Commentaries - December 2012

Michael Davidson: Five New Poems

FROG

I’m slouching past the point of no
interruptions the planet dissolving
from its patented heat death; I, too,
watch this cryogenic state thaw
under the stare of the hedge fund,
black car shows up
and gives them a check, I scream
and the sprinklers pulsate
in a thousand yards
because grass is not inevitable
but symptomatic, take my gene pool
all is smooth, no regrets,
and once this gazebo is swept
another will take its place or
no one will notice, a frog
appears on the fountain’s ledge
singing its two beat refrain
it says I’m going in that direction
and I adapt.


GRACE

While billeted among participials
and other progressive forms
frames of indiscretion recombine into plausible
stories of origin
so that upon becoming grammar
one hypothetically strikes one’s forehead
on a sentence striving to form itself
into the subject, capital ‘S,’
the residue of tower, noodles, and ceremonial
song to explain these barriers to terminus
recur intermittently during the day
such that upon meeting him halfway home
one would never know what bullets
penetrate the memory theater, striking
a patron as inconceivable to the plot
and necessary to language, whereupon
he concludes this little tale
of our first parents, burnished in grace.


MOCKINGBIRD

Break open this commonplace, for to be awake
is to see it otherwise; I saw a desert at dawn
from a hurtling Mercedes, I heard a ping when the screen
went black I heard words full of holes
someone wants to come in
but we refuse the order, Mormon at the door
selling the goods, then we had memory
which we attacked with distractions, music was pure
with lyrics of endless life, the road
and the rice, the press and the pen, distance
was not impossible I’ll get back to you
when the sun is up; one mockingbird
is protecting the world from itself
repeating the word for myself.


UNCANNY

Seeks advice on how to get home
(sacrifice, ritual toast, drink blood) where home
(we want to get some of that love) is big business,
I feel ephemeral in the shadow of logo
it keeps drawing me into an agreement I authored,
they say: I feel anxious about my body, I worry
about my general health, work
sets you free, and when money
replaces a doorstop, potatoes, dog food
then we improve it says here
achieving a plural of such substance
as to wake the sleeper
who lives in broadband limbo, connected
yet unsure who is at the door, rituals inoculate
the viewer from choice, knock
on wood.


CEREAL

I’d rather bleed
than pay taxes
sitting in the dark
with my gun against
the gathering dawn
I speak English
in my dreams
dawn reveals a field
of agents measuring
the story poles, my camera
captures them
with my cereal
we’re eating our way
through subsidies,
corn is oil is cow
I remain stubbornly
open and invested
in tracts that promise
golf, but people who walk
in parks must be hunted
asked politely to leave
as a sycamore
bears a white slash
as its visa
these big words
trouble my sleep
my suit is pressed
into public service
as my wife
removes her body
before waking
I have eaten my cereal
without sweetener
and with advancing light
raise my sights
to those hordes
and indigestible foods
that occupy my eye
I trust no one
to remove these dishes
no one to speak
for me, what I keep
to myself is to myself
the sound of mice
in the rafters
is mine, solitude
has been described
in a book
it says do not become
excessive, digressive
be thou me in short
and let neighbors
bury their cats.

[NOTE. Michael Davidson’s prowess as a poet has been obscured in recent years by his other significant work as a critic & chronicler of the works of others (Duncan & Oppen principal among them), along with his foundational contribution to the emerging field of disability poetics. That Coffee House Press is planning to bring out a New & Selected Poems in 2013 may help to set things straight, but in the meantime the following books, most now out of print, are testament to a poet’s mind & voice unflinchingly & unmistakably in the act of becoming: Exchanges (Los Angeles: Prose and Verses Press, 1972); Two Views of Pears (Berkeley: San Dollar, 1973); The Mutabilities (Berkeley: San Dollar, 1976); Summer Letters (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1977); Grill Work (Toronto: Mansfield Book Mart, 1979); Discovering Motion (Berkeley: Little Dinosaur, 1980); The Prose of Fact (Berkeley: The figures, 1981); The Landing of Rochambeau (Providence, Rhode Island: Burning Deck, 1985); Analogy of the Ion (Great Barrington, Massachusetts: The Figures, 1988); Post Hoc (Bolinas, California: Avenue B, 1990); The Arcades (Oakland, California: O Books, 2002).

Previous postings on Poems and Poetics can be found here & here. (J.R.)]

Whose speech? Who speaks?

Vanessa Place’s “Miss Scarlett”

Protesters picket the movie Gone with the Wind
Protesters picket the movie Gone with the Wind (1940s), Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Over on the Poetry Foundation, The Harriet Blog has a write up of my recent post on Vanessa Place’s “White Out” of Gone with the Wind. The Harriet Blog also notes Place’s current retyping of the novel on Twitter, and Brian Reed’s discussion of Place’s “Miss Scarlett” (also an iteration of Gone with the Wind). In a recent talk (which you can watch here), I discussed the relationship between Place’s “White Out” and “Miss Scarlett.” I read “Miss Scarlett” somewhat differently from Reed, as I outline below.

In “Miss Scarlett,” Place appropriates Gone with the Wind in a more overtly discomforting way than in her “White Out”:

Dey’s fightin’ at Jonesboro, Miss Scarlett!

Dey say our gempmums is gittin’ beat.

Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen ter

Maw an’ Poke? Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen

ter us effen de Yankees gits hyah? Oh,

Gawd—Ah ain’ nebber seed him, Miss Scarlett.

No’m, he ain’ at de horsepittle.

Let’s note (with Brian Reed) that a poem like “Miss Scarlett” is written for our digital world of searchable copies. Because of these digital copies, readers can type a phrase into Google and quickly locate the source text: in this case, all the words spoken the maid Prissy in a section of Gone with the Wind. The passage I’ve just quoted reads in the original:

“Dey’s fightin’ at Jonesboro, Miss Scarlett! Dey say our gempumus is gittin’ beat. Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen ter Maw an’ Poke? Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen ter us effen de Yankees gits hyah? Oh, Gawd—

Scarlett clapped a hand over the blubbery mouth.

“For God’s sake, hush!”

Yes, what would happen to them if the Yankees came––what would happen to Tara? She pushed the thought firmly back into her mind and grappled with the more pressing emergency. If she thought of these things, she’d begin to scream and bawl like Prissy.

“Where’s Dr. Meade? When’s he coming?”

“Ah ain’ nebber seed him, Miss Scarlett.”

“What!”

“No’m, he ain’ at de horsepittle.”

Place’s rewriting silences Scarlett and the narrator––elsewhere Place deletes sentences like: “‘Some day, I’m going to take a strap to that little wench,’ thought Scarlett savagely, hurrying down the stairs to meet her.” We might, then, again follow Brian Reed and take the poem to show how “Mitchell’s Prissy, notorious as a racist caricature, might have been giving voice to a different and oppositional perspective all along.” Read in this way, Place eliminates and reverses Scarlett’s smothering of Prissy’s speech with her hand. Where Mitchell has Scarlett clap “a hand over the blubbery mouth” of the maid Prissy, Place metaphorically claps a hand over Scarlett’s mouth. This then is a “white out” in another sense––the silencing of the white heroine’s––and, implicitly, the white narrator’s––speech.

But by using only Prissy’s words, Place also increases our focus on her subservience, broken speech, deferral to “Miss Scarlett,” and her fear. Place copies Mitchell’s text, while Miss Scarlett demands that her slave Prissy follow instructions. As a white author, repeating this caricatured imitation of black speech, Place makes these problems of copying doubly uncomfortable. How does one––and should one––give voice to the blackface minstrelsy imitation of African Americans even to attack this caricature? Do I read the passage with my New Zealand vowels or attempt a horribly fake imitation of a horribly fake original? Or should I refuse to repeat it at all? Place pushes the reader and listener into this ethically and emotionally uncomfortable position: she refuses to allow her reader distance.

A Handbook of Protocols for Literary Listening, ed. Craig Dworkin (2012): pdf

download  pamphlet from EPC Digital Library: pdf

Preface: A Survey as a Practice of Listening

 Listening speaks
— Roland Barthes

 A survey, in some ways, always looks to vision. Etymologically, the word derives from the Latin super [over] + videre [to see], literally: to look upon, to look over (though not, of course, to overlook). But we might re-imagine a survey as a process of listening — as a kind of “overhearing” — transferring the survey’s modes of attention to the aural realm. Such a practice would thus listen both broadly and closely, with comprehensive scope and statistical depth. As a practice of listening, one might redefine survey accordingly: to formally examine the sonic condition; to map the contours of sound; to hear in detail; to inspect the audible; to explore acoustically.

 A survey, as the Oxford English Dictionary in fact has it, also denotes a “literary examination.” And indeed, some of the most innovative listening has been done by poets. The following handbook catalogues a repertoire of techniques for literary listening. It seeks to identify some of the specific tools with which poets have gauged and transformed the sonic effects of their linguistic environment. Suggestive rather than exhaustive, this guide is not an encyclopedia of practices. Indeed, the hope is that it will serve as a reminder of other examples, an inspiration for further writing, a provocation to further listening, and a locus of surprise (a word which derives in turn from the French surprendre: to overhear).

 Please listen carefully.

Miettes of Pam (or… Dis-INTER)

"Dear Book, you were never a book..." (Michael Palmer, from Baudelaire Series)

A couple of weeks ago, I was translating a poem-text coaxed out of Montréal poet Steve Savage, for the San Francisco based journal Eleven Eleven (if they like it, or for someone else if they don’t!). I knew on receiving “Miettes de Pam” that Steve had deftly slipped me a bit of, or an arrangement of, part of his own translation from English into French of NY poet Mina Pam Dick’s (who is also Traver Pam Dick and others) Delinquent. In effect, I was going to translate Steve’s translation of Pam into English as Steve’s French poem. So I looked at it as Steve’s poem. He, after all, wrote all the words before my eyes! I didn’t take Delinquent off the shelf beside me but accepted Steve’s delinquency as emblematic of Pam’s shape-shifting. So I translated, creating a work in my words in English, a faithful—but commented—translation of Steve’s words in French which started as a translation of Pam’s.

Steve said when he read my translation, “Bits of Pam”: I see you, Erín, with Pam lurking behind you! Mina Pam Dick was of course contacted too, and delinquently allows my perverse versions of Steve’s translation to lurk in front of her, as she lurks behind.

All in all, it was a delight with three laughters, one of those signal gestures that passes between the USA and Quebec, between English and French and back again at times. Poetry changes languages among friends and people who admire each other’s work.

The experience reminded me of my discovery of the American language-poets in the mid 90s in Paris in the 1991 French anthology 49 + 1 nouveaux poètes américains edited by Emmanuel Hocquard  and Claude Royet-Journoud. I’d read scattered bits of that poetry before then, yes, but this anthology gave me a whole community of poets at once (except Rae Armantrout, drat it) in a huge and beautiful volume. I was enthralled with the language and walked around reciting American poems in French to myself as I worked.

At one point, I’d so inhabited Michael Palmer’s “Suite Baudelaire” in French and so wanted to read the work in English that, unable to find the original Palmer in Montreal, I translated a few of his poems from French myself. When later I did find "Baudelaire Series" in a book called Sun, I laughed, and perversely (because I’d been reciting it for so long) liked my version better. I guess I was just more used to it!

Since then, I’ve lost my translations of Palmer from Hocquard's French translation of Palmer’s English, and I do love the work in its original, can’t imagine it any other way.

A funny thing in the midst of these pleasures: the doubling of a back-and-forth translation like the Erín-Steve-Pam text really does, again, point to translation as writing, and to the fact that a multiplicity of translations is essential to a poem (if there is an essence at all), as one translation never serves a poem completely. Its resonances need that second, third, fourth translation: inter aerias fagos again—up there in the air of branches, between branches, where branches branch out and also touch, sharing fresh air.

On not repeating Gone with the Wind

Iteration and Copyright

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Iterative poetics can serve as a mode of questioning political authority while remaining conscious of the danger that one might be merely repeating what one seeks to overthrow. But some contemporary modes of iteration seem more concerned with contesting other forms of authority. These forms of authority include, as we have seen with Prigov’s 49th Alphabet, the cultural authority of classic writers, as well as the economic authority of copyright and intellectual property. These two forms of authority are sometimes, as in the examples I turn to today, intimately linked.

Take, for example, appropriation artist Richard Prince’s recent work The Catcher in the Rye, in which Prince seemingly demands to be sued by publishing a copyrighted classic that has sold millions under his own name. Iterative strategies have also been used to challenge the copyright of another fiercely protected US classic: Gone with the Wind. Iteration here also becomes a way to respond to a more pernicious form of cultural copying: stereotyping.

In 2001, the estate of Margaret Mitchell took the publisher Houghton Mifflin to court to prevent the imminent publication of Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone. In The Wind Done Gone, Randall rewrote Gone with the Wind from the perspective of an imagined mulatto half sister to the original book’s white protagonist Scarlett O’Hara. Randall’s book appropriated some lines from Gone with the Wind as part of a story that attacked––and sought to overcome by rewriting––the racial stereotyping of the original. The Mitchell estate took Randall to court, and the district court judge found in favor of the estate, condemning the rewrite as “unabated piracy.”

In The Wind Done Gone case, the Mitchell estate sought to use the protection of copyright to silence a work that was critical of Gone with the Wind, illustrating the dangerous line between protecting copyright and limiting free speech. The appeals court recognized this problem, overturning the decision on the grounds that one of the tests for fair use is whether there is sufficient creative contribution from the appropriator––such as parody––and finding in favor of the defendant in this case.

The Wind Done Gone case not only highlighted how copyright law can threaten free speech; it also underscored the broader stakes of copying as a social practice. If Gone with the Wind has become emblematic of nostalgia for the antebellum south, then the book has achieved this status through its mimetic claim to conjure up or to describe that historical moment––to present a copy of historical reality. In making this claim, Gone with the Wind also repeats––and so arguably legitimizes––the racial stereotyping of African Americans within US society. Copying Gone with the Wind, then, becomes a highly charged question of history and racial politics.

We can see this even more clearly in the writer Vanessa Place’s more recent appropriations of Gone with the Wind. Place has produce at least three works based on Gone with the Wind. Place’s “Miss Scarlett” has been discussed by Brian Reed elsewhere. And Place is currently broadcasting Gone with the Wind tweet by tweet through her Twitter feed. Here, I want to note yet another iteration: Place’s “White Out” of the text, which you can watch below.

 

Apart from signaling that she is rewriting Gone with the Wind by reading aloud the novel’s famous final line, Place’s performance is a non-reading, erasure, or “White Out” of the entire novel, in which she stands silently in front of her increasingly uncomfortable audience for two minutes. Of course, “white out” might also refer to the original text’s racist, white supremacist ideology and its silencing of other voices. The silence, then, is ambiguous: it could mark Place’s attack by deletion on Gone with the Wind’s racist ideology, or it could be a performance of that racist ideology’s stifling of other voices. Or the silence could refer to the copyright case over The Wind Done Gone. Just as the Mitchell estate sought an injunction to stop Randall’s rewriting being published, Place performs the violence of this muzzling as a non-reading, as silence. Through the indeterminate meaning of these two minutes of silence, Place highlights ethical questions about copying Gone with the Wind, indeed about reading it at all.