Commentaries - May 2012
IL MANIFESTO (Italian daily) May 17, 2012
Daniela Daniele interviews me and writes a related article, focussing mainly on the Poetics of OWS and the Poets & Critics seminars in Paris in March. In the same issue Marco Giovenale write about Jennifer Scappatone's translation of Ameli Rosselli, Locomotrix, from the University of Chicago Press. PDF of the pages here.
Danny Snelson, Al Filreis, Jean-Michael Rabate in Al's office on Tuesday (5/13/12). Photo by Ben Filreis.
The mis-translations, mis-quotations and bricolage poetry of Sydneysider Chris Edwards has made several appearances in Jacket magazine.
In 2001 Jacket published three of his poems that are recombinations of David Baratier talking with Simon Perchik and Ward, Lock & Company's illustrated Great Inventors and other poems made from diverse sources including Isaac Asimov, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Arthur C. Clarke, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Wright, Roland Barthes and a number of other writers. There is a terrific sense of play in Chris's work and unlike many experimenting postmodern projects it is always uncannily engaging. Chris is also a typographer and graphic designer (designing, among other things, many of the books published by the irrepressible Vagabond Press) something that is evident in the careful arrangement in cascading poems like 'Aha!', from his own recent Vagabond collection People of Earth -
In the next poem, 'hm', glyphs begin appearing (there is a handy glyph glossary accompanying the poem) -
In 2008 Jacket published 'So Not Orpheus: Rilke Renditions 1-11' about which Chris explained:
"These sonnets are very loosely based on Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnette an Orpheus 1, 1-11. They might at a stretch be called mistranslations, though I haven't approached Rilke with homophony in mind, the way the Zukofskys approached Catullus, or I did Mallarmé in parts of A Fluke. In spite of my one year of German at high school, I'm never quite sure what Rilke's words sound like, let alone what more than a few of them mean - all I have to go on are the letters, which seem weirdly and wonderfully addressed to me: single letters, especially those Rilke has capitalised, like "O" or "W" in the first stanza of the first sonnet, but also consonant clusters like "st" or "b...m," along with names like "Orpheus" and words like "Angst." Some, frankly, are suggestive. Others are enough to transmogrify a person - into Frankenstein's monster? You be the judge. If I've "responded" to the German's secret experiments, all very well. But the results in this case - So Not Orpheus, so not Rilke - are also, I feel compelled to imagine, "renditions" in all senses of the word, including the most extraordinary."
Monogene published Chris Edwards' A Fluke, mentioned above, in 2005. It is a large landscape-oriented, A4-format book that is a mistranslation of Stéphane Mallarmé's 1897 poem Un coup de dés... Jacket magazine published it in its entirety here in 2006.
Along with an earlier chapbook, utensils in a landscape, and some of Chris's new work, these major poetry projects were gathered together by Vagabond Press last year in the book People of Earth. Please look out for more of Chris Edwards' poetry and some of his collages when they appear in Jacket2 in the forthcoming penultimate instalment of Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia.
Cilla McQueen, ‘Living Here’ (1982)
Time for a change of gear, I think. Curnow’s and Baxter’s poems seem designed to wrestle with the big questions, to provoke that “You must change your life” epiphany Rilke got from his Archaic Torso of Apollo. There’s a sense of mission about both of them as writers. They knew that whatever they said would be pored over and attended to, which can lead to a certain attitudinizing – what Chekhov referred to as living “on stilts.”
Not so our next poet. Chekhov said of his new type of theatre: “Let everything on the stage be just as complicated and at the same time just as simple as in life.” Cilla McQueen’s first book Homing In (1982) displayed the new sensibility beginning to appear in New Zealand poetry.
On the one hand, there’s clearly the influence of the women’s movement. Poems such as “Timepiece” show an intense consciousness of the value of the domestic and local, hitherto somewhat repressed in our writing (with the exception of Janet Frame’s fiction and the poems of Mary Stanley and other women poets, or – especially – short story writers).
On the other hand, there’s the fact of distance. Though her family moved to New Zealand when she was four years old, Cilla McQueen was born in Birmingham, which – rather bizarrely – still qualifies her as something of an outsider to local notions of nationality. The fact that she has mostly made her home in Dunedin (and, latterly, Bluff), also gives her a distinctly southern perspective on the idea of what it means to be “living here.” Homing In, then, is anything but a throwaway title:
Well you have to remember this place
is just one big city with 3 million people with
a little flock of sheep each so we’re all sort of
How can I convey just how provocative an opening that is to Kiwi sensibilities? Sheep, for God’s sake! If you only knew how sick we are of hearing how many sheep there are in New Zealand, how disproportionate the ratio of sheep to people, etc. Until the Lord of the Rings came along, it was pretty much the only thing anyone could find to say about our strange little country.
That “well”, to start off with, is so deliberately conversational and informal, so clearly not a manifesto designed to be delivered “on stilts”. The use of the second person (“you have to remember”), too, couches all of what’s to come in the form of instructions to an out-of-towner, an outsider. That also qualifies as a direct affront to our taboos. Like most provincial societies, we’re thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism. What we particularly hate, though, is any kind of internal criticism directed towards the outside world – “keep it in the family” is practically our national motto.
we all know we’ll probably
be safe when the Indians finally come
down from the hills (comfortable to live
in the Safest Place in the World)
very thick and made of wool and leather
being a very effective shield as ancient
soldiers would agree.
If you want to be cutesy about the sheep, that’s fine. We can probably tolerate that, under the circumstances. That next bit is getting a bit too close to the bone, though. “When the Indians finally come / down from the hills.” What is this, Fort Apache?
No family likes to wash its dirty linen in public, and Cilla McQueen’s poem shows, here, a disposition to do precisely that. The 1970s were a rather bitter time of awakening for New Zealand (as no doubt they were for the rest of the world). The “Angel in the House” was demanding vociferously to be taken seriously outside as well as inside the home – and the myth of New Zealand’s harmonious race relations was finally being laid to rest.
Our particular version of “Indians” – the Maoris – had indeed been dispossessed, and the pretence that sufficient restitution had already been made for the ills of the past, and that “colour-blindness” was the distinguishing characteristic of our society, was an increasingly untenable position. Cilla McQueen’s first husband, Ralph Hotere, probably the most distinguished Maori artist of his generation, collaborated with her on a number of highly politicized works at this stage of her career, so the sting in that crack about “the Safest Place in the World” is certainly intended to draw blood.
so after all we are lucky to have these
sheep in abundance they might
have been hedgehogs -
Then we’d all be
used to hedgehogs and clothed in prickles
rather than fluff
and the little sheep would
come out sometimes at night under the moon
and we’d leave them saucers of milk
and feel sad
seeing them squashed on the road
There’s a certain air of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle about this part of the poem – so what if all those sheep had been hedgehogs? It’s not really quite as frivolous as it seems, though, when you conflate it with the Indians waiting in the hills. They’ve got to come down sometime, and when they do it won’t be to say hello …
Well anyway here we are with all this
cushioning in the biggest city in the world
its suburbs strung out in a long line
and the civic centre at the bottom of
Cook Strait some of them Hill Suburbs
and some Flat Suburbs and some more prosperous
That’s pretty much a reprise of Curnow’s critique of our blinkered lack of vision, supplemented by Baxter’s raw indignation at the longer-term effects of “Pig Island” (his name for NZ) complacency.
each in his woolly protection
so sometimes it’s difficult to see out
the eyes let alone call to each other
which is the reason for the loneliness some
of us feel
More of us than one might expect, perhaps, feel this loneliness; but one does have to acknowledge the inhibition against simply calling out to each other – the fear of being conspicuous, of standing out in any way from the herd. The tall poppy syndrome, we call it – after that Ancient Greek dictator who walked through a field of flowers lopping off all the tallest stems, when asked to give a lesson on statecraft.
McQueen’s poem concludes with some remarks on “our particular relations / with the landscape,” which we:
love like an
old familiar lover who fits us
curve to curve and hate because it
knows us and knows our weakness
Hers is a poem which is unafraid to probe those weaknesses, identify those no-go areas. It treads on toes because the atmosphere here, buy the end of the 70s, had got so claustrophobic that one virtually had to provoke in order to be heard.
“Living Here,” then, is a “state-of-the-nation” poem insofar as it very clearly and deliberately sets out to provide a barometer reading on local conditions for an imagined audience of onlookers (“you have to remember”). In tone, it might seem a million miles away from the high vatic of James K. Baxter, or the theophanic of Allen Curnow. It’s nevertheless interesting to see how closely McQueen echoes the endings of both the earlier poems.
Curnow finishes on the image of a “gannet impacting” which explodes “a dozen diverse dullnesses / Like a burst of accurate fire” – a somewhat militaristic analogy for the “psychic cleansing” he requires of us.
Baxter moves away from the violence of that conclusion to the more ecumenical concept of a place, the meeting house, so holy that it can literally bring the dead back to life:
When they brought the dead child into the meeting house
She opened her eyes and smiled.
This rather sentimental notion of the indigenous culture as potential saviour of its own colonisers is not so much contradicted as nuanced by McQueen, whose own poem looks finally for comfort to:
cut of mind or touch of music,
lightning in the intimate weather of the soul.
So, while she too ends on an unequivocal “flash, a trumpet-crash” (as G. M. Hopkins put it), this time the image has been scaled down to inner weather – no more firing squads or Pentecostal Raptures.
One of Karen Finley’s recent installations is an ongoing (annual) holocaust memorial at the remains and site of the Gusen concentration camp in Austria. Finley, now professor of art and public policy at NYU, has focused on trauma for years, beginning with a semi-spontaneous performance in the display window of an abandoned JC Penney in San Francisco (a response, in part, to her anger at the suicide of her father). In recent years she has done a run of dinner theatre performances called The Jackie Look (about the private trauma of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Americans’ traumatic response to her trauma). Now, at Gusen, her “Open Hearts” project is a self-consciously sweet (heart-shaped clay pieces strewn on the ground) intervention in a town with a camp that it had not memorialized. She and Paul Nebenzahl travel to Gusen annually to clean up the installation, add new clay pieces (made by people she’s met during the previous year, including, this year, pieces made by me and my students), and participate in a remembrance that has grown a little each year, in part because of her persistent involvement. At right, a photograph of the barracks at Gusen under construction in 1940.
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.) And of the fate of the ’Ewa plain, not so long ago an agricultural area, now covered in Gentry Homes, those Colleps writes about in section 9 of the instruction sheet:
9. (`Eiwa) [Before] [a]ttach[ing] tubing to nebulizer air-
inlet connector, See Figure 6, take
a drive down Ft. Weaver Rd. and
when you wipe the red dirt
from the windshield you
wipe away the gentry homes.
Sugar stalks sweet shoot up
from the cleared soil. Wipe
those away, too.
The Hawaiian numbers (here, `Eiwa, which resembles `Ewa) represent yet another, older layer to this history. Colleps’s elegy for his grandfather is also an attempt to recover (or, more accurately, uncover) a culture now stained by the red dirt of corporate agriculture and construction. This is not to say that Colleps’s move is one of pure nostalgia; another poem centers around his grandfather’s own efforts to construct an addition to the family house. This addition cannot compensate for the subtraction anticipated in the grandfather’s last illness, but “smile,” Colleps writes. “See / sun light above this / new ribcage” runs to the right side of a blueprint to the “PROPOSED ADDITION.” If the cage is constructed, then breathing comes only with the support of a machine. Memory (Colleps’s of his grandfather, his grandfather's of Hawai`i’s past) emerges from a rusty archive that dominates the view of no one except the author.
But I leap ahead. The first poem in this chapbook is “Papa’s Clock.” Here, Colleps mixes narrative — the poet’s grandmother buttering her husband’s sweet bread — with his grandfather’s cancer journal and instructions for putting a battery in his clock. These instructions are mediated by a voice more human than generally comes with such instructions: “Righty tighty” and “Lefty loosey.” Instructions for putting a mechanism together alternate with a description of a mechanism (the body) coming apart.
Ate good breakfast.
5 mil Prednisone
Went riding to Walmart
Air mugi tired fast
Ate few pieces stake
The battery knife brings life
To old gears
Under cruel Romans.
I II III IV V VI
We move from the grandfather’s detailed diary, complete with misspelled words ("mugi,” “stake"), to a re-versioning of battery replacement directions, to an oblique reference to colonialism in those “cruel Romans” with their detailed accountings of time. The battery, like the respirator, marks time, but cannot sustain it always.
Prior to this class, Colleps had only written fiction, so it’s appropriate that his chapbook has a strong narrative push. Instructions are stories. Stories instruct us in how to get from one place to another, how to enter into conflict, how to begin and end. But Colleps’s documentary poetry is as playful as it is serious. One of the embedded stories concerns a male sea horse who may or may not have given birth to babies in the family’s fish tank. Another telling and told moment, late in the story of grandfather’s dying, occurs right after his body is taken from the house. Language turns inside out, seems as unstable as the notion that a male animal can give birth:
the time i found myself circling the house checking for tears in any of the screens because
i found the drawer of bent nails that you had me pull out because you said i did it all
wrong and that everything i do should be done well even if it’s as small as hammering a
nail into wood because this house needs to be repaired when it’s broken so that the family
always has a place to live.
I cannot not read that first line without the word “tears” (something torn) sounding first like the salt water that comes out of our eyes when we grieve. Like so much in this chapbook, this writing comes close to over-sentimentalizing the grandfather, but pulls back when we see that “tears” is meant to sound like a tear in a piece of paper. Sentiment returns to its object in the wavering of a word between its appearance on the page and the sound it makes in our heads. The sturdy construction of the chapbook, which its author had intended to place inside a cardboard file cabinet — one he brought to class one day — joins at its seams the various materials of Hawaiian and family histories. As he writes in “Proposed Addition,” a section under the influence of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, which we were reading when he wrote it:
While the light is here
when the breeze can weave through
the lo`i that flourish from his forearms
this is the good that must be found
in the flow of trachea tunnels
and the pricing of cabinet handles —
brass or chrome?
Family or no other option.
Let’s go look at paint chips tomorrow.
An imperative ("let’s go") is an instruction. In a larger sense, instruction is educational, spiritual, cultural. Colleps and other members of English 713, Spring, 2012, have only begun their work of instruction. Watch for them and their work as they construct it over the next few years.
Watch and listen to Colleps read a section of the chapbook in the MIA Series in Honolulu on YouTube here.
I've written elsewhere about documentary poetry on Tinfish Editor's Blog, here.
The course syllabus can be found on-line.