Sound matters

A review of Deborah Meadows's 'Translation, the bass accompaniment'

Right: photo by Douglas Messerli.

Translation, the bass accompaniment: Selected Poems  

Translation, the bass accompaniment: Selected Poems  

Deborah Meadows

Shearsman Books 2013, 236 pages, $20, ISBN 978-1848612808

“Frequency.” This single-word line begins one of Deborah Meadows’s poems and suggests radio listening as a poetics: an act of receptive agency, tuning in, selecting from a cloth of constant notes, words, thoughts, events, static. Meadows’s Translation, the bass accompaniment: Selected Poems is the sounding of consciousness, but not singular, not just her own: these poems are patterns pulled from texts in order to make a new accompaniment, to expose “the syntax of exploratory thought” (9).

Indeed, in the preface, Meadows identifies her poetics and a whole chorus of influences: “The bass guitar creates patterns that make music into a visceral experience — they are what infect the body” (9). She continues, explaining that the works “are in dialog with other authors, and here, experimental poetry engages logician Quine, encyclopedic novelist Melville, philosophers Irigaray and Deleuze, theologian and synthetic philosopher Aquinas, poets Dragomoschenko, Hejinian, Raworth, Baudelaire, and Celan, Soviet cinematographer Vertov, video artist Bill Viola, and others” (9).

I first heard Deborah Meadows read in 2011. I wrote, then, that I felt I had a lot to learn from her, and this collection solidifies my belief that many of us do. This capstone book looks back on Meadows’s prolific writing life, and I believe that Meadows’s poetry stands out among contemporary experimental poetry in two ways: in her treatment of matter, including political and economic realities, and in her use of and trust in sound. A member of the liberal studies faculty at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, she is not situated in a creative writing department. She is not stringently aligned with any new poetics or movements of the moment, and her inspirations are vast and multidisciplinary. This is all the more reason to tune in to her work.

“Clear the whole”

Translation is comprised of eleven sections, and the first five sections are a through-writing of Moby Dick. In “Invocation,” I read a key to the multichapter sequence: “Clear the whole / Clear where you wrote ‘that and what’” (17). Here is another call to release language from the ideal of “whole” capture, from the possibility to own, where the aural slippage between “whole” and “hole” is also not insignificant: clearing a space in order to receive or take in something new.

These lines imply a beginning again, into compositional practices that challenge authorial control. In “Chapter 110,” Meadows outlines this process: “To copy text from text: a departure / from graphic marks to truths that turn / on poise and difference. Can makers / know sense of their senses?” (56). Her questioning invokes language as sensing where “to know” is to question and not to possess. In “Chapter 126,” Meadows takes the image of the coffin and extends it toward writing itself:

The lid implies body as witness
            to cobbling “beneath”
carpenters; dignity balks
at buoyed air, eclipsed signs of late.
            His coffin can endure
bedsteads I forgot — no caps
            at sea nor job-shop,
stash, or lee. One speaker
displays local pikes abroad.
Novel structure
                        cyclopic or
encyclopedic? (62)

The lyricism of this passage — notice the internal rhymes — pulls the reader through at a rapid pace. Therefore Meadows enacts the question of this poem via sound, and quite literally via the notion that writers, as “carpenters,” construct reality. Here “novel structure” can be read as referring to the novel as source, but also to the project of making something new, lyrical, constrained, and intensified through poetry.

The poem ends with a question, a bent note, an upward turn, and an “answer” could go either way. In fact, doubt — and it is almost pedagogical to me, in that I am thinking of a teacher’s aim to invite students in to the space of questioning — is invoked throughout Translation.

In the subsequent poem, “Chapter 127,” which begins by taking up the previous poem’s question “On the state of the novel as a coffin,” Meadows once again turns to language as sound intensity:

From cabin to shop, believe in
            sufficient music, in caulking
or sounding out the unpronounceable.
            Hark, all things come right
with a test upon waters for central
lines, radiant riggings. (63)

Reading this work, I asked myself again and again: to what extent do we trust the ear as able to organize language toward meanings? To study Meadows’s selected works is to research this question.

A poetry of matter/that matters

In such a fluxing field as sound, it may seem that meanings are not easily construed. Meadows is certainly working out of the lineage of Language poetry, with its characteristic indeterminacy and treatment of language as matter, allowing coauthorship between writer and reader. A nondirective space, a space in which meaning is constructed through choice and where language itself is active, is the politics, goes the thinking.

But I do not read Meadows’s works in this light entirely. If she uses found text, it is incorporated to a significant degree, and chance operations are in no way privileged or showcased as a move of clever authorship. Her edges are sharp, her tone and pace are at times desperate; I read clear political intentions, and she is willing to sound the alarm. Simultaneously lyrical and conceptual, Meadows’s work is exemplary among contemporary poetry. In fact, it challenges the clunky, western-world, Cartesian construct that would differentiate between somatic experience and conceptual practice.

The urgency in her work becomes most clear to me in the middle of the book, in the section from Goodbye Tissues. This is one of my favorite books by Meadows, also published by Shearsman in 2009. The “tissues” of the title calls to mind the “soft tissues” of the body, their vulnerability, and at the same time, saying “goodbye tissues” issues a farewell to pathos.

This section begins with “American Possessions,” whose first line is indented, as if a continuation of the title, yet sandwiches nearly a half page of white space — as if there has been a whole other text in between the titling and the beginning of the poem:

            far, black lung
                                    knot-spent, gas paltry

decimal, organelle, go?
                        convey the stepped day
by horn blast, retinal
                                                hinder written or damned
“already”- town. (127)

Here sounding is a way to live inside the body who senses, who listens to the vibrations between words and underneath proclamations.

Many of the sequences gathered in Translation address things that “matter”: political and economic systems impinging on citizen bodies. Meadows’s biography includes that she grew up in Buffalo, New York, in a working-class family, and throughout the book, she engages struggle without romanticizing disenfranchisement, and without relying on narrative witness work. There is something hard fought in her work, as if she is aware of the risk of disconnection with one’s tribe that often accompanies the movement into a poetry of this risk, especially when one simultaneously refuses to suppress firsthand Rust Belt America experience.

For example, in the sequence “Procuratio” from Depleted Burden Down, Meadows intermixes her dissatisfaction with traditional narrative as well as material political realities: “But a substitution theory: the word for the thing, the thing for the other thing, has a ‘universal’ appeal. It’s money. And little in the way of theorizing can interrupt its commerce, its erotic appeal” (163). She continues, issuing either a poetics or a warning, or both: “Haul and scrape good Word for importation to godhead, poached and re-set, spring mechanisms and all. Executed by market track, human capital, finance group, our prize, seminar on human entourage if you have the software, foundlings’ Houdini, erased land, term professor, robot message” (163).

For me the verb “executed,” with its two possible meanings, is the key to Meadows’s complication: is the “good Word” destroyed by market forces? Or is poetry actually made by these same devices? The last line of this passage suggests that the answer is both: “Hard to see the go-between we are” (163). 

“voluptuous, but now a recession”

The book’s final sequence, “Lamb Notes,” which Meadows articulates in her introduction as “a poem that hints at a version of tomorrow” (9), is inspired by a lecture given by designers Zoe Coombes and David Boira at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles in 2010. “Lamb Notes” is a sparse sequence, and very delicately Meadows draws a relationship between “lamb” and “lamp.” In those two words, separated only by a more pronounced popping of the lips, Meadows connects Catholicism’s Agnes Dei image and illumination. Meadows’s “lamp, perfection / lamb, order // dirt experiments, less / controlled, more tactile” (231) eventually leads to a final page inscribed with just these lines and an asterisk:

three parts for chopping block
symmetrical paired
voluptuous, but now a recession (234)

I have come to the end of Translation, the bass accompaniment with an overwhelming desire for more poetry: to live inside this world of music, text-making, reading, noticing, and delicate strength.

If elsewhere in this volume Meadows has asked, “When did coherence displace constancy, meaning unseat duration?” (89), she answers with the book’s cover image, a print by Meadows herself entitled “Nightingale Sound Print, Heart Sound Print Over Ancient Calligraphy” and on the book’s final page—

“voluptuous, but now a recession” (234)

Beautifully excessive matter and desire, at times temporally withdrawn — receding — remain imprinted despite exposures to surrounding regimes of the rational. Deborah Meadows’s poetry is for this awareness.

Code as such

A review of 'Dragon Logic'

Dragon Logic

Dragon Logic

Stephanie Strickland

Ahsahta Press 2013, 120 pages, $18, ISBN 978-1-934103-45-6

The poetry of Stephanie Strickland demonstrates a poetic intelligence that captures not only the lyrical moment in algorithms but also the pervasive quietness of scientific vocabularies. Her work has, thus far, touched on the systems of distributed knowledge — the variegated institutions of knowing, including the natural and virtual geographies into which we embed our cultural memories; the disciplines of mathematics, physics, and astronomy; visual media; and the technologies of language. Dragon Logic is, however, her boldest gesture to date towards the extreme limits of the known universe, one that significantly broadens the limited perception of our ecology to include the virtual interfaces, imagined presences, and online architectures where you cannot “take your own movement for granted” (6).

I am taken in by poetry that denies the reader certain actualities, overt explanations of how imaginations must function in a digital world where our soft analogue bodies appear to recede. The tendency to over-fetishize scientific vocabularies erases the possibilities of the poetic form to explore the momentary warping when such disciplines attempt to explicate the precisions of the abstracted world through natural languages. Dragon Logic, however, resists the over-privileging of abstracted knowledge by interrogating its fantastic predilections for feeling. The book’s structure mirrors an Incan quipu by knotting multifarious knowledge-forms in a way that

tunes “a data-dense medium whose clarity did not depend on
expansion into words” (79)  

Divided, then, into six sections — “e-Dragons,” “Sea Dragons,” “Dragon Maps,” “Alive Inside the Dragons,” “°Codemakers,” and  “Afterword” — this collection presents to the reader an imagined cartography that recalls the mythic inscriptions of medieval maps, “here be dragons” (74) — or, more precisely, HC SVNT DRACONES — that denote the limits of our known world and the dangerous, exotic, and uncharted territories that lie outside human knowledge. Such imagined artifacts — and there only two instances of this phrase on extant maps, both of which date from the post-Columbus period[1] — hark back to an era when an understanding of the Earth’s geography was still amorphous. Yet arguably, twenty-first-century spaces remain equally flexible and strange as the perceived threshold between virtual ecologies and the ‘real world’ begins to overlap. Reading Dragon Logic is thus a pleasurable disorientation of what it means not just to know but to read in a confusing social world in which the infinite digital expanse, leaking into material ecosystems, complicates conventional modes of literacy and knowledge.

I have grappled with using a normative mode of reading to respond to a poetry collection that simply resists settled definitions. Yet the only appropriate response is perhaps a personal one. In this case, I offer a speculative ludic reading that treats this book as hypertextual artifact, to open it at any point, at any page, and to read the text without expectation but with an eye for its potentialities, as one does when one logs onto the World Wide Web. Such a non-normative reading underscores the fluid lyricism of Dragon Logic, its openness of form, its circularity, its intrepid and at times concrete visual presentations, and its playful linguistic richness that dissects the inner life of language. Indeed, this collection takes the reader on a hunt for “the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical” dragon (49) along the multifarious pathways that lead to and from a comprehensive “wordhoard treasure” (74) of real and mythic knowledges. What exactly this dragon is, and what form it might take, is perhaps moot. It is the quest for this cryptozoological creature — a journey toward possible expression — that drives the poetic thesis.

Dragon Logic thus performs a poetic voyage of rediscovery of the lacunae between so-called finite knowledges and the terror of mystery to cultivate a grappling of meaning that our twenty-first-century immersion into virtual geographies has sharply foregrounded. Cyberspace in this collection emerges from a dark architecture in which myth and imagination confront and subvert the systems of preconfigured pathways, algorithms, and preexistent sign systems that dovetail into the knowledge systems of exactitude and precision. To this end, this collection interrogates hard quantitative sciences (such as the fields of computing, physics, and mathematics); professional sciences such as architecture; and the indigenous systems of knowledge that include Celtic, Mayan, and Greek mythology, and Māori whakataukī (proverbs). The title Dragon Logic names at once this collusion of digital protocols, scientific inquiry, and technologies of computing with traditional knowledge databases. This concatenation of knowledge systems underscores the struggle for, and translation of, meaning in our contemporary social world. Indeed, the title’s allusion to the speech-to-text software Dragon Dictate or Dragon NaturallySpeaking should not be ignored; the poem as dictation software suggests procedural execution, a knotting of human vocality with the cool utterances of our machines. In these mediations of technological imagination, language becomes filtered through ecosystems of forms, disciplines, fields of knowing, and digital mechanisms. Strickland’s poetic form is transformed into a sensory computer that simultaneously measures and erodes communication. Dragon Logic explores our negligent metaphorical use of words as uncontested markers of knowing. Indeed, the collection raises urgent questions about the authority of our western systems of knowledge, and their legitimating orthodoxies, to rest on a horrifying possibility: how do we really know what we know?    

When I open the book randomly, then, I turn surprisingly not to a poem but to an untitled email from Internet artist and poet Alan Sondheim:

Infinitely thin projective slice of difficult equation. The compression comes to grip[s] with it. There may be shadows of the future, I don’t know … coordinates are always variable. When the space moves, the[y] become ill. Don’t they?

Elsewhere, the real renders. Here it has already given up.

Dragon Logic explodes with these moments of appropriated, recycled, polyvocal textuality — what Brian Reed has termed as “redirected language”[2]  — that in the information age underlie a system of pointing to prior contexts of meaning. Here, the hypertextual sediments — the URLs that direct the reader along a preconfigured highway to Alan Sondheim’s movie files — lose their original functionality in the materiality of the book. Rendered now passive on the page, they nonetheless continue to speak to their digital operations, their mechanisms that move web users to another ‘page.’ Typing these URLs, however, into the address bar of my browser reveals that these markers are broken links, inoperative like their counterparts on the material page. The “coordinates” of spaces indeed “are always variable.” Strickland demonstrates the inherently instabilities of language as technologies mediate and leave their textual residue on linguistic systems. And it may seem obvious to state that the text, in both print and digital networks, never retains its stable presence. But I am particularly struck by the collaborative and quasi-conversational nature of this collection that points to our social networked conditions. Sondheim’s email underscores the impossible compression of contemporary writing into singular voices and subject positions, and so embraces instead the inevitable variabilities of network culture.

As I open the book again, I come to the poem “Rara Avis.” Underneath the title is a short paratextual note, “telepresence installation by Eduardo Kac°”:

not the old vicarial
              Holy Communion
nor the older
               another newer way to enter each other to share
                the same
                ( telematic ) co-ordinates
to share
                 via circuitry and hardware ( these
                 vary ) surveillance an ambience physical robots and avatars
wander (10)

As the note suggests, the poem refers to an art installation by poet and multimodal artist Eduardo Kac. The installation “Rara Avis” (1996) enabled participants, remotely and locally, to experience an aviary from the perspective of a telerobotic macaw.[3] Telepresence describes emergent technologies that allow a person to participate or mediate a location remotely. Such machines augment not only our soft bodies but also our subjectivities to foreground posthuman and nonhuman points of view. In this opening sequence, Strickland yokes together the regimes of the physical — surgery, pregnancy, and sex — that suggest the ways that we enter multiple materialities and manipulate the thresholds of our epidermal surfaces. Far from losing sight of the material body, and its spiritual aura, in the bodies of information, Strickland recuperates the body’s physical ambience in virtual spaces. Subjectivities multiply, proliferate, and disperse: our “composite unfragmented” selves are “neither // all-here not all-there sliding in // shifts” (10).

The degree symbol (°) is also worth noting here, since it illustrates the multiple sign-systems operating in this collection. This typographical mark represents degrees of arc (in geographic coordinate systems), hours, temperatures, or the diminished quality in musical harmony. In Dragon Logic, the mark is also an indexical signifier that transports the reader to satellite information in the back matter. In this sense, the (°) not only articulates the degrees of presence, boundaries, and borders that call out to the surrounding space — the multiple dimensions of information — but also the “°Codemakers”: the configurational and fictional, the human and the divine characters who have been responsible for knowledge production.

In one final gesture, I turn to the poem “Line spears nets knots have knots.” Several lines especially stand out:

the tatting aunt bore to her grave for want
of a human relay
      vital connection correct protocol
transmission fear of dissipation dissolution drizzle lethal
error (74)

Each successive line points to the ever-changing states of the linguistic ecology with increasing lyrical playfulness. This poem appears to be drawn from an essay by Sally Jane Norman, “Kupenga, Knots, Have Knots,” in which she argues that

In Maori [sic] culture (as in many cultures with strongly articulated transmission protocols), fear of the dissolution of treasured knowledge through its wholesale delivery to the world at large is in some cases leading to quiet death of that knowledge, borne to the grave for want of a sufficiently comprehensive human relay, a vital new carrier.[4]

Strickland’s performative remediation of this language seems suspicious of potential loss and breakdown of communication, and suggests instead that acts of dissolution and the errors of the “vital connections” nonetheless refresh the opportunities for the formation of new word-hoards. The intertwinedness of language, and the natural redundancies of information flows, do not beget loss in errors of transmission, but, rather, offer new linguistic relations, new relays, and recursive exchanges in cultural regeneration.

It is fair to say that Dragon Logic enunciates the pleasure of the loud ambiguities, the moments of almost-knowing, the tip-of-the-tongues, the perhapses, and the abstractions that navigate a concrete horizon of scientific exactitude. Strickland has designed a lyrical 3-D sculpture where “every junction is a number a corner a vertex” (28). Every coordinate is simultaneously a beginning, middle, and ending.

I want more than a box with door
on it, or a minimized surface; although
so many would be glad for it, content to lose

rooms within rooms onto rooms (24–25)

1. See Kim Meeri, “Oldest Globe To Depict The New World May Have Been Discovered,” Washington Post, August 19, 2013.

2. Brian Reed, “In Other Words: Postmillennial Poetry and Redirected Language,” Contemporary Literature 52, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 767.

3. Eduardo Kac, “Rara Avis.”  

4. Sally Jane Norman, “Kupenga, Knots, Have Nots (Kupenga means net in Maori),” in Intertwinedness: Reflecting the Structure of the Net, ed. Margarete Jahrmann and Christa Schneebauer (Klagenfurt: Ritter Verlag, 2000), 79–80.

Montreal's was a desiring feminism

A review of 'Theory, A Sunday'

Theory, A Sunday

Theory, A Sunday

Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, Gail Scott, Louis Cotnoir, and Louise Dupré. Introduction by Lisa Robertson

Belladonna 2013, 162 pages, $18, ISBN 9780982338780

In a post-riot-grrrl world, it’s hard for those of us who were too young for the theoretical debates of the eighties to understand the amount of collective cognitive labor that was required to move us from feminism’s second wave to its third. We easily take for granted the radical cultural shifts that had to take place for Kathleen Hanna’s emergence on stage with the word ‘slut’ written on her belly to be seen as a populist punk feminist act, until we are kindly reminded otherwise. I was politely offered this “otherwise” recently by a sentence in Louise Dupré’s essay “Four Sketches for a Morphology,” in Belladonna’s recently published translation of Theory, A Sunday, originally published in French in 1988 by Éditions du remue-ménage in Montréal. When I read Dupré’s claim that “Feminism can only survive by recognizing the feminine as difference” (95), my initial reaction was, “well, yeah.” Luckily, I was alone when I thus betrayed my origins as an ungrateful and privileged adolescent of the deconstructionist nineties whose college green seemed to be nothing if not a carnivalesque sea of celebrated differences, because as I continued my read of the essays and literary work in Theory, A Sunday, it became clear that the kind of political struggle and intellectual labor in these texts made possible the relatively utopic feminist intellectual world in which I emerged as a young queer writer. 

It makes sense then, that Belladonna published Theory, A Sunday as the inaugural piece in its new “Germinal Texts” series, for the text documents the kind of feminist thinking enabled by French poststructuralism. More importantly, it shows how this inquiry aided a particular group of French Canadian women writers in feminist interrogations of literary culture and of language itself. The publication also serves as an homage to the rich dialogues that have been taking place between American and Canadian women writers for several generations. In the afterword, Belladonna founder Rachel Levitsky stresses the importance of the “Canadian feminist avant-garde” for offering her a model for expanding the politics of an experimental American literary scene that, in the aftermath of Language poetry, believed “language dissonance and disruption was political in and of itself” (152–53).

As a literary project, Theory, A Sunday presents critical and creative productions that emerged from a women writers’ study group started by Nicole Brossard in the early eighties and included Louise Cotnoir, Gail Scott, Louise Dupré, France Théoret, and Louky Bersianik, whose work make up the volume. In its multiyear effort of Sunday meetings (hence the book’s title), this group worked at defining feminist consciousness through the poststructuralist theory emerging from France. Poststructuralism’s emphasis upon the slippery nature of the sign, its ability to question philosophical binaries through its interrogation of linguistic representation, provided these writers a means by which to move beyond the essentialisms of second-wave feminism and to ponder how one might exhibit a feminist consciousness on the page. Fans of Gail Scott will be excited to read her essay “A Feminist at the Carnival” and a short work of fiction, “‘The Kiss’ of Edvard Munch, Revisited.” Scott’s meditative essay on being a female writer, a work richly layered with novelistic elements, highlights how well the narrative techniques of her novels have always served philosophical thought. Though at times the reader will feel the great gap of time between ‘now and then’ when encountering, for instance, Dupré’s mention of “the teen idol of the moment,” Madonna, this distance disappears with her interrogation, “Where is the feminism in all of this?” a question I lately feel compelled to ask each time I open up my Internet browser (91). Miley Cyrus on a flying hot dog, I believe, does not a Kathleen Hanna make, though argue with me, if you wish. It’s a slippery space. Similarly, Louky Bersianik’s piece “Aristotle’s Lantern,” with its deconstruction of the academic critical apparatus and its detrimental effects on the reception of women’s writing, interrogates and dismantles canonized patriarchal forms and reminds us, in light of our dismal twenty-first-century VIDA numbers, that, “Baby, we haven’t come (too) far.” 

Nicole Brossard’s opening essay in the collection offers a strong example of what poststructuralism made possible for the Montreal group and an introduction to the kind of theoretical work one will discover in this volume. Early in her essay Brossard announces that Western feminism “presents us with a wholly new historical phenomenon, because it questions the imaginary, symbolic, and psychological construct of everything through which the inferiorization of women has been programmed” (19). Though her vocabulary teases the reader into expecting a Lacanian analysis, another Frenchman aids Brossard in the heavy lifting of articulating the relationship between a psychological patriarchy and the linguistic phenomena it produces. It’s Brossard’s turn to Barthes that I found to be the most compelling moment of the essay. Brossard understands “misogynist antagonism,” i.e. patriarchal ideology, in narrative terms, specifically as a narrative we inhabit (25). For this reason it is subject to the same contradictions and disruptions inherent to all narratives. She is able to make this important move, one that will allow her to shift from a discussion of a general feminist project to the specific role of the writer in this larger political movement, by invoking Barthes, for whom the form of narrative “is essentially marked by two powers: that of extending its signs through the whole of the story, and that of inserting unforeseeable developments within these distortions” (25–26). That is, according to Barthes, narrative suffers from something like an excess of itself. In its self-perpetuation, narrative produces a proliferation of signs that may or may not serve the same end. It’s these “unforeseeable developments” that allow for feminist consciousness to emerge. Though all women find themselves struggling within the master narrative of patriarchy, Brossard outlines how this proliferation of patriarchy’s signs provides an opportunity for self-consciousness.

Up until this moment Brossard had discussed patriarchy and its narrative as an extra-literary phenomenon, the sociopsychological story we are all asked to buy into. But Brossard’s turn to Barthes opens up the possibility for literary narrative to disrupt this sociopsychological phenomenon. Through the act of writing, a woman creates the necessary distance — the space between signifier and signified — to gain a critical perspective upon her own story, which is also the story of patriarchal order: “In fact, if it weren’t for what this subjective (diaries, biographies, letters) and novelistic narration of our lives exposes to our consciousness, we should have no other alternative, for lack of any other perspective, than to debate amongst ourselves using the contradictory and hierarchical binaries that the male imaginary constructs” (26). Patriarchal narrative, through its proliferation into a woman’s written self-narration, exposes her to its form as a sociopsychological narrative. The externalization of this “master” narrative through the act of writing creates the necessary self-consciousness to begin a feminist interrogation. For Brossard this gap between signifier and signified is where feminist consciousness begins.

Such theoretical headiness, Gail Scott reminds us in her remarks in the afterword, emerged not from isolated intellectual practices, but from fruitful Sunday gatherings, suggesting that the community produced through this collective study became at least in a partial way an answer to what a new feminism and a new feminist consciousness might look like:

Arriving at noon at someone’s house, each brought a page in French on a topic … The texts were the product of our most recent discoveries in writing, in reading, or had been scored in the heat of political intervention … During the discussion of our texts, we drank coffee, then out came the wine and the food, so the discussions evolved into a kind of camaraderie of sharing and reflection. I remember the meetings that lasted from noon till almost midnight, full of passion and instruction. (151)

In her affectionate introduction to the book, Lisa Robertson emphasizes that these efforts, which took place in the city outside of the auspices of any academic institution, forever altered the landscape of Montreal. She writes, “Thinking about and reading the work of these Montreal women now, twenty-five years later, I am brought to the realization that feminism is one of the scintillating companions of the culture of cities. Feminist culture, discourse, and resistance has shaped contemporary urban experience and urban space” (11). Robertson’s understanding of feminist intellectual activity as a means of altering urban space once again underlines the fact that the publication of these texts continues a dialogue between generations of avant-garde women writers in North America. Where the social and intellectual practices of the Montreal group altered the landscape of that city twenty-five years ago, Belladonna as a reading series and publishing group has been helping change the landscape of New York literary life since the late nineties. As Levitsky notes in her commentary in the afterword, she was only able to conceive of such an intervention through the legacy of these women. Their collaborative literary practices, social and intellectual, “offered [her] permission” (153). Belladonna’s publication of the results testifies that Sunday meetings have been happening ever since and will continue happening in cities all around us.

Poetry as path, as weapon

On Uche Nduka



Uche Nduka

Overpass Books 2012, $10, ISBN 978-0-9832206-2-6

How many poetries are there; how many could there be? The poetry of investigation, the poetry of protest, personal poetry, national poetry, international poetry, documentary poetry, poetry of war and peace, emotional, environmental, philosophical, identity poetry. And what’s at the root of all these poetries, if anything? Poetry as a way of approaching the world — as the urgent effort — probably futile — to get at something inside or outside through language — or to escape into language as a way to survive a brutal material or psychological world. Somehow language — the effort in the ineffability of words — can save us if we can engage at a deep enough level to get past the pain. That’s then a poem and more than a poem. It’s a mode of living. What we call a poem might not be more than a momentary snapshot of an ongoing life in language — a dislocation, an exile.

Some thoughts on reading Ijele, a powerful prose text by the Nigerian poet Uche Nduka. Born in 1963 into a family of Christian priests, Nduka was brought up bilingual in English and Igbo and earned a BA in English from the University of Nigeria in 1985. When he was four years old the Biafran War (the Nigerian civil war) broke out. Possibly as many as three million people died in that conflict, many of them children — Nduka’s generational peers — mostly from starvation. Chaos and ethnic violence in Nigeria preceded that war and continue to the present. Top Nigerian government officials regularly and spectacularly fleece the nation’s coffers. The bloody terrorist activities of Boko-Haran, whose members recently broke into a boarding school and slashed the throats of students asleep in bed, go on without restraint. 

Nduka left Nigeria in 1994 for Germany, when he won an arts fellowship from the Goethe Institute. He’s lived out of the country ever since, in Germany and Holland for twelve years, and in 2007 emigrated to the US, where his parents and family live.

Given this background, it’s clear that for Nduka, poetry has had to be much more than a polite profession or an aesthetic preoccupation. He has of necessity had to find in poetry a means of survival and a method for fighting back. No way to set aside the scars, the disappointment, and the social rage, and go on to write a poetry of reflective personal feeling. Also, it would seem, no way straightforwardly to attempt to describe or depict the immensity of what has been experienced and felt — writing would have to take you beyond that to a more total or global sense of engagement with language as defiance, as hope, hope not for a probably impossible political solution to the chaos, but hope for a present, in writing, in which sanity and endurance prevail, even as the pain is confronted head-on. At any rate, this seems to be what Nduka’s writing does. Poetry as path or weapon — as life.

i had barely been born when i nearly lost my life. that     music is not higher than the unity of pines. how intact am i. how intact am i. how intact are you. i should turn my back on them:these opened wounds may swallow me. we make claims for the land hoping it will not betray us.quandrants of parenthesis.overnight, waterlilies rose and sent mails to him.waterlilies speaking for the lodgers. not a few are anatomically incorrect. (“Overnight,” 25; unconventional spacing in original)

A prize-winning poet well connected in Nigerian and African literary communities, Nduka writes in the Western avant-garde tradition, but without particular affinities that I can see, judging at least from the work in Ijele. What’s inspiring about the book is its line by line intensity, and the way it simply states, baldly and without pathos — almost, at times, coldly, without regret or protest — its themes of sexuality, dismay, exile, resistance, dislocation, without any promise or redemption other than in the text itself. The book consists of eighty one-page prose poems (a few are longer) written in mostly disjunct sentences without capitalization. The compositional method seems to be improvisational, listening on a word-by-word basis for what seems to want to come next, and allowing that to happen, celebrating surprise, spontaneity, contradiction, reaching out for something not yet realized. Onward, always onward. Yet the poems do not wander or drift — there’s a driving rhythm and insistence to them, an urgency, a sense of defiance. I found the text frankly difficult to read for its density and intensity — I kept wanting to read on, but sometimes found that difficult to do; I needed breaks. So it took a while to get through. Ijele seems intent on doing its work, reader or no. Nduka is a fiercely independent writer. 

So far I just like doing my own thing and not buying into the hype of either formal or informal English; traditional or avant-garde usages. I enact a language style that suits my mood and the subjects I am interested in. Linguistically it seems there are a lot of trenches that have not been explored in poems/poetry. I keep attempting to investigate them. I don’t want to feel like people expect me to write in English timidly. I have always been wary about the conformist pressure of Nigerian, African, European, and American literary scenes. Yet I guess I am not fully in possession of the knowledge of the things/factors/situations that motivate the shifts in the usage of English in my work. I try not to overthink this phenomena. Pushing the boundaries is what a real poet does. I am writing about the United States of America now, but with my eyes wide open. (Nduka to Johannes in Montevidayo, September 24, 2103)

Wanting some information on the word, I ran Ijele through Google translator. In Zulu it means “prison” or “warder.” In Igbo it’s the title for a traditional masquerade about a courier between the spiritual and physical worlds — in the case of Nduka’s poems, between Nigeria and Europe/America or between the social horror and triviality of the world and the possibilities for survival with integrity that a life of poetry provides.

words invite us to take part in stamping their feet; in thrashing the desks of belles-lettres;in scorning the mirage of a bookworm; in fusing bindweed and algae. my logic cannot catch all the spoils of the possible. my past momentarily cannot cease being a thirst. being no visitation of a whip, being no visitation of loss, the subterfuge of a needler is patently absurd. this present incarnation of the philosopher’s stone does not interest me. some courtesies are diabolical. overall the fowl has bled to its limit. interruption is our condition. in interruption is our trace. the way in is not the way out. going in the direction of thirdness it is better to be incensed than bored. (“Branching,” 72)

As a writer concerned with poetry as more than poetry — poetry as a life in language that can realistically confront the world as it is without going mad or resorting to the various impressive strategies for distraction that our present world has on offer — I am drawn to Nduka’s work. Because of what he has seen, what has formed him, there’s a level of passion in his work beyond what’s normal in much other writing today.

Notes on 'A Mammal of Style'

A Mammal of Style

A Mammal of Style

Ted Greenwald and Kit Robinson

Roof Books 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1931824538

Let’s begin with the title A Mammal of Style, which of course echoes the Chicago Manual of Style, someone’s notion of the proper and correct way of rendering sensible sentences in the English language. A manual isn’t a book you read, it’s a book you have close at hand — the word means hand, functional and straightforward. This book feels like that.

But a mammal isn’t a manual; it’s an animal. It could be a human animal, but as animals humans have no proper way of doing anything. They do what comes naturally. They live in the world, reacting to it. Grunting and grimacing, as the occasion demands. A mammal of style describes what this book is: grunts and grimaces of literary style, gestures, blunt-force interventions. Distinctly not sensible.

Its collaborative authors, Ted Greenwald and Kit Robinson, have been well known as practitioners of the art of innovative poetry for many decades, both of them, to my ear, having consistently written a poetry that is edgy, flat, and tough, without much ornament, very much in the American idiom, with lots of local slang, technical terms, and contemporary buzz-words, sending up all these vocabularies and simply doing them in a dead-pan, satirical tone — the opposite of passionate or emotional. In fact, decoration, elegance, subtlety, beauty, are not words one would normally use to describe Ted’s or Kit’s writing, as far as I know it. So they are natural colleagues and collaborators. Together they have produced in A Mammal of Style a wonderful source text for anyone who wants to hear a peculiarly trenchant American take on contemporary life and letters. “Kit” and “Ted”: plain three-letter American guy names. 

Mammal is a substantial text, more than 130 pages and divided into six distinct sections, each devoted to a different poetic form: sonnet, sestina, haibun, maybe haiku, a three-stanza fifteen line form that might be a version of the medieval French rondeau, and a final one-poem section that seems to be written free form. There are fourteen sonnets, ten fifteen-line poems (the last being ten lines long, not fifteen), twelve sestinas, and twenty-four haibun. It seems that Ted and Kit had a plan. What’s interesting about the plan is that it violates utterly the implied tone or feeling that goes with these traditional forms. A sonnet — even an unconventional sonnet — sounds and feels a particular way, as does a sestina, a haibun, and so on. These poems don’t sound that way at all; in fact, what’s remarkable about them is how they manage, regardless of form, to sound pretty much the same: full of attitude about the contemporary scene, mostly with regard to the language we use every day to confuse ourselves about what’s going on. This is word by word, phrase by phrase poetry, made often without any noticeable sense of intentional connection from part to part, so that a moment by moment reading of the text, without worrying about where the text is going or where it has come from, is a necessity — and will reward the reader.

What haunts me about this work is its most typical rhythmic structure — many stressed syllables one after the other, almost telegraphic. Here, for instance, are some of the titles of the sonnets: “Trickle Comp,” “Lift Hood,” “Lath Talk,” “Mound Co,” “Poles Claw,” “Light Atch,” “Down Own”; many of the lines within the poems (this is true not only in the sonnets, but throughout) echo this very tough and definite stressed phrasing, which for me expresses a radically unsentimental take on the world as it swirls by. A tough, cold eye. As in the sestina “Fire House and Crowded Theater”:

When all is said virtually
Voice drops do whisper
Well-wishers with access
To home range audience
One bare witness
So difficult to believe

Fantasy is ability to believe …

Later verses of this sestina come, by way of the logic of the end rhymes, to lines like:

Got wheelchair access
Cracked up to believe

… illustrating probably the main technique and message of the work — the wisdom of fractured cliche.

As someone conversant with Buddhist literature I was amused by examples of fractured clichés from that tradition, as these lines that play off the Buddhist formula for confession (“all my ancient twisted karma, from beginningless greed, hate and delusion, I now fully avow”):

all my ancient twisted car parts born of green hail and
diffusion I do now secretarially avow.

… and the several lovely fractured quotations from Dogen.

Political commentary appears frequently, built on pop culture references, with easy humor and without the usual angst or bitterness:

Banana Republicans usher usa into twenty-first century
third world. honey i shrunk the people.

as well as plenty of commentary on poetry and its uses, as in this fantasy about the power of the poet to defeat the world with his verse:

Passing through fields of garbage the syntactical
hero pulls the trigger on meant verbiage shoots the object
of his rampant longitude, dead predicate, and rides off into
the archaic, trailing diaphanous interpellations. How the
West Was.

or this marvelous line that more or less captures what poetry used to do and what it does now:

Scratch at vague word moss, places poetry used to go.

Also, the world’s greatest haiku:

Great sweater
Really love the shoes
And the watch!

In short, this is a delightful book, full of the sorts of recognitions that one wants from poetry, but without the annoyances that that sort of experience could produce in less capable hands than those of Ted and Kit.

I haven’t said much here about the mechanics of the collaboration between these two great poets — how did they do this, what was their method of working long distance (Kit in Berkeley, Ted in New York), what were they thinking, what intentions did they have? When I asked them they preferred not to say, seemingly themselves not focused on methodology or documentation of how a poem is made so much as on the accidental and forgotten stumblings and miracles that make poems appear out of our biographical and cultural miasmas. Neither Ted nor Kit works in a university, and neither seems interested (as do the very many poets who teach and profess poetry) in rationalizing and documenting the making of poetry, focusing on questions of methodology and text, context, on the theory that no text stands alone, it comes out of a cultural and historical moment, it comes out of influences, other texts, biographical realities, and so on. True! We must not become too mystical and precious about our poetries! On the other hand, to make poetry into another reasonable cultural production that can be folded into the cultural/commercial mania that rules our world these days is certainly not such a great idea either. Leave it to poets like our Ted and Kit to manage to remain outside all that, to find a way, together to clear some space for thought.

(Note: Takeaway, published by c_L Press in Portland, Oregon, 2013, is a brief companion volume to A Mammal. It’s a forty-four-page text in a small-format, sewn-bound book consisting of poems with a triplet/couplet form. The tone and subject matter is a continuation of what’s found in Mammal).