Ariel Resnikoff: Louis Zukofsky and Mikhl Likht, A Test of Jewish American Modernist Poetics, Part Two
[The first part of Resnikoff's essay on Zukofsky & Likht appeared September 11, 2013 on Poems and Poetics, while a significant section of “Procession 3” was posted here on September 3. The thrust of all these postings is toward the recovery/discovery of Likht as a Yiddish-American experimental modernist whose long poem, "Protsesie," may well stand alongside Zukofsky's "A" and Pound's Cantos as a major example, in whatever language, of early American avant-garde poetry. A complete translation of "Processions" by Resnikoff & Stephen Ross is now in progress. (J.R.)]
Likht’s “Protsesie dray” [Procession Three] in contrast [to Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The’” is a poem that rejects the possibilities of a Jewish American English-language literary culture—yet it reads, writes Merle Bachman, as if Likht “is thinking in English and writing in Yiddish” (Bachman 189). Its structure, like “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ follows a musical form, beginning with a Prelude, followed by three sections, A-B-C (ג–ב–א), followed by an Interlude, another three sections of A-B-C, and two versions of a Postlude. As Bachman has suggested, “the sense of development and recapitulation [in “Protsesiye dray”] is achieved not by progressing from “A” to “B” to “C” as much as the linkages and echoes between the parallel sections” (emphasis is Bachman’s). The “A” sections deal with violent representations of an eastern European past and the “B” sections describe a move away from eastern Europe to New York; the “C” sections introduce a poetic subject, a pensive “I” (ikh) who reflects on the impossibility of reconciling the fragmented experiences expressed in the “A” and “B” sections. The “Interlude” is the only section of the poem that commits to a narrative, rendering reminiscences of an eastern European childhood; and the “Postludes” recall the eight previous sections. Likht’s poem is an extraordinarily difficult text to read and was censured (as was much of his poetry) by many of his Yiddish intellectual contemporaries for its “incomprehensibility” (in Yiddish: umfarshtandlekhkayt) . This “incomprehensibility,” is a critical feature of Likht’s poetics, however, since it ensures and promotes a Jewish American literary culture as exclusive and erudite as Eliot’s Anglo-American modernism.
The poem begins with a declaration of poetic authority:
Whereas a great world willfulness
fences in dismal lives infringing on their inclinations
in a skeleton of inflexible bars
I hereby give a signal to the Master
the Overseer: ‘Stop tormenting!’ (lines 1-5)
The poet/speaker here asserts himself as a force against those who are fenced “in dismal lives infringing on their inclinations.” He is positioned “in early morning East of sunrise-willfullness” (line 11) and uses this moment of emergent dawn to break the “skeleton of inflexible bars” and facilitate a consummation: “so a part of my word-chaos couples/ with the clarity of unambiguous meaning// And: the newborn that is maliciously stamped ‘hypermodern’/ is yesterday dressed in the present’s bonnet…” (lines 12-17) It is worthwhile here to consider Likht’s philosophical essay, “Fragmentn fun an esey,” in which he describes the “crystallization” of sacred Hebrew and Christian European influences, which produced the Yiddish literary form. Likht regards his Yiddish literary expression as a gemstone, which, since its “crystallization,” has progressed upon a pure linguistic track, arriving logically (and inevitably) at his own high modern(ist) Yiddish. He consummates his “Protsesiye dray” by reminding the reader that this “newborn” Jewish American literature is not in fact “hypermodern” but steeped in the tradition, of “yesterday,” only “dressed in the present’s” garb.
Likht builds on this notion of Yiddish literary purity throughout “Protsesiye dray” by developing a series of ideal oppositional binaries. In her “Approach to ‘Procession Three”’ Bachman comments that she is drawn “toward the poem’s recurrent phrases: ‘Jew…where are you going/ goy…where’ (in the first half of the poem); and ‘ben Amram the smart one knows and/ does not want to understand it/ ben Yoysef the simpleton…the innocent wants to…and cannot grasp it’ (in the second half)” (252). These opposing associations engender a tone in “Protsesiye dray” that privileges the individual over the collective, the pure over the mongrel. The interlinear spacing in Likht’s poem adds to this tenor. In the first “A” section (to which Bachman refers) the sixth and seventh stanzas appear as such:
stretches out hands
gropes in the dark
Jew where are you going
The physical shape of Likht’s text helps convey the ideological underpinnings of his poem. Hands stretch out and “grope in the dark,” but even in the light—that is, the exposed materiality of the work—Jew and goy (gentile) remain divided, though parallel.
In the first “C” section of “Protsesiye dray” Likht reveals the catalyst that impels the eventual breakdown of the pure distinctions in his poem. “My head lies in a caress,” he writes,
not on the Shekhine’s but foolish on my beloved’s breast
a shatnes pant-belt no pretty ritual sash
divides heavenly from earthly…(lines 99-102)
Rather than laying his head on “the Shekhine’s” (female embodiment of God) breast here, the poet/speaker foolishly lays his head on his “beloved’s breast.” The dichotomy between the “heavenly” and the “earthly” functions as a conceit for a broader problematic dynamic which Likht wishes to address. The poet/speaker wears “a shatnes pant-belt” suggesting a mixture between two forbidden substances (shatnes, from Hebrew, meaning a material made of mixed linen and wool, which Jews are forbidden to wear by Jewish law). “The sense of opposites or opposing forces held in tension,” writes Bachman, “which runs through the Procession can be seen here…” What Bachman misses, however, is the way in which these “opposite or opposing forces” coalesce in this stanza, through the image of a mixed substance that is explicitly proscribed. The second “C” section, brings to light the repercussions of this mixing: ‘“Look through the partition,” Likht writes,
‘that divides us up from them
‘see how, struck by misfortune
‘your brothers my children beg for aid
‘from every fool from every false leader
‘who has no more than a good word for them
‘and nearly drinks up the swamp at times…(lines 250-257)
The partition (Yiddish and Hebrew: mkhitse), which traditionally separates men from woman during prayer services, takes on a radically different significance in this stanza. Likht’s partition divides the poet/speaker and his cohort from their “brothers” who, “struck by misfortune…beg for aid” from “fool[s]” and “false leader[s].” It is important to read these lines within the context of the early twentieth-century Jewish American milieu in which Likht found himself upon immigrating to the United States from Europe in 1913. The “brothers” across the “partition” may be interpreted as Jewish Americans who have given up their distinctiveness (embodied by Yiddish language) in the face of sociocultural “misfortune” and “beg for aid” from the “false” (non-Yiddish) American cultural institution.
Yankev Glatshteyn’s 1935 essay,“Der marsh tsu di goyim” (The March to the Gentiles), speaks clearly to this dynamic. In this work Glatshteyn scorns Yiddish writers who make an effort to have their works translated into English for the sake of wider cultural recognition, referring to them as “vulgar assimilators.” Likht himself turned his back on English writing at the start of his career in the United States, committing himself wholly to Yiddish literary endeavors, including the translation of a large body of Anglo-American English poetry into Yiddish. For Likht, the Jewish American turn from Yiddish to English letters represented the collapse of pure Jewish American literary expression and proved just how necessary a Jewish American modernist conservation of Yiddish truly was.
The mythic/religious quality of the second “C” section of “Protsesiye dray,” cited above (which reads as a hallowed lament for the poet/speaker’s lost brethren), is constantly at play in Likht’s poem. This is true of the image of the “shatnes pants-belt” as well. Likht is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish difference and linguistic-cultural purity in his Yiddish version of the “modernist ‘long poem’” (Bachman). His Jewish American modernist poetics idealize the moment of Yiddish literary crystallization, when, as he depicts in his “Fragmentn fun an esey,” a Jewish literature of equal stature and with an equivalent tradition to the Christian European literature, was consummated; “Protsetiye dray” bemoans the decline of this literary tradition, doing its best to shore the fragments of its ruins.
The relationship between Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ and Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” is chiasmic. Although the works converge along the lines of Jewish American modernist expression, they simultaneously diverge as a function of Jewish American language choice. Zukofsky is able to construct an alternative epic, as well as an alternative “ruin” for American literature in “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ by weaving his Jewish/Yiddish cultural heritage into an English reply to Eliot’s The Waste Land. Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” replies to Eliot’s poem in a language that would have been unintelligible to the Anglo-American modernist writer and translates Eliot’s “catastrophe” into Jewish American terms through a Yiddish modernist apparatus. In the end, it is literary translation that ties these poems together most tightly and infuses the differences between them with cultural and historical significance. While Zukofsky’s translation of Yehoash faces frontwards and rallies for a twentieth-century American literature modern enough to translate Jewishness into its narrative, Likht’s translation of Eliot (which is not explicit in “Protsesiye dray” but certainly fuels the poem’s elegiac logic) faces backwards and attempts to glean the relics of a once pure Jewish literary tradition from (and for) a declining Jewish American intellectual milieu. In this way, though both poems are important Jewish American modernist works, they utilize a Jewish American modernism toward opposing ends. The modernism of “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ situates itself at the start of new mongrel American poetry, while the modernism of Likht’s Protsesiye dray” attempts to tie up the final split ends of a “pure” Jewish past, quickly fading into the American melting-pot.
This essay focuses on the respective English and Yiddish works of Zukofsky and Likht as two case studies within a Jewish American modernism that surely deserves further investigation. There is still a great deal of research to be done on the question of the multilingual dynamics of Jewish American literature, especially on the relation between twentieth-century American Hebrew literary output and the work of the Jewish American English and Yiddish modernists.
The question that has everywhere been implicit in this particular study is: how well, if at all, did Zukofsky and Likht know each other? On November 28 1928, Zukofsky wrote William Carlos Williams to tell him he had been recently translated into Yiddish:
And you've been not traduced but translated -- as something is just translated on a level or even to heaven -- you, and Ezra, and Cummings, and Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, and Mina Loy (all these names don't mean the same thing to me of course but I'm trying to outline the effort for you). And the fellow who did it – one Licht – asked me to ask you to forgive him for not asking your permission! If a half dozen read his work and understand it as Yiddish I'll be – but it is Yiddish and literature too! (2003: 21-22)
It is difficult to say how well Zukofsky knew this “one Licht,” but the suggestion that they might have been associates at this time is a tantalizing proposition. Here, Zukofsky refers to translations Likht published in 1927 in Undzer Bukh, which were later collected in Moderne amerikaner poeziye (1954). How well did Zukofsky know Likht’s work, and vice versa? This is the next major inquiry that must be made.
During the 2009 conference of the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Julia Bloch and Michelle Taransky organized the annual off-site poetry reading. The reading took two hours and 36 minutes and an audio recording was made; for the past several years, this long recording has been available on PennSound’s “MLA Offsite Readings” page. Now PennSound staff editor Anna Zalokostas has segmented the entire recording and we are now able to present the recording of each reader, as follows:
- introduction (1:34): MP3
- Matthew Landis (2:56): MP3
- Rodrigo Toscano (4:14): MP3
- Carlos Soto Roman (2:32): MP3
- Kim Gek Lin Short (4:51): MP3
- Jacob Russell (2:10): MP3
- Angel Hogan (2:37): MP3
- Ish Klein (3:45): MP3
- Gregory Laynor (3:01): MP3
- Nava EtShalom (3:50): MP3
- Ryan Eckes (1:16): MP3
- Sueyeun Juliette Lee (1:52): MP3
- David Larsen (2:56): MP3
- Norma Cole (3:37): MP3
- Rod Smith (3:13): MP3
- Frank Sherlock (1:55): MP3
- CA Conrad (3:21): MP3
- Aldon Nielsen (2:20): MP3
- Suzanne Heyd (5:13): MP3
- Emily Abendroth (3:06): MP3
- Laura Moriarty (3:47): MP3
- Evie Shockley (1:50): MP3
- Pattie McCarthy (2:23): MP3
- Ron Silliman (2:10): MP3
- Thomas Devaney (2:37): MP3
- Rachel Blau DuPlessis (2:28): MP3
- Tyrone Williams (3:31): MP3
- Jenn McCreary (2:43): MP3
- Carla Harryman (3:09): MP3
- Kate Lilley (2:44): MP3
- Steve Dolph (1:57): MP3
- Chris McCreary (2:21): MP3
- Jennifer Scappettone (3:20): MP3
- Lisa Howe (3:45): MP3
- Bill Howe (1:32): MP3
- Charles Cantalupo (3:24): MP3
- Julie Phillips Brown (1:58): MP3
- Norman Finkelstein (2:57): MP3
- Mel Nichols (2:39) MP3
- Aaron Kunin (3:05): MP3
- Jamie Townsend (1:46): MP3
- Michael S. Hennessey (3:18): MP3
- Chris Carrier (2:43): MP3
- Eric Selland (2:59): MP3
- Barrett Watten (7:08): MP3
- James Shea (2:08): MP3
- Sandra Lim (1:52): MP3
- Mecca Sullivan (2:25): MP3
- Danny Snelson (3:29): MP3
- Michelle Taransky (2:00): MP3
- Herman Beavers (4:05): MP3
- Adrian Khactu (2:26): MP3
- Julia Bloch (0:53): MP3
[Originally posted June 8, 2009 on the blogger version of Poems and Poetics]
In a conversation the other day with David Antin, the name of Seymour Faust came up, as it often does for us. In the distant days when we were all students at City College in New York, Faust was among our few poet companions – a friendship & close association that lasted till some time around 1960, when he & I broke off for personal reasons that now seem trivial in retrospect. He was certainly present at the time that Antin and I founded Hawk’s Well Press in 1958 & published his Lonely Quarry as the first of a small number of books that I was to continue to publish over the next several years. David kept up some contact, now broken off, but as far as I can remember, I saw Sy only once after that, some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
I was aware however of his later appearance in Cid Corman’s Origin & in Ron Silliman’s Tottels Miscellany (both in the 1970s), but if there was other publication over the intervening years, it went completely past me. It was only in 2004 or 2005 that Silliman cited him on his blog as one of a number of disappeared poets from the 1960s, describing him (wrongly) as “a Brooklyn poet” (he was actually like me from the Bronx) & suggesting (also wrongly) that “Cid [Corman] and I may have been the only people ever to publish him.” There was also some talk about his self-imposed isolation after being scorned by fellow poets as “a hawk on Vietnam,” but I have a feeling that there was far less to that than meets the eye.
More to the point though was Silliman’s short account of Faust’s actual value as a poet: “The mix between rhetoric & vocabulary here is unique to my experience, yet I don’t believe he ever published a book. … What I have of his … is an echo I can hear in my head to this day, utterly articulate, completely unlike anything – or anyone – else. I’ll never be able to thank [him] enough for all I was given.” To which I can only add my assent & republish as a personal tribute & recollection the following two poems as they appeared in Tottels Miscellany.
words polished for a hundred years
and put away a thousand
stories polished for a thousand years
odyssey, logia of jesus,, and of kung
how you have been true to us, and false
in this century
how you have been false
how the airplanes have made liars of you
the nuclear piles in the pressure hulls
how you are undercut by the spectroheliograph
guidance systems and gunnery
how advertising puts you down
and the unions and the powerful
the whole radio audience knows better than him
whom you mislead
how your paradoxes pall
your parables and fables
your modular stories
how your symbols fail
techniques of dialog
points of view
better anything than you
better to strain your eyes on protoplasm
as it flows indistinctly in bright or darkened field
under the lenses of the turret
in the utter silence of concentration
at your cosmic distance
close at hand
to trace the rockflows of the maria
the traces of devastation that radiate
from the circular maria
or film the solar prominences in hydrogen light
better the doctors lifetime
the lifetime of the assyriologist
the searcher of beach terraces of the north
at Denbigh or Krusenstern
or Onion Portage
disinterring flints and cores
already seeing man as something over
or one at work
on the improbable future
the designer of high speed high altitude aircraft
tracer of clouds
or at opposite poles
the observer at Byrd Station
DESIGNED FOR POTTERY
One real rose
in a glass vase
a cup of concave petals
to the vermillion ruffle of its surface
the stem makes angles in the water column
the long teardrop shaped
* * *
from the Cairo geniza
from the past
800 different poems
like the stones of a temple scattered
you sing of fields and flocks
the fields clothed in sheep and blades in dew
the farmers and the herdsmans world
as in those days they did
you do emerge
from the empty spaces
the blank areas of the past
what shall we learn
what was going on
what shall we know of you
* * *
it changes lane
on the interstate
citybound on the right
on its new suspension
reflections on the chrome wch frames its lights
across its curving windshield glass
and no better
as it has to be
as is desirable lets say
(all things considered)
in such things
* * *
names of categories
thin orange and fine orange wares
a series going back to crude beginnings
vessels with rattles in their feet
or figures moulded on them
with whistles and pictures
or portrait vases
or vessels for the interment of a child
* * *
or read Su
and translated thru the mists
see the past emerge
the trees and plants take place
on the space of earth
the rounded boulders
riding thru snow
is seen by the suffering of the villagers
he offers what he can
From METAPHOR FOR A DILEMMA
in The Lovely Quarry, 1958
I am a Scythian and although I have never regretted my share in the destruction of Harappa, the conquest of Memphis or the leveling of Boghazöy, I am forced to admit that my tastes place me in bewildering circumstances, none of which I could have foreseen, because of their early attractiveness or their blinding power. In my single combats, for example, I am given to boasting. I am seldom outprided, but it is embarrassing to be confronted by those with an equal or greater talent in the same vein as my own. In this manner I achieved a reputation for cowardice that I never really earned, but still find it hard to be modest, especially in those cases where my reputation is most in doubt.
My taste in language is barbaric and my feeling for art almost African. It was a long time before I understood the value of gold, silver, platinum, bronze, copper and cast-iron. I like I-beams, the worked arches in the circulation room of the 42nd Street Library, the grillwork of the 161st Street Bridge and the wrought trusses and angle-irons to be seen in Grand Central Station.
I do not know how I became a dilettante of this kind. I am an ordinary voluptuary, with a taste for power. My first iron works were axe-blades, mirrors, pins, chariot-trappings and small abstract devices for battle-standards.
Lately I have discovered in myself a tendency to read.
. . . . . . .
Monday (September 16) is the actual publication date for Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, co-edited with Heriberto Yépez & published by Black Widow Press in Boston. The design of the book follows the layout of my anthologies such as Poems for the Millennium & Technicians of the Sacred, which makes it different in format from other “readers” & a way of treating the range of works (poetry, prose, performance, plays, poetics, visual, verbal, & vocal, translations & variations) that I’ve been into over the last fifty years, even more.
I would also be curious to hear if anyone out there has an interest in reviewing or in setting up readings, particularly in the northeast and midwest, for this coming spring, when other engagements will be bringing me that way. I’m very happy anyway that this is happening as I move forward, as always, on the next big book.
The official announcement from Black Widow Press reads as follows:
Fifty years in the making, Eye of Witness is the culminating work of Jerome Rothenberg's lifelong project, to construct a grand collage (R. Duncan) that brings together a wide range of poems and other language works (verbal, visual and vocal; on the page and in performance; as poem and as poetics) and in the process speaks to and of a larger humanity with which and to which the poet acts as conduit and witness. In his own words in summation: "Two final points: first, my pursuit of a kind of transcultural or global poetics: a poetry rooted in its place but capable of crossing borders and languages to become a virtual omni - poetics. And secondly that that move in its later stages explores a multivocal poetry of witness -- the ubiquity of an I-as-speaking-subject that we all share -- personal and transpersonal at once."
"For us, [Jerome Rothenberg] played (and plays) the role Picasso and Braque did for the painters, and Leiris and Bataille later for the French poets: opening the sparkling world that comes when you crack open literature and see the primal gestures of oral energy and sudden imagery from which it all surges. Kabbalah, cave painting, Iroquois legend, Navajo chant, Hasidic tales, Central Asian epic, German avant-garde, immigrant histories -- he summoned us to attend to the deep literature of which the 'literary' is only a sheen … He is a great figure, who stands above and beyond the schools and tendentiousnesses of poetics; he has given us, in his poetry, criticism, translation, anthologies, a body of work that exhibits what I suddenly realize is an ethical purity, a touchstone for the genuine."
"Jerome Rothenberg has done as much as anyone over the past half century to shake up received ideas of what poems ought to be like, by demonstrating or suggesting an endless profusion of other pathways, other shapes, other stances, other contexts: as if to say that it is always possible to begin over, to invent new rules for the most ancient of games, not once but over and over. now to the rest of his poetry -- a body of work still underrated, in part because his extraordinary work as editor and translator may at times have overshadowed it -- is added this bonus: half a century of work… spilling out in profusion from… all the previous poetry and revealing multiple layers of exploration and invention. [His] is the book of a life, and the book of an era."
by Eric Rettberg
Eric Rettberg told me a few months ago about his interest in Ara Shirinyan, and I asked him if he would write briefly about it for this commentary. He agreed, and here is what he has to say. Eric is currently Edgar F. Shannon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Virginia.
The procedure Ara Shirinyan used to write Your Country is Great (2008), in which he went through an alphabetical list of countries, Googled “[country] is great,” and wrote poems from the results, ensures that the book repeats relentlessly. Seemingly empty declarations of greatness abound, from “aaww lol belgium is great =)” (29) to “Finland is great because / Finland is great” (103), and so too do reports of the great recreational activities available in the countries of the world. “The beaches are the bomb” in Costa Rica (70), just as Bulgaria is great “if you want young drunk fun in the sun” and “Cyprus is great for sun and beaches” (49, 78).
As she travels around Shirinyan’s Googled world, the reader will repeatedly encounter great food (“The ripe papaya in Belize / is great with crushed ice” ), great romantic possibilities (“The Dominican Republic is great alternative / to Colombia / for finding wife” ), great nature (“The faunistic diversity of Ethopia is great. / This is mainly due to the variation in climate,. topography / and vegetation” ), and above all, great enthusiasm: “My quality of life in Guernsey is great. / I am happy with my quality of life now. / Really quite happy with my quality of life” ). Amidst all the excitement, of course, the inquisitive traveling reader will also find great problems: “Cambodia is great place / and mines areeeee / mostly along the border” (51).
Kenneth Goldsmith observes in his blurb that such repetition “gives us an early glimpse at the deadening effects of globalization on language,” but the language of Your Country is Great does not feel deadened to me. No deadened language could make me laugh as much as Shirinyan’s poems do, and once I find out why Afghanistan is great, I’m compelled to turn the page to find out why Albania is great, and then why Algeria is great, and so on through the entire book. I read on to find the next slightly changed repetition, the next mundane observation, the next instance of outrageous cultural insensitivity, the next enthusiastic proclamation of greatness, and especially the next laugh.
Lest my laughter seem a perverse aberration, Marjorie Perloff confirms in her blurb that Your Country is Great is “hilarious and sardonic,” full of “much wit and aplomb,” and in a blog post, Anne Boyer, who is inclined to read the book as “a tragedy” to be read with “great heavy sadness,” grudgingly admits, “I suppose it might be funny, but mostly funny like someone falling.”
If Your Country is Great provokes laughter, then, it also provokes guilt, the guilt of not quite knowing at whom or what we’re laughing when we laugh at these poems. On some level, we’re laughing at the writers who would be so stupid and banal as to post on the Internet such statements as “BERMUDA is GREAT. / Robbie Williams is so hot. / So is Johnny Depp / and Orlando Bloom” (34). On a broader, more academically suspicious level, we’re laughing at Goldsmith’s global “puddle of platitudes,” at the sad condition of language in modern life. Whether our laughter comes from a feeling of superiority or a feeling of suspicion, we draw a sharp line between us knowing laughers and the benighted objects of our laughter. We sophisticated readers of the avant-garde know more than them, or we’re morally superior to them, or we’re more capable of enjoying worthwhile culture than them. To borrow the memorable terminology of Goldsmith’s recent essay on “Being Dumb,” we, the “smart dumb,” laugh knowingly at the “dumb dumb.”
The laughter Shirinyan’s book provokes, though, refuses such easy distinctions. At some point I stop judging the earnest delight of tourists, residents, and expatriates, and my laughter at them infectiously slips into laughter with them. My judgment of the Internet writer who can only say “Azerbaijan is great! I like it! / thanks for sharing :smile:” (20) fades as I realize that my knowledge of Azerbaijan goes no deeper than hers. My academic impulse to scrupulously deconstruct the problematic and exoticizing words of tourists falls flat as I encounter—and laugh at—Internet utterances that everybody knows nobody should ever say:
After being in a Kava Ceremony
to welcome me to the island,
a cannibal guy danced for us.
Fiji is great, (102)
Before Shirinyan played these outlandish lines for laughs, the person who originally wrote them did. Googling to find their source points to a photographic travelogue from 2003, in which the original author was already treating his cannibal observation as a joke, was already trafficking in language he knew to be offensive. When Shirinyan redeploys these lines in his poetry, he might seem to shift the butt of the joke from the “cannibal guy” to the thoughtless tourist who would call him a cannibal guy, but the supposedly thoughtless tourist was already in on the joke, even before Shirinyan plagiarized his language. When I laugh at these lines, I don’t just laugh at their offensiveness but also make myself complicit in it, because it was this other man’s joke first.
That original cultural encounter and the mediated layers of reports through which I experience it reveal genuinely troubling mechanisms of tourism and globalization, but by presenting the lines as a potential object of my laughter, Shirinyan complicates the idea that I can tidily separate myself from them in order to cast my academic suspicion on them. Your Country is Great does not simply parade a series of halfwits before its readers for mockery; as often, Shirinyan asks his readers to join those halfwits, to feel the earnestness of their enthusiasm, to acknowledge that even when we know more about another place than they do, we still don’t know very much. The blank pages that accompany the names of countries that returned no Google results remind us that even in our hyper-digital, thoroughly searchable world, sophisticated readers, avant-garde poets, and even vaunted Google still experience the world incompletely.
When he makes his readers laugh, Shirinyan does not ask them to feel superior to the internet writers whose words comprise his book, but instead to identify with them, not to laugh knowingly at those who are ignorant and ridiculous in the face of a vast and complex world but to acknowledge that they are too.