Commentaries - August 2013

The principle of inclusion and exclusion

Ned Kelly’s Last Stand (2010). Arkady Gollings. Charcoal on paper. 21.0 x 29.7 cms.

In a discussion published recently in the Sydney Review of Books, the academic and writer Emmett Stinson argued that despite a number of recent assertions to the contrary, an Australian ‘cultural cringe’ persists. Although writers and academics such as Susan Johnson, Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman, and Nick Bryant have variously asserted that Australian culture is ‘enabled by cultural incorporation’ and is ‘punching above its weight in the arts and culture’, for Stinson, the only thing the new ‘literary internationalism’ has enabled is a situation in which the overseas reception of Australian fiction retroactively influences its Australian critical reception. The critical reception of such work, he argues, bears little relation to its literary worth. Of the two examples he mentions, ‘there is something deeply conservative about the aesthetics’. Both books ‘seem happy to work within the confines of well-established traditions, rather than trying to expand or exceed them.’ Stinson likens such palatable exports to Ikea flat-packed furniture, easily stored, packaged and reassembled.

What intrigues me about Stinson’s concerns is the extent to which they don’t necessarily hold true for contemporary Australian poetic practice. The Australian poets I read are voracious and insistent readers of American, European, Asian and Middle-Eastern poetry. And yet this consumption, far from resulting in a flat-pack poetics, contributes to the production of work that is vertiginous in its variety and invention. Part of this voracity, I want to show, has to do with the intricate networks that run between individual poets and the constantly evolving and dissipating communities that these communications bring to life. Over the coming weeks I will be reporting on a number of recent poetry readings, symposia, book publications and conferences that I think gesture towards something like a ‘coming community’, as Giorgio Agamben might have it, of Australian poetry.

In doing this, I want to be mindful of the kinds of difficulties such a proposal initiates. As the academic, poet and novelist Ali Alizadeh warns (in a blog post for one of Australia’s longest-running literary journals), ‘It is now all too common for individuals to view themselves as physically and spiritually included in the symbolic of a locality.’ For Alizadeh, such a view speaks of a ‘literary nationalism’ that attempts to cohere through its inscription on the institutionalised bodies of ideologically-driven publishing and arts organisations. In a later post, “‘Community’: networks, nepotism and exclusion”, Alizadeh asserts that ‘My experiences of our cherished ‘poetry communities’ in particular suggest that the term is more often than not a warm and fuzzy euphemism for the signified of self-serving scenes, gangs and cliques which–in addition to being nauseatingly nepotistic, incestuous and partisan […] operate on the basis of what philosopher Jacques Rancière has described as “the problematic remainder that [the community] terms ‘the excluded’” (115-6).’

In this sense, my posts risk constituting a kind of problematic remainder of the community of philosophical thought. They’ll exclude hundreds of Australian poets, they’ll fail to adequately account for the perceptions and observations they propose, they'll put forward a number of contradictory ideas that they'll then neglect to pursue. To an extent these posts might best be entertained as a series of journal entries tapped out on an electronic device during an Australian Poetry Road Trip. They’ll constitute my recent encounters with a range of poetic activities including a reading by John Tranter, Sam Langer, Marty Hiatt and Claire Nashar at one of the iconic ‘Sappho’s’ poetry nights in Sydney; remarks on The Real Through Line poetry symposium staged  in Melbourne in April; highlights from the Apoetic: Festival of Innovative Australian Poetry in Sydney with its near-historic assembly of Aboriginal poets; musings over the Contemporary Asian Australian Poets anthology; and from the 2013 ASAL conference held at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, notes from the launch of Outcrop: Radical Australian poetry of land edited by Jeremy Balius and Corey Wakeling. Next week:  in a brief interview, Justin Clemens, author of Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy and the forthcoming ‘massively expanded’ six-volume reprise of his 2004 mock-epic, The Mundiad, postulates ‘a community that excludes every community’ and the possibility of a poetics based on a theory of diarrhetics.

White mischief IV

Continued

But it would seem that many critics have been up to just such mischief as Mott makes in his essay. At another meeting of the American Literature Association, as part of a panel sponsored by the Wallace Stevens Society, Notre Dame’s Jacqueline Brogan offered to, as she put it at the time, redeem Stevens from charges of racism. Her primary challenge in the short version of her work that she presented that day was to comments registered by Adrienne Rich, but, replicating a tendency seen in Mott’s presentation, Brogan did not bother to look past Rich’s immediate commentary to the critical sources that Rich herself had identified. Even in the far more thoroughly documented version of her essay that appears as the final chapter of her book “The Violence Within/The Violence Without: Wallace Stevens and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Poetics,” despite the fact that it is published by the same press as the earlier critical work referenced by Rich, Brogan shows a remarkable disinclination to consult the broad corpus of extant critical work on race and discourse.  

In the preface to her book, Brogan speaks of critics who have “rejected” Stevens because of his purported racism, and opposes herself to those critics as one who has “described Stevens as an ethically responsible poet” (vii). In Brogan’s reading, Stevens is an evolving poet who, in his later years, offered “a critique of the unfortunate remnants and prevalence of actual racism in  American life, despite that earlier ‘violence’ in the form of the Civil War” (viii). We might pause to recall here that this is the poet who, in the gathering racist storm of Nazi and Fascist assault, wrote in one poem that the Fatal Ananke “sees the angel in the nigger’s mind / And hears the nigger’s prayers in motets,” the same poet who showed his level of ethical concern in a letter to Richard Latimer by writing that the Italians had “as much right to take Ethiopia from the coons as the coons had to take it from the boa-constrictors” (Letters 289-90).  As part of her redemption of Stevens in her public presentation of this work, Brogan had spoken dismissively of Rich’s remarks on the frequent appearance of the word “Nigger” in Stevens’s works, counting up the precise number of times the word appears in the published poetry and finding, apparently, that it doesn’t appear with enough frequency to justify Rich’s outrage. Contrary to Rich’s assertion that Stevens fell back upon the usage “compulsively,” Brogan finds that “he has done so not compulsively, but deliberately and with an ethical perspective” (148) that we should all finally recognize. This is an odd enough defense on its face, but it is odder still if one looks at the broader range not only of Stevens’s writings in both prose and verse, but the broader range of his racist epithets.  (Is “coon” not coupled with “nigger,” “darky” with “pickanine”?)  

In responding to Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s discussions of Stevens and Race in an essay that appeared in my edited collection Reading Race in American Poetry, Brogan takes DuPlessis to task for not having included in her exegesis on Stevens and Africa any discussion of the World War II era poem “The Greenest Continent,” which Brogan sees as evidencing, contra DuPlessis’s conclusions, the evolution of “a poetics increasingly open to ethical presentations of African Americans in poetry and in the actual world” (144), though it would seem, given the passage concerning Ananke that I have quoted above, that any such ethical openness was not to be extended to actual Africans.  Further, it is worthy of note that even when Brogan addresses herself to the passages of Stevens’s poem that treat of Ananke, she never quotes that passage or remarks upon it.  And it is after the war, after Stevens’s assumed evolution to a state of ethical openness to the actualities of African American life, that he writes in another letter that “to lose faith in the existence of the first rate would put one in the situation of the colored man at a church picnic losing his bottle of whiskey” (Letters 844).  Stevens, and presumably his interlocutor, have a faith in the first rate; in his version of an aesthetic meritocracy, the black American has faith in liquor.  What this indicates is that even in the later Stevens, there is a violence directed without, a violence precisely of unethical representation

Much as Mott felt compelled to acknowledge that there was at least something not quite right about the racial representations in The Enormous Room, Brogan is willing to concede that some might be troubled by the title of the much anthologized Stevens poem “Like Decorations in  a Nigger Cemetery,” though her concession winds up sounding much like those non-apology apologies we’ve grown used to hearing from politicians, or from Imus and Deen, which do not really apologize for the individual’s racism so much as apologize for the fact that someone might have been offended by it.  Brogan writes, “Admittedly, in the title of the 1935 poem ‘Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” the racist epithet seems problematic” (147, emphasis added).  She hastens to add that we must remember “that Stevens is comparing the spontaneously proffered ‘decorations’ there to his own seemingly unstructured series of poetic epigrams, which constitute the actual body of the poem” (147).  (As a side note, it is intriguing to track  the frequent references to the actual in this chapter; to the actual black people in an actual America; to the actual poem; all without confronting in any meaningful way the actual racial ideology of the poet.)  But this does little to unproblematize things; the “there” there, the site of the spontaneously proffered decorations, remains the unredeemed “nigger cemetery.” Further, even as Brogan is reminding readers of the critical context of the poem, she suppresses a part of that same critical context. In the same letter in which Stevens explains that he is comparing the cemetery to his collection of epigrams, he repeats the very problematic term Brogan wishes to cleanse, writing that the title “refers to the litter that one usually finds in a Nigger Cemetery” (Letters 272).  Brogan must suppress this extra-poetic explanation because it conflicts so baldly with her thesis. She rushes from the problematic title to the poem “Prelude to Objects,” arguing that there the “objectionable word once again is being criticized by Stevens for demonstrating the kind of unethical and monolithic thinking that accompanies war” (147). It is harder to argue that Stevens is deliberately using the word “nigger” to criticize unethical, monolithic thinking if, as in the case of cummings, he continues to use it unproblematically himself, even when explaining himself.

There is something ethically challenged about the very critique that Brogan brings to bear on her colleagues.  She is dismissive of some among DuPlessis’s interpretations, noting of herself that she does “not think that every instance of Stevens’s use of the words ‘dark’ and ‘black’ has racial (or racist) connotations” (178 n3), but neither does DuPlessis.  On the other hand, what does Brogan think has racist connotations?  She notes that in the poem “Contrary Theses (II)” Stevens writes “that the ‘negroes were playing football in the park’ with no more derision than he notes the ‘wide-moving swans’ or the ‘leaves’ that ‘were falling like notes from a piano’” (148).  We might in our turn note the lower case “n” in “negroes,” the subject of a long-standing campaign by DuBois, if not by cummings. We might note, too, that the “negroes” playing football are, as Brogan underscores without herself noticing, presented simply as a fact of nature like leaves and swans. All of this might well trouble the ethics of critics as well as general readers who are not bent on bending Stevens to a racial ethics he did not in fact profess. It is true that Stevens commented on the fact that millions of Americans had been able to contemplate actual  slavery without emotion, even as Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought tears to the eyes of millions; but it is also true that Stevens was able to have that realization without, so far as I can discover, ever concerning himself overmuch with the actually existing segregation of his own beloved Florida Keys.

This sort of rear-guard revisionism, this white mischief, has, I believe, an inevitable effect upon our critical engagements with race and modernism. Phenomena such as Tim Redman’s appearing on National Public Radio, insisting that while, yes, Ezra Pound did have some funny ideas about Jews, Pound cordoned off his work into separate spheres and kept the antisemitism away from the actual verse, phenomena such as these  can only make us shake our heads in sheer wonderment. But we need also to think about the fact that so fine a scholar otherwise as Redman appears unable to do what Melvin B. Tolson did, continue reading Pound, cummings and Stevens while contending in all honesty and contending ethically with those poets’ racism, in part, at least, for the very purpose of comprehending the vexed relationships between race and modernity. 

Outside & subterranean poems, a mini-anthology in progress (56): Some quatrains from 'Sidi Abderrahman el Mejdub' (Al Jadida, early 16C. – Meknes 1568)

Translation from Arabic by Abdelfetah Chenni & Pierre Joris

[As originally published in Joris & Tengour, Poems for the Millennium, volume 4: The University of California Book of North African Literature, 2012]

dirty and ugly they saw me there goes an empty head they said
in fact I am more like an open book        there’s much useful stuff
        inside this head

*

o my heart I burn you       and if you want I will do more
o my heart you shame me             because you like who doesn't
        like you.

*

neither think nor search too much        don’t always be
        despondent
the planets are not fixed                and life’s not eternal

*

don't play with your best friend's feelings          & if people insult
        him, ease his mind
who loves you, love him more      but if he betrays you, don't ever 
        be his friend again

*

all I’ve had in life is one goat                    but I’ve written beautiful 
        quatrains
many are fulfilled through God’s favor              yet claim those favors as
        their own labors

*

travel and you’ll get to know people       and owe obedience to the
        noble
the fathead with the pot-belly      sell him for a dime

*

my heart’s between a hammer & an anvil        & that damned 
        blacksmith has no pity
he keeps hammering & when it cools     he kindles the fire
        with his bellows

*

my weak heart can’t bear any pain          and by God you are
        barbarians
you supported me when I was strong                  and let me down
        when I grew weak

*

o you who sows the good grain by grain o you who sows
        the bad lot by lot
the good multiplies and rises        the bad withers and wastes
        away

*

don’t think of this time’s tightness         see how wide time is
        in God
difficulties wipe out the weak       but men wipe out difficulties

*

I suggest to you devourer of sheep heads         throw those
        bones in a well
laugh & play with the people         but before all shut your
        mouth

*

silence is abundant gold    and words destroy good
        ambiance
say nothing if you see something            and if they ask say 
        no, no

*

o friend, be patient             hide your burden
sleep naked on thorns        wait for a brighter day

*

the good old days are gone           hard ones are here
who dares speak the truth            will have his head cut off

*

don’t get in the saddle before you bridle          and tie strong
        knots
think twice before you speak        or you’ll live to regret it

*

I made snow into a bed                  & covered myself with the wind
I made the moon into a lamp                   & went to sleep in the
        starry night

*

misery should be hidden away                & covered under a veil
cover the wound with the skin                 & the wound will soon heal

COMMENTARY

 [Writes Pierre Joris in summary]: Sidi Abderrahman el Mejdub (also transcribed as Majdoub,) was a Moroccan sufi poet, whose poems or at least stanzas thereof have become part of popular culture throughout the Maghreb, & given rise to a range of proverbs (e.g. "doubt is the beginning of wisdom"). Born (exact date unknown) in Tit Mlil, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean between Al Jadida & Azemmour, he lived during the rise of the Saadi dynasty under the reign of Mohammed ash-Sheikh and Abdallah al-Ghalib & died in 1568 in Merdacha, Jebel Aouf. His tomb, which attracts many visitors even today, is in Meknes. The surname — El Mejdub — refers to someone who is illuminated, mad, enraptured; the “jdub” was the dancer who led the dancers of ecstatic sufi brotherhoods into the “jedba,” i.e. the dance that resulted in trance. If someone stays in this trance state his whole life, he is called a “mejdub.” The French scholar Alfred-Louis De Prémare wrote in his 1988 book La tradition orale du Mejdub: "Epileptic kid, or young man surprised by the irruption of mystic ecstasy? Exalted Malâmati secretly affiliated to an active politico-religious grouping, or respectable sheikh of a rural zaouïa? Miserable trouble-maker from El Qsar or missionary preacher of a sufi current in full expansion? Holy man or con man? Popular bard or composer inspired by a dhikr? Sidi Aberrahman was doubtlessly all of the above at different points of his life… or was these according to how he was judged, or recuperated. At any rate, this kind of personage is deeply rooted in the Moroccan landscape, in its social ramification, in its mental environs.”]

2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation: Molly Weigel, The Shock of the Lenders & Other Poems by Jorge Santiago Perednik (Action Books)

Weigel read,ing at the book launch in New York, May 12, 2012. Photo: Charles Bernstein

Delighted to learn that Molly and Jorge have won this award. More info  from PEN here.

Jacket2, PennSound, and the EPC have extensive resources related to this book and to Perednik's work.

•Molly Weigel's introduction to  Shock of the Lenders

Perednik at PennSound includes links to two poem videos by Ernesto Livon-Grosman, a one hour radio show with Perednik, and Livon-Grosman's film with Jorge and me reading each other's poems; Jorge reads his translation of "Dear Mr. Fanelli" and I read Molly's translation.

Obit for Perednik

The Shock of the Lenders announcement

excerpt of The Shock of the Lenders in S/N: NewWorldPoetics

•"Poetarzan" read by Jorge and Molly's  translation read by me (audio and text).

•XUL  and the The XUL Reader (Perednik's magazine) are on line here.

2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation

Winner

Molly WeigelThe Shock of the Lenders & Other Poems by Jorge Santiago Perednik (Action Books)

The PEN Award for Poetry in Translation recognizes book-length translations of poetry from any language into English published in the previous calendar year and is judged by a single translator of poetry appointed by the PEN Translation Committee.

- See more at: http://www.pen.org/literature/2013-pen-award-poetry-translation#sthash.Z2W6uP4B.dpuf

2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation

Winner

Molly WeigelThe Shock of the Lenders & Other Poems by Jorge Santiago Perednik (Action Books)

The PEN Award for Poetry in Translation recognizes book-length translations of poetry from any language into English published in the previous calendar year and is judged by a single translator of poetry appointed by the PEN Translation Committee.

- See more at: http://www.pen.org/literature/2013-pen-award-poetry-translation#sthash.Z2W6uP4B.dpuf

2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation

Winner

 

Molly Weigel, The Shock of the Lenders & Other Poems by Jorge Santiago Perednik (Action Books)

 

The PEN Award for Poetry in Translation recognizes book-length translations of poetry from any language into English published in the previous calendar year and is judged by a single translator of poetry appointed by the PEN Translation Committee.

- See more at: http://www.pen.org/literature/2013-pen-award-poetry-translation#sthash.Z...

Edward Kegel: my Brooklyn roots

My mother's father, Edward Kegel, was a Brooklyn real estate developer in the 1910s and '20s.  He died of a streptococcus infection in 1927, when he was 39 and my mother. Sherry, was six. My grandmother, Birdie, who got married in 1916, never remarried. Both my mother's parents were born in Russia. My grandfather came to America when he was two.  Birdie came here when she was seven, after her mother died, making the precarious journey from Russian to New York on her own. She joimed the step-family of her father, who had abandoned her and her mother when he made the journey to the New World.

My mother's family lived at 720 Avenue P in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. After my mother graduated James Madison High School, she and her mother moved to 25 Tennis Court, in Ditmus Park; they could no longer afford the house left by my grandfather. They both moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1945, when my mother got married. It's the neighborhood I lived in for most of my life.

My grandfather left school in 1903, when he was 14 (in 1903).  His first job was as an office boy in a title company. In 1912, when he was 23, he and a partner started their own firm, with offices in Park Slope; he later had offices on  State Street and Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. Edward Kegel was featured in a 1925 book, Building Up Greater Brooklyn, with Sketches of Men Instrumental in Brooklyn's amazing development by Leon Wexelstein. The book focussed on Jewish developers.  My grandfather's property holdings were extraordinary (including the southwestern corner of Court and Pacific) but every square foot was swindled from my grandmother by her half-brothers, leaving my mother and grandmother to get through the depression on a meager allowance provided by the relatives.

A pdf of the section on Edward Kegel in Building Up Greater Brooklyn is here. It includes this mid-20s assessment of Brooklyn's promise: "Kegel is a fervid enthusiast about Brooklyn, feeling that, notwithstanding the amazing growth it has already had, there still are many untapped possibilities."

See also my "Autobiographical Interview" from My Way.