On Chris Hosea's 'Double Zero'
“Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you’ll have a calm and happy life,” Epictetus advises in the epigraph to Chris Hosea’s second collection, Double Zero. The Stoic maxim is fitting for a collagist like Hosea, whose poetry seeks to capture and present everything stripped of an artificer’s will; the speaker of “Little Salt Book,” for example, remarks that it is “[d]isappointing that books are written by persons” (37). These poems reject the model of surface and substratum, linear chains of logic, narrative, or meditation — poetry that conceals and ultimately bestows upon the diligent reader a kernel of meaning. Instead, Hosea’s poems are horizontally distributed linguistic planes, glittering splinters of the quotidian sliding through one another, shrapnel of heterogeneous temporalities. They conform to Rancière’s definition of the aesthetic regime under which much of contemporary art operates: in these works the sensible is “extricated from its ordinary connections and is inhabited by a heterogeneous power, the power of a form of thought that has become foreign to itself: a product identical with something not produced, knowledge transformed into non-knowledge, logos identical with pathos, the intention of the unintentional, etc.” In espousing a Socratic know-nothingness and eschewing the polemical or confessional mode, Hosea’s poems achieve — despite their fervor and restlessness — a kind of Stoic calm, if not happiness. Yet the specter of intention, even the intention of the unintentional, haunts these poems and instills within them a compelling tension.
Nonknowledge, unintention, forms of thought foreign to themselves. These are familiar tropes in (post-)Language writing and (post)conceptualism, wherein the notion of a unified, stable subject/author in full command of the poem dropped in the reader’s trembling hands is laughable. In these poems that “speak nothing of yourself to you” (17), thought has indeed become foreign to itself; to do so it must have a double nature, and the pair of zeroes in Hosea’s book title connotes this evacuated self-become-text staring blankly at its alien foundation, or at the Humean perception-bundle of the other it has blown against.
Hosea indicates this alien foundation in the collection’s opening poem, “I Love You,” in which the speaker voices the desire to “push my head up your soul” (1). The speaker later recounts both how “you opened a hole in my lifetime” and “I opened a hole in my lifetime” (2), suggesting that the difference between you and I reduces to a pair of zeroes/holes (a later speaker gropes “to plug your butt I mean my own” ) in this precataclysmic instant in which we billions together desire a total destruction of names, which act is the only vigorous truth. The speaker’s thrusting head into our so(u)lar anus constitutes the first image of the double zero that casts its shadow over the collection: the zero of the animus foreclosed by the ravages of late capitalism (“I am a flesh bell went to market jingling” ), its vacuity penetrated by the second zero of the speaker’s head, a becoming-animal mechanically perpetrating “abstract thing violence” (1) in a society that in the last vestiges of neoliberal decorum can do little to conceal the heaving sea of porn on which it floats.
The eviscerated subject is refigured in the second poem, tellingly entitled “Player Zero,” in which the speaker observes, “today I get myself” (3). The “get” here implies that the I of the poem experiences selfhood as something bestowed (but how should we imagine the entity that awaits that bestowal?) — see also “face to face I am Chris for today” (53) and “I guess I want to / be myself, be someone new” (63). Or does “get” denote “understand,” “comprehend,” or some other shabby approximation implying doubleness and the (false?) psychoanalytic promise of insight into oneself? “Get” also suggests “beget,” and thus an asexual proliferation of subjectivities that “today” is helpless to isolate. No matter. All is dashed in the next line’s absence of subject pronoun in the infinitive, “to be gone now nothing hurting nothing.” The soul is not hidden beneath/behind the text, but is the told text itself — “you know about my soul I told you” (26).
In “This Is for You” we have the declaration “I am confident hardwood / paper leaves / such writ as Kant changed / the point is not to get the statement” (51). Is the speaker here identifying metaphorically as confident hardwood, bold and horny, or as a tree/text with paper leaves — the only material trace of him the page and the writing thereon, a Kantian critique that’s deemed our epistemological compensation for being exiled from the Ding an sich? Or is there an implied “that” after “confident” in the first line — does hardwood modify paper, which is both leaf and leaver of subjectivity’s trace, the I-think whose existence Kant could only assert as a necessary adjunct to the forms of intuition comprising the phenomenal manifold? Stop, the final line implores the interpreter. There is nothing to get, just a “portable sign” or “zero word” (39) — as Hosea fleetingly defines language elsewhere in the book — circulating between zeroes. That zero self becomes the refracting world-fragments in Hosea’s verse, a transition depicted in “Walking to Birmingham,” wherein the peripatetic speaker, the not-I “On the towpath to eternal life,” who “just can’t / genially gesture at assumed outlines” but must refashion and call them into motion, disperses into world by poem’s end:
it was the world and not me it was the world
that moved arrow fast blown turning its cold seam
it was the world surface slick diffusing starlight
and not me wrapped in warm perpetual fall
low great heavy cotton ball stone-colored clouds
it was the world it was the world it is there (19)
If the absent self were the only thing to see here, it’d be a tired story. As much as these poems sever the knowing head of authorial intention, the collage requires a will to extricate the fragment from its familiar connections and reconfigure it among other elements within the artwork. Even Epictetus, in the quote from the epigraph, recognized the impossibility of abolishing will — we are told to redirect our wishing, not to stop it altogether. With will comes desire, and these poems gather tension insofar as they wander from the serene Stoic Porch into the Epicurean Garden, exploring the glistening slug trails of eros. Plunged in and constituted by the secular babble of portable signs, the speaker of “Little Carbon Book” voices the urge to “be fixing a ground” and to “recall what I always knew / I want to eroticize time / Make something which lives / Articulate something” (39). This desire to fashion a living artifact from a grounded subjectivity constitutes a much more classical (think Pygmalion) image of the aesthetic act, even if the speaker who wants to articulate something also admits that “I don’t have much to speak of never did” (62). The admission also recalls Ashbery’s antipolemical statement that he doesn’t have anything to say.
Hosea’s speaker’s desire to “eroticize time” — what Lisa Robertson, who similarly explores “the erotic feeling of non-identity,” calls “the sex of remembering” — is a major theme of this volume. For Hosea, sexual desire is bound up in the communal experience of art and the traditional injunction not to touch the work (“I just want to kiss your installation” ), an injunction that conjures memories of and further desire for sex. Thus, there is no framing in the traditional sense, no hallowed enshrinement; rather, the task is to “frame though it go from sight / above behind around afar / elements now slow or climates / fast” (23). These lines are burgeoning, fervid, catholic in their yearning. Hence, the Buzzcocks’ “Why Can’t I Touch It” — referenced in “Tape Hiss” (56) among myriad other pop, rock, and indie songs of the late twentieth century — serves as an apt anthem for the subjective strain against the limits of the socially sanctioned that characterizes much of this book. “[Y]ou can’t have it all,” the speaker of “Who Is the Big Winner” proclaims, “but you can have some / of everything, a fuck, a smoke, a random new / something” (5). But that’s not enough. “I want more,” the speaker continues, splitting open the trembling walls of the zero to envelop the object of desire and “work her tits so they spurt milk,” mingling two erotic temporalities: the encounter with the “grinning, tallish, gangly” aspiring artist at MoMA and the subsequent blind infant suckling at the maternal breast (5, 6).
The “work her tits” can be classed with a handful of other misogynist moments — “she chokes on me, doesn’t stop” (5); “I never did her” (7) — that, if one were treating the speaker as male and unified throughout the book, might be attributable to the influence of the “Henry Miller paperbacks” that the young speaker who leaves his home and his family in “Parted on the Side” brings to college with him in anticipation of the “doors / of sex” opening (9). But if these lines allude to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” the speaker’s awkward attempts to assert some (toxic) masculinity ultimately leave him like that song’s subject, cut and crying out in anger and pain. The poem is a rare instance of narrative — albeit punctuationless, fluid, and shifting — and recounts with poignant intimacy a desire for a fellow Johns Hopkins student in the early 1990s: “we were alone I freaked when she said / looked at my hands held my back firm / said nothing went back to my room.” The speaker’s machismo fades as he realizes “her time that time was hers / in time,” that other zero now who “saw through me” who “never moved to kiss her” (11, 12).
This episode, and other “bits of memories precious fictions losing definition” (12), constitute the atmosphere of remembered desire that permeates these poems; the atmosphere recalls New York, where Hosea has lived for well over a decade: “she whiffs of sweet / back Brooklyn someday afternoon” (5). Not that this book should be read autobiographically; as the speaker of “Tape Hiss” asserts, in a rare moment of extended meditation on the fictive self: “Always you could have chosen other moments, other seconds, other spaces, other sounds, other songs, other stations, other words, other friends, other lovers, other orders, other passive intentions. You missed out, you know it. You in fact just are this missing, sodden archive of unlogged roads traveled” (55).
However, despite the proscription “don’t fuck so close to me” (8), it is often we readers and not some remembered other that these speakers press against in their desire. “I Love You” is characteristic of this mode, as is “Same Time,” which ends with an act of fellatio that again mixes speaker and addressee as blower and blown, like the stem shadows near the performers who “brush blue fruit and come to and see stars arise” (46). The speaker has “said I love you / with a wound I can’t see,” and this primal hole/zero lends these words a hostility at times that is openly acknowledged: “the heat in my quiver probably part cruel fire” (62). For instance, the speaker in “The Final Countdown” (Europe) tells us to “imagine it is the two of us / fucking reader” (30), and the enjambment isolates the last two words on their own line, forcing the possibility that it is not the two of us fucking, but rather that it just the two of us, the speaker and we fucking readers, alone in a world where “[p]eople give pain” (37) and “everyone / is out to / get you mother fuck- / er” (48). But by and large these speakers don’t have pointy little hearts. “The Final Countdown” continues with “I slide under you and lick your asshole / because I love your asshole” (30), and the speaker’s compassion is evident: “inside the reader a beloved place / hurts the heart is sprained / and worse considered a mere machine” (29). The poem ends with the speaker and reader merging into “just humming energies” that in turn fuse with the erotic interplay of the world at large, “because there isn’t just one / of him or one of me or you / in this many universes / or one pussy one cock / so many millions” (30, 31).
Hosea’s polestar, insofar as the compendious desire that interfuses these poems is concerned, is Whitman. I admire the capaciousness of this sensibility, which locates the poisons both within the unstable self and in our contemporary situation, with its “colonies marked for pollution” (24), “sacked territories” (52), and “buildings exhaling the mind poisons,” where “life is artificial and kills all imagining” (60). These poems ricochet off trauma on both global and personal scales, and yet one senses an embrace of all of this, since “what turns me on right now / are things and people and places and people” (6). Like the speaker of Drum-Taps moving in and among the atrocities of madness/war, in “Know Your Name” the speaker has to duck the bloodspray of a Bellevue mental patient castrating himself with a salvaged safety razor and who is rolled on his hospital bed away from the speaker’s own:
just remember that bed
and think of the bed before that
and the one before that
and so remembering bed by bed
you can think of all the walls
all the horizons
all the women and men and children
who sheltered you
where you were
you are a child hardly before you forget
know your name
remember your name
your name is (60)
The poem ends on this piercing absence, this zero-name to be filled by the reader. Here thinking of prior beds and the nameless patients that inhabited them becomes an act of remembrance, an appeal to acknowledge the shelter and community needed to stave off madness.
The book’s finale, “So Many Fortresses,” is written in memory of Eric Garner and also moves in a Whitmanesque register while conjuring the horrors of an ostensibly postracial America. “The music / is not different, the only thing that is / different is the lyrics” (65), declares the speaker, and Hosea catalogues in repetitively modulated fragments how racism has only changed its manifestations over the centuries, from Garner’s death to the Watts riots to the beating of Angela Davis to “white men their use / of guns on the Indian” (66). The poem directly contrasts the submission to the given order implicit in the Epictetus epigraph as it urges a restructuring of the police’s fraught relationship to the polis: “what you feel is flowing inside to myself it / needs to be that is the only way I could see / that father, that brother it’s me, not my / brother, not my father, all / I would see is white men” (67). These lines recall Whitman’s desire for an eroticized reciprocal boundarylessness (“Translucent mold of me it shall be you!” etc.) as well as the racially conditioned impossibility of this utopia in Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” in which the union isn’t so easy since the white man/teacher has a gun, and, like white Whitman, is “somewhat more free.”
Looking back over the passages I’ve cited thus far, I fear I may be giving the impression that Hosea’s poems clearly communicate a message — or multiple messages — to the reader. One can work, as I have done a bit here, to get that experience, but mostly Hosea dispenses with didacticism and instead invites us to splash around in the sound of these lyric waterfalls. The book — even more deftly than Hosea’s first collection Put Your Hands In — provocatively jams our sensory-motor schemata, our conditioned expectation for rational syntax and logic cashing out in meaningful communication. Here we grind against the contours of language, as for instance in the beginning of “Real Raspberries”:
edge of known stinger stuck
to not in fresh white meat dent
must have been cooked fried
better grilled girl then maps bottom
shelf see women damp their sauce
species in that histories well down
are petrified cushions for thing gathering (26)
Hosea navigates contrasting strata of diction and mood, adopting at times the Psalmist’s grim bewailing tone (see “Little Carbon Book”) while playfully rejecting any notion of a revered lingua Adamica. Be still, these poems never say, and Ashbery’s own description of reading Hosea’s first collection as being “plunged in a wave of happening” is apt for Double Zero as well. One emerges baffled and tingling.
I’ve named some poetic influences (to which one could add Barbara Guest, Clark Coolidge, and Leslie Scalapino), but Hosea moves much more explicitly within the worlds of pop music and visual art. “Tape Hiss” is a wonderfully acute memorial to the now archaic process of making a mix cassette tape — those indestructible, ugly plastic rectangles (punctured by double zeroes), Mercuries of desire during the ’80s and ’90s — and the poem ends with a dizzying mash-up of song lyrics. Hosea has long been immersed in the visual art world, and his book offers rich evidence of his wide-ranging forays. As I’ve noted above, the debt that he owes to the collage work of artists like Schwitters, Rauschenberg, and Villeglé is blatant. Two of the poems in this collection were commissioned by painters, and one by a sculptor. Why is he not a painter? He ponders O’Hara’s conundrum briefly in “Little Blue Book,” offering the conditional snippet: “Were I a painter / With a beautiful advertisement for heaven or hell” (34). Indeed, advertising is a practice Hosea knows well, and we recall here Rancière again, who writes that advertising’s inventors “did not propose a revolution but only a new way of living amongst words, images, and commodities” (25).
Hosea likes sound too much to be a painter or strictly a visual collagist. These poems, in their sound and vision, imagine a new way of living, hearing, and seeing within our neoliberal war-machine. “Making anything means erasing” (56), he writes. Sure, but his verse testifies not so much to erasure but to the unsayable abundance it keenly samples. And like the late work of the artist/collagist Lygia Clark, a photo of whom adorns the cover of Double Zero, the book demands our collaboration; it refuses to be passively read. In the photo, Clark is holding a six-lensed ocular contraption to her eyes, a series of double zeroes whose membranes slice the plenum from the experiencer. I am grateful for how Hosea’s surprising vision has changed me, and I feel better about the life to come. He characterizes my experience: “I feel differently now you have piqued me” (52).
Cassandra Cleghorn's 'Four Weathercocks'
The shapes in “Macondo,” which open the first section of Cassandra Cleghorn’s first collection Four Weathercocks, are obscure and drenched in oil. As they wash onto shore “flayed and stifled,” they are pushed and pulled by the tide, but never named. We are given wings, feathers, pouches, and “a black eye bright in a face of black sheen,” but never the species. Even their heartbeat goes undefined, appearing as a “small throb” pinned to the speaker’s lap. Meanwhile, “lost farmers” spread straw along the shoreline, trying to soak up the oil. Their repetitious scattering and raking is mesmerizing, but not frenetic. The damage has already been done, and the witnesses to this unfolding disaster appear resigned to the consequences:
Opened my arms to what
moved my way, wings half-spread,
brown feathers now black, slack pouch
sealed shut, one web pulling through the crude (7)
In her notes, Cleghorn reminds us that Macondo is the fictional town from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but is also the codename for an oil prospect near the site of the 2010 BP oil spill on the Louisiana coast. This is less interesting than the tone set by the poem’s lyrical dissonance, and the way it mirrors the grief held up by the rest of the collection: transfixed rather than urgent, the poem moves at a contemplative pace quiet enough to let the world pass through. The lack of frenzy is surprising, considering what appears to be at stake for everything involved.
The collection opens with the epigraph poem “Chiasmus,” an examination of the detailed plant photographs taken by early twentieth-century German photographer Karl Blossfeldt. As in “Macondo,” we are given the outline of these objects — here, various titles of Blossfeldt’s photographs — but never the specifics of what they contain:
arrayed in grids, some dissected
so far from their given forms
as to be mineral or animal (3)
This deliberate obfuscation moves Cleghorn’s meditations about the natural world into the metaphysical. Blossfeldt investigated the structure of plants by magnifying his images, sometimes up to thirty times, until his stems turned into towers, or, as Cleghorn writes, “CHESTNUT SHOOTS aren’t just phallic, / they’re actual cocks!” (3). Because the rhetorical figure of a chiasmusrepeats concepts in reverse order, this anthropomorphism tampers with the known Western binary of human control over nonhuman counterparts. And yet:
Both plants strain to be themselves
in space, the sensing spills into
the sensed (4)
This spilling over is a refusal to ignore the ungrounded force of the natural inside our domestic spaces. Instead, this is a shared space where fires burn underground (with no attempts to stop it), a man floats over Los Angeles in a lawn chair, “tilting slightly, / tethered to forty-two weather balloons” (11), and two sisters give up a child for adoption to a couple who will “lift her, comfort her / before the toy runs out of song” (52). If you place these stories next to the image of a weathervane, or weathercock, moving with the wind, the narratives of grief become emblems of resilience. This is the “small throb” experienced at the beginning of the book, signaling an internal and ecological struggle to come to terms with what we’ve created, what we’re passing through, and what we can’t control.
The two poems at the end of the first section, “To Saint Hubert, Wonderworker of the Ardennes, Patron of Hunters and Mathematicians, Protector from Rabies” and “Milagro,” epitomize this struggle. Until the twentieth century in some parts of Europe, if you were bitten by a dog with rabies, you might have used a metal “key” in the form of a heated nail, cross, or cone to cauterize and sanitize the wound. This charm, called St. Hubert’s Key, was endorsed by the church. In “To Saint Hubert,” the speaker crosses the path of a “woozy” raccoon with “eyes molten, fish-pale,” and calls to St. Hubert for help:
Nick me, cut this tongue’s
thin anchor, heat the nail head (15)
There is no attack, only anticipation. Or, as with the “Macondo” shapes, our attention is around the periphery of the event. What matters more is the relationship between the objects. To be bitten by animal and turned animal is to tamper again with the binary that separates us from the natural world. The preindustrial approach to rabies — a combination of home remedy and prayer — might seem quaint to modern eyes, but it worked. It also showcases our fear of transformation, where the “sensing spills into / the sensed,” forcing us to concede our power over the natural world. When the speaker begs, “Keep me keep me”(15),it’s a fear of crossing over, of losing.
In “Milagro,” there is no crossing over. The object speaks directly to the reader from its place on the other side of human experience. In parts of Mexico, the southern US, and Latin America, milagros are found in places of worship and take on various forms.While the form and shape of Cleghorn’s embodied milagro are unclear, the location is identified in the first stanza: a “cathedral whose interior reaches / cannot be taken in” (17). From this space the milagro watches “clusters of people / doing things together” with cold, wistful observations:
I believe but cannot prove
that the sun will begin to lower
later today than yesterday.
May one less soul plummet
in this hill-town tomorrow (17)
What does it mean when the object we put faith in fails to give us the answers we hope for? In “Milagro,” there are no promises for the people gathered “in a circle or in a line knee to knee” about what comes next — only the solace that comes through prayer. In “To St. Hubert,” the saint is evoked, but what are the results? The truth is, we already know the extent of our shapelessness. But as this book reminds us, over and over again, that doesn’t stop us from holding vigil.
A review of Rebecca Wolff's 'One Morning—'
One Morning— is a book about surfaces, about their complexity, inescapability, transience. Here, there may be no other art but the ekphrastic. In the famous Platonic scheme, where eternal forms are represented imperfectly in the world, nothing could be intellectually lower than ekphrasis. But maybe no other sort of knowledge exists. This is the suspicion of One Morning—, that there might be no other truth than the perception of surface, one surface indicating another, and the translation from one kind of surface into another kind:
It’s as though I thought that I could understand every side
even the side blind
To the credit of the book, this suspicion is the flesh and bones of the aesthetic. One Morning— is painted with thin paint. The thinness is applied, directed, so that many sides can be seen simultaneously.
Look at the paint it’s
dark blue it’s
bright blue (18)
Wolff’s lines are mostly brief splinters of colloquial language, truncated clauses. Her use of blank space speeds up the rhythm instead of adding pauses or weighing down the lines. The longest poem in One Morning—, and the poem with the most prose, is an extraordinary portrait of a man called Peter J. Perry, a onetime drifter who passed his interminable senescence and death in a rotting farmhouse in Tennessee. He had no anchor, no great ambition or drive, no religious direction, no useful conformism to a profession, no network of caring friends. His life had no thickening agent. Perhaps it was mostly blank space, nothing but a collection of odds and ends, details of tertiary significance. Wolff’s success is to make this transparency felt as universal fate:
These are the people who made these people. These are the true stories of their lives, though I am telling them. […] Documentation of a moment, elderly man breathing in a mirror, yes, but it neglects the span, the span of years, about which I am aching, alive with mortality. (66)
The old man looks into the mirror, but we see through him, or maybe we’re blind to a certain dimension. I imagine that children accept surfaces as concrete and full, as permanent. With age, this perception tends to change. Surfaces can become so wavering that that they lose the depth they once signified. One can sit and watch and not believe any of it, want to possess all of it, want to hold it at some handle.
Vision in One Morning— is both uncertain and highly motivated. The narrator needs to see something or someone, goes searching for the unseen in a landscape that is unstable, quick changing. One of the exceptional (and memorable) aspects of One Morning— is how vision here always carries some unrealized desire. This is not to say that the book lacks moments of consummation; they are present, but apprehended by senses other than sight. The most direct and ferocious poems in the volume depict sex in terms of pressure: “compass,” “lodestone,” “telepathy.” The language is intractable and does not rely on vision.
put pressure inside there
the shit out of
this morning (81)
Vision returns to the fore only with the departure of the lover, or lovers. The absence is felt as a haunting, a purposeless swerve of atoms (“clinamen”) or “phantom limb” (97). The connection between vision and longing might be identified as the ghostly principle of this collection:
I stopped by to see you but you were not home
the pure vision
my ancient lives all rising up and risen (141)
These poems may at times seem confessional, but I would not easily accept that they are personal. They are too evasive, marked by a technical concern for what can be fabricated from the transparent. At times, the lines snap together into effects that are like stained-glass done in attenuated watercolor:
All you can hear
is the hissing of the pods
milkweed in the shadow of spires
The stripes of whatever happened (151)
I’ve mostly described the relationship between surface and desire as a personal phenomenon, but it is clearly not only that. Politics in One Morning— is a surface laid over by treacherous absences (hatreds, unrealized needs, frustrations). The titular poem is organized around an incredibly crisp image of smiling evil:
The Germans had arrived
bright and early
in their Fascism
to point out
a spot on the Table,
a spot of water (WaterSpot) on the Veneer. (6–7)
Several of the poems in the volume hint at a dangerous political atmosphere. Media and its message have become fragmented into little doses of immediate gratification. At one moment, the narrator identifies with a famous German radical while doing crunches at the gym. Elsewhere, she expresses optimism about communities. In a Tennessee church, she is brought to tears by the simple, virtuous message of a pastor. Still, the overriding sensation remains that of personal incoherence become public. The poet, flying down the highway in a “lightweight / Japanese / Death Star / buffeted by the great and powerful / winds,” tells a nameless interlocutor:
in the past if you were to say to me
or to rage at me
in a poem
about America I would charge you
a great failure
to even use the word. It is
this land is suffering because poets —
their great cohort —
I look twice
to save lives. (34–35)
The accusation in these lines remains mysterious, as does the apparent solution of looking twice to “save lives.” In a sense, that opacity is the point. The criticism is not meant to be substantiated. It is the frustration that attends there being too many possible angles, too many things to say, too much uncertainty about what to believe. In the random way of keeping unrelated books on my desk, I was reading Cicero’s letters, the Loeb edition with its classy stilted translation, and I was rereading One Morning—, and there was a point of contact between the two (books left alone in a room will plot synchronicity). The translator and biographer of Cicero, D. R. Shackleton Bailey, passes a damning judgment on his subject: “His agile mind moved on the surface of things, victim of their complexity. Always the advocate, he saw from ever-shifting angles, and what he saw he rarely analyzed.” Had Dante assigned a circle for such people, could he have invented a better punishment than Cicero’s enemies? Mark Antony had the writer’s hands chopped off and nailed to the orators’ platform of the Forum. I was thinking about Cicero and his overly subtle mind, and I was thinking about our new president, whose capacity to say anything betrays an almost perfect intellectual corruption, when I got to the last poem of One Morning—. There, the wayward lover finally becomes the politician:
and you the consul
at the consulate […]
and almost despite myself
almost against my better judgment
it is that noble effort
to say something when the variety is impossible — impossibly
it would have to mean that there is just one thing that you really, really
and there’s never been. it’s always been (156–57)
On Alice Burdick's 'Book of Short Sentences'
There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life. — George Eliot
Maybe Alice Burdick was beginning to get very tired. I don’t know. But the next to last poem in Book of Short Sentences is unlike anything else she’s ever published. The poem, “Don’t Forget,” is direct, uninhibited, and visceral. Burdick’s voice is emboldened by a sense of emergency (social, political, and ecological) that she feels in her body’s hotheaded cells. Like Daniel Jones’s “Things That I Have Put in My Asshole” or David McGimpsey’s “O Coconut,” Burdick’s “Don’t Forget” is — thanks to its pinch of salty iconoclasm — destined for iconic status in Canadian letters.
The poem pivots on the eponymous two-word phrase. Burdick reminds herself as much as she does you and me: “Don’t forget.” It’s a command, an ethical imperative, one that both admonishes and pleads. The veteran poet doesn’t write “I remember.” This ain’t Proust or Joe Brainard or, thank heavens, Mary Ruefle. There’s a difference. “I remember” is the soft-focus lens of dream sequences, film noir, and Skinemax, while “Don’t Forget” is the hard fact of living and loving and surviving. Every orifice, awkward position, innocent caress, erotic sound (e.g., the battery-charged hum of the vibrator), and bodily fluid (cum, piss, blood) is clear and present. It’s a poem drenched in “the juice / that rises, that runs.” “Don’t Forget” is uninterested in the cleanliness of nostalgia and fantasy.
Burdick or her “speaker” — the poem huffs and puffs and blows the difference between the two down — gives an account of her sexual history. She’s not naming names, though. This is neither an exposé for a sleazy tabloid nor the pules of a jilted lover in a glossy CanPo zine. The poem is not an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better brag. Graphic, sure; gratuitous, never. For a poem with so much fucking, it’s disarmingly sweet. The poem is not strictly autobiographical, that is, a sexual bildung with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it’s an ad hoc inventory of how the body archives the “imprint” of desire (121).
She has young lovers (“Don’t forget the rabbity / unsatisfying fucks with younger men” ) and old lovers (“Don’t forget being the alien trophy — shining, / erotic, young” ), mostly men, but also women. At times, she’s given up sex, opting for abstinence that’s supplemented by “instruments of pleasure” (123). Sex feels different after medical operations, too: “Don’t forget fucking while stiches healed, moving with caution. / Don’t forget the way things changed” (122), writes Burdick. With grace, she even tells of her first sexual encounter after the death of a previous boyfriend. She refers to it as “the rescue fuck / that brought me back to my body” (121). There’s a first for almost anything. If you can think it, it’s probably in the poem.
Despite its Boschian scope, the poem ends on a wistful note: “So much world in these bodies. / Don’t forget to remember the world / in our bodies” (123). Sex is simply the conceit through which she makes her point that the body stores and retrieves Whitmanesque multitudes of feelings and meanings, good and bad. It’s our trusty guide as we move into an increasingly volatile, militarized, and technodetermined future. Don’t forget “the odd inescapable pleasure of anal”-ogue and the immense intimacy of two “joined bodies” (121).
“Don’t Forget” is great. That’s why I begin with it. But it’s not exactly representative, in style, of Burdick’s poetry. It’s been twenty-five years since Burdick’s precocious debut, Voice of Interpreter (1991), a chapbook published by poet Victor Coleman’s The Eternal Network when Burdick was only twenty-one. Since then, she’s published four full-length collections, including Simple Master and Holler, as well as multiple chapbooks, including Signs Like This, Fun Venue, and The Human About Us. In 1995, Clint Burnham devoted an entire issue of his zine CB to Burdick’s poetry. Over the years, she’s written excellent poems — “Nostrum,” “Fact,” “Vatican Degree,” and “Covered” immediately come to mind — in the tradition of what poet-critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls “the analytic lyric,” her spin on Ezra Pound’s logopoeia, “a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and characters.”
Now, Pound first used the term logopoiea in 1918. Ever the carnival barker, Pound, in his review of Others (1917), was talking up the cool, detached wit and irony of modern poets Mina Loy and Marianne Moore. Logopoeia is, put simply, the language of brinksmanship. It pushes sense dangerously close to the edge of nonsense. Logopoeia is, as a result, difficult. Furthermore, logopoeia doesn’t translate very well into the plastic arts or music. Heck, it downright vilifies the musical phrase or visual description. It’s more cerebral. It takes place in language rather than, say, in the Valley of Chamonix. DuPlessis revises Pound’s definition, connecting Loy’s and Moore’s poetic strategies to the radical feminism of the New Woman. Thus, DuPlessis’s analytic lyric relocates Pound’s logopoeia to the realm of ideology. Abstract diction, inverted syntax, puns, mixed metaphors, clichés, cartoonish tone, surreal images, and citations are placed in the service of social analysis. Not surprisingly, it’s almost always antisentimental and often (but not exclusively) satirical. It’s a lyric mode that scoffs at preciousness.
Burdick’s “Covered,” from 1994, is an excellent illustration of what I’ve just described. The poem is, first and foremost, an elegy for Burdick’s mother, the artist Mary Paisley, whose artwork, incidentally, graces the cover of Book of Short Sentences — a batik titled “Land of Heart’s Desire.” Burdick grieves, of course. But the weeping and wailing à la Shelley’s “Adonais” is severely muted. She doesn’t retroactively bowdlerize Paisley’s life. Burdick connects her private act of mourning with more pressing public concerns, notably deforestation in British Columbia, Canada’s history of colonialism, and sexism in Toronto’s literary community of the early to mid 1990s:
Everybody shits, small and big. Even when
you know everything, you still shit. This we share.
Spread it around, larger serving. ‘Nice hairstyle.’
It’s not a cut. When a man goes to a tree
and cuts it down, paid, there’s a way.
One cut up: degrees. One cut down: angles.
A piece comes out and the tree falls. That’s how
to take something down. You must watch
for the shadow, or you’re under.
I can’t think of another Canadian poet brazenly French enough, then or now, to inject scatology-based satire into an elegy for one’s mother. Logopoeia lends itself to this sort of irreverence.
The idiomatic echoes, mondegreens, puns, and other verbal hijinx are all on display in Book of Short Sentences. In “Resolutions,” Burdick simultaneously skewers marriage and the managerial class: “Fire me now / or forever hold your peace. / Fantastic manager of dead ideas, / you can’t make me obey” (42). “Cover for Evie” is a homophonic mistranslation of one of Theocritus’s epigrams. His version begins, “This bank makes welcome citizen and foreigner.” Burdick filters her translation through the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Age of Austerity: “This bank’s an unwelcome citizen, foreign / to depositions by the withdrawn” (66).
But her style’s at its finest in a longer poem like “Travelling Poem — Pittsburgh.” “Travelling Poem — Pittsburgh” is not as raw, sexy, or obviously winning as something like “Don’t Forget.” But it’s the major achievement, thus far, of Burdick’s career.
Now, a lesser Canadian poet than Burdick visits Pittsburgh and describes a ride on one of the city’s two funicular railways, the Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines; or, a trip to the Andy Warhol Museum on Sandusky Street; or, a morning jog through Schenley Park; or taking in a Pittsburgh Pirates game in PNC Park while memorializing the days of ol’ Three Rivers Stadium. Passages of concrete description, with the occasional metaphoric flourish, help visualize the city. A historical reference or two to the golden age of the Rust Belt: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo. Some local color cuisine. The language as instrumental and inspired as a Baedeker’s. The lesser poet is predictable, self-congratulatory, and obnoxiously moral. Destination is nothing more than a cipher for the poet’s aggrandized sense of vocation.
In the case of Burdick’s “Travelling Poem — Pittsburgh,” however, there’s not a single reference to the city beyond the poem’s title. Burdick focuses on the constellation of structures — airports, security checkpoints, planes, hotels, elevators, tourist traps, amusement parks, nature trails, queues, and touchscreens — that mediate the precarious relationship between private and public life during travel. The airport gate is filled with “People asleep in their purgatories, / taking up all the available seats”(48). At the park, “Nature trails loop where there used to be / nature. Now it’s just corporate interest” (49–50). Repeatable, monetized experience is naturalized. The vending machine at the hotel is broken: “The dream / of order is out of order / as usual. It’s pernicious” (50). Burdick has trouble reading directional signs, leading her to announce, in exasperation (and cleverly confused pronouns), “The misdirected continue on their way, our way, / it doesn’t matter” (48). In a short essay from 2002, Burdick explains that “the world of structures is pretty wonky; the buildings I walk into and ride up and down; the media I gorge on that leaves me hungry in ignorance. Not to say that there is not beauty in all this.”
Her metaphors refuse to serve purely descriptive ends. After all, poetry’s got to be more than a glossy picture postcard that reads Welcome to Pittsburgh in bright yellow cursive, right? Very rarely do Burdick’s metaphors rely on visual contiguity because, as she notes, “The visual / is not always proof of existence, / or movement” (47). Planes, for example, are “transoms of the sky”; the sunset seen from a window seat is compared with an “orange [kitchen] sink”; and the exit door is “enjambed” (47–48). Like those of the late great Peter Culley, Burdick’s metaphors behave like critiques of value. A poetics of precariousness. For example, she writes, “Far from the fallow fields, the glow / of the privileged subset, the extremely groomed, / impeccably pressed, in fact almost 2-D” (48). She uses a pun (“pressed”) plus catachresis (“pressed” and “dressed”) to create the metaphoric correspondence between style and substance, the latter of which is missing. Preened free of his flaws, the thin man is less human but such a state of existence definitely has its perks: seat “2-D” is first class on the plane. The “fallow fields” are beneath and behind him — in economy class.
Burdick announces in the same poem, “Let’s take a minute for ephemera” (49), those small, seemingly inconsequential things that come and go but which bond social beings together. Chance encounters (“voices from the past”), background music (“a Prince soundtrack”), or “a yawn from an official uniform” (49). Burdick understands ephemera, figuratively, to be like shared germs in a poorly ventilated airplane: “Air composed of inflamed nostrils, invisibly angry / sinus tissue. That’s what you breathe through / the majesty of the celestial dome” (49). She’s also committed to listening to the world, not staring stupidly at it. “Fight with your ears too,” she says, “Believe them / for a change. Sounds mean what they say, / beyond words” (49). “Believe them” recalls the #Ibelievesurvivors campaign in the aftermath of the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Burdick is making the case for the evidentiary truth of (gendered) feelings that are nondiscursive.
By comparison, consider Karen Solie, a much-lauded Canadian poet and contemporary of Burdick’s. Solie’s poem “Erie” describes a couple’s getaway to the shores of Elgin County in the wintertime — what she calls “the cheap side / of shoulder season.” Solie populates her poem with plenty of local color, including the cuisine (perch), birds (harriers), and buildings (“dopey dance clubs”). Hawk Hill, Port Burwell, Tillsonburg — gritty authenticity in those CBC-approved name drops. Lake Erie is polluted: the couple learns of a “dead zone / in the central Erie basin,” the result of “phosphorous runoff” from nearby sewage treatment plants. Wind turbines are a wonderful source of alternative energy, yes, but they’ve also increased “avian mortality” in the area. Plus, local Eeyores consider them eyesores, braying about them over smokes: “the eternal / complaints of the People” — a condescending capitalization, if ever there was one. Solie ironically describes the turbines as “minimalist daisies” (a brutalist metaphor). Her objective correlative for the region’s absent middle class is the scale of housing: “grim mansions / of unprincipled dimensions and small / structurally iffy houses whose junk fell / over itself joyfully down the creekbanks.” In short, everything is contaminated, including the very couple that walks and drives and, most importantly, argues its way through the empty beach resorts and port cities. Pathetic fallacy. Will they, won’t they projected onto the scenery. “Erie” is as much a poem of the late nineteenth century as the twenty-first, which is probably why it’s so commendable to many readers.
At this point, I should say that Burdick’s analytic lyric has three features that distinguish it from traditional logopoeia. First, Burdick is steeped in the tradition of Dada and Surrealism as well as first and second generations of New York School poetry. So, she’s a-okay with a degree of white noise, balderdash, and marvelous imagery.
Every time I hear ‘rabbit,’
I think fridge. (88)
Handlebar bikes under noses. (32)
and the tentacles climb
from empty space, dragging
what might be a soul,
or just a slimy sock, out into the sunshine. (24)
Such moments establish a poetic kinship with the likes of Barbara Guest, Bernadette Mayer, and Alice Notley more so than Phyllis Webb, Daphne Marlatt, or Margaret Atwood. It also explains Burdick’s inclusion in Stuart Ross’s landmark anthology, Surreal Estate: Thirteen Canadian Poets Under the Influence. Second, Burdick believes sincerely in the occult and paranormal: ghosts, spirits, aliens, and other invisible and unnamable forces. In “The Great Outdoors,” for example, she looks out over a pasture to see “oxen / and aliens.” A delicate rhyme of natural and supernatural phenomena (16).
Third, over the years, Burdick’s tone has become increasingly casual. Deceptively so. Easy, understated, well-worn diction — that homespun idiom of Nova Scotia. Global warming and coastal erosion: “nature stuff,” she calls it (117). No biggie. “Bully for You” begins, “Everything takes forever, / especially time.” In “Heart Bump” — the closest Burdick’s ever gotten to a love sonnet — she describes the heart as “this thing / that sits and thumps … / and does other stuff too”:
like throb and burn,
and makes us wonder
which way the blood pumps —
the constant bump
of corpuscles through muscles,
from one end to the other.
It makes us wonder,
do we feel it and know when
it’s made its last jolt? (23)
Gone are the angular mannerisms of Loy’s moon or Moore’s fish. Burdick’s plain talking lulls you, then suddenly and unexpectedly you find yourself dwarfed by her giant ideas, and the fate of mankind, it turns out, depends on finding out what follows grammatically from an easy-breezy phrase like “I was thinking about bathtubs” (53).
That’s how “Distraction Poem” starts, by the way. “I was thinking about bathtubs, / because I was in one” — from the get-go, there’s a mind-body split. She’s in the tub, and she’s thinking about tubs. She proceeds to watch a YouTube video (see and hear how “tub” becomes “tube”), take a phone call (“it wasn’t for me”), read her private journal, check Facebook (“how many people like me / or don’t, according to a thumbs-up icon”), reflect on her insecurities with “rolled back eyeballs,” shed skin cells “at a visible and molecular level,” hiss disapprovingly at her “jerk” of a cat, and, in a Zen twist, “[forget] about the bathtubs” altogether — that is, the one she’s in and the one she was thinking about in the first place (53). If “Don’t Forget” is organized by the affective force of sexual desire, then “Distraction Poem” is organized by the rhythm of consciousness as it repeatedly disperses and gathers itself. The poem’s fast turns and loops recall Drift-era Kevin Connolly, though Burdick’s language is far less self-consciously literary than his. Her poem hums along without much fuss.
In the four-line finale, the pleasure and stress of distraction are redoubled by the arrival of loud, boisterous children: “The kids came home and started yelling, / each shriek translating to ‘Check your ego! / Check your ego!’ Hours later, I reached through / the bathtub’s cold water to let it all drain out” (53). “Distraction Poem” is revealed, at the last, to be a poem about “the fact of motherhood, the fact of children, the body that became multiple” (12). Distraction is a privilege in the bathtub, a much-needed aesthetic indulgence. Cast-iron pastoral. You get out of your head by filling it up. Outside the tub, distraction is an enhanced form of attention predicated upon a commitment to care for others, including (but not limited to) small children.
For years, Burdick’s children, Hazel and Arthur, have served as her Muses of the Surreal in miniature. In fact, the title, Book of Short Sentences, is borrowed from Alice’s daughter. As Burdick explains,
There is much about having small children … that is very disorienting. One has to be alert and present at all times, all hours, and this can lead to a chaos of feeling sometimes. Deep happiness and deep stress. If that isn’t a derangement of the senses … I don’t know what is. … It is totally surreal having kids, yes. I mean just in the most explicit way: ‘Please don’t walk down the stairs backwards with that stud-finder in your mouth’ — that kind of thing.
In “Voices of the Familiar” (from Holler), Hazel and Arthur are pintsize Orphic figures, translating objects into language: “Musical notes, sings Hazel, / and Arthur says water / when he sees ducks.” In “Banal” (also from Holler), Burdick admires how the irritable and irresistible screams of a toddler possess “a logic that comes and goes. Waves of understanding / and intent.” Once more, in Book of Short Sentences, children populate her poems (“Declarations,” “Rain Days,” “Their bodies in mine,” “Flight details,” “The rules”), none better than the harrowing “Nosferatu, kindergarten.” What a macabre title, creating an outrageous correspondence between an Edenic educational environment and tropes of vampire cinema. It’s fearless. It proposes that children, too, can be cruel “monsters,” “vampires / in a kindergarten movie”:
rug soaks up scared pee from the kid
who cannot close her eyes.
Abacus, macaroni, tiny scissors,
popsicle sticks, Mighty Mouse, friendly kiss.
The violence of children,
the passivity of children.
The quiet authorities
who do not protect. (119)
As the innocent list of classroom tchotchkes grows fangs in the shadows of F. W. Murnau’s German expressionism, the poem reveals itself as a critique of the educational philosophy of benign neglect.
The threat of violence extends from the schoolyard to the environment. Like many Canadian poets in the age of BP and Kinder Morgan (e.g., Stephen Collis and Adam Dickinson), Burdick fears ecological disaster at global and local levels. In “Trick the World,” she writes,
We want our world to see
where we’re at, standing tall on petty glee,
grinning wildly at the mess we can’t stop
The end-of-times vibe seethes throughout the collection: see poems like “Drink Up,” “Nature Poetry,” “Disaster Protocol,” and “Revelation I.” The dazzling sequel, “Revelation II,” is Burdick’s translation of the New Testament. It begins,
… a corona of spritely donkeys
swinging chains and baying carols
into the smoke that lifts us high
where we belong, where the clouds
flip through our notes and thumb
our pages. (30)
This parody of Christian eschatology and exegesis is obscenely cartoonish. More Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and John Ashbery than John the Apostle’s fire and brimstone. The angels are asses, and the clouds are prickish literary critics — not benevolent Gods who will take pity and rescue us. In the second stanza, Burdick’s tone radically shifts:
We never thought of that.
That the end might be boring
to the earth’s eyes. Ends happen
all the time, they finish us daily. We get old,
breath stops. Sweet retrieval
of constant concern — who is this angel
of the end times? Just the big old
global brain and its squad throb
on a basic axis, sending visions
into the mist. Hail the end —
it’s just the season
to get lit. (30)
The meditative, playful, and completely endearing passage strips the apocalypse of its Michael Bay-sized spectacle, thus making it almost quaint. It’s a small, intimate party with friends and family dockside at the cottage. As Burdick so eloquently writes in the final line of “Disaster Protocol”: “[T]he fire continues and the light does, too” (106).
And there is light in Book of Short Sentences. I’m thinking of “St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge” and “Surprising Bodies.” The former documents a trip to the sprawling refuge in northwest Florida, just outside Tallahassee. There are obligatory references to birds and gators, even the lovely butterfly garden. But the poem ends with talk of a rather inspired raccoon that will earn future comparison — rightly so — to Robert Lowell’s skunk (“Skunk Hour”) and Elizabeth Bishop’s armadillo (“The Armadillo”): “This huge life — and one fat dismissive raccoon / ambles diagonally down the road, / drunkard aiming for a straight path” (20). “Surprising Bodies,” too, is touchingly optimistic: “We humans,” writes Burdick, “are big fans of hope, aren’t we, / each time we breathe / it’s a further chance” (44). The inflected uptalk of “aren’t we,” at the end of the line, suggests Burdick is somewhat disturbed — if also secretly delighted — by this masochistic hope for the future. In the last ten lines of the poem, she discovers an elegant, multipart metaphor for the pneumatic spirit that inspires:
Hobbled on the intake, stuck
there, frozen in a pause,
such a window, jammed.
But then the bird perched there —
something, what, a kingfisher
or grackle, or a hummingbird —
forces the window open,
the breath out, the body up
and through the air,
all impulse and simple pulse, again. (44)
The concluding image is Kant’s dynamic sublime: “nature regarded as might.” It’s also a moment of mythopoiesis embedded in the everyday. In typical Burdick fashion, she delivers it without much pomp or fanfare. Metamorphosis as natural as breathing. Burdick becomes a kingfisher, or grackle, or hummingbird. She takes flight, “all impulse and simple pulse, again.”
Note: I am listed in the “Acknowledgements” section of Alice Burdick’s Book of Short Sentences. I did not read or comment on the poems in manuscript form. I am thanked because I invited Burdick to visit the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, as a part of a reading series primarily focused on Canadian poetry. — Alex Porco
3. See Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 223; Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “The Critique of Consciousness and Myth in Levertov, Rich, and Rukeyser,” in Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), 280–99; Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908–1934 (New York: Cambridge UP, 2001).
Li Zhimin’s 'Zhongalish'
Best known in China for his translations of J. H. Prynne into Chinese, poet and scholar Li Zhimin is known in the US primarily as a fixture at Chinese American Association of Poetry and Poetics conferences and as an editor of the poetics journal Espians. In his English-language book of poems, Zhongalish: Think and Feel Globally, Li continues his cross-cultural work by exploring the lyric subject as a linguistic construct, as well as examining the mutual influence of Chinese and American “avant” poetry practices generally. Even the neologism “Zhongalish” is a combination of Zhongguo — the Mandarin term for China — and “English.”
Among the American academics who know Li’s work are a number of poets and scholars affiliated with Language writing who have made numerous trips to China and engaged with scholars there — this is immediately evident from blurbs by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Bernstein on the back cover of the book. In fact, Zhongalish can be read as the work of a poet in dialogue with Language methods at the same time that it investigates larger questions of mutual Chinese and US poetic influences.
What Li borrows from the Language writers is a playfulness with language that’s more disarming than confrontational or self-righteous — attitudes rightly or wrongly most often associated with the Language writers. Whether writing of having dinner with critic Marjorie Perloff (“Feel Words: One Way to Approach Language”) or listing his various friends named Charles (“Charles, my friend of lollypops”), Li is primarily concerned with China and the US as competing cultures literally speaking different languages.
For example, in the poem “Non-Presence,” which “is produced by the method of deletion,” Li uses Language-style methods (the details of which Li leaves ambiguous) in order to write a conversational poem that takes a comparative approach to poetics. In it, Wordsworth and the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi are anchored by the speaker’s departure from his mother tongue.
‘I will come back’
I tell my parents
A beautiful cloud is wandering
Lonely in the sky.
A leaf falls to its root.
Zhuangzi wakes up without knowing
Whether he is a butterfly
Dreaming to be a man
Or a man having dreamed to be a butterfly (43–44)
Compared to much Language writing, “Non-Presence” puts issues of the narrator’s identity, and relationships, front and center. A frequent strategy for Language writers in the ’70s and ’80s, developed from the modernist literary theories of Viktor Shklovsky and others, was formal experimentation in which linguistic and cultural critique was implicit. Li, however, lets his poems’ straightforward — and at times naïve — form carry semantic content, as though the poems were a conversation with themselves.
As such, a reading of “Non-Presence” could go like this: the speaker claims his intention to return to his parents, who are the recipients of his verbal expression. He also implicitly identifies as the isolated poet of Wordsworth’s famous poem, who, like a cloud, floats high above quotidian life.
Because of the inclusion in the second stanza of “a leaf falls to its root,” the Wordsworthian poet is forced into a thematic relationship with a leaf that falls to the ground, where the tree’s root is located, when it dies. Similar to the leaf, the poet will also return to its roots when he “dies” — when he fails to achieve the transcendence of the cloud.
But, like Zhuangzi, the poet is now unable to distinguish from whence he came. Did he go forth from his parents to independence, only to fall back to them? Or was his fall from transcendence a temporary failure, from which he will recover? Similarly, the poet, in departing from his parents, departs from his mother tongue to the language of the isolated Wordsworthian poet: English, the language of the speaker. Which is his “real” language? In this manner the text mirrors how Zhuangzi cannot distinguish between the waking and dreaming state.
Where the indeterminate or aleatory aspects of much Language Poetry are located in forms of “deletion,” or in devices like hypotactic sentences — in which the meaning of each discrete sentence is contingent upon surrounding sentences — the indecision of Li’s poem is perceptual. This sets him apart from the materialist poetics of much Language writing, for example in works like Ron Silliman’s Tjanting or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, both of which use numerical devices to delimit what text is permissible according to their schema. In those works, the emphasis is on the internal structure of the work.
In contrast to the Language writers of the 1980s, who were fine-tuning theories of ideological critique and methodology, a generation of poets in China was shocking people with impassioned and unheard-of language that rejected the ideological discourse used to attack supposed enemies of the state. The anthemic poem by Chinese poet Bei Dao, “The Answer,” well known in its time, embodies this mode:
Let me tell you, world,
I — do — not — believe!
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number thousand and one.
I don’t believe the sky is blue;
I don’t believe in thunder’s echoes;
I don’t believe that dreams are false;
I don’t believe that death has no revenge.
As in “Non-Presence,” “The Answer” stands against certainty. Where “Non-Presence” reduces or “deletes” the subject as a source of knowledge and control, “The Answer” locates the subject as a negation of positive qualities. The way it’s written doesn’t express ideological critique through complex methodology — it simply uses the language of renunciation in order to demonstrate defiance.
In his “Epilogue” to Zhongalish Li inverts the renunciatory language of Bei Dao’s poem. Instead of disbelief in common facts, he chooses belief in a more complex reality than what’s commonly offered by either political or religious discourse.
I believe all books were written by human beings
I believe there is an angel and a devil in any human
I believe human beings see only what their eyes could reach
and know only what their age lets them know
I believe there is no book that is divine (78)
Newcomers to Li’s poetry (which will be most of us in English-language poetry circles) will be struck by how reasonable Li’s language is — he almost sounds like an Enlightenment writer, foreclosing against irrational statements like “death has revenge.” There is no heroic language, methodology, or notion of poetic rigor or purity. If anything, the tone is collegial.
That said, Li’s concept of “Zhongalish” connotes learned states of speaking, and as such he seems unconcerned with definitive, abstract statements about poetry. For Li, the speaking subject appears to take on cultural habits from whatever language they use, the result being an impure language and culture. Thus he can write that “When Ezra Pound wrote some “ungrammatical” English … he was writing Zhongalishly” (5). For Pound, if what Li says is correct, the loosening of English grammar was also the beginning of a non-American cultural identity.
But this also presents a problem. Li discusses learning a second language over and over throughout the book — it could pass as his main trope. Accompanying second language acquisition are of course linguistic and social foibles, as well as racist terminology that is disarmed by the fact that it’s yanked out of its social context. In such a case, Li tries to normalize language by culturally “translating” it — in which case cultures remain in place, even if they are rendered unexceptional.
Once we came across the word “Chink” at college
We did not know it and checked it up
in an English-Chinese dictionary
We got the meaning there
And a naughty boy told our English teacher:
we have something equal in Chinese for you too
it is Yangguizi / jaŋguizi / 洋鬼子
Our English teacher laughed and practiced his Chinese
woshi yige Yangguizi
We all burst into laughter (13–14)
As someone who taught English in China, I can only sympathize with the teacher here: faced with linguistic racism in English, it’s only appropriate to laugh it off when the Chinese near-equivalent is shown to be the translation of one culture’s concept into another’s, in which sender and receiver switch roles. Really, what else can you say but wo shi yige yangguizi (“I am a foreign devil”)?
This episode of course reads as one of a number of humorous and embarrassing moments in language study and pedagogy, but also suggests the simultaneous irreconcilability and universality of semantic concepts. As such, this may be where Pound is most relevant for Li, as well as for contemporary American readers: caught in between cultural concepts, Pound’s poetry both reveals his own cultural prejudices as well as thwarts them. Li, like Pound, is now neither a pure Chinese speaker nor a pure English speaker: “I am proud of being a Zhongalish … I live and die / A Zhongalish” (9). His lines are remarkable for correlating the notion of speaking a language with culture as well as nationality.
In Chinese, the term Zhongguo does not necessarily connote an ethnic group or dialectal language, but is more often a political designation. On the other hand, Zhongwen, a general term for the Chinese language, implies a tie to the nation by virtue of location in zhong, “the center.” Li’s Zhongalish-ness, or compromised Chinese-ness, appears to rest in the ability to slip out of speaking Chinese.
But perhaps a look at foundational concepts will help clarify this somewhat. In “Meeting Emily Dickinson,” Li writes of the God who dominated Emily Dickinson’s world, and of the difficulty he had overcoming his lack of belief in order to embrace the poet. In answer to that difficulty, in his “Epilogue” he dislocates the concept of “God” by translating it into a Chinese term, tian. Historically, tian sometimes connoted fate, sometimes the heavens, sometimes a panoply of deities, and sometimes just the sky — and the latter is how the term is most often used today. As “God,” tian sounds more like the Dao that Zhuangzi, Laozi, and other ancient thinkers speak of: apparent yet mysterious, full of potential yet empty.
I believe in God
I believe God would never speak to any human being
I believe human beings could never truly understand God
In fact, I prefer the term Tian to the name of God
Tian has the most beauty
Yet Tian never speaks
Tian has all the truth
Yet Tian never reveals it to anybody (79)
Here Li negotiates semantically between languages, but more importantly negotiates ontological meaning. Whereas “God” is the name for a concept, that name is subject to change and interpretation since “God would never speak to any human being” and tell its name. And since “human beings could never truly understand God,” there is no identity which warrants so precise a name in any case — if anything, a name that “has all the truth” but “never reveals it” could be said to be better described as tian, the historical concept: fate, heavens, gods, empty sky.
However, when describing this foundational reasoning — what is tantamount to a creation myth — both geography and the national constraints of language fall short of describing either personal belief in God/tian, or what happens in translation between languages. Furthermore, if one cannot be Christian without God, then, following Li’s thinking, one cannot be Chinese without tian. When Li does evoke tian, it is only a tenuous placeholder accommodating an ahistorical God — hence the hybrid identity Zhongalish. The Zhongalish is neither here nor there, and the origin of the Zhongalish is rendered indeterminate.
And so here is where it is important to note that Zhongalish: Think and Feel Globally is indeed a global and historical book of poetry. It’s about negotiating meaning as it is relayed from time to time and place to place. It’s only ironic that a poet like Li Zhimin is able to emerge as such a unique and strong voice by noting all of the compromises he must make in his language and his nationality — in short, his identity.