Commentaries - April 2012
uncollected Robert Creeley poem for May Day
LOST AT SEA
Concerning a news item which reported
convicts breaking their own legs with
sledges, because they couldn't take any
more the treatment they were getting...
All pull together now
because we're going to make it
over to that other
Don't cry, there'll be people
all around us, not the least thought
of any more being bothered,
or harassed by outsiders.
We'll all be in
there, fighting, we'll all sing
it and swing it,
a crazy night most assuredly.
And when it's over, morning
will break on the beach
like a leg breaks
when a man can bring himself to hit it with a hammer.
Originally published in 1956 0r 1957 in the Glasgow little magazine The Poet, edited by William Price Turner. Discovered by Peter Manson and first published in A Fiery Flying Roule #23 (2012). Thanks to Eirik Steinhoff. © 2012 Estate of Robert Creeley.
A Fiery Flying Roule discovered this Associated Press piece from 31 July 1956:
Rhetorics of empire in Scott Abels's "Rambo Goes to Idaho"
How to be a poet in Hawai`i — or elsewhere — who opposes imperialism, colonization, the military, and yet appears, as a Euro-American, to embody them? I've worried this issue before on my own blog, and thought I'd think more about it here by way of a new book from BlazeVox by Scott Abels.
Abels, whose MFA is from Boise State in the state of Idaho, notorious for its white supremacists, has lived in Hawai`i for several years now. His thesis forms the basis for his first book, Rambo Goes to Idaho, which moves between Idaho and Hawai`i. As he writes in the first section of “Idaho Conspiracy,” a poem obliquely about moving to Hawai`i: “My Composition 1100 assignment was to guess the titles / of the first five poems on the Poetry and Politics website.” Then this: “The only thing I could come up with was / Hawaii comes before Idaho alphabetically” (49). Abels's move back in the alphabet forces him to look at the problem of American empire, although one senses he did so before his “geographically confusing” move. For the MFA thesis is set up as that of John Rambo, whose thesis signature page comes after two brief proems called “Screenplay” and “Burst.” It is this poem that begins with the lines I appropriated for my title, those that assert that Rambo is good, but is a “product of the world” (9). Anyone who reads post-colonial literature knows the character of the bad English teacher, the one who is a secular missionary, who tells children they are not good enough because they speak Pidgin or another local language, and not the good English that he or she represents. No surprise then that John Rambo “is teaching English” (9), or that his “boss is explaining that English / as a second language / / is essentially the same / as special education” (10). Here special ed is aligned with special forces, by way of a fictional pop cultural icon who is deeply imbricated in American culture since the Vietnam era. While Rambo seems a confusing and confused character, Ronald Reagan famously declared him a Republican. Abels's Rambo is more like a Soviet version of Don Quixote: a little bit silly, hardly a strong-man, prone to noting things like "I am a sparrow to his peacock," about his professor, Paul Bunyan.
Writing about the Rambo films, especially the first, as well as other “action movies” of recent decades, Richard Pope notes that, “The films themselves are politically ambivalent: more fundamentally, they trace a certain diminution of the space of politics, or that space in which decisions about the future of society are made and the public mobilized.” The horrific violence of the Rambo films (here I must confess to having only watched trailers on YouTube) would then mark the strength of an assertion about an uncomfortable ambiguity about national, gendered, racial, and individual identities. While the First Blood title of the first movie denotes its “drawing" of blood, it also gestures to origins. Rambo's are not simple: he is half Navajo, half European American (German or Irish, take your pick). The plots to the films that feature Rambo present him as torn between acting as an enforcer of post-Vietnam War American imperialism and being a victim of it. He has PTSD, he shoots National Guardsmen, he doesn't like missionaries in Asia. Here I rely on John Carlos Rowe's “Culture, US Imperialism and Globalization.” But Anthony Swofford, quoted by Rowe, argues that all war movies are pro-war since Vietnam: “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.”
Abels does not indulge in overt violence in his version of the Rambo saga. Instead, he delves into Rambo's inner (bumbling) life in such a way as to echo a member of the audience of First Blood interviewed in Richard Pope's ethnographic study, “Doing Justice: A Ritual-Psychoanalytic Approach to Postmodern Melodrama and a Certain Tendency of the Action Film” (Cinema Studies 51:2, Winter 2012). That anonymous responder said, “I'm no Green Beret, but I know what it is like to have abilities that are as spectacular as they are worthless. I know the frustration of being kicked around by people who don't recognize or appreciate my worth. But I'm not a Green Beret.” Substitute the word “poet” for Green Beret and you see the odd tightrope Abels walks in his book. Abels's rhetorical stance lies somewhere past irony, within the realm of the absurd, perhaps the only location from which he can negotiate the paradoxes squeezing him from every side. “I'm a big fan / of the fall of man. // I bought the T-shirt,” is one such statement. And, on the next page:
is hard for me.
can buy Hummers,
then I can have a submarine
while sunshine helicopters
better than practically anyone
fulfill all hope. (69)
These and many other lines from Abels's book remind me of a line uttered numerous times by Paul Naylor to me on my recent visit to San Diego. “Capitalism forces us to live complicated lives,” he repeated. Rambo--like Schwarzenneger--can embody Emerson's self-reliance only by killing everything in sight. Hope comes dressed as a "sunshine helicopter," like those military helicopters that flew over Paul and me on the beach at Torrey Canyon in San Diego. The film Rambo's occasional violent anti-imperial forays meet Hawaiian poet and sovereignty activist Haunani-Kay Trask's consistent anti-imperialism in her violent fantasy (published in the late 1990s) of beating up a “Racist white woman,” in a poem from Light in the Crevice Never Seen, that begins this way:
your face, puncture
You deserve this kind
No more vicious
Just a knife
slitting your tight
for all my people
under your feet
for all those years
lived smug and wealthy
off our land
Complexity can make us want certainty; what is most certain is the violence, actual and articulated, of our time. Abels implies that the acquisition of Hawai`i was such an act of attempted certainty: “The President has acquired the last state in the Union / as his generic talisman / toward not getting robbed” (25). What to make of such certitude and the damages it inflicts?
Much as we might want it to, Abels's poetry does not offer us an out, except insofar as it brings that outward violence in, examines its absurdities. And that is not to be sneezed at. Because the problem we arrive at after the violence of imperialism is counter-violence. The issue, as Eunsong Angela K. said to me in a different context in San Diego, is “what to do with power.” My colleague Caroline Sinavaiana writes: "As we know, Trask’s poetry can at times offer a fierce and tender beauty. In my view, this particular poem does neither. As reader here I end up feeling shut out of an experience – that of blatant injustice – which I know all too well. As a Polynesian thinker and cultural worker, I am all too familiar with the scourge of colonial degradation and its neocolonial aftermath. Yes, I have experienced rage. Yes, I understand the situation. But no, I do not find it productive to demonize white folks (of either gender) as a class and threaten violent retaliation, however ‘figuratively.’The question for me is not whether [Trasks's] rage is well-founded. Of course it is. The questions for me is what to do now. How to respond most skillfully? How to step out of the cycle of violence? How to harness the energy of rage, with its considerable power, as fuel for vehicles which can both heal us and restore justice? How to confront and respond to ongoing injustice in ways that strengthen us (and each other), instead of turning the violence against ourselves and our own? I think this poem could point us towards such necessary questions."
By virtue of his subject position, combined with his politics, Abels cannot assume a position of extremity in either direction. His position is an absurd one, but he has thought his way into that absurdity with a courage different from that of his subject. What his work offers back are the very complexities we are heir to, delivered up not as entertainment for the masses, but for those few of us who read poems. In his 2008 review of the last Rambo movie, A.O. Scott noted that, “the movie does have its own kind of blockheaded poetry.” Abels's poetry is not blockheaded in any way, nor is it particularly cinematic. As work that is neither visual nor violent, it offers us a possible space for meditation, a place from which to contemplate the violence of power, and perhaps another--less entertaining, but more productive--way out of it.
Notes (other than those embedded in the text):
Richard Pope, “Doing Justice: A Ritual-Psychoanalytic Approach to Postmodern Melodrama and a Certain Tendency of the Action Film,” Cinema Journal 51:2 (Winter 2012): 113-136).
John Carlos Rowe, “Culture, US Imperialims, and Globalization,” American Literary History 16:4 (2004): 575-595.
Caroline Sinavaiana's quotation is from unpublished correspondence.
Stefan Sagmeister (1962-) is among today's most important graphic designers. Born in Austria, he now lives and works in New York. His long-standing collaborators include the AIGA and the musicians David Byrne and Lou Reed. His New York-based graphic design firm is called Sagmeister Inc. At noon on Thursday, December 8, 2011, Sagmeister visited the Kelly Writers House and was interviewed before a live audience by Claudia Gould, former director of the Institute of Contemporary Art and currently director of the Jewish Museum. Here is an audio recording of the same event. From April through August 2012, the ICA features a Sagmeister exhibit called “The Happy Show.” During that visit to Philadelphia, Sagmeister also met with the fifteen undergraduates in Kenneth Goldsmith's year-long seminar on contemporary writing/contemporary art, a collaboration of the ICA and the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. Goldsmith asked the students to write ten happy, upbeat truisms during the first day of class and then, on day two, to narrow them down to one. “Do what you want.” “Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can today.” “Always mean what you say.” This emphasis on trite wisdom is tied to the ICA's Sagmeister show, an investigation of Sagmeister’s imaginative implementation of typography and ten-year exploration of happiness. A series of works follow a (non)narrative of truisms, or rules to live by, that run through the museum’s second-floor galleries, the ICA’s “ramp” space, and in-between spaces. Social data gathered from psychologists Daniel Gilbert, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, and anthropologist Donald Symons contextualize these maxims, originally culled from Sagmeister’s diary. At ICA, “The Happy Show” examines the ideology of self-improvement via constructed dicta.
Toward the end of our interview-discussion with Patti Smith on December 9, 2010 — moderated by Anthony DeCurtis — Smith introduced and played a version of “My Blakean Year.” Here is the first stanza of the song:
In my Blakean year
I was so disposed
Toward a mission yet unclear
Advancing pole by pole
Fortune breathed into my ear
Mouthed* a simple ode
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road
* In the performance this word is apparently “Obeyed.”
Thoughts on booktables
The first thing that I do whenever I go to a poetry conference or symposium is to make a beeline for the booktable.
This is, admittedly, because I generally have a backpack full of my own wares which I’m hoping to flog off to the unwary, but my main motive is actually a strong desire to see what oddities and rarities the others have brought along.
Far more of us than would care to admit it have a cupboard full of old back-issues of magazines and boxes of books from defunct small presses who have gone belly-up. Who else is going to be interested in such things except other writers? Librarians? Antiquarian book collectors? Academics? Funnily enough, I never seem to see any of them putting their hands in their pockets on such occasions.
Here’s the booktable in the marae in for BLUFF 06: a poetry symposium in Southland (21-24 April 2006):
Here’s the booktable in the Technological University of Sydney for H O M E & A W A Y 2 0 1 0: A Trans Tasman Poetry Symposium (31/8-3/9/10):
Here’s the booktable in Old Government House, Auckland for SHORT TAKES ON LONG POEMS: A Trans Tasman symposium at the University of Auckland (29-20/3/12):
Let’s face it: with certain (very honourable) exceptions, poetry doesn’t sell. Some of the poetry we love the most has qualities which almost guarantee a lack of market appeal, in fact. A simple survey of the books put out by the major publishers will therefore seldom be a reliable guide to what’s “really going on” in any country’s poetry scene. Hence my interest in small “my basement” presses, fly-by-night publishers, and erratically available imprints. What better place to find them than on such a table, with their authors and proprietors generally close to hand?
The poetry “mainstream” in New Zealand publishing consists, first of all, of the major University presses: AUP (Auckland), Victoria UP (Wellington), and Otago UP (Dunedin). Then come the occasional books issued by the New Zealand branches of publishers such as international giants Random House or Penguin Books, not to mention local specialist publishers such as Craig Potton (Nelson).
After that the picture becomes considerably more complicated.
There are the smaller independent publishers such as Cape Catley (Auckland), Steele Roberts (Wellington), Michael O’Leary’s ESAW [The Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop] (Kapiti Coast), Mark Pirie’s HeadworX (Wellington), and Titus Books (Kaipara), each of which have issued distinguished lists. A newer addition would be Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Books (Wellington).
After that, we come to what is to me – I must confess – the area of greatest interest: the artier, “fine-printing” presses, the ones whose every production is a conscious artistic statement. These books tend to be slimmer, pricier, and far, far more quirky.
Who am I talking about? Well, I guess the king of the hill would have to be the Holloway Press. Founded by Peter Simpson and Alan Loney at Auckland University in 1994, it continues to publish ornate and expensive poetry and art books. It’s a worthy successor to a grand tradition of such presses in New Zealand literary history: Alan Loney’s own Hawk Press, of course (together with its successors), or the Gormacks’ Nag’s Head Press.
Let’s see. There’s Brendan O’Brian’s Fernbank Studio; there’s Pania Press, the imprint run by my wife Bronwyn Lloyd (with occasional editorial input from me); till a few short months ago, there was Dean Havard’s Kilmog Books, a hugely productive and imaginative press based in Dunedin, which has been driven under by lack of official funding and (one must admit) by the apathy of local book-buyers.
That’s really the point of this piece, in fact. What small presses, as a rule, really lack is not quality – either in contents or design – it’s distribution. Networks of friends, loose alliances between the proprietors of like-minded presses, can make up for this to some extent, but in a retail climate which is now almost exclusively dominated by “sale or return” for the prodcuts of indie presses, most of us feel distinctly reluctant to trust our precious limited-edition books to the back shelf in some huge megastore.
So for the moment you’ll continue to see me running over to the booktable at any reasonably large poetry festival with a big wad of cash (a word to the wise: booktables seldom come equipped with eftpos or credit card facilities – if you’re serious about buying, come prepared) .
And finally, intensest apologies to anyone I’ve inadvertently left off this list. If you’re a small poetry publisher, and you think you should have been mentioned, please do write to me and I’ll try and make up for my oversight in a future post.