Franklinstein began as a mash-up of two classic US texts: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. It was an inspired move, to juxtapose the plainspoken, aphoristic words of a founding father with the modernist novel written by a Jewish, lesbian expat who sought to dismantle and redefine concepts of “the new world” and literature itself.
In 1936, just a year after winning the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize, the twenty-two-year-old Muriel Rukeyser arrived in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in United States history, to work on her next poetry project.
Among recent notices on my Facebook feed was one for the new issue of Big Bridge, in particular a feature on “Neo-surrealism,” edited by Adam Cornford. Cornford’s expansive introduction to the feature, which looks back to the history of surrealism and forward to his selection of living poets, includes this definition of his subject: “What defines a Surrealist poetry today, then, is what has defined it from the outset . . . Surrealist poetry can only be ‘a cry of the mind determined to break apart its fetters.’ It must contribute, intentionally or otherwise, to the liberation of the mind ‘and all that resembles it.’” I’m not here to argue against the mind’s liberation, rather to suggest that newer forms of surrealism can be used effectively to record what occurs before the imagined line break in Cornford’s phrase, “the mind determined to break apart / its fetters.” The breaking apart of a mind, most familiar to me as a product (or anti-product) of dementia and Alzheimer’s, can be tracked through what I’ve elsewhere called “documentary surrealism.”
I’ve just finished a semester of teaching documentary poetry to a group of graduate students. This mixed form proved extremely generative. Student projects focused on women in prison, a homeless woman, a forgotten city, a planned town and its secrets, tourism, food and activism, and a lost grandfather. All of these projects (chapbooks and one on-line text) worked like accordians, moving back and forth between material and abstraction, between persons and communities. If a drawer can said to be an accordian, then Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’s project, which takes as its central artifact a filing cabinet containing his late grandfather’s papers, breathes its histories in and out. (See the project above: “from The Files of Curtis P. Ah You.") Another of the central images in his chapbook, made out of file folders, is the Pulmo-Aide Respirator, whose instruction guide he uses in the central poem. As the respirator is put together, according to the instructions, we learn about his grandfather’s links (broken and sustained) to his past, and of his love for — among other things — University of Hawai`i women’s volleyball. (A cultural marker if there ever was one.)
j/j hastain begins “crepuscular,” from the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA, (with Eileen Tabios, and hereinafter referred to attreooa) with this simple problem: “The dilemma of belonging. What of that has to do with things exterior to us and what of it has to do with our own regard of exteriors and interiors?” (27). hastain responds to Tabios's sequence of prose poems about orphanhood, in particular those orphans who are older, considered too old to be adopted. The orphan who becomes part of Tabios's family (provenance Colombia, destination California) is doing word problems in algebra. But these problems are more complicated than the math would indicate. Arriving at a reference to walls that “slant at 65-degree angles” the child thinks of “the man you longed to call 'Dad.'” He is not father, but “potential father.” What appears outside the “glass-less window” is “a lucid mountain.” The man has scarred the boy. Their relation is not lucid. Hence, the “answer” to the equation is “'indifference > hatred'?” Equations do not generally end with question marks; this one offers a “resolution” only in ambiguities. Most of us consider indifference to be a thing better than hatred. But an orphan, who needs feeling, an emotional relation, longs for it to be strong, not absent or ambiguous. His regard meets the world's disregard in an equation whose answer is no answer. As hastain writes in “LUCIDITY DISCERNING”: “The desire for a father is not a father” (30).
But Tabios and hastain are most engaged in what happens when relation between persons occurs, or between genders within persons, namely in the TRANS of their “relational elations.” They are fascinated by displacements, yes, but also in “active placements,” whether those are relationships within adoptive families or within individuals whose gender-identities are not normative.
In thinking about how to conceptualize ecopoetics, one scheme I have played with groups the field into eight vectors of attention, or “compass points.” (I was inspired by Robert Smithson’s “boxing the compass” of his Spiral Jetty: “South by West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. Southwest by South: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. Southwest by West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. West by South: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water,” etc. ) I array these ecopoetics compass points in relation to a kind of spatiotemporal mappemunde that is more conceptual than geographical. The trope of westward movement—a fiction that has guided much of Western history—provisionally organizes the temporal frame, while the trope of economic North and South, another partial fiction used to sort geopolitical realities, organizes the spatial frame.
While sound marks the “true North” of the ecopoetics compass, Northeast and East point to conceptual and procedural writing and to documentary and research poetics, respectively: modes of writing keyed explicitly to the past. Conceptual and procedural writing occupy the Northeast front out of their instructive orientation to European modernism (more explicitly than any orientation to more recent developments in poetics around the globe), while documentary and research-based practices work directly with history, and/or what has been documented, as their primary material.