— Three Desks —
Myung Mi Kim said, “Let’s make lists of all of our discursive writing and look at those lists.” I began a list soon lost under piles. In the intervening years the bit of edification, the muzzle, gag and tethers of training that determined much of what fell to that list have remained of interest while the sign of the “discursive” under which the list accreted has become increasingly perplexing.
There are daily occasions that provoke response or invitations that require address. Vigilant against the learned behavior of automatic response yet immersed also in a porous need-world in which adrenaline calls the mother, whether or not she has children, before or after, to tend to the call.
The call is not the song. The Latin obaudire, hearing from below — obeying.
— George Albon
Here enter the imaginal and actual laws that authorize kinds of public discourse by kinds of public bodies. The bit and muzzle and their company surface at the moment of the call, as if address requires some kind of redress too: obedience. The writing that escapes seems to be poetry.
Years ago, unable to confine myself to the dissertation writing at the computer on my desk, I put a table to my right and another behind me. The one to the side was a repository for writing related to the topics of the dissertation but occurring in an idiolect different from that of the academy. What I recognized as poetry, sometimes related to the dissertation topics and sometimes not, fell to the third table behind me.
Starting before the occupation of the dissertation chamber and continuing long after that triangulation, an attempt to repeatedly take resistance and desire, to write not only about them, not issue only from them, and also not ignore them.
I am interested in what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from — and in what disables the foray.
— Toni Morrison*
Perhaps for some an academic discourse is native, without ambivalence, or easy to learn. For me it was none of those.
Help arrived as the learning and re-learning, the consecutive and simultaneous ordering and disassembling of one posture after another — perhaps a brain patterning via the body? — of the t’ai chi form:
Question 4: To withdraw is then to release, to release is to withdraw…but what is “in discontinuity there is still continuity”?
Answer: Discontinuity is the physical form and continuity is the i (mind). It is like a broken lotus root with the fibers still connected. In Chinese calligraphy the stroke may be broken, but the mind is still connected.
— T’ai Chi Classics
T’ai chi arrived as a kind of third apprehension: not poetry, not academic discourse — but linking and partaking of some of both of these, and more. An embodied instruction in sequence and phrase that is and is not sequential. No surprise when you think of the Greek for discourse invoking the body in the act of twice bringing or throwing the discus, thus as a measure, like foot size, diskoura δισκουρα of distance. Or if you listen to the many contradictory definitions for the word discourse in the OED, some excoriating, some invoking the body and the household. Or think of diosakis διοσακις, poet., adv., twice over.
That worked and later unworked — re-broken lotus root with the fibers still connected — writing that became the dissertation, later became a book — not of — but partaking of poetry. The hope to address the requirement and desire to learn a particular vocabulary, taxonomy and comportment of thinking and speaking with its rules of inclusion and exclusion and to simultaneously consider the valences of silence and other kinds of thinking and utterance — these efforts to practice forms of discontinuity in continuity continued beyond the three-desk scene. Training to become an academic or a car mechanic or a ten-year-old cotillion dancer requires practice in particular etiquette, ethics and manners. Usually training to become a specialist makes one a specialist in correct etiquette. Once in a while someone also becomes thoughtful and curious, or a bacchic dancer within or beyond the waltz.
WHAT IS IT YOU HAVE COME TO TELL ME?
Ultimately, the good reason of our refusal to censor or to “correct” is that we seek not to get rid of what embarrasses us or what does not seem true to our lights but to go beyond embarrassment — beyond shame or disgust or outrage — to imagine in an other light, to see in a larger sight what we had rather was dismissed from view.
— Robert Duncan
We might wish for a fugitive writing but all writing, including poetry, must contend in some way with the reign of the discursive — even if only to attempt to ignore or subvert its rule.
Yet maybe this institution and this inclination are but two converse responses to the same anxiety: anxiety as to just what discourse is when it is manifested materially, as a written or spoken object.
— Michel Foucault**
In the realm of our current academic or medical or legal discursives, in which “proceeding by reasoning or argument” is the prevailing use of the word, one who refuses or is unable to be trained to tolerate the rigors of correction, the bit of edification, is often viewed as deficient — or she is regaled as a “real” Poet, having “escaped” via a royal road called “inspiration.” This divide we inherit and in which we live takes me back to one of its origins in the Ion: “for not by art does the poet sing but by power divine … God takes away the minds of poets.” The current discursive trains for meaning minus exhilaration. Thinking minus music.
Poetry and music are both patterns of sound drawn on a background of time. … Whatever refinements and subtleties they may introduce, if they lose touch altogether with the simplicity of the dance, with the motions of the human body and the sounds natural to a man exerting himself, people will no longer feel them as music and poetry. They will respond to them, no doubt but not with the exhilaration that dancing brings.
— Basil Bunting
We could think of poetry and music as elements of a kind of thought that involves voices issuing from bodies in motion. A sequence of actions, something like a dance or embodied incantation. Each step across the page might propose a measure of distance. A foot equals a sound unit or sentence. Invitation to a choreography of relation — the proximity of bodies — in a room doing the t’ai chi form — a call, body to body, like seaweed waving to currents in the air, or following the space of the page before word, each posture a hexagram, a sequence taking letter shapes — a form of thought and address —
What is it you have come to tell me?
— Address —
In the difficulty, there is no other to address but address itself.
If I could begin this is where I would begin.
Investigating these gags and tethers that attempt to keep us from violating the conventions of discursive utterance. That is investigating what we think we know about what thinking looks and sounds like — and should — this is the labor of a reflexive and reflective discourse.
All research is crisis. What is sought is nothing other than the turn of seeking, of research, that occasions this crisis: the critical turn.
— Maurice Blanchot
The turning back to look — to have recourse — does not turn one into a salt pillar.
Looking at the curse as it has been inherited through the social and the family over generations, as in, “You made my grandfather eat his children in a stew [Pelops] and therefore I will now kill you in revenge” and on and on for generations of blood-letting. Discourse as a kind of revenge, inheritance, heritage of bloodletting, that occurs in some academic and other cultural conventions, under the sign of which, the slaughter of what came before, one kind of looking back, is recognizable as the work of correction and improvement called contribution to the present.
Is there a way to talk, read, write within the social fabric, canon, family without continuing blood feud? — Is there a course that doesn’t lead, as it did for the Erinyes, Medea, Antigone, etc., to the punishment and shelter of the law of the polis? The banishment of the speech of the Furies to the hearth safely imprisoned inside the house?
The crisis of “the critical turn” is always present and always collapsing response, call, poetry, criticism, event, recollection. Always looking back at that second of a death, an origin, an invitation.
Marcel said they were incapable of establishing priorities. In fact their priorities were simply different priorities: value was assigned to all events equally but serially; what was going on at the moment — Aziz’s [murder] trial, a stray chicken — had top billing. Neither event would have a lasting hold on them. Special fondness was attached to those incidents and persons with the greatest dramatic possibilities — that is, with a continuing, endlessly repeatable and improvable life in the imagination: memory of a kind.
— Isabel Fonseca
In place of subordination, imagination. Like incantation — not without cause and effect as one can repeat one thing and something else may occur as a result. One could engage a telling memory of the remembered unfolding present that prioritizes that of “greatest dramatic possibility” and enacts the critical turn as ratiocination of a kind. Lyric might be of high priority in a response to the continual crisis of seeking.
Lyric has no sound but recalls sound. … The way a promise is an action made in speech, not in the sense of something scriptable or repeatable, but something that “happens,” that “occurs” as an event and can continually be called upon … in the unfolding present.
— Susan Stewart
At that second of the sound of the call, writing poetry is a promise that involves the desolation of the impossible charge. The enactment of a coherent public face that the discursive seems to demand puts me in a different state of desolation.
I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.
— Michel Foucault
In some poetry the writer dwells on the desolation wire of the impossibility of writing within/while writing. Passing from premises to conclusions in the discursive mode we are taught to act, to masquerade as if writing is possible — without obstacle, as if we are not our own obstacle — as if the assignment to convey meaning, argument, language as tool in service of that, can be met.
Is the desolation wire the phatic place where the song eclipses, overshadows, devours, extends beyond the call? Phatic as in phanein φανεροs to show, to appear visible — even if in disguise. Does, can, a wounded and double-faced, doubt-filled, unfaithful to orders, faceless, full frontal critical writing exist?
If it could, would we be able then to burn the need for the distinction between the discursive and other writing?
What is always at work in discourse — as in everything else — is desire and power. … This is why discourse, at least since the rout of the Sophists by Plato, always unfolds in the service of the “will to truth.” Discourse wishes “to speak the truth.” but in order to do this, it must mask from itself its service to desire and power, must indeed mask from itself the fact that it is itself a manifestation of the operations of these two forces.
— Hayden White
Whose “truth” does which discourse wish us to speak, to serve up, to write?
— Third Apprehension —
All reasoning is carried on discursively; that is discurrendo, — by running about to the right and the left, laying the separate notices together, and thence mediately deriving some third apprehension.
Plucking from the definitions which themselves are laden with so much contradiction: invoking the inherent of the incoherent.
A subject of ‘discourse’ or reasoning (as distinguished from a subject of perception)
Perception as a kind of reason?
To lift the ancestral curse from this House of Atreus and turn it on itself.
Here the reflective recursive appears as the chorus that provides “another side to … conception,” even another kind of conception.
And, of course, s/he might begin with the writing. S/he might try to put the whole dialogue in new writing, the field of another kind of voice than those we have heard before. A help-ful, in-forming voice, a voice eager to reach and accept the other’s voice. Already in chorus, or eager to reach for chorus. It might get started like that. Any day, it could begin like that. Any day it could begin.
— Nathaniel Tarn
The intolerable restrictions of the drama could be loosened, however, if a means could be found by which what was general and poetic, comment, not action, could be freed without interrupting the movement of the whole. It is this that the choruses supply; the old men or women who take no active part in the drama, the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the poet to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his conception.
— Virginia Woolf
As legend has it the first actor, the “hypocrit,” was Thespis, the first to appear on stage as a “character” of a written play instead of as “himself,” as a writer. He was also the first to exchange words with the leader of the chorus. The υποκριτηs, the hypocrit could be enlisted to appear on our current discursive stage as the figure who addresses and provokes “the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the poet to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his conception.” Hypocrit from Hypokrisia Υποκρισια — of stringed instruments, answer in sound, i.e. sound in harmony with, to play an accompaniment. This hypocrit, being (at least) two-faced, could begin to “in-form” as Tarn suggests, begin to reach for a chorus that has already begun, to seduce and aggravate that chorus into more comment, summary, and more sides to conception.
The hypocrit talks with the chorus who talks to the audience. They all need each other to stay with/in the play. When the reader talks with the writer, is the reader the hypocrit or the chorus or the audience? The performance by all involves answering, harmonizing, assessing, contradicting: in short, interpretation — critical turns, a turning into, and turning from and toward heard and written passages.
One must be able to pass easily into those ecstasies, those wild and apparently irrelevant utterances, those sometimes obvious and commonplace statements, to decide their relevance or irrelevance, and give them their relation to the play as a whole.
We must be able to ‘pass easily’; but that of course is exactly what we cannot do. … But we can guess that Sophocles used them not to express something outside the action of the play, but to sing the praises of some virtue, or the beauties of some place mentioned in it.
— Virginia Woolf
It might not be possible or desirable to resuscitate, reconstitute, or intervene in the orders of the discursive under whose reign we live, but it could be possible instead to enlist it, turn it into, turn to it as a recursive chorus that doesn’t express something “outside the action of the play” (or the poem, or thinking) but reflects on and joins in singing “the praises of some virtue, or the beauties of some place mentioned in it” and examines its ethics and aesthetics, in order “to decide their relevance or irrelevance, and give them their relation to the play.” And we could ask the hypocrit to digress from the narrative, as the aria singer does, to invite the pets, the gospel mass choir, the recitative, the dolphins and circadae who comment on us and make a place (chorus also invoking an enclosed place, χορτος, a feeding place, a farmyard in which cattle were kept) between speech, song, premise, conclusion, thought, and law.
This recursive chorus would not be performing a meta-function of poetry, as poetry is always in “the play as a whole.” A whole? Where is the inside or outside of the play? Why do we even need to call this writing that enlists the wounded, double-faced, doubt-filled and faceless, something other than poetry? I think that is because we cannot ignore or pretend that we do not still live under the Pythagorean. And in the territory of address of the upper class, male only citizens, playwrights, actors and members of the chorus.
DUALISM: Under the good the Pythagoreans ranged light, unity, understanding, rest, the straight, male, right, definite, even, and square; and under evil as contraries, darkness, plurality, opinion, movement, the curved, female, left, indefinite, odd, irregular.
Promethean aspiration: To be a woman and a Pythagorean feminine. I go in disguise. Signification, Soul under stress, thread of connection broken, visionary energy lost.
— Susan Howe
The recursive might let us don the disguise of “Promethean aspiration: To be a woman and a Pythagorean” — to be a poet hypocrit, and keep “the thread of connection” — “broken lotus root with the fibers still connected” — as inside the wheel of the critical turn we keep researching the curse and walking the desolation high wire.
4. To come back or return (into, in or to) one’s thoughts, mind or memory.
Recurer (obs. rare)
One who helps or aids
Throughout his annual and recurring race he never stops but always changes place
recurring utterance, a form of aphasia marked by the repetition of certain words or phrases
1597 The muscles which are serviceable to the speech or voice, as are the recurrentes, or retrograding muscles.
Of an eagle: Having the back towards the spectator
who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind
with their back to the spectator as a form of address
I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.
— Michel Foucault
Dream in which my charge is to write an essay about silence. And so I attempt.
“To speak is to do something.”
Or to not speak is to take care. Later, to “speak up” is to “tend”
Want, Guilt, Need, Care — the four gray hags
— Christa Wolf
To care is the work of the chorus not to express “something outside the action of the play” but to arrest the dialogue without stopping the action in order to reflect or reflect on actions. The noise of the recurrentes or retrograding muscles in a dance, gestures of utterance issuing from no single character — so, speechless in full speech, masked — on behalf of, to care for, the players in the play, the audience as character in the play — the child at play is in the play
Heart affluence in discursive talk from household fountains never dry
— Thomas Hardy, definition of discourse, OED
On the waterways the night house becomes a neutrality, not a contested space of subordinates. It apprehends a different relation to the animate objects in its hold — silently M and I make lists while the children sleep rocking in their bed boats.
The domestic stage, farmyard, feeding place — open air — public:
Behind the closed door a child moved furniture
Written In Furniture
A message arranged
But the recipients unaware of the legibility of this medium
What is it you have come to tell me?
When the angel of death passed over the houses of the Israelites marking doors — dispensing the pharaoh’s rule [as discursives of moral good and evil, just, unjust] to some, and sent (and saved) others under the sign of the bloody X that became wandering in the desert [running hither and tither: passing irregularly from one locality to another], exile, on others — my forehead — the forehead of my house, received an X. Sent to the lions, the snakes by the river who secretly romp together disrupting [passing from premises to conclusions; by ‘discourse’ of reason; ‘ratiocinative’] the believed order of the nature of animal behavior, I departed [running about to the right and the left, laying the separate notices together]
Here I dwell
Gather round children of circumstance
while I pass the plate
Let chance, occasion, contingency, condition, happenstance, the circling stars, the odds, hazard,
mistake, incident, be our debtors
take us hostage
so we have no choice but to pack up and climb out the window
That is to run away, to write, to run back into the burning house
Glory to the combination lock
with its lost numbers
And the way we look up at story time
thinking the face of the teacher is the book
and our circle the story clock
Come diverge perplex tell ask spoken for speak with quotation, juxtaposition, diagnosis as proposition — braid doom dwellers, wanderers and the able unable — which dys is it keeping us doubters, dancers, the aimfully inarticulate, aphasic, estranged, chronically embarrassed, those who cannot leave the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, weepers, the exhilarated, army of archers — Turn, bend, twist, spin, brush-the-knee-and-strike
From COMING EVENTS (Collected Writings), Nightboat Books, Callicoon, New York, 2013.
Thanks to Myung Mi Kim for years of conversation. Thanks also to Nathaniel Tarn, whose writings about the choral contributed to my thinking.
And thanks to all of those in whose work I first encountered the possibility of something that might be called the recursive: through letter writing (before computers); in the 1987 issue of ACTS journal called “Analytic Lyric”; in the work of Norma Cole; Benjamin Hollander; in Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson; Luce Irigaray; Hélène Cixous; Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body; Barbara Guest’s Rocks on a Platter, Forces of Imagination, Dürer in the Window, and more recently in the work of Eleni Stecopoulos, Christa Wolf, and Gustaf Sobin, and Impasse of the Angels by Stefania Pandolfo. I’m sure there are many more examples unknown to me or forgotten.
Many thanks to George Albon for his invaluable comments on “Outer Event.”
Thanks to Martin Inn, t’ai chi teacher, acupuncturist, friend, for comment on this writing and many years of wisdom, healing, and friendship.
Thanks beyond possible thanks to Steve Dickison for his repeated readings and indispensible responses to this piece.
I am interested in what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from — and in what disables the foray, for purposes of fiction, into corners of the consciousness held off and away from the reach of the writer’s imagination. My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world. To think about (and wrestle with) the full implications of my situation leads me to consider what happens when other writers work in a highly and historically racialized society. For them, as for me, imagining is not merely looking or looking at; nor is it taking oneself intact into the other. It is, for the purposes of the work, becoming.
Inclination speaks out: ‘I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse, I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final. … All I want is to allow myself to be borne along, within it, and by it, a happy wreck’. Institutions reply: ‘But you have nothing to fear from launching out; we’re here to show you discourse is within the established order of things .… and if it should happen to have a certain power, then it is we, and we alone, who give it that power.’ … In a society such as our own we all know the rules of exclusion. We all know what is prohibited. We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like; not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything.
On Myung Mi Kim's 'Under Flag'
When the feminist poetry press Kelsey St. published Myung Mi Kim’s 1991 epic work Under Flag, a publicity blurb described it as a book that “documents” the “struggle to learn English,” an experience, the blurb goes on to say, that “resembles the experience of innumerable other US citizens in a century that has been shaped by wars and vast human migrations.” The blurb seems to take care to describe the century as the thing that is shaped by wars and human migrations, while the struggle belongs to its citizens.
But in use of the phrase “struggle to learn English” to describe Kim’s epic, the Kelsey St. blurb also points us to ways in which the individual lyric moment lies in tension with the larger historical and political structures of Kim’s epic work. Under Flag can be read against other instances of twentieth-century modernist verse epics that insist on providing the kind of inductive assemblage that can fuse discrete perceptions and historical particulars while resisting the totalizing operations of linear narrative. At the same time, these modern epics contain within them, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis suggested at the University of Sussex conference on the long poem in 2008, the “ghost” or “mark” of lyric: the problem of the subject set against the social, to cite Adorno. Even within those historically ambitious modernist epics we have, for example, in Pound’s Pisan Cantos what Richard Sieburth calls the “internalized or subjective” sort of “anamnesia” within the epic vision of the greater scheme of the poem, or William Carlos Williams’s lapses into compressed bits of verse in the midst of the philosophically meandering Spring and All. The opposition of lyric and epic appears to be constitutive of the twentieth-century long poem.
In Myung Mi Kim’s work, the tension between lyric and epic is legible in concentrated moments where forms and facts of speech are contested, and in moments when they become foreclosed into moments of silence. To read this so-called “struggle,” then, is to pry apart the way this poetry uses silence to stage an argument about individual citizenship against the backdrop of history. In Under Flag, sound and silence articulate the problem of place.
One provocative way to read this articulation is through the recurring image of the mouth. Images of the mouth recur frequently throughout Under Flag: mouths of infants and children, but also related images of throat, larynx, and face. Mouths in this work are full of speech and other objects; they also appear empty and silent. This emphasis on the mouth places Kim’s book in dialogue with Theresa Cha’s Dictee, which highlights organs of the body and their connections to sound via the inclusion of anatomical diagrams and figures, an acupuncture chart, and descriptions of the mouth changing shape as it takes on a new language.
The first section of Under Flag, “And Sing We,” invokes a citizenry against the spaces of contested sound. (Many of these passages can be heard online at Myung Mi Kim’s PennSound page.) Sound emits from the throat before mirroring the distance between voice and subject against the distance between two continents. Kim writes:
Must it ring so true
So we must sing it
To span even yawning distance
And would we be near then
What would the sea be, if we were near it
It catches its underside and drags it back
What sound do we make, “n”, “h”, “g”
Speak and it is sound in time
Several discrete moments in this passage emphasize the links between voice and place. Punning on the notion of “yawning” as something that both mouth and land do, Kim then asks how we would understand the body of water the “we” is no longer near to. That unknown sea is followed by the word “Voice,” set on its own line. “Voice” behaves as an object as well as a command, linking the question about action in the line that comes before with the objectified “it” in the line that comes after: “It catches its underside and drags it back.” The voice, in a way, never leaves the mouth: we are always acutely aware of its belonging to the body. The voice goes on to make a sound that is dissociated from sense: the disaggregated letters “n,” “h,” and “g” can only be provisional. Later in the book, Kim will ask, “Who is mother tongue, who is father country?” (29), drawing a provocative contrast between gendered notions of geography and the voice.
These links between geography and the voice are further explored in the section “Food, Shelter, Clothing,” which opens with a ballad-like stanza of four lines that suggest a generalized perspective on landscape. The stanza ends by pointing us in multiple directions at once. Kim writes:
And of isolation, rock salt, jars preserving
Oxen returning on paths they themselves have shaped
Line of vision heeding lines of hills stretching
Farther west, farther east, than one had thought (20)
Recalling in its title Thoreau’s suggestion in Walden that the necessities for man “may be distributed under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” the poem enters the discourse of social philosophy. The passage begins paratactically, its initial word “And” shaping a sense of ongoing motion as well as uncharted land on the next page, as the “one [who] had thought” has shifted into a particularized “she” who confronts the mouth as the source of legibility:
She could not talk without first looking at others’ mouths (which language?)
(pushed into) crevice a bluegill might lodge in (21)
Here we begin with a silent speaker — “she” — who instead of waiting to hear language issued from mouths before speaking must actually look inside those mouths, as if the language were visible there. The second line of this stanza might suggest how a language can fit uncomfortably inside a mouth, concretizing the image as that of a fish lodging in a crevice.
Near the end of the poem, after intervening passages that depict scenes of war and arrival, the mouth returns to its struggle, but the poem has done away with its subjective energies, instead suggesting a general experience with language difference. Kim writes:
Span no tongue and mouth
Scripting, hand flat against the mouth (26)
The voice here is quieted by an authoritative, “scripting” hand. More important perhaps is the way the first two lines suggest what happens when language is absent, when there is no tongue or mouth: speakers go adrift, and silence is perceived as geographical distance. On the following page, the buoys echo in a line that suggests struggle by a generalized mass. Kim writes:
Up against bounty and figured human
allaying surge (27)
The human here gets figured, “counted,” scripted by citizenship. And if language has earlier been lost, it resurfaces here as gibberish. Kim writes:
ga ga ga ga
This line of abstract sound, hurled from a place of some hardness, could instantiate the “struggle to learn English”; it could also simply be the sound that accompanies the theme of flight in the poem. We see a scene of wartime Korea, but we also hear echoes of the memory of that time throughout the poem. Rather than settling into the trope of the poet’s mouth to issue forth, Kim suggests a tongue that belongs to everyone.
This notion of collectivity is undone by the beginning of “Into Such Assembly,” in which Kim reproduces an exam designed to assess both language and citizenship:
Can you read and write English? Yes _____. No _____.
Write down the following sentences in English as I dictate them.
There is a dog in the road.
It is raining.
Do you renounce allegiance to any other country but this?
Now tell me, who is the president of the United States?
You will all stand now. Raise your right hands. (29)
The gaps that follow the first two questions textualize the gaps and fissures in the rest of this text, revealing the citizenship ritual as something that cannot fully contain silence. The passage also makes starkly clear the way language acquisition is tied to the assimilating operations of citizenship: to be naturalized is to renounce allegiance to any other country, and, implicitly, to any other language.
The effect of this renouncing on the body is explored in “Body As One As History,” which begins with a description of “the body feigning,” undergoing an “inaudible collapse” under the weight of its various illnesses. Kim writes: “Gurgling stomach sack / Polyps, cysts, hemorrhages, dribbly discharges, fish stink” (35). The poem makes repeated references to the body being “large as I,” in a kind of reverse Whitmanianism: the body is big enough to contain the I, rather than the I being big enough to contain the people of the world. This seems especially apparent when Kim writes: “This is the body and we live it. Large as I. Large as” (36). The poem locates the multiple subjects within the body of the poem, which has just issued one of the book’s most violent and troubling scenes of war, but is finally unable to complete the explication of its link to the speaker.
The next instance of “As large as” (which lacks specific reference to the body) comes just after a moment when the mouth again holds language as a tangible object, this time in the service of self-preservation. A line of women on a clover field remain still to evade some danger, but inside their bodies there is resistance, there is life. Kim writes: “In their mouths, more than breath more than each sound buzzed inside / the inside of the mouth” (36). The language inside these mouths must be different from what we’ve seen before: there’s something more functional about whatever it is that is more than breath. Yet there is also something figurative: the women are frozen, but their muscles are moving, and one imagines that the muscle of the tongue continues to move against the oppressive silence.
Under Flag renders vividly physical the process of learning to speak a language. The mouth here inhabits its own multiple meanings — including mother tongue, suckling mouth — as a way to resist the easy binarisms of language acquisition models and move us instead to a larger consideration of history’s writing on the body, inside the mouth. In an interview with Yedda Morrison, Kim links “texts that […] allow for the impossibility of speaking” to the need for a politics that goes beyond opposition. Kim has spoken more than once on her desire to locate a radical politics that does not depend on opposition, which she sees as dangerously evocative of empire. For Kim, the oppositional mode leaves little room for ambiguity, which is at the heart of her approach to silence and language. She tells Morrison:
And Paul Celan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. With these writers we are in the company of language that has been met with potential erasure; what happens in that kind of collaboration between the impossibility of utterance and finding the means by which to utter? […] For me those works that keep re-invigorating that space of silence and erasure, the space of the seemingly untranslatable, are the ones in which you really feel some sort of endurance and power.
It’s especially apt that Kim would mention Celan here, whose reference to “two / mouthfuls of silence” has crystallized our notions of the loss of speech under the Holocaust. Celan figures mouths that have caught something in their grasp but are unable to release it, for fear that they would turn up empty.
Because this is an essay that is about epic citizenship but also about sound, I want to end by reading Kim against an earlier instance of modernist silence in which sound breaks away from language and becomes embedded in landscape. This is from Lorine Niedecker’s 1928 poem “Mourning Dove”:
The sound of a mourning dove
slows the dawn
there is a dee round silence
in the sound.
The poem begins by collapsing the sound of the mourning dove into the experience of time passing: the dove’s call “slows” the dawn, where “dawn” could indicate the time of day as well as the sight of the sun breaking over the horizon. The following lines then extricate bird sound as if it were something material, a concrete object in the landscape, identifying a “silence” within the sound itself. That sound is broken apart into its discrete parts according to its orthography: “dee” could represent the whistling call of a killdeer, a bird also native to the mourning dove’s habitat, but on the page also recalls the “d” in “dove,” as if the dove were circling silence.
If Niedecker offers a site-specific vocality in which subjects and voices recede into the landscape, for Kim, that landscape is always charged with subjective pressures, even in its silence. Kim’s diverse language textures move beyond habits of citation and toward a politics of language acquisition: the poetry maps the linguistic trauma of migration, identifies language as a tool of assimilation, and cites the frustrated work of language to map nation and subject. Using fragments and gaps in speech, Kim’s work suggests the inability of epic to articulate a coherent model of citizenship, suggesting instead the “articulate silence” of postwar American poetry. In this way, Under Flag, as well as subsequent work in Commons and Penury that breaks communication into discrete elements, inaugurates an epic that confronts the sonic fallout of displacement, as when Kim writes in Under Flag:
And when we had been scattered over the face of the earth
We could not speak to one another (31)
4. Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 23. The stanza that follows serves as Niedecker’s critique of imagist poetry exceeding its methodological limits: “Or it may be I face the full prospect / of an imagist / turned philosopher.”
5. For a discussion of “articulate silence,” Myung Mi Kim, and poetics of otherness, see Xiaojing Zhou’s The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006).
One or more voices out loud
There are so many ways for something to be unsayable. Reading a poem out loud is one of these ways. From this vantage, consider the prospect of the contemporary American poetry reading for poets who believe that “the text is not the text.” For poets who ask, as Myung Mi Kim is always asking in her work, “Who has authority?” and then are asked to appear at the front of the room and wear their author-ity by reading out loud.
“For which no pronunciation exists”
but exists in the room and later on tape,
offered because asked, asked because written.
Listen to this moment during a 2010 event at the Kelly Writers House. Not long into the reading — about thirteen minutes — Kim invites several audience members (at 13:00) to join her in a “brief experiment.” She asks them to read with her from “fell (for six multilingual voices)” in Penury, encouraging them not to worry about how it turns out, or how fast or slow they go — no performance anxiety, guys! (to paraphrase). She wants several people reading, because for her, this poem “is not the poem unless it’s read by six different voices at the same time.”
The audience-readers, including Kim, read a page together. Mostly, they read the page in unison — find each other’s speed in common.
We come to poetry readings because we like to hear poetry read, but we may not be ready to read.
“Through sameness of language is produced / sameness of sentiment and thought.”
Variant sounds, then, as a way to differentiate feeling and thought.
After they read the page together, Kim interjects (at 15:44) to offer further direction. She says she heard many languages at once when she composed the piece. “Read as openly as possible,” she tells her co-readers, “including associations, possible shadow words, possible translations, mutations.”
The small group of three/four voices resumes reading. Initially, Kim reads with them but soon stops, perhaps to listen better (at 16:05). As before, the readers are in unison, and although invited to improvise, they don’t. Although Kim has given them permission to slip in a “word that isn’t there,” no one audibly takes her up on it. Why not?
Why couldn’t the readers go beyond the fixed text in front of them — even when encouraged by the author to do so? There are more “concrete” answers (including, say, the readers’ lack of time to acclimate to performing the text this way). Beyond such speculation, however, should we feel disappointed that, more abstractly, the unsaid holds sway even in an attempt to give it voice/s?
Here, I turn to something Kim says about “dis-abling” habituated practices of language. “The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproducible, (re)printable, carries its own charge,” says Kim.
Even in the face of an invitation to say the unsaid, something unsayable sparks. We don’t know what it is.
Peter Quartermain writes: “Good reading, bad reading: neither is wholly possible; either might bring us to the threshold of speech. Strength of vocables: to bind.”
And if something cannot be voiced, or is voiced only with great difficulty, then let’s say the strength of those un-vocables is in leaving things unbound.
Kim talks about the difficulty of reading aloud with Leonard Schwartz on his radio show, Cross Cultural Poetics. Before she reads “Hummingbird” (from Dura), Kim says, “To some degree part of what [it] wants to ask is: where is the point where you can’t always voice something but it can be read and there is an experience of language, but it happens or takes place on a different kind of register — something that’s not simply attenuated or happening in a caesura or rift, but literally the difficulty of articulation, the difficulty of finding a music for a thinking, or a sort of thinking for which there is no a priori measure. So the poem tests these uncertain and undecidable spaces between measure, between song, between the un-articulable, if that’s a word. So, it’s going to be hard to read it, especially in this kind of format because it’s on the air, or I’m speaking it on the air to you. So we’ll see …” (12:37).
Kim’s description of the poem’s other-register music reminds me of Quartermain’s idea of how a poem’s polyvocality evaporates when it comes to air: “The difficulty in voicing the poem … may also have to do with a kind of tentative polyvocality, a simultaneity of possible tones and interpretations, possible (at least in a general sort of way) inside the head but impossible of public performance — a kind of undecidable music or tune” (221).
How flat we may come out when we open our mouths.
In the case of “Hummingbird,” I see a similar foyer between inner and outer in the spaces Kim writes into the middle of the poem’s lines, lines like these:
The writing hung on the wall] [whose writing is it
Varied] [faculty and expression
Sod] [the first deleted me written over (92)
Wall and sheep Tell and speak (93)
The wall is the brackets that stave off and scaffold the silence living dead-center of the line. The sheep are what moves between fenced and stonewalled fields. The fields of the poem and the faithful who come to hear it. Kim knocks on/through the wall.
Kim: “I think what I’m trying to perhaps pose here is this: can that space be left undetermined? Would it be possible to disengage the impulse to have art perform an equal translation or transparent rendering into the social?” (Close Listening).
Looking at it this way, I’m glad that the polyvocal reading Kim invited in 2010 didn’t work out. Its not working out carries a charge. Something there is, muffled, unutterable, and singing a messed-up choir off-tunish in our heads. A place where things fall apart or hold their own, terrifically private and out of reach, and where they also, like a reported ocean, form waves.
3. Full/partial, hazy disclosure: I believe Kim made the same invitation a few years earlier at a reading in Buffalo and I think I was one of the readers. If I recall correctly, I too was unable to improvise any variant readings.
There is no reading this book; it must be read.
Zong! is a book-length poem not so much “about” but “entangled in” the late eighteenth century British court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 “negroe” slaves by the captain of the slavetrading ship Zong during its trip from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. NourbeSe Philip constructs her texts in the belief that this is a story “that cannot be told … [but] that must tell itself.”
This is legal poetry. This is, legally, poetry. Philip’s “intent is to use the text of the legal decision as a word store” in poetic maneuvers that try to sustain the material and immaterial balance of precision shared by both law and poetry. The poetry displays the agonizing tension of an exploration through the minute particulars and silences locked within the legal text, the precise and cautious movement that tries to not tell the story that must be told. In her back notes she says: “The ones I like best are those where the poem escapes the net of complete understanding — where the poem is shot through with glimmers of meaning.” The compositional task she set for herself, a palpable “negative capability,” explodes into the particles of language; the letters, syllables, sounds, silences, and spaces bob and glitter until the page becomes a seascape of indeterminate yet suggestive signs and linguistic attentions:
rt with the negroe s w ale and
sade flee dow
n the river do not
read this ruth it will destroy you s
am my lad jot these no
tes these tunes fa la s
This is both a reading and a score. In reading this we move into the spaces and fragments with the trust that this soliloquy of evidence is, simply, proof of the unfathomable meanings hinted at, in the surfaces of language. Meaning here is not to be “made” but, rather, felt. Der Traum! Story rendered not as history but “histology” — cellular. Information carried. The pages of this section, “Sal,” float and riff on the data, the dendrita. Visually the pages detail the wide range of performance of the words themselves, their intonations and shapes, elisions and resonances, language levitating between tongue, eye, and mind.
When NourbeSe Philip performs this text the silence between the particles is as articulate as the letters, syllables, and words. “Zong! #1” is a veritable creek of attention as the word “water” generates a letteral turbine of iteration and association.
w wa wa t
er wa te
er wa ter
Typographically too difficult to illustrate in this essay, the last section of the poem, “Ebora,” presents the text as “overwritten” (i.e., layered) which elicits notions of erasure, correction, confusion, overlap, and so forth. When she performs (reads) this, the overwriting inserts segments of “tongue-tied” text, static, and submersed language.
What is so engaging in this work is its adherence to the layered possibilities of making the poem. The book poses a poetic treatment of story as the most dynamic and ethical response to reading and writing history. Philip avoids becoming implicated in story language: “The poems resist my attempts at meaning or coherence and, at times, I too approach the irrationality and confusion, if not madness … of a system that would enable, encourage even, a man to drown 150 people as a way to maximize profits …” Instead she, and the text, work hard to sustain a provocative and confrontational relationship to the normative materiality of history by juxtaposing, as she suggests, the nonmaterial or immaterial layers it is always cloaked within.
The poetic text is presented in six sections, each with iterative turns and elements that dovetail laterally with different abstractions and content that surface in the project. Material echoes resonate from the names, words, phrases, and things Philip provides in a “Glossary” and a “Manifest.” The “Notanda,” a sort of “postface,” is an incisive discussion of how Philip approached the writing. Part journal and part essay, this grounding helps balance the tension and energy of the poetry.
Zong! is, as they say, a piece of work. It is one of the most labor-intensive poetic texts I’ve encountered. Unfortunately many readers will prefer the work to be transparent, the reading of it to be effortless. Against such a norm, NourbeSe Philip’s insistence on the more substantial, yet difficult, complications of history and story is doubly admirable. Don’t expect to just read this book but, understand, it must be read.