A review of Yahia Lababidi's 'Trial by Ink'
As the subtitle — “from Nietzsche to Belly Dancing” — suggests, Yahia Lababidi’s essays wiggle their hips in many directions, from sacred to arcane, from pop to professorial. What he admires in Wilde is just this, the writer’s “ability to play with serious subjects. To make light of them” (12). In fact, the true subject of Lababidi’s writing would seem to be these poignant interchanges between seemingly disparate spheres. The spiritual and sociopolitical resonance of belly dancing. The small, contained dynamic between reader and text, between the personal and universal.
Born in 1973, Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-Lebanese poet, essayist and aphorist. His work has appeared in journals throughout the world, including Agni, Cimarron Review, Idler, Poetry, New Internationalist and Bidoun. The Independent (UK) chose Signposts to Elsewhere, a collection of aphorisms, as one of its Books of the Year (2008). His writing, much anthologized, has been translated into Arabic, Slovak, Swedish, Turkish and Italian.
Trial by Ink is rather difficult to categorize. In one sense, the collection avoids Emerson’s foolish consistency by taking on such a broad array of subjects and approaching them in a variety of moods and modes. Lababidi offers up literary essays, cultural critiques, and startlingly astute examinations of pop stars. His voice and method are distinct and consistent, however. The essays always encompass, in addition to the surface topic, a study of the author’s approach to that topic. In the preface, Lababidi calls his book “a sort of mental autobiography and a collection of judgments” (ix). He maintains that he writes “to determine what I think about a given subject” (ix). Trial by Ink is admittedly, though unabashedly, subjective. Nonetheless, it doesn’t come off as a string of unsubstantiated and freefloating opinions — the love child of Intro to Philosophy and the blog age — but rather a coherent series of shrewd, thoughtful reflections.
Lababidi’s writing is rapacious with quotation, allusion and learned reference. Rimbaud, Kierkegaard, Eliot, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Ruskin, Heine, Sontag, Gide, Socrates, Melville, Montaigne, Arnold, Pascal, Rilke, Gogol, Nabokov, Henry James, Beckett, Larkin, Stephen King, Chuck D and (almost literally) countless others cross the stage of this slim book. Nietzsche walks the boards so many times you’d think he was looking for his hat. This never seems forced or pretentious, however, but rather enthusiastic and necessary. Many of Lababidi’s essays concern readers, texts and the cagematch between the two, and he often inserts himself, as both reader and writer, into the fray. He portrays the writer as martyr, invalid, abstainer, submissive, mystic, and healer.
Trial by Ink is divided into three topical sections: literature, popular culture, and the Middle East. The first category incorporates all manner of coherent digressions; biographical, historical, analytical and personal approaches to literature are intermingled. Part II, covering popular culture, embraces Michael Jackson and murder, silence and celebrity, while the last section takes on belly dancing, sexual repression in Egypt, and the many paradoxes and ironies of the modern Middle East. The putative topics, throughout the collection, are diverse, but Lababidi manages to make them cohere through his idiosyncratic perspective and style.
Lababidi is equally deft with the highbrow world of Friedrich Nietzsche and the plucked brow milieu of Michael Jackson. His writerly gaze and attention to significant detail never waver, regardless of the subject at hand. This is Michael on Oprah, fielding questions he never quite answers:
And there he was: an unthreatening, bizarre specimen, a slip of a man, more a geisha girl really, simpering, whimpering and tittering […] And, you couldn’t really take your eyes off his face, not only because it looked like nothing you’d seen — sexual, ambiguous, uncanny, alluring — but because you were desperately trying to read it, scanning its otherworldly surface, rummaging beneath its mysterious skin (70)
This description is lucid and animating, never descending into parody or obviousness, and the prose helps breathe life into the portrait. Moreover, the popular culture essays are funny, which helps leaven the high seriousness of the literary pieces.
“Monks of Los Angeles” is a canny reading of Morrissey and Leonard Cohen, two faces of enigma and melancholy in popular music. Lababidi distills the charms of these singer-songwriters with the quick (yet potent) thrusts and parries that mark his writing. His analysis of their hummable anguish is representative: “By making their anxieties public, these artists assuage the loneliness of their listeners the world-over, while serving as leading lights to brethren of solitaries” (81). Despite a penchant for alliteration, Lababidi strikes another killshot with “brethren of solitaries.”
The Middle Eastern essays are, for the most part, concerned with social, cultural and political criticism, but the writing is characteristically agile, vivid and often witty. In “Empire of the Senses,” for example, Lababidi discusses Egypt’s sexual and gender mores: “a woman’s virginity is governed by a kind of gift shop morality — break it, you buy it” (112). Like the best aphorists, Lababidi can be funny without sacrificing poignancy.
By far the most intriguing element of Trail by Ink is Chapter 2, “The Prayer of Attention: A Conversation with Yahia Lababidi.” The name Alex Stein appears under the title, as if he’s interviewing the author, yet the text is positioned in the third person. Although a conversation did take place, with Stein goading Lababidi with questions and interjections, the piece is presented in standard essay format. The interviewer thus becomes disembodied, or rather more disembodied, than usual, the author refers to this dynamic as “assisted monologue,” though “dialogic provocation” might also work. I hesitate to simplify the piece with any facile categorization. It could be regarded as short fiction or memoir, recalling both the mock-interrogation of Camus’s The Fall and Kafka’s short parables. Lababidi is, with purpose and finesse, manipulating our expectations with regard to genre, technique and perspective; his method is experimental, inciting the piece toward unexpected conclusions, but the reading is never “difficult” or ostentatious. On the contrary, his writing manages to be highly complex and sophisticated without losing its readability or elegance.
Fortunately, “The Prayer of Attention” is as compelling in substance as in style and structure. It’s a meditation upon — a scrum and ruck against — art, inspiration, influence and the individual’s transformation through and because of these things. Lababidi foregrounds his own thoughts and inner-djinns in this essay, even more prominently than elsewhere. This seems to be his special talent, anchoring his own peculiar experience to the universal spirit, Emerson’s Over-soul. The piece is odd, alluring, wholly original, a tour de force and, in my view, the linchpin of the collection.
Although Trial by Ink is chock-a-block with literary allusions, it’s the subtitular Nietzsche who looms most steadfastly over the text. Lababidi, in Chapter 1, mentions the presumptive arrogance of the philosopher, and we might wonder if it’s presumptuous for Lababidi, a virtual unknown, to write about his own work in Chapter 2, sandwiched between essays on Nietzsche and Wilde. Lababidi might argue that all writing is an examination of writing, the self, one’s influences and the irresolvable struggle among the three. Throughout the book, he returns to the idea that you can’t choose writing, but rather writing chooses you, so, according to this model, we can’t hold Lababidi accountable for making himself the center of his work.
Trial by Ink is compelling, ardent and sometimes febrile. The prose is confident and polished; like a frozen lake, it is sturdy yet translucent. Lababidi has a polymorphous, gluttonous intellect, one which is able to absorb and synthesize a wide range of ideas and communicate them in a poised, nuanced manner. In the bravura Chapter 2, he addresses his youth: “Those were the days when I would read and think without sleeping, sometimes for two or three days in a row” (12). Indeed, throughout the book, I envisioned a sleep and daylight-deprived young man stalking and devouring books with vampiric fervor. Literature and philosophy are revealed as simultaneously transformative and self-revelatory. Books can make you more like yourself even as they convert you into someone else. He refers to Nietzsche, for instance, as “him-that-was-also-me” (13). Lababidi recounts going into the desert to read Zarathustra “with the intention and in the belief that I [was] going to encounter that part of myself that [was] not entirely accessible in other circumstances” (13).
Lababidi has very sharp insights about thinkers and artists. He says of Nietzsche’s writing: “It doesn’t care much for you. It may, perhaps, want you there, but it doesn’t need you there. It doesn’t seek to appease the reader. It is not eager to please. It wants only to declare its harsh, bold truths, and if you can stand it, you can stay” (13). Here, the author demonstrates a meticulous subtlety and understanding of one of our most misconstrued thinkers, so often imprisoned within oversimplification and critical misprision (Nietzsche as The God Is Dead Guy or The Fascist Guy). Lababidi is a natural aphorist, but not a composer of shiny-but-fatuous sound-bites. Rather, like Nietzsche himself, he is genuinely gifted with the ability to reduce a truth to its most unadorned dimensions and, at the same time, encase it in a tidy, attractive box.
A review of John Roche's 'Road Ghosts'
John Roche speaks to the ghosts of the road he traveled as a teenage runaway in the early seventies. He rescues their stories, recounts their lives. And, for his unwavering stance as a critic of social and economic injustice, this American poet hitchhiked, tasted Southern “hospitality,” was jailed, held the magic wand, read Yeats by firelight, revisited Route 66, sang the song of the wandering Owlsley, departed El Dorado, and passed over the Rainbow Bridge with psychotropic colors.
In his new book of poems, Road Ghosts, the concerns of those times are on full display: the way the powerful trample the powerless, multinational corporations upending the less privileged, and political thugs erasing history and pesky citizens. Roche, at times, can be described as a magical radical — one half reason, one half passion, and a third half mystery. Blending memoir with political analysis, taletelling with cultural critique, he writes all these things and more, making that part of OUR history all the more writ large.
I was a suicide bomber at seventeen
Taking my holy mission on the road
Planning to detonate on Nixon’s front porch
But having to settle for a detention camp with habeas corpus revoked.
In this poem, “Prologue-Suicide Bomber,” Roche offers snatches of his own early life, one threatened by Ohio refineries, Indiana chemical plants, the atrocities of Haymarket Square and Wounded Knee, burning cities and rank militarists. He survived it all; he tripped on organic mescaline,
Stumbling on in a blurrr
Of campfires an rock-n-roll and returned vets and
Hippies who haven’t returned and bikers and
Easy Rider meets Apocalypse Now orgy
He wanted to give everything before death came, to empty himself, so that old night couldn’t find anything to take.
He wrote “Before May Day,” an epic history of two weeks in tent city, West Potomac park, as if to reclaim all that he (read we) had lost, and with a vengeance. He relates those days of “Bring The war Home,” the “chill April night” of Vets throwing their medals over the White House Fence, “Vats of hot marijuana tea, Seatrian concerts and the fiddler’s anarchic orders.” Roche boils down the government that won’t stop the war, while speaking for the disenfranchised, those waiting to get out into history.
Educated and self-educating, at once wounded and wise, with a survivalist’s appetite for life, Roche writes from the point-of-view of that middle-class boy back in the seventies. After all, point of view is essential to writing, to life. For Roche, it’s an anchor. But, whereas anyone who has gone through (put themselves through) a slice of history can be tempted to see it from the point of view of a worm, where a spaghetti dish could be taken as an orgy, he confirms a bigger mission of tenderness, a point of view where there are no voiceless people. It is his intention to hear the voiceless coming from those who for such a long time had not the right to be heard. Sometimes he voice is almost hushed, as if to counter the tenor of his rage:
Go up to the ramshackle store
Single gas pump out front
Owner says, Bet you’re one of those
I hope you never get home.
Divided into five different “roads,” this book is a series of cycles, which at times puts the seventies on trial, condemning those who accept a “reality” that rejects the poor, and that time that allowed globalization to further reduce humanity to entertainment, life to spectacle, and news to advertising. It’s easy to forgive him his didactic moments, as those were a part of it for us too. Still now he has a lot to be angry about, pumping it out with the energy not unlike the late Jim Carrol, as in “Here’s For All”:
The Vietnam poet skulking in the back of the hall.
Here’s for the tenured Beat Poet playing
Loud in his office, or the one who shouts GO AWAY!
There are images in Road Ghost in which the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking. There’s a description of a 1:00 a.m. congeries between poets sharing “sacred bread and wine and cheese / our faces scrubbed bright as Blake’s children / we launch filament after filament / into the ether.”
If Road Ghosts wasn’t a collection of poems, it could easily stand in for a novel, a generous piece of tender and tough writing, stripped of affectations that in a novel can sometimes verge on bathos. But, as this is poetry given to the punctuation of poetics, Road Ghosts is much more devoted to the rules of music, which makes all those ghosts of time, memory and desire implicitly more immediate and even contemporary.
A review of Joel Bettridge's 'Reading as Belief'
Last fall, I asked Jacket2 if I could review Joel Bettridge’s Reading as Belief. The book closely considers the relationship between acts of faith and the practice of reading, and both are processes that are of primary interest to me. Reading and belief are similar, Bettridge claims, because both entail vulnerability, willed credulity, and commitment. As such, both reading and faith are systems of valuation that make demands on those who subscribe to their terms. Through a series of coincidences and mutual friends, Bettridge and I met electronically. I had already written the following summary of the book. This served as a starting point for our conversation and so I include it and Bettridge’s first response here. The questions and dialogue that ensued follow this summary of the book. — Elizabeth Robinson
Summary of Reading as Belief:
Joel Bettridge’s intriguing hypothesis in Reading as Belief is that Language poetry functions somewhat in the mode of a religious practice, and he proposes that we explore how religion and reading overlap in significant ways. That is, both reading Language poetry and engaging with a religious practice involve the participant more in a particular orientation than in a set of doctrines, and this orientation is “concerned with the way representation constitutes meaning” (2). Belief suspends skepticism and therefore “moves a certain intellectual orientation outside the realm of the debatable.” Some years ago, Sandra Schneiders propounded a similar discussion in her book The Revelatory Text, though she was focused on the bible as text. Like Bettridge, Schneiders is interested in the way that a faithful or vulnerable, believing reading of a text is also a privileged reading that permits the text to reveal itself most fully. However, Bettridge is primarily interested in different — that is, secular — texts.
Bettridge contends that Language poetry, despite its embrace of ambiguity, is never meaningless. Rather, it grows from an aesthetics that is always socially and politically charged. The nature of that aesthetic, however, is to disrupt assumption, and therefore a primary question for Language poetry (as with any practice that entails belief) is “in what terms can we establish a new confidence in what we think we know?” (3). This book employs Language poets and their works as exemplars for a model of language-as-belief not only because of the disruptive and ambiguous quality of Language texts but also because Language writing functions as a clear test case: poets like Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews clearly do not traffic in the discourse of faith and belief.
The pervasive skepticism of contemporary culture fosters doubt. How shall we proceed with conviction when we don’t know how to apply our knowledge to the world and we worry that what we do know is largely irrelevant? Bettridge’s aim, then, is to find a strategy that permits us to interpret our world and our language with greater confidence, and he proposes to do this by shifting the philosophical bases by which we engage in hermeneutical processes. Language writing, Bettridge’s focus here, must be recalled to “its beliefs about what it actually takes the character of texts to be” and this will “allow us to tell a new story” (6) not only about Language writing itself, but about avant-garde culture more broadly. Thinking of the aesthetics of Language writing as based in faithfulness will make way for new narratives to emerge and will also enable useful rereadings of our habituated philosophical assumptions.
In his discussion, Bettridge proceeds by setting up an extended (and sometimes problematic) analogy between the Reformed Christianity of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and Language writing. This analogy is viable, he argues because both traditions (if I may use the word “traditions” here) “begin with the understanding that a gap divides our words from the world, and that the space between them requires the world and ourselves to be authored” (6). The argument here becomes sticky immediately as many practicing Christians do not, in fact, subscribe to the strategies that Bettridge employs. A quick glance at the way politics and theology are enacted in the United States reveals this. Nonetheless, there is interest and value in noting that Reformed theology calls believers to remake themselves continually according to the demands of a text (the Bible), and that text should be considered a living and not static document. It is much less difficult to accept the contention that Language writing demands that its readers “author themselves” as co-creators of a text that refuses to serve up meaning as a neatly defined product. Compellingly, Bettridge underlines participation as a “constructive, complex act depending on belief, thus shaping what readers read, become, and conceive the world as” (7).
Whether through an explicitly religious practice or not, “a central contention of this book is that being tossed back onto faith for epistemological traction is a useful state of affairs” (7). Taking the risk of making and articulating conscious choices is a mode of openness which the author seems to feel will generate further dialogue and indeed leaves our beliefs open for useful scrutiny. Seen this way, faith is a methodological tool that not only makes our commitments transparent, but helps to forge bonds with others willing to take similar risks.
Perhaps one of the most exciting elements of Reading as Belief is Bettridge’s insistence on the primacy of the imagination. When definitive knowledge is acknowledged as impossible, Bettridge argues, imagination is a necessary resource that permits us to work with tenuousness:
a poem or prayer, when pregnant with the imagination, allow us to grant
ourselves the roving honesty, expressive tensions, and intelligence we need
to read our constantly shifting ideas, dispositions, and experiences. (10–11)
As Bettridge outlines the imagination’s shifts between stability and disorientation, one thinks of Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager which similarly calls upon ethical subjects and communities to maintain a radical openness and changeability in the face of hardened institutional and philosophical paradigms. Both books acknowledge that imaginative acts can be illegible to their first readers/interpreters, but that imaginative processes are powerfully transformative and dynamic. Imagination, both as creative process and engagement with wonder, functions ideally at the intersection of art and mysticism, for both, as speculative processes, risk entering the unknown without trying to tame its wildness and incomprehensibility.
Joel Bettridge’s response:
On occasion, while I was working on Reading as Belief, and I was asked about the book I was writing, I would say that I was trying to create the smallest possible audience, a form of experiment in criticism if you will. On the one hand, I was writing about a kind of poetry (Language writing) that very few people liked through a lens (namely belief, or “religion,” since that association became unavoidable) that those few people would, more than likely, hate; or, on the other, I was addressing matters of belief in light of a literature that most people interested in the subject would find alienating. It is not a very funny joke, but it forced me to keep asking myself why I found reading Language writing through a theological framework useful and necessary.
Your thoughtful response puts a great deal of pressure on this same question of efficacy, at least for me, and I would not quibble with your account of Reading as Belief — indeed, I am quite grateful for your careful attention to it. In truth, I am, at times, not sure anymore what the book argues, and your reading certainly helps me see what I might have said, regardless of what I meant. But, after reading your notes, it is clear to me that I do want to continue to insist on the usefulness of reading this poetry in this manner; and perhaps the simplest way to do so is to begin where you see the book’s argument running into trouble.
About halfway through your response you point out that the extended analogy between Reformed Christianity and Language writing flounders because “many practicing Christians do not, in fact, subscribe to the strategies that Bettridge employs.” I have always wanted to write an essay that grants the premise of evangelical Christians that the Bible is the revealed word of God and then ask what it means that God chose to reveal his word in this way — that is, God, who could have given us his word in whatever form he wanted, decided that he wanted to give us his word in a book, a book with a very particular form (its four Gospels for instance should not be pieced together; we should instead consider why God would want four different stories of Jesus’s life). The aim of the essay would be to argue that Christians must take the literary form of the Bible as central to what God wants us to know, and how he wants us to think, read, and live, and I hope that the interpretive strategies I employ are suggestive for such a practice. Your observation “that Reformed theology calls believers to remake themselves continually according to the demands of a text (the Bible), and that text should be considered a living and not static document” is right to the point here, which is another way of saying that just because most Christians do not subscribe to the methods informing my own reading doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t, at least not if they want to take to heart the truth of Scripture.
And it is this need to learn how to believe what we believe that is relevant to Language writing, and I think recognizing the aesthetics of Language writing, and the avant-garde more generally, as a form of belief allows its full force to remain alive and present to us in a bodily, emotionally rich and intellectually vibrant way. Perhaps other people do not feel the need of this renewal as strongly as I do, but I know my own poetic commitments are constantly at risk of becoming mundane — having lived with them for well over a decade, which is not even really that long, they seem all too rational and obvious, which of course they are not. (Teaching a Charles Bernstein poem to a group of undergraduates often has a similar affect of making my aesthetic beliefs new, or strange again, but that is for another time.) All of which is a long way of saying that I think belief is a wonderful way to adhere to Viktor Shklovsky’s injunction to make the familiar strange — there is little stranger than the act of believing something.
I think the risk of familiarity is particularly acute for Language writing’s readers because of the emphasis it places on politics, which is a focus on the secular in the most basic sense of belonging to the world. No matter how radical, utopian, idealistic, or symbolic a politics is, its basic impulse is to point out how the world does or should work, and such insistence can’t help but begin to appear rational and obvious to those who hold it — the circumstances of the world, at least for a person who subscribes to that politics, give evidence for its truth every minute of every day. When Charles Bernstein or Bruce Andrews, then, articulate a set of aesthetic commitments as a politics, the mysterious, irrational, disjunctive character of language is, rhetorically at least made familiar, that is, secular. I do not mean that politics, or political commitments are ever rational; I mean their appeal is to the rational and to the secular. So while I do, as you say, position faith as a “methodological tool that not only makes our commitments transparent but helps to forge bonds with others willing to take similar risks,” I would emphasize the experience of the single reader feeling estrangement in the face of what she reads, and I do not just mean the reader new to Language writing.
In a certain sense, then, one of the things I wanted to say in Reading as Belief is that Language writing is not primarily a political project (despite all its political implications), regardless of what it says about itself. Rather, because it is an aesthetic project that sees language as a system, disjoined from the world, it is primarily a way of experiencing and living with the intense emotional and intellectual sensation of words being made physical, being made flesh, in this way. At one point I had a whole chapter on this depoliticization of Language writing, but I ended up cutting it. Thus while this political element is more of an undercurrent in the book, Reading as Belief is still in one sense the flipside of the hypothetical essay on the Bible I proposed above. Rather than think though how the religiously minded ought to read (and thereby take their book seriously) I was trying to think though how those who read ought to see, which is theologically and not politically (and thereby take their knowledge of language seriously). Calling Language poetry back to itself as a mode of belief allows its aesthetic insights to constantly invoke the disjunction and uncertainty and mystery that comes with seeing and reading language in this extraordinary, material manner — for me at least, it helps me live out what Language writing has taught me about language. Again, maybe it is just me that needs this reminder, but I doubt it. And before I go any farther, I should add too the necessary caveat about Language writing not being a unified practice; I try to avoid that troublesome tendency in the book, and I hope my account here does not oversimplify the case in that way, despite my broad stokes.
Now I don’t really think anything I argue in the book breaks new ground, but I hope that Reading as Belief adds another tactic for maintaining a productive emotional relationship to our intellectual commitments. You mention Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager, and that book is great for all the reasons you name, although Reading as Belief undoubtedly suffers for the comparison. At several points in that book, discussing in turn “poethical” poetry and John Cage’s work, Retallack uses the phrase “discipline of attention” or “discipline of attention to detail” to lay out the particulars of her aesthetic mode of perception, and a significant portion of my thinking would simply underscore the word “discipline” rather than “attention.” It is easy to misread and misuse the aesthetics of Language writing — at one point in Reading as Belief I talk about how Bruce Andrews’s Lip Service works to discipline its readers into a kind of reading and consider how the refusal of that discipline would reproduce the misogyny and sexual violence that the book ironizes. In a book like that, because you are turned over to the character of language rather than depending on its supposed function, there is no guarantee that its disruptive aesthetics and attention to detail will work — the reader is simply trusted to language; the faith in language that this relinquishment of control requires is more like the risk of belief than the normal risk you take whenever you speak or write that someone might misunderstand what you meant to say. So I want to stress the discipline of disjunctive poetics, what it means to submit to it, rather than repeat the familiar talk of linguistic possibility, free play, etc., etc. Approaching Language writing from this side is therefore more a matter of stress than argument. I’m simply interested in the discipline of knowing you believe what you believe.
The Anchor Bar: 1047 Main St., Buffalo, NY
I remember getting laughed at the Anchor Bar (where Buffalo wings were invented) for comparing Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein to John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Granted, I was just beginning to work out what I meant, and no doubt did a poor job making any sense, but my friend, as many graduate school friends do, was kind enough to let me know he thought my comparison was laughably absurd. It was a little late in life to make such a discovery, but it struck me at the time though, that much of what made up my intellectual history was different than what did so for most of my friends and fellow poets. My father is a Presbyterian minister, and I grew up in Alaska where you a lot of time indoors talking, so much of our family life centered on theological conversation. I’ve never had any break with the church in a classic son-of-a-preacher way (even if I tend to engage the tenants of Calvinism in more poetic ways now), so I am more than willing now to allow that I only see these poets in the way I do because my thinking is so saturated by Reformed Christianity — where a politician sees voters and a soldier sees targets, I see Calvinists. But I do think the radical nature of Calvin’s and Edwards’s thought is not just in their theological reformation; it is also in the grasp of how we are situated in the world epistemologically, which anticipates, and helps us see, the avant-garde beautifully — the rupture between ourselves and the world is too great to be bridged. We need a word, or words, with all their uncertainty and mystery to produce meaningful discernment.
Follow up questions from Robinson and responses from Bettridge:
Elizabeth Robinson: Question 1: I am quite interested in the difference between what you said and what you meant in the comments you offered above. Can you elaborate on that gap, especially in any sense that you perceive me as missing important elements of your argument?
Robinson: Question 2: I hope it is clear that I don’t object to your reading of Reformed theology so much as I feel myself, in fact, to be a privileged (indeed, part of that smallest of audiences you imagined) reader in the sense that I went to seminary and understand myself as a very liberal Protestant. That is, how Protestants “should” understand, struggle with, and enact their tradition is very much of interest to me and I advocate for an approach that I feel is similar to yours. However, there’s a problematic cultural gap here. Most people who adopt a faith stance and, say, attend a church, don’t get much of a theological education and the norms that prevail in such practice are reductive and often ideological. This is further complicated by the uninformed way that popular culture and the political world interpret and manipulate Protestantism in the United States: as a rigid and simplified moral code.
I’m worried that I’ll sound like I’m asking you to be an apologist for a certain kind of theological stance. I guess I’m just wondering if you felt, in writing this book, that you had any responsibility to elucidate the differences between Reformed theology as you know it and Protestantism as it is popularly practiced in this country. It seems important to me, but if you are tired of me pushing you on that, feel free to say “no” and just leave it at that.
Joel Bettridge: I want to take the above two questions together, because I think they put us on a similar footing. When I write that there is a gap between what I said and what I meant, what I was trying to get at is less the observation that I failed to write what I meant (although that is probably true as well), but that the book has a life of its own, and at times I think it says much smarter, truer things than I planned, or could manage by myself. The trouble is, I only see this other life through other people’s reading. So I don’t think you misunderstood anything in the book. Rather your position, certainly as a specific kind of privileged reader, opens up lines of inquiry that I did not intend to be there, but they are there (and other readers open other lines of inquiry): you read the book, ask me this question about Protestantism, and now I think I have to turn back to the book to see what the book would say, and those answers are as much a part of the book as anything that is written more explicitly. It’s the readerly life of the book, the ideas the book makes possible or requires, the book the text creates, which all have a life that I think defies my intentions for the book — these are the children of Jack Spicer’s Martians.
Robinson: Actually, I much appreciate this response as a way of modeling reading as belief, a kind of attuned suspension that lets ideas fulfill themselves even if in unexpected ways.
Bettridge: Given the above qualification, I think I want to go on to answer your question in a number ways. On the one hand, when working on Reading as Belief I did not think I had a responsibility to discuss the differences between Reformed theology and the forms of Protestantism we have in the United States at present. Mostly, this is due to the fact that I wanted to stake Language writing to the intellectual and theological history of Calvinism; in that sense, contemporary Protestantism, in its own divergence from the latter, was not directly to the point. I was, however, also concerned that too much time spent on contemporary Protestantism would lose much of my intended audience, so I ended up writing about it largely in the endnotes, where I didn’t think it could be avoided.
On the other hand, as I think about your question, I have to acknowledge that the above answer does sidestep a crucial issue, and perhaps the book does too — that is to say, I wonder if your question points to how Reading as Belief might actually be an “apologist for a certain kind of theological stance,” which is another way of saying that it is a kind of Christian book, without admitting that upfront. Maybe there is some bad faith on its part. But as I read this possibility over, I think I would say too that Reading as Belief entrusts the Protestantism we have in this country to its theological origins. I think Christians like ourselves often feel the desire to apologize for those who share the label, given its political, moralistic, and ideological abuse (by conservatives and liberals alike). But, practically, I doubt such apologies do much good — it is hard from me to imagine anyone who is disinclined to acknowledge Christian practice as reasonable, changing his or her mind based on what might sound like a family squabble. However, if the beauty, complexity, and intelligence of Reformed theology is given its due, if we turn to it for insight and understanding and are rewarded, then, as a consequence, much of what goes by the name Christian in our own moment looks like a divergence, and perhaps it even looks heterodox. And if so, the problem of the contemporary takes care of itself in some part. No doubt Reading as Belief hopes to have this secondary effect in some small way.
I know one reason I wanted to begin the chapter on Jonathan Edwards the way I did comes from my frustration with the fact that most of us think we know what the Puritans (as exemplary Christians) thought. But we don’t. The violence, hypocrisy, and dogmatism a great many people take for granted disappears when we read a sermon like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” with a measure of historical and theological awareness and literary attention. I love and admire Susan Howe’s work, and My Emily Dickinson is masterful. But when she writes that “Emily Dickinson took both [Edwards’s] legend and his learning, tore them free from his own humorlessness and the dead weight of doctrinaire Calvinism, then applied the freshness of his perception to the dead weight of American poetry as she knew it,” I would disagree with her on one major point (51). In the chapter on Edwards, I try to show how it is his “doctrinaire Calvinism” that establishes the radical reading practice on which Dickinson’s work depends. So if, additionally, this chapter allows some readers to refashion their understanding of Protestantism in America, and its long history, then I am glad.
I want to ask you though, why do you think it is important to differentiate between Reformed theology as we know it and Protestantism as it is popularly practiced in this country?
Robinson: I guess that I initially thought that many readers would not know enough about Reformed theology to distinguish that, specifically, from the amorphous (and often uninformed) suppositions that our culture carries about Protestantism. My own experience is that most, even highly educated, people in the United States are very theologically incurious. Mark Taylor notes in After God that even clergy frequently show a lack of interest in theology. I honestly did not mean to suggest that you should function as an apologist in Reading as Belief, and for the most part, I do feel that the book offers the context that a reader new to the material needs.
Robinson: Question 3: I love what you say about Schlovsky’s idea of making the familiar strange, and I concur with your sense that ongoing renewal is necessary. And I like your argument that Language writing is ultimately an aesthetic project. It can be exceedingly difficult, though, to separate an aesthetic project from its political or theological elements? And isn’t that where the material hardens into cliché? As I understand cliché, it’s that instance in which a reading closes down and the reader’s/participant’s response is both assumed and proscribed. Thus, I’d like to challenge your sense that a practice (e.g., Reformed theology) should or ought (terms you use several times in your response) be conducted in a particular way. Isn’t that dangerous in terms of closing down that renewing estrangement that is central to reading as belief? Don’t we also know that belief itself is susceptible to ossification? How then to keep the practice of belief pliable enough that it won’t lapse into these constraining modes?
Bettridge: Well, I do not want to separate the aesthetic elements of Language writing from their political or theological elements; for me, one of the most moving and enduring early lessons of Language writing is its insistence that such division is impossible. In my previous answer I was trying to get at the problem of how our brains work when we work through our poetics. I know that when I talk and write about terms like politics, aesthetics, and theology one of them always comes first in my heart (the one that I can’t help but think is just a little more important), even though I know they can’t be separated, and that act of favoritism makes a disproportionately large difference — if my previous answer privileges the aesthetic where another poet might privilege the political, then that rhetorical positioning clearly leads to different poems, cultural values, and political decisions — different “shoulds” and oughts” (which of course just ends up reinforcing the essential principles of Language writing’s aesthetic commitments).
But I think this act of favoritism is also productive and necessary. While we want to make sure we keep our aesthetic understanding strange we also want to make sure every poem we write is not simply another illustration of the aesthetic’s predominance — it seems to me that treating poems as examples of an idea leads just as quickly to cliché as forgetting Schlovsky’s dictum. And for that reason I do want to insist on a particular way of undertaking our poetics or Reformed theology — I do not mind the disciplinary stance these words invoke. What I try to show in Reading as Belief is that belief is not susceptible to ossification in the ways we find troubling, as long as it stays belief. In chapter three I look at how Aquinas shows the way belief “resembles knowing in giving firm assent, but resembles doubting, suspecting and holding opinions in having no finished vision of the truth.” Frederick Crosson’s account of Aquinas’s thinking was especially useful to me; he points out that the word Aquinas uses for belief is “credere,” which is best translated as “placing one’s heart on.” I’ll not summarize the whole chapter here, but I think it is important to notice that belief is an act in this account of it, something we do — belief gives us a way to hold to a particular idea, even as we remain open to that idea’s revision. But the act of believing must have a particular to place its heart on, otherwise it is just an abstraction. In other words, if we persist in believing a specific claim we can argue for it, think it through, and revise it; if what we are holding to slips into dogma we no longer believe it, and if we refuse to hold to any particular (which I doubt is even possible) then understanding is precluded. All of this is another way of getting to the idea of why I think knowing we believe what we believe is so important, and why it is so important to make a claim for a should or ought in order to author that knowledge, and particular moments of understanding as well.
Robinson: I admit that I’m still uncomfortable with the words “should” or “ought” as proscriptive, as precluding the decision that makes belief alive as an ongoing decision or commitment. Nonetheless, I find your discussion here not only persuasive but moving, particularly in the invocation of Aquinas and his statement that belief “resembles knowing in giving firm assent, but resembles doubting, suspecting and holding opinions in having no finished vision of the truth.” There I see the discipline that is necessary to keep any such faithful decision and commitment dynamic.
Bettridge: Aquinas is really wonderful. Reading him also reminds me that Catholicism (and I think Judaism, and I have been told Buddhism) often does a better job at incorporating the renewing estrangement of belief into daily life than Protestantism and the politics of secular poetry. And it is the ritualized aspect of the former, the repetition, the aesthetic discipline, which does so. Protestantism and poetry lack extensive physical, daily, formalized rituals; obviously individuals can acquire their own rituals inside these traditions (in fact, we could argue that each tradition demands individual adherents do this very thing), but that is different than the collective and shared rituals of the others. I point to this quickly just to make the observation that “constraining modes” are themselves not the problem, but our practice of them. Mediation, prayer, chants, theology, poetics, sitting at your desk, all can in their discipline awaken us to ourselves and the world or shut us off from them — the burden lies with us.
Robinson: Yes, thanks, I think this is a helpful observation about Protestantism. I have often thought about the role of ritual in our ethical and aesthetic lives and how it has been effaced. I have officiated at many weddings, often for poets, and the twining of the aesthetic and the ritual in such contexts always strikes me as poignant given how little we usually recognize this as a resonant part of our experience.
Robinson: Question 4: Since you took out the chapter on the depoliticization of Language poetry, would you be game to revisit some of your ideas and comments here? I’d really like to hear your take on that.
Bettridge: Yikes. I still need to figure out what to do with that chapter, because it is a real mess. What I wanted to argue, and what I would still stick by I believe, is the idea that if we take the “politics of poetic form” seriously then we have to admit to ourselves that we do not have political solutions to political problems. Of course convincing anyone remains the problem.
My attempt to do so resulted in a collage essay, of sorts, made from the work of Wendy Brown, William Connolly, George Lakoff and Aristotle by way of Alasdair MacIntyre. I don’t have much of anything new to say in this line, and the weakest parts of the chapter consist of my own prose, but joining these wonderful thinkers does generate, for me, some significant conclusions. Wendy Brown’s attention to how we can have a productive democratic conversation by pushing back on the sacrosanct ideas of the private sphere and personal sovereignty joins intriguingly, I think, with the classical philosophical inquiry into virtue, and “the good” (how we should live and why), which is where we also quickly end up if we actually believe that how we talk, or act, determines what we mean or do. When held in company, the writings of Brown, Connolly, Lakoff, MacIntyre, and many of the poets working inside Language writing, focus on how we read, live, and think, and they do so in a manner that makes a primary concern for fixing particular political problems impossible. Clearly Language writing has long been criticized for this very emphasis, but I think we must embrace it (rather than move away from it, which has been the recent trend), which is not to say we should not do politics, just that we can’t make it our first act. Political ills are always symptomatic — the product of greed, structural inequality, poverty, etc. — and you can’t heal an illness by treating symptoms, which is what treating political problems with political solutions comes down to. No amount of law making or court cases can fix people’s hearts or ethical commitments — only a conversation about “the good” can; our politics must be the consequence of this conversation. The alternative is violence (political or otherwise), which of course can’t always be avoided either. I’d just rather not begin with it.
I am not sure how convincing this argument will ever be inside the avant-garde poetry community, and I am not even sure it is an argument. I can easily imagine somebody saying “obviously” to the above paragraph and then heading to a protest, which might very well be a good idea. I think a weakness of Reading as Belief is that the arguments it lays out mean to affect how we go about doing what we do, not the acts themselves. It is the spirit in which we act and write that I care about — the act undertaken in a new spirit might very likely look exactly the same from the outside as it did before, but I still think it makes an enormous difference in the long run. If few people take this emphasis of the spirit seriously I can understand that too. Looking at the history of Language writing we can see how difficult it must be to be motivated so powerfully by the political, as many of the writers associated with Language writing are, and then have that motivation lead you to insights about the importance of the aesthetic that carry you outside the political, or show you the political sphere’s limits, or that even ask you to take up a whole new set of commitments. This shift of commitment is where our poetics might demand more of us that we are willing to accept.
Robinson: Oh, this is very helpful. In A Feminist Ethic of Risk. Sharon Welch addresses the western tendency to conceive of power in zero sum terms. Thus, any shift of the power dynamic gives one side more while diminishing the power of the other side. In a sense, I think that she too is asking that we reconsider the ways that we talk about power and the good in order to make our efforts toward justice sustainable for the long term whether or not results are immediately (or ever) discernible. If, then, we talk about power as intrinsically a shared and fluid phenomenon, we can’t and don’t need to control outcomes, because our sense or orientation toward any goal, and our sense of who our conversation partners are, is continually in flux. She describes this as a necessary risk, but I see in it an analogue to your idea of belief as a practice that requires us to keep believing so that we can remain attuned to what we believe.
Robinson: Question 5: I think your nudging “discipline” and “attention” a little bit away from each other is quite interesting and I’d like to hear more about how you understand that. Retallack (and also Sharon Welch) like to talk about ethical activity as wager or risk: the outcomes are not guaranteed. I feel that belief operates in a similar way: you embark without reassurances. Thus belief becomes a discipline, in a sense, of making wagers that may not yield the anticipated, desired results, or even outcomes that are comprehensible. For someone like me, projects like that (okay, I admit it!) have a somewhat mystical quality, even if I am working towards practical (i.e., ethical) aims. I experience this as a kind of discipline of not having mastery, of not being in control. For Retallack, such an approach is not mystical (and I am suspecting that mystical is not an appropriate word for what you are projecting either), but the free play may lead to a sense of delightful and productive serendipity. Attention here (disciplines of attention) is part of the discipline; it invites in the unanticipated, which seems to be akin to renewal. Can you comment?
Robinson: Question 6: Given the assumptions and understandings that I’ve set out here, can you talk more about “knowing you believe what you believe” (how is this manifest?) and this idea of submission? As a woman, the idea of “submitting” immediately sets off some alarms. I feel that I’ve been asked to do that my whole life, starting from the time I became literate and was instructed to write about the subject of any generic third person sentence as a “he.” Being a co-creator with a text seems importantly distinct to me from submission to a text, and as you know, I was distressed as I read through your way of working with the Andrews material because I did feel yanked into a very sexist/misogynist moment.
Bettridge: I think I addressed your question about “knowing you believe what you believe” in the previous answer, so I think I’ll try to respond here to the parts of the above two questions I did not take up. First, let me say that I love how you frame belief by joining mystical experience and discipline, so I am afraid my reply to that is mostly a delighted affirmation. I certainly agree with your sense of how belief asks us to proceed, and how it draws us toward “delightful and productive serendipity,” which is akin to renewal, and an ethical wager. I love how you lay that out. All I might add to that is by way of your second question.
In the chapter on Bruce Andrews I have a long endnote on the mystical qualities of his poem Lip Service. Everything you say about mystical experience rings true to me; I would only additionally stress the loss of self that mystical experience produces, and this gets us near to how, as you put it, the “discipline of not having mastery, of not being in control,” authors quite distinct forms of subjectivity. I want to emphasize the loss of self because it creates a different emphasis I think than “not being in control,” which, while useful and crucial, might not demand powerlessness and the elision of self that I want to highlight. This loss of self centers my interest in Andrews’s work, and to have a mystical experience is to lose oneself in God, or an absolute other (which is language for Andrews). But the loss of self that occurs during mystical experience (or the form of intense, violent reading that a poem like Lip Service requires), is not an evacuation or destruction of the self or an obliteration of personality. Rather, it is most productively understood to be akin to Stanley Cavell’s Emersonian perfectionism, or Saint Paul’s claim that he became himself when he died to himself and gained his life in the resurrection of Jesus. I would also say that Charles Bernstein’s understanding of “nearness” in his essay on Charles Reznikoff is another beautiful way of approaching the notion that we author ourselves to become ourselves (in another longer footnote, I try to trace out how this Emersonianism works in Bernstein’s poetics). None of these inquiries are synonymous, of course, but they partake in a shared philosophical project; they are concerned with a reading of subjectivity grounded on the understanding that we are not ourselves, we do not begin with a self that is ours — we begin with a self that belongs to the world, to sin, to cultural violence. We author ourselves in our rereading of that beginning that must be deliberately begun. So when I nudge “discipline” and “attention” a little bit away from one another I am trying to emphasize the loss of self that makes this move possible.
That (sorry!) is a very long way to go in order to say that submission, when read as part of this poetic and philosophical project, does not, it seems to me, mean bowing down to imposed authority, in particular, state or patriarchal authority. Instead, I think the form of submission required is more a form of obedience to a master of our choosing. As with the discipline of mystical experience, this form of submission begins with one’s own choice and instinct, but very quickly forces us into rereading our most cherished or troublesome ideas and ways of living in the world. We are each drawn to different poetics and philosophies, and individual works of art, but once pulled to them I think we must give ourselves over to the ways of being they require, otherwise what we hold onto is the liberal, lyric, detached, subject that the avant-garde professes to abhor.
To offer a scriptural analogy, when Jesus said to the rich young man, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” he was merely offering the discipline that the young man’s attraction to Jesus produced. The young man sought Jesus out and Jesus offered him the consequences of this choice. The poems and poetics we love are the same. We are drawn to poems and forms of poetry with particular aesthetic claims and modes of thought, and if we are to live with them and read them productively we must discipline ourselves by their poetics. That does not mean surrendering to unwanted authority so much as it means working out our selves in relationship to our chosen texts instead of subjecting them to the notions and selves we possess before we begin to read them. Just as the young man in the parable walked away from Jesus, we do not have to accept the discipline offered by the poems we chose to pursue, but that does not mean they will stop presenting it to us.
I know that everything I have written so far is very broad, and could be reasonably dismissed for that reason, so I hesitate to go father in this direction; still, I want to say too that part of what I was trying to think through in Reading as Belief, and part of what I am trying to say now in my perhaps overzealous insistence on a vocabulary of discipline, involves exploring how Language writing’s move to make readers “co-creators” of a poem does not establish equality between a poem and a reader, but is that which revises readers as they read. Take, for example, the passage from Lip Service that I think leads to my reading you respond to as misogynistic; the lines I focus on are, “I’ll talk to you just as long /as you’re fucking me.” In an early reading of these lines I position them as participating in a genuine erotic and romantic discourse, so perhaps we disagree about the kind of poem Lip Service is, or the kind of poetry Bruce Andrews writes, because I do not think his poetry is sexist. However, in the reading of these lines that comes later, and which I take to be the one that disturbs you, I am trying to show how the book disciplines a reader who finds the passage erotic only. It is lame to quote oneself, but I think that might be the simplest tack to take. After discussing how Lip Service moves readers though the loaded social space of sexual language in order to present the complex registers of sexual agency that include all kinds of difficult emotions like fear, desire, powerlessness, I wrote:
Moving readers though such an array of positions allows Lip Service to place immense pressure on what readers do with its words, arguing that it makes a big difference what associative connections they forge. If in my former reading of “I’ll talk to you just as long /as you’re fucking me” I took the lines as erotic as well as unproblematic, reminding me as it does of my own relationship to whiny and needy women, my connection affirms my hatred and I am worse off than when I started, as is the world. But, as I hope my reading demonstrates, I don’t think reading the poem as corroborating my chauvinism handles its language use particularly well. (126)
The reading I am referring to in the last line is my claim that Lip Service asks readers to take up multiple — sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frightening — sexual subjectivities. And I do hope the “if” that begins the third sentence makes clear that finding one’s misogyny confirmed in Lip Service is a refusal to experience these shifts in readerly agency, which is a refusal of the poem’s discipline and form of mystical experience. I wanted to put my own reading self on the line here not to say that the poem made me think of whiny and needy women, but to say that if the poem brought those terms to mind and my reading justified them, then I was not reading well. I wanted to use the subjunctive because it also keeps me from pretending that I am free from such danger — that I am just a great guy, a modern liberal man whose relationship to women is always admirable and free from reproach. I did not want to take the position that only other people needed to read this poem to have their misogyny read out of them. I am in need of such discipline as much as or more than others, and that is what in part constitutes my coproduction of the text — submitting myself to the discipline of the text’s poetics as I enter myself to its rereading of me as read it, which authors myself anew, and hopefully, in this case, with a little less misogyny and a little more understanding of the difficult social and personal spheres forced on us by desire and sexual discourse.
I do think there is delight and pleasure in such reading, but the intensities and violence enacted on the reading subject are not quite, to my mind, fully accounted for when we frame our reading primarily in terms of the “pleasure of the text,” “attention,” or even ethics, all of which rhetorically keep readers in power. The act of giving ourselves over to a text is, to go back to your earlier question, what we should or ought to do, and is another reason I do not want to pull back from my invocation of those words. No doubt that act of surrender takes courage, and I suspect none of us can do it consistently. How can we choose that form of reading with any kind of regularity? It is amazing that we can ever do it, but the pull of particular poems or works of art, or spiritual practices, seem to be what it takes to compel such an offering. I do worry that I my reading overemphasizes the obvious, but I worry too that many of our familiar readings of avant-garde writing and practices of progressive politics overemphasize freedom and independence, rather than the freedom and joy that come from dependence and mystical surrender.
Robinson: I am convinced, and actually moved by, your discussion of losing oneself in a text, as a mode of surrender. This is a familiar mystical mode, but it definitely has its erotic charge as well. It seems to me that you are suggesting that the reader engages in a kind of apophatic “unsaying” in entering a text on its own terms, certainly a discipline, and that the way one is authored through the text is transformative. It reminds me of Simone Weil’s talking about the transformative quality of true attention.
My copy of Reading as Belief is all marked up with my frenzied marginalia. I like to think that my penciled remarks, which are most often eager affirmation, demonstrate one way of participating in the process you suggest. I still have trouble with the chapter on Andrews and Lip Service, however. Perhaps my difficulties will provoke ongoing discussion. I’d like to note the contingency of the sentence you cite and how it sets up a power relation: “I’ll talk to you just as long /as you’re fucking me.” The speaker seems to be saying that the mutuality of conversation is conditioned on his partner’s willingness to service him sexually. For me, this precludes the possibility of the text being sincerely romantic or relational. I felt offended from the outset, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a response that Andrews would welcome. That is, I’m not interested here in critiquing his poetry per se, but in interrogating whether this process of disciplined belief can work in all instances. You write in the chapter that Andrews’s poem asks readers “to consider how violence is erotic and how powerlessness is exhilarating” (126). For me, the question (as one who has been sexually assaulted) is: “What would surrendering to this text cost me?” The answer is immediately, “Too much.” As you note yourself, “I think the form of submission required is more a form of obedience to a master of our choosing.” I would assuredly not make this particular text as you have proposed it my “master.” Even the term “master” makes me flinch because of it’s disturbing gendered implications.
It’s possible, of course, to engage the text with a different form of belief or at least a different reading. I’d approach this material willfully believing that the text is deliberately provocative and ironic. The disturbance that such material causes might then have the same effect of “unmaking” or reauthoring for new understandings — as for example a hostile witness can sometime shape a larger understanding in important ways.
Robinson: Question 7: A provocative issue here is the relation of irony and belief. In the aftermath of the initial energy of Language writing, I feel that much contemporary poetry has overemployed irony. Irony becomes an unassailable position: you can’t challenge me because I didn’t make any real commitment there! How do you square the deflective quality of irony with belief?
Maybe this is what became so troublesome for me in your chapter on Andrews: I felt that your experiment was to try to read what I considered an ironic but still deeply sexist text as affectively sincere and tender. It didn’t work for me, but I will say that I saw your approach there as subversive of and not submissive to Andrews’s intentions (if I may risk the word “intentions”).
Bettridge: Again, I think I might have answered part of your question already, although let me know if I haven’t. I absolutely agree with you, though, about the overuse of irony, and that it is often corrosive to forms of belief. I wonder if I would differentiate between forms of irony? Certainly Andrews’s work has a great deal of irony in it, but I don’t read it in such a negative light. Perhaps part of the problem is a tendency in some strands of contemporary poetry to equate intelligence or insight with irony and skepticism (which I do not think poets like Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews do).
I have been rereading your books Under That Silky Roof and The Orphan & Its Relations this summer, and, in light of this conversation, see in them more clearly a distance from the subject, or object of inquiry, that might look like a form of irony. But this distance in the books is the subject of a fundamental bewilderment, and the poems are a response to, a living in, this bewilderment, at least as I read them. Which is to say, the poems do not revel in skepticism or employ irony as a defense against the fall that comes with any attempt to generate understanding of a subject that remains apart from us, and yet, the poems do not naively seek to regain paradise either. To put what I am to trying to articulate in a more positive framework, let me cite a moment in The Orphan & Its Relations:
Cottony, the walls crumple. She signs them to reunite themselves.
The walls kick, swift and quiet, at her, midway between herself.
As though one eye were bloodshot and the other clear.
Inside her mind, she ties a knot and she will not let it breathe.
A suffocated knot. Wisdom,
she calls it: a red flag. (31)
I think these lines are totally amazing — thoughtful and beautiful — although we do not have the space here to explore them in more detail. I would just point to how the poem draws “wisdom” and “a red flag” close. The act of “calling” the knot a red flag makes wisdom something to be feared by the possessor of it (reinforcing its resemblance to a tumor in the brain), even as the poem gives us a “her” who knowingly, deliberately, creates the knot from the “Cottony walls” “midway between herself.” Wisdom is thus also named as a defensive act made from what interrupts or divides the importantly gendered self. That is a very peculiar and compelling way of thinking about wisdom and commits the poem to an aesthetics where the importance of gender, meditative inquiry, and a self shaping itself against and with itself are all staked as necessary and appointed. And wisdom, as a word, is surprising; it is a very different form of intelligence than irony, and that choice of vocabulary only serves to reinforce the poem’s poetic stance. To try to make this point more clearly, and get back to your question, what I think your lines show is that irony employed as critique is different than irony, or perhaps more precisely, rhetorical distance, employed to discover and name and found one’s own intellectual, spiritual, political commitments. And I would say too that much of the work gathered around the term Language writing is closer to the latter than even the authors might care to acknowledge, and certainly more than the scholarship of the last few decades has cared to acknowledge. As I read it, for example, the irony Charles Bernstein’s work turns to (especially a poem like Shadowtime) almost always produces philosophical and poetic ground on which to generate understanding, however temporary; to read his poetics as largely an act of negation is, I think, a serious error in interpretation.
Robinson: Thank you for a reading of my work that so carefully plumbs its intentions. I am really grateful. I find your distinction between a deflective ironic stance and the working of a rhetorical distance that “produces philosophical and poetic ground on which to generate understanding” enormously helpful. It’s exciting to see this distinction drawn out. And while I continue to have trouble reading Andrews as you do, I can certainly see what you mean about the outworking of such an approach in the works of Bernstein and other Language poetry. In a sense, this might be an intersection between the poetics of bewilderment that Fanny Howe has proposed and the work of Language poetry.
We first established direct contact in relation to my reservations about your reading of Lip Service, yet I’ve found you accessible and gracious at every stage of our exchange. There aren’t many other poets with whom I could share concerns I hold so fundamental significant, and so this discussion has been a highlight of the past year. I know that I’ll continue to reflect on Reading as Belief and I hope that readers will also track it down and open themselves to the rigor and excitement of your thinking.
A review of Jenny Boully's 'not merely because of the unknown that was stalking towards them'
You’ve gone and forgotten all about your muffins, and you’ll now make
excuses and say well then they were only make-believe, but we all know
better: a fire and smoke that’s been here for days and days. (35)
Jenny Boully’s reading of J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911) prompts us to ask if we had known in childhood that the lure of childhood would not cease to woo, would we have understood what the lure was then? Have adults always been afraid to wait in a place they do not yet know? The back cover of this fiction/poetry collection advertises a “dark re-visioning” of Peter and Wendy’s story, though more it offers perspective on what the fairy tale ruins in Wendy and how the slippery perma-innocent Peter conquers his foe. No victory trumps forgetting, if one is remembered.
If the propagators of Barrie’s story are enamored with the naïf, the originating text is as grown and grim as they come: “That is all we are, lookers-on,” he writes, “Nobody really wanted us. So let us watch and say jaggy things, in the hope that some of them will hurt.” The “we” here refers to a first person narrator the author inserts among the children to defend his portrayal of their mother, Mrs. Darling, as a finicky domestic with “no proper spirit.” “I despise her,” the writer-narrator admits. Boully’s keen commentary on such a text is clearly justified: the cycle of the book and its metaphor require a recurrence of wedded cherubs to fall from girlhood into marriage, dowry for doury. Wendy follows in her mother’s footsteps, as her daughter Jane too joins Peter, and in time her daughter Margaret will play his nursemaid and chef, “and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless” (242).
“Heartless” is a wry description of children and Barrie thus closing the novel calls attention to it. “Each day I cut a bit of sunflower,” Boully writes, “and take it. Home. Will Peter notice these?” (65). Does any child notice what is done for him? If gratitude is learned by loss, Peter’s poor memory cancels even the gesture of Tinkerbell to save his life. He not only forgets that she risked her own by swallowing poison Hook meant for him; he forgets her entirely. Boully calls such character into question and with it that long-standing love affair with youth, a flight one takes before learning how to stop (53). The parallel final word in Boully’s text is “outgrown,” as in hollow cradles under a moon swelled “so full” with the light of loss (65). The bough bent with big babies snaps when one has done with the idealization of never growing up.
“I will give you a thimble so that you will know the weight of my heart,” Boully’s second paragraph states: “A thimble may protect against pricks” (1). The hearts of the Darling children are as unguarded as that window Peter flies in to rifle them with dust. not merely contributes so rich a reading to Barrie’s text it should be assigned as a prep course for adolescents loosing the anemones inside their chests and a refresher course for fortysomethings who have forgotten the point.
The pull between freedom and time is a complicated one, and Boully holds in her form the two birds of this paradox by alternating arcs throughout the text. The first begins with an untitled section that converses with the novel via such reflexive statements as:
that is the story he will tell you … Oh Wendy … He will come to you
in the darkest part of night when you are sleeping and play upon
his pipes until you stir. (1–2)
Hip to the jig and rippling with innuendo, this thread is interrupted regularly by “The Home Under Ground,” named for the cavern Peter and the Lost Boys keep in Neverland. The structure mirrors the lock and lush of these asynchronous worlds: Peter’s game of pretend is made real not by the heart that darts away but the one that lands. Poor steady bird is a Never bird, wooed to follow nest and all.
“See Wendy,” Boully explains the paradigm: most want to have their cake and eat it too. Not Peter. He found an escape hatch in the clause — dispossession: “he doesn’t want to have the cake; he wants to eat it.” (46). Held “cake gets old; gets old” like Wendy and her “old lady” panties and Tink with her skeleton leaves, both of which Peter out flies, abandons, drops. Is the only way to “beat the game,” Boully asks, to play dead? (46, 20). How is it that Peter lives? He becomes Godotlike, as anticipation of his entrance kindles hope and Byronesque as he taunts that “it is not so difficult to die” to all that bloody mediocre life.
“Pan, who and what art thou?” Hook asks, and Peter calls back “I’m youth, I’m joy, I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg,” but his lines are “nonsense,” Barrie’s narrator interjects, except as “proof … that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form” (208).
Barrie’s male protagonists are preoccupied with form, good and bad. The sloppiness, for instance, that causes Peter to take Hook’s suggestion in midair and kick instead of stab him, allows Hook to meet his defeat in peace. If men are but players on a stage, these two measure themselves like fencers by tallying the points of their performance. The rules of form and Peter’s moral caliber in relation to it are defined by Barrie in the chapter “The Mermaid’s Lagoon.” In it, Peter and Jas. Hook meet on a rock. Not insignificantly, Barrie refers here to Peter as “the only man the Sea-Cook had feared” (127, emphasis added). The man-boy’s seriousness is evidenced when he has the chance to stab Hook, but recognizing he has the higher position, offers a hand that Hook bites. Stunned by iniquity, Peter is made “helpless” and defeated — as all children are, Barrie says, the first time they are treated unfairly. But none else recover so completely and this distinction is what makes him Pan.
Perhaps his choice seems not an option for Wendy or Tootles or Smee or Tink, but to begrudge him it is the real cause of battle — wherein enter sorrow, violence, envy, seemingly justified by the slight of his forgetting. The choice should be examined closer, coming as it does in a book appropriated for children but first marketed toward adults. In the passage that precedes it, for example, Peter achieves such high-functioning psychological effect as to mimic Hook’s voice so well Hook “felt his ego slipping from him,” thinking Peter to be himself and separate, which scares him hoarse (123). Such results, if unconsciously administered, imply a greater symbol in Peter than irresponsibility. His readiness to forget may even be an act of generosity so daring it unmans him repeatedly — to forgive. As anyone attempting to clear the slates of injustice may guess, his magic may be deserved.
Certainly his self-forgetting is exemplary. The complication enters when that forgetting encompasses others, especially the doting Wendy, toward whom Boully’s pathos appeals. The defense is long-coming. The poignancy of Wendy’s role has been sandbagged since her name was excised from the novel’s title, published in 1911 as Peter and Wendy and limelit later solely for him. Boully intercedes on Wendy’s behalf:
“Betwixt-and Between” that
“male hand … scrawling on a little girl. All over, that is.” (56)
In not merely, the tables on which attachment and freedom play are not reckoned but turn. A mother, Boully says “is someone who always contains two things” (32). not merely contains more than two, but these — that love can act in memory and it must last to be believed: “No one wants to love forever a wild thing” (52). Except Peter, who keeps prying himself free — not away from but to love. To accept such possibility is to forgive even him — “wolf one” whose death Wendy will ever-after mourn (49). But, “for now: peaches:” empathy for the wicked, courage after one — to get past wolf two and the rest of them to a place where,
there should always be more. Love involved. (49; 58)
A review of Rosmarie Waldrop's 'Driven to Abstraction'
When certain Samsas begin to clear the room, Gregor reacts: “then on the wall opposite, which was already otherwise cleared, he [Gregor] was struck by the picture of the lady muffled in so much fur and quickly crawled up to it and pressed himself to the glass … This picture at least, which was entirely hidden beneath him, was going to be removed by nobody.” Driven to Abstraction protects its pictures by asking us to sleep in the room that transformed it. Still, residual family relations (with holiday intention) lurk in a house we almost forget. “Unlike the id, the ego, through which alone pleasure becomes real, is subject to time.” Narrative is the mode that registers desire’s passage into time. Unfortunately, most works stage only one such passage in order to block transformation and preserve the present.
Worked by transformation, Driven to Abstraction subjects itself to several passages into time: and each time our time, thus reversing the genocidal passages of the “explorers” (Columbus, de Vaca, Diaz, Heidegger) who sail through the first section, towards unconcealed “nakedness”: “Whereas my father was disturbed by Being and Time, it’s in the face of uncovered nakedness Columbus issued the required proclamations” (9). Are the West Indies naked because Columbus uncovered them, or does “uncovered nakedness” precede him? If the latter, why “uncovered” and what covers them? Perhaps it is wrong to impose a timeline. As Columbus addresses the new world, so Being and Time the father, who senses in its fascist cells the desire to uncover the primordial question, “or lean forward to brace against our element, deflect its head-on force into a more general time. Where God for love of us wears clothes” (32). Clothing seems considerate, but Waldrop helps us see God’s American Apparel as condescension, subjugation, a narc’s disguise in dad clothing: in short, Semele. God’s love is not love but police supervision to a Beatles mixtape: nakedness is the condition for Dionysius’s birth, the return to death that metamorphosizes us out of present parlors into present highways: “Ulysses fights his way back to an Ithaca with four-lane highways” built to accommodate the suitors’ commute from 1999 (29).
This return to an uninhabitable center is a figure for her earlier poetry as well: from her 2006 introduction to Curves of the Apple: “I continued in the form of the prose poem which for me has come to fit Pound’s postulate of ‘a center around which, not a box within which.’” Not surprisingly, she finds similar figures at the level of the phrase: “after finishing The Reproduction of Profiles I kept being haunted by some of its phrases, like ‘all resonance grows from consent to emptiness.’ The fact that the ‘empty’ space inside a flute or violin is where the sound happens, and the uterus, a likewise ‘empty’ organ, is a locus for fertility wanted to be thought about” (xi). Circling about this empty center, she updates the text’s status from “dead // out without frenz” to “dead circuit.”
For this poem, the timeless center is not the id but an obscene question. Instead of one question preceding a well-developed single narrative or fascist ontology, we have an indeterminate multiplicity. Though these originary questions never appear, the poems and paragraphs serve them as cropped photonegatives, codetermining their outline in time rather than exhausting them or answering them. Her poetics “concerns instead excessive systems which link the different with the different, the multiple with the multiple, the fortuitous with the fortuitous, in a complex of affirmations always coextensive with the questions posed and the decisions taken.” But, again, this no more liberates the author than the reader, turning us again and again into this time, with all of its right-wing eagle paintings. However we awaken from the metamorphosis it’s always to the same room.
“Music Is an Oversimplification of the Situation We Are In” centers part 1, “Sway-Backed Powerlines (2004–2008),” but asymmetrically, as it’s the fourth of five sections. Further, the subtitle “in memory of John Cage” follows the preceding section’s (“Time Ravel”) evisceration of memory, which echoes earlier evocations of Wittgenstein: “Actual observation served to confirm what he already knew” (6). “4.01 The proposition is a picture of reality. / The proposition is a model of the reality as we think it is.” “Time Ravel” begins like this: “With the mind’s eye. We see against the light. The way we see the dead. My father reading at his desk. Read, road, door. Remains unclear how my brain chose to store this image rather than another” (29). This is the second glimpse of the father, who even in repose threatens to throw apples at anyone out the cage. Here, his book is unnamed. Piece your way back to the “choice” at the center of image-preservation and encounter only pieces and other “unclear” remains. So long as memory resigns itself to representation it suppresses the transformative forces in favor of subjective resi/stagnation, thus affirming the social processes behind the throne. Waldrop’s poetics breaks from this, forgoing representation to create distance, dissolution, the strata of abstraction. Developing any memory-negatives condemns one as a forger, arresting metamorphoses at hand. Choice necessarily distorts — refracts — but this is not the issue; rather, it’s the mode of distortion: subjective choice distorts into prison, while aleatory distortion opens bars. This figures Cage’s arrival, whose aleatory asymmetries center an aesthetic. The short list-sentence “Read, road, door” figures Cage as well, for reasons that will become clear.
Refraction is abstraction, narrative residua. Recall the earlier definition of narrative: abstraction is nothing more than the crystallized form of a thing in its passage into time. Thus the body is no more immediate than thought. In fact, insofar as the former bears the socially-sanctified mark of immediacy, the body is less present than thought, carried on its litter-box by the same representational regimes that obscure the metamorphic unconscious. Waldrop asks, “How can I remember my parents if I need to run my hands over my body to make sure it is there?” (32). “Nothing is lost in this reduction of lively colorfulness to grey discipline; in fact, everything is gained — the power of the spirit is precisely to progress from the ‘green’ immediacy of life to its ‘grey’ conceptual structure, and to reproduce in this reduced medium the essential determinations to which our immediate experience blinds us.” Poetry is just such reduced media, using different forms to foreground its continual emergence into time — that is, its abstraction, the last salt pillar on Mountasia’s back nine.
Thus her interest in geometry, present since 1987’s Reproduction of Profiles: “I had already studied mathematics, a mad kind of horizontal reasoning like a landscape that exists entirely on its own” (6). Euclidean geometry is a representational system abstracted from perceptual refraction. Its distortive problems are well-known, like realistic novels. Critiques of Euclidean geometry may seem unrelated to poetics, but not so long as the Euclidean epistemological model still imprisons emergent thought in its familial room. As “transparent” expository prose continually plays hyena to Scar’s cultural hegemony, so notions of clear and sufficient reason set the standard for education, research, and discourse. “Its essence is to perish, but not, like prose, into comprehension without residue” (54). We need something closer to the controlling forces of which we are refractions and to whose ends we project systemic abstractions, not the counter-reactions (museums) that redirect subjectivity to museic ends. “It is a geometry no longer in the service of the essential and eternal, but a geometry in the service of ‘problems’ or ‘accidents’: ablation, adjunction, projection, intersection.” Fortunately none may siphon the crystal, so they wither (winter) in bankruptcy. “It is sufficient to renounce copying problems from possible propositions, and defining the truth in terms of the possibility of finding a solution …. Moreover, there is no [thought] so long as we remain tied to Euclidean geometry: we must move to a geometry of sufficient reason, a Riemannian-type differential geometry which tends to give rise to discontinuity on the basis of continuity, or to ground solutions in the condition of the problem” (162).
In Cage’s section a “tape” runs along the bottom of the pages, further distinguishing this section from the three preceding, which have one paragraph per page. The tape — a discrete series — consists of an alphabetical list of words taken from Cage’s work: “instant instead instep instructive …” (50). Ignoring the single paragraphs at the top of the page, this series unravels on its own terms. Its divergent temporality is all the more striking because its comparative term — the single paragraph above — is itself constructed around divergence and differentiation, as discussed above. If the paragraphs diverge from narrative, exposition, description and their attendant (a)temporalities, what to make of a stagnant series arranged by alphabetic contingency? One possible source is Cage’s I–VI, the textual iteration of his 1988–1989 Norton Lectures. Prior to the introduction and the six sections, Cage includes a tercet of key terms — actually the title, which “is fifteen aspects of my work in musical composition, capitalized, strung, and blocked together.” The first line: “MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacy” (7). Furthermore, beneath the mesostic used for the lecture (created from a “Source Text” comprised of quotations from Wittgentstein, Thoreau, etc.), Cage includes three to four lines from a question and answer seminar that succeeded the lecture, explaining that “in the nature of the use of chance operations is the belief that all answers answer all questions” (6). In the acknowledgments Waldrop lists eight books (like Brian Rotman’s Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero), one article, and one name, Ludwig Wittgenstein, as if his textual work is less important than his praxis. And what is his praxis if not a sort of interrogation through narrative? Wittgenstein’s questions are always more important than his (textual) answers, with which he was famously dissatisfied. Waldrop approaches him not through this dissatisfaction but through insistence as question.
“Almost breathless with continental drift, encumbered by radios twelve. Let us consider contemporary milk. At room temperature it sours. Unless we protect it from life by placing it in a museum. Then it is art. Which affects ear, nose, throat, tongue. And all you can do is suddenly sneeze. This observation is not profound, but against loss” (Waldrop, 49). Affective response, centered in museum or prose, is insufficient, reactive rather than reactor. To the extent normative form promotes “comprehension without residue,” it severs itself from extension/abstraction, thinking-as-immediacy. The Idea’s extension into time produces residue, compost for new-residua colonies which become thought’s extension into metaphysical axioms. Emanating from Radio Music along the bottom of the page: “multiple museum mushroom music must” (53). “Words come first from here and then from there. The situation is not linear. It is as though I am in a forest hunting for ideas” (Cage, 2). Her tribute to Cage shatters the benign image of the mushroom hunter, insisting on this as negotiation with toxicity. “This is a lecture on composition. Structure, method, form. Why do we rush along the road like magnetic tape on fire?” (48).
Divergent temporalities cancel the readings of existent political subjects, forcing them to metamorphosize into something as politically and economically unviable as poetry itself. As poems are the antithesis of existing subjectivity, they have no readers. Readers are never antithetical to society: they are that society, lacking both the ability to void it and categories to comprehend its antitheses. Complicity is meaningless as a critical category. Poetry posits readers who no longer need poetry: readers who are the antithesis of existing society have no use for antithetical objects. Poetry is an underachieving commodity because it ignores subjective limits in its search for the otherly multiple vectors that determine the self as tertiary terrarium, a lichen on a coral in a tire. Culturally intelligible representation (novels, marketing) can’t capture these forces in a way that speaks to the subject. So the inhospitable reader desires poems she can’t accommodate: this marks poetic praxis as anitpraxis, a form of displaced self-reversal which isn’t ascetic resignation to critical-historical limits but self-cancelation amidst delirious proliferation. Though antithetical to society, poetry is not reactionary. For the latter to be true, thetic society would have to be originary. But it is not primary, only forms a crust over the originary antitheses (questions) to capture antithetical vectors like an ingrown nail. Insofar as it is antithetical to objective antitheses, poetry is the double photonegative at one with the immanent abstract.