Commentaries - October 2012
I just returned from a brief trip to Denver, which is in its urban spaces quite a contrast to New York City. It’s a vaster, emptier city, with harsh high desert sunlight that makes its public squares seem even larger, anticipating the hordes of people for which they seemingly have been designed to arrive, eventually.
But then, these initial impressions of Denver were wrong, as they always are—like anything, like a forest, or desert, or beach, once one stops and waits and observes, life begins to emerge, interactions start to happen. Movement makes stillness—in speed is action erased. So, I stopped to make a phone call outside my hotel, and while talking, watched a couple of women across the street, whom, I slowly realized, were prostitutes. They propositioned men passing by and walked into the street if a car slowed. They were dressed as if for a night out, and I had at first taken them for two young women going out for some drinks, but then, as so often with prostitution, their movements were slightly off, a different pattern from the usual movements of people on the street. Unlike, perhaps, women meeting each other for a night out, they did not move on, and instead stayed in one place—inviting interaction, rather than considering or avoiding it.
Then, on the other end of the block, a young woman walked into view, walking backward, filming a young man, who would walk toward her, run, then walk again. Some sort of fashion shoot, although unlikely because nobody held light reflectors or lamps or any of the other equipment most shoots seem to use, so maybe a project for school. Moving backward and forward, they met up with the prostitutes, and then stood around talking, smiling, laughing, almost like they knew each other. I blinked or a truck blocked my view, and then two more prostitutes had joined the first two and the filmmaker was backing into an alley behind them, the man already lost to view.
It was all mysterious and, watching them, I felt my own female identity in an urban space. As the other times I’ve encountered prostitutes on the street, I felt invisible—my own body language on the street is of non-engagement, my dress code most often protective, drab in comparison. In Paris, there was one street lined with prostitutes, and they had a body language that the men walking by understood—their eyes didn’t turn toward me at all. I “spoke” in a different language, one soundless in that time and space. Those blocks in Denver felt threatening later as the sun went down and I searched for a store—needed some water or something and, female stranger in a strange town, I was a wary flaneur. I scanned rather than observed—out of my place. Each city has its own codes of movement, of interaction—I remembered how I went from 1980s New York to New Orleans and was terrified by how geography insisted I change my body codes of protection. I spoke the language of subways, delis, streetlights—trees, darkness, house-lined streets were not in my syntax. Even if I were invisible beside those prostitutes, the reasons behind their existence made my own presence on a city street subject to cautions. And so, how can my bordered (bindered?) experience of public space lead to valid articulation of urban environment?
Bernadette Mayer, "The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty"
Most of us who have read Bernadette Mayer's poem, “The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty,” encountered it in Andrei Codrescu's anthology American Poetry since 1970: Up Late (1987), where it was joined by her “Laundry & School Epigrams” (written in the same spirit) and eight of her other poems. PennSound’s recording of “The Tragic Condition” comes from an Ear Inn reading that took place in October of 1988.
For this episode of PoemTalk, Al Filreis convened Anne Waldman, Julia Bloch, and Katie Price to talk about this poem and Mayer’s approach to tragic conditions generally. As we note from the start, the poem’s subtitle is “A Collaboration with Emma Lazarus” and it begins by appropriating lines 10 through 14 of the famous Lazarus sonnet, “The New Colossus” — lines spoken by the giant statue, the “Mother of Exiles” that now stands in the harbor of New York, Mayer’s own beloved wretched town. Here is Lazarus, the appropriated lines in italics:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
PoemTalk this time was experted engineered by Chris Martin, produced by Al Filreis, co-sponsored by the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, PennSound, the Kelly Writers House and the Poetry Foundation — and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.
One of the things that studies (listening!) in indigeneity teaches us is that we have to struggle—and it is a real struggle with our own unrecognized cauterizations—to avoid absorbing cultural ideas in a way that eviscerates and cannibalizes them for our own purposes (which is so easy to do… the North American academy did it, by and large, for example, to “deconstruction,” till Derrida was left to protest and to regret he’d ever used the word). Appropriation, always a part of art-making, has to be called into question when it involves eviscerating the cultural markings of another’s speaking or inscription, particularly when that “another” does not have the same societal privilege we do, or when our privilege rests upon the crushing of theirs.
Better that we eviscerate ourselves, realize our own agency (for appropriation is always done by an agent, a decider, an ego), open out and allow the collapse of our own instrumentalized reason and force.
Temporality, justice, embodiment, inscription: all these need to be called into question and allowed to question us. A translation practice (or “translational poetics” practice) that does not realize this is a corrupt practice. A practice in poetry that does not realize this is a potentially damaging and corrupt practice. Listening is hard, for we find ourselves monstrous when we listen. To a tree. To wind in a tree. To a word. To an inscription.
“What about the possibility of translation between writings? What about the possibility of a translation that would not appropriate, or steamroll between, different traditions of transmission and inscription? A translation that would not assimilate the ‘content’ or ‘meaning’ of the other (text)—is this not perhaps the impossible?” Andrés Ajens, trans. Michelle Gil-Montero
Translation is a performance that is incorporated, that stems from a textual flow through a body that is already socially and ideologically constituted, that already has corruptions in its own structure that will mar what passes through it. It is important to highlight that it IS a performance.
TRANSLATOR'S NOTE. Éric Suchère’s Mystérieuse is an image-to-word “translation” of collaged pages from Hergé’s TinTin comic books, rendered in painstakingly conceptual detail: each frame of each comic, and even each stroke of each drawing inside each frame, are accounted for linguistically, from TinTin’s unforgettable drops of sweat to Snowy’s emoticon-esque reactions, to the broad stroke backgrounds of the comic squares. Following a trajectory of Hergé admirers from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to Steven Spielberg, Suchère’s text is an important contribution to the pop-art potential of representational language, contemporary conceptual writing, and word-image investigations. This short selection is a brief extract from the longer 100+page project, which I am currently translating in toto.
Night, white stars on black, town in blue relief, facades, roofs, chimneys: the figures walk on the line—in observation of a beautiful night, an unseasonable warmth.
Night, white stars on black, town in blue relief, facades, roofs, chimneys: the figures walk on the line, a star shoots in a bold white curve, bursts, the figure points, the animal turns around, drops of sweat splash—a bit of hope, a piece of advice.
Night, white stars on black, one star brighter, town in blue relief, facades, roofs, chimneys: the figures walk on the line, simple strokes, street lamp in relief, the animal figure hits the pole head-on, a crash and a light spiral, ripples emanate around colored stars—comments on a constellation.
Large vertical night, white stars on black, one star brighter, town in blue relief, facades, roofs, chimneys: the figure, stopped on the line, points at the brighter star while the animal figure wanders, staggering, series of scrolls and twists around colored stars, drops of sweat splash—a summons to look, a question about the shining.
Large vertical night, white stars on black, one star brighter, town in blue relief, facades, roofs, chimneys: the figure, stopped on the line, looks at the brilliant shining while the animal figure stops, not understanding, small stars all around, drops of sweat splash—amazement, and a question about the celestial phenomenon’s intensity.
Large vertical night, white stars on black, one star brighter, town in blue relief, facades, roofs, chimneys: figures walk on the line—increasing amazement, relativizing.
Street, sidewalks in straight lines, house, street lamp, long wall, house and leafless tree in relief behind, night in front, white stars on black: two figures, jackets in hand, walk in opposite directions into the space defined by the lines, drops of sweat splash—an announcement of action, looking for an answer.
Simple background, telephone wire in twists: the figure telephones, drops of sweat splash—questions about celestial phenomenon and the weather.
Simple background, telephone wire in twists: the figure telephones, drops of sweat splash—question unanswered.
Simple background, telephone wire in twists: the figure rests the handset, sponges his brow, drops of sweat splash—interrogation and amazement grow with the heat.
Wall and windowsill, some heavy curtains, the others light and clear, windowpanes, black and white strokes, reflections, white stars on black, night: the figure opens the window, drops of sweat splash, merging with the stars—questioning.
Ledge, curtains, windowpanes out onto the night, white stars on black, one star brighter: the figure looks at it, drops of sweat splash into the window he holds open—amazement and observation.
Night, white stars on black, one star brighter, town in blue relief, facades, roofs, chimneys: the figures walk on the line, fast, drops of sweat splash—determination.
Night, white stars on black, one star brighter, leafless trees in black relief, rotunda with white rectangle, window: no action—contemplation.
Door stoop, step: the animal figure sits and waits, drops of sweat splash, the figure rings, ripples emanate from a rectangle with a black circle—exhaustion and a determined gesture.
Night, white stars on black, one star brighter: the figure looks at it—observation.
Door in vertical lines: a porter figure half-opens it suspiciously, aggressively responds—asking and refusal.
Door in vertical and horizontal lines: it closes, slamming, ripples emanate from the double rectangle, the figures look without responding, drops of sweat splash, vibrant strokes gush from the animal’s tail, bursting into black stars all around—much surprise about such harshness.
Simple background: the figures stand on the line—nervousness.
Simple background: the figure rings, ripples emanate from the rectangle with the black circle—waiting for an answer.
Door ajar in vertical lines: the porter figure aggressively responds, the other figure, meanwhile, hides—trickery.
Door in vertical and horizontal lines: the porter figure stands on the sidewalk line, the figure leads him away by the arm—a trick.
Door in vertical and horizontal lines: the porter figure stands taken aback, drops of sweat splash, the other two are now in the house, a moving spiral, the door closes again, slamming, ripples emanate from the double rectangle—the trick is pulled.
Empty corridor, black windows, beamed ceiling: strokes reflected on the ground from the light, the figures approach the staircase slowly—ominous calm and silence.
Stairs with a banister shaped like a planet: strokes reflected on the lit ground, the figures stop, drops of sweat splash, someone else all dressed in black leans on a wavy wooden cane—surprise and a warning.
Stairs with a banister: strokes reflected on the ground from the light, the figure asks the sketch a question, drops of sweat splash, the other one walks past, a paper in his pocket, his right arm raised, moving spirals—a request and a prediction.
Corridor: the figure all dressed in black walks out while the others watch him go, drops of sweat splash—questions.
Stair rail, at the top a door with do-not-enter sign: the figure climbs slowly, drops of sweat splash, the animal figure watches him climb—waiting for something to happen, a careful advance.
Blank wall and closed door in rectangle shapes: the figure knocks on the door three times on the door, ripples emanate—anxiety and waiting for an answer.
Blank wall and closed door in rectangle shapes: the figure knocks on the door six times, drops of sweat splash, ripples emanate—anxiety and waiting for an answer.
Observatory dome, vertical and horizontal curves, circular footbridge, underneath a movable staircase leading to a large telescope, wheels, cranks, large gyration systems, eyepieces and telescope lenses: all opening onto the sky of white stars on black, which the figure looks at mid-step, little strokes in splinters—amazement.
Observatory dome, vertical and horizontal curves, movable staircase leading to a large telescope, wheels, cranks, large gyration systems, eyepieces and telescope lenses and in front of it all, a table and chair: two figures seated at the table, scholars leaning over their calculations in perplexity, drops of sweat splash, a figure comes towards them—total concentration.
Simple background, table and chair: the figure approaches one of the scholars who gestures for silence, drops of sweat splash—an imperative gesture.
Simple background, table and chairs,: one of the scholars sits and calculates, symbols all around, drops of sweat splash, the other scholar tries to make excuses or explain—an invitation to go have a look.
Movable staircase, leading to a large telescope: the figure climbs up—nearer the explanation.
Simple background, telescope, lens: the figure looks in and lets out a frightful cry, drops of sweat splash—an abomination.
Simple background: two concentric circles in which the silhouette of a hairy spider shines in the middle of the stars—an improbable vision.
Simple background, chair: the figure comes back all excited, drops of sweat splash, describes what he has just seen to the scholar, who sits at the table: falling on deaf ears.
Simple background, chair: the figure tries to explain all excited, tries to explain to the scholar, who sits at the table, what he has just seen, drops of sweat splash: falling on deaf ears.
Simple background, chair: the figure explains all excited what he has just seen to the scholar who sits at the table, who understands none of it, drops of sweat splash—lack of understanding.
Simple background: drops of sweat splash, the figure explains, all excited, what he has just seen to the scholar, who gets up—lack of understanding.
Simple background: the figure invites the scholar, who gets up to go have a look, to follow him to see, drops of sweat splash—a verification.
Simple background, telescope, lens: the scholar figure looks deeply in, drops of sweat splash, he agrees and then comments to the one standing by—hardly astonished.
Simple background, telescope, lens: the scholar figure looks deeply in, drops of sweat splash, describes precisely what he is seeing—truly scientific.
Simple background, telescope, lens: the scholar figure looks deeply in, drops of sweat splash, the other thinks, he puts forward a hypothesis—a guess.
[Addendum: Sandra Doller's translation of Mystérieuse by Éric Suchère has won the 2012 Anomalous Press Translation Prize, selected by Christian Hawkey, and will be published as a chapbook in 2013. Information at: http://www.anomalouspress.org/chapbooks.php]
Jennifer Moxley in conversation with Noah Eli Gordon
In early 2008, Noah Eli Gordon interviewed Jennifer Moxley. The interview was originally published in The Denver Quarterly (Volume 43, Number 1:2008), and reprinted in Jacket magazine number 37. It is 17 pages long.
Noah Eli Gordon: 2007 saw the release of two major works: The Middle Room, a memoir clocking in at over 600 pages, and The Line, a collection of prose poems. Although publication dates often create a false trajectory of a writer’s past and present concerns, when read in tandem, these two very different prose works seem to share not only various emotional and intellectual concerns, but also specific content. For example, early on in The Middle Room you recount the discovery in the garage of “an enormous stack of love letters” written by your father and addressed to your mother, which gave you a fuller sense of him as a person outside of your own experience. This particular passage took on a renewed significance for me while reading in The Line the poem “The Cover-Up,” where you include the following: “On occasion, material evidence contradicts memory. Like when you found the letters they’d written in which he’d said affectionate things and all of her years of negative campaigning went completely down the drain.” Whether or not this is a reference to that same discovery, the poem created a link for me between your various projects.
[The complete interview]
Noah Eli Gordon: With the poem’s question “are these records of events your senses stored without your knowledge?” this link was further complicated, as it sent me back to the title poem from your earlier book The Sense Record, where “[t]he gray of an old folded paper / decomposed on the nearby walk,” leads to “[t]he heartfelt story of engagement / recast as sucker bet, who licked the stamps, / who walked the streets, the earnest underlings, / forestall the mockery in memoirs, / two-to-three hundred ‘as told to’ pages / to set the record straight.” Again, this might not be a reference to the that same incident, but it does carry similar concerns as regards the complexity and conundrums of what, exactly, constitutes truth in writing, and of how documentation can alter that regard. In fact, the poem includes these lines which I read as looming large over much of your work: “What I write in truth today / tomorrow will be in error.” You also mention the necessity of truth in The Middle Room, with the admission that you “could not adopt a literary style for the sake of a mere idea unless [you yourself] had experienced that same idea as true.”
My first question then is one of truth. How do you conceptualize the role of truth in your work? How is (or isn’t) such a role altered when moving between genres? Is The Middle Room, as a memoir, any more beholden to truth than the poems of The Line? Is truth in a poem different than other kinds of truth? Does a writer have an ethical responsibility to truth? Where do truth and imagination intersect for you?
Jennifer Moxley: Well, in some way, your line-up of quotes from my work answers your own question. Truth in my work is just that: a question. The story about the letters records how material evidence contradicts personal legend. This was my experience in writing The Middle Room. Rae Armantrout asked me, “How did you remember so much?” I didn’t just sit down one day and it all came pouring out. I did research: journals, letters, checkbook registers, photographs. Often the evidence contradicted my memory, the question of honoring both the material record and my memory then became one of artfulness. But “The Sense Record” is suspicious even of material evidence, because, again, the body and mind have their own archive apart from made things. I do not believe that we have experiences and then remember them rightly or wrongly. The Proustian model is preferable. The present unfolds unexpectedly in the future, the past holds the present hostage and shapes it.
I’ve always disliked the way the contemporary intellectual discourse sets itself above the past as “knowing better,” claiming to see truths the past was blind to. Poetry has a duty to pressure conviction. I suppose that is a form of being “beholden to truth,” as you put it.
As for genre, sometimes I joke with my fiction writer friends that the difference between myself and them is that they make an art out of lying. But that’s obnoxious. Fiction can tell great truths, and should, as should poetry.
[The complete interview]