Reviews - June 2014
The (not-so) quiet revolution of the reproductive, performative, and civic body
Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate
Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate
In American politics, as well as arts and letters, the mind-body schism of Western dualism (dialectical materialism) rages on between “rational” or cerebral thought and syncretic understanding, normative and “non-normative” bodies and subjects (female, non-Caucasian, gay, trans, queer), and the rights of individual, collective, and state bodies. Injunctions against female self-representation in private and public (to say nothing of the right to labor or own property) dates back to the Greek polis, where women were considered domestic slaves. Loss of power in so-called representative democracies, according to Hannah Arendt, is a matter of stakeholding and usury wherein what is promised (representation: literally, ownership over one’s body) is withheld, while what is extorted or given (human capital, surplus value) serves to keep the elite in power. Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic:
In all republics with representative governments, power resides in the people. That means that the people empower certain individuals to represent them, to act in their name. When we talk about loss of power, that signifies that the people have withdrawn their consent from what their representatives, the empowered elected officials, do. Those who have been empowered naturally feel powerful; even when the people withdraw the basis of that power, the feeling of power remains. That is the situation in America.
Like children, women are conditioned to be seen and not heard, as objects, and, if heard, not to make language or meaning, but to parrot preauthorized scripts rather than respond to or reject male authority, let alone create discursive, symbolic systems apart from men. For structural injustice to be corrected, there must first exist fluid epistemologies, what Shoshana Feldman calls in The Scandal of the Speaking Body, a text yoking philosophy, linguistics, and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the juridical importance of the speech act (the taboo of a woman saying “I”) as a signifying agent in public discourse.
Overconceptualized sexism in academic feminisms, postfeminist declarations that despite unequal pay, labor exploitation, and violence and sexual commodification, women’s rights have been won, and reiterated, performed male imaginaries in pop culture are all tendencies that preserve the Cartesian split between mind and body. As conceptualized in Susan Bordo’s work, this continuing split is a cultural indictment of late capitalism, evolutionary theory, racism, sexism, homophobia, adoption rights, and the impact of contemporary media. The ontological debt women face as objects of patriarchal, feudal, and now commodifed market exchange is that of all subjects rendered ontologically void, a priori, by a dominant power: defined only by exchange- or use-value (child-bearing, sexual objectification, underpaid or unpaid labor) rather than particularized selves, and punished for attempts at signification and dissent. As Karl Jaspers said: “We are guilty of being alive … For we could survive only by keeping our mouths shut.”
On June 25, 2013, Texas senator Wendy Davis filibustered the Texas State Senate to prevent the passage of a law intended to severely restrict access to abortion in Texas: the abortion bill Davis fought restricts abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy and puts in place regulations so strict that only a handful of clinics in Texas could continue to perform abortions. Republican leaders have said the people’s filibuster was a form of “mob rule,” and argue it won’t happen again, believing that the bulk of Texans support anti-abortion laws and will show their opposition to Davis at the polls. At the filibuster, law enforcers confiscated tampons, glitter, confetti, and bottles and jars “suspected to contain” paint and feces from those trying to sit in the senate gallery: protesters staged sit-ins, sang, chanted, and chained themselves to the railing in the senate gallery as senators discussed the measure.
Davis’s filibuster lasted eleven hours (the bill was reintroduced and passed later that summer). In Let Her Speak, a complete transcript of the filibuster, Counterpath presents a document that indexes American history: the struggle of minorities, women, and immigrants to achieve civil liberties and opportunities for education, citizenship, state services, and legal protection against labor, housing, and other forms of discrimination. Let Her Speak includes testimonies from a variety of Texas constituents speaking out against HB 16 and HB 60 (the latter restricting access to abortion services, and which makes the treatment of ectopic pregnancies, reported as emergency abortions, difficult and expensive), and a lengthy exchange between Davis and Republican Texas senator Bob Deuell. Online descriptions of the filibuster, such as that at RHrealitycheck, go into explicit detail about the performance, including mention of Davis’ adherence, in running shoes and back brace, to the strict filibuster rules in Texas prohibiting eating or drinking in the Senate chamber and forbidding the member to sit, lean, or use a desk or chair in any way or take a restroom break. (These conditions are stipulated within an already exclusionary clause denying filibusters to a range of constituents with mobility and medical limitations, such wheelchair users and persons with hypoglycemia).
The publication of Let Her Speak fuels the question of what it means to “speak” rather than being spoken through, by false ideology, bourgeois consciousness, or lyric possession, and is based on sobering facts. Since budget amendments were passed in the Texas house in an effort to attack Planned Parenthood, sixty-two million has been drained from family planning, moving all Title 5 and Title 10 money to other allocations, a long-term plan to siphon money for family planning from community clinics to county and city health departments. Abortion statistics from 2012 reflect a total of 825,564 abortions performed (self-reported data from central health agencies of forty-five states). The Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood’s research arm) reported a total of 1,212,400 based on data from direct surveys of abortionists, and of the roughly 60,000 abortions performed this year in the US, 562 of them were of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
While any correlation drawn between the number of abortions performed legally or illegally and the availability of family planning resources and birth control is tenuous (even with access to birth control, most methods are not 100 percent effective), Davis’s protest underscores the reproductive right to sex education and birth control as well as legal, safe abortion (of any unwanted pregnancy). Reproductive choice is a human rights issue rather than a gendered gambit: Davis’s filibuster exposes the rhetoric accusing low-income women of using abortion as a form of birth control as occluding questions of access and affordability, rather than irresponsibility. The filibuster also debunks the idea that abortion and female pregnancy are ‘merely’ domestic issues, ‘problems’ that should be dealt with privately, if at all.
To be granted permission or to demand the right to speak, as Senator Davis did, cements the fact that for women and all subjects, speech acts effect symbolic representation (including “art,” however confessionalist or essentialist), acts that often detail stories of trauma and oppression. The rhetoric of the animal liberation movement protests the death and exploitation of animals for consumption, apparel, scientific research, and entertainment: animals, not having personhood, are to date denied protection under law, and need a human voice to argue for the end to their suffering as sentient beings. Conversely, the entire structure of representative democracy is based on the political expediency of a representative speaking on behalf of a constituent, or a paid attorney, on behalf of his client: as regards democratic subjects, or female adults, this system of representation can hinder, not help, and also systemically disable the process of self-representation and authorization. In the so-called criminal justice system, crimes can be exonerated or sentences lightened with a well-paid attorney and congressional bribing of judges: in electoral politics, not only are the actual needs and desires of constituents unmet and tax and union monies spent padding congressional pockets, but the right of women to seek redress against crimes and lawlessness publicly is undermined by social stigma (whistle-blowing) and by law: the amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for women, equivalent to French President Jacques Chirac’s Observatoire de la Parité, is not yet implemented, to our nation’s shame, having failed to receive the requisite number of ratifications since being introduced in 1923.
Publishing filibuster transcription engages with the same marketing dilemmas as publishers of multimedia or non-mainstream genres. Let Her Speak asks us to examine narratives of the female reproductive body and its policing by the state after the traumas of unwanted pregnancy, poverty, death from back-alley abortions, and gender-based discrimination are repressed in public and literary culture and the voices of women without access to education or political power bastardized or ignored as inaesthetic. Thinking through the anxiety of genre and canonicity as symptoms of masculinist history, the political and legal issues surrounding authorship, representation, and copyright are also herein roused: Wendy Davis is not the author of Let Her Speak; the transcript, belonging to the public domain, was compiled by workers via Amazon Mechanical Turk.
The full video of the filibuster is on the Texas State Senate website, and the material is public (no copyright or permissions issues). “Anyone can make a transcription of the video, and we know of at least one other person who has,” said Counterpath editor Julie Carr. “We did not contact Wendy Davis for permission in advance of making the transcription since it is public material.” According to Carr, the idea for the book came about shortly after the actual filibuster. “We had been watching it online and were hit by the importance of the event and of course by the dramatic courage, strength, and force of the filibuster as a performance,” said Carr. “Of course this is a huge human rights issue — very important to focus on at this time in our history, as reproductive rights are being attacked all over the country. The work (meaning the filibuster itself as well as the transcript and the reenactments) is a political intervention — and one we hope has a continued life.”
The transcript was read aloud over eight hours by over thirty participants at Counterpath headquarters in Denver; there have been many other full readings of the transcript around the country. Counterpath editor Tim Roberts said: “We’d done one small transcription project (of Mark Sanford’s apology after his “Appalachian” affair) a few years ago, but the idea for this came up a day or so after the filibuster actually happened in June of last year (and before it was clear that Davis would ride this wave of popularity that seems to have happened). It was during the transcription process that it became clear that we would want to have marathon readings, and that it would be great to invite others to have readings as well.”
Let Her Speak is also to be distinguished not only from memoir, auto-fiction, and ethnographic novel, but also from literary texts that repurpose language and public documents for political ends (e.g. Timothy Donnelly’s “The Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” a metapoetic fiat lux composed of words taken from successive pages of Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” and randomly from the 9/11 Commission Report, sec. 13.5, “Organizing America’s Defenses in the United States”). Christopher Higgs marked the book on the 2013 National Book Award longlist at HTML Giant, calling it “An important work of conceptual/performance art and an important work of radical political action against the war on women.”
Higgs’s response to the text as art reengages with Walter Benjamin’s argument: fascism aestheticizes politics, to which Communism responds by politicizing art. Today, late capitalism responds by making a commodified spectacle of apolitical pop art, most commonly seen in the framing of political resistance as performance art, or tragedy, brutality, or self-annihilation as a purchasable (or free, in social media) fetish. If aesthetics cannot exist without ethics, nor ethics without aesthetics, then the question of how to classify Let Her Speak pales beside the question of whether art is in fact dead anyway, after Duchamp (the exquisite corpses of the author, literature, and the living word), or according to Hegel, to say nothing of the death-knells on lyric poetry pronounced by Adorno after Auschwitz.
Poetry has since the Greeks been a purposeful act, pedagogically and historically, as ars memoria (or momento mori) to transmit rather than interpret or reinvent culture: traditions of reciting or copying a sacred or cultural ur-text frame the metapoetic act of witness, spectatorship, or, in times of war, solidarity or compassion (Greek for “to suffer with”). Anthologies such as Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting protest the wiped slate of history in the name of neoliberal or Fukuyamian post-history, as well as the cross-cultural significance of the act of witness. The poets in that anthology hail from five continents: Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Robert Lowell, Charles Simic, and HD from the US, as well as poets from Africa (Wole Soyinka and Dennis Brutus), Asia (Bei Dao and Duoduo), the Middle East (Ali Ahmad Sa’id and Yehuda Amichai), and Latin America (Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo). The postconceptual theorization of speech acts (the sentence as juridical ruling and measure of thought) and the act of witness (faux-objectivity and observation bias of a flawed mirror) is complicated by structuralism and Lacanian theory: by assigning guilt, one exonerates oneself. And yet, if suffering remains mute (unrepresented, unlegislated, unredeemed) it ceases to “matter” (be taken into account or seen): the reality is that the women most affected by anti-abortion legislature are low-income, whose short, brutish lives are as “absolute” (concrete and particular) and thus erasable as the absolutist value judgment a representative democracy and conceptual poets (militating against any authoritative or universalist subject or reading) rail against.
Let Her Speak is distinguishable from literary transcriptions “framed” as conceptual art (e.g. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic): these poets reify documents or public broadcasts, from radio weather reports to The New York Times. Conceptual poets aren’t the first cultural pundits to frame the quotidian as “art” (or declare, as did Arendt, evil banal): Seinfeld was notoriously a show “about nothing”; Frank O’Hara and the New York School poets, culminating in the architectonic, neosurrealism of John Ashbery, made an aesthetic out of incorporating free and indirect discourse and juxtaposing high art with the detritus of the commonplace.
Other conceptual poets have made a lifework out of transcribing historically epic events, such as Robert Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum (Veer Books, 2011), composed of sets of captions from photographs in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC; Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony and Holocaust; and Heimrad Bäcker’s Transcript. Vanessa Place’s Tragodia trilogy is a contemporary text that reappropriates court documents, forcing the reader to examine the role of witness and the act of testimony as a poetic conceit with its roots in legalistic (patriarchial) law, transgression, and the meting out of guilt, punishment, and death: “War is a discourse, genocide is rhetoric with a body count. Transcript does not make a memorial that risks becoming a monument. But it does reuse and reframe, and in so doing, regurgitates the awful glut and smutch of language that, with the corpses it produces, is history’s compost.”
Self-identifying as a wife and middle-class woman, in Let Her Speak, is Paula: “The proposed legislation is an assault on poor women, probably most often poor women of color … I can’t even begin to imagine how this feels to a young African American or Latino woman who is hearing this from old white legislators … who despite their partisan leanings, have taken an oath to represent us, all of us, and vote our will, not theirs.” Aesthetic questions pertaining to dadism and the dream of verisimilitude aside, a documentary poetics that purports to witness the experience of the abject other instead aestheticizing violence and suffering can be as ethically suspect as the labor exploitations and sleight-of-hand, tax-payer-funded drone wars without constituent consent in a so-called representative democracy. Whether sworn to uphold the law of man, or God, the decisions of an electoral college, University trustees, Supreme Court judges, and cultural elite are shaped not only by identitarian “biases” but also, when power is corrupted, nepotistic underhandedness and the reflexive safeguarding of hegemonic and institutionalized (white, male, monied) perspective.
As documentary poet Claudia Rankine said in a Poetry Daily interview, “As a black person, I am interested in keeping blackness a present and active part of the world because it is a present and active part of the world. As poets we keep the field reflective by acknowledging who we are in the world — by coming clean with that. This is all the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were asking for: to understand that language is constructed around certain investments, certain sets of privileges. If you read Juliana Spahr’s work, it is clear she is conscious of being a white woman in America. As a reader, you know she is aggressively thinking about what this allows her. She makes statements from her perspective and her understanding of what it means to be her. I think that is the most honest place a writer can begin from … simply I am here; here has a history.”
Contemporary poets Mark Nowak, Juliana Spahr, Francesco Levato, Philip Metres, and Martha Collins are among those also writing, publishing, and speaking publicly on the history of documentary poetry, the long poem, and topics ranging from labor and LGBT politics to Appalachia and Chernobyl. In a Poetry Foundation article, Nowak describes documentary poetics as “not so much a movement as a modality within poetry whose range I see along a continuum from the first person autoethnographic mode of inscription to a more objective third person documentarian tendency (with practitioners located at points all across that continuum). Documentary poetics, it should be said, has no founder, no contested inception, no signature spokespersons claiming its cultural capital … Documentary poetry tends to pack a lefter-than-liberal, social-Democratic to Marxist political history (grounded largely in WPA-era poems ranging from Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead to Langston Hughes’s “Johannesburg mines” and photo-documentary texts such as Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices).” Noting poets outside the US such as Martin Earl, Ernesto Cardenal, Alfred Temba Qabula, Nancy Morejón, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nowak also notes that the documentarian tendency can lend itself more readily to visual culture (film, photography) than the language arts. The question of whether political demonstrations can be considered performance art, and the many fissures of documentary, historical revisionism, and political poetics, call into question the legislative and apotropaic power of appellate and propositional speech acts (appositive “statements” of “fact” and intention, and the new sentence of conceptual poetry versus the lyric line), and suggest a healthy irresolution to these questions, aesthetically: the new “fissure,” so to speak (like the elliptical poets or a resolution to the antimonies between bipartisan parties or Marxist/capitalist systems), rather than an expansion of the capacious boundaries between fact and myth, testimony and art, text and event.
If finding an outside to capitalism (the collective desire of anarchist movements, from Occupy to Freeganism to post-language aesthetics) is the only means of achieving autonomy from market-driven aesthetics, flattering or serving technocracy through marketing (procedural) as well as product mimesis, occupying not just ideological but literal space outside a state/corporate/university context is the goal of contemporary art, as well: for unheard voices of resistance to find, as Nowak says, room “outside of AWP and art galleries and instead locate itself (or organize its potential location) on factory floors, in union halls, at political rallies, in collaboration with institutions and organizations working to shift the Draconian policies under which conservative school boards, Tea Partiers, and neoliberal politicians of the world (unite!?!) seek to police the rest of us.”
The hemorrhaging of state and federal funds from family planning, health, and social services for low-income women and children to pad Congressional pockets, pay off Wall Street debts, and fund the pharma-medical and industrial-military complexes is one that can be addressed only when political activists such as Davis are not only in office (the 2014 gubernatorial race between Davis and her chief GOP opponent, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, is under way) but in well-salaried positions, with benefits, of legislative authority, hiring (and firing) capacity, and control. In overturning and righting any gross inequity or human rights atrocity or scandal, numbers and statistics (e.g. the Vida Count) must precede language.
As Edward Sharp-Paul notes, Davis’ eleven-hour filibuster “requires us to radically expand our definition of art” as well as audience response, voyeurism, and expurgated conscience as a function of durational art’s spectatorship (in pop or high culture). “Firstly, it’s a bloodsport: When reading about or observing such a performance, our first thought is for the performer. Oh, they’ll suffer. Can they do it? Will they make it? … This is a role more often played by athletes in contemporary society: the avatar, exploring the outer limits of human possibility, planting a flag on our behalf. It feels good to see someone put themselves through the purging fire, and for that person not to be you. If there’s a toe-tapping tune to go with it, all the better.” Abramovic: “I have found that long durational art is really the key to changing consciousness… not just the performer, but the one looking at it.” Collapsing boundaries between the recitation of history and the event horizon (the ghosts of a once-emancipatory modernism clanking their chains), Let Her Speak is a “made thing” as bounded performance and transcribed text that is, in the end, less a commentary on the relationship between reality and representation, or transcription and art, and, but, rather being and event. The publication of this historic artifact cordons off for our examination, and re-reading, the messy, context-bounded process of learning how (or legislating for “permission”), to speak, in time.
5. Vanessa Place, “Transcript,” BOMB 111 (Spring 2010).
8. Mark Nowak, “Documentary Poetics,” Harriet, April 17, 2010.
A review of Ron Silliman’s 'Revelator'
Somewhere along the way, Ron Silliman and his fellow L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets earned the reputation for being heartless. In the absence of lines like “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” and without understanding the historical contexts to which L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E responds, it can be hard for the uninitiated to identify emotional elements. After all, a poetry movement concerned with human rights, poverty, and opposition to violence can’t be entirely without sentiment.
Although he hits as heavy with theory as his peers (cf. The New Sentence), Ron Silliman’s work, like Lyn Hejinian’s (My Life), is saturated with first-person narrative, love, and nostalgia, notably in works like Ketjak (1978), “Albany” (1981), and The Alphabet (2008). Revelator fits within this strand of “slant” personal narrative.
A “revelator” is someone who reveals — in traditional uses, someone who reveals the word of God, specifically “John the Revelator,” who recorded the Book of Revelations. Due to the social context of his poetry, we can assume that Silliman is neither God nor God’s transcriptionist, but (as Gillian Welch’s revelator isn’t Blind Willie Johnson’s) something else, perhaps Ron himself, pictured on the front cover of the book reading Ketjak with a 1970s revelatory spirit, or perhaps, as Welch puts it, Time.
The jacket copy positions Revelator as “a poem of globalization and post-global poetics” that “addresses the problem that there are only two global systems: the biosphere and capital, while every response to these global systems is invariably local.” On the first page we get a hint of the political arena and the speaker’s desire for a total, but seemingly out of reach, reform:
… “Outsource Bush”
Against which, insource what? Who
will do it? … (9)
And again shortly after, the speaker’s personal response to the dire political situation of Bush’s presidency, again with an underlying sense of the total failure of the system:
… at Monticello I
very nearly wept, to imagine
just once the president as
the smartest, most questioning, most
rigorous of all … (13)
Amid Silliman’s panoply of motifs (bird-watching, taking the dog for a walk, aging) the cultural context of a global system where the “center cannot hold” emerges in descriptions of the war in Afghanistan, Fox News, Chipotle burritos, McMansions, and other contemporary economic and political references. The speaker’s mind, a tight fabric of many threads in close proximity, lets alternating images warp and weft, a concern for labor and markets freely woven with more personal thoughts: “peel cellophane / from a new tea carton / no indication where it’s grown / (Argentina!) no record no ____ / sense of the map” (32–33). Like Joyce and Zukofsky, Silliman uses the dense narrative to record himself as he records a specific moment in time and comments on its (sometimes overwhelming) social and political problems.
Again referring to the jacket for entry points, David Melnick calls the writing “friendly” while Roger Gilbert says it’s “fun,” and C. D. Wright goes along with the gag, using the term “witty.” I’ve never had a very good sense of humor, but I don’t find Revelator to be so carefree; I do find it to be warm, sympathetic, and humane. Consider the following passage, where at least four narrative threads converge:
for days the networks discover
new amateur videos, waves far
greater than one can imagine,
on the beach bathers not
even thinking to run, buses
floating through streets of debris
Banda Aceh, this week’s geography
of the public imagination, Phuket’s
stream of tourists washed away,
bulldozers scooping corpses, our newscaster
alone in an empty village,
only the battered mosque remains,
where are the people, how
does this outer life, apocalypse
reported, penetrate my dreams, three
men on the street walking
discussing who will reach 60
when, the way as teens
we spoke of 20, not
even seeing the homeless woman
asleep beneath the newspaper racks
at Mission & Fourth, fifth
of bourbon warms, warns, passed
between three beneath the bridge
day is done, day is
the ever-present challenge, wake
or not, the painter Jess
simply stays asleep. … (20–21)
The speaker watches the coverage of the 2004 tsunami; men who may or may not be the speaker and his friends discuss aging; a woman is homeless in a heavily traveled district of San Francisco but no one cares or even notices; three people of undetermined status share bourbon under a bridge; death; Jess, Robert Duncan’s partner, who died “of natural causes” (but not, as those in the South Asian tsunami, “of nature”). This passage has many motifs that appear elsewhere in Revelator: TV coverage of international disasters; the sense that the speaker is aging; an awareness of (and perhaps guilt about) extreme socioeconomic disparity; the threat of death; strong mental ties to the process of writing and to the literary community. The revelator is haunted by scenes of unnatural death, and often — in scenes where TV coverage speaks of American wars — personally haunted by his tacit responsibility for them. On the microscale, he’s aware of his own death and the mortality of his personal community. None of this seems particularly “fun” (Gilbert), but it does reflect a “desire to pull everything in” (Wright) and to let it flow forth in an open-mouthed tangle of record and revelation.
Time, which eats its own children, wants to pull everything in, and Silliman’s revelator fights back with the same weapon. From the most dear and personal to the anonymous televised global community, we are all mortal, and we all “rage against the dying of the light” quixotically: “I scream, you / scream, we all scream for / that which is unnamable, unquenchable, / inconsolable (deep in one’s chest / surrounding the heart) art is / a mode of stalking, balk / at any configuration, at what’s / inescapably omitted” (12–13). Silliman’s artistic desire to pull everything in, to mark it, to keep it against the threat of global and personal apocalypse, makes this a work of what Martin Hägglund calls “chronolibido”: “Poetry engages the desire for a mortal life that can always be lost.” Silliman writes:
Dear Krishna, it’s 6:11 A.M.
upstairs a faucet turns briefly
Lilly is grown now, Alan’s
hair thins at last, Melissa’s
perfect smile still shines but
no sign of Lulu, time
erodes what’s dear, what’s near
is past too soon to
grasp fully the consequence, dawn
threatens a new day constantly
sun as vicious as dusk
or rather simply uncaring, birds
disinterested in the infant’s corpse,
it’s language that introduces emotion
or the other way round (23)
The revelator has multiple levels. He warns of the violence of global markets, war, environmental collapse, and socioeconomic inequality. He warns of personal apocalypses: deaths among his personal communities, marks of aging, and his own demise. These are godless revelations: we’re already in the apocalypse; there is no afterwards. “Revelator is the opening poem in a major sequence entitled Universe. It’s the jumping off point for a work that, if Ron Silliman were to live long enough, would take him three centuries to complete” (book jacket). We know Silliman cannot write the whole universe — but his intense desire to take a snapshot of our mortal lives, to “pull everything in,” provides a haunting, dense, breathless battle against Time “coming to take its breath away.”
A review of 'A Jerome Rothenberg Reader'
Published by Black Widow Press as part of their Modern Poets Series, Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader interweaves poems with prose work in a grand collage, proffering a vivid map through the intellectual and procedural frameworks of Rothenberg’s oeuvre. Eye of Witness traces a cogent, compelling narrative of an extraordinary and extraordinarily large, diverse body of work, synthesizing for us the poet’s mind at work across sixty years of poetic endeavor.
A feast and a surfeit, this collection, edited by Heriberto Yépez and Rothenberg in collaboration, tracks Rothenberg’s work along with the evolution of the poet’s sense of his project. Eye of Witness’s braided timeline, layering old with new, first insights and later renewals and revisions, conveys to us a poet-navigator, always looking to the future, his boat drawn with him, a vessel deep-loaded with the riches of the past, provoking for us the experience of the fabulous within the mundane ground of the living world. Eye of Witness challenges the reader to question how might we, beautiful and terrible as we are, live in this beautiful and terrifying world — how does language return us to it and it to us? Affirming the potency of the other-than-human world to human understanding and experience, Rothenberg asserts “the poet’s work may, like the shaman’s, make its encounter foremost within language — may start with language and use that as a vehicle with which to drive toward meaning, toward a (re)uniting with the world’” (Rothenberg citing Eliade, 171).
In his introduction, Heriberto Yépez provides valuable insights into the long and complex evolution of Rothenberg’s poetics, tracking the move Rothenberg makes from Deep Imagist to shaman-as-poet, to trickster as generative mythos, and ultimately, to the figure of witness, this long process invested in what Yépez terms “a call for the simultaneous renewal of cultural forms and a reconfiguration of consciousness, a matter of making new cultural and spiritual constellations available” (19). Yépez further asserts: “Rothenberg’s witness is the marker of a new kind of poet — its pre-face — in which two apparently opposite drives coexist: an acknowledgment of poetry as a perpetual and radical change of form — and thus the willingness to not retain any-thing — and a desire to construct a total poetics, or — to use a recent word of Rothenberg’s — an omnipoetics: to say in every form possible what cannot possibly be said” (23). Indeed it is the witness to which this book owes its title, a witness who “still belongs to the oneiric dreamworld but is plagued by the human capacity for cruelty” (22). This collection of Rothenberg’s work vividly illustrates, across a multiplicity of genera and forms, the revelations of the dreamworld, what it teaches us about the human capacities for beauty and horror, and the collateral wonders and terrors our human capacities provoke.
While Yépez tracks a journey or evolution, Rothenberg’s intention in the collection is to “assert a wholeness in the work” (24); both of these insights are manifest in the gathering. Rothenberg and Yépez weave newer poetry with older prose, and vice versa, as well as layering into the mix performance pieces, plays, sound work, translations, variations, and extensions. The proses themselves are diverse, including letters, manifestos, lectures, a response to Harold Bloom’s critical apparatus, prefaces and postfaces from Rothenberg’s books, et cetera. Throughout the collection, Rothenberg asserts the collaborative/collective nature of poetry, “an exploration of what our poetry could be — what we could make it to be — as an art of sound and gesture” (26). Rothenberg positions his translations and total translations, his variations, texts for performance, and his plays, as integral to his “pursuit of a kind of transcultural or global poetics, rooted in place but capable of crossing borders and languages to become a virtual omnipoetics” (26). Rothenberg conceives (his) poetry as a collaborative venture with other poets and language workers, translation as a process resulting in new texts, in which “discovery at every point I meet the poem” (56) is operant. In keeping with that aesthetic and ethical modus operandi, Eye of Witness juxtaposes excerpts from 50 Caprichos After Goya with variations on Octavio Paz’s “Blanco,” a translation of Picasso’s “The Dream & Lie of Franco,” and translations of two of Tzara’s Dada poems (“A Book of Otherings”); or later, excerpts from a prepared talk on the poetics of the sacred, meditations on ethnopoetics, and an essay, “Primitive & Modern: Intersections & Analogies,” with a discussion of the relation between poets and the trickster figure (included in “Poetics & Polemics 1: Toward an Ethnopoetics”). In “A Book of Extensions,” translations from Seneca songs stand shoulder to shoulder with Rothenberg’s collaborations with visual artists (Tom Phillips, Susan Bee), his photo-text collages, his play “Esther K Comes To America: 1931” a series of verbal translations of events and rituals, and excerpts from his collection That Dada Strain in which Dada and jazz both serve as instigations. Much like the anthologies for which Rothenberg is renowned, Eye of Witness is structured as assemblage and collage, lending to anthology the same attentions given to the making of poetry.
Organized into three “Galleries” and three “Poetics & Polemics” sections, as well as “A Book of Otherings,” “A Book of Extensions,” and “New Poems: Divagations & Autovariations,” Eye of Witness takes its reader from early translations from German and Rothenberg’s originatory work with Deep Image through his translations of Native American traditional texts and the formulation and extension of Ethnopoetics to his secular (re)encounters with Jewish mystical traditions and his European Jewish heritage, the aftermath of the Holocaust and the possibility for and requirements of a poetry post-Holocaust (the fundamental function of the poet as witness), and into the vision of an omnipoetics in which the “challenge of a poetry & a counterpoetics is as much needed as ever”:
the matter of the revolutions of the word & how they might exist today … the internet, the web, offers a new arena for visual, performative, & interactive modes, moving (sometimes at least) in multiple cultural directions. The number of such websites & displays is in fact enormous, so that watching the experimental work already triggered — the technical ease in its construction — there’s a sense, isn’t there, of a futurism that has come into its future … what I’ve more recently come to call an omnipoetics. (547–48)
What stands out to this reader? So much that I may only hint at the astonishing riches awaiting Eye of Witness’s readers. For the world of familial and cultural origin — that vexed place of hunger and poverty, of otherness and oppression, of war and ruin, demons and executioners — an excerpt from “The Wedding” (Poland/1931): this music, this urgency, this terror.
we have lain awake in thy soft arms forever
thy feathers have been balm to us
thy pillows capture us like sickly wombs & guard us
let us sail through thy fierce weddings poland
let us tread thy markets where thy sausages grow ripe & full
let us bite thy peppercorns let thy oxen’s dung be sugar to thy dying jews
o poland o sweet resourceful restless poland
o poland of the saints unbuttoned poland repeating endlessly the triple names of mary
poland poland poland poland poland
have we not tired of thee poland no for thy cheeses
shall never tire us nor the honey of thy goats
thy grooms shall work ferociously upon their looming brides
shall bring forth executioners
shall stand like kings inside thy doorways
shall throw their arms around thy lintels poland
& begin to crow (215)
Or Rothenberg’s “Cokboy,” a punning, musical, and satiric mashup of the disparate elements of the American mythos: a wandering Jewish mystic in the American wilderness (the “wild” west), speaking with a Yiddish accent in nonsense vocables and plain English among a heterodox company, including the Baal Shem (later reborn as a beaver, Rothenberg’s Seneca totem lineage), cowboys like “the financially crazed Buffalo Bill,” Custer, and Barry Goldwater (“a little christian schmuck”), Native Americans, “Polacks,” the Cuna nele, prospectors, Anglo Saxons, and Lao Tzu all in kabbalistic time “like Moses in the Rockies,” until like any storyteller, Rothenberg winds down his tale into silence from within which we ponder this “America disaster”:
I will fight my way past you who guard the sacred border
last frontier village of my dreams
with shootouts tyrannies
(he cries) who had escaped the law
or brought it with him
how vass I lost tzu get here
on a mountain & kept from
true entry to the west true paradise
like Moses in the Rockies who stares at California spooky in the jewish light
of horns atop my head great orange freeways of the mind
where he can watch the sun go down
Cokboy asleep (they ask)
only his beard has left him
like his own his grandfather’s
ghost of Ishi was waiting on the crest
looked like a jew
was silent in America
guess I got nothing left to say (242)
Or Rothenberg’s polemic of a visionary and revolutionary poetics posited against Harold Bloom’s privileging of repression over freedom, challenging that critic’s “Scene of Instruction, which is necessarily also a scene of authority and priority” in which “the true poem is the critic’s mind” and all poetry reducible to “the inescapable anxieties of competition” (405, 402, all quoting Bloom), a system of “mis-reading [and] deception” (405) in defense of a canon “European … post-Enlightenment & English” (406). To which Rothenberg incisively and rigorously responds:
But we know, after all, who threatens us. We know who reminds us of how 'heavy' our 'inheritance' is; who tells us not to deign to be good readers of our own poems or to think that we can write at all 'after the deluge'; who enters in Milton’s Shadow — & 'not the Romantic return of the repressed Milton' but the Puritan Milton of repression. And we know who proposes the discontinuities between poets & rejects those who might know their lineage too well. We know who thinks that he 'can block a new voice from entering the Poet’s Paradise' or who would presume 'to help decide a question that is ultimately of sad importance: ‘Who shall live?’'(416)
Rothenberg asserts that it is not Blake’s “Devourer” (here Bloom) but Blake’s “Prolific,” the poet of “the unqualified ‘freedom’ of the Romantics & their successors” (403), “the forwardness that has again & again defined an avant-garde over the last two centuries” (406). Rothenberg asserts, “The game, in short, is up … [and Bloom doomed to his own summation of the Cherub’s fate]: ‘He cannot strangle the imagination, for nothing can do that, and he in any case is too weak to strangle anything’” (416).
Or the astonishing beauty and terror of “Fourteen Stations,” Rothenberg’s responses to Arie Galles’s monumental charcoal drawings of aerial views of the Nazi concentration camps and the horrors they represent: “Fourteen Stations”/“Hey Yud Dalet.” The poems are composed by means of a procedure using Gematria counts from “the Hebrew and/or Yiddish spelling of the camp names … keyed to the numerical values of Hebrew words and word combinations in the first five books of the Bible … not so much to mask feeling or meaning as allow it to emerge” (433):
The First Station: Auschwitz-Birkenau
now the serpent:
I will bring back
crazy & mad
will meet them
deep in the valley
& be subdued
separated in life
shoes stowed away
how naked they come
angry & trembling
you have destroyed
their faces remembered
small in your eyes,
shut down, soiled
see a light
take shape in the pit,
torn in pieces
a terror, a god,
go down deeper (434-4)
Or this total translation from the oral to the page as concrete poetry, work done in collaboration with Richard Johnny John: “Songs From The Society of The Mystic Animals” of the Seneca (323).
As vivid as this translation is, his performance of it is something else entirely, returning to it music and rhythm, the breath of the body, and the sound of the rattle: both the visual and performed versions transforming our understandings of poetry.
And finally, I offer the reader, from “A Poem of Miracles,” this “Coda,” dedicated to Diane Rothenberg:
the larger world
darker than the mystery
the miracle resides
in what we see
& touch so good
to be here
& to bow to you
my dearest friend
as the poet said (575)
Here, what has always glowed so warmly in the heterodox and radically revolutionary work of Rothenberg, is a deep humanity and love.
For the reader who has yet to encounter Jerome Rothenberg’s work, Eye of Witness offers a wide-ranging entre into his rich and omnifarious oeuvre, a vital space of revelation for lovers of language and poetry. For the reader already familiar with Rothenberg’s phenomenal endeavors, Eye of Witness affords synthesis and a retrospective view of his writing’s evolution, delivering a clear sense of the wholeness of that diverse, multiform work and its generative impulses and sources, the work of one of the great minds and poets of our time, perhaps of all time. An homage to an extraordinary language worker, a poet dedicated to the renewal of language and of our encounter with the world, Eye of Witness is itself an extraordinary document and an essential companion for poets and critics seeking an understanding not only of Rothenberg’s work but of the progress of visionary language work from ancient times to the present as it has unfolded via recuperation, discovery, and (re)invention from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first centuries, a poetry Baedekker for us all. Kol ha kavod, Jerome Rothenberg and Heriberto Yépez!
2. “I am a witness like everyone else to [the world, the present, as it comes and goes], and all the experiments [the poems] for me … are steps toward the recovery/discovery of a language for that witnessing” (391).
4. Listen to a PennSound recording of Rothenberg reading “The First Station.”
5. Listen to a PennSound recording of Rothenberg reading “A Poem of Miracles.”