Reviews

'the pleasure of / companionship'

A review of 'The Oppens Remembered'

The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship

The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship

Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis

University of New Mexico Press 2015, 296 pages, $59.95, ISBN 978-0826356239

To understand a poet’s work it is necessary to understand a poet’s life; this is particularly the case with poet George Oppen, whose work, in Michael Heller’s estimation, frequently demonstrates “an urge toward psychic depths” and “take[s] account of contingency, of the life that impinges on us, whether it involves meeting other poets, car wrecks” — referring to Oppen’s poem “Route” (1968) — “or the wrecks of the self and world.”[1]The publication in 1990 of the invaluable Selected Letters, a superb collection of Oppen’s correspondence edited by noted Oppen scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis, helped illustrate how important such impingements were to Oppen; that, in fact, his oft-stated desire of achieving clarity in poetry was not merely an aesthetic or formal consideration, but indeed a deeply existential desire on his part to make his poetry dialogue with himself and others, of bridging a long-widened gap resulting from his twenty-five years of self-imposed exile from poetry. What these remarkable letters suggest is that for Oppen, poetry was not simply a means of conveying experience, but a means of reaching out to others, of overcoming the unbearable loneliness of existence.

Evidence of this need for community is provided throughout DuPlessis’s new volume, The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship, which includes essays and reminiscences by those who knew the Oppens personally, including, among others, DuPlessis, Heller, Michael Davidson, Diane Wakoski, David Antin, Sharon Olds, and Paul Auster.

As DuPlessis remarks in her contribution, writing was for Oppen an important means of connection with the world, one that became an almost existential means of commitment to both self and world. Oppen argued with himself and with others through his poetry, which was often filled with contradiction. Yet, as DuPlessis notes, he was also “engaging seriously with poetics and politics in his letters … He needed contact … He needed a circle, a coterie, a cenacle, and he sought actively to sustain that intellectual, social, and poetic network” (195–96). Anthony Rudolf, poet and friend of the Oppens during the 1970s and ’80s, concurs, arguing that “the life and work of this existentialist lodestar seem[s] more dialectically integrated than that of any other writer. By this I mean that his ontological integrity was peculiarly transparent and bound up with the purity of his writerly vision, whether in words or in their absence” (172).

The essays in this present volume form a kind of haphazard biography; nevertheless DuPlessis has done a heroic job of organizing the volume so that it follows a certain narrative trajectory. Given DuPlessis’s stated premise “that any biographical relationship is built from the dynamic space of the encounter, the space of the between,” the constraints and demands of biography, which are significant, are here somewhat less imposing. The Oppens Remembered, she explains,“is not so much the ‘life’ of George Oppen and Mary Oppen” as it is “the establishment of a dialogue, a ‘between,’ at the moment when one’s own life and the lives of the Oppens interacted with particular intensity” (x).

Indeed, the Oppens were particularly intense: eloping at a young age, the couple moved to New York City just prior to the Depression; they met poets Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. They then moved to France to publish poetry and prose by Williams and Pound, along with a collection of “Objectivist” poets, a movement designed by Zukofsky for Poetry Magazine, with which Oppen was briefly associated. The Oppens then returned to the United States, and in 1935, spurred by its achievements in organizing the unemployed, George and Mary joined the Communist Party. As members they worked to organize the poor, delivered soapbox speeches, and engaged in rent strikes and milk strikes. This quarter-century political commitment was instigated by a deeply felt obligation to combat the unemployment endemic to the Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe during the Second World War. Because the party demanded that artists use their talents in service of the party’s political agenda, Oppen, who did not believe that poetry could fix what was broken — at least politically — decided to stop writing rather than make his poetry a vehicle for didactic political expression. Following the Second World War, in which he fought and was wounded, Oppen chose to devote himself to his role as husband and father. Exile in Mexico in the 1950s, and concern for the well-being of his daughter, Linda, whom he says he did not want to expose to his innermost fears, further postponed his writing.

Following the war, Oppen returned to the United States in a severe state of mental distress and physical trauma. Perhaps because of fears of anti-Semitism and an overall distrust of human motivations, the Oppens decided not to raise their daughter in the crime-ridden and increasingly dangerous postwar New York City, and in 1946, they moved to California. They were at this time politically active, organizing petitions opposing the Korean War and supporting Henry Wallace in his 1948 bid for the presidency. As anticommunist paranoia began to sweep America, the US government stepped up surveillance programs on known communists, including the Oppens. The FBI paid them several visits, inquiring about past and present political activities. Fearing arrest, the Oppens decided to leave the country until the hysteria receded. Thus began a decade-long exile in Mexico.

As recounted in several memoirs included here (most notably, Julian Zimet’s, Stephen Schneider’s, and Linda Oppen’s contributions), the years in Mexico were deeply unhappy. A major reason for this discontent is that the Oppens were unable to enjoy the freedom of movement they had at all times in their lives experienced. They had not gone to Mexico out of choice, and once there, they had their passports seized and were unable to leave. “They felt so out of place because it wasn’t their chosen way of life,” Linda observes; “it took a toll” (237).

In 1958, Oppen suddenly and mysteriously began writing poetry again. He often relied on a reductive explanation for this, referring to an anecdotal dream in which he imagined going through his deceased father’s files and discovering a document detailing the prevention of rust in copper. Oppen related this dream to Mary’s therapist, who provided the interpretation that — put simply — Oppen did not want to corrode. This revelation, which poses a contradiction of sorts, as Oppen was outspokenly distrustful of psychological explanations or motivations for art, apparently prompted Oppen’s decision to write again. Yet what actually fueled most this creative resurgence was his need to reintegrate into a community receptive to what it was that he had to say. Indeed, it might be said that his psychic survival depended on saying certain things and, most especially, on being heard. And what it was he had to say could be said only in the form of poetry. The time for soapbox speeches was over.

By 1960, the Red Scare had lost its momentum. Once in possession of their passports, the Oppens again became permanent, full-time US residents. The exigencies of reintegration into a thriving poetic community and the need for validation for his new body of work encouraged Oppen, during the first few months back in the States, to reach out to literary associates, some of whom he had not spoken to in years, including Zukofsky (to whom he first wrote in August 1958), Reznikoff, Williams, and New Directions publisher James Laughlin.

In discussing this return to writing, Oppen, perhaps tongue in cheek, stated in an unpublished letter from the late 1950s his intent on becoming a “Whitman of the factories,”and several recent essays examine Oppen’s cagey reaction to the immense impact of Whitman’s work on modern poetry. However broadly similar their philosophic and political concerns, Whitman’s poetics, in contrast to Oppen’s, possessed both a naïve idealism and energy far different in both form and subject matter. And while Oppen, in struggling to achieve a new form, could not return to the densely modernist poetry of his youth, neither could he compose derivative urban Whitman poems as did Allen Ginsberg. Stephen Schneider recalls Oppen’s personal discussion of Whitman in the early 1960s, in particular his singling out Whitman’s “On the Terrible Doubt of Appearances,” a poem that addresses the inadequacy of human perception. Whitman’s poem argues that because we cannot trust our perceptions, we are alone in them. Moreover, we cannot communicate our experience to one another because of the limitations of words; yet in our interactions with others we somehow overcome this solitude. Oppen’s interest in this poem, Schneider argues, is indicative of his fear of being alone. “Oppen’s particular dread of unreality, or nothingness, and his conviction that real solitude would be ‘lethal,’ owe something to the harms he had suffered” (30). Oppen’s loneliness, Schneider contends, compelled him to form deep, lasting bonds with many younger poets and writers — including Harvey Shapiro, Robert Duncan, Armand Schwerner, and Denise Levertov — relationships that helped to rekindle Oppen’s newfound creativity.

John Crawford, one the earliest of these younger poets to meet the Oppens (61), does not recall seeing any poets the same age as the Oppens, noting how their relationship with Zukofsky was “strained” by that point. It was clear to Crawford that Mary acted as a “buffer between George and the rest of the world” (62), perhaps another indication of his ongoing trauma. Mary, he observes, was a “strong woman who had thrown her life wholeheartedly into her partnership with a brooding, sensitive, intellectually dominating man” (77–78), and so had a right — indeed an obligation — to be protective of him. Where George could lapse into an often lengthy, at times impenetrable silence, Mary was more straightforward and outspoken than her husband.

From the portrait provided by this volume, Oppen could be an imposing presence. He often attended readings attired in a three-piece suit and tie, giving him the appearance — particularly among the more colorful attire of the 1960s — of being a relic from another era. His wry wit provided a certain levity that contrasted with his war-torn visage and his deep-set, penetrative eyes. “George was wiry and wily,” explains DuPlessis, and “did not suffer fools gladly” (195). To John Crawford, Oppen’s humor was “self-effacing,” though discussions of politics, “if allowed into the conversation at all” — given their years of political persecution the Oppens were perhaps understandably paranoid and reticent to bring up politics in polite conversation, lest discussion turn toward their years as communists — were “always a serious business” (59). He notes Oppen’s “quiet magnetism, his buried passion, his very real silences” (60), qualities that were perhaps outward signs of his ongoing, unspoken trauma.

To be sure, the trauma inflicted by the immensity of the Depression and war is a major theme of Oppen’s post-silence work, which provides an ongoing critique of the isolation of modernity, anxieties arguably intensified by the social and political turmoil of the Cold War, Vietnam, and Civil Rights eras. In his discussions with other poets — some tantalizingly recounted in this present volume — and in his private papers, Oppen repeatedly addressed the metaphysical implications of these crises. The tensions between the singular and the numerous, the human as individual and as part of a collective, are subjects he obsessed over during the 1960s. Oppen’s new work — which on the surface recalls the same modernist aesthetic that informed the poetry of Pound, Williams, and Zukofsky — consists of a metaphysical and political consciousness shaped by his experiences from the 1930s to the 1950s, one that speaks directly to the increasingly radical political beliefs of this subsequent generation of poets. Observes Henry Weinfeld, “even though [Oppen] wrote nothing while he was in the Party, it was this experience, positive and negative, that gave him what he needed to begin afresh as a poet” (156), as it helped him to define the narrow efficacy of art, while simultaneously providing him with the undergirdings of political action.

Oppen hoped that his poetry, in grappling with these and other moral concerns, could restore certain core values to this idea of “humanity,” namely compassion for one another and the condemnation of violence and ruination. To do so effectively requires clarity, a criterion present throughout Oppen’s body of work, from the early, Objectivist-influenced poems of Discrete Series (1934), to the spare, enigmatic poems of Primitive (1978), his final book of poems.Ted Pearson perceptively observes in his contribution to The Oppens Remembered that “[i]mplicit in Oppen’s stated desire for poetry ‘to achieve clarity’ is his commitment to the process of clarification, the constant testing of one’s materials that makes such clarity possible — and perceptible to one’s readers” (138). Pearson points to the lines “the pleasure of being heard / the pleasure of / companionship” from Oppen’s poem “To C. T.” (1965),[2] noting that their success above all requires that a reader is able to “recognize those moments when a work actually achieves clarity” (138). At the same time, Pearson continues, as Oppen noted in “Route” (1968), a poem that largely concerns Oppen’s wartime experience, the “heartlessness of words” is that they “cannot be wholly transparent.”[3] In other words, one must wrestle between the achievement of “linguistic transparency” and the ability to effectively convey meaning. Instead of becoming discouraged by this seeming irreconcilability, Oppen took it as a challenge. Argues Pearson, his “distrust of words … his sense of them as ‘enemies’ to be persuaded from unethical misuse … and his no less intransigent ‘faith’ in the referential probity of the ‘little words’ he favored and trusted to bear the weight of his thought” resulted in an “apparently productive tension” (138).

With the poem “Of Being Numerous” (1968), Oppen intentionally set out to write — and arguably achieved — the defining poem of the 1960s. DuPlessis remarks that the poem “belong[s] to the thought of a generation ripped apart by the Vietnam War” and that it represents Oppen “giving his thinking back to some of that generation … the unfinished business of radical hopes brought forward and yet infinitely compromised and compressed” (196). In interviews, letters, and personal papers, Oppen ruminated on the poem’s source and meaning, explaining that “Numerous” represents the culmination of his thinking during his twenty-five-year silence, that he wrote the poem — indeed much of his post-silence work — to answer once and for all the question of whether or not there is an objective humanity apart from its concept.[4]

To DuPlessis, however, the content of the poem is rather less abstract. In her view, “Numerous” is a “ferocious meditation” on such things as “government malfeasance and lies; realpolitik calculation; aggression that, as always, rebounds; the literal horrors of war, with the backdrop being a historically rupturing assassination of a popular president and other significant, change-oriented political figures as well: Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr” (196–97). While crowded, DuPlessis’s argument does speak to the decidedly political undertones of the poem, and, certainly, “Numerous” addresses the sociological and cultural crises of its era. Yet the sublimity of “Numerous” is its metaphysical incisiveness, its ability to address history without becoming mired in specifics. Oppen’s larger concern is to question the cause and meaning of, for example, violence, war, assassination, political misconduct, and what they reveal about humanity. In fact, what “Numerous” is above all concerned with are the implications and effects of urbanism (it initially began as an earlier poem, 1965’s “Another Language of New York”), and of the relationship between the one and the many (here epitomized by the solitary lyric poet and society). This concern is due in part to Oppen’s representation of the modern, postindustrial city — specifically New York — as representing vast networks of practical, financial, and sociocultural exchanges. These networks present the poet with a useful convergence of energies that illustrate human relationships, both personal and impersonal. As Kathleen Fraser neatly summarizes, “Oppen turned our minds with the force of a magnet toward the difficult, unavoidable evidence of the human condition — in particular, the terrible uses of America’s wealth and power enacted during our own overlapping lifetimes of war” (87).

In many ways, the poem seems an ex post facto meditation and act of contrition for Oppen’s decades-long poetic silence, while simultaneously providing a measure of the efficacy of art in a time of crisis. For John Crawford, Oppen’s poem “melds together the sense of several disasters,” among them the need “to find a new acceptance of life, however perilous” in the aftermath of the Second World War and in the face of nuclear annihilation, an acceptance that involves “a commitment to the creation of art and beauty in the midst of estrangement and catastrophe, [and] a recognition that life ends in a kind of failure that only commitment can justify.” For Crawford, Oppen’s citation in the poem of Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati,the idea of eternal recurrence, or, as Oppen describes it, the “love of fate”[5] underlines Oppen’s “embrace of existence despite the ultimate cost.” Oppen’s use of the phrase “the bright light of shipwreck,” Crawford maintains, suggests that “the destruction of the isolated individual is transfigured into the existence of one among many in the city, the commonality of creation and re-creation despite the failure of each in time … The individual is doomed to failure, the collective bodies shorn of their freedom. Art is the basis of a kind of survival narrative, a series of steps that together create ‘the isolation of the actual’” (77).

In the years following the war, George Oppen was living his own survival narrative. Suffering from guilt induced by his failure to act as he had anticipated — which is to say, heroically — Oppen wrote very little about his experiences in war, only a handful of poems and letters. Crawford suspects that Oppen, “through images [in his poetry] of natural affinity, simplicity, and trust … was seeking a recovery of equilibrium” (68); that in a sense — though he would adamantly oppose a simplistic psychological interpretation of art — his later writing involved a working through various traumas, most profoundly his experiences of war and the decade of exile in Mexico. As Oppen developed the war poems in The Materials (1962), This in Which (1965), and Of Being Numerous (1968), Crawford writes, “he found a great deal of personal integration. It appeared in the form it did as a kind of rebirth through suffering and horror. It spoke to ethical questions and the shock of existence” (76; italics mine).

As a number of the contributors here note, “Of Being Numerous” is arguably the central work in Oppen’s oeuvre, a culmination of his new poetic form and an eloquent summary of his lifelong struggle with certain metaphysical and political concerns. The poem also signaled a stylistic turning point. In the late 1960s, the Oppens moved to San Francisco, the site of Oppen’s adolescence. Poems written following this move and published in a second trio of collections — Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1972), Myth of the Blaze (1975), and Primitive (1979) — are increasingly fragmented and elliptical; often beginning in media res, sometimes midsentence, lines are comprised almost entirely of sentence fragments, their syntax structurally eccentric and oblique. There are gaps and fissures, white areas on the page meant to indicate silence, most often the inexpressible. According to Ted Pearson,  

George struggled — and said he felt obliged — to change his approach to the poetic line. He wanted distance from what had come to be seen by many readers as his signature style, an outcome he had never intended. He said he did not want the form of work to be “predictable,” that is, to allow the reader to make a priori assumptions about its content. He was looking, he said, for “a different key,” one better suited to his present circumstances, including his and Mary’s life in San Francisco, for which “a language of New York” was impossible. (145)

Once in San Francisco, the Oppens immersed themselves in the city’s dynamic literary scene. His relationship with West Coast poets encouraged him to resume his literary activities, such as taking part in interviews and readings. Despite his ambivalence concerning self-promotion (and a stated dislike of attending poetry readings, according to Sharon Olds [165]), these readings and radio interviews had the effect of introducing Oppen’s work to an ever-larger and more admiring audience.

During this time Oppen also spent time in the Big Sur area with his half-sister June Oppen Degnan, who was instrumental in promoting her brother’s new work; her San Francisco Review in 1960 and 1961 would publish much of her brother’s earliest post-silence work, including copublishing, with New Directions, Oppen’s The Materials and This in Which. Degnan, writes DuPlessis, was “deeply, deeply invested” (194) in her brother’s literary career. “She had her own version of what that would be: that George would be like Norman Mailer [or James Jones, whom she knew] with his big novel about the war was a central figuration of that fantasy” (211, n. 3). Degnan brought Oppen’s work to the attention of the New York literati; moreover, she lobbied on her brother’s behalf in his nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, an award, it appears, Oppen neither sought, nor was entirely pleased to receive. Ted Pearson here observes that Oppen, while honored by the award, in a way “felt co-opted” by it, as it was founded and financed by an “establishment” publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose papers often resorted to yellow journalism, and who for Oppen represented a “class and ideology that he had long since rejected, vigorously opposed, and whose recent ‘approval’ of his work he could only find disturbing” (136). Oppen’s lack of enthusiasm concerning the award — and subsequent cancellations of a series of readings meant to capitalize on the attention it had given him — was apparently taken by Degnan as a slight. Yet Oppen did not write for awards, for “desire of approval,” nor “plain vanity,” argues Pearson. Rather, what he sought through his writing was “the possibility of ‘addressing [one’s] peers’ and ‘the pleasure of being heard.’”[6]

Whatever his feelings about the Pulitzer, it did help to legitimize Oppen’s new work, gaining him a wider audience among readers and critics. In April 1968, Oppen would make important inroads into the Midwest, attending the aforementioned conference on the “Objectivists” in Wisconsin in 1968, and in the summer of 1973 he attended a National Poetry Festival in Michigan. By 1969, Oppen’s work began to accumulate interest outside the US. His first Collected Poems was published by UK-based publisher Fulcrum in 1972, and in May 1973, the Oppens visited England to take part in readings and the Modern American Poetry Conference.

By the mid- to late 1970s, Oppen enjoyed considerable acclaim. He published in celebrated journals, and he took part in several major interviews, often accompanied by Mary. In May 1980, Oppen was recognized by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for “creative work in literature” and in July received, along with eight others, an award acknowledging his “extraordinary contribution” to American letters. Oppen would also receive the PEN/West Rediscovery Award in 1982.[7]

Despite the awards, the respect of his peers, and a modicum of commercial success, a lingering sense of failure continued to haunt Oppen, a failure that was personal and political, internal and external. This same complex of emotions also contributed to his lengthy creative silence, and nowhere were they felt more intensely than his fear of failing at poetry. While his body of work, six collections over a sixteen-year period, remained small in number, its content is immeasurable. Oppen wrote slowly, Mary told Olds, “over and over and over,” trying to get the poems right. “What I have,” Olds quotes George as saying, “is a tireless ear” (167). This practice points to a sense of engagement and conversation in the poems, of working through various ideas, in various stages of completion.

Yet just as Oppen began to receive wider attention for his work, his mental state began to decline. By the time the Oppens sat down for an interview with Paul Auster for the Paris Review in 1980, his condition had deteriorated to the extent that Auster reconsidered publishing the interview (xx), which remains unreleased.[8] Oppen, diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, was eventually hospitalized. He would die in a convalescent home on July 7, 1984.

The Oppens Remembered is a moving and insightful consideration of George and Mary’s life and work, and a reminder that good biography is its own art: what we choose to select, and to omit, possibly says more about the biographer than the subject on whom he or she is writing. Beginning with the bare facts of a life, and by means of this primary data, the biographer must interpret — and intuit — the origin and development of the poet’s thoughts. There are considerable drawbacks: the legitimacy of any biography depends greatly on the cogency and veracity of the biographer’s explanations. In each of the essays in The Oppens Remembered, however, the contributors, given the range of perspectives, and of course the intricacies of their subjects, provide an intriguing, multifaceted portrait of George and Mary Oppen, conveying their humanity, those little details which, even if they cannot adequately summarize their lives, help to at least enrich one’s sense of them, and to suggest further interpretations of Oppen’s unparalleled art. 


1. Michael Heller, in The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015), 45. 

2. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 158.  

3. Ibid., 194.

4. George Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 111, 263, 386.  

5. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 166–67.

6. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 194, 158, qtd. in DuPlessis, The Oppens Remembered,137.

7. Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 346.

8. Richard Swigg, editor of the Oppen audio library at PennSound, informs me that this interview will be published at Jacket2 at some future date.

A lot of things happened

A review of Lisa Rogal's 'Morning Ritual'

Photo of Lisa Rogal (right) courtesy of greetingsreadings.org.

Morning Ritual

Morning Ritual

Lisa Rogal

United Artists Books 2015, 112 pages, $15, ISBN 0-935992375

The title of Morning Ritual superimposes the divine and the mundane: one thinks simultaneously of a prayer to greet the sunrise and of brushing one’s teeth. In this book, however, Rogal is firmly rooted in the quotidian: it’s toothbrushing that she’s interested in, and she resists the urge to give daily “rituals” like this more than their usual significance. What she shows us by doing so is that their usual significance, though minor, is nonetheless an essential part of the tapestry of our experience and worth exploring.

The opening piece, called “I woke up this morning,” is a series of alternative scenarios in which a frustrated tenant faces a plumbing malfunction. Most of them begin with these lines: “I woke up this morning and ran the faucet. It was the fourth day without hot water, and I wanted to kill my landlord.”[1] From here, the speaker wheels through a wide array of possibilities: in some scenarios, she tries and fails to fix the plumbing herself; in some, she goes for a run and tries to forget about it; in one, she goes sunbathing on the roof and runs into a hallucinatory dreamscape of nostalgia; and in one, she actually does kill her landlord. These are only a few of the alternatives, and the effect is like a splintering of time. At one point, the speaker contemplates the flow from her tap in a way that is suggestive of Rogal’s technique in this piece:

I woke up this morning and ran the faucet. I let the faucet run and run and the sound and sight of continual water turns into a trance. I keep inserting my fingers into the stream to see it ruined and restored over and over. I want to ruin it over and over forever and play with it to make it become other things. It insists on being water, on being movement and stillness at once, on coming forever though eventually it will end … (21–22)

This is the way time works in “I woke up this morning.” Rogal dips her fingers into the stream of time and interrupts it: the first sentence is definitively in the past tense, while the second begins with the ambiguous tense of “I let the faucet run” and transforms into the present as the “sound and sight of continual water turns into a trance.” In this piece, Rogal plays with possibility, letting all these alternative versions of the morning coexist in the present, even though only one will become the definitive past.

Rogal’s crafting of everyday experience into the stuff of poetry certainly owes something to modernists such as Gertrude Stein, as well as the Oulipian writers. The iterative technique of “I woke up this morning” brings to mind Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, though Rogal’s style throughout this book is relentlessly plain and colloquial. One also thinks of Stein’s The Making of Americans, a book in which Stein claimed that she had created a sense of a “continuous present” by “beginning again and again.”[2] Rogal implicitly acknowledges another modernist influence:

I can’t help but be of two minds / three minds
like a tree / all white
no leaves to lose / no birds
some of these trunks smell like alcohol (86)

This is a play on the second stanza of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.[3]

Rogal’s version muddies what for Stevens was a crystal-clear image: for him, three distinct minds are like three distinct birds; for her, two minds blur into three, the tree is barren, and its relationship to the minds is obscure — and furthermore, somebody’s been drinking. Rogal’s project is not one of disciplined focus on crystalline moments; rather, not unlike Stein’s work, Morning Ritual exposes the difficulty of such focus and suggests that a wide-ranging and creatively distractible mind might be a more interesting lens on the world.

Furthermore, Morning Ritual’s epigraph from Georgia O’Keefe insists on duration rather than an instantaneous image: “Nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small it takes time — and we haven’t time — and to see takes time — like to have a friend takes time” (9). One poem titled “I’m talking” seems to track a series of conversation topics from the frivolous to the intimate, perhaps in demonstration of this point about friendship. It opens this way:

I’m talking nihilism
I’m talking botany
I’m talking television
I’m talking Nazis
I’m talking talking
I’m talking Vaseline
I’m talking glasses
                                    two pairs for less (55)

It goes on like this for a while, before abruptly making a brief turn for the serious:

I’m talking cookies n’ cream gelato
I’m talking you
                        have a different experience
                        than me    different reality
I’m talking yeah
                        isn’t it true    and well
                        I have to reject interesting things though
                        they’re nice to think about
I’m talking look how far we’ve come guys
I’m talking bottomless hunger
I’m talking bottomless coffee
                        on Tuesdays (56)

Rogal transforms a conversation into a meta-monologue by reducing speech to its topics, and by leaving out the responses of the speaker’s interlocutor(s). The rapid-fire parts make the speaker sound a little like a used car salesman (“I’m talking four-wheel drive; I’m talking no money down”), and by extension make the conversation feel cursory, impersonal, and perhaps self-interested — but when the topic shifts from gelato to a reflection on experience and reality, the pace slows down and we suddenly hear the speaker’s actual voice as the conversation gets more intimate for a moment before returning definitively to the quotidian with the mention of “bottomless coffee.” Rogal shows us that it doesn’t necessarily take the intense focus of Stevens on a blackbird to elevate the quotidian into the significant, but that we all do it all the time. Shifts in register, focus, and intensity like these populate our everyday conversations and experiences, and are worth documenting in part because they are how we forge real connections with one another. By the end of the poem, the subjects of conversation have gotten quite intimate:

I’m talking empathy
                        and how we will unwind
I’m talking about the candles we burned to
                        the wick in the night
I’m talking space heater — space heater
                        fire because
                        we laid
                        our cold bras across it
I’m talking cupping warm mugs
                        your hands are freezing
I’m talking all these phrases
                        living with me
I’m talking a thing
                                                you can’t escape
I’m talking Tahiti
                                                close your eyes
                                                to what you can’t imagine (58)

Here we have a literal and figurative thawing; the conversation that at first careened from nihilism to botany to television to Nazis is now focused on these moments of warmth and intimacy. The last few lines are a little puzzling: are the relatively grim far-indented lines part of the speaker’s monologue? The voice of the interlocutor at last? Some of the phrases that “live with” the speaker? The poem, like many in this book, resists neat closure, but it succeeds at capturing the texture of conversation: the shifts in topic and tone, from the mundane to the philosophical to the intimately personal, that make up our day-to-day connections to one another.

The final piece of the collection, “A lot of things happened,” acknowledges another explorer of the everyday: Georges Perec. The piece begins with what turns out to be a reference to his work: “A lot of things happened today. I mean, I feel I exhausted the day in some sense, seeing as I started it one way and transformed several times since then” (98). The speaker goes on to recount her day in comprehensive detail, which includes her picking up and beginning to read an unnamed book of Perec’s in which he is described as “[sitting] for three days in the café eating sausage sandwiches, drinking beer and coffee, writing, and just staring for long swaths of time” (112). The book must therefore be An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, in which this was precisely his project — to try to take notes on every person, object, event, and weather pattern that passed before his eyes over the course of three days of sitting in cafés in Paris’s Place Saint-Sulpice. Perec explained that in his book he wanted to investigate “what happens when nothing happens”[4] — and in the title of Rogal’s piece, we have her answer: “A lot of things happened.” The “things” that she describes are by definition not very monumental or even very interesting: she walks her dog, gets back a phone that she’d lost the night before, has sex with her boyfriend, picks up some books (including Perec’s), goes to a café to read them, and overhears some conversations there. At the end of this piece, which is the end of her book, the speaker has dissolved into Perec; she is reading his book while sitting at a café and observing the people and things around her just like he did. Furthermore, she explains how Perec himself dissolved: “He could see everything and nothing saw him, except through his own observations, imagining himself through his own eyes, a self-determined self, a solid self, documenting changes as they swirled around him” (112). In this final image, the act of observation empties out the self, and what causes it to become “solid” again is only one’s own imagining. What seems more real than “self” here is the tapestry of observations about the changing minutiae of the plaza. As Rogal vanishes into Perec, as her observations vanish into his, and as both speakers vanish into their observations, we learn that it’s the act of attention itself that may be more important than the details of Perec’s Paris or Rogal’s New York. We need not pretend that these details are fascinating in order for them to be worthy of our attention, for we live among them and they can always show us more about who we are.


1. Lisa Rogal, Morning Ritual (New York: United Artists Books, 2015), 13.

2. Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” in Writings 1903–1932, ed. Harriet Chessman and Catherine Simpson, (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 524–25.

3. Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage, 1990), 92.

4. See Erik Morse, “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec,” Bookforum (September 24, 2010).

Between generations

A review of Keith Waldrop's 'Selected Poems'

Photo of Keith Waldrop (right) © 2009 Charles Bernstein/PennSound.

Selected Poems

Selected Poems

Keith Waldrop

Omnidawn 2016, 307 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-1632430205

“It’s / true enough that we’ve fallen between / two generations — one drunk, the other / stoned,”[1] Keith Waldrop writes in an early poem addressed to his wife, poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop. It’s easy to imagine that Waldrop, born in 1932, is thinking of the “liquor and analysis” (43) that marked the lives of some of his lionized predecessors, such as Berryman and Lowell, and of the intoxicating, telling wit that can mark their work. In his poetry from the 1960s and ’70s in Selected Poems, one feels that weighty shadow: some phrases wouldn’t seem out of place in Lowell’s Life Studies, as in the throaty sound-play and mock-heroic pose of Waldrop’s “I may, of course, croak tomorrow, stumbling / from the larder” (19). And yet, even in his earliest poems, Waldrop evades that weight through the self-effacing wit and radiant interest in linguistics that distinguish his later work; Selected Poems confirms this continuity across his many shifts in style.

Or, one might say, the book highlights his many shifts in and out of particular styles: 1968’s “Angel to Love, Man to World,” for example, can be read as a smiling pastiche of period gestures. After an opening stanza that, characteristically, is intent on the “stunning silences” that attend philosophical disquisition, Waldrop asks, “Now what possesses me?” (17). It’s as though his theme is clear — said it in one stanza, fifty years ago — and now the variations begin: he adopts the guise of a Stevensian “connoisseur” and mutters a joke in French; he veers from childhood memory to learned citation; he summons himself toward epiphany. The concluding stanzas seem designed to dizzy a close reading into transcendence, to delight and befuddle a squinty scholar. After invoking the super-saturated grandeur of the fabricated sublime, Waldrop revels in similarly intricate diction:

I’d like an inclusive mind, where nothing could
possibly be out of the question. Like Saint
Mark’s façade where, halfway up a
clutter of Christianity and Venetian lace, are
four Roman horses, poised, in place.
Surely it was

thinking like this made Brueghel paint
a windmill near Calvary. When Adam, as it
fell out, got too old to know Eve, he sat
his inspired carcass down by his hoe, watching
his sweaty children screw up generation
after generation. (18)

Yes, “fell out” can refer to the fall of man and to one man’s fall from the potent ability to “know” his wife; yes, “inspired” should be read with its breathy, etymological meaning. “Screw up” touches at least five senses: Adam’s heirs (1) “screw up” their resolve to (2) procreate (perhaps screwily, given the few examples they had), which (3) messes up the kids, which (4) bolsters the construction of a world, much as the (5) screwed-up grist of a windmill does. The jumble of such decoding, of seeing a phrase distinctly stick several landings at once, might please some readers, but I think the line’s primary effect is closer to that of a koan: once a phrase can be read five ways, it points toward infinity, inviting one to assume an “inclusive mind.” I start to wonder: is there a relevant etymological meaning of “sweaty” at play; did “hoe” have the echo, in 1968, that it carries from hip-hop, today?

The question of whether all potential meanings are equally meaningful might dog one throughout Selected Poems. Often, the guidance Waldrop offers at once dons and shrugs off the possibilities of interpretation — “all connections (all) / connect,” he notes, “not always / as we could want them to” (41). The “we,” here, doesn’t refer to the author, whose intent might be clear or not, as much as to the reader who must accept that, tautologically, any connection that one can make is a connection, and yet its nature might exceed our wishes. This “we” presents the author as a fellow reader whose attention to the possibilities of interpretation troubles interpretation itself. It’s fitting that these preoccupations become clear in the poems selected from The Garden of Effort (1975), since their interest in enlivened ambivalence can seem both paradisal and laborious, though in Waldrop the arduous and ardent often twine. In these poems, it can feel as though Waldrop has compressed the final stanza of “Angel to Love” into nothing but phrases as brachiated as “screw up.” The pressure one could apply to such a phrase, to reveal its mass, emanates from the lines themselves. That is, they push back, through muddled or truncated propositional logic that shows the influence of French poets such as Claude Royet-Journoud, whom Waldrop has translated.

These poems can support associative mulling — like the conclusion of “Angel to Love” does — that winds up and up but never winds up in a polished interpretation (“engineering mothers / to make of / being born,” says one poem [56] — am I wrong to hear the syntax of a newspaper headline, as in a phrase like “Congress to Propose Legislation?”). Or they can read like studies in the connective gestures by which poets like Stevens and Ashbery construct sensations of plausibility (“with exploit / in the full / sense will / but is / not quite” [57]). Often, they invite one to meditate on grammar (is “engineering” a verb? is “will” the subject of the phrase?), much as they tickle perspective through overt staging (“A face at the / window and I forget / I’m indoors” [63]) and phrasal knots that arrive at straight strings, as though canceling themselves out (“Some things I’ve / seen through and / vice versa” [63]). Other reviewers can explore how these poems reflect or advance particular critical traditions; but much as the end of “Angel to Love” could satisfy a New Critical reading while, more significantly, pointing beyond the text, conjuring a more mysterious orientation toward reading and world, ditto these poems and Deconstructionism.

Still, it’d be wrong to ignore the affiliation Waldrop’s poetry can have with, say, Wittgensteinian linguistics. And, as with much poetry that offers both its own critical poetics and fans philosophical flames (without merely expressing its fandom of the old flame of a certain theory), it’s tempting to read some of Waldrop’s poetry as constantly reading itself. Waldrop’s poems, one could say, announce that “their language” functions “in / so many senses” (63), and that all literary artifice remains “still on the surface” (70). But Waldrop’s poetry is distinct from work in which this metacritical dimension points primarily to a poem’s own structures, or to something, sayable or not, about the nature of the sayable. First, even Waldrop’s most gnarled grammatical experiments retain an allusive tinge: the poems seem less like theses about language than the residual notation that might accompany wide reading or urgent seeing, showing the ways in which experiences become interwoven with one’s sensibility and thoughts; a poem is marginal, in the largest sense, like any lived-in epistemological assumption. In some poems, these allusions are direct: Waldrop recounts a version of the Pygmalion tale, or he engages wryly with Aristotle and Aquinas. Elsewhere, the traces of erudition can feel more oblique. In one later poem, for example, in which the following ellipses and italics are the author’s, Waldrop writes of

poison
with the charm of
intonation don’t
ever desire contraries …

—   a little wider

… now go
practice with your
mouth closed (202)

Though the poem explicitly depicts the training of a vocalist, it seems appropriate to also think of a Blakean dialectic of “contraries” and that concept’s centrality to many poets since Romanticism. “It must be the brook / Can trust itself to go by contraries / The way I can with you,” Frost writes, for instance, in “West-Running Brook.” Since I made that connection, should I read “mouth” also as a brook’s mouth, and so the poem asks one to dam up the flow of contraries, to achieve an “intonation” that is both wide (like a still pool) and (movingly) free of poisonous charm, a pure and eddying stream? Or should I mingle the metaphor with the mouth of an aspiring orator, mumbling through stones? Waldrop’s allusiveness is obvious enough, often, to suggest such readings. But his more minimal poems do so through suggestions so subtle that I think, as with “Angel to Love,” that one shouldn’t seek a concordance of references but to adopt an “inclusive mind” in which they can play. This mindset need not — and cannot — remain uncritically permissive of random data, of course, because it is continually contoured by Waldrop’s writing, which often reassures an uncertain reader by emphasizing states of liminality and unknowing (“I know the world exists. / I do not know how the world exists” [17], he writes) or by acknowledging, perhaps winkingly, that he is simply seeking a form for what he’s “jotting down” (33), for his “partially organized / bits” (41). By attending to these states, one might construct the kind of “phenomenology of ignorance” (40) that Waldrop identifies as a pressing need, given all we don’t know. Thus, while some highly allusive poetry has a quality of “you had to be there” — in the right seminar, the right café, the right prep school — Waldrop’s allusive tinge seems to ask “what you? what there?”

Second, Waldrop’s work avoids the narcissism that critics of the avant-garde often invoke through its relationship to translation, that most empathetic ground of linguistic play. Waldrop is a prolific translator, mostly from the French, and one might speculate that translation helped mute his feeling that he had “fallen between / two generations,” since even cursory acquaintance with the “two generations” produced by a poet and a translator offer a more complicated view of lineage and liminality, let alone of the “fallen” state of languages. Similarly, the trace of translational practices in his poems might have helped Waldrop both to escape analogy, that well-known ambition of certain experimental writers, referenced in his title Analogies of Escape, and to enjoy the richness of allusion without relying on foregone cultural knowledge. For example, the one-step-away translation from Corinthians in the lines below lets the mind rove, as in response to an allusion that emphasizes its symbolism — yet they foreground the language itself, so where I rove is to a strangeness I have never noticed before within the word “modified”:

If she
turns,
the objective
weakens.
We shall not all
rise, but
all
be modified. (133)

One can feel a similar spirit of translation — and a similar effect, of drawing a reader closer to the words themselves while also troubling a naïve regard for words’ meanings — in Waldrop’s frequent twisting of idioms, in his reorienting substitutions (“deified” for “defied” [265]), in his entertaining of alternates (“Monstrous colors on / certain things. // Monstrous things in / uncertain colors” [220]). A related method of alteration might have generated the title “Insisting Objects” from the poem’s musing on the parallel phrase “infinite creatures” (162); many other moments in Selected Poems might have resulted from similar processes (it doesn’t seem coincidental that the title of Waldrop’s first book contains the word “windmill” and the title of his second includes “windfall,” a kind of propulsive mishearing or permutation). This investment in the practices of translation also bridges the poles one can see in Waldrop’s more recent works, between observational prose, variously decorous and delectably anarchic, often linked to a personage, as in The Real Subject, and the kind of heightened, reflective lyricism one sees in Transcendental Studies. In The Real Subject, for example, Waldrop follows a whimsical conjecture (“Asked to explain why the hands come back to where they started, his mind wanders to the islands of an archipelago”[270]) with a lyrical reverie that extends from the word “archipelago.” The poet, in effect, has translated himself, offering both verse and commentary.

These two later works — Transcendental Studies, which won the National Book Award in 2009, and 2004’s The Real Subject — are sustained achievements, which show that while Waldrop’s themes and interests have been consistent since the 1960s, his formal explorations have deepened their consequence and scope; the excerpts in Selected Poems should inspire readers to seek the full collections. Especially because it includes the light verse from Songs from the Decline of the West, this volume’s consistency of vision across distinct formal modes brings to mind the poet who might be Waldrop’s closest forebear from that generation of “liquor and analysis”: the mid-century Romantic poet of psychological ecology, Theodore Roethke. In The Real Subject,the breezy metaphysics of Waldrop’s alter ego Jacob Delafon (the fixtures made by the French company Jacob Delafon have, as Waldrop sometimes delights in, application in the bathroom) can recall Roethke in his joshingly elegant mode, if one grants that “all connections (all)” can connect (41). Here’s Roethke, from “The Pure Fury”:

The pure admire the pure, and live alone;
I love a woman with an empty face.
Parmenides put Nothingness in place;
She tries to think, and it flies loose again.
How slow the changes of a golden mean:
Great Boehme rooted all in Yes and No;
At times my darling squeaks in pure Plato.[2]

And here’s Waldrop, from The Real Subject, in a different idiom but with a similar lightness in his combination of stagey comedy and stately romance, in his romantic clown’s regard for intelligent non sequitur:

Jane Floodcab, finding Jacob, as is not infrequent, preoccupied, is wont to fling herself at him, crying out,

“Here I come, body or not.” (295)

The resemblance gains prosodic kinship in moments of Transcendental Studies, which, like much of Roethke’s work, enacts a kind of quest that roots the haunting reverberations of memory in a landscape that is at once alienating and absorbing; that description could apply to the defamiliarized familiarity one sees throughout Waldrop’s poetry, as in a phrase like “silhouette of the bridge,” the title of a long poem (how can we tell the bridge from its silhouette?). Here’s Roethke, from “The Rose”:

Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,
As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,
And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.[3]

And here’s Waldrop, speaking as though near a “lavish” void (293), with a similar meditative lilt, a similar stunned regard for what’s most essential to one’s articulation:

Somewhere in my life, there
must have been — buried now under
long accumulation — some extreme
joy which, never spoken, cannot
be brought to mind. How else, in this
unconscious city, could I have
such a sense of dwelling? (295)

That last line, perhaps, suggests that the common ancestor of both poets may, at times, be Wordsworth, though many longtime readers of Waldrop might object to subsuming his work into an Anglophone canon. Still, Waldrop’s question can be seen as a response to the query from early in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, “What dwelling shall receive me?” We should hope to achieve, Waldrop suggests, only a “sense of dwelling,” not through accumulating experiences that we can later recollect and report but through intimations that “cannot / be brought to mind,” though we know that they occurred, and mattered; the action of recollection remains, without object. Perhaps this type of objectless recollection lets one become more fully tuned to unknowing, or to knowing more closely the signs of life’s “long accumulation.” Connecting song’s functions to memory’s in another poem, Waldrop evokes going “down to the / water bringing / nothing back” (172). Selected Poems is important evidence of what a long life in poetry, in which “nothing could / possibly be out of the question” (18) because the key questions concern the nature of nothingness itself, can actively bring us back from the waters where nothingness lives, thus bringing that nothingness to life.


1. Keith Waldrop, Selected Poems (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2016), 43. Mentions of  Waldrop’s earlier texts throughout refer to the poems anthologized in Selected Poems.

2. Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966; London: Faber & Faber, 1968), 128.

3. Roethke, Collected Poems, 199.

ko ko thett's cannibalistic poetics

A review of 'The Burden of Being Burmese'

Left: ko ko thett at an exhibition of Chinese semizdat poetry books at Shanghai Minsheng Arts Museum, where he read in November 2015. Photo by Victor Shen.

The Burden of Being Burmese

The Burden of Being Burmese

ko ko thett

Zephyr Press 2015, 103 pages, $15, ISBN 978-1-93889-16-1

We don’t choose the world we are born into. Or the nation. As valuable as theories of the social contract may be — the idea that we chose to relinquish the freedom of unfettered existence for the security of a lawful society — the fact remains that no one in our world has ever actually confronted that choice. It’s not a contract we can annul.[1]

The quintessential modernist response to this problem is to imagine oneself as part of a larger, supranational tradition — that of the literary canon or of Western civilization — and so to stand, in a sense, above history, above the nation. From the vantage point of that longing, it’s not as hard to understand Pound and Eliot’s fascist sympathies. In a modern world too overwhelming to contain, too full of despair and angst, there was comfort in the bucolic fantasy of the volk as much as there was in the sense of having been born late, in the wrong time, “an old man in a draughty house.”[2]

ko ko thett’s poem “my generation is best” reads like a child ironically placating false nostalgia of a parent. The child teases:

childhood past life, polio sister, measly brother, river blindness,
 tetanus twitch, bookworm, hookworm, head louse, earthworm
… playing football in the downpour with those low-income diseases
isn’t your generation best[3]

As with so much of thett’s work, even while the poem goes on to skewer generational nostalgia, the simple irony of the opening stanza unravels into more nuanced indeterminacy:

there was no income inequality in your days, everyone was equally poor
no capital flight, there was no capital
... the government never needed to justify its policies through
pro-government policy think-tanks to appease the west

Was life better in a world before neoliberal market logic sublimated all government policy decisions? Was life better before capital?

thett’s poems live within these questions, unwilling to cede an ounce of their undecidability. This is the burden of being Burmese — the burden of asking questions with no good answers, the burden of choosing between only bad options — and it’s a burden that we all share. If the modernists confronted the overwhelming sensory carnival and perpetual political unrest in the metropolitan centers of late-stage capitalism and pined for an imagined Edenic past, thett’s poetics presents a different solution: eat everything. Raw. In “a few ways to eat a city raw,” thett observes that “only humans, and a few other alien species, can eat on their feet” (13). In a world of limited resources, eat when you can, where you can, how you can. The best possible moment is the present; it’s the only one that exists.

The Burden of Being Burmese is thett’s first collection of poetry, but it reflects nearly twenty years of writing by a poet who has already left his mark on contemporary world literature as a translator and coeditor of an anthology credited with introducing Burmese contemporary poetry to Western audiences, Bones Will Crow: Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets (2012). It’s less surprising, then, that Burden doesn’t read like a first book, but rather an artfully and athletically constructed meditation on politics and poetry from a man raised in Myanmar, now exiled in Europe.

The book’s primary poetic habit is the list: thett’s lists are slapstick, capacious, contradictory, free-wheeling, vengeful, and above all cannibalistic. If thett’s ethic is based on eating everything, his poems attempt that impossible feat by piling it all into the stomach of the poem, each morsel separated only by a comma. “urban renewal” is a litany that expresses the frenzy of urban development plans, apparently as fervent in Myanmar as in the suburban expanses of the United States:

dog parks for dogs,
amusement parks for amusements, child-friendly facilities
for the parents of children who may never grow up,
bingo halls for all ages and sexual preferences, clear the
woods on the city’s fringes for nine-hole golf courses,
logging shall be licensed to make way for streamlined
taxiways for international arrivals, plant garden plants
in every department store (28)

thett’s list runs on and on, “malling, walling, enthralling”(29), painting a Bosch-like landscape of the banality of development schema in which organic life becomes demarcated units with assigned spaces, even if that entails clearing forests while planting gardens in department stores.  

As much as thett’s depictions of heady speculation, consumer fantasy, and crony capitalism place this collection in the context of an emerging global culture (as much as “the burden of being Burmese” is everyone’s), the book also offers a window into the particular social and political history of Myanmar. thett wrote the majority of these poems in English and the book is published by a Massachusetts-based press, so he writes of his home country with an awareness of his audience’s loose knowledge of its culture, language, and history; the poems swerve between the roles of translator, cultural critic, travel writer, tour guide. The portrait we get is of a country plagued by decades of colonial and civil war, and still under the burden of autocratic military rule. We learn of the official “People’s Desire,” a legislated worldview that the government has required all publishers to print on the opening page of books and magazines. We are given a tour of a military town named for Colonel Ba Htoo, a national hero who fought against the Japanese during World War II: “the town that honors the anti-fascist hero is a purpose-built / breeding ground for the ultra-nationalist myanmar army / where can you find a better irony” (19). And everywhere the poems signal evidence of severe wealth inequality: “our clinics supply the intolerably rich with aphrodisiacs and antihypertensives / our pharmacies provide betel and beedies to the filthy poor” (15). These poems move beyond pat dichotomies, noting that the choice is often between bad and worse.  

thett’s politics are grounded in the scholarship he has published on Burma’s politics and economy. In a 2012 report, commissioned by the Burma Center Prague, thett argues that the current Myanmar Responsible Tourism policy is “doomed to fail” and leaves the door open for “crony capitalism at the expense of political, ecological and cultural sustainability.”[4] His chapter in Totalitarian and Authoritarian Discourses examines the deep-rooted myth in Burmese political discourse of the indispensability of the military.[5] Fairly direct lines could be drawn between the preoccupations of his poetry and scholarship.

But to note the seriousness of thett’s politics risks missing his deep commitment to humor, particularly sound play. The phrase “flip-flops” appears throughout the collection, at times echoed by the phrases “flip-flap” and “flap-flap.” His poem “after ‘the lie of art’” is a slapdash tribute to Charles Bernstein’s poem of the same title. The delightfully campy poem “timely applause and toothy smiles” would be at home in any of John Ashbery’s more recent collections. Humor is no answer to the fraught political questions at the heart of this collection, but given that thett hails from a country where desires are legislated, it is perhaps not surprising that he turns to humor to unsettle assumptions, to shake loose language.

Laughing along with thett may hurt. It may catch in your throat. There is no promise of redemption here. “[Y]ou don’t want to be another down comforter” (71), thett tells us (and maybe himself) in “the rain maker.” That said, in gestures reminiscent of the work of Derek Walcott (or other Caribbean poets), the collection often uses symbols of water, the sea, and marine life to suggest a world apart. There is an ode to a river, another to a sea, and the tale of “the day he regretted swimming butterfly” across the Baltic with a beer can in his hand. Water and its inhabitants flow freely across the lines drawn by nations, in spite of them. Poems attempt something similar.


1. This point is more fully elaborated in J. M. Coetzee’s novel Diary of a Bad Year (Penguin, 2007), 3–5.

2. T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion,” The Complete Poems and Plays (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), 21–23.

3. ko ko thett, The Burden of Being Burmese (Zephyr Press, 2015), 55.

4. ko ko thett, “Responsible Tourism in Myanmar: Current Situation and Challenges” (Burma Prague Center, 2012), 8.

5. ko ko thett, “The Myth of the Indispensability of the Military in Burmese Political Culture: Totalitarian Discourse in the State of Myanmar,” in Totalitarian and Authoritarian Discourses, ed. Lutgard Lams, Geert Crauwels, and Henrieta Anişoara Şerban (Peter Lang, 2014).

Erasing history

On Jordan Abel's 'The Place of Scraps'

The Place of Scraps

The Place of Scraps

Jordan Abel

Talonbooks 2013, 272 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0889227880

When Jordan Abel began thinking about the book that became The Place of Scraps, published in 2013 by Vancouver-based Talonbooks, he thought he would write historical fiction. He wanted to find a way to work with the history of his Nisga’a Nation ancestors.[1] The Nisga’a live in Western Canada and are known in part for displaying ancestral totem poles on their lands. Growing up, Abel felt that his ancestors’ stories weren’t available to him; he wasn’t even sure the stories had been preserved in any form until he came across Marius Barbeau’s Totem Poles in the University of Alberta library, where Abel was an undergraduate. But Abel didn’t end up writing historical fiction with the material he had gathered from Barbeau’s work; nor did he write in the two other genres, nonfiction or lyric poetry, that he also considered. He ended up writing a book of poetry, using erasure as the main mode of composition. His book is structured by sections that begin with images of totem poles, as well as passages from either Barbeau’s work or entries from Abel’s journal. Abel then erases portions of these excerpts for the duration of each section.

Barbeau, an anthropologist who was based in Ottowa during the early to mid-twentieth century, was one of the first descendants of white settlers to attempt a chronicling of First Nations peoples in Canada. Like much early anthropological work, Barbeau’s is controversial. Andrew Nurse, a Canadian scholar, claims that Barbeau’s work encouraged the Canadian government to view First Nations tribes, such as the Huran-Wyandot, as assimilated into white society. This view became the basis for the dismantling of the Huron-Wyandot reserve in Ontario, Canada.[2] Today, the Huron-Wyandot have reserves remaining in Wendake, Quebec, and Wyandotte, Oklahoma.

Anthropological study involves disruption and sometimes, as with the Huron-Wyandot, dispersal. In the case of the Nisga’a, Barbeau arranged in the 1920s for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to place four large Nisga’a totem poles in their permanent collection. Each pole tells a family story, which is to say each pole holds profound significance to Nisga’a people. Barbeau seems to have thought that these totem poles were merely curiosities for other white settlers to see. And judging from the tone of his description of moving the poles eastward, he seems not to have been concerned with anything other than their successful transfer:

To remove this huge pole from the Nass [River], and transfer it to a museum thousands of miles away was not an easy job. Taking it down to the ground and shifting it into the water taxed the ingenuity of a railway engineer and his crew of Indians. It leaned sharply, face forwards, and had it fallen, its carvings would have been damaged … When it reached Prince Rupert, it had to be cut, as it lay in the water, into three sections, for the longest railway cars are 50 feet. Nor were all difficulties overcome after the three sections had reached Toronto.[3]

Barbeau’s interest in the taxing of the “ingenuity of a railway engineer and his crew of Indians” and lack of concern for the cutting of the poles suggests the kind of white entitlement Abel’s book highlights. The poems’ erasure calls our attention to the lasting effects of European settlers meddling in native peoples’ affairs.

This interference, it turns out, touches the poet’s family directly. Abel’s father, when Abel was an infant, carved totems and made paintings to be sold for white audiences in Vancouver. Readers also learn that one of the totems sent to Toronto is from Abel’s ancestral village. About halfway through The Place of Scraps, Abel describes his May 2011 visit to the Royal Ontario museum to see his ancestral totem pole. When he arrived, he explained to the admissions officer that he wouldn’t pay to see a pole taken from his ancestors, at which point “the staff member [initiated] a lethargic request to allow admission under special circumstances but [was] unable to contact any of his superiors” (143). Abel, in the end, was apathetically granted his request.

Erasure poetry is a compelling aesthetic choice for the poet. Erasure is confrontational. It is also paradoxical. Readers see what is hidden or dormant beneath the surface, as if rubbing here and wiping there will give readers clearer vision. Like any aesthetic technique, erasure is subjective, showing readers what the eraser (author) has brought to the surface. The first Barbeau passage sets up the central concerns of the book. Barbeau is chronicling the origin of a dispute between two tribes over the size and placement of a pole:

 

Five pages of erasure follow. In one, Abel seems to be building totems for himself out of Barbeau’s work (9):


A couple of pages later, Abel leaves only the letters “h,” “i,” and “s,” as well as one “their,” and a footnote (13): 

Deeper into the book, Abel erases more radically, so much so that readers are left only with punctuation. For me, these are some of the most moving moments in the book, because the absences are starker. One erasure derives from a text detailing the myth of the dragonfly. Abel’s rendering on the next page looks like this (69):

The commas, colon, semicolon, and periods bear the traces of the dragonfly. Abel has the eye of a sculptor: he creates by taking away from the slab of Barbeau’s text. The central irony of The Place of Scraps is that white settlers tried to assimilate — erase — First Nations tribes by wiping out their cultures, while Abel uses erasure to bring his ancestral history into view.

Given that erasure as a poetic technique has become more popular, it’s important to ask who is doing the erasing and why. Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel seems to have had two main goals. One was to create an artwork, using painting, collage, and cut-up technique, out of a forgotten Victorian novel.[4] He also wanted to create an oracle, in the tradition of the I-Ching.[5] Although Phillips considers A Humument “an altered book,” a form of mixed-media artwork, it is often cited as a foundational erasure text. Ronald Johnson’s aim, in excising the first four books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost to produce the book Radi Os, was to “omit most of the text to create a Blakeian visual page and a new Orphic text of [his] own.” It’s worth noting that white men did two of the most famous books of erasure, one of a canonical book by a white author. Neither of those books erases works by authors of color. Their acts suggest a level of comfort with the boldness of erasure and with the canon. Abel’s erasure of Barbeau suggests a pronounced discomfort with the ways interpretations of indigenous cultures have been shaped by white viewpoints.

In light of recent controversies surrounding white Conceptual work, one wonders about the role of discomfort in Kenneth Goldsmith’s presentation of Michael Brown’s autopsy as poetry, or Vanessa Place’s choice to use images of Hattie McDaniel and Jemima’s Wedding Day in her Twitter feed dedicated to posting sentences from Gone with the Wind. Do Goldsmith and Place’s projects project discomfort with their source texts and images in the way Abel’s work cites discomfort with Barbeau’s text as a legacy of white interference in First Nations life? Place has said that her goal with the Twitter feed was to incite a copyright dispute with the Margaret Mitchell estate, as a means of raising questions about ownership and authorship — and white supremacy.[6] But Place has primarily provoked outrage over her feed’s regurgitation of the racist text.

The Place of Scraps goes beyond discomfort. Its impetus involves anger, disappointment, and, importantly, an interest in reframing the discourses around First Nations culture. Abel has erased Barbeau’s text because he wants to understand who he is and who he comes from, including not just his ancestors, but also Barbeau and the myriad white settlers who have shaped his heritage. The mistake that some Conceptualists have made is thinking that any text can be erased by anyone and that sociopolitical concerns are outside the act of appropriation — and outside the text. Yet when an artist chooses a text to appropriate, whether through erasure or collage, there is more at stake. Abel’s work digs into and dismantles the problems his texts are meant to invoke.


2. Andrew Nurse, “‘But Now Things Have Changed’: Marius Barbeau and the Politics of Amerindian Identity,” Ethnohistory 48, no. 3 (2001): 433–72.

3. Jordan Abel, The Place of Scraps (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2013), 19.

5. James Bridle, “Tom Phillips And A Humument: How A Novel Became An Oracle,” The Guardian, May 19, 2012.