Commentaries - April 2011

Not a luxury

Desaparecidos in Oaxaca, in Cuernavaca, and beyond

"there are no words that adequately describe anything; they signify the already multiple layered stains of history's concrete (cement)/stone {steel}...who said we need to be recognized or seen for what we are? we already know we are held in a position at the end of a barrel, knife, the courts, and/or state sponsored violence...what I am talking about is the flux of absence,  not having the words and using the absence to speak of speaking without a language..." (kari edwards, iduna)

El mundo ya no es digno de la palabra
Nos la ahogaron adentro
Como te (asfixiaron),
Como te
desgarraron a ti los pulmones
Y el dolor no se me aparta
sólo queda un mundo
Por el silencio de los justos
Sólo por tu silencio y por mi silencio, Juanelo.

El mundo ya no es digno de la palabra, es mi último poema, no puedo escribir más poesía...la poesía ya no existe en mi.

The world is no longer worthy of the word
They suffocated it inside us
Like you (they asphyxiated)
Like you
they slashed your lungs
And pain won’t cleave from me
only a world is left
By the silence of the just
Only by your silence and by my silence, Juanelo.

The world is no longer worthy of the word—is my last poem, I can’t write any more poetry...poetry no longer exists in me. (Javier Sicilia)

¡Vivo se lo llevaron, vivo lo queremos!
¡Alive is how they took him, alive is how we want him back!

Professor, union organizer and indigenous and human rights activist Carlos René Román Salazar disappeared on March 14 outside the city of Oaxaca. He is a member of Sección 22, part of the National Teachers' Union, which played a central role in the uprisings in Oaxaca in 2006 (there's also a fairly decent Wikipedia entry about these events). Since the uprisings, state repression of activists has continued; despite this, people continue to raise their voices in dissent.

I can't think about or through poetic language outside the context of the denial of human rights and the silencing of dissent -- in fact, I'm not sure I can think of anything outside that context. And yet what captivates me in the video of the march demanding the return of Carlos René Román Salazar alive is less the language of the demands (though that too is compelling) and more the edges of the buildings against the sky, the backdrop of mountains, the expressions on the faces of people unaware they are being captured on video, the uneven rhythm of many bodies moving not in unison, the kids who whistle and gesture at the camera, the light mobile against the colored surfaces of walls. That is: it's the poetry that captures my attention -- not exclusively, but also not separate from the more immediately instrumental demands of the marchers.

"...poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought." (Audre Lorde, "Poetry Is Not a Luxury," Sister Outsider).

When you visit the Sección 22 website, one of the first things you’ll notice is a statement of solidarity with the poet Javier Sicilia, whose son Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega was murdered in violence related to the state-sponsored “drug wars” (this website to which I just linked, by the way, presents many fascinating and generative contradictions). To my USAmerican eye, well-trained in the conventional separation of “poetry” from “news,” and weary of the various marginalizations of poetry-as-art-making, self-imposed and otherwise, the matter-of-fact acceptance of the term “poet” as one that has cultural and social meaning is remarkable, alongside, of course, the remarkable—beyond remarkable—bone-chilling horror of the continuing violence all over Mexico. Ben Ehrenreich’s superb analysis of the situation in Ciudad Juárez could easily extend to the country as a whole.

Javier Sicilia may not consider his tremendously courageous acts of resistance “poetry” (see the poem at the top of this post), but his open letter to politicians and all perpetrators of violence, as well as his presence and his powerful words at the national marches against violence, seem to me to embody poetry wholeheartedly.

Here is a quick and dirty (and unauthorized) translation of one of Sicilia's poems (the original of which you’ll find at Justa); the poem is from the book Tríptico del desierto, about which there was a fascinating debate over appropriation and intertextuality.

The Open

For us, who walk upright
as if in that gesture were hidden the fate of our condition,
not the animal advancing low to the earth toward the Open,
a back and forward in the occurrence of the infinite:
not the tree rooted
—mouth amidst earth,
sex against the wind—
inhabits the pure space of its immobility:
not the angel, too perfect in its beauty,
fabricated essence of space,
avian light suspended in the eternal:
but rather we who advance gropingly
between the sky and the earth, terrified of death,
excavated hollows:

for us, viatores
—who long for the earth and the celestial at once
and are not at peace with ourselves—
love is our only salvation from the anguished flight forward,
as if in the contours of what we love the Open might close
and the hollow of our flesh might locate repose in what is created,
might not see death,
but rather an enunciated beyond,
contained within the limits of the body.
Lovers know this,
one to the other so close, they
look at each other astonished within the Open their eyes discover in their eyes.
Yet neither the one nor the other passes through it
to return to the world.
Might it be, perhaps, fear of the infinite call
or the sweet nostalgia of remaining forever in what is created
that never holds them?
Or maybe that is our place,
the site of the eternal that is ours:
to contemplate and to feel the infinite clothed in our flesh,
in that mutual giving over of the one to the other,
while the slow flight toward the Open allows us to inhabit duration,
that already, but not yet
lovers experience as they graze each other’s skin:
that eternal presence
making us present within ungraspable time
like a faint crack
in the porcelain dawn of the Open.

And if drilling a plaque with the names of the dead into the wall of a government building in the city center isn’t poetry, what is?

P.S. Violence cannot be named and must be named. In the attempt—that is, the failure, that is, the error, that is, the attempt—is the spark of life, of thinking, of relation. The encroachments of the state occur in multiple forms: loss occurs in multiple forms. Gratitude today, April 18 (coincidentally, beautifully, the first night of Passover), for the too-brief life of Akilah Oliver, who would have been 50 today.

Recreational linguistics

I've wrote about this already a few years ago but can't help myself. It's such fun. Nick Montfort decided to write by constraint, limiting himself to the use of the top row of his keyboard: q w e r t y u i o p, and no other letters. He wrote a poem and called it "Top Row Retort." It was published in 2000 in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics.

- - - -

Top Row Retort

I tore out type ere I wrote, to type up top:
upper typewriter row, pert repertoire.

Reporter, I quote to you: To write, pop type out.
Retire typewriter row two. Your tri-row?

Rip it out, too. Tour your top row territory.
Queer tip, you retort? I worry your poor typewriter?

To torque it out -- typewriter terror?
You require row two, your tri-row prop?

You pout, try to quip. (Poor etiquette.) You titter.
(Poorer propriety.) You utter uppity output?

Quiet, you! Quit it! You purport to write.
I tire to peer to your rot, your petty writ,

to eye your wire report. You write pyrite,
terrier to torpor. I pity you, preppie yuppie.

I tutor you, tyro, to uproot your trite tree,
put type to pyre. Rupture type. Write to write.

I erupt. I riot. I prototype pure power
to write. I, upper typewriter requiter.

I outwit you, too. To perpetuity, I write poetry.
You, to put it true, putter out rote poop.

Black daisy chain of nuns

Allen Ginsberg and Elise Cowen
Your
Frankenstein
What is the word from Deberoux Babtiste
the Funambule I
Desnuelu (who's he?) to choke you
Duhamel and you
De brouille Graciously
Deberaux Take me by the throat
Decraux
Barrault
Deberaux
Delicate
French logic
Black daisy chain of nuns
Nous sommes tous assasins
Keith's jumping old man in the waves
methadrine
morning dance of delicacy
"I want you to pick me up
when I fall down"

That's part of a poem by Elise Cowan. Cowen, though dead more than a quarter century, is in many ways more present than many of the other so-called "Beat women." She is alive in the pages of Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters and in the memories of many of Beat survivors whom she deeply impressd with her generous friendship. Janine Pommy Vega, with whom Elise lived for a time, says, "I still think about her every day. She was the smartest person I knew." More...

Lawrence Schwartzwald photos Poets House April 16, 2011

Grand Piano reading


Robinson, Perelman, Andrews, Silliman, Bernstein; Ron Silliman; Kit Robinson x2; Silliman & Mandel; Perelman & Silliman; Bee, Riley, Simon, Joris, Bernstein, Piombino; Bee & Bernstein

Photos © Lawrence Schwartzwald. All Rights Reserved.

More Schwartzwald photos at the Grand Piano site.

Star Black photos at Poets House April 16, 2011

Grand Piano reading


Ron Silliman
Erica Hunt, Lee Ann Brown, Susan Bee
Bob Perelman & Francie Shaw
Charles Bernstein & Pierre Joris
Toni Simon & Nick Piombino

©Star Black 2011. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of Star Black.