Layers and alliance in Kenji Liu's 'Map of an Onion'
Kenji Liu’s debut poetry collection does not start quietly; rather, it breaks into the world, denouncing the United States’ attempted erasure of migrants through legalese that alienates non-English-speaking people. The collection begins with the birth of the speaker in Kyoto, Japan, and spends layer upon layer puzzling the violences that the colonial center wreaks against the periphery. Liu’s overarching metaphor for intersectionality and assemblage of identities is the onion without a full and “real” center. Three layers that Liu uses cluster as follows: poetic forms and ancestry, settler colonialism and the speaker, and wholeness from ruin.
Layer 1: Poetic forms and ancestry
In some respects, the formal poems in this collection act as proof of ancestry, or as official documents to be problematized: the reader engages discourses around descent, heritage, and inheritance. Specifically, Liu uses the qilu, an ancient Chinese formal poem that is composed of eight lines of seven characters each. Liu uses this formal mode — and deviates from it — to echo the social and cultural distance from his parents’ homes. In his poem “My Dear Koxinga,” Liu experiments with migrating this form into English:
Nations need a parable
To reinvent themselves with.
In this use of form and its subversion in English, Liu is able to attain a new kind of “parable” in which the national belonging of the speaker is in flux, using an ancient form to undo the historicizing of a single narrative. Liu’s speaker shifts linguistically as well as formally; for instance, in the poem “A Son Writes Back,” Liu also employs the qilu form but adds to it a translation into Chinese by Der-Jin Woan and Suh-Ling Lin.
Liu considers Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee in order to practice his art of complication. Noted by Timothy Yu in the book’s introduction, Liu uses the dictation lesson to illustrate the way that language is complicit in the institutional racism against migrants. Often the migrant is slated to inhabit a particular place in the settler state of the US, desiring to assimilate into the patterns of racialization within the present construction of citizenship. What is ignored, typically, is the fact that this land was purloined from Native inhabitants. Liu adds Native American presence to the political landscape of “Deconstruction: Papers” through “interventions” that disrupt the English-only legalese of immigration papers and show the irony of a settler state using language that deliberately shuts out any imaginings of alternative citizenship. The interventions that Liu makes add Chinese, Taiwanese, and Lenape languages to the texture of official documents; the poem, divided into three parts, includes “Birth Certificate with Chinese Intervention,” “Taiwanese Passport with English Intervention,” and “Naturalization Certificate with Lenape Intervention.” Liu’s interventions and considerations of the languages of places are important to the claims that he poses for the anticolonial project of this book. From “Deconstruction: Papers”:
Personal description of holder as of date of naturalization
kènu Date of birth February twenty kènu nineteen seventy
seven kènu sex Male kènu complexion Medium kènu
color of eyes Black kènu color of hair Black kènu height
three feet zero inches kènu Marital status Single kènu (4)
In this poem the appearance of Lenape language serves as an unrelenting reminder that this land was originally Lenape; that the archive of the land still holds the memory of its original inhabitants. In doing so Liu asserts that immigrants do not have to serve the settler state and its continued genocidal actions against Natives. He shows how migrants and immigrants are able to destabilize official mechanisms, such as immigration papers, to illuminate this history and alliance with Native groups.
Layer 2: Settler colonialism and Liu’s speaker
Asian American literature is often discussed in relation to white and black cultures in the United States. Liu expands this discourse to include other migrant groups; by doing so, he is able to resist the mythology of the nation that many subscribe to in order to achieve cultural capital.
By naming specific indigenous North American groups whose land his family migrated to, Liu opens up his onion to the complexities of being a minority group struggling for national inclusion on the land of Native people who have been denied ownership, their land stolen from them by the American government.
In the poem “In Orbit Around New York City” Liu contends with the names of places around Edison, New Jersey. He writes:
Over the decades, onion skins
laid with scalpels. Tributaries,
In this poem Liu’s speaker attempts to excavate the palimpsest of the land. He applies his overarching metaphor of the onion to the histories of landscapes, accounting for the role that colonization, forced migration, and immigration have played in shaping the tenor of national space.
A phantom in this collection is Japan as a colonial master of Taiwan; it emerges through the language of official documents that Liu recreates. The leveling agent between the speaker’s parents is their immigration to the United States and the neocolonialism of the American capitalist market, where both must contend with the English language to survive. In his poem “Landing,” Liu maps the challenges his speaker’s parents face. Liu writes,
By now nobody has to explain the three-in-one god. Japan dwells
in Taiwan, the US dwells in Japan, eternally. Now they cohabitate
in the stock market. Baptism by firebombs, atomics, Gojira (89).
Liu’s speaker contends with settler-colonial complicity as well as American imperialism to portray a complicated scene where the speaker’s parents — one Taiwanese, one Japanese — learn English in a basement on Lenape land stolen by European settlers.
Layer 3: Wholeness from ruin
The last layer that Liu contends with is that of the psychic inheritance of a fractured history of national belonging. Liu’s speaker emerges whole, despite the complicated immigrant identities that he must wade through. As with the various places and inhabitants that make up the history of the speaker’s location, Liu offers a reworking of the Theravada Buddhist practice of metta, sewing together well-wishes for all beings in his poem “Memoriam for Places.” Liu offers a prayer to the devas of place, acknowledging the complications of “graveyards,” “chalk outlines,” “bullet holes,” and “prison cell corners.” He writes against ruin:
May all your stained places remember
how after rains, grass gets free (85).
In this poem Liu articulates the resilience of his immigrant speaker, how complexity of identity makes for a beautiful spring — how emerald wholeness emerges despite damage. And there is freedom in this survival; a freedom that the poet and migrant know despite the multiple spheres of oppression faced in this world of racial profiling, unjust incarceration, police brutality, anti-immigration violence, and Donald Trump.
Spanish, Japanese, and Chinesetranslations of Liu’s poemsappear in this collection to show the multilingual landscape from which Liu’s imagination draws, and the ways in which minority communities can share a common poetics and allyship. Ending his collection with the poem “Deconstruction: Body Unbound” Liu writes,
the predictable I
the trembling labor of
This acts as a call to form alliances with others in the current political climate of the United States. This book is pivotal in the Asian American canon in its alliance-forming push to act against the dominant, white supremacist hegemony that immigrants, Natives, and minorities alike face in the United States. Liu imagines a world where “alliance” means the negotiation of various colonizations, histories, and oppressions, and a weaving together of stories into one so powerful and nuanced it must be reckoned with.
A review of David Buuck's 'Site Cite City'
“[I]t is precisely a special way of writing that realism requires,” writes Lyn Hejinian in her essay, “Two Stein Talks.” Site Cite City is a book of realism, in the sense Hejinian uses it: realism is the product of a method, of a “special way of writing.” The realism of Site Cite City is directed less at the “pure products of America” than at the infrastructure in which they interact: streets, streetcars, docks, containers, freeways, airport terminals, public buildings, and networks fill Site Cite City. In the book’s centerpiece, “Buried Treasure Island,” Buuck posits that the truth is found “between site and non-site”; infrastructure — precisely what lies “between” the two Smithson concepts mentioned here — is the locus of the real. And not only does infrastructure furnish the subject matter for Site Cite City, it serves as the compositional model for much of Buuck’s work here as well.
Keller Easterling writes in his book Extrastatecraft that “infrastructure space is a form, but not like a building is a form; it is an updating platform unfolding in time to handle new circumstances, encoding the relationships between buildings, or dictating logistics.” Infrastructure is not simply a matter of engineering; it is the new medium of the polity, the place where action and information meet, a “site of multiple, overlapping or nested forms of sovereignty” that behaves like “spatial software.” Infrastructure space is the zone in which the various forces of extrastatecraft — a mix of corporate, NGO, and state actors who compete and cooperate for control — shape the global economic, social, environmental, and even aesthetic contours of everyday life. Site Cite City is a compilation of seven works, each of which reflects strategies to probe infrastructure space and contest the prevailing stories spun by these actors.
“Buried Treasure Island” seeks to remedy the lack of there there on Treasure Island, a manufactured island that sits in San Francisco Bay. Buuck declares his intention to “unearth the secret histories” of the location, mixing journalism, historical essay, song lyrics, photographic documentation, lists, manifestos, and performance notes. “Buried Treasure Island” is an exercise in “tactical magic,” an attempt to rewrite the island itself and transform an existing site into a cite (and possibly a new site). Buuck, an avowed practitioner of tactical magic in the Bay Area, advocates for its use directly in Site Cite City: “Tactical magic will have become the method by which such futural gambits might be flung into the not-yet horizon, chance-chants against the ever-constricted lung capacity and fault lines of other possible tomorrows” (61). In the hands of Buuck, tactical magic is employed to recode the island, extending in a literary direction the projects of environmental artists like Smithson, de Maria, and Matta-Clark — all of whom feature in the book and are “cited” in various ways in “Buried Treasure Island” and even on Treasure Island itself (in the form of signs and marks left on the island). In a triangle-shaped homage to Smithson’s A Heap of Language, Buuck even piles on the page words and phrases found on Treasure Island’s signs. Smithson’s A Heap of Language is a high-concept pun; Buuck’s is a commentary on the use of language to control infrastructure space: the warnings and “no trespassing” verbiage found on Treasure Island emphasize the barriers that serve to prevent a present-day Smithson from effectively transforming it physically and aesthetically.
Tactical magic belongs to a greater “alternative activist repertoire,” a term Easterling uses to describe indirect methods of opposing the authoritarian forces that emerge in infrastructure space via extrastatecraft. An alternative activist repertoire is a means for producing realism, employing a variety of strategies that don’t always enact a binary opposition to authority, but instead work obliquely, highlighting the discrepancies between the stories that the actors of extrastatecraft spin and the real actions they perform. Such strategies include overcompliance, humor, gift giving, doubling, mimicry, and distraction.
“The Alibi” proffers a lyric for the Surveillance Age and is an example of a couple of these alternative activist strategies. The work is (I’m making the assumption that the book’s endnotes are truthful) the transcription of a report by a detective whom Buuck had hired to follow him. The result is an inverse of the lyric poem — “outsourced confessionalism” as Buuck describes it — but not a simple flip from “I do this, I do that” to “he does this, he does that.” “Alibi” actually sits as the third leg in the tripod of which the first-person lyric and Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas form the first two legs. Whereas Stein plays the ventriloquist in her autobiography, Buuck narrates indirectly by performing daily activities that the detective transcribes, and then Buuck edits the final transcript (formatting, redacting, arranging, correcting). Buuck, referred to in “Alibi” simply as “Subject,” acts as a conductor, and his hired PI is the player.
The language in “The Alibi” is entirely superficial; most notable are a couple passages in which the detective clearly desires to provide insight into the inner workings of the surveillance subject, only to stop at bland conjecture: “Subject appears to stare off across café as if in thought” (30). “The Alibi” can be roughly divided into three sections. The first and last sections are descriptions of Buuck as he moves around town. However, in the middle section Buuck doesn’t come out of his house, instead standing up the detective for their surveillance “date” so that the detective ends surveillance after a couple hours with nothing to report. The result is a kind of caesura between the other two episodes, emphasizing the emptiness of the lyrical subject and the fact that this detective story is a “nodunnit.”
As a piece of alternative activist strategy, “The Alibi” uses both overcompliance and doubling. In doubling, a double is employed as an imposter, proxy, or alibi in order to ironize a particular situation or relationship. Here, in “The Alibi,” Buuck engages in autoimpersonation: Buuck the surveillance subject poses as a cardboard stand-in for the real subject, and the text acts as a verbal chiaroscuro. Likewise, Buuck’s surveillance subject is a compliant one (there is no equivalent to a “chase scene” or indications of an attempt by Buuck to lose his tail), and it is the act of complicity that adds to the satire. With its ultradocumentary format (the piece is even rendered in Courier font), “The Alibi” is ultimately a performance of caricature — in both the objective and subjective prepositional constructions. It provides a double comment on the presence of surveillance infrastructure and the shallowness of the data that surveillance is actually able to collect about individual subjectivity.
In extending the projects of the Situationists and environmental artists, Buuck makes overt use of autobiography and narrative. In “Market Street Detours,” “The Side Effect,” “The Treatment,” and the already mentioned “The Alibi,” Buuck mixes narrative and autobiography as a means to explore the interface between the individual subject and public space. Often, as in “The Side Effect,” autobiography emerges directly as subject matter. “The Side Effect” is a set of prose stanzas, one to a page, in which phrasal figures ostinato through the stanzas. In the thread of meditations on autobiography that runs through “The Side Effect,” autobiography is described as a negative and passive space, which somewhat tempers the agency of the negative space proposed in “The Alibi”: “Autobiography is that which only gives one the illusion of control” (21); “Autobiography is what happens between the sentences” (18); “Autobiography is what’s left out of the public record” (19); “Autobiography is the space between us” (20); “Autobiography is never about what actually happened, but the muscle memory in the mouth-work of the telling of it” (24).
Narrative as a means to explore the interaction of the individual with infrastructure space occurs most visibly in “The Treatment,” which serves as a sprawling finale to the book — a mix of genres, rife with callbacks to other pieces in Site Cite City, and multisectional. The piece begins, “The containers pile up” (103), and goes on to alternate between narrative episodes, content lists, and reports, divided up into three large sections, which are themselves subdivided. “The Treatment” is a loose first-person dystopian detective story that reads like a Philip K. Dick book mired in bureaucratic red tape. “So — narrative doesn’t arc; it aches” (104), Buuck writes, and the story here doesn’t so much progress as meander in and through various kinds of containers (shipping containers, stores, boxes), the means by which “landscapes process us” (149). Containers even echo in the piece’s format of rectangular paragraphs and stanzas. “No things but in Ikeas,” Buuck quips in “Market Street Detours” (85). The story doesn’t matter here, nor ultimately does the character, because the infrastructure is the story. And the infrastructure space is the narrator, himself a node of communications and containers, watching and watched. Buuck’s writing acts as infrastructure: modular, moving between fact, fiction, writing, and performance.
The interface between individual and infrastructure space is the subject of the writing even as it is explored through formalized strategies of the public practice of writing itself. Buuck composed “Converted Storefront” through accretive performances. The published text consists of Buuck’s transcription of his performance of yet an earlier transcription of an improvised recording of his walk outside of the Oakland gallery, where he then gave the performance. The improvisation that served as the basis of the recording drew both on bits from a review of a cris cheek book (including citations from cheek himself) and Buuck’s impressions of the cityscape as he strolled through the streets (a fairly neat literalization of site, cite, and city). The piece is reminiscent of many of Steve Benson’s iterative and performance-based writing projects, in which composition is enacted as a means to affect the composition itself, often employing types of feedback in order to fold in the environment, the medium, or both back into the text. Recalling the Easterling description of infrastructure space above, the parallels with Buuck’s writing practice come into focus: iterative and collaborative, writing is kept fluid and off-center in order to effectively respond to the occasion.
Site Cite City functions as one of many nodes in Buuck’s network of poetic practice, along with his website, videos, and sound recordings (many of which are “sited” in the book via their URLs) and performances themselves. Buuck’s approach argues for performance as an integral part of composition, and likewise that language art is (or should be) a part of an expanded activist repertoire. “Buried Treasure Island,” as noted earlier, is foremost an activist project, of which the text in Site Cite City is only a part, and describes itself as only one of several “overlapping platforms: installation, guidebook, tour and detour, audio podcast, staged actions, and here in the writing and mapping” (34). Site Cite City’s realism requires an engagement with infrastructure space, just as the “special writing” producing such realism requires that it be part of a larger sphere of activity that encompasses composition, performance, and activism.
5. For more on tactical magic see the Center for Tactical Magic’s website.
There is something easygoing about reading Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, which leads the reader through the pages as if on a walk. Lured inside this landscape, we are invited to see, to reflect, to ponder, to muse, to sense the spaces in these seventy-two “model cities,” but also outside of the pages in the world which surrounds us. This book of prose poems is comprised of 288 long sentences with commas separating subclauses, all beginning “It was like.” We are in media res, where the “it” in the question posed by a disembodied voice on page 1 — “what was it like?” — is open to interpretation: this voice and its question are part of some world preceding this urban space; a myriad of other potential “its” could be proposed. Is the speaker in the poems returning from traveling? Returning from seeing another, alternate, urban-planned world? Are they simply coming back in the door after stepping outside to look at a space they should have already known like the back of their hand but which suddenly has revealed a myriad of new facets, both architectural and human? What is certain is that Stonecipher deftly explores geographic-architectural-psychological space in a way that includes her reader, invites them to wander and wonder alongside the speaker, to peruse and ponder the shifting perspectives of each poem.
The poems themselves, written in stanza-paragraph-sentences with justified margins spaced four to a page with three centered asterisks to divide them, stand to attention like blocked buildings, eliciting a sense that the white margins and interstanza spaces are walkways. The asterisks take on a lamppost- or perhaps fountain-like quality, providing tiny visual decoration along a mental-linguistic-geographic stroll. What space am I, author, in; I, speaker, in; I, reader, in? Stonecipher asks: What space are you in, reader, speaker, author, in these poems? These lines are what connect us: it is how we belong.
This said, this book is about a disbelonging, about estrangement within the familiar. The collection opens with a sense that around the speaker the city has been rebuilding places not for its residents, its neighborhood inhabitants, or for the future of its citizens, but rather for transients. Only hotels are being constructed. The model city is constructing only “permanent temporariness” (31) for visitors alone. Realizing that every new building is a hotel in the opening poem leads the speaker to say: “It was like thinking about all those empty rooms at night, all those empty rooms being built to hold an absence” (15), and far later “feeling threatened by the rampantly multiplying hotel rooms, as if vacancy were a disease invading the city’s — and therefore your — interior” (49).
As the book develops, the potential parallels between a foreign and native city arise as residents become like model figures, only theoretical inhabitants (37). In these model cities, the author explains, “a home is by definition disappearance” (47). And suddenly it is true, we can see how we each disappear into our homes, hide and hibernate there, shadowforms beyond the walls, passing before windows, visitors, mortal, in these quasi-permanent constructions. “It was like admiring and resisting the machine for living” (33), Stonecipher states in an earlier poem.
As the collection opens, there is no mention of light or dark, yet something about being able to see the vacancy in all of the new hotels evokes a Hopperesque vision which pervades the entire collection. It is a vision of light streaming out of rectangular windows with no one inside. Hollowness pervades Stonecipher’s urban landscapes, eliciting an automated sense of connection and disconnection: one of the major themes in this collection. As Stonecipher writes, “It was like looking at the ‘zu vermieten’ signs and thinking about the organizing principle of the window: organizing light and air, inside and outside, volume and surplus, belonging and not belonging, opaque as glass” (19). Her model cities are filled with glass, stone, marble, socialist blocked buildings, high-rise hotels with their stacks of windows, industrial parks, mazes of courtyards, skylines of “skyscrapers’ staggering heights” (35), “grids, towers, monumental ministries, vast plazas — that came to nothing” (42), new glass buildings versus bullet-pocked old ones, underground parking garages/the underground city, high-rises, the cité industrielle with all buildings made of concrete.
These urban developments, these model cities, are of course also about how humankind makes choices — determining our days, planning them out. But then something unexpected — like seeing a sign advertising a sugar museum or the uncharacteristic wild animal like a fox or a door never open suddenly gaping — creates a shift. Predetermined fate is thwarted by unprecedented opportunity, via observation. Noting the change and allowing oneself to go towards it is offered to the speaker as an alternate route, a surprising, unprecedented opportunity for perspective change — though at first Stonecipher’s speaker turns away from that new enticing destination as she states: “For its nature is seduction. And yours, renunciation” (22).
In these ways throughout this brilliant, captivating, and at times melancholic volume, the speaker goes about her day thinking and observing the outer world. Her quasi-obsessive linking of outer and inner landscapes absorbs the reader, engulfs them in these model cities and the mind and voice carrying them along these urban landscapes. But there are also dispersed throughout the book moments where the speaker is in her own bed, inside her home, a place that is definitively not ours, but about the persona’s struggle. These are moments of disquiet, when she cannot sleep, so she thinks of something. The sleeplessness reveals an underlying anxiety, an inability to release herself to dream, from the world surrounding her to her own interior imagination, perhaps. There is something hard and sad about this character’s struggle that is at once familiar and strange, paralleling the landscapes the speaker describes, as well as the references to literature (including Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick), or to art (as seen in allusions to photographers Atget or Wegee, drawer/painter Audubon and Leonardo da Vinci), or to architects (such as to the Bauhaus school, Le Corbusier, or to Zaha Hadid).
What these layers of artistic allusion add is a dimension of questioning the real and the model/museum/imitation/simulacra wherein the character is “wondering about the authenticity of authenticity” (26). Actual versus factual, real versus synthetic, or “real” and “ideal” partake in a sort of mental mise en abyme, as Stonecipher puts it on page 58. Photography in particular interrogates issues of authenticity and originality, opening up reflections about façades versus interiors, leading the speaker to go as far as comparing buildings to human skeletons (30). Thus the issues of permanence and impermanence are not only about hotels versus long-term habitations, but about mortality versus immortality — what lies underneath surfaces? Stonecipher is asking. What is behind the austere, white paint façades? For humans, it is a constant skeletal smile laughing at the ridiculousness of all of the outer efforts. When applied to buildings damaged by bullets, suddenly the voice states that these bullet-pocked buildings provide an “unexpected apparition of evidence — that history is real” (54).
In the end, perhaps the character seeks the ideal model city. Perhaps the città ideale is finding a way of “moving on past the gutted squat and its gutted ideal” (25) as the author states at one point. If so, then we are left with the question of: to what? What is beyond? The speaker digs and digs through exterior observation as if burrowing into some fundamental unnamed core of the self where time is at work, making history, antiques, in an ultracontemporary parallel to an “ersatz medieval town,” with reliquaries, falling into ruin. Wishing she could explain “how the history resides in your head” (34), Donna Stonecipher’s model city reminds us both of the discomfort and of the comfort of reproduction versus the “so real” (32) version of the world as we each model it in our own minds.
A review of 'u&i'
how one might roam. how two might meander. (v)
Poetry as connection: historically, finding kindred spirits and laying claim to literary lineages, while maintaining a critical posture, as a necessary practice of writing under the sign(s) of self and community. The literary as the deeply personal.
Writing about nothing, a pursuit, nothing that connects and builds. Around that axis, meaning and association are relentless, relationships between positioned and counterpositioned nothingness construct a matrix of their own. Such a matrix of relationships are the basis for philosophically complex investigations of social interaction. The preeminent example of such arrangements is community. Community as an inevitable result of nothing, nothing as it is articulated and distilled for its craft and quality.
Gentrified narratives about community, those that might openly propagate community to no critical end beyond the record of their own political ethos, do not apply. They fall by the wayside under the pressure and threat of thorough investigation. A mode of such investigation takes shape in poems and collections of poems. Cassandra Smith’s u&i is written in this mode, an extension and set of collected connections. Community appears inevitable, not as narrative, but as practice. It would not be a stretch to say a social practice.
u&i: a network of speech, thought, and affect. Experience: real or projected. And so it extends the boundaries of its immediate network of experience to all parties concerned, existing as an internal network, as networked autonomy, indifferent to the problematics of association, possibly to the point of necessary solipsism.
DEAR U OR I,
i seem to cant go on without you. (xii)
One is well served to take Smith’s word for it. The idea of going on without you, some you, or kind of you, even if abstracted to the point of being a mere linguistic referent, is a way of exacting connection and the possibility for human connection as a necessary way of existing in the world. It is a way of feeling and remaining carnal amidst serial, and most often digitized, networks and networked social realities that make the sensual diffuse and the intimate public.
At issue, however, is the transmutational reality of participation in collaborative networks (networks of networks) characterized by constant integrative flow and surplus. The mechanical (programmed) nature of networked activity threatens to render the activity altogether automatic, and devoid of carnality, desire, and artistic specificity.
Beware, Spain, of your own Spain! — Cesar Vallejo
To think of a poem, or a collection of poems, as a discrete network is apt: surely internal complexities exist within and across modes of speech and thought where any good writing is concerned, but it’s shortsighted to expect that a network can exist in isolation from other networks. Each immediate or seemingly immediate network of speech and artistic endeavor is made diffuse, and offers little recourse but involuntary access(es) to serial networks and inevitable intercourse with multifarious and seemingly endless associative machinations.
Similarly, poems and relationships network, community may result, or remain inevitable.
We link too many things together. — Agnès Rouzier
U&I BEGAN AS A PLACE WHERE THERE WAS NEVER AN ALONE
an alone is made of where things aren’t and u&i in the middle of meadow and forest and wood had never been alone because nothing had ever been taken. in forest and meadow and wood there were only things to look at and things to hold. there was the smallest light to play in and this was the place of holding another closely. worry was a thing to be done only to the things that would enter and when they would enter they would soon prepare to leave. (xlv)
(u&i, as a reminder to care for your associations and to pull them close, in person, and to press them to your lips, perhaps flesh to flesh, but at least virtually, for at least the skin feels something in addition to and perhaps beyond technologically abstracted desire, and while both may exhilarate, it’s preferable to have choices.)
Smith cultivates a sensitive expression of human needs and desire; carnality and social experience are the vantage points by which these poems find orientation. u&i, in this light, does not bask in the genius of private innovation but remains somewhat indifferent to such standards of distinction. Smith’s work is concerned with the lyrical possibilities of connection and how connection may be interpolated within the context of social discourse among friends and associates on the margins. It is the poet’s attempt to construct a poetic system that might adequately articulate the demands of such a discourse. And while it’s not an attempt at a perfect system, there is a resonant optimism that suggests an attempt to allude, at the very least, to the possibility of such a utopic system, marred as it may be by human subjectivity, social dilemma, and networks that extend beyond certainty.
One: under this sign I regard u&i as a significant debut collection of poems that are intimately, and intricately, networked across personal interests and external proximities of personal investment. In this way, u&i is a rendering of experience rather than a documentation of it. Objectivity, in such a case, is moot. Smith’s language thrusts and parries on the periphery of experience and memory, wrangling with its fleeting and impending nature. The poetry and the poet exist in, and through, these poems, closely tethered to each line and thought, tautly, as the title suggests with its lack of spacing: u&i.The title embodies Robert Creeley’s idea of a singular compact: a contiguous though surely fragmented complex, where language, experience, and desire constitute essential verse and existence.
Desire: beyond the singularity of such a compact, Smith offers work that includes not only the breadth of an individual poetic expression and experience but also, importantly, the expression and experience of individuals seeking and finding common accord.
Obliquely, these poems (mostly prose blocks) are an approximation of feeling and remembrance (past and future?), while remaining outward in their optimism. An optimism that is not naïve about the world and the crushing realities of inevitable loss and heartbreak, but one that carries forth in the face of despondency and remains committed to the idea of engendering a critical posture open to the possibility of human relationships with all their messiness and reward.
A hope for connection is palpable, while maudlin calls for community-building are eschewed in favor of the pursuit of an adequate articulation of one’s effort to find and unite oneself to others through and across language.
According to these poems there’s a fragility to associative powers that extends to that which is subsequently associated, that which is bound together has been done in the face of uncertainty and remains bound to an uncertain fate, but for human effort and care.
a community of those that have no community. — Georges Bataille
A generosity of articulation speaks to Smith’s desire for an imagined site, a complex of robust encounters, and a troubled social space where experimentation is not an academic pursuit but a place of precarious (and sometimes perilous) engagement. It is community askew in many ways but a community nonetheless that these poems intend to render.
U&I BEGAN TO PLUNDER AS IF PLUNDER COULD BECOME A WORD THAT WOULD MEAN A STILLNESS OF EVERYTHING ELSE
u&i as silhouette of laughing and dancing.
u&i in footsteps.
u&i in falling in a garden.
u&i as an object of interruption, a sound but what in this case may be
are we an obsession or a device. are we a we if there is no difference
More on possibility: one with others.
u&i as the articulation of possibility: it’s the possibility of what one and others can be, as well as what one with others may be when vitalized and informed by generous (and generative) optimism. Language is the mode by which this possibility is expressed but also by which it is made available in the world. One is written full of hopeful possibility, as is one with another, we (are we a we if …) and so exists to fulfill or exceed the parameters of its unselfish circumscription that operates as a form of self-disintegration in a mode of unrelenting inclusivity.
Poetic speech (u&i) as antidote: at stake is the effort to maintain and constantly reentrench the activity’s singularity and its ability to reverse power relations, to act in and perpetuate the resistive safety of singularity.
R. F. Langley
The forty-eight poems collected in this volume are the sum total completed by R. F. Langley during his seventy-two-year lifespan, but they contain an outsize vibrancy that intensifies on rereading. They are not well known on this side of the Atlantic, but hopefully this book will start to change that. Their range is not wide — indeed, it is consciously circumscribed (recurring subjects include insects and arachnids, Italian Renaissance art, the Suffolk countryside, church interiors, looking, and writing about looking) — but the attention and thinking they condense is considerable. Although darker intimations do intrude, their typical tone is one of gleeful wonder, always tethered to accurate perception and sustained reflection — a species of serious play:
Often. Often. The same
rubbed round bodies of the
stones. Hit after hit. The
thorough hammering. No
cutlery. Brute conflict
and a restful nonsense.
Now five thousand starlings
no one ever counted
have settled in the reeds.
Personification is incessant in Langley’s work, coupled with doubt over the efficacy (and ethics) of personification. From “Depending on the Weather”:
Dread hunts my ground as a
tiger beetle, reeves my quiet as a wasp.
I learn their manners and disguise myself as
them. But their movements figure out themselves. They
never choke on cake. It’s a mistake to wish
that they could speak. (98)
This pattern repeats: the urge to identify, the catch of thought, the chastened reformulation — and so on.
Langley has affinities with earlier observers of nature such as John Clare and (especially) Gerard Manley Hopkins, but possesses too a distinctly twentieth-century skepticism about the fraught relationship between object, perception, and imagination. Internal rhyme and alliteration — for Hopkins tokens and guarantees of a unified and deliberate creation — become, in Langley’s poems, semi-ironic reminders of the text’s artificial status, warnings that finding the apt and nonbetraying phrase is the subjective poet’s perpetual task and frustration:
The window. The wineglass. A
yew tree inside it, upside
down, far away and very
distinct. A cautious chaffinch
sits tight through the shift of the
consonants. The needles are
green. The bird knows it is pink. (90)
Yet, to the besotted etymologist, words have life and, observed as actively as one might observe a spider or painting, are as fit — inevitable? — a subject as any. Word, object, sight, contemplation are forever merging and disentangling here, merging and disentangling.
Langley’s technical control — seen clearest in those poems in strict syllabics but evident everywhere — is exemplary, and a sort of synecdoche for his whole approach as poet. As the examples above show, the combination of short and long sentences, fragments, brash alliteration, and abrupt enjambment can feel haphazard and questing during the initial experience of reading, but is always deeply pondered and crafted (and crafty). His lines work a management of surprise:
Individuals voice their
scorn mixed now with some satisfaction. They
slaughtered birds but represented very
few. Why paint a sorcerer dancing when
you are a sorcerer and can dance? (142)
(A favorite “trick” is to enjamb a line after an article, starting a new line fresh on a sharp noun or precise adjective: “The stanza is a / born dancer” . Thus, the “real” appears to rear up.)
Hinging Langley’s lifework was the discovery of the character “Jack,” and it is a happy consequence of Jeremy Noel-Tod’s loving curatorship — choosing to go with the text of 1994’s Twelve Poems rather than the earlier chapbook publications or later Collected Poems (2002) — that this Complete Poems opens with his advent in “Man Jack”:
So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.
And he must come along, and he must stay
close, be quick and right, your little cousin
Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on
edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn
face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the
folded leaf, the important straw. (5)
The four further poems that feature Jack explicitly sustain this high pitch of energetic involvement and music, as Jack operates as combination avatar and irritant, scout and conscience, alter ego and unruly charge. Always potential in the earlier poems and lingering in spirit even after Langley retires him, Jack embodies a key aspect of this poetry: that it successfully dramatizes — projects — what are essentially interior philosophic and aesthetic ruminations, and makes them urgent, necessary, universal even. One senses Shakespeare — always a lodestar (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream might still be the answer to everything”) — behind this. Langley’s natural fit is the mid-length “conversation poem,” and even the occasional shorter poems are more considered meditations than blurted lyrics. Yet there is nothing flat or maudlin about them; all is spark and illumination. There is something paradoxical in this; if one imagines the “scene” of most of these poems, one is likely to picture stillness, quiet, intense concentration. Somehow the disjunction — over which Jack resides as familiar spirit — only renders the poems more attractive.
So, all — all! — this book represents is both a set of discrete, wrought objects and a record of one individual human’s irreplaceable sensibility and experience of experience. They are, in the words of one perfect early title, “ecstasy inventories” (15) — welcoming repositories of great gusto and “loved Philology.” Their world is inhabited, minutely, and waiting:
a heron wades and
his deliberations are
which reflect on
him, run silver
collars up his
neck, chuckle his
chin, then thin to
sting the silence
where he points
and rigid eye.
Perhaps he knows
he is caressed. (130)
2. See “R. F. Langley,” The Poetry Archive.
3. Emily Dickinson, “A word made flesh is seldom,” Dickinson Electronic Archives.