How to be a poet in Hawai`i — or elsewhere — who opposes imperialism, colonization, the military, and yet appears, as a Euro-American, to embody them? I've worried this issue before on my own blog, and thought I'd think more about it here by way of a new book from BlazeVox by Scott Abels.
Abels, whose MFA is from Boise State in the state of Idaho, notorious for its white supremacists, has lived in Hawai`i for several years now. His thesis forms the basis for his first book, Rambo Goes to Idaho, which moves between Idaho and Hawai`i. As he writes in the first section of “Idaho Conspiracy,” a poem obliquely about moving to Hawai`i: “My Composition 1100 assignment was to guess the titles / of the first five poems on the Poetry and Politics website.” Then this: “The only thing I could come up with was / Hawaii comes before Idaho alphabetically” (49). Abels's move back in the alphabet forces him to look at the problem of American empire, although one senses he did so before his “geographically confusing” move. For the MFA thesis is set up as that of John Rambo, whose thesis signature page comes after two brief proems called “Screenplay” and “Burst.”
j/j hastain begins “crepuscular,” from the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA, (with Eileen Tabios, and hereinafter referred to attreooa) with this simple problem: “The dilemma of belonging. What of that has to do with things exterior to us and what of it has to do with our own regard of exteriors and interiors?” (27). hastain responds to Tabios's sequence of prose poems about orphanhood, in particular those orphans who are older, considered too old to be adopted. The orphan who becomes part of Tabios's family (provenance Colombia, destination California) is doing word problems in algebra. But these problems are more complicated than the math would indicate. Arriving at a reference to walls that “slant at 65-degree angles” the child thinks of “the man you longed to call 'Dad.'” He is not father, but “potential father.” What appears outside the “glass-less window” is “a lucid mountain.” The man has scarred the boy. Their relation is not lucid. Hence, the “answer” to the equation is “'indifference > hatred'?” Equations do not generally end with question marks; this one offers a “resolution” only in ambiguities. Most of us consider indifference to be a thing better than hatred. But an orphan, who needs feeling, an emotional relation, longs for it to be strong, not absent or ambiguous. His regard meets the world's disregard in an equation whose answer is no answer. As hastain writes in “LUCIDITY DISCERNING”: “The desire for a father is not a father” (30).
But Tabios and hastain are most engaged in what happens when relation between persons occurs, or between genders within persons, namely in the TRANS of their “relational elations.” They are fascinated by displacements, yes, but also in “active placements,” whether those are relationships within adoptive families or within individuals whose gender-identities are not normative.
In her marvelous, odd textbook, The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing, Hazel Smith devotes a late chapter to “Mapping worlds, moving cities.” Composing in a kind of sociological sublime, she writes in the subsection, “The diasporic city,” of the sub-section, “Cities rather than city,” “As the concept of the nation-state breaks down, people migrate and borders shift. The modern western city has become a mixture of nationalities and ethnicities: this has transformed food, clothing, customs, art and language” (260). Cutting to the chase, she ends her paragraph on “the diasporic city” with this pithy sentence: “The diasporic city is as much about displacement as about place” (261).
At the recent Short Takes on Long Poems symposium in Auckland (see Jack Ross's take here), Jacob Edmond, whose comic-serious talk concerned the literal weights and volumes of long poems, kept asking a single question of other speakers. “In what way is the work you're talking about local?” Or, in the case of my presentation, “Do you think your videos [of people in Hawai`i saying back lines of George Oppen's ‘Of Being Numerous’ as best they could] localize the poem in some way?” Jack Ross argues that the symposium would have been too international had it not included the work of Robert Sullivan and John Adams, writing the interstices between Maori and Pakeha in Aotearoa / New Zealand. This discussion felt like home to me, albeit set on a different stage and peopled by very different writers and critics than is the case in Hawai`i. But of course these distinctions are hard to keep or enforce when (like me) you can leave Auckland at 7 a.m. of a Monday morning and arrive in Honolulu at 7 a.m. the same morning. Yet Lucas Klein, a scholar and translator of Chinese poetry, quoted the Chinese poet, citizen of New Zealand, and resident of London, Yang Lian, as saying: “There is no international, only different locals.”
“I did it, first of all.” That was Gary Snyder's response to our distinguished visiting writer, Shawna Yang Ryan, when she asked him where he got the idea for the poem he’d just read. The poem was “Changing Diapers." As she said, diaper poems are not what one expects from Snyder. Or perhaps this one is, given the sharp contrast between the father changing his son's diapers and the violent, nay imperial, context of the background, a poster of Geronimo holding a Sharp's repeating rifle. The poem goes like this:
How intelligent he looks! on his back both feet caught in my one hand his glance set sideways, on a giant poster of Geronimo with a Sharp's repeating rifle by his knee.
I open, wipe, he doesn't even notice nor do I. Baby legs and knees toes like little peas little wrinkles, good-to-eat, eyes bright, shiny ears chest swelling drawing air,
No trouble, friend, you and me and Geronimo are men.