Commentaries - May 2013
“Can you see me?”
— Jimi Hendrix
We should regard the text as the only source of meaning, argued Wimsatt and Beardsley in 1946. The details of the author's life are extrinsic, irrelevant to the task of interpretation. “What does it matter who is speaking, someone said.” Michel Foucault said that Samuel Beckett said that, without really establishing why that mattered. Jean Genet, more than a half century ago, asked, in a preamble to The Blacks, “What is a black? First of all, what's his color?”
Recitative: “How You Sound”
In March of 2012, a mother contacted the administrators of George C. Marshall High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, with a complaint about one of her son’s teachers. “We take these allegations very seriously, and we’re investigating,” the principal of the school would later report, responding to an inquiry from a journalist for The Washington Post (“Fairfax Investigates”). The source of the complaint, unusual in this day, was a poetry lesson in the son’s ninth grade English class. The teacher, identified as a veteran educator named Marilyn Bart, who has taught in the Fairfax schools for more than two decades, had asked the student to read aloud in class the Langston Hughes poem “Ballad of a Landlord.” A seemingly innocent exercise, indeed a commonplace in our post-canon wars era of English instruction, the problem had not been the poem’s content, but rather a disagreement about the proper way to realize the poem aloud. According to the complaint, the teacher expressed dissatisfaction with the level of “blackness” in the student’s reading of the poem. According to a fellow student who witnessed the exchange, “he was just sitting there reading normally like any person would,” when the teacher instructed him to read “blacker.” Permit me to underscore certain phrasing in this eye- and ear-witness account: “reading normally,” “like any person would,” “blacker.” The student who was the source of the complaint refused to continue in the voice he was being admonished to adopt, at which point the teacher read the piece herself to demonstrate what she had in mind. Presumably her reading was not normal, not like any person, and more “black,” at least to her own hearing.
What might that mean? According to the fourteen-year-old who had been singled out in class, “She sounded like a maid in the 1960s. She read the poem like a slave, basically.” One well might ask why this student thinks maids in the 1960s sounded like slaves, and wonder at the source of his understandings of race and sound, but far more pressing is the question of the teacher’s own prior assumptions in the matter. Just what does “black” sound like to her, and what does it mean that it doesn’t sound like her black students’ “normal” reading? Does she believe that a poem written in 1940 requires a contemporary reading in keeping with her suppositions about what black people might have sounded like then? “She told me, ‘Blacker, Jordan,’” according to the student. “C’mon, blacker. I thought you were black.” Here we might pause to ask why The Washington Post feels compelled at this point to give provide an orthographic representation of young Jordan’s speech, “c’mon,” when they do so for no other speaker quoted in the article ( a fact rendered yet odder when we consider that young Jordan was quoting his teacher). We might also pause to consider how it is that everyone reading this report assumes, correctly as it turns out, that the teacher is white, despite the fact that her race is never identified in the piece. Perhaps because of something else included near the end of the report. On another occasion, attempting to speak of ethnic stereotypes, this same teacher showed a picture of a grape soda and asked Jordan to explain its meaning. “‘I do know the stereotypes,” the student explained to the reporter’” (though I confess the grape soda stereotype was one I had never known of), but ‘”she could change the questions so I’m not like the king of black people.’”
Well she might, but in contemplating the racial rhetorics operating in this episode, we should probably note as well something said by the complaining mother. “If the teacher thought the poem should be delivered in a Southern dialect, she could have said so without referring to race.” The Langston Hughes poem makes no reference whatsoever to the geographical region in which it takes place. By 1940, Hughes had been living in New York for many years, and many readers assume the poem is set in Harlem. But again, there is nothing in the poem to root such an assumption. Hughes himself was born in Missouri and the Mid-West never really left his accent. (To hear Hughes's own reading of this and other poems, click here.) Who among us, post New Criticism, post Deconstruction, believes that a poem need be read in the accents of its authors, or of its time? In our putatively post-racial world, what does it mean that a ninth-grade English teacher has absorbed a set of conventions about what “black” sounds like that she would impose upon her black students, or at least those students she thought were black?
I will admit that while I recoil from discussions that frame these issues in terms of sensitivities, I have a certain sensitivity growing out of my own educational background to just this issue of in-class recitation. I attended a predominantly black undergraduate institution in which my fine teachers, as I do to this day, asked students to take turns reading poems aloud. It somehow fell out that when my turn rolled around, I was often faced with a dialect poem, but I quickly learned that if I simply read what was on the page, without adopting any voice not my own, the rest of the class was fine with my rendering. None of my black professors ever demanded that I try to read a poem “blacker,” nor did they insist that my African American fellow students attempt to sound like Fitzgerald when we were studying modernisms. The other students did on occasion expect me to serve as their native informant: I was, for instance, while we were discussing a Chesnutt story, expected to pronounce on the question of how white people regard the issue of miscegenation.
That, of course, was then: pre-canon wars, pre-post-racial, almost pre-post-structuralism. I don’t know how the Fairfax County Schools have adjudicated this student’s complaints, as there have not been follow-up stories in the Post. (D.C.’s NBC affiliate, on their web site, carried the unfortunately worded headline “Fairfax Teacher Probed over Racial Insensitivity Allegations,” wording that itself sets a benchmark for insensitivity at a time when Virginia politicians were in fact proposing to probe women.) What is of importance to discussions of cross-cultural poetics in this episode is something far weightier. It is clearly not enough that we have all agreed that race is a social construction. One job for cross-cultural poetics is to examine the mechanisms of this construction. How does the present day rhetoric of race reproduce race for a post-racial nation? How does the very term “post-racial,” with its presupposition of race, operate to silence exactly the mode of analysis I am here calling for? Where do our assumptions about how poems sound racially come from, how do they evolve, and how does “sensitivity” rhetoric serve to cloak their operations? Even after more than a decade of “whiteness studies,” these questions remain largely unaddressed. When young Jordan, responding to his teacher’s imprecations to read the Hughes poem as she thought a black poem should be read, asked her if she thought all black people speak that way, she “reprimanded him for speaking out of turn . . . and told him to take his seat.” A student, asked to read, is out of turn when asking a question. A student, “thought to be black,” does not bring sufficient historic, perhaps histrionic, blackness to his reading, is out of turn, is told to return to his seat. We might do well to recall that as Stephen Henderson set out to define black poetics in his Black Arts era book Understanding the New Black Poetry, he defined Black English straightforwardly enough as English as spoken by any black person. What is it that must already be in place for a Fairfax teacher to assume that the English spoken by her black student is inadequate to the realization of a Langston Hughes poem? How is it that a ninth grade English teacher, arbiter of so much in her students’ approaches to poetics, is the arbiter of how black sounds?
I took the pleasure recently of re-reading nearly everything published in the first 17 issues of Jacket magazine. Then I went back through quickly, identifying eight poet/critic-on-poet profiles that I found most impressive and memorable. Many of these I recalled from the first time I’d read them in the magazine. For what it's worth, here are — to me — the eight best essay-profiles published in the first five years of the magazine:
1. Eliot Weinberger on James Laughlin (#2; 1998)
2. Rob Wilson on Jack Spicer (#7; 1999)
3. Lytle Shaw on Frank O’Hara (#10; 1999)
4. Stephen Vincent on Joanne Kyger (#11; 2000)
5. Tom Orange on Clark Coolidge (#13; 2001)
6. Brian Kim Stefans on Ian Hamilton Finlay (#15, 2001)
7. Ann Waldman on Kenneth Koch (#15; 2001)
8. Catherine Daly on Marjorie Allen Seiffert (#17; 2002)
The poet's novel
Laynie Browne: Recently a show at the Morgan Library in New York City celebrated the 1913 publication of the first of the seven volumes of Swan’s Way. Here one could see some of Proust’s original handwritten manuscripts and notebooks, some of which have never left Paris. In one notebook, considering his book in progress he writes: “Should it be a novel, a philosophical essay, am I a novelist?”
In your novel The Mandarin, the question is potently raised in various ways, who is a novelist? What is a novel? I wonder if you could comment on this. Do you think of yourself as a poet and novelist? Are the categories important or useful to you? When you set out to write The Mandarin, what were some of your initial impulses or inspirations for the project? Do you recall what turned you toward prose? Were you interested in questioning any conventional notions of the novel?
Aaron Kunin: Isn’t it strange that Proust, who is definitely a novelist, asks himself, “Am I a novelist?” If he doesn’t know, how can anyone be sure?
When I started writing The Mandarin, I was curious about the difference between speech and writing, and the funny thing that happens when you represent writing as speech. I also wanted to write about food and sleep, and to put everything about Minneapolis in it.
The novel doesn’t seem like an exclusive genre to me. Woolf says that the novel has no special formal conventions, and novelists as different as Austen and Stein say the same thing. Stein says that the novel can include any sort of language or information; it is “everything.” A novel can include philosophical inquiry, journalism, poetry. It can be one hundred percent poetry — a poem, such as Eugene Onegin. If some of today's novels seem more conventional or exclusive, that is just because the novelists are not taking advantage of all the things that can go into a novel.
There are some conventional ways of talking about novels that don't interest me. I have never liked the idea of free indirect discourse. I have never understood the idea of the unreliable narrator. And I don't respond to plot at all — I can’t seem to keep plots in my head.
Browne: In The Mandarin I get the sense that you are also saying a novel can be ephemeral. A novel can be written on a napkin in a very short time. (am I remembering that part correctly?) So that seems to fit with this notion that the novel is not an exclusive genre. I’m interested in this statement that the novel is “everything.” Sometimes I want to say that about any form to see how far one can go — for instance, a sonnet or a letter can contain everything. The poet's novel I think, if it is possible to generalize about so varied a form, wants know how much “everything” it can include, and also how much “nothing.” Can a novel be a short utterance or scrawl, a phrase whispered to a companion at table? Can it have no characters, no plot, no location? Well, obviously, yes, if the poet says so. So you’ve said you aren’t interested in these conventions such as plot, but what aspects of poet's novels do interest you the most?
Kunin: It’s true, I don’t respond to plot. I used to think that nobody responded to plot, but I was wrong about that. Wilkie Collins showed me that I was wrong. People kept telling me how great Collins’s novels were, and I kept trying to read them. I read four of them! And they bored me to tears. The Woman in White, The Moonstone — they are supposed to be fascinating and atmospheric, but they are all plot. Maybe not one hundred percent plot, but ninety percent. So there is living proof that I don't respond to plot, and that some people do, because the readers who love Collins have to love plot. There's nothing else in him to love.
It’s interesting that some people love plot, because plot is an abstraction, a diagram of causation. One thing happens so that another thing can happen, so that another thing can happen, and so on. And if the plot is complicated enough, everything that happens is a surprise — you saw where it came from, but you still didn't see it coming. Loving plot is like loving a rhyme scheme. Not the sound of the rhymes, but the diagram. Interesting, but not for me.
What I respond to in a novel are the compensations for putting up with plot. Style, voices, images, actions, characters. The descriptions of mountains and clouds in Anne Radcliffe’s novels, and her dippy poetry. The ersatz Jacobean epigraphs in Eliot’s novels. Everything about whales in Moby-Dick. Reading a novel by Trollope, I learn about church government, the decimal system, land reform. Rhetorical power. Clarissa kneeling to her mother. Jane Eyre rejecting Rochester, because, she says, she is his superior. All the scenes in James’s novels where one character influences or possesses another, or simply observes what is in another character's mind, and enjoys it.
A novel is made for these things. I don't think poets are necessarily better at them. Trollope is a genius at providing these kinds of satisfactions, and he has no interest in plot at all. Notice how he carefully destroys the possibility of narrative suspense in Barchester Towers (which is the purest pleasure I have ever experienced in the form of a novel). At the start, he informs you plainly that Archdeacon Grantly is never going to be bishop, and Eleanor Bold is going to marry Arabin rather than Slope or Stanhope. With that out of the way, Trollope can concentrate on more interesting topics — controversies over the apostolic succession, for example. No writer is better than Trollope at narrating momentary shifts in rhetorical power, how relationships and opinions can change in response to a sarcastic remark not even spoken aloud, but kept to oneself.
Browne: Do you have any favorite novels written by poets? Have any of these texts been formative to you as a writer? In what ways?
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. As in Proust, the whole thing takes place on the border between sleep and waking. Alice stands up suddenly, and tips over a jury box, and the jurors spill onto the floor of the courtroom. Then she's trying to corral the jurors back in their box, but as she does this she also sees herself returning a goldfish to the water in its bowl, and she confuses the two tasks, thinking that the jurors can't get oxygen outside of their box. A perfect anxiety dream. As in a musical comedy, sometimes the action ceases, and the characters recite poems and sing. The poems are masterpieces. Although they are parodies of other poems, they are always better than their sources. (Including “Jabberwocky,” which is a parody of Beowulf, and a much better poem than Beowulf.)
Two other novels by poets, Seeking Air by Barbara Guest and A form / of taking / it all by Rosmarie Waldrop, are important to me. What I take from them is related to what I take from Carroll's novels. Guest has a similar way of layering conscious and unconscious experiences on top of one another, and Waldrop does something similar with sources.
Lermontov, A Hero for Our Time. Each episode brings you closer to Pechorin, until you are finally inside Pechorin's head, and you understand him even less. He becomes more mysterious as you know him better.
I'm a fan of Leslie Scalapino's novels, particularly the ones in which Detective Grace Abe appears. Scalapino has an unusual facility with the English language. Whatever she wants to do, English will do it for her, without difficulty. I also like her treatment of sex. It's very repetitive, business as usual, basically the same three sex acts repeated over and over, in the same language. And somehow she makes it look completely Martian. The most vanilla sex becomes a compelling figure for human variety and possibility.
Browne: In The Mandarin I was really interested in the juxtaposition of the final section of the novel, and how in a way it rewrites or reveals what comes before, so when one finishes reading one is back at the beginning. This question of how one reads (and the tossing away of conventions in terms of the time in which a work is read or unfolds) occurs often in novels by poets. I'd love to hear your thoughts about this.
Kunin: I wanted to prove that the frame of the novel was really there. That the novel wasn't just people talking, which it mostly is, but that the talk was being narrated. The only way to do that seemed to be for the narrator to say something that was more than a dialogue tag. This happens twice, so you know it isn’t an accident. First he narrates the death of a centipede by newspaper, and then, at the end of the novel, he narrates his return to Minneapolis after a long absence.
Actually, it happens a third time. In one of the bakery episodes, the dialogue tags get a little bit longer, and include characteristic gestures: raising her hand in a kind of salute, arranging his hair, tearing the front of her coat, and so on. The characters are talking about relationships where one person speaks for another, and meanwhile they are having a separate conversation in their gestures, and Willy is narrating both conversations.
Does the last chapter rewrite what comes before? The same characters and situations appear in slightly different configurations, but that has been happening throughout the novel. The difference now is that you're getting only one voice, where before there were a few voices braided together. So it's more subjective. A reduction of what came before.
Ashbery said that he wanted the last word in A Nest of Ninnies to be an obscure word that readers would have to find in a dictionary. He wanted to send his readers directly from one book to another. I don’t usually see myself playing games like that.
Browne: I’m also curious about your statement that you were interested in representing writing as speech, as the end of your novel moves in a different direction. I’ve just started reading your new book, Grace Period, which is terrific, and I'm struck by how much of the writing is an inner conversation — insights that might not be spoken, or that have been removed or liberated from specific speech acts which might make them impossible. There is a great freedom in that disassociation. So how does a “novelist” get to that freedom while remaining within the particularities of dialogue? Maybe one doesn’t. Maybe that question isn't fair, as Grace Period is “Notebooks.” But I’m wondering how working with notebooks might inform the other writing you do. Do you write in notebooks or journals consistently still? Do you cull your notebooks for poetry or other projects?
Kunin: That’s a great description. Yes, Grace Period consists of selections from an inner conversation. I like that.
Some of the writing in my notebooks is planning and drafting for other projects. Most of the writing in my notebooks is just note-taking. Something interested me briefly when I wrote it down, and then interested me a second time, when I transcribed it.
So a lot of material in my notebooks didn’t end up in the book. Drafts for The Mandarin and other book projects. Practice writing in the vocabulary of The Sore Throat. Descriptions of people eating. (I do a lot of that — I'm not sure why it interests me, and I don't think readers would enjoy it.) There's a lot of personal material too, but usually this is generalized so it would be difficult to identify the person.
Anything you write tends to become personal. If I write a description of someone else, most readers will assume that I am describing myself. And they aren't making a mistake. It is about me; it is personal, because I wrote it.
Browne: Back to Proust. I especially love that quote because as you say, how can anyone be sure. Nobody can, which means that it might be useful to keep asking the question — and repeating the refrain that certainty can be problematic. Keith Waldrop once said to me that uncertainty is much more interesting than certainty. So is it possible that some of today's novels which seem more conventional think they must be certain? Is the “certain novelist” not a poet's novelist?
Kunin: I don't want to be pious about uncertainty. Some writers (I’m thinking of Andrew Maxwell and Johannes Göransson) are passionate advocates for didactic literature, and I have a lot of sympathy for their position, although it might be a stretch to call my writing didactic. There are moral maxims in Grace Period, but it isn't exactly a handbook for living.
Here is what I would say. If you are studying something, it is probably best to start from a place of uncertainty. You are more likely to make a discovery that way. But if you want to accomplish something, to make something and get it into the world, it probably helps to have some convictions. You have to be convinced of the value of your methods, at least, if not your conclusions.
Translation from Mayan by Dennis Tedlock
FOR THE DESIRE THIS MADNESS BRINGS:
“One Lord, one and only Four Lord, Sky Lord would have been in chaos, Sky Lord would have been dark when you were born. Who are you, owner of chaos? Who are you, owner of night? You are in chaos, Great Lord of Days, the eye of the sun was plucked out when you were born. Who is your mother, what father begets you when you do penance? She is Red Rainbow, White Rainbow, she is the point of the lancet, the tip of the penis, this is your mother, your father, begetter, together behind there, together behind the sweat bath when you were born, the desire in that chaos, desire in that darkness, the spitting snake was on the rock when you were born, desire in the darkness. Master of Drunken Madness, you are the desire in the chaos, you are Master of Stupid Madness, you are Lascivious Madness, you are Jaguar Madness, you are Master of Macaw Madness, you are Deer Madness. Who is your tree? Who is your bush? What served as your bed, your bower when you were born? The red tree of madness, white tree of madness, black tree of madness, yellow tree of madness, the red macaw acacia, white macaw acacia, black macaw acacia, yellow macaw acacia are your trees. These are your trees, you Macaw Madness. The red mamey, who is the white mamey? Who is the black mamey? Who is the yellow mamey? Who is the red viper tree? Who is white, black, yellow? The red frangipani, who is white, black, yellow? These are your trees, Lascivious Madness. Who is the madness? You are Stupid Madness … you will be where she is, a needle for drawing blood, a needle for gore, respite comes for the chaos, respite comes for the darkness, the bond is shaken loose where she is, a needle for drawing blood, a needle for drawing gore, the seizure is shaken out, there where he vomited water, only it wasn’t water flowing, it was gore flowing, Master of Traveler’s Madness, Master of Drunken Macaw Madness flowed out. What about the desire of chaos, the illness of madness? Drain them away then, you Four Gods, you Four Who Pour the Years. They will fall where she is, Yellow Sun Face, Yellow Dripper of Gore, where she is, the sole owner of the accursed gore. Drain it away then, to the place where she is, the sole owner of accursed gore drain it away then, you Four Gods, you Four Who Pour the Years, it will fall where she is, the star of Stupid Madness, it will lie four days in the place where she is, the star of Stupid Madness. He bit his arm, relieving the chaos, relieving the darkness, and he also tasted the blood of the sweat bath, and he tasted the blood on the foundation stone. Well then, throw the desire of chaos there, desire of darkness, you Four Gods, you of the Four Directions, it will fall into the heart of Hell where its father sits, Ultimate Enemy of Fire, where she is, the Foreigner, Doorkeeper of the Earth. This is its mother, this is its lustful father when it arrives in the heart of Hell. Raucous, thunderous are the cries of the birds. What about this chaos, you Four Gods, you of the Four Directions?” This will be the dialogue concerning the Ultimate Enemy of Fire when speaking to the Four Gods, the Four Directions. “Raucous are the cries of the birds, the bringers of omens on her behalf, the Foreigner, Doorkeeper of the Earth, red-breasted birds, white-breasted falcons, red-breasted falcons, thrushes in the sky, thrushes in the clouds: these will portend your fall into the heart of Hell. What about stupid madness? What about macaw madness? What about jaguar madness? Well then, the desire of chaos is yours to level out, you Four Gods, you of the Four Directions. Aha! The water spreads thin, but what flows is not water but blood flowing, gore flowing from the tree of Master of Macaw Jaguar Madness.” This will be the dialogue when speaking to the Four Gods, those of the Four Directions, concerning her, the Foreigner, Doorkeeper of the Earth.
[TRANSLATOR'S NOTES. Among the animals invoked by the incantation is the kan ch’ah, or “spitting snake,” an unidentified species that is said to be large, yellow, and nonpoisonous. The omen-bringing birds called sak tan sipipi, chak tan sipip, or “white-breasted falcons, red-breasted falcons,” are probably collared forest-falcons (Micrastur semitorquatus naso), whose hollow cries carry far and whose breast colors include white and buff. Also named as bringers of omens are ixk’o, or “thrushes,” described as being in the sky. These birds would be clay-colored thrushes (Turdus grayi), which sing in rich and varied phrases while flying.
All of the trees mentioned have medicinal values, as described in treatises written by Mayan healers during the colonial period. The boiled bark and leaves of the prickly ash (Zanthoxylum fagara), named here as tankas che, or “tree of madness,” are ingredients in a bath for sufferers of fevers, fainting spells, or eruptions of pustules. An unidentified disease that makes the gums and the palms of the hands turn greenish can be treated by a bath whose ingredients include the boiled leaves of a species of acacia (Acacia filicioides), named here as the k’ante mo, literally “yellow tree macaw” but rendered as “macaw acacia” in the translation. The fruit of the mamey (Calocarpum mammosum), named here as jas, is a remedy for diarrhea. The k’ok’ob’ or “viper” tree (Pilocarpus racemosus) is named after an unidentified snake that is said to be the most poisonous of all the vipers of Yucatán. The bark is irritating to the skin, but it can be boiled to make medicines for dysentery. The flowers and leaves of frangipani trees (Plumeria spp.), named here as nikte, also found use in such medicines. The sap of these trees provides a salve for burns.]
Writes Tedlock further: “The attached two paragraphs of notes need to be restored to ‘Jaguar Macaw Madness.’ Removing them detaches the incantation from the local and practical knowledge of real, specific plants and animals that belong to a real, specific place, pushing it too far into what could seem to the reader to be the imaginary world of a madman. The reality of these plants and animals is all the more important now, in a world that must be made greener.”
with John Bloomberg-Rissman
SOURCE: Dennis Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, University of California Press, 2011.
A principal thrust of the European Conquest was to drive the old languages & religions into a new darkness, an outsiderness by force of arms. And yet, as Tedlock & others have told us, “The ancient gods of Yucatán continued to hear their names during the colonial period.” The languages kept being spoken & the books – those few that remained & those now secretly transcribed & hidden– entered a furtive underground existence, some in the new alphabetic writing, some in traditional conveyance by word of mouth. What survives & continues to be written & invented even now amounts, as Tedlock has assembled & brought it forward, to 2000 years of Mayan written literature.
Writes Tedlock further: “Among those who invoked [the ancient gods] were healers who treated a wide variety of illnesses, using combinations of herbs and words. At some point during the early seventeenth century, some of these practitioners used alphabetic writing to create collections of curative incantations. Today their works are known only from a single compendium ['Ritual of the Bacabs'] that dates from the late eighteenth century, based on two or more earlier sources and written in two different hands. … It seems clear that the purpose of the writers was to create scripts that could be memorized in advance of a performance, or perhaps read aloud. … First among the illnesses addressed by the incantations are various forms of madness whose symptoms include a lack of judgment, spasms, frenzy, fury, and shameless lust. The common term for all of these illnesses is tankas (or tamakas), which is also a term for the Milky Way."