A review of Jamie Townsend’s 'Shade'
Jamie Townsend’s debut collection of poetry, Shade, continuously turns for us a promise of utopia that is as perpetually deferred as it is exhausted. Much like a mixtape or a news ticker’s scrolling forecast of weather and stocks, Shade traverses contiguous anxieties about what capitalism renders immaterial and how optimism becomes militarized, with Townsend trailing who (or what) follows us from the streets into our throats, from our dreams into the law. That is, Shade raises again for us “the problem of language & desire — its star maps bound around limbs / — histories we speak ourselves into.” But these histories are, in turn, qualified and differed endlessly as “ecstatic positions where words eventually circle but never / fully penetrate” (14).
The poems of Shade, then, are concerned with — and especially by — transformation, intuiting in that capacity to change a power that is used both for and against, though the wielders and targets of this power remain hidden. Take, for example, the opening lines of the collection, from the poem “Paradise Now” — a list of magnificent things without a clear delineation of the direction of agency or reception:
the real shit of alchemy’s new materials
the historic precedent found in early music video special effects
the ghost mixtape as cipher , making urban Midwest from Yokohama , Sophia
Coppola making Emma Watson teenage SoCal , making heaven together in the dark
outside the luxury condo (7)
Within the alchemical matrix of Townsend’s poetry, a soundtrack has become a secret code; a Japanese port city has become the United States’ heartland; Emma Watson, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and former star of the Harry Potter franchise, has become an upscale small criminal; and bourgeois life has become (or has been revealed to be?) a hell ensconced in a developer’s wet dream. This all leads up to one of my favorite images, what must be an homage to the lush romance of John Wieners: “the tonal range of names cried out in bed, their duration & emphasis / the precision of the vague & its central act becoming nonlocatable / the pink roses by the cash register” (9).
In witnessing the twisting of these places, people, and even fantasies, Shade suggests that paradise can be intuited, if only fleetingly. Our “paradise now” grants us glimpses of the protean shimmering within processes of transformation, often attaining the lyric pitch of liturgy. Consider this breathless moment held in a long stretch of unpunctuated prose from a long sequence of poems titled “Thrown Shade”:
the daily movements of my fellow residents have become theoretical opaque & elusive as if writing about them & myself instead of providing greater clarity & dimension has instead enacting a sort of parasitic drain rendering their forms amorphous shriveled bled out to grey scale & the more i fill up these pages with cyclical attempts at dismantling then reenvisioning modes of lust loss friendship the modes of any life together the more concerned i become with the process itself what my body is doing next to the coffee machine for hours (65)
In passages such as this one, Townsend displays his apprenticeship to the ecstatic prose of New Narrative writers such as Robert Glück and Bruce Boone, in addition to the sexy, body-troubling science fictions of Samuel R. Delany. Still, Townsend makes significant breaks from his mentors in Shade. Glück’s and Boone’s first major works were conceived contemporaneously with the swan song of gay liberation, a singular record set between the door closing on the gay 1970s and opening upon the AIDS crisis and turn to neoliberalism of the long 1980s. Townsend’s poetry sits more awkwardly in relation to any liberationism, optimism, or utopianism. The attitude of Shade — wary as it is of embracing completely the promise of the pop song, wherein we’re “feeling it & offering continuity like / a tongue inside the routine” (50) — is one where good (political) feelings cannot be trusted. Whereas Glück and Boone could rest their imaginations on the notion that the future was tenable, Townsend holds the imagination itself in suspension, turning over again and again the promise of a better tomorrow to check it for malware and Trojan horses.
Townsend’s fixation with deferral and suspension can also be read at the level of form, where clauses refuse to close off and commas and dashes create nesting effects, delaying the satisfying arrival of a final grammatical unit. There’s no (syntactical) completion or individuation, as phrases, lines, and sentences fall off into one another. Bodies become indistinct, only rarely popping up with proper names and subject pronouns. Consider the beginning of “Heartbreaker”:
Antony sings crazy in love and the world changes completely
each inflection draws out sex as portraiture in invisible ink
your flannel won’t save you but the gold lamé bikini bottom
rises from the pool , lights the apex of your arc , & draws together
a swarm of celestial parasites glowing in the greater demimonde
a vintage American Apparel model backlit by subterranean grotto
inverted Mimi diva of the tri-sex self-reflected blinking ,
closing the camera , looking away
the song obliterates signature (103)
Perhaps in this moment without particularity, without individual signature, awash in fantasy and sensation, we are offered a new mode of feeling. To me, this is the shade of Shade: the space apart from all the boring hours in the aforementioned developer’s luxury condo, in which pleasures and ghosts of pleasures congregate. Townsend’s poems speak to a relation to power and pleasure that is shaded — hidden, obfuscated, cloaked, smudged. This is a queer relation to power and pleasure, absolutely, but one that has been assimilated in a very recent past, the youth of millennial poets, so that now the police and the state also have a vested interest in subjects consolidating themselves even in their shaded desires. At many levels, Shade captures this turn in identity politics, especially queer ones.
Here I’d like to interject that, ostensibly, the title of this collection could also refer to a now-popular slang term that finds its roots in the documentary Paris is Burning. In this film, drag queen Dorian Corey quite memorably defines “shade”: “Shade is I don’t tell you that you’re ugly. But I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly. And that’s shade.” Yet I’d argue that Shade says less about any past aesthetics of sexuality, race, or performance than the title suggests. Instead, it records a contemporary meditation on relations of power and the swift, effective occlusion of these relations via popular culture — a prime engine in the regulation of optimistic production and consumption. Townsend urgently reminds us that Antony Hagerty’s cover of Mariah Carey “obliterates signature” — and thus, surpasses the necessary individualism of neoliberal capitalism. If Shade is a song, it’s a cover, knowingly dissonant with the monolingualism and atomization of the smash-hit single.
In this relation to the mainstream, Townsend’s work is reminiscent of many of the so-called post-conceptual poets (e.g. Felix Bernstein or Andrew Durbin), all of whom queerly appraise and reference pop culture to produce a patina of anticapitalist critique. Still, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Townsend takes for his model of queerness the gossipy, ribald sensibilities of Glück, Boone, and Delany rather than, say, the superficial dandyism of Andy Warhol. The difference is that Townsend’s poems register the enchantment of the commodity — the way it gets under the skin and shoots around the brain with a promise of satisfaction. Shade knows something of the utopianism in allure that leaves the speaker of these poems not aloof or rarified in post-conceptual smugness but vulnerable and stupid before desire, even when he knows better. For example, consider this moment in “20/20,” Townsend’s meditation on Whitman’s America:
i read about fields of light & music like crystals , desperately wanting new things
i buy a shirt in a pattern called KASBAH & listen to Lou Reed sing about Coney Island
for money to buy junk — …
i buy a shirt in a pattern called LOW END cream with yellow roses to petition the sky —
i buy black denim & cannot remember my dreams —
from above huge herds of beasts are the first things we can see , grazing in the light , their
variegated coats shining — (96)
In other mouths, this out-of-control feeling of superabundance might simply be an argument for a triumphant euphoria, but in Shade, we read how pleasure — and even pleasure’s supreme manifestations in satisfaction and ecstasy — is taxed, capitalized upon, even routed back against itself. Townsend writes, “like we’re spoken into existence for now — spoken into each other but ourselves remain (are forced to remain) locked inside aphasia—” (13–14). The pleasure of Shade is attuned to this play of the visceral among the slipstream of the denotative — that we have little to no mastery over that which pleases our tongues. In the face of such a panoply of delights we find ourselves immediately overwhelmed by everything on display.
You may smash a fly but the fly’s “thing in itself” will not die. You’d simply have smashed the phenomenon called the fly. — Schopenhauer
So says the epigraph to Hagiwara Sakutaro’s “roman in the style of a prose poem,” Cat Town (1935) — in the eponymous volume which also includes his collections Howling at the Moon (1917) and Blue Cat (1923), as well as a selection of other poems. Cat Town itself is a confession of frayed nerves as the author wanders through the countryside and eventually discovers a town populated only by cats. In its final section he retells Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream, in which the difference between dream and reality is thought to be undecided, and ends by stating that somewhere in the universe that particular town of cats, the one he saw, certainly must exist. Like the Schopenhauer epigraph that begins his narrative, one is left asking if one’s “living perception can still recreate” in the imagination what may have been. The fly, like the town of cats, will always exist in its idea.
In his introduction to Cat Town, translator Hiroaki Sato notes that Hagiwara called himself “nearly blind” when he wrote, working off of “inspiration,” and that “the poetic theory he developed and expanded tended to narrow his scope.” This theory conceived of poetry as “any noticeable sentiment,” and that sentiment was expressed as “image”:
[T]he poet’s task was to express his subjective image as accurately as possible. Poetry was a ‘direct expression of music’ only when the poet succeeded in projecting his inner rhythm, namely, his vision. (xxxi–xxxii)
In his own introduction to Howling at the Moon, Hagiwara states that “rhythm cannot be explained,” and that “for someone to express his feelings completely is not something that can be done easily. In such a case words are useless. There are only music and poetry for that.” He also states that “[p]oetry is a language that goes beyond language.”
According to the translator, Hagiwara’s poem “Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground,” the first poem in Howling at the Moon, was completely new to Japanese circles at the time, introducing an indefinite subject through a relatively new, imported style — free verse. By disengaging from previous tropes, as well as adapting a style that appears to be a rejection of form, it seems to display both a highly particularized “inner vision” as well as a less determined language “beyond language.”
Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground
At the bottom of the ground a face emerging,
a lonely invalid’s face emerging
In the dark at the bottom of the ground,
soft vernal grass stalks beginning to flare,
rats’ nest beginning to flare,
and entangled with the nest,
innumerable hairs beginning to tremble,
time the winter solstice,
from the lonely sickly ground,
roots of thin blue bamboo beginning to grow,
beginning to grow,
and that, looking truly pathetic,
looking truly, truly, pathetic
In the dark at the bottom of the ground,
a lonely invalid’s face emerging.
More complicated are his “war poems” that touch on or praise Japanese militarism and imperialism: “On the Day Nanking Fell,” a commissioned poem that the author was embarrassed over (and is only included in Sato’s introduction), “The Army,” and “The Naval Review Off Shinagawa,” in The Iceland. For the contemporary reader of political history, these poems leave perhaps more discomfort than poems like the above, despite their long-lasting influence on Japanese letters. One may ask whether these “political” poems fall short of, or actually fulfill, the prescriptions for poetry the author sets:
On the Day Nanking Fell
The year about to end,
the soldiers’ bayonets gleam white.
The army travel calendar past summer, fall,
Shanghai scaled last night 100, 1,000 kilometers away.
Our marching days have no rest,
men and horses vie to run ahead,
supplies continuing in mud-oozed roads.
Ah those fighting on this plain
vow never to return alive,
under helmets all sunburned.
Heaven cold, sun frozen
the year about to end,
Nanking here has fallen.
Raise our sun-bright flag,
Time for all to be relieved of anxieties,
our victory decided,
they should celebrate banzai.
They should shout banzai.
In tone the poem reads more like a dirge that borders on the satirical than a patriotic screed. Although he died before reports of the Rape of Nanjing would have reached him, had it been about any other event, or at least the celebration of free verse we see in his other “inspired” and seemingly ahistorical works, this poem would be easier to overlook. Today we often expect a certain “decency” out of poets who broach topics like military intervention, but it would seem that we need to suspend that expectation if reading a poem like this — if we want to get more from it than a sense of disgust.
So probably more interesting to ask, rather than where Hagiwara’s decency is, is how this poem ties together with his statements on “rhythm” and “vision” — his poetics, and if there is a broader philosophical inquiry taking place. As with the reimagining of the “cat town,” is there also an existence which exists outside of its phenomenon, like Schopenhauer’s fly? In other words, does it say something “beyond language,” something that it does not literally say?
Because of its compromised nature, it may be easier to make an argument for communicating “subjective image” more completely in “On the Day Nanking Fell” than in “Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground.” The tone, again, is hardly triumphant; the “banzai” at the end sounds weak and deflated. While no one wants to say something as simple as that a poem doesn't do what it says it will do (which in this case is to celebrate the Japanese victory in Nanjing), it appears that the sentiments in the poem express something other than what they purport to. One wonders what kind of message the poem is sending, and the obvious division between the ostensible subject matter and its delivery is what raises the question. One wonders about the meaning of it “beyond” what it says, but does not ask what it in fact does say. Nevertheless, this hardly answers the question of a precise correlation of subject and style.
Frustrated with free verse, Hagiwara made a “retreat” to writing (ironically enough) “Chinese-style poems” — Japanese poems written in imitation of Japanese translations of classical Chinese poetry. These poems, collected in his last manuscript The Iceland, by default loosely follow Tang-Song rules of prosody, incorporate Chinese syntax and terms, and formally seem over-dense and stiff when compared with his earlier poetry. But within the confines of a quasi-formal verse derivative of the Chinese masters, Hagiwara found that a “language for writing,” as opposed to the spoken vernacular he used previously, was better for expressing his “fierce emotions” that “scream” than the vernacular, which was better suited for a state of “lassitude.”
Calling The Iceland an “accurate written diary,” Hagiwara attempted to write poems that were meant to be read as a “visual language,” that the translator calls “terse” and “masculine,” in contrast to the “sinuous,” “feminine” vernacular Japanese. A “visual” language: the “Chinese-ness” is unspoken, but remains in the characters, and the poems are thus records of scopic collisions of the imagination, and not the “sinuous” persuasions of speech:
A Crow of Nihility
I was originally a crow of nihility
on that high roof of winter solstice I’ll open my mouth
and roar like a weathervane.
Whether the season has epistemology or not
what I do not have is everything.
The intrusion of technically philosophical language into an unspoken context can here be read against early poems, like “Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground,” in which the context is given no direct philosophical claims. Additionally, the “masculine,” “unspoken” quality of the poem is not, as in “On the Day Nanking Fell,” the semantic content or intent, but the lack of cohesion in the poem: the terse language does not persuade the reader. The “Chinese” language abuts the images it represents in their Japanese pronunciations, but instead of resolving itself through “sinewy,” mercurial speech, to this reader it has the opposite effect: the language alienates the reader further.
But this is only a “retreat” from the poetry of dialogue, and Hagiwara gives us a more uncompromising vision than before. It is the inability to present “everything,” the slick poem-as-narration-of-image that the author lacks, and it is only through the concrete untranslatability of an alien language that his feelings can be expressed. “Crow of “Nihility” is, strangely, a poem that combines the evocation of deepest feeling with the inability to say clearly what one is feeling exactly — not because Hagiwara is inarticulate, but because the truly resolute poem, to him, is itself fractured, and at odds with itself.
His poem “The Tiger,” in The Iceland, in my opinion gets closest to presenting the “language beyond language” and the reimagining of the thing that seems at the heart of Hagiwara’s project. Like the town populated by cats, we are given a literal image, but yet cannot imagine any correct context for which it exists. The “rhythm” of the poem is an embodiment of the contradictions of textual feeling — a “Chinese-style” poem with intermittent English vocabulary, and a vaguely industrial/commercial landscape pointing to the absurdities of modern life (“elevators,” in English). His Blakean tiger functions as an irreducible index: the tiger’s “afterimage” is a “total view of a void,” connoting again the impossibility of resolution, and the multiplication of possibilities — perhaps somewhere in “the universe.” Of course, it is impossible to prove one has been to a town full of cats, and it may not be true. However, if one perceives that town, or perceives a tiger on a roof of a department store, it may be a result of vision, rather than of a single obvious world.
Considering the uniqueness of these two volumes of Hagiwara’s, I’m disappointed that there has been (in America) so little discussion of either his poetics, or what may have been his politics — any discussion seems mostly limited to his style. To Hiroaki Sato’s credit, he has always addressed these two issues straightforwardly. At a recent celebration of the publication of Cat Town, he briefly addressed Hagiwara’s politics again — although none of the other participants did, and there were no questions from the audience regarding Hagiwara’s politics either. Perhaps “On the Day Nanking Fell” really is just a blip, or a mistake. Or perhaps it draws out more questions about the supposed limits of the imagination. In the spirit of Hagiwara, it may be our job to read poems against themselves, for what they actually say, and for their worlds of meaning.
It’s a tiger
wide and vague as a giant statue
you sleep in a cage in the uppermost floor of a department store
you are born no machine
you may tear apart and eat meat with your fang-teeth
but how can you know human reasoning?
Behold, under the orb sooty smoke flows
from the roofs of factory-zone town
sad whistles rise and spread.
It’s a tiger
It’s a tiger
It’s an afternoon
the ad-balloon* rises high
in twilight-close city sky
on this high-rise building sitting in the distance
you are as hungry as a flag.
When you scan vaguely
you make the worms crawling along the streets
your live food dark and depressing.
It’s a tiger
on the roof of prosperity in the midst of Tokyo City
where elevators* go up and down
wearing an amber striped fur
you suffer solitude like a wasteland.
It’s a tiger!
Ah it’s all your afterimage
a useless total view of a void.
— On the roof of Ginza Matsuzaka-ya
*terms in English in the original
Thomas Devaney's 'Calamity Jane'
Thomas Devaney’s dedication for Calamity Jane, “A Solo Opera for Jeanine Oleson,” situates Calamity Jane — famous gunslinger, sidekick of Wild Bill Hickok, and star in Buffalo Bill’s road show — more overtly in the realm of dramatic performance than in the realm of Western myth. Born Martha Jane Canary in 1852, orphaned young and left to raise her siblings, she became widely known as the character implied by her nickname, which she received while working as an army scout during campaigns against Native Americans (when she reportedly also began dressing like a man). Calamity Jane fascinated the nineteenth-century public (just as she has the twentieth and twenty-firsts), who consumed her many biographies and sought her tales of swilling whiskey and shooting whomever asked for it. Staged as an opera, Jane’s largely apocryphal life story, the excesses of the Wild West, and the theatricality of American history, somehow become more obvious and — in the homeopathic philosophy of “like cures like” — quieter, less desperate, far stranger, and both too meager and too elaborate for the uniform contours of western narratives, of big and little “w” types.
In this reflectively performative space, Jane’s awareness of herself as a story that’s been told many times remains in the foreground to hold open (rather than to settle) questions about what’s real and what’s true. Calamity Jane begins and ends with poems that inspect givens of measurement, gender, and human and higher law, and extend that skepticism throughout the book to the illusory American vision of control and domination. The book’s opening poem, “Martha Canary,” asks,
How far though?
How far west?
How dry the air?
How frozen the ruts?
Who doesn’t believe her own eyes?
These first lines establish the book’s questioning of limits, moral and territorial. The answers frequently come in words of non-being, negation, and indefiniteness: “nothing,” “no,” “nowhere,” “no one” fleck the poems Jane utters and predict the diminishment of empirical certainty Jane’s “real story” (3) effects. What she has seen and done often exceeds description and belief, as well as the narrative forms in which she is cast as part of the American epic. Ending in the line “only ever out,” “Martha Canary” predicts the receding frontiers of history, truth, nation, and self the book and its speaker-subject become. Delivering in song-poems her venture into the unknown — that stays unknown in the Western traditional sense — Calamity Jane profoundly upsets coherent views of American history and its storytelling.
This disturbance is accomplished by the personality Devaney develops through Jane, which, tellingly, does not speak loudly or more authoritatively than other versions of her “real story.” Although she does occasionally reference the inadequacy and irrelevance of storytelling to her experiences, Jane, who sometimes speaks to an unidentified interviewer and sometimes speaks about past interviews and the novel and newspaper stories they resulted in, talks and sings in a voice shaped by listening carefully. “Jane Improvises a Popular Tune in Her Head” demonstrates the blunt musicality of this voice and the humane patience harmonizing its grace and gravity:
Usually when I am talking to people
I don’t talk so much. They talk plenty
for both. The truth is, I like to listen;
whatever they want to say, it’s fine with me,
it really is. I don’t know how else to live,
but they can talk all night. The good and
the good try, I’ll listen. The winds
of a hundred winters never end. Yesterday
they were howling down from the mountains
right up my back — a shove and a chill;
those gray wolves and that dirty sagebrush smell again;
a child swept away. (13)
The acute attention to other people’s speech anchors all the work of this impossibly fine collection. Jane’s loving unselfconsciousness, conveyed by her affable assurances, “it really is. I don’t know how else to live,” indicates lack of interest in engaging with forms of authority essential to nationalism or markets, whether to combat them or to yield to them. While no one poem from this book can represent its emotional or formal range properly, the turn this poem takes illustrates the way Jane’s voice carries from familiar narrative generalization (“Usually when I am talking to people”) characteristic of prose and conversation and into poetry’s compassion and abstraction, “The good and / the good try, I’ll listen.” In this elegantly compressed movement from describing conversations with chatty strangers to private philosophy, Jane articulates a respect both for divine (like Plato’s Good) and for mortal intentions: God tries and good people try; those who try are good, and succeed or fail, they deserve, in Jane’s thinking, to be heard.
At the poem’s indented turning point, that compassion blows back into personal vulnerability emphasized by the brutal sensuality of the weather and landscape. In that furious howling of a hundred winters’ winds “right up my back,” the chronology muddles and collapses, along with the tactile, aural, visual, and olfactory imagery. A hundred years and yesterday, a woman’s back against the mountains and “a child swept away” swirl in the momentum of emotion and memory, both as unpredictable as the land and the natural forces constantly reshaping it. Jane’s tenderness towards good intentions and personal effort, whether God’s or humans’, comes from her understanding that trying doesn’t really matter when wind and wolves attack. Neither innocence nor conviction will stop the child’s — or anyone’s — swift erasure. Into comfortable national ideals predicated on the primacy of individuality, Calamity Jane introduces the engulfment of non-self that terrifies and harasses, sweeps identity away and splits consent from freedom in the codeless West.
In this poem and in others, Jane abandons claims to self-mastery and the swagger of outlaw heroism essential to the nostalgia and decadence driving narratives of the West, chief among them the closely related myths of will power and exceptional character that sustain belief in progress. While Jane disappears into a vortex of sound, smell, and loss along with the destroyed child by the close of “Jane Improvises,” she more directly refutes the scripts of American individualism in poems where she counters the assumptions of her interrogators. “Jane on how she got by as an Orphan” begins with the line, “The answer is, I didn’t,” and she later summarizes, “More than once I was left for nothing” and “There was nobody, just me.” The poem’s close underlines the urgency of basic needs (instead of restlessness for new challenges) directing her celebrated adventures, “I’d go anywhere where there was fresh water”; the phrase “anywhere where” — duplicating the anonymity of place and the depletion of the imagination — further stresses the desperation to escape cold, thirst, and terror overwhelming the body and eclipsing the mind. Such language that discredits humanist and especially Romantic ideas of individuality and the wilderness through which individuation most effectively emerges reverberates in poems like “Fort Russell,” which ends, “Nothing, nothing. / Blank and nothing — / how long was I nothing?” (22). Jane’s de-idealization of her adventures casts suspicion on the foundations and products of the American literary tradition from Hawkeye to Huck, disqualifying the “usable past” it promotes and invents.
This conceptual shift has formal implications as well. Throughout the book, the limits and definitions of Jane as she has been written and the American West for which she performed as metonymy on Wild Bill’s stage are revisited in the poems’ reversal of the dramatic monologue format. As in the book’s opening lines, what Jane doesn’t know and knows she doesn’t know — how far, how cold, how long, how gone she has been — recasts her life as a wonderment of struggles and luck unrelated to hard work or moral will, not a triumph of the pioneer spirit supporting Manifest Destiny. Not only do these strategies change the dramatic monologue’s lesson about a speaker’s arrogance and the dangers of talking too much, but they also indict the audience for its smugness. Devaney’s Jane is both wise and endearing in her understanding of cruelty (unless it’s directed at horses), but she does have rare moments of condemnation reserved not for the rapists and racists, but for interviewers and readers who mask their indecent curiosity as research or truth-seeking.
In “Fielding the Same Question in Other Words,” an annoyed Jane corrects the dime-novel notion that the West has some understood set of rules of conduct she continues to honor by evading the issue of her conjugal life:
What else can I say? I never was polite.
But I’d never ask something like that;
never ask anyone about bygones like that.
It’s not a code. The West isn’t a code.
I’d just never ask those type questions. (17)
While Jane bats away the fiction that the West was an inscrutable system navigable by those few initiated to and surviving its wilderness, the poem “Fort Laramie continued … ” confronts the complementary motives in which historical interest tries to cover for salaciousness. The poem begins, “I didn’t want to have to insist, but now I have to insist. // Stop with the fucking Laramie questions” and ends, after stanzas confirming a time of constant sexual violence, “What the fuck did you think I was going to say? // Fuck you for fucking asking” (24). Although Jane rebukes a specifically addressed “you,” she’s also calling out anyone who’s eagerly sought the gory details of another’s suffering — whether to provide self-congratulatory contrast to ethical codes and conditions of the contemporary world or to expose self-righteously the wrongs committed by “heroes” and “great woodsmen” against past innocents in the name of national expansion, discovery, or civilization. Fuck them for asking, and fuck us for wanting to know.
This foray into frank obscenity to renounce invasions of private misery, as well as many other far more discreet challenges to misguided assumptions about the Wild West, brings to mind (and not only because of the book’s connection to opera singers) Lauren Berlant’s notion of “Diva Citizenship.” Like Berlant’s real and fictional African-American divas who interfere in the presumed race and gender neutrality of American ideals, Jane’s speech accomplishes a “dramatic coup in the public sphere in which she does not have privilege” that “does not change the world” but seriously vexes the operations of “dominant history.” In “Fort Laramie continued … ” Jane’s Diva Citizenship intervenes in narratives of male exceptionality — heroism, greatness — that often have dramatized and justified their exploitation of land and bodies, partly by locating brutal actions securely in the past. Positioned at a temporal remove, violence exacted and violence survived often become forgivably miniaturized beside their perceived results in the present (like we learned our lesson and won’t let it happen again). Jane’s bitter account of being “Fucked and fucked worse” by men and boys alike challenges the safety of chronological distance with the most basic materials of heteronormativity. The emotional immediacy of Jane’s reaction, importantly, troubles the gender oppositions built into the “fucking” she references. Her anger rises because the interest in what male celebrities she may have encountered as either prostitute or public concubine is promoted by a heteronormative binary in which she is the captive or complicit feminine component, confirmation of which would at once challenge (because she can’t be one of the guys if she fucked guys) or reiterate (because fucking guys confirms her status as woman) her token woman status in otherwise all-male accounts of the West. But Jane’s diva challenge to her inquisitor — what Berlant describes as “flashing up and startling the public” — and to us readers, too, is that the binaries of that ethical framework do not apply to her story, nor to our story. In the encampment, no one had a say; everyone was fucked, clueless, and joyless, all victims and all fugitives. Jane’s Diva Citizenship, her queered dramatic monologue that protects the right to remain silent of the abjected past, insists on more compassion and more complexity of identification from both tellers and readers of the American story.
Jane’s attention to the gendered paradigms that have distorted her story leads to further complications of humanist logic that become especially vivid where she counters the preoccupation with pinning down her sex in order to stabilize her gender. “Blood-and-Thunder Stories,” which operates as one of several introductory poems, begins, “Was I a woman?” Here, and in the book’s closing poem, “The Dead and the Dead,” in which she says, “Someone said I was a man” (45), Jane wonders what has made people ask and speculates in both poems that answer and cause lie with her speech, not her anatomy, conduct, or appearance. In “Blood-and-Thunder,” Jane confirms her womanhood by stating, “Strange that my cursing would show it most” — that “Cursing is a marker between me and men; / and one between men and animals.” (2). When rumors that she is really a man persist, Jane looks again to speech, in this case what she hasn’t said, as the cause for this: “Why? Because I know something I won’t tell? / […] Because I never say I ain’t? / Don’t know” (45). That final statement, “Don’t know,” ends the book in astonishment at what worries and interests people, but it’s a directive, too — don’t know and don’t think you know what people have done or who they are. Listen instead.
Jane’s abdication of moral absolutes in favor of listening gives Calamity Jane its deeply ethical orientation and makes her Diva Citizenship especially compelling. Her insights “flash,” “startle,” and “estrange” familiar explanatory structures of the American past and its authorization of the present, but far more often, Jane models sympathetic humility for the many, nameless transients who, like her, have been at the mercy of luck and weather. Throughout, Jane charts the unpredictable ways power, her own and others’, slips and slides out of conventional modes, like comedy or tragedy, success or failure. She recognizes the false ideological goods her story has helped to sell, yet is glad to “dine out on Wild Bill ’til the day I die, / and in the hereafter too” (17). She accepts gratefully the celebrity name that provides “the best place … to hide” (14) and that makes her story true, despite her real story never having been told.
Even a poem like “All Men Are Mean” twists a generalization into a reminder that perspective and context make exceptions always the rule:
—mean doesn’t mean all bad.
Some bastards are just that: hardened.
Listen, silence isn’t always a trick.
Nice folks aren’t always so nice.
At least with a mean guy you know where you stand. (18)
Collective terms like “mean men” or “nice folks” don’t mean much, and self-knowledge beyond one’s basic skills, like caring for the sick or shooting straight, is a foolish, false consciousness. “No one knows what it’s like to be a man — ” she says in “Something about Men,” “not even the men” (28). Jane often seems a genuine innocent in her steady refutation of interior and exterior selves needed to underwrite epiphanic transcendence (the spiritual version of economic and historical progress), but she is wily enough to recognize when mere words fail. Then, only song can carry the intimacy and horror of the West, a song emerging from silence — not the kind that tricks another into talking more than he should or lies by omission, but the silence required of listening, and of empathy allowed by the courageously unprotected state that invites it.
“Jane’s Daughter,” perhaps the book’s most affecting poem, equates song with the coextensiveness of mother and newborn, a point of pure contact that becomes the invisible, powerful center of a community:
I wanted to tell her something.
there was nothing else.
We were there: she with me,
and me with ye, I’d say.
She holding me, me singing —
the bare wet of it.
There’s no night to take away.
A fit of tears with nowhere else to go. (40)
Called by the song, men and women of many races and nationalities leave the small family humble but badly needed gifts: among them, a moss bag, clean towels, food, and a washing bowl. Through this maternal template, song becomes a vortex, a still point around which gathers a world of listening fields and people, who may hear the song “but never get a look.” This gorgeous, peculiar moment near the close of Calamity Jane seems nearest to divining an antidote for the arrogant ills revealed, unraveled, and forgiven through its restaging of the Wild West. Removed from spectacle and performance, yet singing and meeting “in thirst” for love, kindness, and nourishment, the “nothing” Jane wants to tell her baby becomes the beginning of another possible narrative, one in which people who have nothing offer all they can, in a very different national opera of gesture and generosity.
2. Lauren Berlant, “The Queen of American Goes to Washington City: Notes on Diva Citizenship,” in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 223.
A review of Cynthia Cruz's 'Wunderkammer'
The brain, a kaleidoscopic disco
In her latest collection of poetry, Wunderkammer, Cynthia Cruz sets the stage for her readers with the first poem, Nebenwelt. In German, this term translates literally to “world next to/beside.” Paul Celan is given credit for coining the adjective nebenweltlich in his writing, using it to describe “a level of experience beside that posited as ‘real,’ namely a world of metaphorical transformation, specifically that of poetic language.” The title Nebenwelt appears five times throughout this collection, as if to remind us that these poems enact an otherworldly landscape and a kind of diving into the unknown. Through the multivalent forces of Cruz’s language and metaphor, these poems transcend reality.
Curricula of the mundane
The collection’s title is a German word that literally translates to “wonder chamber,” typically known as a cabinet of wonder or cabinet of curiosities — the word cabinet in this case derives from its sixteenth-century origins, meaning “a secret storehouse” or “treasure chamber,” and from the Middle French cabinet or “small room.” Created as microcosms of the world and as memory theaters, cabinets of wonder became popular in Renaissance Europe; they were crammed with boundless collections of objects and relics relating to natural history, religion, mysticism, art, and antiquities.
Just as these little museums archived everyday life, the bizarre, and the exotic within their walls, Cruz has created a treasure chamber/memory theater between the covers of her book, curating clutter and excess — the stuff of the world/otherworld — into a sort of organized chaos, as in this excerpt from “Junk Garden”:
Sweet narcosis of blonde
Beers and the recurring image
Of your face.
In my new black skirt.
Once, when I was a child, I called out your name.
Meanwhile, the exterminating had begun. (21)
It is German here, in its warp
I’m attracted to Cruz’s work, partly because of its illusory realms that both draw and disturb my attention. I want to place myself in the center/the very deep of its visual and sonic textures. This book is, in essence, made up of collages: layered image/language that readers will interpret/reinterpret in their own way, making their own connections between the disparate objects collected and arranged in this treasure chamber. The poems are never the same; every time I read them, I notice some new detail — an accumulation of details. They bring to mind the photomontages of Hannah Höch, for example, in the way they defamiliarize the familiar.
I experience a natural kinship, reading these poems: I, too, am an American woman with a German mother (and father); I often look to contemporary German artists for inspiration in my own creative work. Whether in the poetry’s language or mood — Schlag or gloom — I feel there is a similar German warp running through my fabric, too.
The din, I am trying to tunnel through
Wunderkammer resonates and glimmers with bedazzled imagery of emeralds, diamonds, and pearls, din layered between fur and velvet. As in these lines from “Mnemosyne Atlas,” words reflect like windows/shards of light in a kind of shifting architecture, from infinite focal points:
What gorgeous and out of nowhere.
And glittering. A silver waste, a warm
Unknown paste of pearl
And jewels. Some small foods.
It’s true. I lose
My mind, but I get
This, instead. (14)
Navigating the nonlinear space/the glitter and afterglow of these poems, I fluctuate between knowing and not knowing who or where “I” is, as if I’m sleepwalking or tunneling through this limbo between reality and dreamworld. It feels familiar, like standing in front of an abstract painting: viewing it from outside the picture plane or inhabiting it with my entire body, and both at the same time.
Paste jewels, a vibrant green bacteria
I appreciate Cruz’s use of color throughout this collection. The prosaic beauty of her palette is striking. “An all-night pharmacy of bright pink / Pills” (33) to “a bloom / Of bright red / Blood” (34), and she limns lines that fluctuate between dark and light: “bruise-like blue of the Gloomarium” (20) and “chalk white stockings” (13).
Overall, the work leans toward greens — or perhaps this pervasiveness is just my own impression of the images/afterimages: “vibrant green bacteria of sea and decay” green lawns, “primordial forest[s]” (45), green Eden, “windows of glass emerald” (14), rooms “painted mint green / Frosting” (26), and “a green ocean of terror” (45). In the science of color/chromatics, green is sometimes considered a positive and restorative color, a symbol of rebirth/renewal. It is believed to relieve depression. In a negative light, the institutional nature of green is associated with illness, and green is often linked with materialism and possessiveness (as in “green with envy”). This sort of contrast/contradiction is a device used throughout these poems: Wunderkammer houses both the excess of bling/beauty as well as debris/decay.
I swear the earth is still humming
Cruz’s poems are immersed in consumption and accumulation, archiving the excesses of material things — of fashion, trauma, dreams, memory, history — the things of the world, humming in a collage/a self portrait/a body of work. In the poem “Zwischenwelt,” Cruz writes:
are lapping, one flooding over
the other. I am the zoom, the snowball white
Of lithium. Empress of waste and excess. Towers
Of bottles of Triple Sec and Zoo. Chaos,
Herzogian, I am inside my childhood, a no
Man’s land of the mind. (27)
In an interview with Adrianna Robertson for Lumina Journal, Cruz says, “the subject matter of [all of] my books is about failure. I think that failure is reaching beyond what you are capable of. It’s about trying to do something that you feel you can’t do.” Just as Renaissance cabinets of curiosity were more than simple warehouses for artifacts, Wunderkammer exists as more than a collection of poems — this book is a rarity, an art object, an installation piece drawn from the mind of Cynthia Cruz, who renders her haunting other-world through its labyrinths and beyond, fearlessly.
3. Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “cabinet,” accessed August 28, 2015.
4. Gillian Ramos, “Blog Exclusive: A Conversation with Cynthia Cruz,” LUMINA, January 28, 2014.
The scar lit district of Jenny Zhang
The Year of the Ram is the year to celebrate the Black Sheep. Jenny Zhang is the New Girl fed up with the Old World crap sheet. Eschewing the coyness that makes the big wigs cream their pants, this Chatty Cathay takes her chances befriending the fierce whores, sodomites, and other forbidden scribes.
Zhang is a far cry from the model minority who genuflects at the picket fence of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E schoolhouse. She follows in the wake of other sister artists who have adapted the lessons of the willful sissy to their own feminist battles, when the brutes or happy housewives prove unhelpful. (The vitality of such a tradition in the post-fifties avant-garde is the subject of Maggie Nelson’s Women, the New York School, and Other Abstractions [University of Iowa Press, 2006].) Asked to characterize her own style, Zhang replies, “Occasional Sensualist, because my poet boyfriend used that word, and I wanted to be his twin more than I wanted to be his lover.” Twinning with each other has meant absorbing the syntax and synapses of their gay poet uncle Frank O’Hara. With daily derring-do and over-friendly melancholy, she courts the misfits past and present who recognize the difference between her vagina and her voice — and sasses the ones who don’t.
The precocious daughter of Chinese immigrants, Zhang (pronounced Jung) emigrated from Shanghai to New York at the age of five. She describes how she was raised by spectral Asiatic hags, as her mother frosted donuts during the graveyard shift and her father put himself through grad school by delivering takeout to Wall Street. Beside her mild-mannered parents, the daughter cuts the striking figure of the punk flâneuse and scrappy burlesque queen who had to kick the softie pianist offstage to discover her true calling as a wordsmith. A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, Zhang has taught high school in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Through her articles and short stories for various webzines, she continues to lure a younger audience of teens and quarters to the candy cottages of the indie prose and poetry presses.
Her latest publication, Hags (Guillotine, 2014), is a feminist manifesto clad in the fleece of a confessional essay; its chief aim is to spin out the artistic implications of the unmarriageable biddy or proud slut of yore. Against the running gag of the “crazy-ass bitch” favored by American media, Zhang has assembled her own pantheon of heroines, anecdotes, and cultural practices highlighting the fierce dignity the hag enjoys in Eastern — and to a lesser degree Western — cultures. Among her many jottings include the Chinese tradition of spirit marriage (ming hun), which ensures the wise crone a mate in the afterlife, and the Filipina lore of a penis-snatcher, a legend she picked up as a former labor organizer for Asian home and healthcare workers in San Francisco: “These hags, these great beauties, these mermaids who taunt, who feast, who slash, who steal, these succubae who cannot rest, my mothers, my sisters, my unborn friends, my keepers, my guardians” (13–14).
Zhang consequently embraces street theatre and the confessional burlesque as genres in which the flaming hag eclipses the ditzy and defenseless model. Detonating her martial farts on a subway car of Wall Street types, giving a leg show from the backseat of the family car, shoving cucumbers from the crisper up her cooch, she enacts her original choreography of hag-hood in the conviction that the squeaky shrew has a better chance at “farting imperialism into oblivion!” Then too, she likes to upset convention by showing up to a Slutwalk in her normal clothes, “betraying all the heroic sluts” who enable her own “magnificence” (16, 15). Insofar as the hag describes a set of traits that the dominant culture prefers to airbrush out of its female pinups, women of color and women of size should not be so quick to disown the charismatic label that assures them voluble visibility, as other self-appointed hags — and fag hags — have pointed out. In her poetic debut, Dear Jenny: We Are All Find (Octopus, 2012), Zhang flashes her Fine China, honoring the friends and family who coax out the haggy virtues of her beautiful irritability, while zapping the smiley viruses of shameless appropriation.
Donuts and daisy chains
Central to Dear Jenny (Octopus, 2012) is a drama of selective acculturation: sorting through the involuntary culture of one’s origin and the willful culture of choice, one discards the odious assumptions of each and learns how to inhabit the best of both worlds. Zhang tells this story through the interdependent poetics of donuts and daisy chains: “my family tree turned into a dam,” the donut is the Confucian choker of obligation that enjoins son and daughter to shore up the circular walls of the dynasty (9). The donut has the same genitive syntax as the snarl of relations one finds in a puzzle book by MENSA. It can go parodic, as in “my sister’s accountant / and your mother’s doctor’s secretary’s gardener / … is my sister’s accountant’s sister” (43), or sincere:
I don’t want to stumble anymore
I don’t want to drive anymore
Then a boy my father’s age kisses me
And a boy my brother’s age kisses my mother
And my mother puts her leg on my leg
And I’m free and anyone can know me. (93)
Even as Zhang marks her distance from the Great Wall of doctors and accountants, nerds and bad drivers, she finds ways to honor the ancestral family without necessarily endorsing its circular, risk-averse notions of the good life. She has a knack for inventing gestures that render more agreeable to the feminist the rituals of familial deference, or in other places, sexual domination. The mother’s leg touch is affectionate without being suffocating. It is the formal donut relaxing into the improvisation of the daisy chain.
The phrase daisy chain may suggest a mode of association at odds with the family circle. Sexual slang for a group of more than two partners joined in simultaneous oral or anal intercourse, it acquires in these poems the status of a freak flag emblem flying above the red-light district of sexual and scatological sincerity. Here, the locals discuss freely their genital health concerning “bloodturds,” “comefarts,” and “lucky pierres.” Such naughty talk, derived from the Queen’s English and the Urban Dictionary, provides the ultimate relief and “comfort” from the pressures of having to live up to the expectations of prestige, marriage, and the baby carriage.
Zhang may not plant her booth in the middle of the gay carnival like Margaret Cho, but she seems to chart the same space of intimacy signified by a banner like the fag hag. She poo-poohs, for example, the “avant guard dood … boring me with the cunts” (88), but serves feline or concubine realness in the presence of gay royalty like Marcel Proust or Frank O’Hara: “You were born a queen … and I feel nothing but lucky, lucky to sleep by your feet” (85). By the same token, she channels personism when she writes of an O’Haran intimate: “I’m inside of a daisy chain and the Lucky Pierre is my boyfriend’s penis / inside a whale inside a universe” (76). These queer and dreamy declarations imply that if a woman has little choice but to swim in a literary ocean swarming with men, she may as well surround herself with the ones who make the air and discourse around her easier to breathe.
But why not with the other housewives? Zhang suggests that the immigrant who’s shy and awkward because of her difference has more to learn about social and sexual dignity from the unabashed freak who has come into his own virtues by inhabiting his difference in a particularly fierce way. Conversely, the unabashed freak may favor the immigrant as the ally and informant who shows him the unforeseen corners of his never-never land: “you find me chinky and very fun” (58). In poems like “Philtre,” and “Michael,” the line of hesitation approaches a horizon line of trust between the loveliest of weirdos:
We find you strange
this wire of weird hanging-ass out
the fiery cleavage, the eternal spotlight
of a sunset line of weirdness inside me
weirding out your mother
who was always weirder than my mother
who was as weird as the first chinese person
to say his name was chinga (56)
This daisy chain of a poem features her characteristic coil of a run-on sentence that anchors the speaker to family, yet gives her enough length to move into other cultural communities for the sake of shared enlightenment, to invoke the rope metaphor of Angela Davis. By the end, the Chinese ingenue and the flaming queen bridge the strange gap of their cultural differences via the urban link of Chingy, a black hip hop artist who takes his name from the Chinese. We are told by the poems that “Jenny” and “Michael” — the poet and translator Michael Thomas Taren — are susceptible to cross-referencing each other’s work, and though such coterie gestures will probably mean little to the average reader, they evince, like the closing dick-and-jane handshake, a larger pattern of collaboration among women and queer men in the avant-garde: “I noticed your thing hanging out” which “we think is a thing between us / and it is in fact so.”
Hallmark moments aside, Zhang recognizes how the respective frames of the donut and the daisy chain collide. Her bitchy mode of political incorrectness often indicates the sincerity the two may nonetheless enjoy in this “simulacrum where you finally had the courage / to tell your mother you love her a lot — / you penisblowing piece of crap!” (66). It is only within this simulacrum that one does not feel obliged to dance around thorny issues for the sake of propriety. The trust that obtains between absolute friends enables the paradox by which they may express the deepest avocations of care and concern in the crassest way imaginable, one that would meet resistance only outside that space of mutual permissiveness.
Pride and punupmanship
The daisy chain also offers an image for the poet’s superb punupmanship. Wordplay, as Zhang sees it, is the embarrassing spittle of the Nabokovian or immigrant soul who bumbles from one corner of the globe to another, screwing up the host language in beautiful and unforeseen ways: “I wanted to refill this charming hole of shame with a sense of happiness and delight … to take these mistakes and make them not mistakes.” So it is that Zhang transforms the linguistic gaffes of her family into willful idiomatic mixups, catachresis, spoonerisms, mondegreens, and the bumbling voice message that furnishes the title of the volume Dear Jenny, We Are All Find. Her daisy chain punupmanship is perky and profane, switching modes between straight and queer contexts, as when she admonishes the friend who chooses a gay hookup over meeting the parents:
this nurse is a sample nurse
this muse is a sample muse
or thoughts of hairy bung-cold lunges
the luncheon was a disaster
as was the plunging of your fisted-anus
into water where it was cool
you take popsicles into your knuckles
like rings attached to doorbells
that wake up my father (57; italics added)
The paranomasian lady who lunches makes the care imaginary yield to both “the children” and the “equation of homoeroticism.” These poems chide and cherish by turns the honorary donut (with his icy, brass-knuckled bravado) who takes a fist up the ass or in the eye for the sake of sexual politics: “you’ve been in an accident? / I will sew your eyeballs back into their sockets,” she reassures him. Gay care provider and seamstress, “nurse” and “muse”: Zhang recognizes the homogeneous donut and the queer daisy chain as equally valid responses to ethnic or sexual discrimination. Her punupmanship across the line break offers an expedient means of attending to the incommensurable aspirations of parties who may frown at one another yet collectively affirm the miracle of her existence.
Poetics of fraternization
Although Zhang specializes in friendship, it would be wrong to zone her within the tradition long in vogue. She does not write about the classical fraternity of equal-footed friends who push each other towards the heights of Olympus at the expense of the natural slaves. Emerson encapsulates the best and worst of this tradition when he states there is no friendship more noble than the “manly furtherance … among … beautiful enemies” and more overrated than the “perfumed amity which celebrates its days of encounter by a frivolous display,” and the friend who is my “unequal shall presently pass away … a mate for frogs and worms.” True rivalry and absolute candor are special privileges we extend to friends who have earned our total respect and for whom “the Deity” inside me annihilates for you “the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance.” Just not to women, who are too lovey-dovey, frivolous, or housebound; or to the slavish minorities, who stink too much of the bog. In the classic view, only the pearliest of men are perfectly and equally positioned to reap the full benefits package.
No surprise that privilege should blind the superlative rivals of the Emersonian firmament to how the open admission of advantage or vulnerability may sustain friendships more diverse in constitution. In the queer tradition, however, as the scholar Michael Warner reminds us, “the most heterogeneous people are brought into great intimacy by their common experience of being despised and rejected in a world of norms they now recognize as false morality.” Wasps and wannabes dissemble together around their rivalrous acquisition of prestige, while the leveling experience of failure makes the best icebreaker there is for mixed company falling across the thick walls. Flaunting the relationships that society once marked as shameful because they flew in the face of common sense, a figure like the fag hag may discover her potential as an effervescent mascot for the horizon of inclusive relations of care, candor, and commitment falling across delimitations of race, class, gender, age, size, sexual practice, and familial configuration. As Maria Fackler and Nick Salvato write in a collaborative manifesto, the fag hag is a “complex comrade who pushes us beyond the comparatively simple role that sorority may play in upsetting fraternity’s stranglehold on the political imagination of friendship,” one who points us towards a radical vision of democracy still in the making.
The poems of Dear Jenny issue from this space of shared marginality more futuristic in its accommodations of difference than both the chauvinist fraternity house and the sniping sisterhood that once prompted women to reevaluate the feminist potential of the hag. Experience has taught Zhang that certain citizens fraternize with their purported enemies for relief from the matrix of positional suffering as women, as people of color, as sexual minorities, etc. For citizens who are more than one of the above, whose lives are charged by intersectionality, the practice of fraternization may prove more liberating than perfunctory recourse to school chums or the ethnic buddies section. Hope for Zhang means saying sayonara to the hipster gluttons whose street cred ranges no further than the kitchen pantry, but it also means rebuffing the nerdy sister who does little to shake the reputation of the moocow. Dropping from the heights of Olympus, Zhang finds meaningful relief in the friendship of rock bottom:
In the mornings, I slid to the base of the mountain
fulfilled my duties as a rhapsode
denouncing all of Greek culture; “I will not reference
Aeschylus!” I said to my friends who were eating rice
and wearing rice hats and being ignorant of their
ignorant ignorance: “I will bring you the Wu’s, the Lao’s!”
At that point someone banged three pots together
I shook hands with the bromides, the questionable
youth who came already as an imitation of their future
one had wrinkles around her lips and was tired
of the way society treated her like cattle
“Moooo,” I said
It’s all very scientific and it’s all very necessary
You and I keep meeting at the bottom
I meet other balls of dust and together we forge a history
later, in meeting new friends, I forget all of this. (13–14)
Such Kafkaesque rants reveal how the admission of failure may ease the sense of rapport that the monster of privilege only seems to discourage. The classroom scene offers a painful window onto the public square where minorities are clapped into silence by those who like to set the loud firecracker against the silently weeping bromide or bovine. When the audience gets away with “eating rice / and wearing rice hats,” the artist is facing a losing battle against the quacksalvers of Orientalism who confuse the harmonious flavor profile with the grittier bottle of authenticity that irritates their stomach. “Being understandable is subject to all kinds of power dynamics and shifting realities,” says Zhang; “When I go to poetry readings, when I meet other poets … so rarely are they nonwhite, so rarely are they immigrants, so rarely are they any of these things … So there’s always that element of I want to be understood … but I also know there are certain limits to communicating past certain power dynamics.”
Zhang attempts to reach a broader audience that remains ignorant about power dynamics by vexing the relations of friendship they pretend to know the most about. The result is that her anecdotes of failed friendship and friendship in failure amount to morality tales on the price of understandability. “How can I be … both damaged and lovable. How do I become the protagonist of a story?” Zhang asks with rare pathos. What can one do to escape the fate of the perpetual sidekick but to change the desiderata for a hero, a savior, a sidekick, a friend?
By invoking the demonstrative idiom of her favorite queens and hags, Zhang breaks the accursed expectation of Old World modesty that conspires to deny the Asian American subject full range and volume in the chattier arts of the New World. With one fist raised towards the sky, she embraces with the other arm the queer playmate whose willingness and willful difference from her person relieves her from the fate of being pushed into a takeout box with the defenseless bovines and running gags. In these poems of fraternization, of friendship with the purported enemy or unforeseen ally, she transforms immigrant bumbling with the buoyant pride of her adopted queen’s throat and burlesque kick, and through the pricklier feelings disclosed by heterogeneity, shows how the structural evils of racism and imperialism place limits on the pursuit of sincerity across the rainbow. Jenny Zhang is kicking proof that the mantle of the avant-garde still belongs to the belated peoples willing to seize it against all odds: she gives us leg and life, launching her fabulous hagship in the face of failure for the benefit of those still yearning from black holes:
… I grab hold of my friends, my people
the ones who woke me when I was sinking
and on the verge of a colossal disappearance
from this flawed and frangible world. (44)
Author’s note: This article for Jacket2 was submitted and edited for publication in July 2015. Any critique of the parties involved in the Best American Poetry scandal will have been by coincidence. — J.N.
2. Various postwar avant-garde movements have proven hostile to female participants. The New York School of poets bucked convention to become an avant-garde whose cultural production was organized by the collaborative energies and unabashedly sissy virtues shared by queer-identified artists and sponsors, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual. Such social dynamics help to differentiate the unscripted program of O’Hara and friends from the macho fraternity house ethos underpinning the Beats, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain School, and Black Arts movements. See Maggie Nelson, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007); Michael Davidson, Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004).
4. Hags may be said to extend the program first set forth by Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978): “The Background into which feminist journeying spins is the wild realm of Hags and Crones … Haggard writing is by and for those women who are intractable, willful, wanton, unchaste” (3, 15).
6. Some feminists differentiate the fag hag proper from the “woman with gay friends” by the criteria of honorary residency and/or political advocacy within the queer community. See for example Deborah Thompson, “Calling All Fag Hags: From Identity Politics to Identification Politics,” Social Semiotics 14, no. 1 (April 2004): 37–48.
7. Davis invokes the rope trope on several occasions to gesture towards a politics that escapes the tribalist formulations exploited by racists (or naifs) to set people of color against one another: “[R]ace has become an increasingly obsolete way of constructing community because it is based on unchangeable, immutable biological facts in a very pseudo-scientific way … I’m not suggesting that we do not anchor ourselves in our communities. But I think, to use a metaphor, the rope attached to that anchor should be large enough to allow us to move into other communities.” See Angela Davis, “Rope,” New York Times (May 24, 1992): E11. The committed fag hag (of color, such as Margaret Cho) is an exemplary spokesperson whose choice of friends and lovers enacts the intimate cross-racial community that Davis has in mind.
10. Emerson, “Friendship,” in Lectures and Essays (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1983), 351, 348, 354. I pick at the Emersonian tradition for the sake of polemic. For a more progressive defense, see Andrew Epstein, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Epstein tries to make the Emersonian tradition of fraternal friendship amenable to racial difference in the token case of Amiri Baraka, though what he calls rivalry seems to blunt the pricklier feelings of envy, irritation, melancholy, and paranoia that register, perhaps, Baraka’s recurring perceptions of inequality within the state of friendship.
13. Fackler and Salvato, “Fag Hag: A Theory of Effeminate Enthusiasms,” Discourse 34, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 59–92. See also Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London and New York: Verso, 1997). Fackler and Salvato’s manifesto on the effervescence of the fag hag exemplifies a larger trend in the critical literature on friendship responding to Jacques Derrida’s observation that the philosophical discourse on friendship is ridden by poet-politicians who hijack the benign discourse on fraternity to secure regimes of racism and sexism around the world. We can put Emerson in the same storied company as Aristotle, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Schmitt, and Derrida.
14. Perhaps the mantle of the avant-garde belongs to such subjects in the post-millennium. The free admission of white privilege, argues Timothy Yu, helped to galvanize a more total “ethnicization of the avant-gardes” following the Sixties, when student radicals (who, for example, became the first Language poets) undertook the experiment to reframe whiteness in less toxic and grandiose ways, and as various minority groups (Black, Chicano, Asian, gay, and feminist in constitution) fomented collective aesthetic and political consciousness through the group manifestations of little magazines, ethnic theatre, poetry readings, and protests to organize against patterns of grave social injustice. See Timothy Yu, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 3ff.