produced by the ICRC and titled Words of Warriors (2007). Armed with a specific mark of identity to locate this Juan Luis Martinez among thousands of Google hits (since JLM is somewhat of a common name), in no time at all I was watching a Juan Martinez interview armed guerrillas in the South Sudan, El Salvador, the Congo, and the Philippines. I saw my phantom speak. A quick Internet search revealed his current location to be in the Ukraine, as head of the ICRC office in Kharkiv. I called; he had retired a month prior to my call. The potential setback, however, soon dissolved when the new head of the office provided me with Martinez’s personal email address.
Martinez answered my initial, vague query overnight, finding it quite a coincidence that I inquired about his literary past because he was seeking to put his old papers and notebooks in order while living in Grimentz, a small village of 500 people in the Valais Alps situated 1,600 meters above sea level and 200 kilometers from Geneva. I responded with a tremendous missive about my multinational search for him, my work on Chilean poet Juan Luis Martínez, and my own largely paranoid and Borgesian speculations as to what it all meant. Earlier that day I had finally spoken with Martínez’s widow on the phone, and she told me that while all of this was news to her, Jacques d’Arthuys — Martínez’s close friend and the director of the French-Chilean Institute of Valparaiso in the mid-’70s — found Le Silence et sa brisure in a bookstore in Paris and passed it along to Martínez, who found the coincidence amusing. The rest was literary history. Whereas Martínez often spoke of “writing the other’s poetry,” this was the operation at play in the lyric poems published posthumously in the volume Poemas del otro (2003). But what critics did not realize is that when he said that he had not written the poems (“fueron escritos por el otro”) he literally meant el otro Martinez.
I had Juan Martinez’s full attention at this point, I can only imagine. Having studied his poetry carefully, I also found these thematizations of the figure of the double (á la Pessoa) to be very prominent in his writing. In numerous places he too played with the metaphysical constructions of being and nonbeing, space-time, spirit, etc. Martinez’s initial response to his heteronym’s translation and appropriation was, in his words, “not very friendly.” But shortly he found the case extremely intriguing and even felt very close to J. L. Martínez. He also was struck “that it took more than ten years and a foreign researcher (not a Chilean one) to discover the pot-aux-roses” (a French expression about “revealing something hidden”).
We spoke the next day via Skype for an hour and a half or so. Juan was quick to show me the photo of Fernando Pessoa perched behind him on a bookshelf, which he had purchased during a recent trip to Portugal. The conversation was thus initiated under the sign of Pessoa, as was only appropriate due to the Pessoan question of the heteronym that played so strongly into our discussion, as well as in the Chilean poet’s appropriation of his heteronym’s work. Martinez reiterated that at first he was angry when he learned of the appropriation of his poetry, but soon felt a strong connection between the young man that he was when he wrote those poems and his Chilean double. This new connection, he argued, revived or gave life to an aspect of his past that was full of despair and questions but also energy and strength. And while Martinez’s initial reaction to my discovery was not very positive, he recounted to me that by the time we spoke — some twenty-four hours after first learning of Juan Luis Martínez’s appropriation of his poems — he was very amused by the whole affair. When he visited the website juanluismartinez.cl — designed by the poet’s widow and financed by a grant from the Chilean government — Martinez was utterly amazed to see his words appear in Spanish in Poemas del otro. Putting together the pieces of this puzzle and understanding the process of appropriation at play in this poetic gesture, he was pleased that his words were good enough for the Chilean Martínez to take possession of them. While perusing the website, the Swiss-Catalan Martinez realized that he had stumbled across Martínez’s poetry several years ago when looking up a reference. He had read a few lines about La nueva novela but did not pursue the link any further, since for him names and faces do not mean a whole lot.
With respect to the deeper meaning of this communion of poets across continents, languages, and borders, when I spoke with Martinez he speculated at first that it was pure chance or hasard, or perhaps a big (’pataphysical) joke of some sort. He reflected upon those words that he composed at the age of nineteen or twenty (including the poem “Qui je suis,” written when he was twenty-one), which were part of what he described as poetry as an absolute approach to life, at a time when writing was more important even than eating (and thus he suffered through some difficult moments, materially speaking). But, argued Martinez, what we call writing (l’écriture) is something poetry cannot do, because it is not life; it is perhaps more than life, he speculated. This “juego” or “broma” (game or trick), however, was part of a game — a serious and even cruel (essential) one — through which the Chilean poet “lived on” and found a desperate way of leaving his body by being himself, but also being more than himself. Juan conjectured that the “encounter beyond death” that brought them together was part of Martínez’s celestial transcendence beyond the confines of his physical suffering from the kidney disease that would claim his life at the age of fifty.
The connection between these two poets transcended their shared name, but it also had deeper onomastic and historical roots than I had foreseen. Whereas the Chilean Juan Luis Martínez inherited his first names from his paternal grandfather Juan and from his father, Luis Martínez Villablanca, the Swiss-Catalan Martinez took his first names from both of his grandfathers. Juan was his paternal grandfather, and his maternal grandfather, Luis, was a poet himself, persecuted during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) for being the Republican director of a Catalan newspaper. He was executed via firing squad in early 1941 after being imprisoned in Barcelona for some time, and despite the fact that Martinez never met his literary namesake, he told me first of the importance of both names as part of his poetic and personal inheritance — but quickly went on to describe an ethic of authorial disappearance that was strikingly similar to that of his Chilean counterpart. At the age of twenty-three (in 1976, the year that Le Silence et sa brisure was published), he signed his poems “Xeno,” or “foreigner,” in Greek, since he believed that one cannot appropriate poetry by putting a name on it. At the same time, he realized that he had to put something, so he settled on Xeno. I recalled reading a “Letter to My Double” in the Pessoa-influenced afterword to Franchir la passe où rêvent les guerriers: poèmes (Crossing the Pass Where the Warriors Dream: Poems, 1988), in which Martinez signed off as “Xeno,” in a text that made me wonder at first if in fact the Chilean Martínez was playing a huge prank on unsuspecting readers by inventing a Swiss avatar. When I admitted my suspicions, Martinez merely shook his head and laughed, marveling at the coincidences and the shared poetic ethos that ended up binding these two men together.
My conversation with Juan Martinez also shed light on the main unresolved issue that had troubled my search for Martínez’s double: how could I explain the silence of the Francophone Martinez post-1993, since he ceased publishing books the very same year that the Chilean poet died? Martinez found this to be quite ironic, and explained his withdrawal from the public aspects of writerly life to me by referencing Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz, who classified the social functions of literature as “para-literature.” Martinez told me that in the mid-1980s Swiss cultural authorities were quite interested in his work; after all, in 1984 his book Traité des nuits blanches (Treaty on White Nights) was the first unanimous winner of the Genevan Society of Writers Literary Prize. He became tired of the cultural milieu in the early to mid-’90s after years of working as a reporter and also giving literary talks abroad — he mentioned Vietnam and Malaysia — and applied to the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1997. He was accepted despite being married with children and “too old,” as he expressed to me. His first mission was to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1997 and he stopped publishing at that time, having had several poems come out in literary magazines and journals between 1993 and 2001. But he never stopped writing poetry. Like his double, Martinez has been working for years on a long, unfinished and unpublished poetic project — a poem he began in 1994, with twelve sections of nine parts each (yielding 108 parts in all). He had the chance to publish it with Gallimard about ten years ago with the endorsement of a friend who won the prestigious Goncourt Prize, but he did not want to make the changes required by the editor. He is thus continually writing, rewriting, restarting, and collecting notes and fragments.
The importance of our encounter for Martinez, he told me, was not a question of his own vindication. He hoped to reveal the truth to Martínez’s readers, who would appreciate the twists and turns of the entire story. This complex saga of appropriation, translation, and transcendence spans five continents and at least thirteen countries: Chile, the United States, Spain (Catalonia), Switzerland, France, Ukraine, South Sudan, El Salvador, Philippines, Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Brazil, and India (where Martinez met Daniel Ceppi). Interestingly, Martinez travelled to Chile in late October 2014 to meet the Martínez family and the public who read his work in (an appropriated) translation for over ten years. He gave talks and readings in Valparaíso and participated — alongside myself, Pedro Pablo Guerrero, Cristóbal Joannon (Poemas del otro’seditor), and two academics who have written extensively on Juan Luis Martínez (Felipe Cussen and Matías Ayala) — in a panel discussion about “el caso Martínez” at Santiago’s prestigious International Book Fair, the country’s largest literary event.
The “Martínez affair,” I believe, is less important for what it highlights about either JLM; rather, it is significant for the way it speaks to the question of originality in literature, the role of translation, and also, the humanity of writing itself as an inhuman force. After all, where Martinez has brought out aspects of Martínez’s writing through their communication across time, languages, and national traditions — and vice versa — what brings them together becomes clearer even as the identification of the original and the copy becomes more and more problematic and uncertain. As Juan Martinez himself asserted, this relation or synchronicity implies a transcendence beyond a mere joke or trick: in what he described as “Martínez’s literary suicide,” we find the radical (Chilean) poet’s reinscription as an author in the face of the impossible challenge of disappearing behind a veil of words. And this would have been “the perfect crime,” according to Juan Martínez, had The Other’s Poems and The Anonymous Poet not insisted on the poet’s necessary failure to disappear absolutely. In the end, this is the punch line of Martínez’s final trick: becoming even more Martínez in poems written by another Martinez.
10. However, Martínez’s older daughter, Alita, told me that she has known of her father’s appropriation of his “double’s” poetry for decades. As a child, she was fascinated by the book by “her other father” in the family library, and she would spend hours imagining what he looked like, what kind of person he was, etc. At the same time, while in Paris, Juan Luis Martínez envisioned crossing paths with the author of Le Silence et sa brisure at every turn — not out of fear but as a product of the strength of their “relation” across time and space (conversation with Alita Martínez, November 5, 2014).
11. “Juan Luis Martínez,” official website. Designed by Daniela Berdichevsky Milinarsky and Eliana Rodriguez Labra. 2011. Accessed January 15, 2015. http://www.juanluismartinez.cl.
Williams and the decaying body
The most compelling feature of William Carlos Williams’s poetry, for me, has perhaps always been the complex tango of virility and fragility that fight it out in his deeply autobiographical poetry. The idea that man could be both potent and capable of great frailty was a fact of his work that resonated with the vigorous and clumsy youth I was when I first encountered his work. Williams traces the deterioration and ultimate betrayals of his body in his poetry, reflecting on both the particularities of his condition and the universals of aging. Despite his best attempts, Williams’s body would always betray his impermanence, and developing medical technologies only seemed to solidify his sense of its precarity.
Williams was always a bodily poet — think of his famous celebration of “my arms, my face / my shoulders, flanks, buttocks” as he “dance[s] naked, grotesquely / before my mirror” in “Danse Russe” from Al Que Quiere! (1917). But late in his career, he very deliberately engaged with a poetics of the body and wrote through dozens of attempts that paralleled changes to his body that would eventually end his life. In some work, he maps a body onto the landscape; later,he traces a poetic genealogy of successors including Allen Ginsberg. In other work, he explores his own deterioration through the metaphor of the A-bomb and through the disorienting effects of his mother’s senility.
As Williams aged, he attempted to redefine the bounds of his own skin through his poetry seemingly in order to reconcile himself to his own decay as well as to reflect on continued anxieties about poetic immortality. He enacted the anxieties inherent to creative types, hoping that as his body weakened around his still-sharp mind that he could somehow guarantee the gesture of immortality, even as he acknowledged the necessity of grounding himself in reality.
Williams 1961, Beinecke Library Special Collections (photographer unknown).
Williams engages in the language of medicine in order to establish narratives of a nonnormative body that is crippled by the traumas of time but persists: mapping his body outward onto permanent or powerful objects and spaces. In Paterson, his five-part epic-length meditation on both the titular city and the challenges and pitfalls of even attempting representation, Williams draws a parallel to his own late-in-life deterioration after suffering a series of strokes beginning in March 1951, creating a narrative of semipermanence set in stone and greenery. Paterson the city becomes Paterson the man, who is as vast as he is unaging:
Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river
animate a thousand automations.
That this city, who is also a man — “only one man –– like a city” — could be a stand-in for the poet himself, we need not think of Williams bombastically comparing himself to the bustle and thrum of the then-still-thriving New Jersey industrial hub. Instead, the poem invites us to reflect on the urgency of that man-city’s permanence in juxtaposition to, and in harmony with, the immortality of nature itself.
The hum of the Great Falls, slowing wearing their way through the face of the Passaic basalt, was as inevitable as Williams’s own fading strength, but his obsession with the consequences of such inevitabilities preceded the strokes that began in the early 1950s and eventually ended his life. Williams the Doctor-Poet was particularly suited to engaging with the medical language that became a predominant theme in his post-stroke poetry. He was more aware than most of the process of erosion to which his body had subjected him. Late in life, Williams would note that his medical training had influenced his poetry through its emphasis on precision of description. Williams the Doctor allowed Williams the Poet new avenues of revelation regarding the blood vessels gone rogue in his skull.
Williams’s business card, date unknown, the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo.
And though he lived into old age through years of incredible medical advancement, the rapid growth of medical knowledge and practice also served to proliferate new anxieties about the body to which Williams, too, seems victim. The poetry that is most relevant to pursuing questions of embodiment and aging comes late in Williams’s career. But it isn’t his own old age that initially set him on a poetic search for immortality. Instead, I find the heart of his concern with personal decay appears in the poems reflecting upon the death of his mother Elena.
Elena, Williams’s Puerto Rican mother, lived into the beginnings of her son’s own old age, dying somewhere between the ages of ninety-eight and 102 depending on the source consulted. The elder Mrs. Williams had a somewhat strained relationship with her son, though she had become increasingly dependent on him as she became more frail, finally sinking into senility, at which point she was placed in a nursing home by her son in order to make room for his brother’s family in the house they had shared. Years before her death, Williams first acknowledged the weakness of her body in “Eve,” calling it her “wasted carcass” and noting her unwillingness to slip dignified into death in a manner that would best suit her son: “One would think / you would be reconciled with Time / instead of clawing at Him / that way, terrified.” But it is not Elena’s body that most troubles Williams, but the ways that her senility shakes his own sense of self. Particularly jarring is the identity crisis begun in “Two Pendants: For the Ears” where the dying Elena fails to recognize Williams:
Elena is dying.
In her delirium she said
a terrible thing:
Who are you? NOW!
I, I, I, I stammered. I
am your son.
The stutter of shock and discomfort — the “I, I, I, I” — that he produces in identifying himself to her when she does not know him makes tangible his surprise at finding their lifelong connection suddenly unmoored by the tricks of her ailing mind and body. For Williams, aging and failures of memory are inherently tied to a sense of self. The poet’s sense of self can only for a poet be expressed by speech. In losing her mind (so to speak), Elena has lost not just her history but also somehow lost Williams for himself. His stammering “I, I, I, I,” grasping at his suddenly porous identity. It is this misrecognition that sets him on his path toward reconciling his mortal body with a world of language that would outlast him.
Williams and Elena Williams, his mother, sometime in the 1940s, Beinecke Special Collections (photographer unknown).
Two years after Elena’s death, William’s own march toward the grave would begin. One of the most debilitating results of the strokes that plagued Williams for the last decade of his life was the sudden loss of speech and motor-skills which greatly diminished his ability to write and type. It is no surprise, then, that “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” begun around the period of his first stroke and published in 1955, reflects a sense of helplessness when faced with the bombs that were going off in his brain. Though its primary message is one of apology toward his much-betrayed wife, Flossie, “Asphodel” is frequently concerned with the failure of the body to form the words that the mind imagines and the stakes of such failures in light of impending mortality. The only escape from the power of the bomb is imagination, which makes men immortal, unless they are silenced by their own bodily betrayals. Ultimately, “The bomb speaks” and man is unable to find the language for an appropriate response so “We come to our deaths / in silence.”
Williams’s poem is evocative not only because of its vivid depiction of interior decay, but also because his decay occurs in tandem with the technological advancement and destructive potential that defined the nuclear age. Radioactivity, and the resulting “radiant gist” that had haunted the work of Paterson Book IV after he watched Mervyn LeRoy’s schmaltzy 1943 biopic Madame Curie, both allowed for the revelatory treatment possibilities of the x-ray and for the destructive force of the A-bomb.
Notes on a prescription pad from the early drafts of Paterson, including an idea Williams would later develop in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” ca. 1948, the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo.
But the connection that Williams makes between his strokes and the bombs is not so straightforwardly related to their shared destructiveness. Instead, we are asked to understand the bomb in relation to the flower. The unappreciative living ignore the asphodel, a lowly weed, while the dead look to it and wonder, “What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped?” An asphodel shares its silhouette with a mushroom cloud, reiterating the themes of mass-scale destruction as well as the connection Williams draws between destruction and creativity.
In finding a parallel between the asphodel and the bomb, Williams finds a logic for the micro-bombs in his skull. Curie’s search for what Williams termed the “radiant gist” in tons of pitchblende represented for him the potential for beauty and worth in dreck and heartache. Though it is too neat to read the claims in “Asphodel” for a rebirth resulting from the bomb, when Williams says, “In the huge gap / between the flash / and the thunderstroke / spring has come in / or a deep snow fallen. / Call it old age,” there does seem to be an acknowledgement of a utopian potential to aging. Certainly Williams has experienced a sea change. It remains undecided whether the new version of himself that he must grapple with is irreparably damaged — is he now that “wasted carcass” he had pitied only a few years before? — or if there are glimmers of a Williams as-of-yet-unexplored. But there is a possibility that Williams now, like the dead before him, has come close enough to the threshold of another world to now appreciate the asphodel, which “has no odor / save to the imagination / but it too / celebrates the light.” “Give me time, / time,” he had implored, time to make tangible and articulate his flooding memories early in “Asphodel.” Now he knows that he needs time only in order to “refuse death” and to keep “the light” of his mind out of death’s reach.
Williams’s shaky handwritten 1955 inscription to Charles Abbott in a 1951 copy of his autobiography, the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo.
But Williams was nonetheless aware of the betrayals a body could make to a still-sharp mind after months of fighting to recover his speech, handwriting, and typewriting skills. In his translations of three Nahuatl poems, first appearing in The Muse in Mexico of 1959, Williams places key emphasis on the phenomenological experience of inhabiting a body. This emphasis is particularly clear when you compare these versions to John Bierhorst’s controversial translations. While Williams translates the lines as: “Or, maybe, it is only on Earth / that we lose the body?” Bierhorst translates them as: “The place where all are shorn is here — on earth!” Bierhorst parses this song, like “Asphodel,” as representative of the desire for immortal life, though in this case the figures more closely resemble the walking dead than wildflowers. Certainly, Williams’s translations are more beautiful, more simple, but they also shed light onto the primacy that Williams placed on the experience of living itself and the ways that being trapped within his own slowly dying body became central to his poetic sensibilities, even as he lost the ability to speak and eventually lost some of his hold on language itself.
The readings that I have been able to link to here from the archives of PennSound are all recordings from the last fifteen years of Williams’s life, and they reveal, I think, that despite his deterioration and despite his struggles to relearn the basic motor-skills required to continue writing, Williams remained vital. This was no husk. He read with excitement, delivering lines that sent his audiences tittering and offering applause of admiration, not pity.
Williams and his wife Flossie taken sometime in the 1950s, Beinecke Special Collections (photographer unknown).
Williams ceased his public readings after his third stroke in 1958 and continued to suffer a series of smaller strokes, or transient ischemic attacks, until his death in spring 1963. His biographers have already traced the impact this had on the poet emotionally, and though he spent much of these last five years depressed by his struggle even to speak, an interview with Stanley Koehler for The Paris Review from eleven months before his death reveals his continued investment in conveying the particularities of his bodily experience. He insists he cannot speak in a clear and sharp voice, perseverating on the damage wrought by the strokes. He is plagued. His voice hesitates and quavers, but Williams remains. Koehler remarks upon the opening lines of the fifth and final book of Paterson published two years before: “In old age / the mind / casts off / rebelliously / an eagle / from its crag.” But Koehler does not quote the lines that follow: “— the angle of a forehead / or far less / makes him remember what he thought / he had forgot // — remember confidently / only for a moment, only for a fleeting moment / with a smile of recognition.” It is these lines that, in some ways, seem a most fitting epitaph for Williams. Growing old was hell. But in old age there was a clarity that had not been available to the virile young Williams admiring his naked flesh in front of the mirror in the north room. Ending his interview with Koehler, Flossie, who has joined them to facilitate conversation, is listing the translations of Williams’s works. Williams, triumphant, shouts, “I’m still alive!” Perhaps this is the memory the old man catches hold of in Paterson. “I’m still alive!”
6. In his Williams biography, “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Work of William Carlos Williams (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Leibowitz quotes Williams’s dying father as saying, “The one thing I regret in going is that I have to leave her to you. You’ll find her difficult” (51). The moment shared between father and son certainly seems telling of the relationship between mother and son.
13. Before Bierhorst’s translation in 1985, the Cantares Mexicanos had never been translated in their entirety into English and had been popularly thought to be the core text available to scholars of pre-conquest Aztec life and literature. In his “General Introduction,” Bierhorst made the claim that these songs were actually largely post-conquest and heavily influenced, even possibly entirely invented, by the invading Spanish. Chicano scholars have since largely dismissed this component of Bierhorst’s work, while his translations remain acclaimed.
Has American poetry become more engaged with public events, more politically relevant, in the opening years of the twenty-first century? That is the claim made by The New American Poetry of Engagement, an anthology edited by Ann Keniston and Jeffrey Gray and published in 2012. In their introduction, Keniston and Gray argue that American poets, particularly in the wake of September 11, 2001, have displayed a “turn toward a more engaged poetry” in response to a historical context that “disrupted and threw into question the ‘personal’ concern of much poetry.” The anthology collects poems that “incorporate, chronicle, or allude to public events,” from the Iraq war to climate change. Although Keniston and Gray see the chronicling of such events as the main aim of an engaged poetry — taking their cue from Robert Lowell’s query, “Yet why not say what happened?” — they also suggest that twenty-first-century poets of engagement grapple openly with the problems of representation, dwelling on “the gap between the need to tell and the limitations of the language they use.”
The claim for a “new” American poetry of engagement would seem to imply an earlier American poetry that lacked such engagement. And indeed, Keniston and Gray arguethat nearly the entirety of twentieth-century American poetry can be characterized by its “relative apoliticism.” “The engagement evident in the poems of The New American Poetry of Engagement is remarkable,” Keniston and Gray write, “partly because it was not always so: most twentieth-century poetry in American went in quite the other direction.” Keniston and Gray assert that modernism’s focus on “depicting subjectivity in new ways” and on “fractured and traumatized consciousness” led to a turn “away from the political” and toward the personal — a trend extended into the second half of the century by the confessional poets. This antipolitical tendency was abetted, they argue, by modernism’s scholarly handmaiden, the New Criticism, with its “avoidance of the political” and rejection of context in favor of an “emphasis on the ‘poem itself.’”
That modernism was apolitical is certainly a debatable claim. Ezra Pound’s Cantos consigns Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson to hell, espouses the monetary doctrines of Social Credit, and elegizes Mussolini; the early sections of Louis Zukofsky’s long poem “A” signal their leftist orientation with quotations from Marx and meditations on labor and war. Nor did modernism shy away from responding to historical events. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is frequently read as a depiction of the “ruins” of European society in the wake of the First World War, and Pound added his own bitter coda to the war in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Later, H.D.’s Trilogy unfolds in the shadow of the London Blitz, with “An incident here and there, / and rails gone (for guns) / from your (and my) old town square.”
In the later twentieth century, poets and critics would add to this assessment of modernism the assertion that modernist form itself constitutes a politics — that the non-narrative, fragmented, disruptive aesthetic of modernism presents a challenge to dominant linguistic and political ideologies. Since the 1970s, Language writing and its descendants have been the most visible contemporary partisans of a politics of poetic form, explicitly linking poetic experimentation with radical politics. One can certainly argue about the validity of such claims, but there can be little doubt that Language writing and its related tendencies proceed from a political intention. Why, then, does Language writing not feature in Keniston and Gray’s account of political poetry?
The answer, it would seem, is that the desire for a newly “engaged” poetry is not simply a desire for “political” poetry of just any kind. Instead, it would seem to be a desire for a very particular kind of political poetry, one that privileges “facticity and content,” that explicitly alludes to “public events,” that seeks to narrate, bear witness to, or represent such major events — that follows, as Keniston and Gray have it, Lowell’s imperative to simply “say what happened.” The 9/11 attacks are the paradigmatic “public event” of the era Keniston and Gray describe, and perhaps nothing captured this new moment of poetic engagement as well as the sudden vogue for a sixty-year-old poem: W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Auden’s poem was widely quoted in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, its resonant phrases seeming to anticipate the events of 9/11 (“The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night”) and their possible causes (“Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return”), culminating in the poem’s anguished tagline: “We must love one another or die.” Yet the very fact that Americans would turn at this moment to a half-century-old poem by an English-born poet might be seen as signaling a certain lack of comparable voices in contemporary American poetry. As Brendan Bernhard would write in a reflection on Auden’s poem a decade after the attacks, “Poets who spoke with that measure of confidence and ambition no longer existed — at least not in America.”
If we take this event as paradigmatic of the desire for an engaged poetry that Keniston and Gray articulate, we can see that it is not exactly a desire for a “political” poetry, broadly understood. Rather, it is a far more specific desire for a poetry that can reach a wide audience, that speaks directly to and about major historical events, that prizes “saying what happened” over formal or aesthetic concerns. In short, the desire for an engaged poetry may be better understood as a desire for a public poetry, one that rejects what Keniston and Gray characterize as modernist “hermeticism” or the overly personal perspective of confessionalism in favor of a broader and more collective idiom that is “responsive to and responsible for the world outside the self.” Little surprise, then, that the prototypes for this mode of public poetry are not primarily Americans, but figures such as Pablo Neruda and Anna Akhmatova, poets who were also activists or dissidents, writing in societies where poetry was far more culturally central than in the US, and whose work reached large audiences. It is this kind of public poetry that Keniston and Gray argue is largely absent from twentieth-century American poetry, and this kind of public poetry that they see as newly emergent in the post-9/11 era.
But was such a public poetry in fact absent from twentieth-century US literature? Perhaps, if one focuses solely on a narrow slice of work from certain canonical figures. But how would the role of engagement look different if we broadened our view? What about a poetic landscape that included poems like June Jordan’s “A Song for Soweto”?
At the throat of Soweto
a devil language falls
claw syllables to shred and leave
the tongue of the young
learning to sing
her own name
Or Audre Lorde’s “Afterimages”?
I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till
his 15 years puffed out like bruises
on plump boy-cheeks
his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21 gun salute to Dixie
What of the most controversial 9/11 poem of all, Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America,” with its blistering questions of responsibility and blame for the attacks (and which some have read as anti-Semitic)? What if we included spoken-word performers like Beau Sia or Ishle Yi Park, or poets like Maya Angelou or Richard Blanco, who have read their work at presidential inaugurations?
In short, including the work of US poets of color provides a very different image of engaged poetry over the past century, one in which politics and history are often foregrounded and passionately investigated. Such engagement is not a new phenomenon; poets of the Harlem Renaissance, from Claude McKay to Langston Hughes, grappled directly with issues of racism, injustice, and American identity. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Arts movement, along with Asian American and Chicana/o literary movements, explicitly linked poetic expression with racial and ethnic identity, presenting poetry as an integral part of a larger political movement. Poets of color write in a context in which the very categories under which they write are politically conditioned; for better or worse, writers of color may find their work read for political claims or sociological insights, whether intended or not. Some poets of color may chafe under such expectations, while others may find their work nourished by such direct political and social connections. The larger point, however, is that it becomes difficult to make the case that twentieth-century American poetry has been disengaged and apolitical if we are attentive to race and to the work of nonwhite writers. That this “other” tradition is not visible in Keniston and Gray’s anthology is not surprising, given that of the fifty poets included in the anthology, forty-five are white. The “problem” of engagement in twentieth-century American poetry starts to look increasingly like a white poets’ problem.
Yet poets of color confront their own set of challenges in pursuing a public poetry. Many poets of color, particularly those connected with the activist generation of the 1960s and 1970s and with the more recent spoken-word scene, are comfortable with a broadly public rhetoric that draws on collective experiences and offers explicit political statements. But even such directly political writers cannot always presume to speak to or for a broad national community, as they give voice to marginalized experiences and histories and address audiences that have traditionally been neglected in mainstream poetry. For others, the very act of “speaking to” or “speaking for” is rendered problematic by experiences of colonization, linguistic suppression, and historical erasure; the writer of color may well have a very different relationship to “saying what happened,” and to the authority necessary for such public acts of representation and remembrance, than a white writer does. Public poetry, in short, has been problematized in American poetry not simply because of the aesthetic choices of individual poets, but because of an increasingly complex understanding of “the public” and of poetic audiences. Locating engaged poetry in work that seeks the broadest and most abstract audience may well overlook some of the most vital political work that American poetry is now doing.
In the remainder of this essay, I will explore how these problems of engagement, public poetry, and poetic form have unfolded in the work of one particular subset of poets: Asian American writers. The trajectory of Asian American poetry since the 1970s diverges sharply from the narrative Keniston and Gray offer in their account of twentieth-century American poetry. Asian American poets have frequently sought to depict historical traumas and to speak in a broader public idiom. From 1970 to the present, they have engaged politics with many of the same techniques that Keniston and Gray attribute to the new poetry of engagement, from citation of historical documents to experiments with different speaking positions. Yet they have also grappled with the fact that the historical experiences they seek to engage — the colonization of Korea, the internment of Japanese Americans, the often painful history of Asian immigration to the US — are relatively unknown to many American readers. This sharp awareness of the multiplicity of histories that make up the American experience, and the different audiences the Asian American writer (and all writers) must negotiate, provides a complex and nuanced sense of the challenges — and the potential — of American political poetry today. Since my discussion seeks to establish the divergent trajectory of Asian American poetry over the past several decades, I establish a context by examining Asian American poems from the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s, before turning to an exploration of how a twenty-first-century writer extends this tradition.
Although her work is rarely discussed today by mainstream critics, Janice Mirikitani was a hugely influential figure in the Asian American movement of the 1970s. As a student at San Francisco State during the strike of 1969–70, Mirikitani was present at the birth of Asian American studies, and contributed to the emergence of Asian American literature through her editing of the first Asian American literary journal, Aion. She became widely known as an activist writer, particularly through her work with Glide Foundation in San Francisco, and was honored as poet laureate of San Francisco in 2000.
Mirikitani’s poetry is a deeply engaged one, addressing events from Japanese American internment to the Vietnam War, and directly confronting racism, sexism, and imperialism. It is also unapologetically a poetry of witness, as Mirikitani frequently writes in the first person (whether singular or plural) about experiences of oppression and trauma. Her poem “Looking for America,” in her collection We, the Dangerous, speaks in the voice of an Asian American looking for images of Asians in American media and finding only stereotypes:
I found myself
in a bar, dancing for a tip,
cheong sam slit to my hip,
or in a brothel, compliant and uncomplicated,
high-heeled in bed, wiping some imperialist’s lips
with hot scented towels.
The collection’s title poem, “We, the Dangerous,” offers a collective voice that speaks from the experiences of Japanese Americans interned during World War II: “And they commanded we dwell in the desert / Our children be spawn of barbed wire and barracks.”
Like many American political poets of the 1960s and 1970s, Mirikitani articulates a clear sense of the centrality of poetry to politics, as well as of poetry’s limits when confronting politics. In a 1976 interview, Mirikitani proposes poetry as a means by which people of color can speak for themselves, rather than being spoken about:
Others are constantly trying to study, talk, write about us, resulting in distortions, myths, and lies about Third World people. … Even the well-meaning outside of the Third World cannot express the soul of it because they have not “lived in the house,” and do not speak the depth of the language.
At first glance, it would seem that this leads Mirikitani to a poetry that emphasizes content over form; she asserts that poets of color “don’t have the luxury at this time” of focusing on aesthetics, and dismisses poems that are merely “about bees, or birds, or nature.” If the “return” of content and the real is what marks contemporary engaged poetry, we can certainly see it already in Mirikitani’s pronouncement, “I don’t read poetry to escape. I want reality. That’s what poetry should be,” as well as in the work of other political poets of the 1970s.
We should, of course, resist the urge to assign to the Asian American poet a kind of authenticity and transparency of speech that automatically invests her pronouncements with a political value unavailable to the white writer. Instead, we can examine how Mirikitani reveals both the necessity and difficulty of speaking in a rather different framework. Take, for instance, this three-line stanza from “We, the Dangerous”:
We would expect nearly all American readers to recognize the first two references — the site of the first atomic bombing and the location of the most recent US war. But how many readers will recognize the final reference? For Japanese Americans, of course, the name resonates as the location of one of the camps in which Japanese Americans, regardless of citizenship, were imprisoned during World War II. Today, many Asian Americans of other ethnicities would also recognize the reference; indeed, fundamental to the forging of the pan-ethnic category “Asian American” was the acknowledgement of a shared history that could include, say, both Japanese American internment and Chinese American exclusion. But it is still reasonably likely that most non–Asian American readers would not immediately recognize the reference to Tule Lake, as the details of internment remain absent from most Americans’ historical knowledge.
The signifier “Tule Lake,” then, has a rather different function than the references to Baghdad, Fallujah, or Guantanamo scattered through The New American Poetry of Engagement, or the names “Abu Ghraib,” “Darfur,” and “Afghanistan” in Robert Hass’s “Some of David’s Story.” These are distant places known to Americans through the news and experienced not directly, but through the media — as, for instance, Hugh Seidman’s “Thinking of Baghdad” views the Iraqi war: “The warplane graphic rotates slowly on the vengeful news channel.” Few, if any, of these poems claim the perspective of in-person witness, such as that of a US soldier or an Afghan civilian. Indeed, adopting the position of witness is rendered particularly difficult by the fact that most of these locations are sites of violence or injustice perpetrated by the US itself (at least from the political perspective that most of these poets share); the poets’ location is necessarily one of self-critical complicity rather than outraged victimhood.
The greatest exception to this, of course, is the 9/11 attacks, an atrocity directed at Americans on US soil. It’s little wonder that Keniston and Gray see 9/11 as the central event of the new engagement, since it is one of the few events of recent years that gives many American poets access to writing a personal poetry of witness. Galway Kinnell’s “When the Towers Fell” begins with a statement of collective witness (“From our high window we saw them”) and moves toward more personal reflection (“At the high window where I’ve often stood / to think”). Yet it is also, perhaps primarily, a reflection on 9/11 as mass event, one experienced both personally and through the media; Kinnell’s final stanza takes the endlessly repeated television loop of the World Trade Center’s collapse and internalizes it: “In our minds the glassy blocks succumb over and over.” Speaking as a “we” — speaking for, or to, a collective — is utterly necessary to grapple with this event, yet also deeply problematic. The poet’s witnessing of these events is always already mediated, and as Keniston and Gray note, Kinnell and other similarly situated poets are as likely to critique and ironize the position of witness as to embrace it.
Mirikitani’s invocation of Tule Lake, in contrast, has no such ambivalence about it, and she embraces speaking as “we” with a confidence difficult to imagine in Kinnell:
We, the dangerous,
Dwelling in the ocean.
Akin to the jungle.
Close to the earth.
Yet this confidence is, paradoxically, a product of the more delimited scope of the collectivity. Mirikitani’s “we” is pointedly not an abstract, universal “we”; it is not the “we” of Auden’s “We must love one another or die.” It is a “we” defined in opposition to a more powerful “they”: “they commanded we dwell in the desert … they would have us make the garden … they would have us skin their fish.” Indeed, the “we” begins not as a plural but as a singular: “I swore / it would not devour me.” Initially, the “we” seems to speak for Japanese Americans, “commanded” to “dwell in the desert” in internment. But the growing power of the poem lies in the gradual expansion of the “we” to include Asian Americans more broadly, from sexualized stereotypes about Asian women (“And they would have us strange scented women … to loosen their backs massaged in myth”) to the exploitation of Asian labor (“We, who fill the secret bed, / the sweat shops / the laundries”). The culminating triangulation of “Hiroshima / Vietnam / Tule Lake” expands this Asian American voice into a global Asian voice, one that claims solidarity between Asian Americans and Asians in Asia by seeing all three events as examples of US military violence against Asians. Indeed, the archetypal qualities taken on by the “we” — “Dwelling in the ocean. / Akin to the jungle. / Closer to the earth” — while beginning as terms by which the “they” renders the “we” foreign and other, concludes as an assertion of what Mirikitani would likely characterize as a “Third World” voice, one that unites colonized and nonwhite peoples around the world.
The power of Mirikitani’s poem, then, is that it does not seem subject to the binds that Keniston and Gray view as characteristic of the new engaged poem. In the latter, the poet must negotiate between the position of individual witness (often not directly available to the author) and of abstract collectivity (which can often be engaged only ironically or self-critically). Mirikitani, in contrast, speaks for a delimited collectivity to which she claims a direct connection (sliding directly from “I” to “we”), one that has clearly been the victim of a specific historical injustice, but whose reach can also be expanded to make much broader political claims. The politics of identification available to Mirikitani and other writers of color would appear to be much more elusive for the white American poets who dominate Keniston and Gray’s anthology. The cost of that identification, of course, is that Mirikitani cannot presume to speak for all Americans — indeed, her gesture of solidarity is primarily with those outside of the boundaries of the nation, rather than within it, and relies upon opposition to a “they” identified with majority US politics and culture. Rather than seeking to address a broad, general audience, Mirikitani’s poem speaks primarily, and unapologetically, to the other members of the “we” of which she counts herself a part.
Ansel Adams, “Roy Takeno reading in front of office,” Manzanar Relocation Center (courtesy the Library of Congress).
Other Asian American poets adopt a more ambiguous attitude toward the question of audience, but still retain an awareness of the different kinds of audiences they may be addressing. Such is the case with the work of Lawson Fusao Inada, who, like Miriktani, is a major figure of the Asian American movement era. His first collection, Before the War: Poems as They Happened, published in 1971, was the first collection of poems by a Japanese American published by a New York trade publisher. Inada’s 1993 collection Legends from Camp, like Mirikitani’s poem, takes the Japanese American internment experience as its starting point. The poem “Concentration Constellation” creates an imagined map of internment camp sites, invoking the names Manzanar, Jerome, Heart Mountain, and Tule Lake. In contrast to Mirikitani, however, Inada’s emphasis is not on the first person, but the second; much of the poem is spent addressing an unnamed “you,” who seems somewhat reluctant to visit the scenes of internment: “It’s all right there on the map. / It’s all right there in the mind. / Find it. If you care to look.” The “you” may be a Japanese American who is resistant to revisiting the historical memories of internment, or perhaps a non–Japanese American who is uninterested in the history of internment. The latter interpretation is strengthened by a subsequent stanza in which the “you” seemingly signals impatience with the history lesson: “By now, you weary of the way. / It’s a big country, you say.” The speaker’s response is gently humorous, but also pointed: “It’s a big history, hardly / halfway through.” The apparent modesty of the speaker’s cajoling voice is what enables the poem’s forceful conclusion, in which the conversation with the “you” turns into a (gently delivered) command:
Now regard what sort of shape
this constellation takes.
It sits there like a jagged scar,
massive, on the massive landscape.
It lies there like the rusted wire
of a twisted and remembered fence.
The imperative to “regard” is less an expression of witness than a demand for the reader to witness, as the “you” is compelled to look at the “twisted and remembered” history of internment. Inada’s poem grapples openly with the continued neglect of Asian American history in the American consciousness, moving toward a broader engagement with the general American reader, but acknowledging the continuing gaps in historical awareness that separate different audiences.
Bringing neglected histories to wider attention may lead poets to include historical documents and testimonies in their work. Keniston and Gray cite the use of “appropriated language” as a distinctive strategy of the new engaged poetry, but we can already see Asian American poets of the 1980s and 1990s using such citations of official language in a charged political context. Inada’s “Instructions to All Persons” provides a particularly striking example. The poem is preceded by a facsimile of the most notorious document of the Japanese American internment: the military evacuation orders posted all along the West Coast in 1942, instructing “all persons of Japanese ancestry” to report to assembly centers for transport to the camps. The large-type, boldface word “JAPANESE” dominates the document, emphasizing the racism underlying internment; it is a document that will be immediately familiar to most Japanese Americans, as well as to many Asian Americans. Less certain is whether non-Asian American readers will recognize the document or be familiar with the history it references; for many of these readers, the document may well be something they are seeing for the first time.
What Inada does with this familiar, yet unfamiliar, document speaks directly to this possible divide in his audience. Inada titles his own poem “Instructions to All Persons,” pointedly dropping the “of Japanese ancestry” that signals the document’s racist aims. This can be read, at some level, as a universalizing gesture; by directing his poem at “all persons,” Inada rejects the racial limitations of the original document, seeking a broader audience and broader message. But the poem is far from being an attempt to transcend Japanese American experience in favor of a more abstract collective. Inada selects individual words and phrases from the document — “ancestry,” “family,” “responsible,” “civil” — and makes a new arrangement from them, declaring: “Let us take / what we can / for the occasion.” History and aesthetics are linked in this simple phrase: “taking what we can” refers to the technique of appropriation and collage Inada uses in his poem, but it of course also echoes the plight of the internees, who must “take what they can” as they are forced from their homes. For Inada, the evacuation order is not simply official language to be critiqued, nor is it a transparent window into lived reality; instead, it is a linguistic source from which various lessons, values, and poetics can be drawn. The doubling effect of including the original document keeps this linguistic play historically grounded, teaching — or reminding — readers about the racist history from which the poem emerges.
Any discussion of recent engaged poetry would be incomplete without a consideration of spoken word, which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as a new — and newly popular — mode of public poetry. Beginning with the rise of the poetry slam in the 1980s, at sites like the Green Mill in Chicago and New York’s Nuyorican Poets Café, and growing to encompass a wide range of poetic performance, spoken word began to reach national audiences in the 1990s and early 2000s, most notably through the HBO program (and later Broadway show) Def Poetry Jam. Poets of color have played an especially prominent role in spoken word, including Asian American poets such as Beau Sia, Staceyann Chin, Bao Phi, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, and Ishle Yi Park; much of their work is explicitly political, engaging issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and confronting cultural stereotypes and differences. Direct engagement of current and historical events is a common theme; for instance, Kelly Tsai’s “Black, White, Whatever” addressed the role of Asian Americans in the discourse around race that accompanied Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. An even more striking example is Ishle Yi Park’s “Sa-I-Gu,” a reflection on the unrest that followed the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and the officers’ subsequent acquittal. In the media, these events are most often referred to as the “LA riots” of 1992; others refer to these events as an “uprising.” However, Park’s poem — whose text was first published in 2002, ten years after the unrest — uses the Korean phrase “sa-i-gu,” meaning “4/29,” or the first day of the unrest, following the Korean practice of referring to historical events by their dates. As Park puts it in the first lines of her poem, “koreans mark disaster / with numbers — 4-29 — Sa-I-Gu. / no police. no help.” In the focus on black-white conflict after the Rodney King beating, what was often overlooked was the role of Asian Americans in the violence — particularly Korean Americans, whose businesses bore the brunt of looting in the aftermath of the verdict. Park’s naming of the event as “Sa-I-Gu” is a pointed intervention into the public discourse about the riots, claiming a Korean American perspective on the events that has been relatively absent from the mainstream conversation.
Park’s poem powerfully blends the personal and public, juxtaposing media images (“mile high cameras hover, / zoom in, dub it: / war of blacks & koreans”) with a conversation between a mother and daughter:
here I rub my own tender
wrists, ask unanswerable questions —
why are the cops doing this?
my mother will answer simply,
wisely, because they are bad.
Park’s is a public poetry that engages and critiques public knowledge, offering a different, and racially marked, mode of witness to public events. Rather than seeking to grapple with the issues raised by the unrest in abstract terms — guilt and innocence, black and white — Park places herself and her own ethnic identity at the poem’s center. This move sharpens rather than weakens the poem’s political critique, as Park testifies to a Los Angeles in which people of color are abandoned by the police: “l.a.p.d. ring beverly hills like a moat, / won’t answer rings from south central / furious and consistent as rain.”
Yet Park’s poem is also acutely conscious of its own political limits — or, more precisely, the limits of Asian American voices in American public discourse. In one of the poem’s most striking passages, Park contrasts the strong voices of African American leaders to the unheard voices of Asian Americans:
we have no jesse
no martin no malcolm
no al, no eloquent, rapid tongue
just fathers, thick-tongued
and children, too young to carry more
than straw broomstick and hefty bag.
Public speech, advocacy, and poetry are, Park suggests, racially conditioned in complex ways — not just in the white majority’s ignorance of Asian American voices, but even in the relative prominence and power of the voices of different nonwhite groups. Park’s provocative comparison leaves open the question of what Asian Americans themselves can or should do in gaining a more prominent public and political role — a challenge to which poetry itself appears as one possible answer.
I conclude with a consideration of the distinctively twenty-first-century work of Cathy Park Hong, whose 2007 collection Dance Dance Revolution engages historical traumas through present and even future settings, while playfully and critically exploring the question of a public poetry through its use of invented language. The major historical event evoked in Hong’s book — the 1980 Kwangju uprising against the South Korean government and the subsequent massacre of protesters — is a central event in modern Korean history, and one in which US neocolonialism is deeply implicated. Yet it is also an event of which most non-Korean Americans remain unaware, raising the question of how to engage this topic poetically.
Hong acknowledges this possible divide in audience through a doubling of poetic voice. One character, the Historian, is a young Korean American woman researching the history of the Kwangju uprising; the other character, the Guide, is a woman who took part in the Kwangju uprising and subsequently fled into exile. The Historian provides narrative context that helps frame the Kwangju uprising for readers who lack knowledge of the events, acting as a mediator or interpreter. This is necessary because the Guide, who is the actual witness to these events, does not narrate her experiences directly — does not simply “say what happened” — but instead is distanced from us through the Guide’s use of a pidgin language invented by Hong: “I speak sum Han-guk y Finnish, good bit o Latin / y Spanish … sum toto Desert Creole en evachanging dipdong / ’pendable on mine mood … ibid …” According to the Historian’s foreword, this language is “an amalgam of some three hundred languages and dialects … a rapidly evolving lingua franca” that “while borrowing the inner structures of English grammar, also borrows from existing and extinct English dialects.”
This language is the local language of the Desert, a “planned city of renewed wonders” that resembles a science-fictional Las Vegas, featuring “state-of-the-art hotels modeled after the world’s greatest cities.” The fictionalized setting of the Desert allows Hong to bring the history of Kwangju into contact with twenty-first-century America, while still preserving the possibility of parallels to other times and places. The Desert is a landscape marked by recognizably contemporary upheavals: it is heavily populated by migrants, but it has also been built through the displacement of an aboriginal population who sometimes resort to “canny acts of sabotage” in order to undermine the occupation.
Yet the reader is forced to access these events, as well as the history of Kwangju, by navigating the Guide’s language, tantalizingly familiar yet at times difficult to decipher. We may ask why Hong asks us to view the events of Korean history through language like this: “I’s born en first day o unrest … / Huzza de students who fightim plisboi patos! / En gangrene smoke, youngins t’rew butane Colas, / chanted por ole cantanka Rhee to step down … he did!” At some level, this is certainly a poetry of witness; yet accessing that witness requires an act of heavy decoding, of navigating a language that is both foreign and not. We may see this is part as Hong’s deeply contemporary acknowledgment that our access to past (or present) traumas is always highly mediated, never transparent. But I would go further and argue that Hong’s engagement with the problem of representing trauma is a highly located, even distinctively Asian American, one. Like Mirikitani, Inada, and Park, Hong acknowledges that she addresses not a general, abstract audience, but one that is divided, at least in part along ethnic lines. Rather than seeking to negotiate or bridge that divide, Hong takes it as central to her project, forcing all readers to confront the “foreignness” of the histories she describes. The reader who is a native speaker of English is led through the migrant’s complex navigation of language, and the reader who may already have knowledge of these events is forced to experience them anew in interpreting the Guide’s words. Hong’s invented language may seem to be the very opposite of a broad, public poetic language, but it may in fact gain its political power from its universalizing of an experience of exile and linguistic alienation, using the creativity of poetic language as a tool for the exploration of history.
As this brief survey of Asian American poets suggests, the landscape of contemporary engaged American poetry looks very different if we view it through the work of US poets of color. Instead of a history of apolitical poetry from which poets have recently departed, we see a lengthy history of public, politically engaged poetry that speaks to major public events and bears witness to historical traumas. But the work of poets of color also shows us that the era of an unproblematically public poetry — one in which the poet can simply speak for an abstract or national “we” — is over. Instead, the Asian American poets I have discussed grapple consciously with the different publics their work negotiates — at times speaking to and for specific communities, at other times confronting the exclusion of Asian American stories from a wider American public discourse. In this work, the idea of poetry as public speech is not merely deconstructed or discarded; indeed, the public role of poetry is highly valued. But the public itself has changed, and the work of Asian American poets and other poets of color acknowledges this openly. The question of political poetry is not simply a question of the aesthetics or the political orientation of the individual poet; instead, it is in large part a product of the changing terms of American politics itself, shaped by the same political and cultural contexts — particularly of race, gender, and sexuality — that have redefined American life over the past fifty years.
1. This essay was originally written in response to an invitation from Keniston and Gray to contribute to a collection of essays on engaged poetry that would serve as a followup to the anthology. The editors ultimately declined to include this essay in their collection.
9. Language writing receives only a brief mention as an example of an “experimental poetics,” one side of an opposition between experimental and confessional verse that has “become uninteresting, if not obsolete, to poets and readers alike.” Keniston and Gray, introduction to Poetry of Engagement, 5.
11. Brendan Bernhard, “Between September 1 and 9/11; W. H. Auden, East Villager,” The Local East Village (September 1, 2011), accessed June 29, 2014. For further discussion of the poem’s post-9/11 impact, see Eric McHenry, “Auden on Bin Laden,” in Slate; Peter Steinfels, “Beliefs; After Sept. 11, a 62-Year-Old Poem by Auden Drew New Attention,” in the New York Times; and Nicholas Jenkins, “‘September 1, 1939’ after September 11, 2001,” W. H. Auden Society Newsletter 22 (2001): 5–8.
13. The controversy over Baraka’s poem focuses on the poem’s unfounded claim that “4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers … [stayed] home” on 9/11, implying that they had advance knowledge of the attacks. The ensuing controversy led to calls for Baraka’s ouster as poet laureate of New Jersey. (For more, see Suzy Hansen, “Amiri Baraka Stands By His Words,” in Salon [October 17, 2002].) Keniston and Gray include a poem by Robert Pinsky that includes a reference to when “the guy read his poem about how the Jews / Were warned to get out of the Twin Towers,” but do not include Baraka’s poem itself (Robert Pinsky, “The Forgetting,” in Poetry of Engagement, 157).
14. It’s worth noting that the central events highlighted in The New American Poetry of Engagement — 9/11, the Iraq war, the policies of the Bush administration — are not events of which the poets can claim direct personal experience, but rather highly mediated, often distant, mass events to which the poet can have only an ambivalently impersonal relationship. While we should avoid the romanticized idea that writers of color have “authentic” access to experiences of historical trauma — an idea that many writers of color themselves critique in their work — it does seem to be the case that a central problematic of the mode of engaged poetry Keniston and Gray describe is the “domestic ‘I’” who confronts a “distant, calamitous place that the speaker learns of through the news” — a sharp contrast to the strategies of identification (however problematic) pursued by many poets of color (Keniston and Gray, introduction to Poetry of Engagement, 8).
29. While Keniston and Gray acknowledge that the use of appropriated language is also seen in modernist and postmodernist collage, they assert that the new engaged poetry differs in presenting such materials “without intervention or comment … sometimes to mount a critique of them but just as often to achieve a sense of lived reality through them” (Keniston and Gray, introduction to Poetry of Engagement, 11–12).