A review of recent works by Urayoán Noel
The author of several books of poetry and translation, Urayoán Noel brings a satirical voice and a contemporary urban consciousness to the traditional notion that the poet will entertain and enlighten. The results, in his hands, are a well-done weird. Inevitably, they’re also compelling, and then a penny drops, and they provoke.
Seen from one perspective, his 2010 collection Hi-Density Politics (Buffalo: BlazeVOX) represents a shift from Noel’s earlier work. Its greater emphasis on process and constraint yields a new experience on the formal level, particularly where Noel has used new technologies to produce his teeming metropolis on the page. Yet Hi-Density Politics offers all the more when considered as an extension of his previous books, published in 2005 and 2008. Noel’s playful takes on language, references to Puerto Rican culture, deep engagement of critical dialogues around island and Nuyorican poetry, and commitment to performance spring into relief. Taken collectively the books produce a historic meditation that collides with, and intensifies, the frenetic energies emphasizing the immediacy of urban life in Hi-Density Politics.
Published by Bilingual Review Press in 2005, Noel’s first book was Kool Logic / La Lógica Kool, featuring a title poem that demonstrates the “kool logic” of late capitalism. As the names of the publisher and book would suggest, this collection immediately drew attention to Noel’s skillful transitions across borders between English and Spanish. The poetry engages social scenarios shaped by contradiction, tempering its frankly pedagogical poses with punk and comic attitude. Here Noel displays his enjoyment in redeeming older poetic forms with absurd, yet pointed, contemporary vocabularies. An influential 2007 anthology of US Latino writing, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, picked up material from this book. There the selection emphasizes Noel’s interest in renovating traditional poetic forms with pop irreverence. Editor Francisco Aragón also suggested that Noel, who brings an unusual degree of double fluency to his bilingual work, may represent one future strain of US Latino writing: “a poetry where Spanish and English are on equal footing throughout.”
Noel’s second book, Boringkén (San Juan: Librería La Tertulia / Ediciones Callejón), follows through on that promise of a thickly bilingual writer who challenges both sides of the divide by refusing to keep his cross-cultural performances segregated. It also asserts a contemporary moment in collision with its own historical trajectory. This move potentially opens up the poems to a whole set of readers interested in hemispheric history, and in Puerto Rico in particular. The risk, of course, involves losing those who lack that exposure and don’t care to get it. I’m of the opinion that it’s worth learning something new to read this poetry — as one more way to access its many layers of intelligence — so I’ve included shards of context here.
Boringkén, the title of this 2008 book, refers to the term “Borinquen”: the name for Puerto Rico once used by indigenous peoples, as their word was transcribed into the Spanish language during colonization. The name is recorded quite early on through its use by Juan de Castellanos (1522–1607) in an epic poem about the Americas, prominent more for its great length and useful subject matter than artistic mastery. Another name recorded in this same epic poem is Urayoán, a cacique (Native chieftain) who carries out the experimental execution of Spaniard Diego de Salcedo in order to prove that Europeans are mere mortals, thus illustrating that the conquest of the Americas consists of acts that are human and not divine, which in turn signifies that indigenous peoples can put up resistance to them. The term “Borinquen” and the image of Urayoán have been recuperated in the contemporary period by new generations of activists and writers, so the cover of Noel’s book alone invokes five hundred years of history — poetry bursting with epic proportion.
Rather than solidifying the sense of epic inside the book, though, Noel dismantles it. He deconstructs his title, turning it into plays on “boring” and “ken,” on the ever-iconic Barbie and Ken, and all manner of puns and wacky sound-based riffs. The pleasure he takes in sound is reminiscent of Edwin Torres, and I’m also reminded of Torres’s interest in creating a “No-ricuan” world (which, among other things, might be paraphrased as the Zen inhabitation of Boricuan conceptual landscapes). Noel has collaborated with Torres on the performative interventions of Spanic Attack, further suggesting useful overlaps. Emphasizing the interest of performance, as in the earlier packaging of Kool Logic / La Lógica Kool, Boringkén comes with a companion CD that explores the use of audio and new media tools for drawing out performative elements lost on the page. These prefigure his performative uses of his newest book, on which I’ll expand later.
Another factor uniting Noel’s three books, which suggests links back to predecessors like William Carlos Williams, is the hemispheric vision he brings to his poetic explorations of American cities. It’s a longstanding convention in Latin America to refer to the “lettered city” of modern life. Noel, who takes a keen interest in handmade objects produced by international avant-garde movements and enjoys making collaborative art object-books, wants to know what poets have been doing in marginal zones, in the back alleys and little workshops of the symbolic city: talking about their favorite cult books, making chapbooks from recycled cardboard, collaborating with visual artists to produce small handmade editions. They produce these low-tech objects, seeking to keep the final product inexpensive, in the tradition of the little magazine. Still, their environment is complex: while making low-tech handmade editions, they’re increasingly likely to be interrupted by someone’s Blackberry or smart phone. Poised between the old and the new, these poets work in Mexico City, Mexico; Lima, Peru; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. And again, they are also in the USA: in New York, in San Juan. Noel brings the hemispheric scene back home to the nation, to the metropolis on its mainland and the urban life of the colonized island.
It may be tempting to call Noel “Nuyorican,” for a variety of reasons, one being that this term has made it into the US critical lexicon. However, it’s not strictly accurate. Noel was born in 1976 in Puerto Rico and lived out his formative years there, so New York is not the community of origin, meaning that the island must be asserted differently.
While Puerto Rico still evokes a sense of foreignness to many Americans, this foreignness is partly residual, the result of the island’s general invisibility in our history books. Given that this invisibility continues unabated in much of the country today — magisterial publisher W. W. Norton & Co. itself may now have come out with a giant US Latino literature anthology demonstrating texts and contexts, but this doesn’t mean that a majority of Americans yet understand Puerto Ricans and other US Latinos to be “really American” or include them as significant contributors to our national cultural frameworks — I’ll throw in a few essentials here. As one of the outcomes of the Spanish-American War (think 1898), the island came to be part of the United States, eventually becoming a commonwealth. All Puerto Ricans — and this includes people living on the island, as well as those who have moved around on the mainland — have been citizens of the United States since the passage of the Jones Act in 1917. Puerto Rico was never made a state, nor was it released to independence; instead it has been given creative titles, such as “free associated state.”
Thus I am writing, technically, about a thoroughly American writer, but one who happens to have been born in San Juan, Puerto Rico — an other American city, long left off the maps of the mainland and consequently out of our knowledge bases about “American culture.” While activists have explored platforms for independence and resisted the nation’s colonizing embrace, another facet of this problematic involves the reluctance of mainstream US culture to acknowledge that Puerto Ricans have a significant place (resistant or otherwise) in the nation’s history.
The ongoing between-state of Puerto Ricans — sort of in and sort of out of nationhood, inhabiting a state of statelessness, one part US and one part Latin America — has given rise to diverse artistic reflections, some from the island and others from the mainland. Poet Victor Hernández Cruz writes in “Airoplain,”
They can keep Puerto Rico just give us
the guava of independence depending on no bodies tortures dreams
of the past or future within the present State no State ever of things
Urayoán Noel, a careful reader of work from and about the island, observes that in these lines, “Cruz jettisons the return to the native island and imagines in its place a utopia of the stateless.”
Noel builds on this vision to explore the state of statelessness in each of his books. Sometimes he pauses to mark its political contours; more consistently, however, he uses poetry to move through artistic and linguistic veins opened by the political register. The concept of utopia that he credits to Hernández Cruz sets up the possibility of a fertile space, one which by definition can only ever be imaginary. As far as Noel is concerned, this Puerto Rico of the mind simply begs to be explored by the bohemian Rican, adapting Ginsberg’s attitudes to his own field of vision.
Noel’s second book, the one entitled Boringkén, opens with a suggestive quotation. It is a line from Luis Muñoz Marín (famous as the architect of modern Puerto Rican society): “I have lost you in a fog of perfect words.” In the larger context of Noel’s work, this recycled admission appears to be addressed to the island itself. The nation’s loss then allows (and requires) it to be configured and reconfigured through the imagination.
The term “Nuyorican” is useful for tracing the lineage of Noel’s poetics — not because Noel claims this identity for himself, but because he responds directly and extensively to the Nuyorican literary tradition. The word combines “New York” with “Rican” to indicate people living in the metropolis of the mainland United States, marking out a diasporic positionality. As critic Maria Damon emphasizes, the term Nuyorican is “understood to contain multitudes”: Puerto Ricans have a historically rich mix of ethnic identities on the island, reflecting the complexities and discontents of hemispheric history, even before immersion into the diaspora’s cities. Afro-Caribbean identity, for example, has an important if historically contested place in island life. Anthropologist Jorge Duany emphasizes another form of complexity: where migrations to the mainland are concerned, Puerto Ricans have been less likely to carry out permanent and one-way moves than to pursue comings and goings, a fluctuation. These complexities have been productive for literary culture. In the last half of the twentieth century, as is now well known, Nuyorican poets created a dynamic cultural movement, organized that now-famous poet’s café in New York to support art as a community, and gained national recognition for US Latino/a poetry after publishing their first anthologies in the 1970s.
Noel is the member of a new island-raised generation: one that has begun to take those Nuyorican writers of the late twentieth century seriously as precursors. Not all island readers initially embraced diasporic culture, nor do they today. Noel credits an unusually progressive professor at the University of Puerto Rico with seeing the value of Nuyorican contributions earlier than most island readers and exposing his generation to them in an open-minded way. Today Noel is extending his professor’s classroom gesture by completing a scholarly book about Nuyorican poetics. His gestures may still seem radical in an island context where “diaspora” remains a vexed term. Duany does use the word, writing in 2002 that “as Puerto Ricans move back and forth between the two countries, territorially grounded definitions of national identity become less relevant, while transnational identities acquire greater prominence.” But the hybridity of mainland Puerto Ricans was still often perceived as a threat in cultural circles on the island in the new century: “Many local scholars and creative writers deride Puerto Ricans in the diaspora because they cannot speak Spanish well or conduct themselves in a proper Puerto Rican fashion.”
Noel takes the fluidity of Puerto Rican populations as a point of great interest. In his creative writing, he riffs off the diasporic texts and performances from his position as a Puerto Rican writer raised on the island and now living in New York, though in a significantly different way and moment than the Nuyorican writers he highlights. Noel was based in New York for many years as an adult and now moves back and forth between Albany, where he works, and the Bronx, which feels like more of a home and creative base.
Whereas Ginsberg looms as an important precursor to Noel’s poetry, then, so does the inimitable Pedro Pietri (1944–2004). Now one of the most famous of Nuyorican writers, Pietri invented a memorable performance persona. He called himself The Reverend and transported his writings in an old suitcase labeled “Coffin for Rent.” Pietri generated his own imaginary Puerto Ricos: for example, he collaborated with artist Adál Maldonado to elaborate “El Puerto Rican Embassy,” a satirical, interdisciplinary project dedicated to “a sovereign state of mind,” complete with its own passport. Clearly commenting on the paradoxical location of the island as a proto-nation at once colonized and stateless, El Puerto Rican Embassy is also its own answer of sorts to the ongoing questions that Duany raises in his more recent meditations on the fluidity of Puerto Rican life: “What is the meaning of Puerto Rican identity? Where is it located? How is it articulated and represented? […] How can a people define themselves as a nation without striving for a sovereign state?”
Noel revisits Pietri’s most famous poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” in his 2008 collection. Pietri’s work is a classic originating doubly, once in its performative incarnation during the Young Lords’ establishment of the People’s Church in New York and once on paper via Pietri’s book (of the same title) in 1973. It features four emblematic characters: Juan, Milagros, Olga and Miguel. In Pietri’s poem these working-class figures compete with each other for status and die dissatisfied with their lot in life. Pietri urges them to break out of a mindset he sees as politically ineffective and build a new, more independent and historical consciousness, one that requires renegotiating their relations to the island. By touching down on this historic poem, Noel asks questions about what it means to be living in the language environment of our new millennium, a fascination that comes to unite many poems in Hi-Density Politics.
His riff on Pietri’s English-language poem is bilingual in a particular way: it employs more Spanish than Pietri’s famous poem and appears in an edition published in Puerto Rico, both indications of Noel’s precise spaces of engagement. Thus his poem citing Pietri, “Down with Boringkén,” embodies the voyage of Pietri’s legacy to the island on two levels, via language and site of publication. I give this excerpt from the first (Spanish-dominant) half of Noel’s poem alongside an unpublished translation that he rendered himself:
A ver si a Juan y Miguel
A ver si Olga y Milagros
A ver si Manuel
A ver si el Boringkén dócil
Let’s see if Juan and Miguel
Let’s see if Olga and Milagros
Let’s see if Manuel
Let’s see if the docile Boringken
This critical question about what today’s economy means for the conditions of everyday life is one of many rewarding pairings that becomes visible if we read Noel’s books as a step-by-step poetic interrogation of life on the island and the mainland.
More specifically, it’s clear from the above excerpt from “Down with Boringkén” that Noel was dwelling on the notion that “Puerto Ricans in the United States are caught up in a process of ‘transition.’” It’s a point articulated decades ago by sociologist Juan Flores and fellow scholars, who explored relations between literature and society as they sought to create respect for the cultural work done by Nuyorican writers. Noel’s poem pauses on their statement, “We must ask, transition to what,” treating this idea (originally published in an article in a 1981 issue of Daedalus) as one still pressing for writers in the new century (212). His poems from Boringkén and other books also respond to their identification, in the conclusion to the same 1981 article, of a “backdrop of persistent inequality and commercialist distortion” confronted by Puerto Rico’s diasporic writers (213). Even as one may open up to visions of a greater fluidity, these tensions endure.
Another dynamic layer of Noel’s earlier books that will continue into Hi-Density Politics emerges around his adept uses of performance. His use of rhyme can be ironic or ridiculous on the page while also setting the stage for a delivery that wakes up the room, particularly if delivered with hip-waggling to a Casio-keyboard soundtrack. Hi-Density Politics is, like his earlier books, imagined in relation to performance, but in experimental ways that may not be immediately obvious to readers from the page alone.
Reviewer Rebecca Mablango-Mayor calls Noel “the next in a generation of beat poets and performance artists willing to take themselves and their work as seriously and as unseriously as possible.” Pursuing the question of how humor can enhance performance, she found that in the 1990s, while he was in New York, Noel decided that “rock language, with its sense of disposableness and immediacy, could deflate the grand gestures of formal poetry and provide a moral voice to his poetry.” I would add that Noel’s self-designated “bohemian” side opens out into many kinds of experimentation into how the body of the performer can do its thing. It is a physical parallel to his scholarly research into how diverse Nuyorican poets have done theirs. Working with a band, he has tapped into punk and other urban, counter-cultural styles. As this turn suggests, he rejects some aspects of mass culture in favor of resistant takes — for example, he embraces low-budget approaches and refuses to conform to the boundaries of television-friendly artistic styles.
His 2010 collection may in some ways seem more critical of established Nuyorican poetry conventions than anything else, perhaps even striking at the initial parameters through which the broader framework of “Latinidad” has gained ground in US literary publishing in recent decades. Expectations that the poet’s task is to “represent” a group identity, whether such ideas may exist in conscious or unconscious ways for audiences, are registered and critiqued. In the first poem of Hi-Density Politics Noel’s persona claims to be “rocking the identity cutout,” a phrasing that sounds ironic, ambivalent at best, about stagnant performances of identity (“HI THEN *salutation+,” 67). This “cutout” line may perhaps be read as a disclaimer, informed by the sort of concerns about commercialist distortions previously noted by Flores et al. The same poem makes reference to juggling loyalties and suggests that art can become opposed to community, then asks whether poetry itself becomes the community (58, 59, 60).
To some degree, then, Noel risks breaching sensitive boundaries around the relation between identity, imagined community, and the success of art forms he hopes not to re-inhabit, such as more commercialized and institutionalized variants of slam and spoken word circuits, and the pages of anthologies as framed in prior decades. He also writes from a semi-outsider position that does not take acceptance into a putatively Nuyorican world for granted or aim to become its next representative face. Like Boringkén, that is, Hi-Density Politics dangles the option of epic before us, then sets about happily dismantling and repurposing any components of which epic might have been composed.
However, dwelling on signs of ambivalence and breach alone could also cause Noel’s poetry to appear overly dismissive of other poets or assertions of Latino traditions, in my representation. In fact I think it would be a naïve misreading to over-emphasize signs of disaffiliation in the critiques posed by Hi-Density Politics, especially if we overlook the plethora of signs of engagement (visible through Noel’s criticism, representing commitments of many years, as well as his poetry). This book may be critical and indeed, avant, but it is so in a particular and conscious way that treats ethnic canons, working-class expression, community activism, performative poetries, and the artistic possibilities of historical knowledge with respect.
So the question becomes: how is it significant that his persona’s 2010 salutation — a sort of manifesto encoded in terza rima — throws down the following critical challenge?
You can keep the poem that anoints —
That represents — that narrates or “gives” voice —
Find the voice that poems — that disjoints!
(“HI THEN [salutation],” 37–39)
This figure prods the audience to inhabit spaces of contrast, seeking not stasis and certainty but sites of negotiation and provisional balance between positions — and sites of risk, where dismantling must be part of the process.
Noel’s ongoing attention to the number three in Hi-Density Politics suggests a link to third spaces: places neither here nor there, therefore somewhere else and escaping oppositions. One poem, for example, thematizes that number three about as emphatically as it could be done: it consists of 333 numbered phrases, each containing three terms. A third space may be a site not captured as a state, offering the disembodied pleasures and “sovereignties” of utopia. It merges into the many possibilities offered by the city of Hi-Density Politics, which as Sueyeun Juliette Lee observes, is both actual and virtual, “a space of hybrid possibility and discursive play.” Liberating as this map may be, the city as technological space is not freed of history in its changing present, but sutured to it.
The challenge to terms of representation appears again later in the book, with emphasis on the now:
give it up for the bodies of the moment!
the unrepresentative ones
the cropped and crappy, crip and queer,
flopped and failing, flailing, hopeful ones
the ones that make the night what it is, our blessed ruin
(“hi-din sites [body slam]” III, 67–72)
The determination to be provisional and unrepresentative links Noel into avant-garde circles embracing the marginal and the small. At the same time it returns him to diasporic literary concerns about interrogating one’s position with regard to multiple locations, among them markets and their historical bases, as well as the island perpetually “on the move” (Duany’s central metaphor). Noel, it seems, has a deep interest in the ways all of us are necessarily complicit in the circuits we inhabit; at the same time he is not exempting himself from the responsibility of developing a critical vision, even if it is necessarily developed (like that of another canonical Caribbean writer, José Martí) during residence inside the belly of the beast.
Writing processes he designed for the new collection explore the impact of new technologies on the movements of language. His emphasis on circuitry in the poems suggests to me that it’s worth pausing to review the circuits he elects to inhabit with recent projects. Noel invites his audience to join him on his symbolic tour of the hemispheric Americas experience. Recently he has participated in the cartonera movement that connects San Juan to Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires and more. As a translator, he has brought recent work by Edwin Torres into Puerto Rico in a spunky, bright green cardboard edition produced by Atarraya Cartonera. Atarraya’s website includes photographs of the making of cartoneras, as well as links to other organizations producing these low-budget interventions around the Americas. With Hi-Density Politics Noel also joined the ranks of poets allied with Buffalo’s BlazeVox Books, linking its rust belt sensibilities into the hemispheric circuit where he carries out his experiments in process and constraint.
One poem in the new book emerged out of the question, “How does an English-only voice recognition application on a Blackberry interpret phrases spoken to it in Spanish?” Noel took the rich, complex Spanish of poems from César Vallejo’s Trilce, read them into his Blackberry, and wrote down the English phrases the Blackberry “heard.” The writing by Vallejo (Peru, 1892–1938) is resonant, somber, lovely, all the more so when it breaks with aspects of formal syntax. Because sound recognition software is programmed to engage phrases widely used in today’s computing environments, Vallejo’s words reappear in absurd and fragmented terms.
These fragments constitute Noel’s poem, entitled “trill set.” Its transformations of Vallejo are striking for their sheer play of sound, and striking all over again for their brief and funny glimpses into tensions driving the circulation of English in technological environments. Noel’s poem replicates Vallejo’s layout, as illustrated by these two short excerpts:
Gallos cancionan escarbando en vano.
Boca del claro día que conjuga.
era era era era.
(Vallejo, II / 5–8)
Dido scans the owner is co-bundle in buying
oh and I will be ethical to
a data in data and data
(Noel, II / 5–8)
La creada voz rebélase y no quiere
ser malla, ni amor.
Los novios sean novios en eternidad.
Pues no deis 1, que resonará al infinito.
(Vallejo, V / 11–14)
Lack and add levels said no kidding.
Saddam might do to him what
you know Ríos sentinel US entered me that
Westor Amazon that I think you need to
(Noel, V / 11–14)
Who could say that this homophonic, apparently nonsensical “translation” by the Blackberry has not caught some tangible history in its nets?
When Noel then turns his printed version of “trill set” into a score for a performance, two readers can produce a multifaceted experience. One plays a sort of straight man, inhabiting the sounds and spirit of Vallejo’s originals. The other provides the absurd and engaging contrast regarding “global sound” as produced through the Blackberry’s limited perspective. Having played the Vallejo role partnered with Noel’s (non)global Blackberry voice in a February 2011 reading, I can testify that it draws engaged laughter from an audience — and the person attempting to voice Vallejo’s original Spanish while keeping a straight face takes a bath in cognitive dissonance. The results are energizing.
Afterwards listeners shared reactions with me. Most said they found the presentation of this poem unexpectedly funny and laughed with everyone else at the time. (One of my students added that Noel’s performance persona is that of “an Energizer bunny”: he hops around, winding everyone up.) A common reflection that followed was that Noel’s work on the page really does function as a script for performance. Several people then went further to reflect on the relationships this poem illustrated between English and Spanish, as those are shaped today by the communicative devices and applications with increasing influence in everyday life. These listeners said, ultimately, that “trill set” isn’t funny, not at all: its very awkwardness represents the grace of an effective provocation.
By contrast to the live performance, the poem-score’s initial appearance on the page of Hi-Density Politics — like other entries in this particular book of experimentations — could be largely opaque to a reader. Noel’s explanation of the writing process, which he provides in an “Acknowledgements and Notes” section at the beginning of the book, is helpful. Even with insight into his processes, though, Noel has written a challenging text. His inventiveness with language surfaces quite clearly — Rodrigo Toscano is right to refer to this book as “furiously cute” in his blurb. But what of other layers of meaning on the page, so often required to seduce audiences into a second and third reading? In Hi-Density Politics he flirts with moments of unmeaning and unperformability, especially for audiences who can’t see a live performance bring the page to life, or for those who do not find a poem written in threes fascinating. It’s likely to be even more challenging for those who haven’t read much Puerto Rican or Nuyorican writing and will thus miss his rapid spinouts into context and traditions.
Yet from these scores he draws performances that can be comprehended on several levels at once, contradictory as the audience’s experience of language can be. Better said: Noel has a rare gift for using poetry to perform contradictory states in language.
Some of his themes should be recognizable, if via fragments, to any contemporary reader who uses the Internet or reflects on economics. With a little more effort — say, by looking up the link about Guánica that Noel offers in his process notes — one can see that his pleasurable language gaming ties into historical issues at stake in this book.
Noel composed his poem “guánica” by recording comments into his Blackberry while sitting on the beach at this location. Columbus is thought to have landed at Guánica with Spanish ships in 1493, emblematic of European trajectories of conquest in the Americas. US ships followed, landing at Guánica in 1898, a date marking the rapid rise to power of the United States in the Caribbean. These ship-emblems thus point to a key stage in the development of the schizophrenic roles played today by the United States in relation to Puerto Rico and Cuba. (These two islands, if opposed via national frameworks today, were once portrayed by another poet, Lola Rodríguez de Tió [1843–1924], as the “two wings” of the same Caribbean bird.)
Noel delivers his historic vision with emphasis on extreme immediacy, folding long and short scopes of time into each other. Each subsection of “guánica” opens with documentation of the precise minute in which he spoke into his Blackberry. His words were constrained by the one-minute span of its recording capabilities:
then the Americans
and i can see for Miles (57–71)
Meaning, like the island itself, shifts in and out of sight. Through this very cycle of contradictions (meaning/unmeaning; appearance/disappearance; historicity/immediacy), the poems pull history to surface: that is, like the texts, history manifests on the horizon of the page in the form of a process.
History as poetic process bears echoes of many voices. In the above excerpt from “Guánica,” the last line has at least two reference points. Noel notes that Nelson Appleton Miles commanded US forces that landed in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American war. Meanwhile, generations with a whole other cultural literacy will recognize in the same line Noel’s reference to a hit song from the Who, “I can see for miles.”
Who can see what, and what do we choose to see? A critique inciting us to confront inequalities of global vision from the inside, Noel’s vivid and layered Hi-Density Politics invites us to give our own fine retro-pop dismissal to a long stupid history: to a specifically literary stupid history: to that archival vision in which US Latino and island poetries, and the sophisticated issues they engage, were so long ago and far away! as! if! invisible. The book proposes that an ongoing shift in optics move not only toward greater visibility, but toward a visibility in living color and motion: one complex enough to sustain debates and multiple positionalities within and across communities, while remaining open to sites and bodies as yet unimagined. This challenge to the audience to operate in post-invisibility modes, while dodging traps of stasis and violence that can accompany visibility, may be the highest-density element of Noel’s utopian poetics.
Noel advertises the point that his hi-density politics make for difficulty up front. His salutation/manifesto, welcoming the reader to his own personal city on the page, scans across a spectrum of thorny images and tensions. The debates he draws into the body of the poem fulfill the promise that the book’s terrain will be constituted as an irreverent, dynamic urban space, one that does not want to be fully apprehended.
In keeping with his overall insistence on inhabiting spaces of contradiction, the salutation closes with a sober turn into natural cycles. The poem’s final image follows the rotation of day into night:
The poem as a difficult relating
(A city, a polis, and its tics) —
As urgent as the day — an urgent fading.
It’s an elegant, surprisingly holistic advertencia, at once a notice and a warning about shifting ground: the nature of the writing to come.
Author’s note: In addition to the publications cited below, I would like to thank T. Urayoán Noel for answering many questions I asked him during his visit to Illinois State University on February 23–24, 2011. His replies, as well as a class session he led, influenced my remarks situating his work. He also translated the excerpt from “Down with Boringkén,” cited here, at my request.
2. Francisco Aragón, Ray González, María Meléndez, Urayoán Noel, and Lidia Torres, “Restless music and ticking bombs: Five poems of Victor Hernández Cruz, interpreted,” the Poetry Foundation.
5. For a brief, useful overview addressing related issues in earlier decades, see Edna Acosta-Belén’s article, “Beyond Island Boundaries: Ethnicity, Gender, and Cultural Revitalization in Nuyorican Literature,” Callaloo 15, no. 4 (Autumn 1992): 979–998.
6. The Café and other Nuyorican projects opened their doors to writers of diverse backgrounds. When speaking of the range of cultural work these projects have accomplished as a whole, and over time, Noel acknowledges both ethnic and cultural variants on Nuyorican identification.
8. See images here; quotation is taken from Pietri’s 1994 Manifesto.
10. See a video of Pietri performing the poem here.
12. Rebecca Mablango-Mayor, Review: “KOOL LOGIC: LA LOGICA KOOL by URAYOAN NOEL,” May 22, 2007.
13. Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Review: “Hi-Density Politics: Urayoán Noel,” The Constant Critic, March 14, 2011.
A review of two recent books by René Char
“It’s not going so good with me recently,” wrote William Carlos Williams to his friend Fred Miller on January 9, 1953. “What with [the] injury to my right flipper and the trouble they have cooked up for me over the Library of Congress job I’m in a bad way.” He was not exaggerating. Williams was at the nadir of his life. Retired from medicine, convalescing after a particularly bad stroke, and redbaited out of his sinecure at the Library of Congress, his troubles must have seemed endless. Usually so sanguine, Williams’s poems from the period reflect this gloom. In The Desert Music of 1954 we read the apostrophe, “To a Dog Lying Injured in the Street”:
It is myself,
not the poor beast lying there
yelping with pain
that brings me to myself with a start —
as at the explosion
of a bomb, a bomb that has laid
all the world waste.
Gone are the debonair pooches of Paterson peeing on trees and mating in the park. “I can do nothing,” writes Williams — preparing us for a long plaint about his impotence — but then, lifting his head, he turns the sentence around:
but sing about it
and so I am assuaged
from my pain.
Song, or poetry brings Williams consolation. As in the famous lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” — “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there” — Williams discovers here the medicine which he practiced all his life. Doctor though he may be, however, Williams’s treatment in this case is not self-administered. “I think,” he says,
of the poetry
of René Char
and all he must have seen
that has brought him
to speak only of
of daffodils and tulips
whose roots they water,
even to the free-flowing river
that laves the rootlets
of those sweet-scented flowers
that people the
The surprising if fitting Virgil to Williams’s Dante is the French poet René Char. I say fitting, because unlike Ezra Pound (who might also have come to mind in this dark hour), Char was a poet who suffered in the Second World War, fighting for the resistance, and yet made it through — pace Adorno — still writing lyric poetry and retaining an unimpeachable dignity and ethical rectitude. What better model for how to fight back, and to hold on to the things of this world with poetry? It is René Char who raises us above the lot of animals.
The cries of a dying dog
are to be blotted out
as best I can.
you are a poet who believes
in the power of beauty
to right all wrongs.
I believe it also.
With invention and courage
we shall surpass
the pitiful dumb beasts … 
Rousing sentiments indeed. And a fine recommendation for those of us encountering Char for the first time through Williams — as I myself was introduced to this French poet.
For a long time, this was, in fact, all I knew about René Char, never being quite zealous or miserable enough to look him up in the library. This changed when I saw two new translations of Char’s (predominantly) later poetry on the review shelf for Jacket2. The first was The Brittle Age and Returning Upland translated by Gustaf Sobin (Counterpath Press, 2009), and had, beside an accolade from Maurice Blanchot, the same quotation from Williams that I have just cited on the back cover. The second was Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Tupelo Press, 2010). Both looked refreshingly short, came at a price that I was glad I didn’t have to pay, and had black and grey covers reminiscent of nothing more than funeral invitations. The perfect opportunity to see whether Doc. Williams’s poetic sensibility hadn’t failed him along with his body. And, although I didn’t feel all that much like an injured dog, also of finding out whether Char could still have some therapeutic effect in our day and age.
In this I was not disappointed. Char’s lines cheer you up — which is strange to say, since many of his poems are (my impression from the covers did not lie) about death. Witness the following example from the 1965 collection L’Âge Cassant (The Brittle Age) and its accompanying translation by Gustaf Sobin:
Sois consolé. En mourant, tu rends tout ce qui t’a été prêté, ton amour, tes amis. Jusqu’à ce froid vivant tant de fois recueilli.
Be consoled. In dying you return everything that you were lent, your love, your friends. Even that living coldness, harvested over and over.
Feeling better? Here’s another:
L’homme: l’air qu’il respire, un jour l’aspire; la terre prend les restes.
Man: the air that he inhales one day inhales him; the earth takes the remainders.
At times The Brittle Age is like a collection of Heraclitean, fatalistic sighs, let slip looking at the stars after a good French dinner with plenty of red wine. Short as they are, they fill one with a kind of somber yearning. It is a yearning which rather than being morbid reminds you of the simple fact that you’re alive:
J’ai de naissance la respiration agressive.
I’ve had, since birth, an aggressive breathing.
What Char wants to say with his “aggressive breathing” is anyone’s guess, but “respiration agressive” gives us a good sense of its sound: a fact which makes me grateful that this work is presented in parallel text. Without the French version here on the verso, to justify — to give the mot juste — to the English recto, we would be floundering in the dark.
That is not to say of course, that Gustaf Sobin’s translations are anything but true. Sobin, who describes himself in the translator’s preface as Char’s “all too grateful protégé,” displays an archeologist’s sensitivity and understanding towards the textures of the original work. There is no ostentation here, his English renditions are delicate and faithful — one trusts them completely. It is humility, however, that also makes these translations subordinate to their French masters. One hears the French version through the English one — often if only because of the odd word order. They wouldn’t stand alone nearly so well. But then, when I come to think of it, neither would the French versions. What is great about this edition of The Brittle Age is that, as presented here, reading the book becomes an act of stereopsis. A single line has a whole page on each side. One is always engaged in the translation back and forth: a codependency or dialogue is set up, which results in a hybrid text. This process slows the reader, makes one think about what Char was saying, think of other possibilities in English, and eventually achieve a much stronger sense of the poem than one would otherwise. It is a text which I believe to be far richer than the experience of reading the work monolingually.
The second half of the Sobin collection is taken up by Char’s 1966 book, Retour Amont, translated here as Returning Upland. These slightly longer poems are less easy to read side by side in two languages, and I found them to be less exciting as a result. Part of the problem is that where, with the haiku-like lyrics of the Brittle Age, the ambiguity is checked by disarming simplicity, here, Char’s possible meanings keep multiplying. Consider for instance the first stanza of “Pause au Chateau Cloaque”:
Le passé retarderait l’éclosion du présent si nos souvenirs érodés n’y sommeillaient sans cesse. Nous nous retournons sur l’un tandis que l’autre marque un élan avant de se jeter sur nous.
The past would delay the present’s unfolding if our eroded memories hadn’t slept there ceaselessly. We turn about on one while the other, before thrusting onto us, takes mark.
While it is easy to see why a collection of poems like the Brittle Age might have appealed to William Carlos Williams, had he been alive to read it, this poem — with its Eliotian echoes and its postsurrealist play with subjectivity brings us to the other side of Char’s vision. It is a reflective poetry, of ideas not only in things, but in words, abstractions, the grey area between questions and half-thought answers. “Against the extensive density of a poisoned somnambulism, would the spirit’s disgust be coded escape; would it, later on, be revolt?” asks Char in the same poem. (Ummm … let me think … yes? no? maybe?) How do we deal with such a question without reducing it to something else? Wallace Stevens or George Oppen, perhaps would be appropriate comparisons, but Char’s philosophical density seems at once more allusive than Stevens’s and more elusive than Oppen’s. He grasps at things and feelings which we have no way of classifying in ordinary speech, things which he isn’t sure of himself, using words as a way of reaching into the unknown.
This other Char is the one that stands out in Nancy Naomi Carlson’s selection, Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char. Unlike Sobin, Carlson does not stick with Char’s own arrangement of poems, but picks her way through his later career mixing and matching to create a fresh display. Thus Stone Lyre begins with “Invitation” from the 1962 work La Parole en archipel before going back to a few poems from Le Marteau sans Maître (1934) and ending with “Courbet: Les Casseurs de cailloux” from the 1983 collection Dehors la nuit est gouvernée. This rearrangement allows for specific themes to come to the fore — death, time, women, trees, rivers, countryside, night — giving a sense of Char’s full range which is difficult to grasp in the Sobin collection. It also, however, precludes both the biographical satisfaction of chronological development (poems leading from juvenilia up to the author’s laden last words), and the bibliographical satisfaction of having read a work as it appeared in a given time.
Like Sobin, Carlson presents Char's poems in parallel, so that a similar stereoptic reading is possible with each of the individual works. This too, however, highlights a key difference between the translations. Unlike Sobin's position of “protégé,” Calson presents herself in her translator’s introduction as much more of an English mouthpiece for Char’s French, focusing specifically on cadence rather than purely on semantics. “To preserve the rhythm of the French,” writes Carlson, “I tried to end each line with English words that stressed the last syllable or were mono-syllabic.” This ambitious Frenchifying of English results in several brilliant renditions, where the gutter of the book is almost like the wall of a cave, returning an echo of the same sound in a different language. Here is Carlson’s own example of her method, from the poem “Vers l’arbre-frère aux jours comptés” (“To Brother-Tree of Numbered Days”):
Harpe brève des mélèzes,
Sur l’éperon de mousse et de dalles en germe
— Façade des forêts où casse le nuage —
Contrepoint du vide auquel je crois.
Larch tree’s brief harp
On the spur of moss and flagstones in seed
— Forest’s façade where clouds break apart —
Counterpoint paired to the void in which I believe.
For all Carlson’s technical virtuosity this method also, however, at times, gives Char a slightly peculiar character in English, smacking of Gerald Manley Hopkins. And very occasionally the predominance of stressed syllables seems supererogatory to the semantics, as in the first line of the poem “Le Loriot” (“The Oriole”):
Le loriot entra dans la capitale de l’aube.
L’épée de son chant ferma le lit triste:
Tout à jamais prit fin.
The oriole breached dawn’s capital town.
The sword of his song closed the cheerless bed,
All forever came to an end.
Carlson’s method serves her well in the last two lines of this poem, but the word “town” seems extraneous to me, and I can’t help thinking it would have been a better poem without this added stressed syllable.
The paratext of Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char is also very different from that of The Brittle Age and Returning Upland. The Sobin translations are marketed as resolutely local, and intimate. Fidelity to the source is the key. There is an appendix of possible variants at the end, beside also a glossary of place names. And in her preface Mary Ann Caws stresses that “the poetry was, after all, in the names of dwellings like ours and his, and places: le Mont Ventoux, le Thor, Sénaque, Gordes, Buis-les Baronnies, Mérindol,” before going on to talk of tiny hill cottages in the Vaucluse, of Citroën 2CVs and “simple relationships.” One gets the impression here of a bucolic poet, spending his days by the banks of Sorgue, fishing for inspiration among the reeds. In contrast, Carlson’s collection arrives with a more ambitious and political paratext, seeking to place Char in a broader historical context. On the backcover Cole Swenson reminds us that he was an antinuclear activist, and of his wartime resistance fighting — an emphasis repeated by Ilya Kaminsky in her foreword and again by Carlson in her introduction. This Char should be of international significance, and we expect poems with global referents. Yet, when we come to look for them in the poems, we may well be disappointed. Can Char’s references to fig trees really be related to war or nuclear power? I think not. A fig is a fig is a figuier.
One’s first impressions of these two books, then, are belied by the poems themselves, which fit neither the purely local emplacement of the one, nor the activist ethics of the other. Indeed, what emerges in the end from a comparative reading, is — perhaps surprisingly considering the differences in selection, methodology of translation, and presentation — a single poet whose idiosyncratic style eludes all the nets. Consider the one poem which appears in both collections: “Devancier”:
J’ai reconnu dans un rocher la mort fugée et mensurable, le lit ouvert de ses petits comparses sous la retraite d’un figuier. Nul signe de tailleur: chaque matin de la terre ouvrait ses ailes au bas des marches de la nuit.
Sans redite, allégé de la peur de hommes, je creuse dans l’air ma tombe et mon retour.
In a rock I recognized death, fugued and measurable, the open bed of its little accomplices beneath the shelter of a fig tree. Not a sign of a carver; at the base of night’s stairway each morning of earth opened its wings.
Without repeating, freed of the fear of men, I dig in the air my tomb and my return.
(The Brittle Age and Returning Upland, 107)
I have recognized death — fugal and measured — inside a rock, and the open bed of its little assistants beneath the shade of a fig tree. No sign of the one who cuts stone; each of earth’s mornings would open its wings at the foot of night’s steps.
Without refrain, freed of mortal dread, I dig in the air my grave and my return.
(Stone Lyre, 97)
Judge for yourself, gentle reader, which you feel to be the better translation. They are different. There are merits to both. What interests me, is the way in which, despite the difficulty of the poem (it’s not clear what René Char is talking about), Char’s voice still sounds through in both, remaining despite the semantic, rhythmic and linguistic barriers and despite the different choices made by the translators. No theory of who Char was, or what Char wanted to say can quite correspond to this sense that Char himself is still there saying it — making himself available for us to listen to. Char, it seems, is truly buried in this poem as its own ancestor, returning through his translations — a revenant — to speak to us. I understand now, why William Carlos Williams felt that Char was such a support: at bottom there is René Char and his poetry. He is irreducible. Char remains.
A review of the festival, part two
Andrea Quaid in conversation with Amina Cain and Teresa Carmody about curation, collaboration, and their recent project, Both Sides and The Center, at the Schindler House in Los Angeles.
Andrea Quaid: Amina and Teresa, you both have extensive experience as curators with events ranging from reading series to large-scale festivals. Amina co-curated (with Jen Karmin) the Red Rover Series and When Does It or You Begin? (Memory as Innovation), a writing, performance, and video festival. Last summer, Amina co-curated (again, with Jen Karmin), Unnatural Acts, an installation and performance for Les Figues Press’s Not Content. Teresa, in addition to many, smaller events, from a monthly salon, to literary garden parties, to house readings and lectures, co-curated The Smell Reading Series, Mommy, Mommy!, and Not Content at Hollywood’s LACE gallery. Most recently, you came together to work on a three-day experimental literary festival at the Schindler House. What was the genesis of Both Sides and The Center?
Amina Cain: Teresa and I both knew we wanted to work on something together and she approached me with the thought of curating an event (or events) at the Schindler House. I had never been to the house, but was excited about the idea. When I finally saw it, I knew instantly it would be an amazing setting for a literary festival. In the house, because of the way inside and outside spaces are in relationship to each other, and because of the way the rest of the house was designed, there are all of these opportunities for different kinds of watching and listening. What you can see through glass, you might not be able to hear. What you can hear, you might not be able to see if it is taking place on the roof (in one of the sleeping baskets), or in the nursery (with walls that don’t go all the way up to the ceiling). The house allowed us to think of questions around closeness and distance, the public versus private, and voyeurism, and how these things might lend themselves to literary performance. And then we went from there.
Teresa Carmody: I think the ideas behind Both Sides were also influenced by Not Content at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Hollywood. That project explored the way language functioned in public and private spheres, but it happened within the context of a public art gallery/space located on Hollywood Blvd. LACE is box-like, big, an obvious gallery space with store-front windows; it is surrounded by restaurants and stores, selling wigs, shoes, lingerie and more. Alternatively, the MAK Center Schindler House is on a residential street; you can’t see the house from the street, and even though the building is now a gallery, it’s a house turned-into-a-gallery. I was interested in seeing how these ideas of public/private, or interior/exterior, would read differently within a more intimate space.
Quaid: What were your intentions for the project?
Cain: I think more than anything I wanted to explore what the relationship might be between writing, performance, and the setting of a house — the Schindler House in particular. One of the ideas I felt most attached to was “house as stage,” and the house did become a stage, one on which the audience moved, continuously, from one room to another, getting as close to or distant from the performances or installations as they wanted. From the dark lawn, one could listen to the phonograph music coming from Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona’s performance in the Chase studio. One could see people sitting in the nursery looking at Amarnath Ravva’s time-lapse photography of night skies on the floor. One could talk with Anna Joy Springer while alone in a bathroom, without being able to see her. One could gather on a sloped lawn to watch through large windows Bhanu Kapil’s “knife ballet,” her red-fabric form moving on a butcher table. One could gaze at Michael du Plessis, bound and gagged, while he could not gaze back, and later one could listen to him give a personal reading in the very same spot.
Carmody: I was also interested in exploring subjectivity, and the way narrative structure informs experience. So at the Friday group reading, for example, the audience sat together, within the same space and time, thus participating in a “group” experience. The performances on Saturday, however, were structured so every person would obviously have an individual experience, depending on when they arrived, how long they stayed, etc. Yet it’s interesting to note that the stories and feedback I received regarding both nights were remarkably similar (and overwhelmingly positive). Perhaps this is because I was one of the curators, and people didn’t want to air critical comments in my direction. Or perhaps this is a phenomenon of Los Angeles, where there is plenty of space for the unsaid to go unspoken.
On Sunday, we had a small salon with additional members of the literary and art community, which we recorded and which was also bilingual, thanks to the services of interpreters John Pluecker and Eva Cisneros. We were using interpretation equipment (graciously offered by Jen Hofer), and I found the material fact of this equipment to be significant. I could put in my earpiece and hear our conversation in Spanish, and not understand. Alternatively, I could listen in English and have the illusion of understanding.
Strangely enough, one of my most startling realizations from the salon was the fact that I had encountered the whole weekend through language. The artist Simon Leung was talking about Bhanu Kapil’s Saturday performance, and he said that as it continued, the language fell away as the visual became, for him, increasingly important. I had quite a different experience; as the reading repeated, the language became increasingly significant, I could see the language’s structure as a matrix, and I was caught in a sticky web of sound.
Carmody: What were you anticipating from the weekend? Were your expectations realized?
Quaid: I went into the event interested to see how the guest writers would work with a set of themes (as previously listed: public versus private, proximity, the house as a stage), expressed differently through the various approaches they were asked to take — from Friday’s more traditional reading, to Saturday’s installations and performances, to Sunday’s conversation-as-performance. I found this aspect of the curatorial vision the most compelling: the same writer/performer asked to present work in thematically linked but distinct modes of representation, which resulted in dynamic individual projects and a successful event overall. As a listener/viewer, the invitation to inhabit the space and immerse myself in the event, in an extended, experiential engagement with others, produced a more unexpected effect. I had a heighted awareness of my own embodied presence, particularly during Saturday’s installations and performances. Amina commented on the continual movement through the house, which I not only observed but experienced. I became aware of my own constant movement through the rooms, the yards, from one performance to another and back again. Amanda Ackerman pointed out that the chairs from Friday’s reading were gone. So, intentional or not, the lack of chairs kept one’s body moving and moving again through the space, to the work, back to the work, into conversations and experiences with others that might not have occurred if one could opt out, as they say, for a small, often solitary, rest. Looking back, I think how the festival encouraged experiences of shared, communal space and ideas very much realized Schindler’s intentions for the house.
Cain: This is a question that I heard several people ask each other over the course of the weekend and that I was endlessly curious about as well. Could you live in the Schindler House? What do you think it would be like?
Quaid: I love the concept of the house as a live and work space with studios, common areas, and kitchen to be shared with others. It is particularly appealing as a home that counters the lone couple or single-family model. To envision myself living in the house requires that I suspend time and imagine it both then and now. For example, in 1922, I could retire to a sleeping basket each night, on the roof, open to the sky, but it is more difficult to picture that today on King’s Road in West Hollywood. As a practical matter, I felt myself adapt to the structure of the house the longer I was there. At first, the low ceilings were startling. However, in terms of the floor plan, I could easily live in the space with its concrete floors, angular architecture, beautiful outdoor “rooms,” and natural light — though I would have to wear flats, always.
Quaid: Please talk about the collaboration process between the two of you.
Cain: The process feels fairly simple, basic. We pass ideas back and forth, we pass the work back and forth, we talk. I enjoy it immensely. In addition to our collaboration on Both Sides and The Center, Teresa and I are writing something together. I like being able to work in these different forms with someone, though perhaps they are not so different, as they both have to do with how literature might manifest itself, whether physically emerging into a space, or on a piece of paper.
Carmody: I’ll chime in and say: Yes! It’s been a remarkably unfettered collaboration.
Quaid: To what extent did you, as curators, work in collaboration with the guest writers?
Cain: Though we provided the guest writers with questions and ideas we wanted them to consider (about proximity, public versus private, the performance of domesticity, voyeurism, house as stage), the end result was left up to them. As a curator and organizer, part of my process of working with others is to let go of my expectations of what will happen and experience what materializes just as the audience will.
Carmody: How did the curation for this event compare to curation of other festivals and events you’ve done?
Cain: Well, I worked with you for one thing. As Andrea mentioned above, all the rest of my curatorial endeavors have happened with Jennifer Karmin, and in Chicago, though I have also had the chance to work with Anna Joy Springer, while helping her organize the 2011 &Now Festival of New Writing which took place at UC-San Diego this autumn. All of these experiences have been good ones and I have felt very grateful for them. One thing I have been happy for in Los Angeles and certainly in curating an event with you, Teresa, is that there is less of a divide between poetry and prose or fiction, or even other kinds of writing. I never felt that divide with Jen, who is a poet, and in fact we like that we are rooted in different areas, but sometimes in Chicago and beyond, I’ve felt myself come up against that limit. Teresa, I don’t think we once talked about categories when thinking about the participants and their work. I like that.
Cain: What about for you?
Carmody: The level of concentration felt different. We had more time to plan (than I’ve had for other projects), even as the event existed within a more concentrated period. The engagement between the participants felt more intense too. It seems really important for artists and writers to be in conversation right now. Writing is becoming increasingly visual as the book object becomes just that — an intentional object. So writers have a lot to learn from artists. And many artists are using language and/or narrative strategies in their work, and this is where they can learn from writers.
On a more prosaic but still important level, this was the first event I curated that was funded. We received a grant from the city of West Hollywood, which meant we could invite people from out of town and cover their travel costs. It was very exciting to write invitations that included the promise of at least some financial support!
Quaid: How does your work as a curator connect (or not) to your writing life?
Cain: For me there’s a very big connection. At a certain point I realized that I like to create environments so that things can then happen within them. Setting is very important in my stories, and it’s important within my curatorial endeavors as well. This is why the Schindler House was such an exciting space in which to organize a literary festival. For me, it felt like the set of a play.
Carmody: As a writer, I like it when I find myself in unfamiliar territory. As a curator, I like to create these “unfamiliar” opportunities for other writers.
Quaid: And finally, what current curatorial projects are you at work on?
Cain: I’m going to take a break from curating. I love doing it, but I miss writing. I have the feeling I will tuck myself away this winter for a period of hibernation. I will, however, continue on with The Empty Globe, a reading/performance/film and video series I started last spring. The events will happen a little less frequently than they did during the summer, only four to six times a year, and when I have the opportunity I’d like to think more about what other kind/s of relationship/s the series might have to writing and art and the performance of them. This thinking will be part of my hibernation.
Carmody: I see publishing — and design — as a kind of curation, and of course I’m continuing with Les Figues. We’re finishing up the 2011 TrenchArt series now, with work by Frances Richard, Myriam Moscona and Jen Hofer, Doug Nufer, Alex Forman, and Renee Petropoulos. The 2012 series is coming soon (featuring Melissa Buzzeo, Matias Viegener, Kim Rosenfield, Michael du Plessis, Klaus Killisch, and Mark Rutkoski). I’m also working with the Metabolic Studio on a book about land use issues at the Veteran’s Association of West Los Angeles, and of course, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women.
Quaid: Thank you Amina and Teresa!
A review of Laura Solomon's 'The Hermit'
“Begin with dreams,” writes Laura Solomon in “Dream Ear, Part III.” The things going on in our dreams are often crazy and impossible, but our dreams are not lies, they are true, physical events going on in our brains and they are entirely untethered to the scientific possibilities of truth in the physical universe. In other words, dreams are a lot like poems. The poems in The Hermit work by allowing us into the strange landscape of emotionally arresting instances of crisis and sadness — lost love, emotional and geographical displacement, fear and anxiety, the wild and absurd sense that time is flying by and staying still. They are gorgeous, daring poems. Reading this book I constantly have the sense that these are poems I would not, myself, have the courage to write because of their openness and generosity; they are uncharted but crystal clear — even as they allude to the world of our dreams, those dreams feel a lot like real life. In “Dream Ear III,” in a dream, on a train, a woman next to the speaker is “sleep-writing”:
a dream is a mirror
that doesn’t belong to you
anymore than words do
after you say them
you forget them but
not always but always
the mirror forgets you
after you leave it
do the words forget too
you after you after you
say them you leave them
with or without a trace
This passage is filled with traces, and traces are questions. What happens to the words after we say them? What truth is there in the illusion that our presence anywhere is indelible? Truth itself is tricky; “it is true, it is true, it is true,” writes Solomon in “French Sentences,” but “sentences are the neediest […] for example, it is true.” It’s a paradox that keeps coming up in The Hermit: words are both so meaningful and so meaningless. Later in “Dream Ear, Part III,” Solomon writes, “in the dream you are becoming / don‘t become just words.” When the words start to feel like they are just words, you run the risk of being full of shit, and to be full of shit is not good if you are trying to communicate. She writes,
you were speaking of a nest I’ve read
with use the nest becomes rimmed and filled with excrement
this serves as a reminder of the humble origins
of all architecture no it doesn’t why are you speaking
of architecture you are full of shit
but it is too late already
you are already forgetting the dream in this poem
you are becoming a dark sooty chimney
with a dark sooty agenda
To be full of shit is to forget that it is sacred to say anything. A poem is a sacred attempt at communicating what is impossible to communicate. The speaker in “Dream Ear, Part III” wants to trim the utterance of all metaphor the way dreams are free from the analyses we graft onto them once we wake up, the way our aspirations (dreams) are free from the problems of possibility.
Because we can’t possibly say how we feel, exactly, and in poems we say how we feel. To have an agenda is to predict rather than experience, to try to see what hasn’t happened yet in retrospect. We might want that privilege, but it doesn’t belong to us. Throughout The Hermit, Solomon gives us the gift of poetry-as-experience so that even though the circumstances are foreign to us, they might feel true. In “Philadelphia,” she writes,
at any rate the only
way it will work will be
if he decides to come to me
then I will know he knows
though I’m not sure
that he’s going to come
all along I guess
I’ve just been wrong
but no I haven’t Dottie
Here we have a poem that feels like a letter, but it unfolds line-by-line, broken and charged with Solomon’s knack for breaking lines so that they move out in all directions, without agendas, a step back once in a while for all the stepping forward. The lines leave traces of themselves that appear and vanish according to the whims of our own experience of reading them. In another poet’s hands, the specificity of “Dottie” might make me feel as though I am not included, but the revelatory quality of Solomon’s progression from line to line makes my experience of “Dottie” feel lived and present. As she writes elsewhere in “Philadelphia,” “protons had to collide in time / to make you you.” The chance encounter of life and time together is the center of the experience of being alive. It’s rare that I pay attention to the fact that I don’t actually know what will happen to me in the next moment of my life; it’s rare that a poem works that way.
Forget though, for a moment, the dreams and the physical laws and think about what you are willing to have revealed to you in a poem. Think about all the times you’ve thought about whether a poem was good or bad, trying to come to some sort of a judgment without ever considering what sort of mood you were in or what sort of experience you were willing to go through. In her essay “Voice” Alice Notley excerpts a short, untitled poem of her own and then explains something about truth and poetry:
Clouds, big ones oh it’s
blowing up wild outside.
Be something for me
this time. Change me,
wind. Change me, rain.
A specific feeling and occasion prompted [this poem], and it still embodies something I can feel; but I wrote it hoping it would be as if spoken by anyone — hoping anyone could “use” it. That is, I know it sounds like me, but while being read it might live inside anyone, being some voice of theirs almost, through sympathy and imagination. But when I wrote it there was a real storm outside.
Reading a poem can allow you to experience sympathy, but you have to be willing to do that. The poems in The Hermit ask a great deal of us. When you come to a line like, “how I’ve wanted to encounter you,” are you willing to take the passage wherever the pronoun takes you, and simultaneously are you touching the poem sympathetically? Who is the you you are thinking of? Where, I mean, are your thoughts? Isn’t this important? Isn’t it great?
A review of Andrew Ervin's 'Extraordinary Renditions'
What amazed me most about Hungary is that history is not history there. The events of the past are still present every single day, at every minute, in ways I couldn’t even imagine at first. — Andrew Ervin, Press Release
Europe. It’s impossible to underestimate its allure. And equally impossible to measure the influence of this continent’s history and power on countries like the United States of America. Andrew Ervin’s debut novel Extraordinary Renditions is set in contemporary Budapest, the capital of Hungary. A country that has experienced the glorious highs of classical Europe and the worst of late twentieth century savagery, political intrigue and Cold War disaffection. Extraordinary Renditions is both a homage to this very European country and a journey into history that ultimately sheds more light on contemporary America than on contemporary Europe.
This novel takes its place in the rich “American voyagers in Europe genre.” This genre is a product of America’s fascination with the culture and history of Europe and an attempt to wrest away the best qualities from the old world and revive the uniquely American dream. Ervin is a strong writer in awe of Europe. His novel is immeasurably bettered by the fact that he lived in Budapest for many years and knows its streets and architecture, its moods, and its history intimately.
In this challenging period in America’s history, when America must redefine itself and its position on the world stage, Ervin presents us with the stories of three original characters whose stories are linked by situational coincidences in the narrative: the émigré, the American soldier and the young musician.
In “14 Bagatelles,” (the title is taken from, arguably, Hungary’s greatest composer Béla Bartók’s piano piece “14 Bagatelles, Op. 6”) the first story in this trio of connected stories, a world renowned composer, Harkályi, returns to his birthplace for the first production of his opera The Golden Lotus.
Harkályi was a young Jewish music prodigy when World War II erupted into his personal world. He survived the war largely thanks to his musical ability and the love and insight of his mentor Zoltán Kodály. Harkályi left his family and fled Hungary for the relative safety of America: the safe harbour for many of Europe’s wounded, disposed and displaced after the war.
Portraying a Holocaust survivor is no easy task but Ervin does so sympathetically and concisely. Providing just enough insight into the day-to-day horrors of life lived in captivity and the rare moments when joy invaded the camp thanks to the musicians and their passion. As Harkályi walks the alternatively familiar and garishly foreign streets, we see the composer as a young man in a concentration camp and as an adult in self-imposed isolation within the inner world of music and notation and spaces between notes. He is estranged from the country of his birth and estranged from his religion. While in the camp he invented a novel system of musical notation. One that preserved the musical history of his culture and country and one that was sufficiently flexible and expansive to change and recreate itself as the composer grew, matured and reinvented himself in America.
It is a smart piece of plotting to bring Harkályi back to Budapest for the first performance of his opera The Golden Lotus. The performance of this opera does indeed provide a stupendous climax to the novel. Ervin employs another structural device whereby all three stories are linked in time and space. The story is set during Independence Day celebrations in Budapest. This works as a structural device, but it’s rather labored and by the end, polemical in a distracting fashion. However, this device can be used subtly and unobtrusively. I think of two recent examples: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier and Nicole Krauss’s latest novel Great House.
The novel is open to criticism that it is three thematically linked novellas rather than a novel in the traditional sense but I don’t see any merit in this argument. Ervin’s novel is a further contribution to this genre whose formally strict structure is constantly evolving. However, for his future novels, I hope Ervin pays closer attention to the subtleties of plot and dramatic devices.
Ervin is profoundly sensitive to music and exceptionally talented in translating into words the sensations and mechanisms of musical notes. So it is no surprise that like a jazz musician doffing his cap to the progenitors of his religion, Ervin evokes the spirit of Kafka. Another beloved son of the region, Kafka was born in Prague, Bohemia, which was then part of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kafka’s prose style and philosophy is evidenced in the very strong chapter “Brooking the Devil.”
There is more than a touch of the desperate film noir thriller in the powerful and poignant story of Private First Class Jonathan “Brutus” Gibson of the United States Army: African American, accidental soldier, philosopher, poet, outsider, loner. Ervin analytically exposes a morally and criminally corrupt US Army culture that has been exported to Hungary and the world in the name of protecting freedom and fighting the “war on terror.”
Along with Levi’s, Marlboro cowboys, Coca Cola, and McDonald’s, to name a few, the American Army has been sold to the world as the pure and true deterrent to the opponents of democracy as it has evolved in Euro-influenced countries. America has always been a country of exceptional salesmen and women. A land where a ponderously named lad called Samuel Langhorne Clemens reinvented himself into the great and iconic Mark Twain. Ervin successfully juxtaposes images of savage bloodletting from WWII with the equally hideous modern devices from the so-called War on Terror.
Sergeant Brutus, with a nickname that evokes the classical elegance and wisdom of Shakespeare, and a patter that reads more Bronx gangster than Philadelphia brother to this non-American ear is marooned in Hungary. An intelligent young man seduced by Army recruiters spruiking freedom, solidarity, money, nobility and a pass to college. In eloquent passages, Brutus details the many ways in which Uncle Sam has proved to be another incarnation of “the Man”: the oppressive, dangerous and irrational racism that pervades American history, politics and culture.
The soldiers are outsiders but not resistance fighters, and cliques abound: whites only, officers only, and so on. Brutus’s experiences are graphic examples of the penalties for standing out in the “vanilla crowd.” Difference is celebrated in sound bites in most democratic and liberal countries but a black, articulate and intelligent man is doomed within the enormous machinery of the American military. The American military’s own mythology and its romanticism by Hollywood usually ignore the stark, brutal and vile abuses of power and desecration of personal dignity and humanity that are committed in the interests of “keeping the peace,” or in this epoch, “wining the war on terror.”
Brutus is the innocent young American abroad who is plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Brutus’s descent into a maelstrom brings out some of Ervin’s best prose: a combination of contemporary American gangster rap and descriptions of Budapest that powerfully evoke the Cold War.
In ‘The Empty Chairs” we meet the final character in Ervin’s triumvirate. Melanie Scholes: violinist, American, young, bisexual, white, outsider/loner, and the novel’s only genuine spark of hope that a fulfilling and generous future is possible.
Although this is probably the weakest of Ervin’s “renditions” (it is obvious that Ervin named his novel after the legal term for the systematic abduction and extrajudicial transfer of persons from one nation to another, but I prefer to think of his characters as renditions, powerful reimaginings of classic tales) it concludes the novel with a pièce de résistance of timing, evocation and prose mastery.
Melanie is one of the musicians tasked with performing Harkályi’s new opera, The Golden Lotus. In a quicksilver night/day of her life, we meet her lover and glimpse their claustrophobic and pointless affair. She is a vexed artist, drifting aimlessly in Budapest’s monochrome world of émigrés and disaffected affluent American youth.
In a masterful and controlled example of character exposition, Melanie evolves from an uninteresting and pathetic figure into the unlikely heroine of the novel. Freed from her inertia by the ecstasy of music and her hitherto dormant ability to reinterpret and transform musical nuance and notation, she explodes orthodoxy and convention in a powerful scene in which the past and future are welded together in the revolutionary power of music to be beautiful whilst uniting people irrespective of color, creed and nationality.
Ervin has written a powerful and sophisticated meditation on identity, nationalism and personal responsibility. Memorable characters and icons: composer, soldier, and musician they are a glimpse into the darkest of human capabilities and the possibility of redemption, however remote. Ervin is a very promising young writer — a uniquely, American writer.