Commentaries - August 2014

Goodbye to "Miss Otis Regrets" and all that

Scappettone's view of the rooms

Jennifer Scappettone, from Dame Quickly (Litmus Press, 2009), 101 pp., 15.00 —Superficially, Scappettone’s first book of poetry and art resembles Stephanie Young’s Picture Palace enough—texts abutted by images near the end of each book—that I once had them paired for a course that, unfortunately, never materialized. I wanted to explore and exploit the formal, and thus significant, differences between them. Whereas Young’s book has a self-consciously “Valley girl”-speak feel to it, its references largely, though not exclusively, pop culture (including film stills of indie-queen actress Parker Posey), Scappettone’s book, starting from the (Karl) Marx reference in its title to the Acker-esque flourish of its last line (“Idunno ma but every port I open (50693) stinks like the oikosed, costly.”), is inundated with the history of Western philosophy (Aristotle to Deleuze, and beyond), political economy and canonical literature. Scappetone’s attitude toward, and strategic reworking of, this monolithic hegemony resembles Judith Goldman’s in her recent, and underappreciated deconstruction of Western history, l.b.; or the catenaries. The repetition of key terms—king, cataract, implicit, beauty, etc.—gives these sprawling, seemingly unrelated texts formal and thematic coherence. Divided into four major sections—In Acres, Publicities2, Illocatable Hours and Abluvion—this book deploys grammatical and agrammatical sentences and phrases to carve out a non-site from which a “dame” may speak, may write, may be. But, as Shakespeare and Marx make clear in their respective texts, Falstaff and Das Kapital, however unwittingly (and thus wit, for Scappettone, is another device for excavating subconscious assumptions), a “dame” is a pre-Mrs, and the resistance to this logic of the oikos (also explored in Picture Palace) is interminable. Every woman, domesticated or not, is a “dame” everywhere. This engendering of biological differences crosses cultural, political and economic lines (as the recent call for sobriety at poetry reading sand political events demonstrates). For Scappettone, every turn in history, whether progressive (the political revolutions of the early 20th century) or reactionary (the rise of the fasces against the “king”), is another layer of sediment over the “problem” of women. Every consolidation under any “Consensus Series” (“of unison how rank ever/over apparently—girl/accompli—widow of the/shadow of the next was/in a minimalist present…” is perforce another mode of “The Carapace.” Filtering up from under “there,” language is “heard” only in bits and pieces, in shreds of phrases or single words: “Past she has       Attempted       To answer       Fails light as      Toward.” Because each turn of history is a deepening of the sediment, each “New War” renders Dame Quickly (and rapidity is a necessary feature of wit, as though one has to speak quickly before one is, again, muffled) literally implicit, folded into, under: “Epithets—given down? I am a most implicit maze.” The word “maze” is another residue of, and echolocation for, what Scappettone calls “The Antigonal Complex.” Inflected with citations from Hegel and Sophocles, this particular poem is written in a deceptively straightforward narrative in which the question of gender is buried beneath the first person plural that, by the end, echoes the Talking Heads: “”When we reached the EU the first person plural was different as ever is.” The burial of differences is refracted through the promissory note (a kind of violation of an idealized future) of the opening sentences: “Freshly gashed with the suppleness of persons we left Buda and Pest for Gorj; I entered Romania with a European passport in the surname of my father’s father and exited American under the standard mistranscribed moniker…” In this context, from the Romanian point of view, the First World War was “the War of Reunification,” signaled thirteen pages later in the poem “Beauty.” Here Buda and Pest are now Budapest and we have returned to our origins: ”Noah’s window in the sponsored portico a many-quartered relief,/striation reproducing rain’s medieval having/couples parallel as/plans (fields empty) (for supper) of loving correspondence—as silver dove//is—exotic—an excuse—or just our being//now yet/as/after/again.” I could go on to discuss the many other affiliations Scappettone draws between modernity, progress and the unaffected status of women (sops—like the vote—notwithstanding) but these too few examples will have to do. from Dame Quickly is remarkable in its breadth and striking in its intensely felt intelligence. 

Eleni Sikelianos' Body Clock

how temporality draws forth and erases identity

Eleni Sikelianos, Body Clock (Coffeehouse Press, 2008), 149 pp., $18.00—As a project that began out of the trauma of temporary agraphia and aphasia, Body Clock is the eight-part “record” of Sikelianos’ “return” to language, a journey marked here by the coming to “human” of her newborn. The return to writing on the part of the mother and the acquisition of speech on the part of the child (referred to as “baby”) are mediated here by Sikelianos’ attempt to “draw” temporality, to measure the differences between praxis and theory, material and concept, vis-à-vis “time.” The four sections that explicitly confront this age-old dilemma, the “nature” of duration, constitute a relentless criticism of time vis-à-vis temporality and so aligns itself with a certain strain of thought in the work of philosophers like Nietzsche,  Derrida and Heidegger (though Sikelianos never refers to philosophers, implicitly or explicitly). Formally, Sikelianos’ long, sweeping, lines will remind some of Jorie Graham’s techniques while the concern with embodied physicality in relation to the sciences has echoes of early Liz Waldner. In poem after poem, the radical materiality of the body is posed as the irreducible ground of philosophy and science: “when she lies down    when she arises/ from the placenta’s vascular sheets// touching all the quantum fields she walked through to/greet me.” Although Sikelianos is sometimes given to naïve or obvious questions early on in the book “(“The numbers and circles with perfect existence/outside the mind?// Gravity’s shape on which depends/the flow of time?// Where did the baby come from?”), her ceaseless questioning and self-questioning parallel the general process of language acquisition. By the last sections of the book, Sikelianos, focusing more and more on her child, finds herself stunned to realize that her “identity,” never coincidental with her body, is nonetheless, via the body, one “source” of the baby’s identity: “I saw the nursing mouth occlude the nipple, and the person collecting there, under/ the eye’s delicate glass-dome of the eyes (Identity travels/with the milk.)// I had thought the person disperses in pleasure but hour by hour the baby assembled herself there.” It will perhaps not surprise anyone, least of all parents, that Sikelianos rarely refers to the baby as a daughter. Instead, in the throes of restless dreams, the cathexis of the very book she is writing rears its infant head: “In my dream of publishing a face/ The body’s velvets slide out to publish the face/ In the human reproduction exhibit, we turn the body inside out// It’s bloody work/to publish a face…” Baby, book and body align themselves as objects of desire that eventually abandon what Sikelianos refers to, early on, as the “inside” body. In dramatizing the different, and thus, uneven, temporalities at work in “both” bodies of a self, in the visible, and thus singular, bodies of others, Sikelianos suggests that the book, not the child, remains the privileged replica of self-regard, though this simulacrum effect is also, at another scale, the origin of capital. This motif can be traced through the four “public” sections that deal with crime, war, poverty, racism, etc.: “the way the architected white/wings unfold in the mind.” Body Clock reminds us that the monolith of eternity erects itself outside the body (in mechanical clocks, in buildings, in ideologies of immortality, etc.) precisely because the temporary body, “inside” and “outside,” gives the lie to time.

Anthology of poems written since 2010

I have guest-edited an issue of the print magazine, Hava La Haba, an independent experimentalist publication based in Tel Aviv — an anthology of fifteen poems by U.S. poets written in the current decade.

ModPo collaborates with the New York Public Library

Press release describes new series of weekly meet-ups for ModPo participants at a branch of the New York Public Library:

Hudson Park Library

66 Leroy Street (off Seventh Ave. South)
New York, NY 10014-3929
(212) 243-6876

Cecily Nicholson's 'From the Poplars'

City of New Westminster is one of several cities and municipalities comprising the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), also called Metro Vancouver. Named by Queen Victoria in 1859 after her favourite part of London and hence nicknamed the Royal City, New Westminster was the first Canadian city West of the Great Lakes. The image above shows Poplar Island situated in the Fraser River, with New Westminster built on the West (left) bank of the river. Poet and activist Cecily Nicholson's second book of poetry, From the Poplars (Talonbooks, 2014), documents the history of this small depopulated island as traditional Qayqayt land, a former reserve, a smallpox quarantine zone, a ship-building site during the First World War, a base for the logging industry, now unused and lush with trees, in the present moment of the city’s waterfront redevelopment to expand retail and residential space.After years of living in Vancouver Nicholson moved to New Westminster just a few blocks from Columbia Street, a main artery of the city that runs alongside the railroad tracks that historically and presently serve industry on the Fraser River. Positing poetry as a form of accumulation, her long poem begins with how her inquiry to the City about the island results in a case of mistaken identity as she is presumed to be a potential buyer:

I could not explain my purpose other than to say:

“I am writing a book of poetry.” A minor purchase of property. 

Mining dominant culture’s historical records, Nicholson poetically rehistoricizes archival documents so that exploitation of people and land by colonial enterprise and contemporary city is foregrounded:

The Waterfront Esplanade Boardwalk

magnificent waterfront

band landless


etched public art on the river
across the river and the view from the river


arrived at Yi Fao

 “great chiefs”

memories of colonial memories

royal affiliation rule of celebration
another May Day baby

 neighbours        fresh water                Sunbeam Gallery

“The Queen acknowledges Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's letter
…She has chosen ‘New Westminster’ for the name of the
Capital of British Columbia.”

Emily Fedoruk, a poet and scholar born and raised in New Westminster, does site-specific research on how poetry is used by capital to culturalize public spaces of consumption. One site, Plaza 88, is a retail hub built around the New Westminster Skytrain station, topped with three residential towers. Plaza 88’s retail exterior incorporates text-based art that architect Graham McGarva says is intended to “tell the story of New Westminster, which included the land of the First Nations and the settlement of New Westminster.” McGarva’s narrative consists of a line from a poem he wrote, “In making Canada, a tented canopy set upon a hill”; a series of red and gray panels that spell in Morse code “New Westminster” and “Yi Fao,” a Chinese word for New Westminster meaning second city, so called because it was typical for Chinese migrants to first stop in Victoria on Vancouver Island before proceeding to a second city on the Mainland, New Westminister; and a quote from Qayqayt Chief Rhonda Larrabee's mother about their family's secret Indigenous heritage, “I will tell you once, but you must never ask me again.” Larrabee's mother was Qayqayt, a First Nation that lived along the Fraser River and was greatly reduced by a smallpox epidemic then dissolved by the government; she survived residential school survivor to spend her adult life in Vancouver’s Chinatown, passing as Chinese, hiding her ancestry from her husband and their children.

Fedoruk argues that Plaza 88 glosses over the violence of colonization and multiple concurrent First Nations land claims over Poplar Island, using Qayqayt First Nations and Chinese-Canadian history to add value to property that already commands some of the highest prices in the global real-estate market. For most viewers the Morse code gesturing to the Chinese community is unreadable, erasing the exploitation of Chinese labour in railroad building and other projects of the colonial enterprise. Chief Larrabee's discovery of her First Nations heritage and subsequent successful effort to have the Qayqayt Nation reinstated is only hinted at through her mother’s words, which are unreadable produced as they are in abstracted grey and white text. The only part of New Westminster’s story that is readable are the architect’s own words—a reference to the temporary shelters of the Royal Engineers who surveyed and mapped First Nations land for the empire. Just twelve miles away, homeless Indigenous people are exercising their land rights by sheltering at Oppenheimer Park tent city in Vancouver. Nicholson’s From the Poplars is a necessary disruption into what Fedoruk calls McGarva's “coordination of many stories towards one cohesive, colonizing end reduc[ing] the political specificities of the suburban community to pixels and ellipses,” pointing to the strategic appropriation and commodification of First Nations history in order to market the city.