Poetry as path, as weapon

On Uche Nduka



Uche Nduka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on 'A Mammal of Style'

A Mammal of Style

A Mammal of Style

Ted Greenwald and Kit Robinson

Roof Books 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1931824538

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantasy is ability to believe …

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

Got wheelchair access
Cracked up to believe

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

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

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

… and the several lovely fractured quotations from Dogen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, the world’s greatest haiku:

Great sweater
Really love the shoes
And the watch!

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

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

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

'Gradually the World'

A review of Burt Kimmelman's new and selected poems

Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1982–2013

Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1982–2013

Burt Kimmelman

BlazeVOX [books] 2013, 252 pages, $18, ISBN 1609641345

I was unfamiliar with the poetry of Burt Kimmelman when Jacket2 asked me to take up the assignment of writing about Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 19822013. Reading, rereading, pondering the volume — which is a life — has been an education for me in poetry’s use as engagement with writing as a means of being in the world. Why, after all, is anyone writing? Of necessity, I suppose, to figure out how to survive in — even appreciate — being alive temporarily in a world. Kimmelman’s poems surely serve that function for him and his readers. Here is a seriously committed poet who has felt through, thought through, and written into what and how a poem is — for a poem and for a life. In his important interview with Thomas Fink in Jacket in late 2010, Kimmelman cites John Taggart’s assessment of his work: that his poems “evince a quality infrequently encountered in contemporary American poetry: modesty, an attentive and forthright modesty. As such they are unassailable. They cannot be tarnished by our times’ endemic disease, the irony disease.”[1] That’s exactly right: Kimmelman’s poems are intelligent, admirably well wrought, almost classically so. They reflect straightforwardly usually tiny moments of lived experience, but never without care and pressure for the writing moment, a moment of working in and through words — yet they are, as Taggart points out, modest in their claims and tone. It’s as if each poem were shaking hands warmly with life, each careful word making no claims whatever for any larger meaning or understanding, and reaching out to hold hands with the reader too, in the embrace of the words of the poems.

Although Kimmelman is impressively well read and astute about poems, poetry, culture, and art in general, his modesty seems genuine and deeply felt. He wants to be generous, true to the tradition in which he writes, truthful in his own productions, without posturing or imposing anything. Sounds simple enough, and is — on first reading — unspectacular enough. But ongoing reading (slowly, a difficult mode of reading these days) brings out this quality of modesty more strongly — and more and more impressively as one goes on. Because it turns out it isn’t easy simply to be a person in a world, and to write simply, quietly, and elegantly out of that. Kimmelman manages to do it.

However, Taggart’s comment about modesty and irony has another dimension. A serious and intense engagement with poetry now, it seems to me, may well confront the question of irony not necessarily as an attitude, a coolness, let’s say, or an avoidance mechanism — which irony generally is — but rather as a genuine sense of linguistic doubt. That is, what does a word say, where does it come from, what is — a word having been written — its implication? A lot of the difficulty of contemporary poetry stems from this felt sense of any word’s having been captured, maybe defeated, by the world’s various social pressures — if not from outside then from inside — as one’s constructed self. Irony that comes from this pressure may not be the opposite of sincerity or engagement: it may be a more contemporary form of sincerity. Kimmelman’s sense of language doesn’t directly reference this, though he must be aware of it. See “Poem for Jackson Mac Low” (162), which is a straightforward personal narrative about walking to attend Mac Low’s memorial. No one could have been more sincere in his work than Jackson, yet is his self-consciously un-self-centered writing ironic or unironic in its word-by-word distancing techniques?

There’s something particularly interesting about a “new and selected” that you don’t find in the original volumes. Every selection of poems is a new articulation of the work, much more than a mere repackaging. So, for instance, a poem that opens a volume or closes it has a particular meaning and flavor coming from that strategic placement. Any poet thinks about such placement; Kimmelman probably more than most, being so clearly thoughtful and careful in his writing. But this factor is completely altered in a new and selected, where the poems are ordered in more or less chronological batches, often missing poems between that might have had their functions in off-setting poems to their left and right, so to speak. So that the poems will inevitably read less for their aesthetic juxtapositions than for their sense of being a recording of a life. In such a selection you notice (particularly in Kimmelman’s work, where there is clear and coherent subject matter) the occupations, preoccupations, shapes of a life over time. Kimmelman writes about art and artworks; he writes about his family, his daughter Jane from birth to adolescence, his aging mother, his deceased brother, his wife; he writes about seeing, hearing, being in places as sun rises and sets, flowers bloom and fall. It appears from this volume — for this reader at least — that Kimmelman’s verse is getting clearer, simpler, more distilled, as it goes along the continuum of time.

The book opens with “New Poems 2011–2013.” These are mostly small, precise, understated works whose modesty can’t hide their shimmer:

After Rain, October

Purple asters fall
on the walk after
rain — wet leaves, too, have
dropped, bereft of home,
stuck to stone, to dirt.

This poem seems easy enough, but note the perfect five-syllable lines, the rhyme, the heft of “stone,” “home,” “dirt.” There’s a lot here that doesn’t need or want any further explanation.

Not so for the earlier work. After the initial suite of newest poems, we go back in time to the earliest work, “Poems 1982–1992,” which has many ekphrastic poems, reflections on visual artworks (Kimmelman, from New York, can easily spend time at major galleries and museum shows). I find this work far less engaging and more ponderous — difficult for me, since (as is the case with most of these poems) I don’t know the works being written about. This section ends with the birth of the poet’s daughter in several careful, sweet poems that skirt the edge of sentimentality, more or less successfully I think. (The urge to write conventional epiphanic poems without sliding into sentimentality is a problem — and a gift — Kimmelman is quite aware of, as expressed in the Jacket interview). Still, though: a tightrope act, sometimes more dangerous than one would want. (Although, on second thought, why not be sentimental? If you are sentimental knowingly, is this still sentimental? Or is it ironic?)

Among many others, Kimmelman reads Corman, Bronk, Oppen, and Heidegger — salient sources for his poems. In his piece on Oppen and Heidegger, he writes, “Oppen and Heidegger depend on tautological thinking, literally the contemplation of what is self-evident, and so for Oppen the things within the realized world become supremely relevant.”[2] In Oppen’s work — as in Kimmelman’s — there is a terseness and a careful, respectful, almost courteous stance in relation to the world and the word that, for the poet, makes the world and one’s ability to stand in it. I find this notion of “tautological thinking” new and essential in understanding both Heidegger and Oppen, and Kimmelman. Things just are. There they are. They actually appear, shining. One stands in relation to them. There’s no interpretation, no commentary, no theorizing necessary — or, in fact, possible. Yet language, which is thought, can’t help confronting the fact and in such confrontation deeply entering it, appreciating it. This Zen-like approach to poetry or life (a kind of amazement that there is anything here at all) is what Heidegger, in his rather tortured but transcending way of expression, gropes toward, and what Oppen at his best reflects in the clarity of his words. As does Kimmelman.

1. Burt Kimmelman, “Burt Kimmelman in Conversation with Thomas Fink, 2010,” Jacket 40 (late 2010).

2. Burt Kimmelman, “George Oppen and Martin Heidegger: The Philosophy and Poetry of Gelassenheit, and the Language of Faith,” Jacket 37 (late 2009).

Let 'em eat kitsch

A review of Thomas Fink's 'Joyride'



Thomas Fink

Marsh Hawk Press 2013, 108 pages, $15, ISBN 978-0988235625

Ceci n’est pas un article à propos de schtick (except perhaps as René Magritte might have it be). Thomas Fink’s glorious new book of poems presents us often with the joy of Yinglish, but in whole it is all about the magical present, and this is no coincidence. Is it inspired schtick Yiddishkeit’s bestowal upon us all — or might we simply take his new volume as especially inspired high comedy, which approves of serendipity? I don’t think so, not that Fink doesn’t possess a joltingly wicked sense of humor (also to be found in his earlier books, yet with even more verve here in Joyride). I grant that Yinglish Strophes, a series of poems extending across a number of collections of Fink’s verse, might be read as schtick by casual readers. He includes a number of new “strophes” of this kind in Joyride.

Here are a few lines from one of them, which will be weirdly familiar to some of us from our youths, I suspect, who retain memories of some alter cocker holding forth: “I fell again and // again I fell. More the / reading I keep, the / more examples of serious is finded.” A more poignant poem in this series begins (its first line here does not cue us as to what’s to come), “How long been here // this place? Died well, / died good from that / hospital mother. That // was a day and a half yesterday.”

Fink does savor the delicious wrenchings of American syntax and pronunciation by people such as his own Eastern European Jewish ancestors. And how not? A New York Jew (Alfred Kazin’s masterful memoir of this name helps us to navigate Fink’s warp-speed lines, yet only up to a point), Fink has inherited the jouissance of both the written and oral discourse of his world. This world is a great deal wider and more complex than that of his Jewish upbringing, however. So it is lucky for us that he has provided this guidebook in which neither Kazin nor Leo Rosten (nor the two together) could account for the soaring flights of language in its purest, indeed subliminal, form, arranged in Joyride into a number of ongoing series. Aside from Yinglish Strophes, there are new entries from Dusk Bowl Intimacies, Jigsaw Hubbub, Hay(na)ku Exfoliation, Goad, and Home Cooked Diamond; and Fink has interspersed a number of freestanding lyrics among these sequences.

But if you try to grasp the poems by attending to their gorgeous exteriors you’ll have fallen into a trap — not one set by Fink but rather simply the trap of language. An overly liberal reading of his painting reproduced on the front cover of this joyous new book is that we can see the various shapes, forms, waves, and/or occurrences of the biological or simply the material world, which are held within their asymmetrical orders by some deeper order of the sort that would have allowed Einstein in his later years a good night’s sleep. Make no mistake about it: Fink’s world is not one in disarray. Fink is a master at working within constraints that make themselves disappear and then, just when they do, appear again. (Mazel Tov!)

There are the explicit constraints, such as we see in his series of poems whose respective forms are governed by rules. For instance, the poems in the Dusk Bowl Intimacies section of the book consist of a paragraph each and then, reminiscent to me of the bob-and-wheel structure in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a subsequent set of short verse lines, the number of which match the number of sentences in the paragraph above them. These short lines are arranged according to a form developed by the poet Eileen Tabios, which she calls the “hay(na)ku,” her form adapted from the haiku. (Caveat lector: there’s a lot more to all this than what I’m saying here, so you may wish to get in touch with her, or with Fink — or maybe check out this website by J. Zimmerman.)

Whatever the constraint or form, the poems in Joyride showcase the canny hearing of which Fink is capable and reveal what I’ll call his etymological desire — which, given his penchant for the pun and within the happenstance of any given moment, results in strange, often funny, and beautiful (mis)statements. Reading these, one may be led to wonder at the ultimate constraint: natural, historically evolved language (rather than, for instance, an artificial language such as in mathematics). Like the alluringly odd shapes and brash colors in his painting, Fink luxuriates in both the debris and the founding elements of expression. (A computer scientist I know works on the ninety-eight percent of genetic material that he once called “garbage” — evolution’s or nature’s mistakes? — although recently we may be seeing that some use is to be made of that portion of the spectrum.)

Either way, Fink knows language from the inside out — rather different from a poet who is seduced by language’s shimmering surfaces. And here’s another thing: While we are language beings — i.e., humans and uniquely so — we are also cultural beings (the two one, of course). So a phrase like “Stronger than dearth” (in “Jigsaw Hubbub 10”) can mean “stronger than death” as in the avenging angel or Jesus Christ Superstar, or “stronger than dirt” as in Mr. Clean.

Now, would someone please tell me which signification takes precedence here (from “Goad 20”):

  Your mother                                     is very loud — of you: “He’s been banged
from Bahrain to                                   Brisbane, Sweetie.” For you, schmuck,
 conversation’s                                   been a trans
  ition between                                    climaxes. Vol
   ubly laconic                                       & transactional,
    except when                                       you know it’ll
     except when                                       you know it’ll
      tag you  as cal                                       ous galoot.

Fink not only loves the detritus of culture; he bathes in it, singing in his tub the comic-book aphorisms of daily life. His antennae take in the memes and the castoffs — maybe better to say they suck everything in — and then the machine of constraint misreads the culture in surprising and illuminating ways, ways in which we all speak; and what we hear ourselves say must be what we’d encounter if we had just come out of general anesthesia, though we’ve not yet retrieved our presumptions about the world through which we process what we see and hear. Thus we get, for example, “Hay(na)ku Exfoliation 15,” in which a “red sign / keeps beasts, / even pensive ones, / out of the / circulation area […].”

“It’s amazing that you found me here of all unknown places,” Fink exclaims (in “Dusk Bowl Intimacies 27”). “Sometimes,” he continues, “love does its homework diligently. Can you fill that void with bonds? Heat of the random crystallized.” Here’s one more, from “Home Cooked Diamond 3”:

                                         brooding. I
                                    seek         worries,
                                monitor          ing every
                            one. Stoned            on crisis.
                         “So — I love              you; do
                        you have my            cat?” You
                   should stop                 tolerating.
                Let ‘em eat                kitsch.

The joyride Fink takes us on is the exhilarating surfing of the nonlinear waves of the moment-to-moment we ought to pause, once in a while, to marvel at. Joyride is not pure joy, however. In any case it’s not kitsch, or cheap thrills, and rather gives fleeting, possibly chimerical glimpses of language's dark matter. I think this book is the milestone marking the full attainment of the poetics Fink has been developing for years. The poems are brilliant and masterful in their execution.

'Let Her Speak'

The (not-so) quiet revolution of the reproductive, performative, and civic body

At right: Michele Battiste (top) and Pravithra Prasad (bottom) read from 'Let He
At right: Michele Battiste (top) and Pravithra Prasad (bottom) read from 'Let Her Speak' in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013.

Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate

Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate

Counterpath 2013, 212 pages, $25, ISBN 978-1-933996-44-8

In American politics, as well as arts and letters, the mind-body schism of Western dualism (dialectical materialism) rages on between “rational” or cerebral thought and syncretic understanding, normative and “non-normative” bodies and subjects (female, non-Caucasian, gay, trans, queer), and the rights of individual, collective, and state bodies. Injunctions against female self-representation in private and public (to say nothing of the right to labor or own property) dates back to the Greek polis, where women were considered domestic slaves. Loss of power in so-called representative democracies, according to Hannah Arendt, is a matter of stakeholding and usury wherein what is promised (representation: literally, ownership over one’s body) is withheld, while what is extorted or given (human capital, surplus value) serves to keep the elite in power. Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic:

In all republics with representative governments, power resides in the people. That means that the people empower certain individuals to represent them, to act in their name. When we talk about loss of power, that signifies that the people have withdrawn their consent from what their representatives, the empowered elected officials, do. Those who have been empowered naturally feel powerful; even when the people withdraw the basis of that power, the feeling of power remains. That is the situation in America.

Like children, women are conditioned to be seen and not heard, as objects, and, if heard, not to make language or meaning, but to parrot preauthorized scripts rather than respond to or reject male authority, let alone create discursive, symbolic systems apart from men. For structural injustice to be corrected, there must first exist fluid epistemologies, what Shoshana Feldman calls in The Scandal of the Speaking Body, a text yoking philosophy, linguistics, and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the juridical importance of the speech act (the taboo of a woman saying “I”) as a signifying agent in public discourse.

Overconceptualized sexism in academic feminisms, postfeminist declarations that despite unequal pay, labor exploitation, and violence and sexual commodification, women’s rights have been won, and reiterated, performed male imaginaries in pop culture are all tendencies that preserve the Cartesian split between mind and body. As conceptualized in Susan Bordo’s work, this continuing split is a cultural indictment of late capitalism, evolutionary theory, racism, sexism, homophobia, adoption rights, and the impact of contemporary media. The ontological debt women face as objects of patriarchal, feudal, and now commodifed market exchange is that of all subjects rendered ontologically void, a priori, by a dominant power: defined only by exchange- or use-value (child-bearing, sexual objectification, underpaid or unpaid labor) rather than particularized selves, and punished for attempts at signification and dissent. As Karl Jaspers said: “We are guilty of being alive … For we could survive only by keeping our mouths shut.”[1]

On June 25, 2013, Texas senator Wendy Davis filibustered the Texas State Senate to prevent the passage of a law intended to severely restrict access to abortion in Texas: the abortion bill Davis fought restricts abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy and puts in place regulations so strict that only a handful of clinics in Texas could continue to perform abortions. Republican leaders have said the people’s filibuster was a form of “mob rule,” and argue it won’t happen again, believing that the bulk of Texans support anti-abortion laws and will show their opposition to Davis at the polls. At the filibuster, law enforcers confiscated tampons, glitter, confetti, and bottles and jars “suspected to contain” paint and feces from those trying to sit in the senate gallery: protesters staged sit-ins, sang, chanted, and chained themselves to the railing in the senate gallery as senators discussed the measure.

Davis’s filibuster lasted eleven hours (the bill was reintroduced and passed later that summer). In Let Her Speak, a complete transcript of the filibuster, Counterpath presents a document that indexes American history: the struggle of minorities, women, and immigrants to achieve civil liberties and opportunities for education, citizenship, state services, and legal protection against labor, housing, and other forms of discrimination. Let Her Speak includes testimonies from a variety of Texas constituents speaking out against HB 16 and HB 60 (the latter restricting access to abortion services, and which makes the treatment of ectopic pregnancies, reported as emergency abortions, difficult and expensive), and a lengthy exchange between Davis and Republican Texas senator Bob Deuell. Online descriptions of the filibuster, such as that at RHrealitycheck, go into explicit detail about the performance, including mention of Davis’ adherence, in running shoes and back brace, to the strict filibuster rules in Texas prohibiting eating or drinking in the Senate chamber and forbidding the member to sit, lean, or use a desk or chair in any way or take a restroom break. (These conditions are stipulated within an already exclusionary clause denying filibusters to a range of constituents with mobility and medical limitations, such wheelchair users and persons with hypoglycemia).

The publication of Let Her Speak fuels the question of what it means to “speak” rather than being spoken through, by false ideology, bourgeois consciousness, or lyric possession, and is based on sobering facts. Since budget amendments were passed in the Texas house in an effort to attack Planned Parenthood, sixty-two million has been drained from family planning, moving all Title 5 and Title 10 money to other allocations, a long-term plan to siphon money for family planning from community clinics to county and city health departments. Abortion statistics from 2012 reflect a total of 825,564 abortions performed (self-reported data from central health agencies of forty-five states). The Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood’s research arm) reported a total of 1,212,400 based on data from direct surveys of abortionists, and of the roughly 60,000 abortions performed this year in the US, 562 of them were of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.[2]

While any correlation drawn between the number of abortions performed legally or illegally and the availability of family planning resources and birth control is tenuous (even with access to birth control, most methods are not 100 percent effective), Davis’s protest underscores the reproductive right to sex education and birth control as well as legal, safe abortion (of any unwanted pregnancy). Reproductive choice is a human rights issue rather than a gendered gambit: Davis’s filibuster exposes the rhetoric accusing low-income women of using abortion as a form of birth control as occluding questions of access and affordability, rather than irresponsibility. The filibuster also debunks the idea that abortion and female pregnancy are ‘merely’ domestic issues, ‘problems’ that should be dealt with privately, if at all.

To be granted permission or to demand the right to speak, as Senator Davis did, cements the fact that for women and all subjects, speech acts effect symbolic representation (including “art,” however confessionalist or essentialist), acts that often detail stories of trauma and oppression. The rhetoric of the animal liberation movement protests the death and exploitation of animals for consumption, apparel, scientific research, and entertainment: animals, not having personhood, are to date denied protection under law, and need a human voice to argue for the end to their suffering as sentient beings. Conversely, the entire structure of representative democracy is based on the political expediency of a representative speaking on behalf of a constituent, or a paid attorney, on behalf of his client: as regards democratic subjects, or female adults, this system of representation can hinder, not help, and also systemically disable the process of self-representation and authorization. In the so-called criminal justice system, crimes can be exonerated or sentences lightened with a well-paid attorney and congressional bribing of judges: in electoral politics, not only are the actual needs and desires of constituents unmet and tax and union monies spent padding congressional pockets, but the right of women to seek redress against crimes and lawlessness publicly is undermined by social stigma (whistle-blowing) and by law: the amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for women, equivalent to French President Jacques Chirac’s Observatoire de la Parité, is not yet implemented, to our nation’s shame, having failed to receive the requisite number of ratifications since being introduced in 1923.

Publishing filibuster transcription engages with the same marketing dilemmas as publishers of multimedia or non-mainstream genres. Let Her Speak asks us to examine narratives of the female reproductive body and its policing by the state after the traumas of unwanted pregnancy, poverty, death from back-alley abortions, and gender-based discrimination are repressed in public and literary culture and the voices of women without access to education or political power bastardized or ignored as inaesthetic. Thinking through the anxiety of genre and canonicity as symptoms of masculinist history, the political and legal issues surrounding authorship, representation, and copyright are also herein roused: Wendy Davis is not the author of Let Her Speak; the transcript, belonging to the public domain, was compiled by workers via Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The full video of the filibuster is on the Texas State Senate website, and the material is public (no copyright or permissions issues). “Anyone can make a transcription of the video, and we know of at least one other person who has,” said Counterpatheditor Julie Carr. “We did not contact Wendy Davis for permission in advance of making the transcription since it is public material.” According to Carr, the idea for the book came about shortly after the actual filibuster. “We had been watching it online and were hit by the importance of the event and of course by the dramatic courage, strength, and force of the filibuster as a performance,” said Carr. “Of course this is a huge human rights issue — very important to focus on at this time in our history, as reproductive rights are being attacked all over the country. The work (meaning the filibuster itself as well as the transcript and the reenactments) is a political intervention — and one we hope has a continued life.”[3]

The transcript was read aloud over eight hours by over thirty participants at Counterpath headquarters in Denver; there have been many other full readings of the transcript around the country. Counterpath editor Tim Roberts said: “We’d done one small transcription project (of Mark Sanford’s apology after his “Appalachian” affair) a few years ago, but the idea for this came up a day or so after the filibuster actually happened in June of last year (and before it was clear that Davis would ride this wave of popularity that seems to have happened). It was during the transcription process that it became clear that we would want to have marathon readings, and that it would be great to invite others to have readings as well.”[4]

Let Her Speak is also to be distinguished not only from memoir, auto-fiction, and ethnographic novel, but also from literary texts that repurpose language and public documents for political ends (e.g. Timothy Donnelly’s “The Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” a metapoetic fiat lux composed of words taken from successive pages of Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” and randomly from the 9/11 Commission Report, sec. 13.5, “Organizing America’s Defenses in the United States”). Christopher Higgs marked the book on the 2013 National Book Award longlist at HTML Giant, calling it “An important work of conceptual/performance art and an important work of radical political action against the war on women.”

Higgs’s response to the text as art reengages with Walter Benjamin’s argument: fascism aestheticizes politics, to which Communism responds by politicizing art. Today, late capitalism responds by making a commodified spectacle of apolitical pop art, most commonly seen in the framing of political resistance as performance art, or tragedy, brutality, or self-annihilation as a purchasable (or free, in social media) fetish. If aesthetics cannot exist without ethics, nor ethics without aesthetics, then the question of how to classify Let Her Speak pales beside the question of whether art is in fact dead anyway, after Duchamp (the exquisite corpses of the author, literature, and the living word), or according to Hegel, to say nothing of the death-knells on lyric poetry pronounced by Adorno after Auschwitz.

Poetry has since the Greeks been a purposeful act, pedagogically and historically, as ars memoria (or momento mori) to transmit rather than interpret or reinvent culture: traditions of reciting or copying a sacred or cultural ur-text frame the metapoetic act of witness, spectatorship, or, in times of war, solidarity or compassion (Greek for “to suffer with”). Anthologies such as Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting protest the wiped slate of history in the name of neoliberal or Fukuyamian post-history, as well as the cross-cultural significance of the act of witness. The poets in that anthology hail from five continents: Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Robert Lowell, Charles Simic, and HD from the US, as well as poets from Africa (Wole Soyinka and Dennis Brutus), Asia (Bei Dao and Duoduo), the Middle East (Ali Ahmad Sa’id and Yehuda Amichai), and Latin America (Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo). The postconceptual theorization of speech acts (the sentence as juridical ruling and measure of thought) and the act of witness (faux-objectivity and observation bias of a flawed mirror) is complicated by structuralism and Lacanian theory: by assigning guilt, one exonerates oneself. And yet, if suffering remains mute (unrepresented, unlegislated, unredeemed) it ceases to “matter” (be taken into account or seen): the reality is that the women most affected by anti-abortion legislature are low-income, whose short, brutish lives are as “absolute” (concrete and particular) and thus erasable as the absolutist value judgment a representative democracy and conceptual poets (militating against any authoritative or universalist subject or reading) rail against.

Let Her Speak is distinguishable from literary transcriptions “framed” as conceptual art (e.g. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic): these poets reify documents or public broadcasts, from radio weather reports to The New York Times. Conceptual poets aren’t the first cultural pundits to frame the quotidian as “art” (or declare, as did Arendt, evil banal): Seinfeld was notoriously a show “about nothing”; Frank O’Hara and the New York School poets, culminating in the architectonic, neosurrealism of John Ashbery, made an aesthetic out of incorporating free and indirect discourse and juxtaposing high art with the detritus of the commonplace.

Other conceptual poets have made a lifework out of transcribing historically epic events, such as Robert Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum (Veer Books, 2011), composed of sets of captions from photographs in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC; Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony and Holocaust; and Heimrad Bäcker’s Transcript. Vanessa Place’s Tragodia trilogy is a contemporary text that reappropriates court documents, forcing the reader to examine the role of witness and the act of testimony as a poetic conceit with its roots in legalistic (patriarchial) law, transgression, and the meting out of guilt, punishment, and death: “War is a discourse, genocide is rhetoric with a body count. Transcript does not make a memorial that risks becoming a monument. But it does reuse and reframe, and in so doing, regurgitates the awful glut and smutch of language that, with the corpses it produces, is history’s compost.”[5]

Self-identifying as a wife and middle-class woman, in Let Her Speak, is Paula: “The proposed legislation is an assault on poor women, probably most often poor women of color … I can’t even begin to imagine how this feels to a young African American or Latino woman who is hearing this from old white legislators … who despite their partisan leanings, have taken an oath to represent us, all of us, and vote our will, not theirs.”[6] Aesthetic questions pertaining to dadism and the dream of verisimilitude aside, a documentary poetics that purports to witness the experience of the abject other instead aestheticizing violence and suffering can be as ethically suspect as the labor exploitations and sleight-of-hand, tax-payer-funded drone wars without constituent consent in a so-called representative democracy. Whether sworn to uphold the law of man, or God, the decisions of an electoral college, University trustees, Supreme Court judges, and cultural elite are shaped not only by identitarian “biases” but also, when power is corrupted, nepotistic underhandedness and the reflexive safeguarding of hegemonic and institutionalized (white, male, monied) perspective.

As documentary poet Claudia Rankine said in a Poetry Daily interview, “As a black person, I am interested in keeping blackness a present and active part of the world because it is a present and active part of the world. As poets we keep the field reflective by acknowledging who we are in the world — by coming clean with that. This is all the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were asking for: to understand that language is constructed around certain investments, certain sets of privileges. If you read Juliana Spahr’s work, it is clear she is conscious of being a white woman in America. As a reader, you know she is aggressively thinking about what this allows her. She makes statements from her perspective and her understanding of what it means to be her. I think that is the most honest place a writer can begin from … simply I am here; here has a history.”[7]

Contemporary poets Mark Nowak, Juliana Spahr, Francesco Levato, Philip Metres, and Martha Collins are among those also writing, publishing, and speaking publicly on the history of documentary poetry, the long poem, and topics ranging from labor and LGBT politics to Appalachia and Chernobyl. In a Poetry Foundation article, Nowak describes documentary poetics as “not so much a movement as a modality within poetry whose range I see along a continuum from the first person autoethnographic mode of inscription to a more objective third person documentarian tendency (with practitioners located at points all across that continuum). Documentary poetics, it should be said, has no founder, no contested inception, no signature spokespersons claiming its cultural capital … Documentary poetry tends to pack a lefter-than-liberal, social-Democratic to Marxist political history (grounded largely in WPA-era poems ranging from Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead to Langston Hughes’s “Johannesburg mines” and photo-documentary texts such as Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices).”[8] Noting poets outside the US such as Martin Earl, Ernesto Cardenal, Alfred Temba Qabula, Nancy Morejón, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nowak also notes that the documentarian tendency can lend itself more readily to visual culture (film, photography) than the language arts. The question of whether political demonstrations can be considered performance art, and the many fissures of documentary, historical revisionism, and political poetics, call into question the legislative and apotropaic power of appellate and propositional speech acts (appositive “statements” of “fact” and intention, and the new sentence of conceptual poetry versus the lyric line), and suggest a healthy irresolution to these questions, aesthetically: the new “fissure,” so to speak (like the elliptical poets or a resolution to the antimonies between bipartisan parties or Marxist/capitalist systems), rather than an expansion of the capacious boundaries between fact and myth, testimony and art, text and event.

If finding an outside to capitalism (the collective desire of anarchist movements, from Occupy to Freeganism to post-language aesthetics) is the only means of achieving autonomy from market-driven aesthetics, flattering or serving technocracy through marketing (procedural) as well as product mimesis, occupying not just ideological but literal space outside a state/corporate/university context is the goal of contemporary art, as well: for unheard voices of resistance to find, as Nowak says, room “outside of AWP and art galleries and instead locate itself (or organize its potential location) on factory floors, in union halls, at political rallies, in collaboration with institutions and organizations working to shift the Draconian policies under which conservative school boards, Tea Partiers, and neoliberal politicians of the world (unite!?!) seek to police the rest of us.”[9]

The hemorrhaging of state and federal funds from family planning, health, and social services for low-income women and children to pad Congressional pockets, pay off Wall Street debts, and fund the pharma-medical and industrial-military complexes is one that can be addressed only when political activists such as Davis are not only in office (the 2014 gubernatorial race between Davis and her chief GOP opponent, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, is under way) but in well-salaried positions, with benefits, of legislative authority, hiring (and firing) capacity, and control. In overturning and righting any gross inequity or human rights atrocity or scandal, numbers and statistics (e.g. the Vida Count) must precede language.

As Edward Sharp-Paul notes, Davis’ eleven-hour filibuster “requires us to radically expand our definition of art” as well as audience response, voyeurism, and expurgated conscience as a function of durational art’s spectatorship (in pop or high culture). “Firstly, it’s a bloodsport: When reading about or observing such a performance, our first thought is for the performer. Oh, they’ll suffer. Can they do it? Will they make it? … This is a role more often played by athletes in contemporary society: the avatar, exploring the outer limits of human possibility, planting a flag on our behalf. It feels good to see someone put themselves through the purging fire, and for that person not to be you. If there’s a toe-tapping tune to go with it, all the better.”[10] Abramovic: “I have found that long durational art is really the key to changing consciousness… not just the performer, but the one looking at it.”[11] Collapsing boundaries between the recitation of history and the event horizon (the ghosts of a once-emancipatory modernism clanking their chains), Let Her Speak is a “made thing” as bounded performance and transcribed text that is, in the end, less a commentary on the relationship between reality and representation, or transcription and art, and, but, rather being and event. The publication of this historic artifact cordons off for our examination, and re-reading, the messy, context-bounded process of learning how (or legislating for “permission”), to speak, in time.

1. Karl Jaspers, Questions of German Guilt, 2nd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 66.

2. Guttmacher Institute, 2013.

3. Julie Carr, personal email, January 12, 2014.

4. Tim Roberts, personal email, January 14, 2014.

5. Vanessa Place, “Transcript,” BOMB 111 (Spring 2010).

6. Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate (Denver: Counterpath, 2013), 115.

7. Claudia Rankine, interview with Jennifer Flescher and Robert N. Caspar, Jubilat 12, reproduced by Poetry Daily.

8. Mark Nowak, “Documentary Poetics,” Harriet, April 17, 2010.

9. Ibid.

10. Edward Sharp-Paul, “Origin Stories: A Brief History Of Duration Art,” Junkee,April 10, 2013.

11. Ibid.