In Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry, I discuss at length Harryette Mullen’s book-length blues epic, Muse & Drudge. Mullen is an African American poet whose work has been unreservedly embraced across a range of audiences as exemplary of black innovative poetics. Muse & Drudge — along with others of her books — is taught in courses designed to illuminate modernist and postmodernist genealogies within US poetry and, likewise, in courses surveying the tradition(s) of African American poetry. My analysis of Muse & Drudge identifies and problematizes the tendency for both of these contexts to produce (differently) skewed readings of this complex, polyvocal text. Especially of concern here, in the context of NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant and urgent meditation “Wor(l)ds Interrupted,” is the pattern I noted in which critics who are focused on avant-garde poetics are disposed to highlight the blues as a source of the “content” — including language and ethos — of Mullen’s text, while centering the treatment of its experimental structures and its innovative impulses around her readily acknowledged interest in Gertrude Stein’s work. I hoped that, by juxtaposing Muse & Drudge with other African American women’s innovations upon the epic tradition, my discussion of it would bring to the foreground the extent to which African American literature and culture not only constitute subject matter, but also motivate and generate many of the unusual formal gestures and principles that make the poem so irrepressibly alive and intellectually provocative.
Philip’s essay addresses an analogous issue, one that clearly troubles her. Just as Mullen’s experimentation is sometimes portrayed as indebted to Stein, Oulipo, and Language poetry in ways that downplay or distort important legacies of African American innovation upon which she draws, Philip has seen her most recent work, the book-length poem Zong!, claimed for the category of conceptual poetry in conversations that divorce it from the postcolonial Caribbean traditions with which her poetics are equally — or perhaps even more — engaged. She associates this move, in her own elliptical style, with similar ones made in other aesthetic contexts, in which the influence of European-originated formal devices, like iambic pentameter, are discussed in terms of their relative influence upon the work of a Derek Walcott or a Kamau Brathwaite. Instead, she suggests, these poets “tempt” or “resist” the traditional English meter, an active engagement in which their poetics alter the form as much as the inverse; she invites us to hear the rhythms of calypso and the “brathwaitian current” of “nation language” running through the “yambic pant pant panta meter” that the encounter between English and “kari basin” prosody engenders. As to Zong!’s relationship to conceptual poetry in particular, she recognizes the affinities between them: “erasure of the author apparent appropriation of found text working within a rigidly defined set of rules its composition is inextricably linked to the computer.” But, she insists, “you lose something” by reading her work solely through that frame — something that underlies and emerges within the text that she calls “spiritual,” for lack of a more satisfying term.
Philip insists upon the importance of ritual in “afrosporic” work like Zong! that is fundamentally connected to our sensual, embodied experience of the wor(l)d: “there is very little space to speak of the ritual function of poetry … which comes out of a particular extended historical moment that is the kya kya kya kari basin a moment that extends into the present is resonant am tempted to say redolent with aspects of ritual and spirit.” These ritual enactments of spirituality in the “kari basin” are vitally connected for her with the survival of African cultural and spiritual practices that slavery and colonization tried to destroy. Emphasizing the way such practices hid themselves in plain sight, Philip asks: “is zong! perhaps a ritual work masquerading as a conceptual work?” Perhaps. As Édouard Glissant has asserted, “We demand the right to opacity.” But if so, the decision to use the conceptual as “mask” for the ritual should not be discounted, but instead treated as an equally important element of the poem.
I totally understand and appreciate Philip’s argument that her goals for the poem and its achievements exceed the boundaries of “conceptual work,” as such work is typically described in avant-garde poetry circles. Her resistance to having Zong! reduced to a “purely” cerebral, wholly process-oriented work is in part a refusal to perpetuate the familiar paradigm in which black writing is instrumentalized as a means of “proving your personhood.” Additionally, this resistance marks the vital significance of the poem’s dual (at least) impulses: Zong! enacts a critique, but also effects a catharsis or, more accurately, works through a problem that lies at the intersection of the emotions, the psyche, and the soul, if such a thing can be spoken of in the twenty-first century’s secular spaces. Bearing these points firmly in mind, I want to argue for the importance, nonetheless, of continuing to situate Zong! in the conversation about conceptual poetry. As indicated by the title of the powerful little volume by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, the contours of conceptual poetry are still very much in flux. The visibility of a work like Zong! within the field of vision of this debate may push critics and scholars to work beyond notions of “pure” and “impure” commitments to certain rigidly process-based notions of conceptualism, to develop a working definition that can accommodate broader, more (w)holistic approaches. The OED reminds us that while the current definition of “conceptual” focuses entirely on the brain — “of, pertaining to, or relating to mental conceptions or concepts” — a now obsolete definition of “concept,” as a transitive verb, evoked the (female) body’s reproductive capacity — “to conceive (in the womb)” — which suggests a connection that the related word “conceive” still invites us to make. Place and Fitterman make a space for this argument (without necessarily making this argument) in their Notes:
7a1. If conceptual writing is considered as representation, it must be considered as embodied. As embodied, it must be considered as gendered. As gendered, it must be considered. Race is also a consideration. Consideration is what is given to complete the acceptance of any contractual offer. The social contract hinges on such embodied considerations.
That a poem highlights the raced and gendered body, as such, then, need not automatically expel it from the realm of “conceptual work.”
But Philip’s writing pushes us to take the question one step further, to ask whether conceptual poetry can embrace not only mind and body, but the third thing — call it “spirit” or “soul” — that calls for and is nurtured by ritual. Jay Wright has this to say about the risk Philip takes in following her vision in this direction, in the afterword to his poem The Double Invention of Komo:
A poet who has a theory of existence, in which spirit and vision matter — one, in which, like Bambara, he conceives of society as a living, articulated body, where all parts have complementary roles in constant relation — must inure himself to the sneer in his audiences’ voices. They believe him enthralled to something static, immature, and exotic. The creative ground this poet finds in ritual can at best be tolerated.
The poet risks this misapprehension because of the vital importance of her work: “as the truly guiding sensibility of [her] community, [she] continually leads the way in recreating the progressive forms of the communal myth.” Zong! is in this like work by other innovative black poets in the “(k)new world” — such as Anne Spencer’s garden poetry, Nathaniel Mackey’s ongoing serial Song of the Andoumboulou, Will Alexander’s Exobiology as Goddess, and, of course, Wright’s Double Invention of Komo — insofar as this poetry is similarly — visionarily — concerned with metaphysical questions or issues of cosmology. In my recent essay on Zong!, I deliberately included a close reading of one of the poems, in order to open the discussion of the text to elements therein that a focus exclusively on the concept and process of its creation may not be able to adequately illuminate. The emergence and particularities of the work’s “spiritual” facets are among those I attempted to engage (though not explicitly under that heading). Future close readings that critics will, I hope, perform, should enable us to think productively about what the aleatory aspects of Philip’s process make space for in spiritual terms.
Let the concept of the “kari basin” be a model for the concept of (a) “conceptualism”: a “site of massive interruptions,” where “scripts and histories jam up against each other creating trough and mountain in shake and shudder shimmy fault lines adjust themselves attempting to fix History and free the future.”
1. Édouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189. Jonathan Monroe gets credit for reminding me of Glissant’s formulation when he quoted it on the May 20, 2012, podcast of PoemTalk.
2. Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s essay “Notes on Conceptualisms,” in the book of the same title, introduces the discourse of “purity” into their discussion (see, e.g., 16). Place and Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Press, 2010).
6. Evie Shockley, “Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage,” in “American Poetry, 2000–2009,” ed. Michael Davidson, special issue, Contemporary Literature 52, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 791–817.
The Unhistory of the Kari Basin
… site of massive interruptions for the most part fatal first nations african asian european life interrupted like tectonic plates these once-upon-a-time discourses scripts and histories jam up against each other to create trough and mountain in shake shudder and shimmy fault lines adjust themselves attempting to fix History and free the future —
around the kari basin
exchanging fluids with the atlantic across a chain of islands bulwarked against an ocean bearing the dying and the dead brushed and touched in its most secret places by the northeast trades that bring sahara dust and hurucan here History stopped dead in its tracks hiccupped took a deep breath then continued changed forever
she tries her tongue … coming from this place of inter/ruption of eruption and irruption from explosion and plain ole ruckshun so i was thinking to force the unhistory of the kari basin into a logical linear script doing the experience (is it an experience or an event that repeats itself in syncopated time) a second violence it retraumatizing in today’s tongue so the contradictions hanging right out there where english is my mother tongue is my father tongue … is a foreign anguish synapses waiting for a pulse a charge of energy that jumping across the yawning gap ontological and epistemological that is and is History that is the kari basin home to the poor/path-/less harbour/less spade …  drifting along a current towards the sea that is History — 
have you no language of your own/no way of doing things the rich old european lady asks the emigrants did you spend all those holidays/at England’s apron strings this current insists that we do not speak in iambic pentameter nevrhavnevrwill that the nolanguageofourown is staccato explosive shattering on rocks volcanic and coral alike surrounded by a sea now an aquamarine that beckons now a hard and baleful steel grey that repels nolanguageofourown moves is restless is kinetic add kinopoesis to pound’s ordering of language phanopoesis melopoesis logopoesis wherever european and african tongues have faced off against each other wherever the european has attempted to impose his tongue on the african the outcome has been a kinetic language drumming a beat with the bone of memory against the gun metal skin of the sea scatting soughing coughing laughing into vividity patwa nation language creole pidgin vernacular demotic an ting an ting …
many rivers feeding this current i calling brathwaitian many rivers we done cross carrying the memory marronage exile hurucan and volcano they criss and cross the kari basin regardless of language so that césaire martiniquan poet turned mayor founder of negritude tells us nous sommes un peuple du volcan we are a people of the volcano nor was he talking only of mt pelee nous sommes un peuple du volcan that is History
violently spewing us out to take root wheresoever our spores land in all the miscegenated fragmented languages of the kari basin pushing up gainst that yambic pant pant panta meter to yowl in the blank indifferent face of History that is the sea as the voice catches breaks into spiritual caiso mento reggae calypso rapso dub rap dance hall and … stateside it would be blues jazz r&b rock and hip hop …
walcott tempts then tames the iambic pentameter sparring with the dactyls of calypso in the spoiler’s return I see these islands and I feel to bawl / “area of darkness” with v.s. nightfall this is an other current winding and wining its way to the archipelagic necklace around the neck of the History as odysseus sails into the kari basin the other mediterranean home to those poor path-/less harbour-/less spade (s) who today cleave the waves of the original medi-terranean the between of africa and europe look to europe for salvation exchanging accra lagos tunis for lampedusa a new and not so new middle passage freighted yet again with african bodies here in this not so new world that paz reminds us began as a european idea where we need must imagine the past the better to remember the future in this new mediterranean that is perhaps a mediation between africa asia europe and first peoples the islands lock arms circle the sea the kari basin turn their backs on the atlantic at least temporarily
she tries … is a postmodern text the german critic insists to me many many years ago and i remembering the socratic method used by a former law professor reply it is if you say it is but you losing something perhaps the most significant aspect of it if don’t you understand how the kya kya kya kari basin postmodern long before the term was coined code switching bricolage the “end” of History all that and more she tries … beginning in the swirling waters of the kari basin
she tries she listens she hears the echoes of the silence of the woman’s voice like io the priestess turned heifer by zeus did when she regained the power of speech trying her tongue as if for the first the two currents meandering to the sea that is History carrying caliban not sycorax the mad bad witch from algiers i too resist
the yambic pant pant panta meter to allow the nonsense that is the genealogy of language in the kari basin to surface ode to a daffodil and all that attempting a tributary that can contain the blanchisseuse the washer woman the higgler the jamette the obeah woman and mad bad black witches a tributary coming from dis place the space between
me myself and i ’n i have been trying to figure out what zong! is a conceptual work i am told and once again i understand why it fits the definition or is it that the definition fits it
like the surface of the sea that is
zong! reflects the linguistic distortions of the kari basin as well it is simultaneously cipher and mask raising questions of what can be and can’t be said or spoken pointing perhaps to a poetics of the unsayable even less amenable to yambic pant pant panta meter i digress here
to talk briefly of haiti monstrosity/obscenity/blackened stump of a tongue/ torn/ out/ withered/ petrified/burnt/on the pyres of silence from whom the west averts its gaze while simultaneously considering it only through the lens of pity and charity i reflect on haiti to enter more deeply the idea of cipher and mask the secret the unsayable which haiti presents and re/presents whether embraced or not the haitian revolution is one of the signature defining moments of the modern kari basin as the cuban revolution is for other reasons nous sommes un peuple and all that
Not only were the revolution and its implications for the Enlightenment self-understanding of freedom repressed from the modern historical and theoretical imagination, but they were also, to begin with, “unthinkable,” which is to say, indigestible, inassimilable, within the ready-made categories of European Enlightenment thought… david scott writes repeating michel-rolph trouillot
or how does one write a history of the impossible
which is my question
how does one write a poetry of the impossible can there be a poetics
of the impossible the unsayable in other words
tell the story that cannot be told yet must be told through the cipher the mask
the secret writing itself like the vévés of voudon spiritual designs scripted on the earth itself in white powder because there is so much the west is unable to digest finds unthinkable does not wish to perhaps cannot assimilate without itself changing about the african african practices and culture
which brings me to music although there were laws
aplenty against the drum against african music and dance enslaved africans did not have to prove their personhood through music indeed europeans often dismissed their music as noise proof of their subhuman qualities it was in language and through language that they would have to prove english is my mother tongue/is my father tongue if they could control the language speak it write it then they increased the possibility of being the equal of the white man or woman does this go some distance towards explaining why writing has not played a similar role as music in afrosporic communities why it plays a more ambivalent role it is always signifying more than meaning serving another function proving your personhood like christianity evidence of your distance from your primitive african state
how then does this affect a poetics
a poetics of that which cannot be said there was and possibly still is good
reason to distrust writing in the kari basin after all its function was to record and encode laws that meant the obliteration of all connections for african peoples it encapsulated the law that controlled you defined you a thing
if you acquired it it advertised your leaving something negative behind
if you didn’t you remained among the terrorised expected to speak in yambic pant pant panta meter
so we telling a story
in trinidad and tobago about
a book they calling ti talbay the story saying that you could only read this book to a certain point that if you reading beyond that point you going crazy leaving your life and going to the forest to wander around for ever and i thinking what a powerful cautionary tale about the power of writing and the word and the need to be careful of it in a society in which writing is charged with so much that is negative
is ritual perhaps the way through the unsayable is zong! perhaps a ritual work masquerading as a conceptual work mirroring the act of stripping away the spirit of the african mask or carving leaving only the form the work masquerading as something else while doing another kind of work this is how african spiritual and cultural practices have survived the hostile societies of the afrospora it is how certain indigenous cultural practices survive the present day christianization and islamicization in africa
there is very little space to speak of the ritual function of poetry particularly as it relates to a work like zong! it comes out of a particular historical moment that is the kya kya kya kari basin a moment that extends into the present is resonant am tempted to say redolent with aspects of ritual and spirit i think of zong! as doing a form of soul work for those who died unmourned i think of the impossibility of ever knowing what happened the impossibility of making whole that which has been rent asunder i think of writing in the face of the yawning chasm of oblivion that was the lot of africans and …
at least three levels of impossibility
— living within the european idea that the not so new world begins with an idea that makes no provision for the is in us except perhaps as fodder
— fragmentary records that pass as History in a deliberately amnesiac culture
— the lacunae in the master narratives as they relate to us how to bypass the master narratives
voices crackle fade in
and out as from a bad phone line
the poetics of the fragment as a way to read the kari basin to interpret
the ghostly voices
notes from a journal
I walk the beach almost every day and as is my custom I collect shells
I find the fragments of shell more beautiful than the whole ones… am aware of preferring
the broken ones and enjoying the challenge of trying to figure out the identity of the shell
from the fragment. Again an awareness of how this mirrors issues here—we are
fragments of a whole but can still be identified as part of that whole.
The islands themselves are volcanic and coral fragments.
There is a wholeness that exists in the fragment — as the whole exists in the fragment of
the text, perhaps, although not visible — as a memory, a resonance. Found a cowrie
shell — the whole back is missing, but from the front the shell appears whole — is
— the mode and mechanism of communication language is itself fatally flawed designed to convey the european idea and ideal … oh sinner man where you gonna run to
so perhaps ritual offers a way through this thicket of impossibles
masquing and secrecy weave themselves into the fabric of kari basin culture the orisha divinities masquerading as catholic saints so ogun hides behind st michael and in turn st michael holding his sword made of iron stands in for ogun whose metal is iron a secret held in the open a silence translating itself into another language santeria candomble lukumi voudon all work along these song lines of silence and unsilence tempting translations of the unsayable i am committed to retaining an ambivalence of the sacred object in this case the poem and what better motif for ambivalence than the sea tidal ever shifting ever changing a liquid archive that holds the secret of History in subterranean spaces to release them all in its own time
many rivers many tributaries two currents at least running towards the sea that is
sharing the tradition of call and response rooted in african aesthetics the call in this case being an attempt it lasted almost half a millenium in the case of the transatlantic slave trade to denude the african of all humanity to devalue whatever traces of humanity remained to repress to silence the shout the scream the stomping the field holler the mourning ground the shouts and moans of the spiritual baptist the response it can be seen in the two main currents is a talking back anywhichway byanymeansnecessary refusing the yambic pant pant panta meter they call it speaking truth to power today i dub it marronage running away slave rebellion slave revolt i call it nanny of the maroons jamette and obeah woman i call it makandal boukman toussaint dessalines castro bogle
i call it zong! insisting in the response that to be is
to mean and is
sufficient that making meaning and making meaning mean is the response to everything that would insist that the victim has no meaning it applies more than ever today
A version of this essay is forthcoming in White Wall Review.
9. Marronage refers to the practice of Africans escaping slavery and setting themselves up in self sufficient communities. In some instances, as in Suriname, Africans who had escaped fought the armies of their former masters, eventually signing peace treaties with European powers.
10. Aimé Césaire, along with Leopold Senghor, developed the idea and theory of Negritude. After living several years in France, Césaire returned to Martinique, where he became mayor of its capital city for many years.
Brenda Hillman’s poetry circumnavigates around the overarching interest of spirit, matter, and everything in between. Even though Hillman’s work is often uncategorizable, she works within a vein that combines traditional lyric as well as more experimental forms. In addition, she incorporates various theologies and esoteric philosophies in her writing. Hillman has said of herself, “I think of myself as a mystic in a practical way.” Hillman blends cultural references, nature, and the spiritual with an open lyric form that leaves room for mystical experiences to occur on the page. Hillman’s poetry can be read as enacting an alchemical process where spirit is turned into matter and matter into spirit.
Hillman is often deemed “a school of one” because “her poems can maddeningly lurch from the sacred to the profane, from the most quotidian and anecdotal writing to passages of darkly brooding gravity.” Yet despite her use of innovative form, she still identifies herself as a lyric poet: “I’ve never left the lyric behind. I’ve not only been influenced by lyric, I am a lyric poet.” Playing with lyric and innovation, Hillman sets aside all assumption of how poetry has been written previously to do something new. Through experiments with form, Hillman disrupts assumptions of what poetry is. She creates a sense of bafflement by juxtaposing ordinary events in her poems with the imaginative and mysterious. Fanny Howe calls this a poetics of “bewilderment,” where one composes in a state of wonder, awe, and disorientation. A poetics of bewilderment can also be understood within the terms of what psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) describes as a way of uncovering true uniqueness: “If I want to understand an individual human being, I must lay aside all scientific knowledge of the average man and discard all theories in order to adopt a completely new and unprejudiced attitude.” Hillman has a similar theory of composition: “The place where we make poetry is outside any familiar state. Poetry sort of makes us stranger so we can wake up in a place where everything hangs off the edges, creating itself.”
Carl Jung and Brenda Hillman
Jung developed a model of the psyche with an organizing center known as the self: “The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness.” His concept of the self was revolutionary because Jung claimed that humans carry an element of the divine within their psyches and that the goal of one’s life should be the search for selfhood, which is known as the process of individuation:
Individuation means becoming an “in-dividual,” and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one's own self. We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” or “self-realization.”
Jung’s conception of self-knowledge, however, is not to be understood in a rational sense, but rather in a divine sense — discovering and integrating the spiritual into one’s life. This union can bring about a more fulfilling communion with the larger world. His model includes various stages in which a person gains specific knowledge about one’s soul; at the center of this inner work is the ongoing formulation of a unique self and creating a relationship with that self, and this lifelong process may never be entirely realized. Jeff Raff, a contemporary Jungian analyst, reminds us that “the formation of the self is never fully complete, for there always remains material not yet integrated into (or harmonized by) the center.”
Jung provided a map for the psyche by categorizing it into parts, with the ego as the center of consciousness and the self as the center of personality which includes both conscious (the ego) and unconscious impulses. Jung’s unconscious consists of both a personal level or “contents that … lost their intensity and were forgotten” and a collective level or “the ancestral heritage of possibilities of representation … common to all men, and perhaps even to all animals, [that] is the true basis of the individual psyche.” The collective unconscious includes archetypes — images or figures — that “give form to countless typical experiences of our ancestors. They are, so to speak, the psychic residua of innumerable experiences of the same type.” Jung used symbols and images to interpret dreams, yet he hypothesized that there was more to the unconscious than the personal. He was often deemed a mystic by his contemporaries because his archetypal theory held elements that could never be empirically explained, and he relied upon various disciplines such as mythology, religion, and alchemy to exemplify his theories:
I noticed to my amazement that European and American men and women coming to me for psychological advice were producing in their dreams and fantasies symbols similar to, and often identical with, the symbols found in the mystery religions of antiquity, in mythology, folklore, fairytales, and the apparently meaningless formulations of such esoteric cults as alchemy …
Just as Jung “found parallels to his psychic perspective in the lineage of alchemy and Gnosticism” and “consistently referred to and quoted from older religious traditions to shed light on the workings of the unconscious,” Brenda Hillman uses Gnostic and alchemical language in her writing.
As Hillman has clearly identified herself as a lyric poet, let’s examine this term more in depth. A lyric implies a rhythmically interesting line in a poem that could be sung; this is often where the emotive function plays a larger role. In addition, the lyric frequently refers to a category of poetic literature representational of music in its sound patterns which are characterized by subjectivity and sensuality of expression — usually in a highly enthusiastic and exuberant way. As indicated in Jung’s model of the psyche, if the ego is the center of consciousness, then in order to create a self, it must be in relationship with both the personal and the collective unconscious. This is how I see the Jungian model working in a poetic model of a self: the words on the page represent the ego or consciousness, the personal anecdotes represent the personal unconscious, and the lyric form represents the collective unconscious. Hillman uses a lyric form when she conjures mysterious experiences, and I will present specific examples of this form through a close reading of her poetry.
Hillman’s poetry has been described as conveying “the necessity of otherness, to write, to be the amanuensis of the visible world, joined with the necessity of inclusiveness, of participation.” Hillman uses the lyric to bring out ecstatic insight from human experience. In the necessary disorientation one feels when creating a poem, Fanny Howe expands the definition of the lyric as “searching for something that can’t be found. It is an air that blows and buoys and settles. It says, ‘Not this, not this,’ instead of, ‘I have it.’” This searching is continual in Hillman’s poetry. The lyric recurs, but Hillman simultaneously redefines selfhood by introducing new forms into her poems as she explains: “The idea of knowledge in process does have to do with the experiments and explorations of writing, I think, and not just arriving at a spiritual center.” Jung might call this a search for self-knowledge. By wavering between two elements or approaches, “not this, not this” separations can dissolve, activating a process of individuation, the aim of which is “nothing less than to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona on the one hand, and of the suggestive power of primordial images on the other.”
Through the arc of Hillman’s poetry collections, one can see that she “has in recent years written poems that question the continuity and cohesiveness of what we think of as the self.” Hillman’s sense of the “I” constantly shifts and expands, making her work an exciting place to trace the self’s alchemical development.
The alchemical self
In the most literal terms, alchemy is known as the medieval philosophy concerned with the chemical transformation of metal into gold. However, often the “gold” is of a more spiritual nature. In alchemy, various sequences are associated with different stages of transformation. First, the alchemists must find a substance they believe contains the prima materia that after losing its form can go back to its primal state. This stage is known as mortificatio or the nigredo, in which the material undergoes an alarmingly dramatic breakdown. Since this matter loses its original form, it is often reduced to liquid (solutio) or formlessness. The alchemist then introduces the chaotic liquid substance to sulfur, which creates a new form. Thus, a continual process of separation (separatio) and joining (coniunctio) of various states of matter and substances takes place, sometimes with violent reactions and sometimes with a balanced reaction that produces a solid and organized matter. This organized matter is referred to the philosopher’s stone.
Fire or Calcinatio is another key symbol in alchemy, which reduces a substance to ash in a type of purification process. Fire also resulted in separation, “splitting the ash or body of the material from the spirit, which rose to the top of the alchemical vessel as vapor.” In alchemy, the separation and reunification process continues until the ultimate goal of gold (either spiritual or physical) is produced. As the alchemists experienced, this process of turning metal into gold often ended in failure, but the attempts to transform matter did result in self-knowledge. We can also see how this process represents a spiritual or psychological transformation, as Jung pointed out with his alchemical model.
Pieter Breughel (1525-1569), The Alchemist, 1558.
Jung did much research on alchemy and was profoundly interested in the work of sixteenth-century alchemist Gerald Dorn. Jung interpreted the three stages of what Dorn called “The Great Work” of alchemy as three stages in the constitution of the self. Jung’s alchemical model included a first, second, and third coniunctio, or three levels at which opposites unite and “since the self is the union of opposites, each stage corresponds to a different level of self-formation.” However, one should realize that the process of alchemy is not linear: “although there is sequence, there is also simultaneity, regression, and chaos.” The alchemical process, and often the various coniunctios, are repeated many times before the self moves into the next stage of development. It is important to keep this in mind in relation to Hillman’s body of work.
Fortress and mortificatio
The alchemical process in Hillman’s work begins with Fortress. This volume presents the reader with the beginning of a separation process in which opposites emerge in binaries of sorrow/joy, beauty/pain, love/loss, dark/light, and newness/death, which lead to a breakdown of material (Hillman’s life as she knows it) into the mortificatio stage of alchemy. Separation seeps through the book’s elegiac tone: “In the beautiful void / over the lighted wing, / those ice children seem alive, moving / with no purpose but to be separate” (8); “I see the silk threads / snails put upon the porch / and think how simply / all things leave themselves behind” (43). The mortificatio or nigredo stage of alchemy is often associated with a dark color, and in Fortress, the color gray emerges often: “the gray between decision” (3); “the large, cement-gray-suited woman” (5); “leaves that fall / in gray apostrophes” (56). This darkening world indicates decomposition, or a death. In alchemy, there must be a death before the material can go on to the next stage of joining, or coniunctio.
Fortress exemplifies strength in its title, yet its content addresses the experience of disintegration. Mention of dreams, nature, and the other are woven throughout the poems to create a mysterious presence which often questions the origins of things: “Does a poem pre-exist / as dawn pre-exists” (69), and “Sometimes you are known completely / by seeing, known as if by a secret companion: / eyes pressed from the base of an incline / into the depths of your perilous being” (58).
In Jung’s alchemical model, the first coniunctio takes place in the unconscious: “the first union begins when the ego discovers the reality of the unconscious and makes an effort to pay attention to it …” The ego begins to recognize and develop a relationship with an “other,” or the unconscious. Hillman juxtaposes her experience of divorce with strong, declarative lines throughout the book: “What we want is simply past our reach” (Fortress, 22); “You could reach inside and make it work” (46); and “The music is the music of failed expectation” (65). The authority in these succinct sentences balances against her personal experience of loss and creates recognition of the “other.” Fortress provides a glimpse into individual experience through a lyricism that may be filled with wonder or sorrow: “They’ve taken the larynx out of the dog / so he won’t disturb the neighborhood. / But he still opens his soundless mouth, loving his own // subjective barking” (35). These lines evoke grief, yet there are moments of amazement found elsewhere: “The great hurt hangs on for a while, / and then reveals the maps … / of a true self no less mysterious” (57). It is in these moments of lyric bewilderment that the conscious ego reaches toward a symbolic death in order to move out of the mortificatio stage to a coniunctio with the unconscious or mysterious: “I don’t care that my body / will die, for it has not known / its proper freedom” (69).
Death Tractates, Bright Existence, and the first coniunctio
Death Tractates progresses into a splitting process as Hillman deals with the veil between worlds and attempts to find meaning in an experience of loss. The idea that the poem holds its own consciousness, “I had only to trace the pen / over the words; / the poem was already written” (32), is intertwined with a death: “that death did not subtract, it added something, / her death made me whole” (21). Death Tractates was written as an “interruption” to Bright Existence (1993), and the two books serve as companions to one another, representing the alchemical splitting processes of separation and integration. The question of formlessness in one collection of poems is answered with concreteness in the other. Bright Existence is filled with experiences of the quotidian: paying tolls at a toll booth, a hair caught in her new lover’s throat, even pulling lice from her daughter’s hair. No detail is too small or irrelevant. Through observation, Hillman records and makes sense of the transformation taking place in her life.
Death is a central theme in Death Tractates and Hillman asks the large spiritual question: “What is this so-called / death what is it” (31). In her exploration of loss, she investigates Gnostic philosophies, asking what comprises matter and spirit and what boundaries might constitute the border of a soul. Hillman searches for a trace of her lost mentor in four sections entitled “Calling Her,” “Writing Her,” “Losing Her,” and “Finding Her.” Often a Dickinsonian dash signifies the entrance or exit of a disembodied voice who addresses the speaker of the poem and answers questions that have been posed: “— You think about a poem too much” (11); “— Don’t you see? / It doesn’t matter what order you put them in” (33); “The choice was simply / whether to live in ‘memory’ and time / or outside —” (42). Lamenting inquiries continue throughout the text: “What if, despite your false calm, / your brokenness, your self-deception — / in fact, when you were most broken, / her heaven was you?” (35). This insistent questioning leads only to a place of paradox: “— You asked for the difference between life and death … / … and at the moment of your question, / you were handed, / like a black rose, the paradox —” (47).
In alchemical psychology, paradox is a place in which one must learn to dwell comfortably. The tension of opposites must be held during any coniunctio stage of alchemy and “the ego must be flexible and able to hold a middle position … consciousness must be balanced with its opposite — the unconscious.” In Death Tractates, the “I” is distinct from the “you” and space serves as a place of paradox in the uniting of the opposites. Fanny Howe explains that space or emptiness: “teaches us to mistrust the location of the ‘I’ inside us, since it exists at a ‘zero point of orientation,’ being both at the source of the physical body and on its periphery where it, too, becomes empty.”
The reader experiences this space as it surrounds the central poem located exactly in the middle of Death Tractates. Set apart by blank pages, “(untitled poem)” explores the idea that a poem has its own consciousness: “— So the poem is the story of the writing of itself” (25). In this line, Hillman enters the alchemical stage where “the ego carries the principle of consciousness into the darkness of the unconscious and this effects transformation.” The poem continues as it speaks to the ego’s task in the first coniunctio or union:
So, put yourself in the way
of the poem. It needed your willing
impediment to be written …
You had to be willing to let it through the sunshine
error of your life,
be willing not to finish it — (Death Tractates, 25)
As Hillman explains elsewhere, “It seems as if betweenness, ambiguity, or states of uncertainty are the sites for the most possibility.”
And, just as the short, lyrical poems in Death Tractates strive for consciousness, the first poem in Bright Existence echoes the process:
The world had been created to comprehend itself
as matter: table, the torn
veils of spiders … Even consciousness —
missing my love —
was matter, the metal box of a furnace.
As the obligated flame, so burned my life … (1)
Hillman struggles with the idea of creation through “real” objects such as a table and the metal box of a furnace. She juxtaposes these with symbols of the imagined world like the “obligated flame.” The image of the furnace emerges here, so like the alchemical calcinatio or burning stage that purifies and also separates matter and spirit.
Bright Existence’s poems reflect a Gnostic belief, that the world was created as a site for the spiritual ones to come to know themselves. In “The Spell” Hillman writes: “This world is my twin / but I was not cut from the same cloth, I passed / through the shadow so I could be / amazed at it —” (32). In Jung’s alchemical model, during the first coniunctio the ego must become aware of the unconscious in order to move forward in self-formulation: “two as a symbol, and especially doubling or twinning, usually refers to a content within the unconscious that is ready to cross over into the conscious sphere.” Hillman explores this idea through form and formlessness. Poems that consider the hardness of form: “trapped in somethingness, in those tiny mosaics with no blood” (Bright Existence, 30) are juxtaposed with poems that consider spirit: “because at the edge / of your becoming, something kept trying / to erase you” (57). Lines in the title poem “Bright Existence” demonstrate this first coniunctio clearly:
there should be more witnesses at the edges of the self
where everything is both …
the part that wasn’t ready
stayed inside a little longer
and the part that was ready to be something
came forth — (96)
Here, the “part that wasn’t ready” and “the part that was ready to be something” signifies a reaching toward consciousness, a doubling, “where everything is both” and there must be recognition of the other for this union to occur.
Hillman ends Bright Existence with an image of the snake: “I found its skin of stretchy diamonds / and picked it up, so I could keep / one of the two selves …” (99). In Jungian thought, the snake is the symbol of transformation and often denotes the uroborus or the serpent eating its own tail — a symbol of union.
Loose Sugar and alchemical ash
After these twin volumes, Hillman embarks on a study of alchemy and depression in Loose Sugar, in which she attempts to transcend her dark experience. The series “blue codices” explores the mode of fragmentation. In this series, the “ash poems” are essentially fragments that fall to the bottom of the page, symbolic of alchemical ash from the furnace. The volume is structured in five dualistic sections entitled: “space/time,” “time/alchemy,” etc. mirroring the unresolved nature of the poems themselves. Things heat up: “Once you were immortal in the flame. / You were not the fire / but you were in the fire; —” (3). This image of the burning alchemical furnace is central to the process of alchemy, and just as alchemists hoped for success and often failed in their search for gold, Hillman too, having struggled with depression, uses the idea of alchemy as a way to transform her experience into a different material or as a way to see it as something outside herself. The ash poems become “the ash of depression from which your beauty of spirit will rise, if it doesn’t kill you first.” So in this alchemical process of separating the ash from spirit, Hillman attempts to allow the spirit to break free from depression. This process is not easy and often contains periods of the nigredo, which include darkness and unknowing.
During the second coniunctio of Jung’s alchemical model, the self takes on a life of its own and begins to function in its own right. The new self is represented by being held between the masculine and feminine. Both energies are needed for the second coniunctio to take place. In poetic processes, the writing of a poem can be seen as the act of writing the self, or searching for a relationship between the unknown (the blank page) and the known or perceived known (the word on the page). In Gnostic myth, this is specifically the search for a feminine wisdom: “Sophia (or wisdom) fell from the pleroma (or pure world), scattering divine sparks. The Archegenetor (or Demiourgos) — a secondary god — created humans to enslave these divine sparks in matter.” Similarly, in Jungian theory, the unconscious represents the mystery of what is at the depths of uncertainty and is often denoted as a feminine principle.
The poem “The Spark” alludes to this kind of joining in the second coniunctio: “You who happened only once: / remember yourself as you are; // when he comes to you” (Loose Sugar, 5–6). The “you” is well established as a feminine presence at this stage in Hillman’s writing (in the progression of Death Tractates to Bright Existence to Loose Sugar). Thus, the line “when he comes to you” represents this masculine and feminine union in the formulation of the poetic self and “stands for the psychic totality.”
Cascadia and the second coniunctio
Cascadia explores the question of place which “takes us automatically to the problems of reality and the ideal.” Unlike her previous books of poetry, carefully organized in separate sections, Cascadia is structured like a large striated landscape. Each poem is layered upon the next and the aforementioned feminine principle emerges throughout the book in poems such as “(blank page)” and “(interruption).”
Pietro Longhi, The Alchymist, 1661.
The poem “(blank page)” is precisely that: a page filled with whiteness. It is given a title in the table of contents, but no words are written on the page itself. Symbolically, the blank page can be seen as feminine, a space that is formless and undefined, yet contains multiple possibilities, indicating here that it holds open possibility like that required in the alchemical process of self-formulation. Also, Hillman notes that the blank page can be used as an in-between space: “The alchemists knew that the fallen thing can be retrieved … so the marginal voices exist at the side, apart from the lyric, with a lot of white in-between. Seemingly trivial detail offers itself easily to metaphoric space. The between is left blank and fertile.” We can see this exemplified in the poem “Cascadia”:
one of those
In the search for the search
During the experiments with wheels
After the scripted caverns
When what had been attached
Was no longer attached
After choosing the type of building
In which no one has died
We recalled a land or condition
Whose shape was formal
Formality gave pleasure
A shadow’s shadow dragged it
Back to the sea of eyes
Hillman explains that her “poetry and poetics began to evolve unexpectedly … The sense of the single ‘voice’ in poetry grew to include polyphonies, oddly collective dictations.” By stretching the “I,” Hillman’s work expands from a lyric-narrative tradition to a more innovative mode. Hillman herself has noted, “The lyric … is also social … That much more stretchy sense of ‘I’ really interests me.”
The reader sees this illustrated in Cascadia’s “(interruption)” as a “we” is called forth: “(enter: The ‘we’ —)” (6). This short fragment is enclosed in parentheses and is centered directly on the page, surrounded by white space. In Jung’s alchemical model, during the second coniunctio “the self progresses to such a degree that it takes on a life and reality of its own within the psyche. The self comes alive and begins to function in its own right.” One also sees here the masculine and feminine union needed to contain the process. As those “above ground” in consciousness are transformed, the unconscious also undergoes a transformation, endowing the self with new energy. The parentheses of Hillman’s line signify a generative dewdrop and the “we” represents the second coniunctio in the alchemical process. A “we” of masculine and feminine unite as a new “we” of the self emerges. Hillman’s poetic self becomes polyphonic and this new “center strives to express itself” more consciously in Cascadia through an inner and outer landscape.
Hillman’s “A Geology” plays with the idea that “place is a world and a word” and crosses boundaries between the internal and external: “In the expiation of nature, we are required to / experience the dramatic narrative of matter … // This was set down in strata so you could know / what it felt like to have been earth” (Cascadia, 14). This poem is grounded with four words on each corner of the page to anchor it “so it wouldn’t float.” The word “fault” is repeated three times on the last page of “A Geology” suggesting multiple meanings: mistakes, geologic fractures that cause movement in the earth’s crust, and/or human weakness. The fourth word “prevalent” on the bottom right corner of the page surprises the reader in its difference; it not only helps to anchor the poem, but also destabilizes it and opens its reader to the experience of the last line: “what it felt like to have been earth.”
In an alchemical process of separating and joining matter, substances can react to each other in a violent or balanced manner. When balanced, the substance can emerge as solid matter, or the philosopher’s stone. Cascadia is about landforms where “shifting internal geographies must be managed in relation to external ones.” In alchemical terms, the violent reaction is the poem “written under various kinds of emotional pressure” and the stone emerges as organized matter: “It took quiet / It took stone” (Cascadia, 74).
Lines from the poem “Before My Pencil” grapple with the idea of creating a world out of intense feeling. The poem investigates “the mannerism of the curve” of earth or the universe and finishes with the idea that it can “crawl among syllables,” creating itself by feeding on dead organic or spiritual matter to produce a “white fact.” In alchemy, as the substance continues to change, it reaches “an initial resting-place … called the first stone” where it regains form and has “the power to create silver from other metals” and is often “associated with white … referred to as the albedo.” Similarly, this poem touches “the white fact,” Hillman reaching a resting place where she creates a solidified poetic self.
Pieces of Air in the Epic: A gesture toward the third coniunctio
In Jung’s alchemical model, during the third coniunctio the individual self comes into union with the divine world that existed before matter and spirit were separated. The third coniunctio is rarely ever achieved except perhaps in death as “the individual self that has been formed comes into union with a level of reality that transcends it, with the divine world … the one world before spirit and matter were separated.” This is the Gnostic world Hillman explores in much of her poetry, but about which she rarely arrives at a conclusion. The third coniunctio denotes the spiritual plane of the elements of air, wings, etc. and is represented by the sun, sky, and clouds. In Pieces of Air in the Epic, Hillman explores this elemental world as she “tackles the large metaphysical questions” and “opens up the line and the page’s horizon to express the apocalyptic fears of our ‘epoch.’” The poetic self enacts a new way of seeing: “I looked below / the air behind the paintings … / / I made my eyes pointy to look at air in / corners.” The poem “Street Corner” invokes the one world that will ultimately transcend this individual self: “There was an angle / where I went for / centuries not as a / self or feature but / exhaled as a knowing” (3).
Other inquiries on exhalation/breath continue in “Platonic Oxygen” as the poet asks, “What is thought Is it breath / Were you breath” (76). The formlessness of the unknown transforms the solid matter of Cascadia into air: “Can we remake elements” (29) Hillman asks in “6 Components from Aristotle.” These meditations bring one closer to the elemental world, although “the danger of writing a book on air is that it might disappear at crucial moments.” Hillman does not allow this to happen, as the poetic line remains grounded in the everyday: “Some // foolish soul has sold his entire / Liz Phair collection back to Amoeba; // Used jewel cases seem almost tender, / smothered-to-smithereens-type plastic …” (66).
Hillman continues to work with polyphony, and in the poem “Air in the Epic” the reader must jump between dense phrases to seemingly disconnected phrases surrounded by space. The lyric which operates in the right-hand margin can be read vertically while the dense poem on the left cannot:
You look outside the classroom where construction trucks find little Troys. Dust
rises: part pagan, part looping. Try
to describe the world, you tell them — but what is a description? (8)
It is the space between the lyrical phrases that allows the mind to make causal connections that do not exist on the left. Hillman has carefully constructed each line so that it must interact; it must come together and join in an alchemical process while still suggesting gaps. The experimental form of “Air in the Epic” and “String Theory Sutra” produces a tension that reaches toward the transformative third coniunctio. The poem remains lyrical, yet continues to question the poetic self:
There are so many types of
“personal” in poetry. The “I” is a needle some find useful, though
the thread, of course is shadow.
In writing of experience or beauty, a cloth emerges as if made
from a twin existence … (80)
In Pieces of Air, the poem sees itself existing through the “writing of experience or beauty” as cloth made from a “twin existence” and one can see that Hillman’s poetic self has grown and transformed from the “selfhood” of her earlier books. Just as a person might function in life according to what she has consciously experienced, there is also an underlying unconscious myth or archetype at work that creates a life pattern and is expressed in a poem by what Howe calls “the strange Whoever who goes under the name of ‘I’ … where error, errancy, and bewilderment … signal a story.”
Through the breath, the image, and the lyric, the spiritual elements of the third coniunctio are at work in Pieces of Air: “… there’s a patient tap / tap tapping in the text … / where stars pass; / stars passed; stars pierced you —” (56). In “Clouds Near San Leandro” the poetic self inquires, “Aren’t there visions involving everything?” (67). Pieces of Air provides the reader with elated insight and urges one to question spirit and breath: “song outlasts poetry, words / are breath bricks to / support the guardless singing / project. We could have / meant song outlasts poetry” (4). Hillman has indeed found a way to separate matter from spirit and lift the words off the page in rapturous song.
One can clearly see the three coniunctios in Jung’s alchemical model represented in Hillman’s books of poetry, where inner and outer worlds resonate and come together on the page in a redefined notion of self that takes shape in the alchemical imagination of time and space, earth and air. Hillman identifies herself as a poet with Gnostic interests and has carved a niche for herself within an oeuvre of poets who are interested in the mysterious workings of the origins of things, or in Jungian terms, the unconscious. Hillman has even developed a “minifesto” which explains her interests:
= A poem is the rescue of a vanishing body.
= Poems embodying original technique make units smaller than the sentence serve both the sentence and the line. They help rethink the relationship between word, phrase, or sentence every time they make one of those things.
To rescue the vanishing body, the mysticpoet writes words, phrases, or sentences on the page. In doing so, a new body — a poetic self — is developed. Hillman never abandons the lyric, although she often dwells in a place of unknowing with her experimentation of form: “Uncertainty is to be preferred. In those years, many of us found we could reinvent the lyric, however shattered it might be.” The process of alchemical separation and joining repeats itself in Hillman’s poetry, and with an element-focused volume of poetry still to come — on fire — Hillman’s reader might wonder where she will take us next. My guess is that, like alchemy, she will take us through a continued process of refining the self through gnosis, just as the image of the burning salamander signals the return to the prima materia:
Some animals are warm in paradise;
your little alchemical salamander taricha tarosa,
fresh from the being cycles, stumbles
over rocks in its lyric outfit —
And with Brenda Hillman, there will always, always be a “lyric outfit” present.
1. Brenda Hillman, interview by J. Robert Lennon, Cornell University Podcast Audio, November 7, 2008.
6. Kevin Larimer, “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman,” Poets and Writers (August 30, 2001), ¶8.
14. Brighde Mullins, “Introduction,” Readings in Contemporary Poetry: Brenda Hillman, by Dia Art Foundation, November 10, 1995.
21. “[T]he [philosopher’s] stone creates mystical experiences and ecstasy, and offers a door that leads to the celestial world. Their goal in the creation of the stone is direct encounter with divinity” (ibid., 219–20).
35. Hillman, interview by J. Robert Lennon, Cornell University Podcast Audio, November 7, 2008.
38. Larimer, “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman,” ¶3.
42. Hillman, interview by Sarah Rosenthal, “Our Very Greatest Human Thing Is Wild, an interview with Brenda Hillman,” Rain Taxi (Fall 2003), ¶28.
45. Larimer, “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman,” ¶5.
46. Ibid., ¶ 7.
47. Ibid., ¶ 3.
51. Susan McCabe, “Platonic Oxygen: On Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic,” Denver Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2006): 65–66.
53. McCabe, “Platonic Oxygen: On Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic,” 71.
The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? — Ecclesiastes 6:11
What does poetry do with language? This question, shouted and shrieked by various avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, became increasingly relevant for Russian poets during the Soviet period. In the 1920s and ’30s, many learned that even as poetry uses words to forge alliances and break windows, words in poetry can also cause serious trouble: they can get you fired or exiled or killed. In the slightly warmer but artistically stifled atmosphere of the mid-1950s, the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov (1934–2009) started asking: what can poetry do for words? He was appalled by the Soviet regime’s violent enactment of an absolute break between signifier and signified, and the absolutely false new meanings being institutionalized left and right. Nekrasov spent the next fifty years trying to make words “mean what they say,” while remaining acutely — poetically — aware that words have never had one clear meaning. His project is self-consciously “non-poetic”: his usage is deliberately, documentarily colloquial, his vocabulary limited, and his material quotidian. But the process whereby Nekrasov interrogates the “truth-value” of the language under inspection is fundamentally poetic; this process is also, incidentally, what bridges the poet’s sarcastic, socially critical poems and markedly lyrical meditations on nature and inner life.
A POEM ABOUT CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES
for Alik Ginzburg
Had it up to here:
Chatted up to here.
Chatted up to here:
Had it up to here.
Chatted, had it,
In the afterword to the new collection of Vsevolod Nekrasov’s poetry in English (I Live I See, UDP, 2013), the American scholar Gerald Janecek relates one of the times he fell afoul of the poet’s prickly nature. Nekrasov insisted that Janecek withdraw a selection of his poems from the 1992 Third Wave anthology of contemporary Russian poetry because of the involvement of another scholar, Mikhail Epstein, in the volume. Epstein had entered Nekrasov’s long list of sworn enemies after maligning the poet in a 1988 review of newer developments in Russian poetry. Epstein had written:
It would seem that poems like [Vsevolod Nekrasov’s] —lavishly garnished with “like,” “this here,” “after all,” and “well, you know” —could well have been written by Akaky Akakievich. This is the vocabulary of a poor man, a “little man” of our time, stuck deep in a muttering, unintelligible muck made up of bureaucratese, and capable of turning even words like “spring” or “blue” into bureaucratese. They are repeated 10–20 times in a single poem and are themselves transformed into an abstract element of speech, into a conjunction or particle.
Although Janecek chides that this was “certainly an unfair characterization by any measure,” Epstein was not completely off the mark. Gogol characterizes the speech of the protagonist of “The Overcoat” thus:
It should be known that Akaky Akakievich expressed himself mostly with prepositions, adverbs, and finally, such particles as have decidedly no meaning. If the matter was very difficult, he even had the habit of not finishing the phrase at all, so that very often he would begin his speech with the words “That, really, is altogether sort of …” after which would come nothing, and he himself would forget it, thinking everything had been said.
The fact that Epstein has misread Gogol or Nekrasov or both is not our concern here. Regardless of the less-than-kind thrust of his argument, his error actually invites a beautiful explanation of Nekrasov’s poetic project (not to mention his rootedness in the Russian literary tradition). The tragedy of Gogol’s hero is his utter disconnectedness from language as a means of expression. In the spiritual vacuum of a grotesquely bureaucracy-dominated Petersburg, Akaky Akakievich has some kind of vestigial capability to feel deeply, but literally lacks the vocabulary to bring these feelings to action. The problem doesn’t really lie with poor Akaky Akakievich, though. The fact that his words are empty placeholders actually makes him look good next to his more socially graceful colleagues and fellow citizens. Rather than empty, their speech is filled with smooth and shameless lies. Fast-forward a little more than a century, and this is one of the qualities of Soviet official-ese that Nekrasov seeks to overturn:
and again with the
glory and glory to us
as per our words
in a word
would you all take us
at our word
Although the banality and falsehood of official speech were an important impulse for Nekrasov’s work, the scope of his project extended far beyond the physical and temporal borders of Sovietdom. We can see this in the equal attention he paid to everyday colloquial or “neutral” language — Nekrasov recognized that words lose meaning through any kind of automatization, that the nefarious manipulation of language by Soviet authorities is just one of many effective methods for the extermination of meaning. Words repeated one time too many can become synonymous with animal grunts (think of poor Akaky Akakievich senselessly repeating the same meaningless syllables in a futile effort to express his great agitation). Rather than simply representing alienation, Nekrasov’s “grunting” sometimes appears as a depiction of “inward speech,” the half-formed sub-language of thought. Nekrasov is a master at manipulating this kind of language, which is simultaneously dramatically understated and rich in semantic resonances (often to comedic effect).
most likely yeah
but like most likely
the sky shouldn’t look like that
Nekrasov uses repetition with razor-sharp intention and aggressive curiosity. What happens to a familiar word (and the concept it supposedly represents) when you repeat it over and over again? What does it mean when there is nothing else on the page? For instance, in the case of the poem “nichego/nichego,” consisting entirely of the word ‘nothing’ repeated twice? What happens when the repeated word suddenly comes into contact with other words?
Moreover, Nekrasov never mumbles — for all of its engagement with the “real” and “everyday,” this poetry is not “found” but carefully crafted. The poet’s enunciation is precise to an extreme — his words are not only intelligible, but also often reveal previously imperceptible nuances, performing a kind of demonstrative dissection of automatized meaning.
But at night
Dark and nigh
Night and night
Nekrasov has been called a minimalist, and there are certainly aspects of his poetry that justify such a term. At the same time — and this is true of other minimalist poets, of course — a minimum of words or an intentionally lean vocabulary by no means imply monotony or poverty of meaning. On the contrary, a concentration of a limited number of words not only invites heightened attention to the words themselves and their position on the page — it can also describe a concrete experience and invite the reader to a similar meditation
and a pine
it’s so totally
and suddenly everything’s
This essay was written by Ainsley Morse; the poems in it were translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich.
or Clint Eastwood’s idea of the lyric poem
William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus,” from which the 2009 film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the dismantling of apartheid takes its title, reads:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Even the trailer for this film that takes its name from this rather unknown nineteenth-century poem uses the recitation of several of its lines.
In the sombre, meditative recitation of Morgan Freeman — an African-American whose last name itself is an historical statement — the actor “channels” the unmistakable presence of the voice that we will later understand belongs to Nelson Mandela. The film is an intriguing confluence of presences: Clint Eastwood is its director; Matt Damon effectively captures the appropriate South African accent and plays François Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks, the rugby team that at that point were being Africanised into amaBokoboko; and Freeman portrays Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who in the film is charismatic and plays Madiba as a personally and emotionally isolated individual in his role as the recently installed president of the new, emancipated South Africa.
The story in the film is a simple and — to use a film-reviewer’s expression — “emotionally convincing” account of how President Mandela, the leader of a fragmented nation, “invests” belief in the captain of the nation’s rugby team in the lead-up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup when it was held in South Africa, the first event of its kind post-apartheid, in such a way that Pienaar and the team might be transformed into an unifying symbol that could help heal the damaged, haunted nation. Under apartheid and, partly, due to the effect of sporting boycotts, that team then known as the Springboks had previously symbolized the confrontational confidence and delusion of the normality of the Afrikaner nationalist government.
Depending on how cynical or how demanding we might be, the film can be seen in two ways: as an insightful illustration of an elder enacting his wisdom, a portrait of a man who lost much of his life through imprisonment and yet was still able to articulate and negotiate the necessities that allowed South Africa to survive both the impending disintegration of apartheid and the voiding of the African Nationalist Congress’s socialist discourse after the fall of the Communist Bloc; or it can be viewed as a typically Hollywood rewriting of historical events to suit the techniques of scriptwriters and the central concept of that folk-god, the Movie Hero.
But the film is not interesting for us here except for the fact that in it a poem — even if it is “Invictus,” a poem few readers without a specific interest in Victorian England would have heard of — is crucial to a key moment in the film where Mandela, ever the charming statesman, has to communicate an intention, an aspiration, to the poem’s recipient, the captain of a team who are all unlikely to have ever previously been open to the Poetic, such that Pienaar must not only understand it but must also, in certain ways, come to embody it.
Mandela gives François Pienaar “a mission,” and he takes it on as part of the duty implied in his role as the captain of the nation’s most important team: he is a Leading Citizen. Is that not what poetry has often done in modern nations, the Poet becoming spokesperson for the nation by embodying its articulacy, the lyric poem being the simplest expression of political aspiration and hope?
“Invictus” was written by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) in 1875, during the Victorian era, a time that in the study of English literature has now largely been eclipsed by twentieth-century modernism. It was first collected in his Book of Verses, where it is the fourth part of the uninspiringly titled sequence “Life and Death (Echoes).” In his day the poem had a certain amount of success, conveying as it did aspects of Henley’s autobiography: he suffered from tuberculosis as a child and at the age of seventeen had a leg amputated.
His poem effectively embodies the Victorian ideal of a kind of emotional stoicism which for us in the twenty-first century might seem fraught with self-deceptions and the internalization of the Imperial. Yet for lay readers, as is testified to by the comments that accompany the poem in its various versions on YouTube, the poem continues its work of what might be called illustration and motivation. (Most moving to me was a comment written by a young adult who said that for her the poem was very important: she too was an amputee and knew the willpower required to live with that.)
Certainly, seen in the context of the twenty-first century, the poem hardly seems to deserve attention for its literariness. The sentiment it expresses, of determination and will, its emphasis on what has been heavily critiqued as the “unified subject” — or the idea of an independent Self — and its conventional language would not make it a likely object of study today, much less an admired poetic artefact.
Yet Mandela, it seems, mightn’t concur.
To the Mandela of the film that poem represents self-mastery and empowerment, those qualities that were at least one part of what made him one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century, very Victorian qualities. As it’s presented by Clint Eastwood as director — I wasn’t able to verify it from the various biographies nor from Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation, the account by John Carlin that formed the basis of the astonishing story — Nelson Mandela read that poem while in prison and would bring it to mind in moments when he felt close to despair at what confronted him.
To ask the obvious: What confronted him?
For filmic reasons, Eastwood allows a good degree of ambiguity. There is no sense of other languages — whether Xhosa, Mandela’s mother-tongue, or Afrikaans, the “Language of the Oppressor” as it was called in those times of conflict, to mention only two of the nation’s twelve official tongues — being involved in forming Mandela’s sensibility, no presence of Communist or socialistic influence and their political circumstances, no indication that the liberation struggle in South Africa was connected to the anticolonial and civil wars in Mozambique, Angola, or Zimbabwe or elsewhere. Nor is it explicitly presented — most likely due to Eastwood’s interest in the trope of the lone man facing historical change, that he contemplates in Gran Torino, too — that for Mandela to have reached the point where he could become president of South Africa he must have been both well-capable of negotiating with those figures who were his antagonists as well as being able to allow the necessary ambiguities of expression that could allow those factors that contradicted his politicking to remain present, if unstated.
Mandela might not have made a good literary critic, but he definitely could have been an emotive civic poet.
After all, it is when Pienaar is unsure of how to motivate — note that term of both theatrical and managerial “acting” — his team, when members of the team are showing signs of resistance to his leadership, when the project of using a win in this most symbolic sport in the South African context to make gains in that other game, the politics of nation-building, seems doubtful or dubious, that Mandela passes on the commission of the poem. Later in the film, Pienaar is shown visiting Robben Island, seeing the quarry where the imprisoned members of the ANC were tasked with stone-breaking, and he himself is seen by the audience standing in the cell which held Mandela for many of those twenty-seven years of his sentence, as the entire poem “Invictus” is read in Madiba’s — via Morgan Freeman’s — deeply affecting voice. Visually, it is almost a dream-sequence, with a half-tone Mandela haunting those places the rugby captain wanders through. It has all the characteristic, manipulative charm of a powerful cinematic reverie.
That point at which the poem is recited, embodied within the ghostliness of the cinematic narrative, is that moment when Mandela’s past, the history of the struggle and Mandela’s own place in it as figure and person, are conflated with the ambition of the nation’s future, its chance for success, and it is then that responsibility is given over to Pienaar, the Hero who it is hoped could enable the microcosm of the rugby field to become the macrocosm of the entire country; the mission depends on his acting on the motivation or, to use the poetic term, inspiration, given to him by Madiba.
(Of course, I should have remarked earlier that “Invictus” is Latin for “unconquerable.”)
In this film and its version of South African history, the lyric poem does everything that it has always been expected to: it expresses individual integrity, defines personal feeling and enables an articulation that is a product of introspection, an articulation that can lead to action. In the poem the long-imprisoned freedom fighter who managed to win and become president and the conservative, until then apolitical, captain of a previously demonized sports team, who is able to reorientate himself in the political project of a new nationalism, are united by the lyrical “I,” which itself is a political figure.
In the transition between the “I” who is William Ernest Henley, the invalid author of the poem, and the reader embodied in Freeman as Mandela, or in Damon as Pienaar who is acting on Mandela’s self-transcendent nationalist ambitions, there is the primal, twinned poetic question of Author vis-à-vis Meaning. For all three of these literary figures — the commissioning father Mandela, the good son, Pienaar, and the god himself, in the Author William Henley — the poem “Invictus” is an articulation of what — to borrow a phrase — might be called “a will to power.”
Elsewhere, in another era, that impulse might have been called hope.
Through Henley and Mandela, Mandela and Pienaar, then Freeman and Damon, the “I,” “initial” person of the poem, is embodiment, the Persona, what is, in the very oldest of senses, an effect of inspiration.
The Clint Eastwood the director, a shadow of God, is himself a ghostly presence in all this and someone with a deep understanding of the metaphorics of the masculine, has taken the possibilities latent in the strange slippage that occurs in the Persona, as a means of creating a rhetorical, literary mode that might stand against the inevitable “facticity” of cinema’s moving-image and its instrumentalist emotionalism. Here the lyric poem becomes an object not transhistorical in being transcendent, but transhistorical instead in that it is an artefact, much as the Self that can move through discourses and histories and due to the nature of those systems be “rendered” historical, “factual,” by each.
The poem “Invictus” then is not merely, as the film’s trailer would suggest, a kind of motto for the ethos of the story and its explanation as to why South Africa, despite all its potential conflicts, didn’t degenerate into civil war during the demise of apartheid. It is actually made to be an example of archetypal poesis. But the Thing being made might not be the poem but rather the Person, the individual, the mysterious, polyvocal adoptable Self.
Maybe the unconquered of the poem is that person who is always spoken by the Poem in the voice of the Reader, who is motivated by making and remaking, who is that persona inevitably recited, uttered, amidst the cinematic blur of any History?
Postscript: We should remember that, in lieu of a final statement before he was executed, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, gave a hand-written copy of the poem “Invictus” to his jailer. In the US media afterwards there were suddenly a range of commentators drawn to literary criticism, to analysing and defending Henley’s inspirational lyric poem.
Drafts of this essay were presented at the 2012 Poetry and Revolution conference at the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, Birkbeck College, University of London, and at the Institute for English Language and Literature, Freie Universität Berlin. The essay first appeared in a Portuguese translation by Înes Dias in the magazine Cão Celest, issue 2.