On Lillian Allen and the history of dub
Note: above, a video of Lillian Allen giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Sarah Dowling responds to Allen’s talk in the essay that follows.
“Let me ask you to consider the ideological agenda in claiming poetry for one section of society.” Lillian Allen’s provocative performance-talk pierces the business-as-usual of literary communities, literary criticism, and of literariness itself. She reviews the occluded history of dub poetry — a form of performance poetry known for its musicality and its overt politics — and examines its incredible but too-often-unattributed legacies. Allen asks a number of crucial questions: If more people than ever are creating poetry, why have critics excluded the most widely practiced forms — particularly spoken word — from the category of poetry itself? Why has dub poetry, which laid the groundwork for spoken word, been excluded from literary history? The answer, of course, is that racism, and its unvoiced, scribal, and whitewashed picture of the literary, has consequences. If this is all marginalized people see, Allen asks, “where will they find their possibility of making a poem?”
Allen’s talk begins and ends with vivid and energetic recitations of her poems — for anyone unfamiliar with her work, her prodigious use of repetition and vocalized breaths show just how much poets and critics are missing when we ignore dub. One of the opening poems prominently features the line “Black voice kyan hide,” and throughout her talk Allen emphasizes the ways in which dub poetry has provided a process for coming out of hiding and into voice. Dub asserts the right to exist, and calls for a change to “the claustrophobic narrative” of being poor, marginalized, and oppressed. This change is enacted through dub’s disruption of established discourse and its elevation of vernacular language into art. In its calls for unity, for aesthetic satisfaction, for more accountability, more individuality, and more democracy, dub poetry provides recognition, validation, and perhaps most crucially the potential for participation. “Don’t we, too, deserve poetry?” Allen asks, aligning herself with the communities addressed in and activated through her work.
A key theme of Allen’s talk is the impact that dub has had on North American poetry and poetics. “To be able to create forms and new types of languages is, in itself, amazing,” she explains. Allen traces the roots of dub through the collaborative exchanges between marginalized poets Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, but places greatest emphasis on the influences of Jamaican performance poet Louise Bennett and world-renowned reggae innovator Bob Marley. While dub is often misunderstood as reggae sans music, Allen explains that dub captures the spirit of reggae, but exists separately from it as poetry. Another common misconception is that dub poets are “just” rapping, but Allen states that dub, which crystalized in the early 1970s, was actually a source for certain Brooklyn rappers. With these entwined musical and literary roots and legacies, Allen shows that dub cannot be adequately explained by literary theory. Instead, dub is an expansion and invigoration of the idea of poetry — one that resonates with what many people want to hear and want to say. The flourishing of voice-based poetries in Canada, the US, and the Anglophone Caribbean is its powerful legacy.
Dub, like all significant art forms, provides a platform, a place where “word chatterers” can use their voices to think in public, with a community, about the conditions in which we all live. When Allen asks, “what does a voice become when it stands / when it stands / for something?” she reveals what is critical about dub: in it, the voice opens into a full range of sounds, and expands beyond the signifying power of language into bodily rhythms (riddims). Dub is a poetry of possibility; it invites listeners to become cocreators of meaning, and of new poems. As the great dub poet Mutabaruka puts it in one of his best-known works, “dis poem is to be continued in your mind.”
Allen recounts the early days of dub and explains that the poets “were never gonna stop until this type of poetry became part of Canadian culture.” Dub poets haven’t stopped, so now we must own up to the way that poetry is continuously claimed “for one section of society.” When dub is cropped out of the frame, our sense of poetry narrows — and it becomes dangerously pale. Forgetting dub makes poetry worse, but forget poetry: an ideological agenda that favors the pale wrecks and ends lives. Part of dismantling white supremacy might involve listening to what dub poets have been saying all along. We need to heed dub’s message and craft a new ideological agenda for our aesthetics.
On Michael Nardone
Note: above, a video of Michael Nardone giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Stephen Collis responds to Nardone’s talk in the essay that follows.
We are at an interesting historical juncture. Governments, acting, as usual, as agents for industry and capital accumulation, are fiddling with the dials controlling communicative acts, trying to squelch (as in “suppress the output” of) the frequencies of dissent, or else simply decreeing them (via legislation, in Canada, like Bill C-51) the noise of terrorism, “full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.”
This is the moment within which Michael Nardone seizes those dials, and tunes us into the particular disruptions of the Idle No More round dances. I will make three brief points.
If we are going to be persuaded that there is a link between the “sonic and spatial” disruptions of the Idle No More protests — which took up the space of consumption (shopping malls during the Christmas season) and distribution (highways and train tracks) with drumming, singing, and dancing — and the idea of an “avant-garde,” then we will need to reorient our definition of radical aesthetic practices. This is exactly what Nardone is after. I would proffer the simple notion that an avant-garde practice is one that is oriented towards social change (whether that orientation is carried out via formal maneuvers or direct and deictic acts of social pointing). I might also add that this “orientation” is best (most appropriately, now, under current conditions) made within (adapting Jodi Dean’s phrase) a communist horizon — that is, a maneuver or pointing towards a destination the horizon of which is a complete transformation of social relations.
Nardone cites Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, who links decolonization with anticapitalism. I think Coulthard has just this idea of an orientation within a communist (anticapitalist) horizon in mind, as he suggests that Indigenous blockades and interventions like Idle No More have both negative (disruption, rupture) and positive (the proposition of an Indigenous alternative behind the blockade or within the round dance) functions. I think we do have to be wary of subsuming anticolonial movements and acts within a European/colonial matrix (thus I myself am reluctant to deploy terms like avant-garde anymore) — but I also think we can work from an anticolonial ground towards new ways of orienting social art practices.
Nardone also reorients the avant-garde around the notion of the “call to arms.” I am reminded here of Howard Caygill’s argument about the call in On Resistance, which he links to Indigenous resistance via the Zapatistas’ much-remarked use of the genre of the call. Unlike the historical avant-garde’s manifesto, the “call to resistance,” Caygill argues, “does not come from a problematically constituted subject of speech” — “calls to resistance on the whole come from nowhere” and “are not directed to a defined public. They perform a capacity to resist which, once declared, is actualized.” I read the call to be “Idle No More” this way (who is the subject of this call exactly?) — and I think it is more productively disruptive, in Nardone’s sense, when it is this open and ubiquitous: Idle No More, while clearly “Indigenous,” was received and responded to by a “public” that included many who were not Indigenous, and it burst out into spaces that strictly Indigenous protests had not accessed before (shopping malls).
A manifesto usually comes from a particular, specified body promulgating the manifesto, and is typically intended to express the intents and purposes of that body. A call to be “Idle No More” is, potentially, harder for the state to squelch, harder to return to a status of mere noise.
“It is, finally, to argue that any conception of an ‘avant-garde’ in Canada that attacks only the institution of art, only aesthetic praxis — stopping short of the structures that circumscribe that institution and that praxis — will not suffice” (Michael Nardone).
I think I am repeating my first point — switching the dial noisily backwards. Ultimately, what Nardone calls for is an entirely new definition of the avant-garde — one in which the idea that certain aesthetic practices might cease to count as works at all is turned on its head, so that the ceasing to count as artworks (alone) reveals a becoming of something else — a breaking forth of collective struggle in the midst of material matrices of production. It is an old idea, somewhere near the core of what we now think of as avant-garde — that art and life, aesthetics and struggle, become indistinguishable — that we make our resistance as we would a work of art, and that we make our works of art as we do our resistance — that there is no moment when we are not artists, not resistant, and not building a new world of justice from within the ruins of the old world of oppression.
The question I’m left with is: does the term “avant-garde” do any productive, liberatory work anymore?
Although we can debate the historicization of literary modernism, particularly by attending to its formal rather than authorial delineations, it is less contestable to suggest that it had a prominent position in the cultural life of the 1930s. This was, of course, the decade of Pound’s Cantos, Beckett’s Murphy, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and Stein in America.Perhaps this canonized imperative declined somewhat in subsequent decades, but arguably it is not until the 1960s that we see modernism’s replacement in high culture; hence, Charles Olson’s letter to Bob Creeley about his generation being “postmodern.” The 1960s, of course, sees the flowering of a whole raft of poetries, not least among them ethnopoetics, with Jerome Rothenberg’s seminal Technicians of the Sacred being published in 1969. But what of the prehistory of the field of ethnopoetics? How can we add to our understanding of the modernist era by examining both the primitivist proclivities of established writers (from Lawrence to Césaire) and the raft of world poetries that go on to become those of ethnopoetics? I want to focus on the poetry collected in one anthropological journal to ask and develop this question and to provide readers with an opportunity to encounter material that is often locked away in archives that are hard to access.
Oceania was established in 1930. Since then it has published contributions in the field of social and cultural anthropology. Its primary regional orientation is to the peoples of Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, and insular Southeast Asia. Reading Oceania is reading the history of anthropology, then, particularly in a peer-reviewed academic strain, but in so doing we can reread what is possible through close attention to the source material on which the analysis is based. As Rothenberg did in his early anthologies, this means finding textual poetries in the archive, which are often used instrumentally to highlight anthropological points rather than thinking through their aesthetic merits on their own terms. What are the sources, informants, primary materials saying, and how might we relearn this rather than rely on the established interpretation of bygone days? How, in other words, should we read various Indigenous poems now?
Primary among the poetic material that exists in Oceania are Indigenous Australian song poems, which feature lyrics, often narrative, that relate key ceremonial and domestic life to a different audience. For the most part the analysis of this material is used to highlight the social organization of the studied group rather than explicate a poetic worldview. This is particularly the case for the era 1930–1960. In the archive, though, there are a variety of different aesthetic expressions — different groups singing for different reasons with different tones, modalities, styles, forms. It is a diverse and rich poetic territory, and one can see the great degree to which Indigenous Australia is a colonial projection that discounts the differences between groups from central Australia to northern Australia to every other corner of the continent. Indeed, the categorizing and labeling imperative seems to flatten rather than enrich, and part of the analytical work that is necessary today involves trying to decongeal those terms, to reinvigorate what is possible by attending closely to the material at hand.
Part of that is respecting the archival materials. As such, I have selected a wide range of songpoems from the Oceania catalogue that when read against more common sources show us a new type of worldview, a new understanding of what is possible in the era of modernism. The poems collected below are paths through literary primitivism precisely because they present what “primitives” themselves told those who went looking. That there were Indigenous people in Australia still living as “hunter-gatherers” until 1984, when the Pintupi Nine came in from the desert, suggests not only a deep and ongoing connection to traditional ways of life for some, but also that the material conditions upon which ideas of primitivism were based were a common-sense, everyday mode of being in the modernist era I have defined above.
What follows are the translations as the anthropologists presented them. Rather than seeking to re-present them as failed or partial, as the anthropologists implied by adding more literary translations that conform to the aesthetic paradigms of their era, I want to see their poetic qualities in and of themselves. In this way I regard them as Sappho-like fragments, as contributions that translate in a literal way and allow us to come to an understanding of what was happening in their original context. One notices, too, the heavy repetition, a feature of much Indigenous Australian poetry. It is a technique that I find engaging and locating here — it pulls us back by saying the same word again and again.
These poems attest to a history of collaboration as well. Ronald and Catherine Berndt were particularly important and made a major contribution to anthropology and song poetry in particular. The work presented here represents a very small fraction of the work they collected during their time in the field, which is now housed at the University of Western Australia. They stand as the foremost interpreters of song poetry of the modernist era and deserve recognition despite the increasingly fraught politics of this encounter.
Song poetry is a living and thriving art in many places around Australia. This archival record shows not only a historical dimension to it, but also places it in conversation with other aesthetic movements around the world. What it can teach us is not only about the rich life of Indigenous people but also how we can read in translation and what aesthetic qualities are valuable in different contexts.
Spear and Raise
stand-it-up leave-it and go-away high-one ‘return to camp’
cave black = (dark) stand-it-up leave-it
digging trailing digging trailing trailing
sticks (dragging) sticks
paint-marks track (foot) the one who hands claps
sticks sticks striking striking strangers look (see) we don’t know who they are
— Norman B. Tindale, “Legend of the Wati Kutjara, Warburton Range, Western Australia,” in Oceania 7, no. 2 (1936): 169–85.
From “A Preliminary Report of Field Work in the Ooldea Region, Western South Australia (Continued)”
grub in tree rub hit brush sand aside brush sand aside grub in tree
dog find it close up dead it was
rock wallaby hit it finger nail going along on all fours-you
rock wallaby hit it (with club).
kangaroo tail euro mallee country big belly
sweet stick to throw across spider web to hear talking
the bird’s cry a large blue morning bird cook it eating it the brothers both
— R. M. Berndt and Catherin Berndt, “A Preliminary Report of Field Work in the Ooldea Region, Western South Australia (Continued),” Oceania 13, no. 2 (1942): 143–69.
From “A Preliminary Report of Field Work in the Ooldea Region, Western South Australia (Continued)”
big hill/digging stick/climb up a bush sand wet wet.
yellow snake/go along making/a wavy track bring it here/bring it.
a round head-dress/quondong/sit down/night time holding each other
head=dress/ quondong/sit down
a star falling down at night time you (star) go back!
eyes very hot lying down eyes moving away from the fire
neck vagina dig up sand
a woman’s name his (woman) fire making big tree sing-song dance
round stone/with foot sole/scoop out/mulga tree/one spear him
— R. M. Berndt and Catherin Berndt, “A Preliminary Report of Field Work in the Ooldea Region, Western South Australia (Continued),” Oceania 14, no. 1 (1943): 30–66.
From “Aboriginal Place Names in Kimberley, Western Australia”
At Gonbaren’s place lightnings,
Camps and shadow,
— Ernest Worms, “Aboriginal Place Names in Kimberley, Western Australia,” Oceania 14, no. 4 (1944): 284–310.
From “A Preliminary Report of Field Work in the Ooldea Region, Western South Australia (Continued)”
sharp spear frightened gets up, runs away
dry sand coming over hill cave
tired legs numb bones tired
aunt arm long way prickly bush arm
curlew legs skinny arms none legs two
wagtail fire makes rain coming-close-up
— R. M. Berndt and Catherin Berndt, “A Preliminary Report of Field Work in the Ooldea Region, Western South Australia (Continued),” Oceania 15, no. 1 (1944): 49–80.
Expression of Grief among Aboriginal Women
my son uncle
my son blood (sunset) (sunset)
kangaroo creature wallaby kangaroo blood/flowing
(place) (place) place
who struck (it) (struck) (struck)
(with) jungle spear finished
my son my son kangaroo kangaroo
jumps it from stone with claws with claws
blood (flowing) (sunset) (sunset)
my son blood/not much penis/small one
small his (strength)
not he big grow up
wallaby (small bones inside)
son my blood/not much penis will cut son my
my son penis penis/small blood/not much penis
son our uncle
— Catherine H. Berndt, “Expressions of Grief among Aboriginal Women,” Oceania 20, no. 4 (1950): 286–332.
A Drama of North-Eastern Arnhem Land (Continued)
(bird) crying, with outspread wings egg with young inside
flies low, round and round goes to clouds clouds rain-clouds to clouds
sound of cry carries sound throwing sound of cry to (place) to clouds
sound of cry clouds sound
alights cring cries goes water looks salt-water sound
cries, looking in water for fish on rock on rock on rock
flew (bird) (bird) eye goes cries (two eyes)
tears from crying
tears, rain clouds wings spread, resting goes
east wind dark clouds sky dark with rain dark rain clouds
— Catherine H. Berndt, “A Drama of North-Eastern Arnhem Land (Continued),” Oceania 22, no. 4 (1952): 275–89.
voice flies off native companion walks along
flapping wings takes off voice flies away
native companion wings its runs along ‘talks’ and flies off
spirit country native companion takes off comes down from the sky
stony hill spinifex a big range hill spinifex
fish barramundi big shoal tail fins forehead
nose staying in water
— A. P. Elkin, “Arnhem Land Music (Continued),” Oceania 25, no. 4 (1955): 292–342.
From “Arnhem Land Music (Continued)”
country Songman dry country
water river honey bee ‘talk
camp (of plains kangaroo) large country
little tree bamboo posts house spear
dilly bag cloud
grass (kangaroo eats) (kangaroo) goes back and forth stone
(where kangaroo camps) (kangaroo) climbs up hill (goes back) stone
— A. P. Elkin, “Arnhem Land Music (Continued),” Oceania 26, no. 3 (1956): 214–30.
Religion, the surreal, and the neobaroque
Across a long, extraordinarily prolific career, Cuban poet José Kozer (born in Havana, 1940) is remarkable for the consistency of his style. His work has been viewed as part of the Latin American neobaroque movement — a loose grouping of poets from the 1970s onwards who preferred a dense, multidimensional approach rather than the then-common plainspoken colloquial or conversational style — yet Kozer’s poetry is very much sui generis.
Even before being read, a Kozer poem proclaims itself by its scroll-like layout, and one quickly notices the disruptive syntax, the use of parentheses, the signature repetition of words, and the diversity of a vocabulary garnered from across the Spanish-speaking world, where Cubanisms, Mexicanisms, and words peculiar to Chile or Peru, jostle against the Spanish of the Siglo de Oro. The versicle layout in the form
suggests a Biblical scroll that the yad or pointer moves down and, equally, a Chinese or Japanese scroll where poetry is a visual, as well as auditory, aesthetic experience. The reader’s experience of Kozer’s poetry is also shaped by the general absence of punctuation, the sudden shifts in grammatical structure, the tendency for past tense to glide into present tense, for third-person pronouns or verb endings to suddenly become first person: in short, a series of devices that help create an experience of simultaneity and immediacy.
Often, in Kozer’s poems, there is a collapsing of sequential or historic time into a single present. In “Indicios, del inscrito” (“Traces, of the inscribed”), for example, a grandfather in the hour of death reciting or tracing with his finger a prayer enters into the presence of his namesake David going down with his chariots. There is also the experience of fusion, as in the Zen-like moment of identification when the poet chewing a biscuit and the caterpillar chewing a leaf merge into each other. A sense that the religious impulse speaks directly into our profound incomprehension before death is at the core of much of Kozer’s poetry. The religious dimension to his poetry (and to his stylistics) helps explain why Kozer’s poems of childhood, family, Cuba, and everyday life are so distinctive when compared with many North American poems dealing with similar subject matter. The poem does not resolve into a story, nor does it settle into the contemplation or celebration of the strangeness of language. In an interview with Jacobo Sefamí, Kozer states that calling his poetry “neobaroque” or concerned with “language” is only one way to situate it, but that calling it “religious” might be another, even more valid way:
I don’t have a problem of language, I have a religious, metaphysical, philosophical, ethical problem. Language after all is not an end in itself, it’s an instrument; it’s not autonomous, it’s a vehicle … yes, for me, what moves me is religious difficulty, the difficulty before the death of the body.
A second aspect of Kozer’s manner of being neobaroque concerns the surrealist strain in his work. This has been largely underrepresented in the selections made of his poetry, especially in websites and anthologies in English, which tend to focus on his poems of family life, childhood in Cuba, and everyday married life or his Buddhist poems. The three poems presented in Jacket2 highlight this other, surrealist side of Kozer’s work. As Melanie Nicholson argues persuasively, surrealism reinvented itself in Latin America, leaving a widespread, diffuse trace, particularly from the start of the 1950s, among poets like Olga Orozco, Octavio Paz, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Marosa di Giorgio. It was not the surrealism of automatic writing or of wordplay for its own sake that interested these poets — rather, they were drawn to surrealism’s “conviction that poetry is a path to knowledge,” tapping into forces of eros, magic, and dream material to make poetry a place of revelation. The inclusion of oneiric material, trust in the poem as a journey that escapes one’s control, wildly disruptive images, and rapid syntactic transformations: all these surrealist traces are visible in Kozer’s poetry.
It is interesting to think how differently surrealism was interpreted or bent as it was adopted, around the same time, in North America and in Latin America. Where New York poets and others (even in their selections and translations of French Surrealists) tended to hear a “cool,” abstract, even cerebral, poetry, in Latin America a more emotional, threatening, and visceral “magic” surrealism developed. While such poets as Ashbery, O’Hara, or Koch valued surrealism, perhaps above all, for its liberating effect, the way it gave permission for the poem to cast off the moorings of subject matter or preimposed unity, trusting the poem could “make its own days,” in Latin America the connections between surrealism and eros and thanatos predominated. (In making this contrast I’m thinking most of all of the New York poets and of the period roughly between 1945 and 1975. Charles Simic and Russell Edson, for example, with their darkly visceral surrealism, are a different story again.) In poets as diverse as Paz, Orozco, Pizarnik, and di Giorgio, there is the vision of a poetry that is neither narrowly personal nor social nor political (nor purely experimental), but arises from a level below such categories, incorporating a strong presence of nonrational elements. Traces of that emotionally charged surrealism help explain the sense of depth in Kozer’s poetry, grounding his distinctive stylistics in an underlying oneiric energy. I must stress that I use the word “surrealism” here very loosely — it is not a label Kozer would apply to himself.
Three poems from Carece de causa
José Kozer’s 1988 collection Carece de causa (“No known cause” or “It lacks a cause”) marks a significant growth in the level of complexity, strangeness, and difficulty of his poetry. Compared to earlier poems like “Te acuerdas, Sylvia,” “Gramática de papá,” or “Mi padre, que está vivo todavía” (all from Este judío de números y letras  or Bajo este cien ), the poems gathered in Carece de causa signal a turning away from linear narrative, a dislocation of reader expectation, the simultaneity of many levels. While the earlier poems — had they been written in English — would not have looked out of place in North American poetry, in Carece de causa and his subsequent books Kozer develops a style of poetry unlike anything I know of in North America, an approach to poetry very much his own. Partly this has to do with the number of poems that lack obvious references to personal or social narrative. Partly it is a matter of how strangely compounded, inverted, and encrusted his poems become — even when they do seem to start from a clear focus, such as the illness of his father or his grandfather’s death. Often we don’t know where we are, or the apparent location of the poem’s “action” fractures to reveal layer upon layer. There is a liturgical, ritualistic dimension to the poetry, a deliberate splicing between language levels and dialects of Spanish, the inclusion of biblical and mythical presences that undermines realist expectations. Yet, at the same time, the surrounding everyday world is presented in its precise minutiae, recorded in a language that seeks to claim “the totality” of Spanish vocabulary. This combination of indeterminate location, suspended narrative, and very specific vocabulary helps give Kozer’s poetry its unique feel. Of equal importance, the poems respond to psychic, emotional, and religious pressures that shape the whole. Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo in his reflections on poetry suggests:
In all the words of a poem you must be able to read their necessity, that is, one by one they should convince us that they are there because they are more necessary than other words which were not used, and, what is more complicated, that they are more valid than silence itself. (“In art it is difficult to say something which would be as good as saying nothing,” affirmed Wittgenstein.)
In other words, as well as surprising us, poetry ideally convinces us of its necessity. In Kozer that driving force, that necessity in the writing, most often involves the religious dimension to life, the proximity of death.
The three poems presented here — “Retributions” (“Las retribuciones”), “Things near at hand” (“Proximidades”), and “Echoes” (“Ecos”) — share a strange oneiric quality. Although I have been labeling this quality “surrealist,” perhaps “cabalistic” would be a better description. It seems concerned with realities underlying this reality — or at least, invisibly present in it. We do not know where we are. Is this the Cuba of Kozer’s childhoood or Forest Hills, New York, where he lived at the time of writing, or perhaps somewhere in the Middle East or Eastern Europe? In “Retributions,” for example, the wicker easy chairs where the ladies and gentlemen doze suggest Cuba, but the city’s domes suggest Jerusalem. The cap and gown of the magistrates and the bonnets of the ladies suggest a genteel world, Jane Austen’s England perhaps, yet this outdoor tea party takes place in the presence of a highly ritualized butcher contemplating a cow that has been or is about to be slaughtered. Repetition heightens the ritualistic effect. The time frame is deliberately unclear. Of the poem’s twenty stanzas, seven are predominantly cast in some form of the past tense, nine in the present; elsewhere the future or the imperative takes prominence. The effect is to strip us of easy bearings, an effect increased by the general absence of punctuation. In the final stanza, for example, we could read the final lines in Spanish as “begins the reverse of shadow [of darkness?] / the apogee of the breeze among the poppies splashes the walls,” taking “the apogee of the breeze” as one more subject of “begins.” We could even go back to near the beginning of the stanza and read “the shape of the cups” as the subject of “splashes the walls.” The difficulty of tracking the subjects of verbs is one of the challenges of translating Kozer’s poetry. Yet a translation into English also opens up ambiguities not present in the Spanish. In the original, for example, it is not possible to interpret this last stanza as saying that the reverse of shadow begins the apogee of the breezes, as “se inicia” (“begins”) is intransitive. In English, without adding a lot of punctuation or overdirecting the reader, it is impossible to rule out all such “illegitimate” ambiguities, over and above the real ambiguities.
In “Things near at hand” (“Proximidades”) and “Echoes” (“Ecos”) not only do we not know where we are, but both poems are built around strange presences that belong to some oneiric or cabalistic strata. The three old ladies in “Things near at hand” are clearly much more than old ladies — their ancientness goes much further back. They lie down to sleep under frost. Forming the flowerbeds into some ritualistic cross they lay down conditions that look very like a spell or curse. Who are their children (or should it be more specifically “sons,” another possible reading of the Spanish)? And who is the “I” of this poem? In “Echoes,” mysterious word-eating animals seem to have evolved from metal alloys by some strange alchemy and to exist alongside Orpheus. And yet in the last stanza the poet’s wife is there, naked while he wears some very specific clothing — a “dark blue woollen sweater” and “a sienna polka-dot tie.” It is these sudden, unexplained, disruptive transformations that explain why I use the word “surrealist” to characterize these poems. Moreover, what unfolds does not have the implicit narrative or concern with constructing a self, or with questioning the frailty and exposed nature of an identity, that can be found in such North American poems inflected by surrealism as Frank O’Hara’s “In memory of my feelings” or “Mayakovsky.” Kozer’s poetry does not seem interested in such narratives of the self. We are truly in the presence of a very different poetic. Everything unfolds with an impersonal authority — the “I” is not particularly a biographic “I.” Each image that moves us forward becomes a new reality: a city lying below a city, the German phrase “Ich möchte rauchen” (why German?), and the roof slates that have just now rained down. None of these images — or should we say “moments”? — is given greater importance than the others. There is no hierarchy. There is, however, a compelling dream logic to it all. Death, the exposure of being naked, creativity, and wonder — these forces assemble and reassemble a great diversity of material and of language. Admittedly Cuba is never very far — just as the Holocaust, Eastern Europe, and Jerusalem are never very far — but not as any kind of subject matter capable of being described, much less fixed, rather as resonances that continue to speak through the poems.
One of the challenges of translating Kozer’s poetry in general — and these three poems are no exception — concerns his range of both formal and highly colloquial, often regional, vocabulary and the resultant interplay of ritualistic and conversational tones. In “Echoes” (“Ecos”) the word “féferes,” for example, points simultaneously in several directions. I have translated it as “thingamies” but, as a synonym for “trastos,” it could also be taken to mean junk, useless things, or it could be used by a workman to refer to his tools, as someone might say “my gear,” “my things.” In the Dominican Republic it could mean the male sex organs, or in Cuba food for babies or farm animals — “pap” or “fodder” perhaps. In the context it seems to refer above all to a lazy way of talking, almost like saying “what’s-it’s-name,” but it also suggests something looked down on, such as leftover corn stalks used to feed horses. Of equal importance, I suspect, coming after the reference to a nasal voice, it has to my ear an almost comical sound, like someone with a slight speech defect. There is no way I can think of to match all these options. “Thingamies” is not particularly used of human or animal food, and while it captures a lazy way of speaking, it is not exactly comical. Overall, I am sure, my translations of Kozer’s poems are relatively more formal and employ a more standard English than his “total” Spanish. This is largely inevitable in translation as it would seem arbitrary and odd to fill his poems (in translation) with Cockney slang or regional words from 1950s rural Alabama, for example, apart from the problem of such regional expressions being incomprehensible to most readers. On a few occasions over the years, where Kozer uses a word heavily marked with a specifically regional status, I have worked in a couple of Australianisms. In one poem published by Shearsman I used the Australian “woop woop,” meaning a remote place, and in another “feeling real crook,” a tough old Aussie’s way of saying “about to die.” Apart from highlighting the shared fact of writing from inside marginal dialects of an immense world language, these small gestures hint at the commonalities of our two “island homes.” However, in the case of the three poems presented here in Jacket2, hunting for Australianisms did not seem appropriate.
In Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s introductory essays to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, the authors trace the algorithmic-appropriative condition of Conceptual writing back through Conceptual art to its emergence in the work of Marcel Duchamp. (The volume’s excerpts from Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1874 La Dernière Mode, or Denis Diderot’s eighteenth-century literary appropriation, seem to represent anachronistic exceptions to their rule.) For Dworkin and Goldsmith, Duchamp is the heroic initiator of an anti-aesthetic mode of practice that makes the execution (and reading) of things like poetry, as Sol LeWitt would say, “a perfunctory affair.” The readymade is the über-concept of this hybrid venture they have nominated Conceptual writing.
But while their readymade reading of the Duchampian proposition may be useful, I propose this history requires another step back.
Because for one thing, these two poet-editors have rather neglected the history of the readymade itself. Namely, that Duchamp took the word, ready-made, from the label inside a department-store shirt. As MoMA’s website tells us: “In its strictest sense [the term] is applied exclusively to works produced by Marcel Duchamp, who borrowed the term from the clothing industry while living in New York.” (NB: “borrowing” and stealing are synonymous acts in the realm of artistic practice.) We might then postulate that Conceptual art is but an echo of a condition that has its roots in the mid-nineteenth century, as mass-produced clothing increasingly displaced homemade or tailored garments designed to fit individual bodies. For as the management of sweatshop production evolved, the execution of such items became a “perfunctory affair.” What mattered most by 1914, the year of Duchamp’s first official, unassisted readymade, Bottlerack, was the bourgeois act of shopping, or choosing, among already finished items (such consumption having become a facile means to appropriate the worker’s labor, as Marx might say).
It may be instructive, then, to turn to another artifact from Duchamp’s oeuvre: not a readymade per se, but rather the algorithm he drafted for the 3 Standard Stoppages (1914):
The Idea of the Fabrication
— If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane distorting itself as it pleases and creates a new shape of the measure of length. —
— 3 patterns obtained in more or less similar conditions: considered in their relation to one another they are an approximate reconstitution of the measure of length.
The 3 standard stoppages are the meter diminished.
Long live! clothes and the racquet-press.
Make a painting: of happy or unhappy chance (luck or unluck).
Whether interpreted as mere instructions or Conceptual writing, it is fair to assume that Duchamp’s algorithm here was based on a certain style of (pseudo-scientific) management. We might even call the Stoppages — a work made using “regular tailor’s thread” — a sartorial diagram. His “Idea of the Fabrication” was never fully divorced from the material stuff, but rather functioned to stamp its fabric, cut it, and stitch it into a kind of assisted ready-made, through a fully managed means of production. Indeed, if “clothes and the racquet-press” pertain to Duchamp’s Stoppages, the artist’s referents may have been the various “drafting machines,” patterns, and measuring equipment used by sweatshop managers to construct ready-made clothing that pressed bodies into standardized, though incrementally variable, forms. The ready-made shirt — fabricated within a capitalist mode of production and sold in department stores — served as Duchamp’s über-concept, if you will.
“Different Alterations on the Sleeve.” Page from “The French and English Systems of Cutting, Fitting, and Basting Ladies’ Garments by James McCall: First Series” (1882). Smithsonian Archives Center, Washington, DC, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana: Business Ephemera: Pattern Industry, box 1, folder 20.
Tool for measuring and drafting a basic dress bodice, by the Vienna Ladies’ Tailoring Institute (1905). Reproduced in Claudia Kidwell, Cutting a Fashionable Fit: Dressmakers’ Drafting Systems in the United States (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), 41.
In her 1989 essay on the readymade model, Molly Nesbit says something similar. She claims its origin may be found in the method of mechanical drawing taught to school-age children throughout France, beginning circa 1888. Both the readymade and techniques of diagrammatic drawing were, significantly, “not optical.” This “nonretinal” artifact, she argues, “clearly identified with the croquis coté, the blue-print for production, the working drawing for the commodity” — like the coffee grinders, shovels, and other precisely rendered tools found in teachers’ instruction manuals at the time. But if this is the case, as Nesbit points out, then the algorithmic logic underpinning the readymade was also “hardly neutral; it cheerfully ratified the means and ends of industrial production; insofar as it was a language for everyday use, it was a language of work, a language of industry.” Indeed, about the same time that Frederick Taylor had developed his eponymous system for organizing factory bodies, readymade blueprints had changed the modus operandi of art.
And so, after many decades of scientifically managed production came the flexible management of consumption — in Facebook, Tumblr, ArtStack, and the like. Goldsmith’s prescriptive logic of the cut-and-paste fits neatly within this diagram: “Filtering is taste. And good taste rules the day.” This brand of Conceptual writing is thus a practice in tastefully choosing and wearing proverbial shirts, or being “well-groomed.” Only now, in its flexibility, the readymade may be falling apart at the seams. As Duchamp might say: while good taste requires cutting, there is little point in mending a shirt from H&M or D&G.
3. Matthew Gale, “Ready-made,” from Grove Art Online (Oxford University Press, 2009).
4. Due to exorbitant copyright costs levied by Duchamp’s estate, the author has decided not to reproduce this well-known work here. Photographic reproductions and descriptions of 3 Standard Stoppages can easily be found on the websites of various modern art museums, as here.
5. These notes by Duchamp concerning the 3 Standard Stoppages are found in“The 1914 Box” and reprinted in Marcel Duchamp, Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 22–23.
6. Marcel Duchamp, cited in Rhonda Roland Shearer and Stephen Jay Gould, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, More Truly a ‘Stoppage’ (An Invisible Mending) Than We Ever Realized,” Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal 1, no. 1 (December 1999).
7. Molly Nesbit, “Ready-Made Originals: The Duchamp Model,” October 37 (Summer 1986): 59.
11. This phrase references the title of a 1915 readymade by Duchamp, Tiré à quatre épingles,a French idiomatic expression, meaning “well-groomed,” (though it has been incorrectly translated into English as “Pulled at four pins”). See Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969), 454.