Lawrence Giffin’s Christian Name is a tricky book because it’s the kind of book that seems to do one thing and then actually does another. On the one hand, it’s a collection of poems explicitly about a topic: the “feral-child” Genie, who was kept in isolation by her family until age thirteen and then submitted to years of experiments and study and exploitation by researchers looking for clues to language development. The poems reference Genie, name her, address her, describe her situation, and occasionally seem to speak from her point of view, though without making it clear what that entails — it’s not that Christian Name ventriloquizes Genie, not quite, but it may be the case that the poems’ contorted grammar and relatively persistent disjunction thematize the impossibility of trying to ventriloquize her, or anyone.
It’s easy enough to read many passages as illustrations of this problem, and to read the book as a commentary on the difficulty of speaking from a stable position. It’s so easy to read the book in this way, in fact, that it seems like a lure. Something more complicated must be going on. Take the opening stanza from the opening poem, “In Other Words in a Thought in Which a Consciousness of Foundering Survives”:
was at my feet.
I too knew
I knew the word that
named the process
going on inside my head,
was restrained The Sea
herself to point.
Consciousness, process, naming, pointing. You probably get an idea of where this could go: the sea, this big, old, immense, and seemingly empty existential thing (like a void of thought), stands in, speculatively and metaphorically, for the phenomenological experience of a world without symbols. The short disjunct lines and occasional interruptive spacing provide a formal analog to the difficulty of speaking what hasn’t yet been said. Which would all be pretty par for the contemporary poetry course and overly familiar if it wasn’t tied to such specific subject matter. The fact that the book revolves around Genie grounds it in social reality: it’s not just a rehearsal of philosophical questions of language and world; it’s an engagement with a particular world, in which, for example, a child who has been tortured all her life is treated as a science experiment. From there, we’re one step away from an allegorical reading, in which the extended childhood isolation and exploitative collection of data stands in for, say, the processes of the nuclear family and state education. However, this allegory doesn’t quite work, because the particularity and horror of Genie’s story resists being subsumed by a more general narrative.
By both producing readings of itself and pulling the rug out from under them, the book deftly avoids being everything that it is: it avoids being a stylistic exercise in post-Language writing by eschewing a focus on medium-specificity and instead commenting on explicitly articulated subject matter; it avoids being a commentary on its explicitly articulated subject matter by tying that subject to broader philosophical questions; and it avoids being an aestheticized philosophical meditation by aligning its philosophical questions with the questions that were asked by the people who experimented on Genie, suggesting that the forms of such questions are themselves exploitative. In this way, it simultaneously undermines itself and appears to be a coherent aesthetic statement. As I said, it’s a tricky book.
But it’s even more interesting than that. In fact, maybe you don’t think all that’s all that interesting. Maybe you think that’s just some intellectually banal postmodern bullshit. OK, that’s understandable. Maybe it is. But the book, and the poems in the book, are more interesting than what I’ve written about them.
In fact, the poems pretty frequently veer off into areas of concern that are not easily connected to Genie’s story, like depression, religious faith, and the rhetoric of cults. It’s not that you can’t tie these things back to Genie (which, of course, you can), but that many poems seem aimed at intentionally incongruous topics, such that it becomes a challenging interpretive game, which I’m not going to play, and I assume most readers will not play, to fit them all together. What’s more, the poems often become so caught up in their tortured syntax and layered discursive registers that it becomes difficult or impossible to say exactly what they are “about.” Here’s a stanza from “A Childish Passion for Balls”:
Your thoughts turned to low clouds.
They are meat agape. And sprechen veritas.
They are wheelchair effervescence in
hands across my America
that have a little tea service.
And here are the opening lines from one of the longest and most complex poems in the book, “We Laid It Down. We Got Tired.”:
Not more or less deprived
of ground regardlessly given
by a syphilitic’s tube of concealer,
I still have my likes, my dislikes,
caryatids of fecal columns
grown thin and winded
with righteous authority,
that is, by my need for speech.
You could tediously close-read these lines and perhaps make something of them. We’re all adept at pulling out words and phrases and treating them like keys to the poem. But I think that it would be more fruitful to read Christian Name more broadly, in terms of its genre: the lyric. Before doing so, I would like to say a few words about the lyric as a genre, and not as another name for poetry. The lyric is a malleable set of techniques, stylistic devices, and ideas that can be used to create certain literary effects. That is all. It has no privileged relationship to the body, no privileged relationship to the “self,” and no privileged relationship to poetry as such. Historically, it is occasionally seen as the dominant mode of poetry, or the most poetic of poetic genres. This is the case today, and has been the case more or less since Romanticism. But equating the lyric with poetry as such naturalizes it and elevates a few of its specific literary effects to the level of ontological description: as if the difference between self and other could be best rendered by a certain kind of line. The lyric is a genre among other genres, as poetry is an art among other arts.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant or extinct: even if this naturalization is a historically specific lie, it is nonetheless an operative lie. It governs how we read and understand poems, and it governs their production. Because we expect it to, the lyric poem today inherently demands an interpretation dealing with the individual, the individual’s body, the individual’s divided consciousness, and a social divided by individuals. And because Genie’s case is an extreme example of these divisions, it exaggerates the effect of the lyric. For Christian Name, this is a way to totalize the book: because the lyric is a device that thematizes the disjunction between body and language, every time a new topic is introduced, the genre of the lyric ties it to the major concerns of the book. A poem employing the language of cults? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. A poem about parents’ coping with the death of a child? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. A poem that doesn’t seem to quite be about anything? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. And so on.
This is not to say that all lyric poems successfully thematize this division. Rather, because Christian Name repetitively insists on this point in form and content, it becomes more than an abstracted philosophical musing: the book points to how this same division functions concretely in various situations and social orders (in parent-child relationships, religious formations, education, etc.). Giffin’s choice of a disjunctive lyric mode, then, is not merely a capitulation to the consensus style of postmodern poetry, but a formal way of tying together the diverse threads of the book’s content. By writing poems which explicitly concern a series of divisions (between body and language, parent and child, earthly and divine, individual and collective, etc.) in a genre often interpreted as marking such divisions, Giffin is able to include an array of seemingly unrelated discourses and allusions (literary, philosophical, and political) without abandoning the initial premise. The poems are thus able to concern themselves with problems of dividedness and fracture but nonetheless hold together as a coherent book that can be interpreted as a whole.
This is more of a feat than it seems: the problem with a lot of contemporary poetry is that it uses the lyric as a means of dispersal and not as a means of establishing a structure of relations — often, the only thing the form of the fragment signifies is its being a fragment. But today, the best poets working with the lyric treat it as a set of techniques and ways of reading, as opposed to the natural heir of all things poetic. And so it can be used as a form for figuring, modeling, or negating the world, instead of as an end in itself.
Giffin is one of the most formally ambitious and conceptually odd poets writing in this vein, and in the end Christian Name is not such a tricky book. It’s really good. It’s about things. Things like child development, abuse, neglect, language, religion, education, and grief. All sorts of things, but things that are tied together by the book’s formal and generic choices, so that they seem like interdependent topics and not just a scattershot collage of discourse. Even what I earlier referred to as the book’s persistent avoiding of itself, undermining of itself, is part of the way the book totalizes itself: it doesn’t undermine itself to avoid consistency, but to relate each of its concerns to another concern, to bring consistency to bear on a seemingly disparate array of content. Christian Name is such a terrific book because it subsumes familiar forms of disjunction into a larger formal and thematic project. So if you like a whole bunch of disconnected fragments, don’t worry, you’ll get them. And if you like something that actually has a point and engages with the world, you’ll get that too, which will be even better.
A review of Prageeta Sharma's 'Undergloom'
What happens to the woman of color body as it endures the banal repression of the academy? And if it aches to be itself without pressure to conform and meet assumed burdens to produce, publish, and exhaust itself to ‘fit’ while concurrently losing itself? Undergloom by Prageeta Sharma explores the thingification of the woman scholar and the way her mind must adapt to a tepid environment. This innovative text refuses the armchair, rejects being told to take a seat, and exposes the internal politics of the unconscionable class system of our departments and divisions in a university setting and its deplorable yet veiled activities.
As an associate professor in creative writing at the University of Montana at Missoula, Sharma as the speaker expresses the humanity of despair and utter disapproval at the institution. She takes us through the undergloom, the southward space where said but untended language lands. By depicting moments from the classroom, faculty meetings, job talks, recruitment, retention, allyship, and passive aggression with colleagues, Sharma explores the impostor fatigue of doubly occupying career difficulty and rising mobility. The poems “Everybody at the Institution,” “Grateful,” “What Happened at the Service?” and “The White Filter” speak to internal, conscious, and subconscious choices to change Self to ‘fit’ what is ‘missing’ or not yet present, and in a sense, the racialized scholarly and cultural body becomes the missing and the occupied — she becomes the absence and the negative space. Sharma grapples, with deft language and microcosmic detail, with the documented stresses of a compartmentalized scholar-poet at work. She calls for brave selfhood in the poem “Hey Day”:
Don’t discount lightness when it occurs, life with its usual
bare corrosive sense keeps abuse thick and present.
And so when we were all self-effacing in ways that felt spunky and kind —
I became elated, I was pushing my identity, the real one.
The one not struck with terror, the one not struck down by anyone.
This is what I want every day, what I want for myself and for the future. (19)
The poetry summons the gashed body, the split Selves. By addressing the upset and bruised body, Sharma comments on the appearance of the body at work as possibly co-opting their realities; is the cultural body in an academic setting seen as complicit with the danger and multiplicity of the institution? Sharma asks about this collusion in “The Other Profiled in Cerulean”: “Could you look at me the way you look at him or her? / Would this mimicry allow for some kind simulacrum?” (8). By asking these questions, language is posited as a tool that breaks and repairs, fails and succeeds us. Sharma’s poetry points to this conundrum: the academy is a place of unwavering criticality — but can we spin the institution? — the institution, in turn, must be questioned as a mock-up of how power is divided and fought over. In the poem “We Have Trees Now,” the question “What is the profession of the culture-hoarder?” perhaps points out how the professionalization of cultural studies becomes a collection of bodies and minds. Do our universities and colleges dismember our faculty? Sharma, I think, says yes.
I think this wicked rivalry of selves
does not speak to some engaging quality you see
in yourself — talent for being unusual, eccentric force of brain —
you are not the neem from a tropical tree. (25)
Here, she rejects the notions that reduce the person to their mind and intellect. This is one way of dismembering; the act of dismembering can breed loneliness and wisdom, as evidenced in the poems “A Befallen Electric Harp” (54) and “Popularity in Poetry” (60), respectively.
The language of the poetry is political, seemingly tame but fiery in cry and as real as mental efforts to sustain one’s self. The poetry is seemingly confessional, sad at times from a place of exile, wanting or desiring as a form of hope, but not as a necessity. The poems depict the underlying abuse and navigation of the academic-industrial complex.
inscrutability is the only answer to power —
but to say I am inscrutable is to say what they always say;
the way shorn hair says everything about lack and space,
but can be hard to pull off without a menacing posture. (27)
In addition to being rendered invisible and marginalized, the speaker witnesses the ineffable lack of personhood not granted to other potential scholarly bodies. In the poem “Mobbing,” she plays with the results of an interview’s deliberation involving another colleague’s judgment: “her stink stank to you so you sunk her” (28). Sharma re-creates confidential spaces and hiding places of authenticity.
It is clear that Sharma’s thick use of language explores the craft of poetry and what it does to the crafter, the poet. Undergloom wrestles with talking to others, talking with Self, but most importantly, that it is said. Think of each poem as a wish, a possibility, or another way that could have been — a place right from the undergloom.
Elizabeth Williamson: Throughout Armies of Compassion, Eleni Stecopoulos dances with this premise: that our bodies can act in concert in ways that both attend to and reject a “national past” (69) and its re/production of nationalistic violence. Stecopoulos’s compromised but acutely aware body becomes our guide in tracing the threads of this violence, attuning us to the vibrations made by plucking taught, dried skin; vibrations that resonate across the gaps between us and our memory. Human borders ring against the borders between countries; forced to acknowledge the provisionality of the former, the patient (in the ward, of war, of history) grows accustomed to crossing the latter.
Armies of Compassion begins with a seemingly simple story, the story of the patient who goes to see a doctor, a doctor who attends to the body by bringing it into contact with various diagnostic instruments: “He gave me a sheet of paper on which emotions were typed in bubble font” (16). But the work moves almost instantly to improvised healing rituals, dreaming, obsession, and other modes of reimagining how we might notice, let alone care for, bodies in crisis. The book leaps sideways in order to anatomize as well as archaeologize the action of listening in relation to such potential for care, before landing on the terrain of body as theater in the poems “Kinesiology” and “Autoimmunity” — each formally a series of poetic clusters akin to a longer poem or cycle interrupted by breath. Stecopoulos here evokes the various ways in which sound plays on our nerves, or as you mentioned to me at the start of our reading the book together, david: to be autoimmune is to tune out everything which should be resonating in you.
david wolach: What a gorgeously tight, complex, and ludic book of interwoven poetic arguments, Armies of Compassion! In a first scene, as Stecopoulos is crossing the border of the US into Canada to “detoxify” her body made ill, already our understanding of “human” and “national” borders is problematized. By her evoking through jagged, terse, lineated, and prose-like forms the ecstatic hazards of “embodiment,” I am drawn immediately to the phrase staging ground, which in its dominant mode refers to the militarized brutalizing of bodies, a referent made particularly clear in the work of David Buuck. In Stecopoulos’s work, the phrase is investigated and inverted, maybe even reclaimed, in some ways not dissimilar from Buuck’s site-specific textual performances (pre-enactments). Armies of Compassion opens us to a kind of staging ground, though one that serves as that possible and not yet (at least widely) extant place for the healing of bodies. And perhaps because of this, and perhaps because the theater of the body is staged with such care and vulnerability throughout the book, when I hear you refer to “the patient” I think of the word’s verb form, “patience.” Stecopoulos performs deliberate patience as patient, performs a kind of insecurity and unbridling of bodily and psychic borders — as staging ground, one might say, of her condition and our appositional history.
Williamson: Speaking to that history (in critique, in whisper, in witness and doubt), prosody —particularly in relation to place (to concrete and historical echo) — plays such a central role in this book, both as the poem and in the poem: “As a conductor becomes the intelligent orchestration of resonating forces, more witness or exponential than director” (19). Stecopoulos’s work as researcher into myriad medical histories is thoroughly enmeshed with classical histories, including healing rituals and rituals of embodiment — indeed many prosodic rituals — that provide an alternative to Western clinical paradigms. Through these resonating forces — sounds made by and for other bodies — a counter-narrative, or perhaps an incantation for obscured affects to awaken within us, seems to be gathering.
When we begin to pay attention to those obscured affects, we realize how lovingly intentionalized the breath of space and the pause of line are in Armies of Compassion. The line’s break becomes vista, and something is constantly registering at the skin, in the bones. This book routinely, yet in such varied ways, produces intimate scenes of listening, training a microphone on processes of speech in social space.
wolach: Where you, Elizabeth, write about Stecopoulos’s focus on and use of “sound,” I want to reply with “organized sound,” or “reorganized sound” — to evoke not just the intensity of poetic form at work, this uniquely phoned prosody as itself healing and connective ritual here, but what I read as the ethos of radical organizing of the poems. This is to suggest that perhaps militant listening and the radical reorganizing of sound are not precisely “theatrical” but might consist, for Stecopoulos, in “a poetics of healing.” Healing is not of individual bodies alone but of constellations of bodies, of the planet that is interdependent with our bodies, itself a living organ in need of organelles that nourish it. Researching our conditional and provisional histories — making use of logos — becomes crucial. Yet it must be put into service by something other than itself. Healing thus involves organization, and if radical intervention, radical reorganization of (what we take to be) our senses (hence of sense).
In prosody, in sound’s vocabularies upon a body, its systems of touch and gesture, there is the shock of care that can perhaps heal or treat — and does so deeply treat (us) when organized as in Armies of Compassion. This body, “my” body, as Western medical professions like to say, wracked by an autoimmune system working overtime without overtime pay, is, as Stecopoulos has noted elsewhere, “sociopathic,” sickened by society, or the common disease with only uncommon symptomology, one of many various and visible manifestations of living under:
embodiment continuous war
made possible by
opportunistic infection (40)
I should confess that I am — this so-called body is — like Stecopoulos’s in Armies of Compassion, compromised by “opportunistic infection,” by the persistent condition of “continuous war.” And weakened now, disabled by definition, this body is pushed into living in the “invalid dark,” “immune” to all including itself (70). But what autoimmunity might be, beyond merely the consequence of genetic/biological mechanism, gets called disquietingly into question; we’re led to ask what and/or who, in addition to the cellular body, is susceptible to opportunity, what opportunities we might run into or facilitate beyond each other’s communicable and congenital diseases were we not immune to some of them. We’re also led at the same time to ask whether there is something nourishing about that “invalid dark,” whether it is precisely in that dark — those othering spaces — that we might find one another, that we might be treated, and if so, whether getting there is a matter of being with and for one another. By carefully tracing back the term’s usages and offering up the possibility that to be open to “opportunistic infection” and to be present with it might provide a sort of nourishment, Stecopoulos — particularly in “Autoimmunity” — turns “immunity” on its Western, contemporary head.
Williamson: The suffering archived in Armies of Compassion is inescapable, yet the names are uncertain and the “I” is always on the verge of being disassembled, even when “I was the carrier I was the narrator” (45). The body ventriloquizes itself — laughter in/as pathos. Artaud, perhaps centrally, is one of the voices driving us throughout, but sometimes the world gets in his way. Hearing this, Stecopoulos allows for rituals of healing to be caricatured, not just felt, performed, and celebrated — and so there is nothing romanticized about healing or ritual, terms that in the West are so often turned into springboards for capital’s mass-marketing schemes, manufactured fads which prey on desperation and cultural appropriations. Here the play is serious and the details matter. To paraphrase playwright Susan Parenti, the world is sick.
wolach: Dissolving then reassembling the “I.” Deromanticized rubrics and anti-rubrics of healing. The necrotic dance of laughter amidst rubble. This work, it occurs to me, shares much with Raul Zurita’s and with other lush “narrative” and “lyrical” forms that invert expectation of what lyric, politic, witness, and line might come to do as social combinatorial offsets, indeed as social-political archive, as you emphasize here. And I love that you quote the line from page 45: “I was the carrier I was the narrator.” Note the doubling here, to echo your honing in on Stecopoulos’s expert use of Artaud (and to echo Artaud). Note the shadowlife that being a “carrier” has. Here, and also elsewhere in the book, carrying gets quasi-equated to narrating, narrating thus to pathology as well as disablement. The doubling of “carrying” when coupled with narrative gets me to ask whether “I” (reader, wreader, shorn body) am the carrier of “opportunistic infection” or the carrier of metaphor? Am I, and can I not help but be, both at once? Is to make metaphor here, to narrate and counter-narrate the semantic joints of fitness in a fitness-obsessed capitalist culture, to be and become increasingly disabled? Metaphor, from the Greek metaphore, literally transliterates into “to carry across or over, to move across.” I am both moved, indeed transported, and often provocatively sickened by these lines that double, stand in, refract; I am susceptible to both the harmonic spectrum of the prosody and to the narrative made from these prosodic units, their targets of critique. Armies of Compassion gives itself over to this work, and so turns pages into acoustic chambers for a unique riff on the theater of cruelty, awakening us from the theater of cruelty that has continually inscribed and communized the first into being. We’re reminded of these years of Bush onward of recurring partial declamations that at once sing, argue, and question the very borders that get crossed, where, Stecopoulos tells us, “Nation’s a form of muscle testing,” and where “muscle testing” is, at least clinically, the EMG test: in which electrodes are struck throughout your body and you are repeatedly commanded to “flex” such that your response completes the circuit and you are shocked into confessing your weakness, hence your embodiment (90). Because where Bush’s flight-suit Air Force cameo is theatrical, Stecopoulos’s (body)work, not just at the level of the line but the prosodic breath-as-unit, becomes uniquely sung radical organizing conversation (to use a phrase from my own background in labor organizing) or the living theater of poetry. A “shunt” (to borrow again from David Buuck) that we either open or shut ourselves to, that opens and shuts us, rearranging the sensible and insensible landscape; that we trade and that trades us or that we hoard to make of the body a rainy day fund, its stockpile a surplus for brokerage, so that one hope for com-munity contra immunity might be to enact some of the potential evoked by Stecopoulos’s conditional statement that “Artaud’s theater of emotional athleticism would exhaust our remote control into utter sympathy” (22).
Williamson: But what exactly are the mechanisms of the theater Stecopoulos is inviting us into? This is Artaud’s theater, and Euripides’s — “Even flesh and blood’s theatrical,” as Stecopoulos reminds us in “Bakkhai.” This is certainly a theater of war, of empire. But the poetry does not stop there — in the book’s final pages, Stecopoulos shows us war’s staging as well as scaffolding, all the stories and accidental deaths that come before (and after) “the command to build” up this ground of corpses (86). Thus one of the voices from the dark who early on in the book admits, “I never understood theater until I chose strangers to stand in for me,” eventually moves diachronically through layers of landscape, not just crossing borders but digging down into the crust of the earth to feel the vibrations that started the mess we’re in, and further down, the energies of significance that sing underneath it (25). It may be true that “There has never been theater in America,” just as America has sought to absolve itself by forgetting those energies, that history (also a present condition) of colonialism and the redrawing of borders — but American politics, perhaps more so than any other politics, constructs for us a world in which “all the days [become] theatrical” (37, 47, 34).
wolach: Evoking the classic image of the deus ex machina, Stecopoulos writes that “the mystery has always been rigged; that the god descends on creaking pulleys in no way undermines the apparition” (24). But if the apparition is not undermined, the rigging too remains mysterious. Both the stage and the ground can possess us, possess our languages, Stecopoulos seems to imply and certainly enacts via the poems themselves. Sites of contestation and distraction, the built environment of the stage and the ground we lay our ear to and that we traverse, are also (in another context with different apparitions) poetic. Here they bookend border’s and body’s very provisionality (as you aptly put it in your opening paragraphs) as terms exposing, if you will, the rigging of the whole affair. The stage or the ground help make visible, for instance, the conditions under which provisionality can breathe life into bodies once bordered, stage and ground bordered now perhaps by rituals of remembrance and historical aporia, an attunement to absence, that which has disappeared from record, of those whose suffering has no (official) language perhaps but rest, pause, gaps in the language, an ante-language. The concreteness of ritualized sites of violence, whether violent in a ludic and — to use Artaud’s phrase denoting the work the theater (and in Armies of Compassion, other bodywork) could otherwise be doing — “philosophical” sense or, conversely, state-sponsored, tyrannical, and born of strategic designs on power and expropriation, these become entangled with the semipermeability and so provisionality of knowing the (post)human and subjected body. Bodies, i.e., “might exist” and likely don’t if they are not useful and/or are nonnormative (25).
The entanglement of these apparently separate borders gets us considering Thom Donovan’s question regarding “what the poem can do,” not simply what the poem is. Donovan is of course playing, after Deleuze, on Spinoza’s critical proposition that “we do not yet know what the body can do,” and via this coupling makes visible for us the dance between bodily, national, and poetic borders. The entanglement of borders in Armies of Compassion gets us to consider Foucault’s tracing of the institutional(ized) body (and its poems and all the rest) made “docile.” Foucault’s archeology investigates a reality we are too familiar with, wherein institutions of power have increasingly turned Spinoza’s ethical and aesthetic consideration into a thoroughly contemporary and oppressive science of surveilling, breaking down, individuating, cataloguing, and ultimately containing bodies (and their poems and all the rest) as part of the neocolonial capitalist enterprise — making Donovan’s reformulation, and the complicating moves in/of Armies of Compassion, so urgently important.
The proposition in Armies of Compassion that these entwined borders, while often assumed tout court by a dominant cultural ideology, are not only provisional but potentially de dicto, fiat if socially constructed and so gravely real in their ringing, sets the condition for — stages our conditions of — a persistent linguistic doubling throughout the book, a repeating thesis/antithesis coupling of seemingly known but actually assumed, and here utterly in question, sets of terms. Political body and (post)human body, border and boarder, agency and agency, antibody and anti-body, theater and theatrical, immune and commune — whether implicit or explicit, each is sounded against the other, creating a kind of prosodic and semantic dialectical reverb and metaphony where what emerges is a rhetorical collapse of strict definition rather than a binary.
Williamson: Armies of Compassion zeroes in on the ethical dilemma of a body in transit, in flight, the body that is both (post)human and profoundly political. That body is not ephemeral. In one such instance of investigating, as you put it, david, the shadowlife of our words, Stecopoulos writes of a “womb soldered to muscle” (70) — where “soldered” stands just to one side of “soldiered” but, perhaps more importantly, derives from the Latin solidare, “to make solid.” Such a body understands its complicity in the sacrifice of other bodies, and the poetry of this body is not afraid to address the language of militarism — as both an acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of empire’s tropes and as a way of forcing that language to reveal its own contradictions.
one wants to be treated, not saved
to be made unfit for the mission
to stop performing strategy where one lacks the guts (67)
As patients, we can no more be saved than we can be made fit. But so many bodies have been actively shut off from others, have been bordered and policed so as to be cut off from audibility, let alone community. The radical enjambment here and the sudden oncoming silence create a scene of alert: everything that should be offstage is happening on, and armies of extras are making their exits and entrances across our tenuous terrain.
wolach: Yet we notice that the body in Armies of Compassion conversely testifies to being organized and organizing itself to be in communities, to be open to reciprocal care in the face of seemingly impossible odds that care will ever come. When least expected, even in the most scorched environments, the possibility of care, when in the hands of vulnerability, persists. Armies of extras turn into those with whom one is reciprocally and intimately careful; hence the scene of borders, the site of the body, is not necessarily one of expropriative violence, territorialization, and violation, or need not be; and the stage and its chambered walls aren’t necessarily always constricting and nationalized, but are places for/of therapia, inscribing upon us that mark where rituals of healing have occurred and might occur again.
By the relative absence in the book of concretized images or definitions of what gets normatively ascribed as “community,” we sense a sustained meditation on reciprocity, on, perhaps, communis in waiting, a kind of preparatory action of a body that is vulnerable, that has its own — here sung — incantations towards community. As we witness (and hear) the body’s movement across (often) contested ground, “immunity” is carefully reimagined (resounded). This meditation emerges in part through a deeply studied etymological tracing, and is layered atop, to the side of, and underneath a condition that is at once local to the narrator’s body and global. The condition of crisis, the condition of being immune to hearing crisis, so to speak, emerges in multiple ways, not least via a subtle play on “trade” and “commerce” and US “trading partners.” And so too trade thus becomes metaphor and linguistic site of excavation: “Between possession and commerce a body might exist” (25). The concern for prosody’s function turns on a concern about markets trading in bodies in ways that exclude and expropriate other bodies and other forms of commerce — the giving and receiving of desire, of care, of story and song, of acknowledging and finding ways to meet mutual need. Local symptom is always, it seems, traced, tentatively, to global (geopolitical, historical, ritual) conditions. It is at this relation between the potential for the (re)sounding body to get in the way of market madness yet be swept up by it and fall into debt, to interfere with a market’s signal yet be sickened by it, that Stecopoulos, in a beautiful and necessary further connection, allows for problems of embodiment and illness/disability to be treated alongside categories of identity. In “Autoimmunity” and periodically afterwards, the gendered body, the racialized body, the expropriated reproductive body, the “unfit” body of Artaud’s as well as others’ incantation, is housed, policed, hunted, and haunted not just by US policy and cultural norms, but also by the modern Greek state of Stecopoulos’s heritage, whose increasingly conservative government, its hyper-capitalist nationalist forces (and armed forces), are perhaps matched only by the organization — the prosodic cul de sac — of its popular resistance.
Williamson: We might say of Armies of Compassion, then, that its pages’ surfaces are perhaps both “stage” and “ground” for a searing prosody and kinetic counter-narrative (a therapeutic turn of rhetoric) that destabilize the forces of its — our own — disablement. This is a place not a space to use a line of kari edwards’s that you have often referred to, a place that opens itself to the present through the past and future pasts, and is sickened in its care for us. So how does poetry intervene in our collective sense of place? “In any fundamentalist country,” Stecopoulos writes, echoing the powerful Duncan epigraph at the beginning of Armies of Compassion, “it’s strategic to encourage the dance” (62). The juxtaposition of Duncan’s and Stecopoulos’s imaginative play on the music under war formation reminds us that words like “fundamentalism” point inside our borders as often as they point outside them. We may be momentarily unsettled by the idea that our dancing could be the result of someone else’s strategic encouragement, but if we are careful readers, we might also remember that Stecopoulos is inviting us to retake (or to give up, i.e., impassively unhouse) the ground, to reimagine what it might mean, and what it might take, to act together, in concert — to make that act a dance rather than a phalanx wearing the cloak of artfulness.
wolach: Armies of Compassion dances in the face of what it hears — the book’s very title evokes this. It hears the terrible stealth of the drones above, the monotonous whir of the drones below; it hears the operations of a State that has turned already-occupied ground into staging ground for more wars on bodies; yet Armies of Compassion herein performs “escape” not from occupation or territorialization, but as a poetic action of slippage into livability, at times joyfully, within often or otherwise unlivable borders, doing so as transformative dance, as you suggest. Armies of Compassion reminds us of our own potential to “escape” here, à la the later Foucault’s noting life’s uncanny way of constantly escaping administered systems (our incessant management) despite the terrifyingly thorough individuating circumstances. Stecopoulos’s work thus reminds us, as Foucault does, of escape’s root definition: to leave your captor behind holding only your cape. Poetry — this poetry — is that cape the captor is left with. What gets staged, in that movement on/of the page, recorded, then played back, is a crippling regime whose theater, as you suggest, is evermore “theatrical” insofar as its tekne is, within official borders, the near-total corporate mystery play of civil oppression of a polity that is nonetheless constantly still living, and living beyond the suppression of that polity’s sociality by way of distraction and mollification, “lifestyle ethics.” The geopolitical financing of the present is the staging ground for a theater in which that corporate mystery play doubles as its own dress(age) rehearsal for war, and ultimately a new branding of colonialization. The counter-theater in/of Armies of Compassion, or its “theater” contra imperialistic rhetorical demonstrations of “theatricality,” is strange and absolutely crucial — as crucial as our need, amidst so much reckless freedom talk, euphemism, and sequestered torture, for the idea that care ought be received as well as taken. It is evident that we need, more than ever, an inoculation to the proliferation of so many — cf. “Homeland Security” — agencies that secure us from one another (34, 92).
If Armies of Compassion is at once a lyrical critique of geopolitical surplus drag upon bodies, and in part (and only in part) a gorgeously reimagined theater of cruelty, then Stecopoulos’s understanding of therapia has very much to with the redistribution of, and philosophical violence performed upon, the senses — of which we may realize upon feeling this book out that there are more than the scientized five. The therapeutic part of this poetic work is necessarily collaborative bodywork, then, and is, Stecopoulos implies, not curative so much as careful, healing insofar as it undoes us in an enactment of life’s leaking into the alleys without us as readers, as social creatures, getting to actually run or turn away from the felt reality of modern police states and the shock and awe of neoliberal capitalism. The action of slippage here is that of opening us to some of all this occulted life buried under mediated image-reality, schema-seizure; we become undone in our having sensed — if for mere moments — beyond “our goals / deranged” (80). In such moments we are given over to the kairological, where time opens and we can breathe, no longer waiting for “the cure.” We can then attend to, stripped of recourse to any catharsis, scenes of desire’s scarring:
Brother and sister
stand on the roof watching
the house burn out
around the pretense of their lives (87)
Williamson: Speaking of the scab or the so-called wound: if, as you mention, the book stages, in fact grounds us amidst, the life underneath that persists despite predictive calculations, I last want to turn our attention to the implication that these early scenes of receiving care not possible to receive in the US (or anyway not covered) are afterwards linked, via an exploration of autoimmunity, to, certainly, the geopolitics of the pathetic present, and also to layers — centrally — of the ancient past: “the government calculates the frequency to increase your sense of despondence” (23).
This is not a rediscovery of family roots, for “kinship breaks down as immune system” (93). But theater, with its roots in ritual sacrifice, offers Stecopoulos a network of languages for rethinking and reimagining “illness” as excessive sensitivity, as a situation in which one can go beyond witnessing the pain of those on the other side of history’s knife — one can “dream for them” in “The Asklepion” (99). The poetry’s generative, at times liberatory, bite comes from the indirectness of such claims, which operate as a series of swerves moving us, if moving us at all, out of linear time, producing not “progress” but “impasse,” troubled and therapeutic pause in the dark. This is not a path to salvation or recovery. Such words have been lost to us by now, “abducted by church fathers / and returned in fantastic boats” (94).
wolach: And so bodies made sick intentionally get in the way, excess spills in the darkened corners and messes up the machine, and “theater” counters “theater” counters “the theatrical.” Armies of Compassion patiently stages the ground, wraps us in a careful chamber, set up under cover of darkness inside a home-front laboratory for real-time occupation that is itself so precise in its formal maneuvers under Bush’s regime that it approaches the poetic. If this is a world where the imperial tactical rhetorics and organizational capacities since Bush have become so well rehearsed as to become in organization poetic, then we are in need of philosophically cruel labors that can both invert such precise groundwork and articulate through sensitivity’s excesses that groundwork’s designs. We must sing out of tune out of turn.
These pairings in Armies of Compassion, these doublings of sense that occur through phonic resemblance, synonymy, and use of radical enjambment, repurpose and investigate terms deployed in the West that not only behave as a set of pernicious, exclusionary antagonisms, i.e., prescriptive binaries rather than pairings, but that stand in for one another as if the normative political machine were naked in its wish for us to live out the Hobbesian nightmare. Stecopoulos is deft at digging up the trajectory of the rhetoric (and histories) of the false binary or assumed (Cartesian) definition in the service of the modern corporate state, jostling us from the political body to the (post)human body, language to language, where part of the therapeutic here is cruel in the sense Artaud’s theatrical organ is: “I endowed my legislators with / organs of feeling,” writes Stecopoulos (61), echoing not just Shelley’s would-be poet-legislator but reframing Plato’s. Yet the revealing cruelty of therapy always needs to be outsourced, traded among us. To sing out of tune and out of turn occurs under threat when working on the bodies of a distinctly theatrical regime, a regime threatened radically differently by the rhetoric of a polity’s poetry, the organizing (and radical reorganizing) of bodies and their symbols. Where we find linguistic pairs we find provisionality and augmentation, transition, more slippage. The complication of terms appears at level of the line, sometimes between sets of lines on facing pages, and yet at other times this occurs between poems such that like lines, the poems become enjambments of one another, building layers of sound, a soundscape of inversions. Regardless of scale, we get a vulnerable acknowledgment that in the spaces between bodies referential language meets its horizon and we sleep in song’s lament, our points tender and weak, impassively “we are waiting in the echo / for a tone” (97). Or, as Rumsfeld might have accidentally told us, and as Stecopoulos instead does, that in knowing that we do not know, we are accountable to essay one another’s tender points, to become and sing weakness. We are, as Edmond Jabès might put it, “gravely responsible” for those things said and unsaid:
Philosophy never confesses its diagnostic
essay all points tender to
the point of weakness and lament’s
nothing but ferocity
unclassed as song (83)
2. See, for example, David Buuck, “Buried Treasure Island,” PDF and other materials.
6. Donovan’s play on Spinoza and treatment of Deleuze shows up variously in Donovan’s work. See, for example, the excerpt from “from ‘Somatic Practice’” on Harriet the Blog, and more recently as it appears at the end of his poem “The New Us” at Bomb Magazine. For the Spinozan formulation, see especially Spinoza, The Ethics, Part III, and in particular, E3p2. Click here for the translation by R. H. M. Elwes. Of the voluminous material generated by Deleuze on Spinoza’s “mind-body” formulations, see, to start, “On Spinoza,” available along with other talks. For Foucault’s analysis of the docile body and institutions of regimentation, see Michel Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” in Discipline and Punish (New York: Random House, 1977).
7. Our current thinking has been shaped by many generative discussions on community with writers too numerous to name here. But we’d be remiss not to mention those whose writing on the work of Eleni Stecopoulos has deeply informed this review — we’re particularly indebted to Thom Donovan, Bhanu Kapil, Rob Halpern, and Melissa Buzzeo.
8. kari edwards, “subject: statement,” EOAGH 3.
9. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the Latin etymology “*excappāre, < ex out + cappa cloak.” Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), online edition, copyright 2013, “escape.”
On Peter Cole's 'The Invention of Influence'
Peter Cole’s writing exemplifies Charles Olson’s notion that the poet is a transfer station, and that the poem “is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.” Cole channels his own poems’ “several causations” through his experience as a journeyman translator of Hebrew and Arabic language poetries, modern and medieval. If poetry is the scholar’s art, according to Wallace Stevens, then Cole’s work begs the additional question: what if poetry is also the translator’s art?
Cole has written his fourth book of original poems through the core concept of influence. The proximity between influence and translation is something Cole once remarked upon when introducing Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, his translation of the eleventh-century Andalusian Jewish poet-philosopher. “Translation,” according to Cole,
particularly in an age of translation, is not only what hired or inspired workers have rendered into another language; it is also what writers who read in multiple languages translate in thought alone — the force of which is brought to bear on the written language they use. This, granted, is simply influence; in this instance, however, it is influence born of a steady passage across linguistic and regional borders.
Cole’s own poetry comes to us across the porous borders where “thought alone” is formed by all of the languages he knows — traditions which give thought its bearings, music its glossaries, tone its inflections. “Great genial power,” wrote Emerson about Shakespeare, “consists in not being original at all,” but “in being receptive.”
Paired with his previous collection from New Directions, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (2008), Cole’s book reestablishes him as one of the most receptive poets writing today. His capacity for conducting his own source influences into poems of quiet, philosophical astonishment is something quite riveting. The Invention of Influence is an affirmation of influence, of the strange joys of being “afloat in the foreign.” It offers a corrective to the tragically egocentric anxiety of influence that led the psychoanalyst Victor Tausk (the subject of the book’s long title poem) to kill himself and Sigmund Freud to suppose that “it is one man, the man Moses, who created the Jews.”
The influence of Kabbalah
Only by sucking, not by knowing
can the subtle essence be conveyed
— “Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind”
Emerson began his essay “Quotation and Originality” with this odd and wonderful image that reminds me of the attractions and pleasures of Cole’s scholarly temperament:
Whoever looks at the insect world, at flies, aphides, gnats and innumerable parasites, and even at the infant mammals, must have remarked the extreme content they take in suction, which constitutes the main business of their life. If we go into a library or news-room, we see the same function on a higher plane, performed with like ardor, with equal impatience of interruption, indicating the sweetness of the act.
The greatest succor to be drawn from Cole's new poems comes through his immersion in the poetics of Kabbalah. In 2012, Yale University Press published The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition, a breathtaking anthology of poems spanning the sixth to the twentieth centuries, all translated by Cole. Kabbalah is itself a vast and bewildering invention. One way that it approaches an unapproachable Godhead is by musing on the surface tension of language, the literal letters of the alphabet which combine to form what Marianne Moore once called a “precipitate of dazzling impressions, / the spontaneous unforced passion of the Hebrew language.” “Actual Angels,” an early poem in Cole’s new collection, imagines letters as angels whose messages are decipherable only in passing, in gaps, seams, and margins.
Are angels evasions of actuality?
Bright denials of our mortality?
Or more like letters linking words
to worlds these heralds help us see?
It’s the freighted angels that elevate.
Opaque with their burdens, they wait
for someone to sense what’s there, between,
until they’re released to the weather again.
Gone is the griffin, the phoenix, the faun.
Only angels in the poem live on
as characters catching the light between things,
as carriers of currents from the wings
of thinking we know where we’re going and then
getting somewhere, despite our intention. (5)
Cole’s disposition is Midrashic, and his exegeses run edgewise. Words don’t illuminate meaning — they insinuate it in glimpses, tears, rumors. Above all, meaning is relational and intertextual.
Angels are like letters, says Abulafia,
in us like mind as the present’s hum.
No one knows what a year will bring,
but the world-to-come is the word to come. (6)
At other times he reads the natural world in the secret key of Wallace Stevens:
The elm slides liquid leaves through its sleeves —
its twig-tips swell with a ruby-like glow;
seraphs of jade then crown this mage,
their wings spreading the shade we know. (7)
No poet so resembles Stevens’ attachment to supreme fictions, or so approaches the celestial pantomime of Stevens’ music: restlessly experimental, but couched in traditional prosodies. Stevens invented an idiosyncratic lyrical substitute to fill the vacuum left by the departed gods. Peter Cole’s supreme fiction is likewise supremely fictional, but his engagement with Jewish textuality makes it a shared and traditional fiction: communal, historical. The elm looming above might sound Stevensian, but this is no solipsistic palm at the end of the mind. Cole is tracing the Kabbalah’s image of an upside-down tree whose roots are in heaven and whose leaves and branches swing low into the actual world.
Cole employs a range of poetic methods derived from Kabbalah, including acrostic poems and invented forms structured by images of the sephirot, the ten emanations of the Godhead. Throughout, Cole aspires to what Kabbalists call tikkun: the restoration of the fragments scattered by the original catastrophe of creation. His strophes imagine a repairing that is both cosmic and interpersonal. By Cole’s lights, a poem is
… that which hovers here
between the “I” of the opening
and the “us” of your possible listening
now, or in the imperfect
tense and tension of what
in fact articulates the eternal
That abstract revelation
and slippery duration
to which, it seems, I’m given
and because of which I’m never
finished with anything, as though living
itself were an endless translation (4)
Translation is a metaphor for a special kind of longing for the other. It anticipates a state of eventual arrival, reception, and completion. But this “word-to-come” is imaginable only through the provisional flowering of slippery word variants, deciduous syllables, the poet’s makeshift decisions, the reader’s temporary gleanings.
Influence in psychoanalysis
The book’s central title poem forms a decisive and fascinating counterpoint. It is a meticulously forensic reconstruction of the life and death of Victor Tausk, one of Freud’s most promising, but most troubled, disciples in the early years of psychoanalysis. After killing himself in 1919 at the age of forty, Tausk was fated to become a tragic footnote in the history of psychoanalysis, chiefly remembered for his paper “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia.”
Reading Cole’s masterful, polyphonic orchestration of the Tausk-Freud relationship (the poem is fifty pages) feels like experiencing the slow, inexorable slide of Greek tragic drama. This fateful tale is the opposite of Cole’s cherished open-endedness, for the death of Tausk is such a foregone conclusion. Rather, Cole offers us a formally gorgeous, if painstaking, account of the dire consequences that result from the pathological desire for originality and the fear of influence.
Cole mobilizes a vast array of textual resources to do so: he draws on Tausk’s own writings (letters, papers, poems, journals), on Freud’s letters, on the journals and letters of Lou Andreas-Salomé (who had a brief affair with Tausk and entertained a long friendship with Freud), and relies heavily on Paul Roazen’s book Brother Animal, an excavation of the Tausk-Freud relationship which largely blames Freud’s rejection of Tausk for the younger man’s suicide. Freud felt threatened by his student’s pioneering work, Roazen argues, and probably felt other more personal aversions as well, leading him to disown Tausk in a calculated move that partly contributed to the disciple’s death.
“The Invention of Influence: An Agon” opens in a voice that recalls the premonitory authority of the chorus in Greek tragic drama. The prefatory poem is drawn from Tausk’s paper on the “influence machine” which controls the thoughts and feelings of the paranoid schizophrenic:
… Boundaries are called into question
as though one’s thoughts were “given”
and knowledge implanted from beyond —
so what’s within is known.
One does nothing on one’s own.
Strings are pulled and buttons
pressed, all to evade an anxiety
that rears its head at the heart
of the void in avoidance. The echoes begin:
The cure as illness, the illness
as cure. Thus the revolving door
that becomes a lament for the makers —
and for those who fall prey to the powers —
of this most intricate machine. (32)
Later, Cole parses Freud’s own thoughts about the ways in which a writer may think he’s doing original work when actually he’s just repressing the sources from which his ideas originated (an anxiety Freud himself possessed most acutely).
afflicts the plagiarist,
or something like
the X he is:
What’s old and has
long been known
seems to him new
and becomes his own.
He’s all reception,
and the fruits are manifold
though the root is one —
and a sense at heart
the doctor describes
as a kind of cry:
I cannot bear
not to have been
the first to have uttered
a certain thing. (56–57)
Both Freud and Tausk suffered this anxiety with respect to their work — and of course, aversion to influence is a cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis in general, with its fixation upon the Oedipal dilemma that leads the son to attempt to murder his father.
That I am a son, said Tausk,
around the time he encountered Freud,
causes me great embarrassment
(it shames me)
when someone calls me by the name
handed on by my father ...
because a father conceived me
and a mother brought me into this world.
Destiny’s what the eyes can see,
the ears take in, the hands contain —
and still we’re called to account with the elders,
and blood misled, misleads again.
And so with a needle he pierced
that picture’s heart —
on the wall (33)
The subtitle of the poem, “an Agon,” reminds us of Harold Bloom’s writing on the agonistic aspects of influence, and of the Freudian underpinnings of his theory. In his book Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, an elaboration of ideas first established in The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom insisted that
the love of poetry is another variant of the love of power … a particular power, the power of usurpation…. We read to usurp, just as the poet writes to usurp. Usurp what? A place, a stance, a fullness … something we can call our own or even ourselves.”
This viewpoint, so bent upon claiming a fixed place for oneself, is quite incompatible with Cole’s essential poetics, which practices writing as a form of translation, as a “being between” fixed places, with the poet as a transponder, not an orator, a conduit, not a usurper.
Nevertheless, Bloom’s misprision hovers over Cole’s interrogations of influence because his introduction to the book offers such a strong reading of Cole’s importance. Bloom rightly praises Cole for producing “a specifically Jewish self somehow centered upon translation, with that process reconceived in a sense both broad and cutting” (xi). However, he misreads Cole when imagining a hidden affinity between Cole and Freud:
Our Father Freud fully expected to replace Judaism with psychoanalysis, and the man Moses by the man Solomon Freud. On one level, Cole wonders if the American Jewish poetic quest can evade some affinities with the audacious Freudian project. (xi)
In fact, Cole is not at all driven by a desire to write poetry that is either originally American or originally Jewish. The strength of Cole’s work is partly its eschewal of what Louise Glück has called the “imperatives of self-creation,” American literature which seeks to “break trails, to found dynasties.” For Cole, as for all Kabbalists, “creation” is something divine and unknowable. Writers don’t create. Poet-translators invent; they translate; as often as not, they are “driven by the pulse of another’s poem” (90). They find rather than found.
In the end, Cole bookends the “The Invention of Influence: An Agon” by presenting two slightly different versions of the same poem at the beginning and at the end, as if to contain or to quarantine this Oedipal drama, to prohibit Tausk’s nightmare from taking effect upon us, lest the following equation come to define us:
I.M. — an Influence
Machine, in short;
and we are what we
become in its import. (64)
Towards the ecstasies of influence
“I.M.” is a parody of the “I AM” of the Hebrew God whose influence Jewish writers have invented and reinvented down the centuries. Cole follows the Freudian tragedy with his rendering of a seventh-century poem by Yannai, one of the first writers of liturgical poems in the Jewish tradition. Under the title “On What Is Not Consumed,” Cole translates:
Angel of fire devouring fire
Fire Blazing through damp and drier
Fire Candescent in smoke and snow
Fire Drawn like a crouching lion
Fire Evolving through shade after shade
Fateful fire that will not expire
Gleaming fire that wanders far
Hissing fire that sends up sparks …
For Cole, the Jewish mystical imaginary effectively burns off the Romantic’s anxiety of influence. The burning bush is the source of all language for Jewish mysticism. And indeed, Cole understands ordinary language itself — however it comes to us — as the sacred origin of influence.
Poets renew its “normal magic” whenever they sit down to restoke its fires, to bank its light and its heat. In this way, Cole’s ongoing invention of an English-language Jewish-Kabbalistic poetics demands that he continue becoming traditional while remaining what he is: a thoroughly experimental connoisseur of bewilderment and errancy. The project is open-ended, its undertaking is never through. Toward the end of the new book, “The Perfect State” reminds us of this in many ways:
The perfect state of being human isn’t perfection,
it’s becoming, the Greeks say, ever more real
in nearing but never quite reaching a certain ideal,
like translation. It’s deficient. A chronic affection.
Perfection for the Kabbalist is reached
only when the fortress is breached
to the brokenness, the husks, the Other Side.
so imperfection becomes a guide (88) [...]
Perfection, the feeling philosopher says,
suggests an openness to endless change—
the self in radical revolution
within a self it soon finds strange. (89)
With The Invention of Influence, Cole turns the “radical revolution” of American poetry in new directions, writing with the same spiritual ardor, the same skepticism, and the same sublime craftsmanship that illuminates the work of the illustrious company he shares most: Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Susan Howe. He enlarges American poetry considerably, too, by demonstrating the kindred spirit shared by the Jewish mystical imagination and the restless agnosticism that defines the best of all our contemporary poetry.
7. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Quotation and Originality,” Emerson Central, March 22, 2014.
A review of Gro Dahle's 'A Hundred Thousand Hours'
The statistics for literature in translation in the United States aren’t good. As Anna Clark, writing for the Pacific-Standard, points out in her article “You’re Missing Out on Great Literature,” a slim 3 percent of books published per year in the US are works in translation. Some readers and translation publishers are already aware of this number. Open Letter, for example, based at the University of Rochester, hosts a blog called Three Percent that focuses on translation-related topics. Interestingly, Clark parses the percentage to show what types of books make up that number. The majority of those works, as it turns out, are computer and technical manuals. After that there are novels, and then books of poetry. It would seem that translators of novels (whether genre or literary) must receive some encouragement from publishers because there is the possibility of turning some profit. For literary translators, though, the money, or the lack thereof, is most likely not the attraction. Perhaps the drive for the translation of technical manuals isn’t from publishers; instead, translators are likely driven by the need from tech companies to provide clear instructional language for users. With such a meager percentage of poetry being translated per year, I started to wonder what role chance plays for poetry translators? How do they discover the work to translate?
For Rebecca Wadlinger, the translator of the recently published A Hundred Thousand Hours, by the Norwegian poet and writer Gro Dahle, chance played an intriguing role in her decision to translate Dahle’s book. Wadlinger, a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston, discovered the Norwegian’s work while on fellowship at the University of Oslo. In an interview for The Kenyon Review, she describes how she found Dahle’s work in the basement of the university library near the end of her stay. By that time, Wadlinger had already read through many books of poems in the library stacks, but when she found A Hundred Thousand Hours she said, “I was floored. I remember marveling at Dahle’s intelligence, morbidity, and imagination. I knew this manuscript would appeal to so many American readers — I needed to translate it!” As fate would have it, Dahle’s book had been out of print for years. Wadlinger decided to transcribe the poems by hand from the Bokmål dialect, an official written standard of Norwegian. So, it’s not simply chance that brought Dahle into English, it’s also Wadlinger’s curiosity in the basement of that library and her commitment to producing a hard copy of the poems to bring home.
While Dahle is virtually unknown in the United States, she is well known as the author of over thirty books in Norway. Audience, her first book of poems, was published in 1987. The daughter of Øystein Dahle, a former executive for Esso and a fellow of the Norwegian Academy of Technological Sciences, she has collaborated with her husband and illustrator Svein Nyhus on a popular series of children’s books. Two of these collaborations have received national prizes in Norway. Nice received the Brage Prize in 2002 and Angry Man, a book addressing domestic violence from a young boy’s perspective, won the Best Children’s Book Prize from the Norwegian Ministry of Culture in 2003. Much of Dahle’s work, whether for children or adults, if these distinctions even apply for a writer such as Dahle, is from the child’s perspective.
In A Hundred Thousand Hours, a book-length work of short poems, Dahle alternates perspectives between the young daughter and the mother she becomes. These perspectives draw from the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship. ‘Complexities,’ though, isn’t quite the right word for a work with lines like these:
I stitch my child onto my body. She is an extra
arm. She is an extra breast. And I breathe
through her. I smile with her mouth.
The world is only as big as the space between
her forehead and my mouth. (79)
Like the above, much of Dahle’s description of the mother-daughter relationship is characterized by spare and direct language that suggests claustrophobic closeness. In the background, as I read these poems, I hear the following refrain: get away from me; I love you.
In addition to her focus on the physicality of the mother-daughter relationship, Dahle creates a constricted atmosphere with her detailed attention to the rooms, furniture, and accouterments that surround the relationship:
When I wake up, the room stands and waits for me.
The moulding, doorsteps and parallel lines. When
morning light falls in a trapezoid on the floor, it touches
the corner of a button. My mother’s mother-of-pearl button.
When I spill sugar on the floor, I take it as a good
sign. But in my side-sight I see the furniture ready to run. (11)
The emphasis on small details, the trapezoidal morning light touching the corner of a button, and the use of alliterative repetition in “My mother’s mother-of pearl button” depict a highly observant daughter. It seems, too, that the speaker attaches a divined, yet panicked, significance to the spilled sugar when she takes it “as a good / sign.” This divination appears throughout the book and often seems to stem from the need for the daughter, and sometimes for the mother, to feel as if they have gained a sense of control.
Even though many readers will be unfamiliar with how to read Norwegian, or even how it sounds, this bilingual edition allows one to see the source of “My mother’s mother-of-pearl,” which reads as follows: “Min mors perlemorknapp” (10). Wadlinger, in her translation, maintains the several m-sounds in that line. On the whole, she displays throughout the book an astute ear for the sonic elements within Dahle’s work, and skillfully renders English-language poems. One of the pleasures of bilingual editions for readers, particularly when one isn’t familiar with the language being translated from, is looking at the originals and translations as (mirror) images, not to compare for visual accuracy, but simply to see what shapes the translator had to work with, and what types of decisions she might have had to make about the visual presentation of the work. In Wadlinger’s case, she seems to have replicated the finely honed shapes of Dahle’s originals. As I move from one poem to the next, my eyes feel the pleasure of carrying the shadow-image of the Norwegian into the English.
A Hundred Thousand Hours is Dahle’s first appearance in English, as well as Wadlinger’s first published book of translations. Judging from this work, they are a good pairing, which makes me hope Wadlinger will continue to bring Dahle into English. To everyone’s advantage, though, the translator will not need to rely on chance, at least not as much as she did the first time around when she waded into those stacks in Oslo. Perhaps Wadlinger, by now, has also been tipped off to other Norwegian works that would help readers to develop a stronger sense of Dahle’s generation of writers, a generation that includes the bestselling crime novelist Jo Nesbø. Norway’s iconoclastic literary tradition is too little known here in the United States. Prior to Nesbø’s international success, Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun are most likely the only other Norwegian writers with name recognition for American readers. Judging from this short, but male-dominated, list, we could certainly benefit from becoming more aware of women’s writing in Norway. Rebecca Wadlinger, with her translation of A Hundred Thousand Hours, has provided readers the necessary introduction.
1. Anna Clark, “You’re Missing Out on Great Literature,” Pacific-Standard, February 11, 2014.
3. Hannah Withers, “Translating Immediacy and Manic Delight: A Micro-Interview with Rebecca Wadlinger,” May 20, 2011.