Commentaries - August 2014

Julian Brolaski, gowanus atropolis (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), 104 pp., $15.00—Usage begets and outpaces grammatical and syntactical rules. In that sense, usage is equivalent in value to adaptation in evolution. Temporal events, both usage and adaptation nonetheless function within the constraints of an epoch, given to any “us” as the architectonics of space and structure. Julian Brolaski’s’ book has all the appearances, all the structural features, of contemporary free verse poetry, but those facades are made up of neologisms, of Indo-European and indigenous languages, all at the service of a radical eco-poetics of destructuration. Put another way, gowanus atropolis (which rhymes with acropolis but also evokes the antonym of a tropical city) reminds us that words are made out of other words, that sentient beings are made out of sentient beings, that, more radically, words are made out of non-words, sentient beings, out of non-sentient beings. The difference between, say, what C.J. Martin is doing and what Brolaski is doing is a matter of degrees, not kind: Martin tends to torque syntax (Brolaski’s poems are syntactically in line with contemporary experimental and traditional poetics) while Brolaski works at the level of semantics (the syllable is his most important unit of meaning). For Brolaski, then, Freud’s polymorphous perversity becomes the value-equivalent of the polysemous. His neologisms, like his multilingualism, remind us of both etymological histories as well as cultural differences. In this regard one of my favorite poems is “myths of manahatta.” Here are the first two stanzas:

from the woodlands of new York

lenape nation

sovereign L-train


the weckquaesgeeks

& reckgawanancs

& melville’s ‘mamhattoes’

unami munsee delawares

lenni lenape

oneida cayuga

onandaga seneca



usually just ‘indians’

;basically algonquins’

‘were’ residents


The erasures here are linked, but not seamlessly, to heteronormative and speciest structures of containment, management and embargo, most fully worked out in “gowanus apocalypse” and “what ys my anatomie.” Brolaski’s penchant for Old English (or Greek and Latin) is not a form of sentimental yearning for “originals.” Brolaski is neither a “tree-hugger” nor a “Luddite.” Xe (a “translation” of the nominative pronoun; my “ ‘e” in the first poem of On Spec is another) acknowledges structures, spaces, “territory,” but xe also shows how the drive for being, for a future, transgresses boundaries and borders. gowanus atropolis is not an easy read but once one “acquires” Brolaski’s lexicon on the second (or third) reading, one uncovers a capacious humanity unconfined (merely) to the human.

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.

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.

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

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.