On a reading by Fred Wah
In this video, Fred Wah reads three poems from his recent selected, The False Laws of Narrative, edited by Louis Cabri, followed by six poems from Is a Door (2009), followed by an unpublished piece for Omar Khadr and, finally, a joint reading with Nicole Brossard of “If Yes Seismal,” his transcreation of Brossard’s “Si sismal.”
For me, these poems, and generally much of Wah’s poetry, spiral into and out from the third piece in the reading, “The Poem Called Syntax” (published in So Far, 1991). Just the mention of poetry and syntax in the same breath brings to mind Robin Blaser’s Syntax (1983), and his deliberate adoption of a paratactic collage of quotations, memories, reflections, and patternings of sound and sense which Charles Olson famously found lacking: “I’d trust you / anywhere with image, but / you’ve got no syntax.”
No controlling syntax is exactly the point. For Wah, like Blaser, how poems combine words, sounds and perceptions — the gathering or syntax of them — is crucial: poetry is not about imposing the narrow thinking of the standard complete sentence, or of the egotist’s diary, or of religious and political dogma. Poetry is about tapping in to a realm of sound and sense much larger than narrow frames of reference limited by individual or cultural experience; it’s about affirming the possibilities of knowledge outside and beyond what we know, and extending our knowledge through “ungrammatical” patterning.
When Wah says “We live on the edge of a lake called Echo,” several lakes come to mind; indeed, the poem refers to “all lakes.” One lake is Kootenay Lake, the 100-mile long lake in the interior of British Columbia where both Wah and I grew up, and where he has, since the 1970s, had a summer cottage. The geography of southern British Columbia is marked by several similarly long lakes in parallel valleys by which locals navigate their mental and physical treks in the province. Every spring runoff, these lakes flood.
Another lake is Blaser’s “lake of souls” (via Dante), which he said “is / probably the secret of syntax itself.” Quoting this line in “Music at the Heart of Thinking 114,” Wah comments “That’s the drawer of poetry, closed to keep the lake from flooding.” Wah envisions poetry working in a clutter of phonemes and morphemes, a chaos of linguistic signaling, waiting for connections in a “quilt of meaning.” “Just throw it into / the drawer,” Wah writes, “mess is poetry’s mass.” This does not mean poems are left uncrafted — on the contrary, Wah’s poems are full of formal patterning — they are as adroitly composed as improvised jazz from which he derives much of his poetic method — especially evident in the first two pieces in this reading, selected from his serial poem “Music at the Heart of Thinking.”
Another lake that comes to mind is the one in Michael Palmer’s serial poem “Notes for Echo Lake” (1981) — a long meditation on “micro-syntax below the order of the sentence and even … the word,” and on the relations between sign, self, names, speech, text and “a music or music beneath the hill, an ‘order of feeling.’” Palmer notes Plato’s warning against “shadows of … words cast against the wall” and his warning against song, and Wah too explores a connection to Plato’s cave allegory, imagining a “geometry of sound” high above all lakes, “something like Plato’s cave of noise.”
“The poem,” the big poem of everything, then, is a lake of sound, where we swim around, mindful of our own narrow habits of reference echoing back our limited vision. The depths of this lake where poetry works “are not a / privilege,” Blaser said, “but everybody’s.”
The lake is also syntax, the way we gather sounds and threads. Crucial to syntax, Wah shows us in the six poems from Is a Door, is that we open doors to other possibilities in sense-making, breaking down the readymade Western capitalist conclusions that deluge us, including, for Wah, stereotypic closures of race and class. At the level of phoneme, morpheme and rhythm, Wah tells us we must kick open our desires to find doors we haven’t tried. His dedicatory poem “to the dogs,” like Peter Culley’s book of that title, invokes an ongoing thread in his work (signaled by earlier titles like Loki Is Buried at Smoky Creek) — dogs as a lens for twenty-first-century human conditions. What are we barking at? How do we get ideas from barking?
'Eunoia' patanoia patadox patadise
When I write, I face my own death. This is the message the writer sends from the edge of the grave. Only days before stepping over the threshold, in Learning to Live Finally, Jacques Derrida, the specter of différence writes back to us as though from the other side:
The trace I leave signifies to me at once my death, either to come or already come upon me, and the hope that this trace survives me. This is not striving for immortality; it’s something structural. I leave a piece of paper behind, I go away, I die: it is impossible to escape this structure, it is the unchanging form of my life. Each time I let something go, each time some trace leaves me, ‘proceeds’ from me, unable to be reappropriated, I live my death in writing. It’s the ultimate test: one expropriates oneself without knowing exactly who is being entrusted with what is left behind. Who is going to inherit, and how? Will there even be any heirs?
Faced with the exponential increase in data, and the rapid passage into obsolescence of hard and virtual archival alternatives, the question of the Überleben, afterlife or survival, of one’s work becomes all the more acute. The structure of the trace that requires me to live my death is inescapable. There is no way to ensure my inheritance. In fact, in a kind of Heisenbergian gesture, when I read a text, as I am now misreading the Xenotext project, I have already done it irreparable damage, if one considers transformation as damage. That is the very nature of the Überleben.
It may be, as we shall see, that the archival obsession is an impossible desire for immortality in the face of death. All life, even the afterlife, is ephemeral. Here, as wherever we are faced with an irreducible contradiction, is the ideal place to propose a pataphysical solution.
The pataphysical solution simultaneously subverts the grand narratives of science as progress, and art as genius. By offering solutions to problems that are either insoluble or imaginary in the first place, pataphysics reveals the aporia and lets it stand. Pataphysics points to the paradox of the problem it seeks to resolve. It compels us to turn elsewhere, to think otherwise. To confront our responsibility.
The Xenotext, if we read it as pataphysics, demonstrates that even when we abandon the unreliable paper and virtual substrates, to encode our text instead in the hardiest of living cells, the problem of its survival remains.
Undeniably, as Pak Wong and Eduardo Kac have already demonstrated, it is absolutely possible to encode text as DNA strands in minute organisms such as bacteria. In this way human data can be attached to organisms with proven track records for longevity, and thus hitch a ride into the distant future, to be retrieved either by future humanoid generations or, if that unfortunate species has destroyed itself by then, by alien anthropologists and art lovers from distant planets.
The genius of the Xenotext Experiment is that it not only stores information, but that the encoded poem generates a response from the host organism in the form of another poem. The bacteria itself becomes a machine for writing poems. There appears to be a dialogue between the geneticist-poet and the organism, even if that binary is conceived stereotypically as male human/female bacterium.
And yet we know that, in fact, the genetic nucleotide is already a poem. With endless permutations. Its own secret language. A language that human science has only begun, not to decipher (because that would assume some original signified prior to language, and attribute some teleological purpose to the genome’s language), but to translate in what might be described as a radical translational process. Radical because there is no way to translate in a literal sense the genome’s language into any human language. The geneticist produces a translation that she can understand or that can be useful to her human needs, for medical purposes, for example, or to store data. But the poem is already there. If “the word is now a virus,” the virus has always been the word.
The biogeneticist then is a reader. Her relationship to the text is that of a translator, seeking to give the original an Überleben, which is the task of the translator. The translation emerges from the original text, it lends itself, offers itself to the original text, as an Überleben, an “afterlife” or, in Derrida’s translation of Benjamin, a form of “survival,” of living on. To speak of translation — and writing is always already translation — is to speak of death and responsibility.
But the Xenotext Experiment is not listening; it imagines it is initiating a conversation, when the other has already been speaking. When the geneticist-poet penetrates the organism to encode new information into the nucleotide, he in a sense interrupts the other’s speech, the nucleotide’s own poem. What if the aliens were not somewhere out there in heaven or in the World-to-come, but instead had always been here, reading the poetry of nucleotides? Or more potentially radical: what if these tiny organisms are in fact the aliens, the xenos who have always been here reciting long strings of generative poems to each other while humans are busy murdering each other?
We sometimes imagine ourselves reaching out to alien civilizations the way our ancestors reached out to the angels. Or like Paul Davies we speculate that they are already here, speaking in codes implanted in the tiniest organisms among us. Aliens standing in for God: superior in intelligence and yet harboring some sort of inexplicably benevolent interest in our planet.
But xenos, the foreigner, the unknown, can be guest or host, stranger or friend. The word lies at the root of the Greek policy of xenia (comparable to the ancient Hebrew practice of akhsania of which Levinas speaks): hospitality toward the guest, the foreigner, the other, who might turn out to be a god disguised as a beggar (xenia was also extended to the poet or traveling bard, in the form of bed and board).
The aliens are not out there, but already here; they are both guest and host, and they have been writing poems long before we chipped a stone. As I am compelled to turn back, to face my death, and the irretrievable future of the trace, what remains is my responsibility. When I write, faced with my death, I am faced with my responsibility. Like Socrates, I am compelled to take responsibility for my death, to give it meaning.
The pataphysical solution to the extinction of the earth and its inhabitants compels me to reflect on my responsibility to that biosphere. The Xenotext calls upon us to turn our face away from the heavens and back to the smallest living being on this our planet. What is my responsibility toward that nucleotide, and toward the bacteria which I encode with my message? I am compelled to reflect, not only on the attribution of value to different organisms, based on criteria like size and closeness to my own species, but also on my attitude towards the other in general. Towards writing. What is my responsibility toward the living biosphere in which my death awaits me? What is my message which I seek to encode in another living organism?
“This concern for death, this awakening that keeps vigil over death, this conscience that looks death in the face is another name for freedom.” — Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death
Steve Collis emphasizes the point that elements of practice that conceptualist writers identify as their own are not “new.” Ron Silliman makes the same observations in his reception of Notes on Conceptualisms, remarking that “constraint-based practices are as old as time itself”; that Vanessa Place’s 50,000-word feat of syntactical suspension in Dies has, if one thinks of its concept in procedural terms (say as a kind of biggering and bettering of the Joycean long sentence) been done before; and suggesting that the kinds of conceptual disruptions achievable through strategies of appropriation were long ago realized in the logic of the readymade.
12.6 “It’s been done before”
3.14 hardly being a reason not to do a thing again, especially
9,11 an art thing,
Collis is particularly resistant to a Goldsmithian conceptualism that got trend-conscious folks all busy-beed about the Boring, boasted of an ethic of plagiarism, and took a tone that propped up “creativity” as the new overearnest-kid-with-the-bad-haircut that we were all going to laugh at. But it’s not the mean-girls manner of the making of the conceptualist club’s code that raises the stakes/hackles, it’s the code-making itself. Collis’s urging toward:
x/y a dialectic poetics is a warning against (re)
#.# codifying practice that has such deep roots in avant-garde
REF tradition [“as new”?]
Making it new has always been about setting trend by introducing [ ]* into recognizable modes. Recognizing that we think and write within a communication of poetics, where participation involves a consistent production of and through recognizable poetic terms, Collis cannot fathom imaging this “distribution-oriented sign system” (as Jeff Derksen flashes it in his talk) outside the material systems in which poets’ bodies find themselves. So when the pitch of certain conversations around conceptualism, open-source ethics and empty signification hit notes of claiming that poetry circulates within the “non-economics” of a closed system of poetic readers, that the ineffability of this poetic commerce to the logic of capitalism is the same as being “freed from the market constraints of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing and science worlds,” and that this “non-economics of poetry creates a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish,” Collis understandably reacts.
Interestingly, the stance toward appropriation one sees in a poem like Vanessa Place’s “Miss Scarlett” suggests that at least some conceptualisms share Collis’s perspective on language as a mimetic instrument of belonging-ing, and his perspective on the archive, which Collis insists on calling “The Commons.” Collis follows a post-Derridiean conceptualization of the archive, where the book, the library, or even the concept of “all digital trace in the material of global information systems” are organizings of accumulated masses of information, the readings of which have been streamed and controlled by disciplinary or professionalization systems of affect-cum-capital.
1.1 i.e., This toning of veritas belongs in a museum or a legality.
Collis envisions language as belonging to everyone, as a commons, yet understands the full network of lines of code, the material wealth of information, as having been enclosed, under strategies of capitalist ownership, into intellectual properties and documental forms. As such, the wealth of language is variously accessible to poets as material to re-insert to the frame of poetry, or — more pointedly — variously accessible to people to lay eyes on in the first place, who might from there to learn strategies of expression, critique, or the luxury of ironic appropriation — in the first place.
Place excises lines of text mimetic of African American speech from a canonical screenplay: “She sadness cyan’t be expressd in no pretty essay, neida” (Globe and Mail, 23 Feb. 2002). She places them on a page charged by the historicizing and genre-fying enclosure-frame of the placiest of places in American poetry, a page of Poetry magazine. Place’s un/respect of codes of copyright and ownership is a challenge to the lines of text that enact legal framings of the “source” text but also is a branche of the excised lines to from one set of historico-structural lines of mimetic gesture (Hollywood screenwriting) to another that enforces/expects the genre of poetry, planting cuttings from one estate into another. See how they thrive?
Edmond Jabès: “The book breaks off from the book only to rejoin it farther on. So the empty space between two pages or two works is the place and non-place where our limits of ink and screams are set up and broken down” (381).
Both Place and Collis see the entire field of textuality as undifferentiated in its presence. Both ask what of the material language is in fact the poet’s to “own” under the banner of her “authorship?” Place asks from a place of thinking the guerilla snapshot and the crop; Collis asks from a place of thinking an anarchy of lineages and this moment’s history of leftist anti-homage investments of avant-gardes. If Collis, Kootenay Old School style, might support a manifesto of poetic:ethic:poetic:ethic, is that the same as aesthetic:ethical:aesthetic:ethical?
In Place’s poem, at least, the tones of its dissonances are dependent on the contiguities and discontiguities of discourses from which the “appropriated” language is taken with frames of poetry. The enclosures matter. The thicker the thicket of tonal and proprietary lines “crossed” to be brought to a centre of framed [poeticized] attention, the stronger the offensive charge. Dear reader, I ask:
this poem would do
appropriated by a Black
on a page of Callaloo
One. Point. Too.
* you are here and now
I watch M. NourbeSe Philip’s performance of “Zong! #1” a mere two weeks after attending my sister’s labor, and the experiences pull at each other. In both cases there are human sounds exceeding vocabulary and in both cases I am honored to witness a brave and generous and necessary act. But in Philip’s case, this is not a delivery that ends in joy and relief. Instead, she performs just two pages of a 182-page work whose engines of composition and unrecoverable subject suggest movements beyond those we get in Zong! In this book, one of the most important of our time, Philip delivers the story that can never fully emerge.
Such a paradox propels much of Philip’s writing. Throughout her career she has laid bare the wounds inflicted by the colonizing language of English — its embedded biases, its silencings — revealing it as “expressive of the non-being of the African.” At the same time, however, she deploys that very language in order to enact those exposures and break silence. In Zong! this seemingly untenable tension is carried to its limit, as the English she is constrained by is the particularly fraught “rational” discourse of law.
Zong! was written using only the language of the 1783 legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, a case in which the owners of a slave ship filed for insurance settlement in compensation for the lost “property” of 150 slaves thrown overboard when resources grew scarce thanks to navigational error. While Philip considers the later movements of her book as more vigorously breaking up the source text’s language, it is in “Zong #1” that she subjects Gregson v. Gilbert to the most radical fragmentation, idiom falling into pure phonic material. It takes me a while to figure out some of what I am hearing. Habitual strategies of literary comprehension are inadequate here, where, to borrow a phrase Philip uses in describing an earlier work, there is “an eruption of the body into the text.” The author herself asks in the journal accompanying Zong!, “What am I doing? Giving voice — crying out?” In Philip’s powerful performance I hear the sound of physical and emotional agony, the empathetic reach across centuries, the sound of water, the sound of our loss for the loss, the sound of language failing, the sound of impossibility, the sound of possibility too, hope in a telling of the untellable being performed by a “long-memoried woman.”
An integral feature of the soundscape is silence, something that is palpable here in various ways, as Kate Eichhorn explores in her essay articulating Zong!’s “multiple registers of silence.” Fittingly, Philip begins her reading by performing sections from her 1991 poetic novel Looking for Livingstone, a moving and often comical treatise on colonial silences and silencings. In that book we find that silence is a body, a way of being, a “hard kernel,” a possession, a language, a weapon, an artifact under plexiglass, Eden, “legion / wedged / In the between of words.”
The oceanic scope of Zong! manifests that legion, page after page shot through with silences that function in myriad ways. In her journal, Philip details her techniques, beginning, “I white out and black out words (is there a difference?)” (193). Many of the pages in Zong! suggest this erasure effect, featuring spaces/silences that are far from lacks or gaps, that are replete with intent bespeaking sculptural acumen. As we saw in her well-known poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language” from She Tries Her Tongue, Philip is keenly attuned to the noise that can erupt in the spaces opened up in collage. In Sal, the second movement of Zong!, other languages emerge, contributing to the gathering resonance. Here, too, the spaces between juxtaposed “nig” and “doge” (Ital. duke, 64); “to trap a fat pig / a fat nig” and “a lace cap for my queen” (67); “bile cum pus” and “jam and bread” (70) sound a critique of the systems of exaltation and abjection ensconced in and sanctioned by language. The silences in the book reflect, contest, and rupture the profound silencing effected by the legal document which would refer to Africans as “goods” (211).
In the discussion following the reading, Philip takes up the question of her innovative constraint-based compositional method, making it clear that while she “meets” contemporary movements like conceptual poetics, her process evolves out of a different place — her own personal history growing up in the Caribbean, and the brutal truth that the documentation of the Zong’s history is confined to legal papers. Reading her book puts me in mind of an earlier era of Canadian experimental poetics as well. In the movement Ferrum, the reader is confronted with word fragments and single characters, letteral widows and orphans:
n gon the op
era over we d rop her o
ver we eat e gg drop so
up fish ro e & h
am scene nev
This kind of fragmentation recalls the paragrammatic methods practiced by bpNichol and theorized in Steve McCaffery’s 1985 essay “The Martyrology as Paragram.” McCaffery succinctly defines the upshot of the paragram as “meaning’s emergence out of a different meaning both of which share common graphic or acoustic components.” Here again, however, Philip engages a similar technique with very different motives and effects. While Nichol’s paragrams search for the alternate, hidden logics in language, the undertaking is, as Frank Davey has put it, “exegetical”: Nichol is looking for the enlightening truths to be found there. Philip’s paragrams are revelatory as well, but what they often display are the brutalities embedded in language, the historical residue of colonialism. There is also a listening for lost voices, however they might filter through. In addition, Philip’s paragrams tend not to resolve themselves back into the rational, as part of her project is to rend, break the words. On the final page of Ferrum, over a funnelling list of Yoruba names, appears:
ver the o ba s
Competing readings remain in tension; among them are the refrain, “the oba sobs,” “boss,” “basso,” “S.O.S.” and “oss,” the silent bones. This indeterminacy is heightened by the ample space surrounding the letters, precluding their resolute incorporation into sense. Of her poems Philip says, “The ones I like best are those where the poem escapes the net of complete understanding” (192). Thanks to Sarah Dowling checking her copy of Zong!, I know that the period I have after that final “s” is really just an ink dot, printer’s flotsam, but that little error led me to realize that the book rejects all punctuation aside from the titular exclamation. Philip denies Gregson v. Gilbert the last word, but she also refuses to present her own work as such. The poem escapes the net of complete understanding and the net of closure, as the history of the Zong continues to defy full comprehension and a full telling.
Nicole Brossard at Kelly Writers House
Fearlessly and enigmatically experimental, Nicole Brossard’s work in French (and in English translation) embodies the writing life. Brossard, a radical Quebecois, lesbian, feminist poet presents us with a Poétique that is an invocation for anyone writing poetry now: “Whatever the sadness, the melancholy, the anger we carry around with us might be I doubt that it is possible to write poetry without an acquiescence to life, without enthusiasm, without zeal — these are needed to rip us out of reality and, paradoxically, to give us the intuitive comprehension required to understand the enigmas that comprise its complexity.” Brossard points us toward that complexity, that rift between rising and falling, where poetry happens: “The poem is always an event of fervor that oscillates between the pleasure of words and a powerful and renewed intuition of life. […] I am in poetry (as much as I can be) faithful to myself in thought, in desire and in imagination. For me, poetry is a consent to life, to life which nourishes, modulates and renews my relation to reality.” Brossard concludes by sharing a personal decree, one that should be at the heart of every writing life: “Language always incites me to take action.”
It is this “action” of Brossard’s that returns the reader to her body of work composed over 45 years. Brossard’s awareness of her own writing is revelatory. She confirms that the very best poetry is a variable force, likening it to “the features of the same face [which] can vary depending on the lighting and the feeling …” Brossard, with utmost humility, asserts that, “The two recent anthologies of my poetry witness […] how I have traversed personal and collective space” thus allowing her to “take an overview of what I am calling — in contrast with biography — my bio-semiology as well as what makes up the nodes of fervor in a life of writing.”
Brossard’s “nodes of fervor” are ever appealing, even for the many who come to her work as Anglophones, as outsiders dependent on the translator’s lie. And yet Brossard delights in the impossibility, describing our dependency on the translator “as a game of possible variations at the heart of meaning and value, but also as a subterranean current of strangeness when confronted with the elusive.” It is in the course of this “confrontation,” amid endless variation that we come to love Brossard’s work, where a multiplicity of meanings override all hope of rest amid such a delightful groundlessness.
Brossard’s contemporaneity is obvious as she accurately describes the present climate of post-postmodernism in poetry: “I also find this phenomenon of disfiguration and reconfiguration today in young poets at a moment in history when the real, the fictional, and the virtual are tied for […] first place as they are working to feed sense and nonsense simultaneously.” Brossard further elaborates, sharing her thoughts on community and solidarity amid a climate of apathy: “It is a phenomenon we have gradually learned to use for ourselves in untangling the impossible concatenation of images and values that characterize the political and the ethical in today’s essentially market-based society.”
In Nicole Brossard: Selections, published by the University of California in 2010, Brossard expounds on her theory of writing (and translation), while simultaneously sharing her raison d’être: “I think a mothertongue is oral and that written language holds nothing maternal. In this sense, French is not my mothertongue. While a mothertongue and reality flow together, gasping, full of holes, stammering, with dangerous liaisons and surprising constructions, written language is initiation, lesson, mistake, and castigation, a taught language with its rules to obey and its exceptions, a deliberate and conformist language strong in gender discrimination and outlawed meanings, a language of great taboos and a selective memory. The vivacity and vitality of written language finally depends on the adventurous ones, the dreamers, the audacious, and the amazons who take the time to write a book or to live a lifetime in the form of a book.”
It is clear Brossard is one of the audacious ones, a dreamer providing “evidence for the unique energy that carves markers of meaning and hope in language.” And here we have Brossard at her very best, reading from and discussing her body of work in English, renewing the work once again as it transmigrates from the corporal-textual into the virtual realm.
Unless noted, all quotations are from the PennSound video recording “Nicole Brossard Appearing at North of Invention: A Canadian Poetry Festival, Kelly Writers House, January 20–21, 2011.”