A review of 'War Rug'
Politically charged investigation raises the stakes of poetry for both the poet (as producer) and the poem (as art object). This type of poetry not only invokes the bardic practice of speaking the wisdom of the group, but also uses the poem as a type of activism. When critics question the role of poetry in the real world or what it can accomplish outside of its own existence, activist poetics that enters conversation with contemporary political happenings offers one of the better answers. This activist poetry can reveal knowledge about real happenings through the conceptual relationship between the real and the world of art.
When it comes to the American wars perpetrated in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, several poets have offered works that interrogate the morality of the wars themselves and the agents of war (i.e., American soldiers, civilians, insurgents, etc.), respond to the patriotic climate of the age with counterpatriotic acts of civil disobedience and consciousness raising, and critique the political environment in the United States of the 2000s. These documentary, investigative, and political efforts are not new, calling to mind a lineage of long-form poems and poets that respond to oppression and outrage, including Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony, James Agee and Walker Evans’s collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Ed Dorn’s Abhorrences, to name just a few.
In the decade just past, the following poets have taken up this lineage of investigation and activism: Brian Kim Stefans organizes a group of poets during the buildup leading to the Iraq War in his blog-based digital poem Circulars; Kent Johnson employs the power of the poetic image to shock and indict those complicit in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War; Kristin Prevallet’s Shadow Evidence Intelligence critiques the simultaneous escalation and failure of intelligence in post-Patriot Act America during the US push for oil-based empire; Juliana Spahr meditates on the global relation of bodies and minds in This Connection of Everyone With Lungs; Gabriel Gudding’s consciousness gets taken over by the wars and political climate as they invade his road-based epic Rhode Island Notebook; Eliot Weinberger uses a collage in the style of hearsay to critique the misinformation used to invade Iraq in “What I Hear About Iraq” from What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles.
And now we can add Francesco Levato’s War Rug to the pantheon of investigative and documentary poetry authored in response to the continuing wars. Levato’s War Rug offers a prime example of what Marjorie Perloff, in her essay “Screening the Page / Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,” defines as differential: “texts that exist in different material forms, with no single version being the definitive one.” I locate Levato’s book-length investigative poem sequence as occurring, in full or in part, in five locations, each site with its own distinct temporal and material concerns that affect how the poem is consumed by readers, interactors, or viewers. War Rug is at once a book-length investigative epoem, a work of contingent or relational poetics via the use of purposeful hyperlinks in the eBook’s “Author’s Notebook,” a gateway for continued investigations on the Internet via the works cited, a documentary work of cinépoetry, and an interstitial, conceptual artifact via Levato’s use of the afterimage as a motif to transcend the eBook’s own differential materiality. War Rug, echoing the Afghan art form from which the title is taken, is apt, as the discrete locations of Levato’s work are woven together, presenting a multimodal poetic device that can serve as a litmus test for how these contemporary American wars embed themselves in the public consciousness or slide away into broken links and lost domains.
To begin with, War Rug is a long poem delivered as a PDF ebook. I first experienced it as such, reading through it as I would any other book, although the “About This e-Book” page explains several possible ways of interacting with the book, acting as a means to guide the reader or interactor. As a book of poems, Levato’s long-poem sequence is divided into several recurring forms that reveal interwoven narratives based on an array of source texts, including “journal entries, firsthand accounts, and news reports to poetic constructs collaged from military doctrine, Freedom of Information Act released government documents (like CIA interrogation manuals, and detainee autopsy reports), and numerous other sources” (vii).
The first page of War Rug reveals important tactics Levato uses to create the poem. His poem includes portions that have compelling lyrical sound work that contrast starkly with the horror inherent in the poem’s content and imagery:
Flash a body reduced to beads of glass
fused in sand at the blast point’s edge
the lace of an exposed cheek
over tooth and jaw;
Pause the space between light (1)
The assonant run of “a” sounds in the first two lines (flash-glass-sand-blast) creates a musicality in the poem that urges me forward and belies the awful reality of “a body reduced to beads of glass / fused in sand” after an explosion. The long “e” sounds of “Filigree” and “cheek” and the full rhyme of “white” and “light” also cause this dissonance between the beauty of the language and the gory images I project mentally while reading it. Just as Levato might measure the worth of these lines in light of his own culpability in the war effort, I also began to question whether I ought to take pleasure in reading these lines, forcing myself to be mindful of what they represent and what the ethical wager is for this investigative, activist poem.
In addition to putting me face-to-face with these moral and ethical implications of engagement, the first page also introduces the concept of the afterimage, which is the central conceit in War Rug: “Afterimage / a thickening of scar tissue, the absence / of expression, of an eardrum, / of an iris.” By definition, an afterimage is an optical illusion in which the image or its inverse remains after the eye has literally stopped seeing it, like closing your eyes after looking at a light source and still seeing the light. In creating a poem that is differential, simultaneously textual, hypertextual, and cinematic, Levato encourages interactors to reckon with this idea of the afterimage (also aftermath) as central not only to his textual poem but also to the intertextual boundaries the poem, in all its forms, implies.
This dissonance continues on the second page as Levato sets up a tactic that controls the tone of the poem. He appropriates definitions, a recurring device within the long-form documentary text, to pull back from the awful lyricism of the opening page:
Enucleation: Complete surgical removal of the eyeball.
Evisceration: Surgical removal of the contents of the eyeball
with retention of the sclera or cornea and sclera.
Exenteration: Surgical removal of all the eyeball contents
which may include the removal of the eyelids.
Ocular Prosthesis: A plastic or glass fabricated eye
that replaces volume of the enucleated eye socket. ] (2)
These definitions, culled from another text, have a clinical sound that is different from the poetic sound work noted above. The lyrical portions of Levato’s poem are constantly balanced by found language, which gives the poem a restrained, journalistic tone. This is not to say that Levato’s stance in relation to the material is ambivalent, but that the documentary intertextuality, not the appeal of the poet’s “I,” does the ethical work of the poem by pulling me, as reader, into a zone of conflict or dissonance. This technique allows the poem to create a complexity that echoes the complexity of the war and its active and passive participants, rather than a moralizing rant against the status quo of the war.
On the third page, the poem begins to expand outward, offering interactors two prose segments, each with hyperlinks that lead to the annotated “Author’s Notebook” and then beyond it to the Internet. The first prose segment describes the relationship between a specific photograph and an Afghan war rug, both of which are afterimages, keeping with Levato’s conceit:
It begins with a photograph and a rug; that so much can be woven into
both, one in dyed wool, the other scar tissue against the undisturbed
surface of her hand. She is in white, he a dress uniform, three-quarter
view. The eye facing the camera is glass. (3)
Levato extracts images here in a fragmented-but-purposeful way. Several images are used, including photograph, rug, skin, military wedding, and glass eye, but the connection between the images and any narrative that might bind them together is cryptic, although the glass eye certainly refers back to the “body reduced to beads of glass” from the opening page of the poem. Levato withholds the full story tactically, entreating readers to mentally project their versions of these images and interactors to engage the links.
These links present the first crossroads of War Rug, revealing its differentiality, as I can now choose to navigate away from the long poem or to continue reading. Although the “About This eBook” page has already explained that each numbered link will take me to the “Author’s Notebook” and beyond, no instructions about a definitive reading of the eBook are offered. I chose to read the eBook straight through at first, finding myself comfortable in the mystery of images offered by the first three pages of the book.
During rereadings, however, I found out that in the “Author’s Notebook,” Levato explains that the prose poem quoted above refers to a series of photographs by Nina Berman called “Marine Wedding,” which features a soldier burned and maimed by a suicide bomber. Clicking the link takes me to Nina Berman’s website and a sequence of eighteen photographs featuring Sgt. Ty Ziegel and Renee Kline, his fiancée. Among the opening pages of the eBook, the “Author’s Notebook,” and the hyperlinks leading me to various websites, new meanings are created that complicate the idea of the afterimage (seeing when the eye has stopped seeing/reading) that undergirds Levato’s project.
Moving from poem to annotation to Berman’s website, the poem appears to realize, to become more real, more fixed, via the transition from poetic image to note to photograph. This movement, however, is an illusion, as I am transitioning between different modes of artistic representation, two ways of capturing the seldom-revealed aftermath of a real war, something that, despite Levato and Berman’s efforts, I can only begin to imagine.
The transition from Berman’s photographs back to the poem is ekphrastic. Levato, by not only textually documenting these images but also providing access, invites interactors to become witnesses, to share in authorship by reading it but also by peeling back the exposed edges of his documentary collage, giving the project a wider scope than if it were simply a textual poem.
At the same time, Levato shields interactors by way of the “Author’s Notebook,” which can function as a buffer between poem (images in imagination) and web-based image (fixed images). Levato does link to two graphic websites. One is Salon.com’s archive of photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison tortures of captured Iraqis. Page forty of War Rug alludes to another photograph — a face peeled off and tossed on the sand — that begins a list of horrible images. Levato quotes from a pornographic website called Nowthatsfuckedup.com (now archived on Unseenwar.com): “The bad thing about shooting them, reads one caption, “is that we have to clean it up” (40). In the “Author’s Notebook” Levato warns of “explicit content” after the link to the Nowthatsfuckedup.com archives, which includes extremely graphic photographs taken by soldiers of mutilated or killed Iraqis as well as crass comments. I have a difficult time describing these horrific images, especially juxtaposed with such disrespectful and cavalier captions.
These vivid and horrifying contingencies provide a counterpoint to Levato’s restrained tone in the textual poem created by the use of appropriated clinical and technical writing, which is the inverse of the photographs because of its dry description of how such destruction is enacted. The section titled “Notation” describes military protocol for informing next of kin about soldiers who are killed in action. Levato incorporates a long list of actual death scenarios from the wars on terror, and juxtaposed with technical instruction in how these messages are to be delivered (as well as other military documents about wound ballistics and other horrors written in the technical language of an instruction manual), the blending of registers devastates. (The documents can be accessed via both the “Author’s Notebook” and, if readers are interested in deeper investigation, through the “Works Cited” page.)
War Rug, as eBook and digital poem, juxtaposes pornographically violent images with the manuals explaining how the violence is carefully planned and perpetrated. This method pushes documentary poet and interactor beyond simply bearing witness to testimony about these wars, revealing the thin line between documenting work and voyeurism. Levato’s relentless investigations evoke Freud’s notion of the uncanny from his essay of the same name. In experiencing War Rug, I feel the interplay of heimlich (concealed/private) and unheimlich (unfamiliar and strange/frightening), and I get caught up in observing what is normally taboo or obscene. When I connect to the Unseenwar.com’s archive of Nowthatsfuckedup.com from the “Author’s Notebook” and spend time on the sight, I too become a voyeur, offered a glimpse of the gratuitous and horrible violence of these wars enacted on insurgents, civilians, and GIs alike, thousands of miles from my relatively safe vantage point. This violence, among other images like soldier’s caskets, is typically censored, controlled, kept from view, and silenced, but it lurks in its home on the fringes of the Internet. Through this interlocutor, what is normally censored is now “on/scene,” to use Linda Williams’s term. As War Rug extends further from long poem to digital poem to film, the differential texts beg a larger question about enculturation in the United States. Even though both graphic sexuality and graphic violence are rapidly becoming ubiquitous, mainly because the adult entertainment and war industries generate billions of dollars, why is gratuitous sexuality decried publicly more frequently than gratuitous violence?
Another text woven into the panoply of War Rug, Levato’s film War Rug, interrogates the question of enculturation, among others. Levato appropriates videos from different places, including old military training cartoons, on-board captures from Apache helicopters, 1950s Americana, and children watching a violent (but to their eyes hilarious) puppet show. The film layers image on top of image, using computer software that modifies sampled film clips to create transparency, showing us two images at once. The layered images are accompanied by an abridged version of the textual poem and a musical score by Richard Fammerée. As a mashup, the appropriated videos become recontextualized in such a way that they are put into dialogue by assemblage. Watching the film, I cannot help but recall the conceit of the afterimage, knowing that the glass eyes of two cameras captured videos that are being recombined to create something new and different. And yet, this afterimage also echoes the picture of Sergeant Ziegel, whose glass eye stares at the camera eye, even as the image is repurposed by Levato’s eye in his documentary poem.
Watching the film, I understand the reach of Levato’s work, especially in scenes like the puppet show, where young children in the 1950s (black and white) are watching one puppet beat on another. The children laugh. Violence is acceptable, permitted, humorous, and entertaining. Violence happens over there, away from me. Violence happens to an avatar, an idea, an image. The film gives a fixed image to accompany the enculturation of violence in the United States: the culture of violence is always up and running, to the point where it cannot be discerned whether it’s overt or covert. The film depicts Apache helicopter attack footage and bombs detonating buildings, both of which look like something from the newest Call of Duty video game. In the film and the game, shapes resembling humans are annihilated. It would be easy to say here that both are mimetic depictions of real or realistic events (but not really real). But neurologically speaking, these images are their own kind of reality, a representational layer of trauma.
The connection of eye to eye, of poem image to website image, of discrete film clips recombined into one, reveals how the afterimage extends to create an interconnected root structure in conceptual space. In her essay “New Media Poetics: As We May Think/How to Write,” Adelaide Morris notes, echoing Gertrude Stein, that “we are, each and every one of us, nimble citizens of an always newly technologized mediated world that hasn’t yet entered, much less altered, our categories of thought. The trick, for Stein, is not to be ahead of one’s time — ‘No one is ahead of his time,’ she says (521) — but in one’s time.” Levato’s poem and film are certainly kairotic, as Morris values and Stein prescribes, but Levato’s War Rug presents the possibility of a future for itself as a conceptual afterimage of the current American wars. Eventually, I imagine the hyperlinks in War Rug becoming dead ends that no longer serve the purpose of linking the eBook to the array of images and documents from the web that help it expand outward, enriching it through this contingency. In fact, as I write this, the link to the casualty notification procedure for the US military has changed locations.
New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts and Theories (left) and one of its editors, Adelaide Morris
These dead ends can be an allegory for the conceptual eye of culture. Eventually these images and their locations, both in the poem and on the web, albeit having an illusion of permanence, will fade out of consciousness and memory, relinquishing their gravitas to time. In this way, I can imagine Levato’s War Rug as the ultimate afterimage: the poem as detritus after the eye of culture stops seeing, stops caring. It is this conceptual future — poem as mediated, differential afterimage, existing in different materialities and temporal forms — that makes War Rug an important new media poem with the potential to be both in its time and conceptually ahead of it.
A review of 'censory impulse'
with all this talk
of an inevitably vain
medium the latest excuse
for misbehavior is
— erica kaufman
As a college composition instructor at a media arts college, I have found it useful to urge my students to think about human bodies and how our attitudes toward them have changed over time. Juxtaposing the plump, reposed Victorian with the androgynous, waiflike flapper with the armor of abs in vitamin infomercials shows students how aesthetic ideals, the ideals that are closest and most dear to us — those of our bodies — are enmeshed in material and historical contexts. In her 1993 book Unbearable Weight: Feminism Western Culture and the Body, Susan Bordo argues that the managerial class of twentieth-century capitalism creates a “double bind” that requires us to consume but shows no sign of excessive consumption. This is a commonly used and effective idea to explore in a cultural studies-themed composition class; in particular, the “Reading the Slender Body” chapter introduces first-year college students to the culture industry and the damage it does — literally, in the form of various kinds of eating disorders — to our flesh. Bordo focuses primarily on the female body and the war waged by the demands of the gaze, but to find her ideas relevant we might look more widely to the woefully tragic good intentions of a contemporary show like The Biggest Loser, which places the excessive (but reducing) body on display each week.
But as I continue to present Bordo’s ideas to this generation of post- (post-post-?) 9/11 teenagers who find the global war mediated through the music of MIA — all of this compressed and delivered on an impossible scale — I realize that Bordo’s brand of identity politics, in particular her recuperation of feminism and activism, needs some translation. Though I am not entirely comfortable using the term “post-human,” if only because it might shut down discussion, I do think students by and large think of their bodies not as actual agents — they do not bear them — but as possibilities crammed into digital media and new social communication structures. They wield them as a language (that yet escapes them as they’re writing their papers). Certainly, the idea of the body as a complex of semiotic possibility is not a new idea; however, the absence of a recuperative ethic, the idea that we can take back the body, implies that restoration is impossible, the dream of the previous generation.
In this regard, students sense, but do not always articulate, that being has vacated the body and finds itself in transit within the sign. And here is where I begin with erica kaufman’s censory impulse, a book of pieces, several chapbooks stitched around an absent center, that takes the human body as its debatable object. In censory impulse, debate or rhetoric, not the body itself, is the object splayed under the lights of the autopsy table. At once an inventory, a collage, a discordant paean-mixtape addressed to the sign — a “play spontaneous / object amnesia tendency / meta-comment stray” (42) — this work
ruin when i think
visible a decline
noticeable in more
two types of recognition available
move past the procedures
the impaired i see horses
chameleons towers (27)
The poem above begins with the three lines, “begin in outlines / it isn’t that i don’t want / faces,” and by this the poet suggests that thinking “begin[s] in outlines” but that these outlines are not loyal to a singular identity. Like Hannah Weiner and Bruce Andrews before her (among many others), kaufman rejects the tidy, bourgeois appropriation of identity by the restrictive outline of a name and searches for a more inclusive — and anarchic, or nomadic — region of outline. And yet, as Weiner and Andrews know in their own ways, kaufman recognizes that the sign, and the outlines imprinted by it on the page, create an embodied (though perhaps arbitrary) limit. The poet asks, “do / i have a right to use / names? if only / for operational clarity. / for a word in that / position. typeset. / so let’s talk” (12). This talk, or chatter, implied at the end, a “meta-comment stray” that exceeds the boundaries we thought we knew, offers us a chance, at least hypothetically, to bypass the usual circuits of logos. And here we might arrive at a new definition of Other, one that doesn’t require the subject to “sketch [its] own profile. // a continuity scheme” (50).
In a section titled “ocular gentrification,” the poet recalls Weiner, perhaps self-consciously (since the epigraph of the book, “be very careful in your intercourse with strangers,” is taken from Weiner’s “Code Poems”):
in the greater scheme
of lasso coupon radio
hysterectomy i am not
supposed to see the hyper-
text of de-mentation
abject cystic display (31)
Throughout censory impulse, the poet toys with ontology just as late capitalism bats around our modern and perhaps archaic sense of individual subjectivity. Employing the lyric and the lower case “i” to this end, the poet admits that subjecthood remains a work in progress (or -digress), as the speaker yet needs to “figure out how / to deal with being modern.” In a tone that feels something like humor — or “de-mentation,” to borrow from the section quoted above — the lyric estranges the reader from normative structures of sense without seeming entirely groundless. This “figur[ing] out how / to deal with being modern” enacts an excavation of the beleaguered and strained body, and though this “site” has been thoroughly mined for any signs of being, the poet attempts to de-frame the “ontological argument”: “the parody / of this ontological argument / is the loss of feeling brings / emotion.” Or, the “ontological argument” finds its parodic shadow close behind. We seem to be groundless, without being, but at least we know it, or can share space on the sidelines along the “negativity parade”:
enough of this
i want to feel
just handcuff me
with bacon and
wait for the wrists
to swell reveling (82)
This work asks: how do we even begin to account for our bodies, much less fight against the forces that delimit, fragment, parse them? How do we question without becoming a participant in the “negativity parade”? Unlike Surrealist and Oulipian predecessors who attempt to dislodge freedom from language, the poet in censory impulse realizes that argument and its familiar embodied form, the logos of the rhetor, cannot escape the bounds of the letter and the “censory impulse” required of all bodies to find proper measure.
On the opening page, the poet writes, “i no longer choose / to write questions.” She implies that we are inducted into a culture that tends to offer denial as a dreadful inevitability. Though we might think we “choose” to ask questions, we realize that pre-scripted answers determine the angle of inquiry. From “fad diets” to fashion magazines that establish aesthetic norms, and even to the critical language we use to couch our arguments against these structures, we find that the ways we think and talk about our bodies pass through a censor committee. Generated from our own desires and cravings, this censor committee affirms the grand loop of totality — again, the “negativity parade” — and houses the “censory impulse.” The poet confronts the subject’s ability or disability to communicate anything meaningful that is not part of the censory machine through which all questions are passed.
And so, perhaps this is why “instead of rabble rousing and picking fights about thermodynamics / and the inherent need for a bionic arm i focus on the numbers seen / on each piece of fruit and the process of reinnervation” (71). Instead of questions, or bona fide lines of inquiry, most of censory impulse reads like a “meta-comment stray,” a reactivation of newfound nerve endings. Though not quite a celebration of the anarchy of language, since the poet tidily and quietly alternates couplets, tercets, quatrains, and a free-form splay, the work nonetheless operates as an amputated lyric. The idea of amputation opens the book:
first i think i need
to come to terms
purpose less than clear. (11)
The poet’s practice of the lyric then appears to be voiced from a phantom limb. Looking for purpose, we find only “operational clarity” and a complexly unsettled ontology:
my cuticles torn. a sure sign of being
overthrown. representational of more than
tragic flaws. try evolution. argue climate
take a photograph of my coffin
and use as a stage for mass protests, vegan
barbeques, and runway lessons. think
of my mouth as amplified unlike my voice.
tape an arrow over. place sweet things. (69)
All answers — “mass protests, vegan / barbeques and runway lessons” and arguments and lines of inquiry (literal, figurative) that we might use to combat the censory machines — seem inadequate to the task of responding to culture’s tragedies. The “negativity parade” consumes us as we consume ourselves, as we merge with our bacon handcuffs, and the question becomes: how can we save argument from itself and find a mode of response that isn’t equal to the question? The lack of ready answer to this very question might incite melancholy or rage, but as kaufman’s work demonstrates, responses are multiform and varied, and the lyric’s ability to converse with this multiform might provide an alternative to mere reply.
A review of 'A Place in the Sun'
Lewis Warsh's A Place in the Sun hopes to be called pulpy. It earns the title twice — with its breakneck story pacing and with its subjects (beautiful New York Russian women and the cops/criminals in their lives). The pulp angle on pace and structure is the far more interesting of the two. This is where the book genuinely succeeds, and where Warsh points to the new ground still remaining in experimental prose.
The collection winds through six stories. From story to story the subjects shift wildly, but the same pressures distill them all: rote storylines are forced through the excesses of their campy renderings to come back around to a new kind of clarity.
In The Russians, a story that ticks through a half-dozen perspectives on New York immigrant life, a violent kitchen break-in binds the characters (named Eddie Perez Irene, Marina, and Ivan, and rendered flat as paper dolls). In Secrets, the melancholy of contemporary writing life is exaggerated, to excellent effect, playing off writing-program sexy-intrigue as a desperate cliché. Warsh pushes the cliche to noir-trope in its extremity:
People think I'm an attentive listener but the only reason I talk to them is to use what they say in my writing. … Maybe you'll recognize yourself in my stories, maybe not. Maybe everybody's stories are the same. Teeth. Everyone has problems with their teeth, but those aren't the stories I'm interested in.
The title story A Place in the Sun is especially surprising and wonderful. In hollow gossip-rag tones we walk through a love affair so overblown, it swells to fill its own Hollywood frame, and only Monty Clift and Liz Taylor could fit: “Elizabeth shared a room with her mother but Monty often coerced her to stay out late at night. They would sit on the wooden steps of the hotel and stare at the moon.”
As the stories progress, their exaggeration and commitment to surface could estrange the reader. But dream-cycle structures begin to coalesce and draw the stories together into a whole. A Place in the Sun is surprising to read, staying stubbornly flat while remaining compelling, refusing the easy routes of ironic mocking or deeper characterization and instead offering only a willingness to move forward with the reader. It is structure and experiment that carry the book, while noir signs float freely on the surface.
Still, the style is prominent and the way Warsh deploys details raises questions about how mysteries and noir so often shape the content of prose experiments (Joyelle McSweeney's Flet, Chris Kraus's Summer of Hate/Catt: Her Killer, all the way back to George Perec's La disparition). How do these tropes stay powerful?
There is an element of wishful thinking, or willful sentiment, in the experimental noir retread. Consider the word “gumshoe,” an awkward relic, more apt in a book reviewers' critical air quotes than in reportage or sincere dialogue. The topic remains utterly relevant: the drama of characters living at the edges and the high energy potential of all cop encounters will keep fueling work for a long time to come (as they do in beautifully considered recent work such like Methland by Nick Reding, The Wagon by Martin Prieb, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, the whole phenomenon of The Wire). But it’s the borrowing of style, not the interrogation of the subject matter that has become a mainstay of prose experiments. It's possible that there is a pragmatic reason for this transfer. Noir language offers a register that is already strange to a contemporary ear — expecting an outdated lexicon with its own cute idiomatic expressions, the reader's ear is primed for the stretched and pummeled language of experiment.
But A Place in the Sun also points to the artifice — and silliness — of this heightened nostalgia. Our false familiarity always focuses on the memory of a universal draw. Force-styled fiction works on the kind of slipped memory used in pulp erotica images, proliferating now in band posters, vodka ads, and a Robert Downey Jr.'s Photoshop meme, poignant because this brand of paper-text erotica is long extinct. The ghost accessibility of noir tropes are likewise outdated for any primary use, but signal back to an awareness of a memory of their own styling — private eyes, tender cops, hardened lovely ladies, cabs, rain, fog.
These conventions have outlasted their accuracy, but the narrative pull and pleasure of most genre pacing has not. So why do prose experiments so often borrow details and leave the pace? Why is the joy of attention, of being held by a text, a force so infrequently put to work in experimental fiction? A Place in the Sun asks to be used as a departure point for better manipulation of pace and absorption, even as it so enjoys its own surfaces.
Secession in echolalia
A generic template is a template that is migrating somewhere else.
— Tan Lin, Seven Controlled Vocabularies (127)
Poetry, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. As Jed Rasula in Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth makes clear, poetry is an archaic technology that emerges the moment the Muses “dictate directly into the inner ear or mind” (98). Rasula presents this primal “voice-over” as not “a beginning of” but “a split from,” where all subsequent “episodes retain a sense of incommensurability between voice and voice-over” (100). Such rifts are as unsettling as they are rich. Aesthetic myths underwrite modernist aesthetics to the exact extent modernism obscures this. Rasula does not mean to change this, but, like one acquainted with the facilities, to give us the password for wifi. This then is a welcome addition to Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ excellent Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics series.
For reasons that will become clear, Rasula’s text is a tissue of quotations. Since his argument proceeds by modulating these voices, I could not discuss it without incorporating many of these quotations. However, through my own fault, I fear that this becomes overwhelming at times. So it will be helpful to grasp Rasula’s poetics of the quotation. He successfully conceptualizes his quotations as necessary irruptions which function seamlessly in the argument. But how can irruptions function seamlessly? Rather than efface the quotation’s necessarily jagged and obtrusive manner, Rasula details how poetry has always relied on this technology of the interrupting voice-over, even when poetry denied this. Thus poetry has two choices: affirm the presence of these alien voices or sacrifice its technological heritage. All quotes here from other authors, unless otherwise noted, are in Rasula’s text.
Like most media, poetry preserves itself by promising to heal the rifts it perpetuates. Its claim on the human subject is as absolute as it is unfulfilled. Adorno noted a similar tendency in the artwork itself: “For if the Idea of Beauty appears only in dispersed form among many works, each one nevertheless aims uncompromisingly to express the whole of beauty, claims it in its singularity and can never admit its dispersal without annulling itself.” As techne, poiesis persists as an index to its own failed apotheosis, as well as the as yet unfulfilled apotheoses of other media that would exclude it.
But poetry differs from other technologies in that it preserves its deficiencies as its essence, that is, it reproduces itself through malfunction. In all of its appearances, Rasula argues, poetry “precipitates ambiguity and duplicity, and it is implicit that those who throw in their lot with the Muses may be intent on dissimulation” (101). Or, as the Muses put it in their encounter with Hesiod on Mount Helikon: “we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we want to, how to tell the truth” (100). Rasula maps not only the mutations of this primal antimony but the subsequent splits in either side. Poetic inspiration becomes “a tautology that challenges, even as it perpetuates, the foundations of poetry” (120). If every signifying act emits static (or noise), and if “circuit” replaces tautology, it is easy to conceptualize poetry as a sort of perpetual machine, one that generates more energy than it consumes.
Rasula structures his third chapter, “Poetry’s Voice-Over,” in response to a familiar poetic ideology: “Because so much contemporary verse practice presumes the equivalence of subjectivity and authenticity, we’ve become paradoxically estranged from what Viktor Shklovsky dubbed ‘defamiliarization,’ forwarding or baring the aesthetic/technical device” (138). But Rasula does not merely condemn authenticity; rather, in indicating the artificiality of its resources, it emerges as, paradoxically, the defamiliarized of the defamiliarized. When “interiority” detaches itself from its ideological veil it floats into in a jeweled miasma presided over by Mallarmé, and once there, it realizes itself in his unrealized desire to leave behind nothing but an empty book. Subjectivity emerges as “that process by which we’re ideologically enjoined to cultivate our own lives by sorting, packaging, and shaping raw sociocultural material” (127). Again, myth anticipates the results of Continental modernism’s investigations: Rasula notes, “Hesiod’s legacy suggests that poetic interiority is mesmerizing because of its alterity” (110).
Long before Rimbaud’s je est un autre and Spicer’s poet-as-radio, the poetic voice appeared sufficiently “other” to affix itself to an array of alien forces. Rasula, quoting Blanchot, notes that poetry’s “lowest sanctum harbors a vertigo of attestation, a dizzying reversal in which one encounters ‘not another world, but the other of all worlds’” (190). It follows that since “the poetic voice is not strictly human … poetry may not be humanizing but dehumanizing” (110). The Muses possess the poet, speaking in a voice beyond the simple axis of verifiability and nonsense. This “situates poetic inspiration among prosthetic technologies, or elaborations of human propensity in alien material. Inspiration is alienation, as in alieniloquiam, speaking otherwise. Hesiod’s initiation into poetry is at once an affirmation of voice and a disturbance of identity” (111). Rasula wishes to retain inspiration’s physicality, its literal in-breathing. Such breathing carries with it the notion of a turn, which, once undertaken, never ends. Extending language, itself alien, into alien territory does not anthropomorphize the new territory so much as alienate the speaking subject. Thus, in one of the text’s many reversals, Rasula affirms alienation, confronting the visceral aversion to alienation with a restored visceral poetics of alienloquiam. This encapsulates Rasula’s method, which is as follows: he assumes that since visceral aversion, negativity, and disgust are theoretically determined, they are theoretically amendable. This implies one of two things: either the “aversive qualities” are culturally determined, hence not in the phenomenon itself, or the aversive qualities are the phenomenon itself. If, for the former, an epistemological method redresses the misperception, only a revised ontology can answer the aversive phenomenon’s interrogation. Rasula’s method is an ontological method, that is, he effects a theoretical reversal whereby the phenomenon’s lacking, disgusting, negative content is affirmed as that phenomenon’s positive content. Slavoj Zizek uses this method extensively, conceptualizing it as a “Hegelian” reversal. Most pertinently for this context, Zizek finds that Louis Althusser’s “work embodies a certain radical ethical attitude which we might call the heroism of alienation or of subjective destitution.” Yet Rasula’s poetics is much more radical: poetry, as a murmur issuing along lines of displacement, abandons even this “ethical” site of heroic abasement, demanding instead 3D movies.
Poetic voice and political subject are irreconcilable. The voice alienates the subject from its supposed ground not to humiliate it but to free it from the subjection inherent in the process of subjectivization. But to the extent that this escape becomes another desire, there forms a ground to restage the original problem. If this is so, poetry’s political problem is not just figuring out what to say or how to say it, but, as Rasula says, quoting Foucault, to see that “modern modes of subjectivization are not modes of subjugation and repression; power is less likely to circulate now (at least in democratic societies) as repressive constraint. ‘What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse’”: poetry must see itself in this description of power (127). Rasula’s historiography accomplishes this by casting poetry as a technocracy, that is, a ruling order like any other. Thus Rasula clarifies poetry’s relation to power: poetry counters power, but only by reasserting its own form of technocratic rule. To engage in political critique, poetry must become formally identical with its object of critique. But, again, this is not shameful; rather, it is the only way poetry can draw upon its historical resources as a technocracy with political economy. Rasula details how, to the extent it critiques political agency, “poetry becomes complicitous with the regulative endeavors of selfhood” (127). But poetry fails to regulate the self to the same extent that it perpetuates the possibility of desubjectivization. Its failure to fulfill its technological telos resides in this defect. Thus its persistence is inseparable from its marginalization.
But when did this technocracy establish itself? How did it legitimate its rule? Rasula’s historiography has the answer. It shows us how poetry’s technocratic rule is not a result of modernist innovation, but something that precedes poetry: like Borges’s library, the technocracy has always existed, but only recently actualized certain potencies within itself to create a new department: poetics. Rasula invokes the Orphic myths to substantiate this claim, for it is Orpheus who “signifies the emergence of a human language from a world of expressive sentience, but this emergence is always partial and conditional” (117). This clarifies modernism’s innovation: modernism does not introduce technology into poetry, for poetry has always been one technology within a vast technocracy, but stages an Orphic “descent into the body” to retrieve its voice, which, like the beloved, continually slips back into the bodily underworld (118). For as poetry extends language into an other, so the other extends itself into poetry. These extensions can be ascents or descents, as “the Orphic perspective signifies a reversal” (117). This reversal extends to gender as well, for “to experience voice as inner — that is, as unvoiced — is to be initiated in the emergence of gender” (143).
As we will see, such displacements inform the modernist poetics cited extensively by this book, which Rasula traces back to Mallarmé. Eugene Jolas, another exemplary modernist, developed a poetics of reversal in the poetics manifestos he published alongside Joyce’s Work in Progress in his journal transition. Rasula summarizes one such manifesto thus: “vertical finally blends with integral in [Jolas’s] 1936 manifesto ‘Vertigralism,’ drawing on a rich vein of prepositional inversions: to go in is to go out, as above so below” (187). Articulating the importance of Mallarmé’s Un coup de des for his own text, Rasula writes, “the synaesthetic aura of the preface suggests that the poem is not so much the material manifestation of a cognitive event, but a switchyard transposing various materials into and through one another, an ensemble of what appears in one light to be abstract and in another light concrete” (50). As this notion of the subjective switchyard defines modernism’s relation with the poetic technocracy, I will return to it in another context.
Even though Mina Loy’s declaration “I am knowing / All about / Unfolding” dominates every part of this book, I want to return to the question implied in this review’s first sentence: how does poetry live on precisely because the moment to realize it was missed? The senses, persisting only as “witnesses to their own nomadic dispersal, industrial byproducts of parasensory competition,” are unhelpful in contemplating their transformation under technocritization, since contemplation requires distance (134). Fortunately poetry, as one of the earliest engineers of subjectivity, presents to us a historicized continuum Rasula describes as “a technical support in a random-access memory device— a hard drive, as it were, for activating the serial components of an identity that can no longer identify itself in the reflective screen of a monitor” (128). As the only technology capable of contemplating the subject it displaces, poetry lays claim to one of its functions: against the more aggressively absorptive technologies, poetry persists “as a means of holding sensory provocation at bay” (134). Or in Odysseus Elytis’s words, quoted by Rasula, “poetry is a mechanism that demechanizes man and his relation with things” (12).
Disvocative poetry, whose principle mechanism is the dislocation that distances, does not find its opposite in absorptive poetry. For far from fulfilling its own claims, absorptive poetry merely distorts its distance into a simulacrum of intimacy more frigid than an SAT test center. If both disvocative poetics and univocal poetics maintain this irreducible linguistic distance, only univocal poetics work to obscure distance in favor of “the masculinist dream of pure thought, calculation without expenditure, noise free channels: a regained paradise of unity without strife or division” (132). In contrast to this bureaucratic paradise of unity, disvocative poetry cultivates an uninhabitable paradise of noise and contamination, in the end overwhelming even these categories. Similarly, the distance following poetic displacement does not end in contemplation but in an unstable zone of perceptual slippage, an unmarked place of reversal alike the house in Stalker. For, in Benjamin’s words, quoted by Rasula, “the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation” (161). Habitually feeding an altered perceptual life, contemplation gives way to the synaesthetic state which lies at the beginning and the end of poetry.
Poetry absorbs into a distance that perpetuates “an Atemwende,” a word Rasula adopts from Paul Celan, which translates as “a turning of our breath” (181). This is as artificial (as much a “special effect,” in Rasula’s terms) as any technological simulation. Rasula links this distance-effect to “the image,” using quotes from Djuna Barnes and Pierre Reverdy. Before Barnes proclaimed that “an image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties,” Pierre Reverdy celebrated the image in the Surrealist journal Nord-Sud as that which “cannot be born from a comparison but by bringing together two more or less distant realities. Insofar as the relationship between the two realities is distant and exact — the greater will be its emotional power and poetic reality” (161, 162). Mediation and reconciliation are not possible in this reality; rather, its reality is a poetic reality because irreconcilable distance adheres within it. The Surrealist image enforces this because it “absconds with thought, plunging into the primitive core from which imaging and thinking are coiled up together in a primary spasm, their serpentine energies ratified in the form of Laokoon, and under threat of being petrified by Medusa” (183). In abandoning mediation and reconciliation, poetry becomes radically incomplete, but through no deficiency of its own. Rather, deficiency and incompleteness become the positive features of poetic reality. Thus poetry makes positive use of its own deficiencies, for “the poem is tethered to reality by its incompleteness; its disappointments and inertia force a way out” (163). Poetry’s escape affirms the legitimacy of its technocratic rule, for this rule has not fulfilled its mandate.
Incompleteness and uninhabitability originate not in poetry but in language. To support this claim, Rasula relies on Nathaniel Mackey’s Discrepant Engagement, returning often to Mackey’s notion that “‘poetic language is language owning up to being an orphan’” (124). Poetry is orphanic, embracing the orphic task of “enact[ing] the exile of language, which is not so much banishment as it is the constant displacement of the word into other media,” which contrasts with deploying language for instrumental purposes (124). Rasula quotes Georges Bataille to specify the inadequacies of instrumental language: “‘we would in no way have anything of the human about us if language had to be entirely servile within us. Neither can we do without the efficacious relations words introduce between men and things. But we tear words from these links in a delirium’” (189). But it does not follow from this that language is an end in itself. This is impossible, because that which does not stabilize cannot exist “as such” or “in itself.” Like Hume’s “self,” language exists only as a prejudice imposed upon a succession of phantasmal after-images. Indeterminacy cultivates the utopic desire for the uninhabitable. Poetry’s voiceover complicates this further, as “the interweaving of voice with language is thus much more complex than anything that can be generated out of Saussure’s binary, langue/parole” (135). Voice embraces the linguistic zone of excess and nonsense that persists beyond the institutional thresholds of language.
An uninhabitable utopia has its advantages, as music and sound poetry indicate. Quoting Heidegger, Rasula notes that “we do not possess or subsume language, but are always ‘on the way to language.’ The sound poetry expectorations of Raoul Hausmann, Hugo Ball, Antonin Artaud, and others are neither pre- nor post-linguistic, but vocalizations at a tempo different from that generally permitted by the semantic assignments of the speaking subject. Kurt Schwitters’s grand Ur-Sonata is not preparatory to linguistic function, but a kind of counter-love, a reciprocal comportment of voice on the way to language but without any particular incentive to arrive” (136). Jack Spicer’s critique of Robert Duncan, Jess, and Wallace Berman’s contextual aesthetic are critiques of the desire for a habitable utopia. Berman’s contextual aesthetic, for example, involves two moves: a decontextualization of some cultural fragment and a recontextualization of it in an assemblage. This assemblage then forces one to imagine a new context, thereby cultivating an alternative utopic desire. But such an anticipatory aesthetics relies too much on projection, which undoes the utopic desire it supposedly cultivates, as Jack Spicer noted. Against this, Spicer’s radio welcomes interference, thereby foregrounding the displacement of the poet’s subjective frequency by a multitude of other frequencies. His technological economy modifies itself to keep pace with newer forms of media. Spicer’s poetics invokes the specter haunting every act of signification: noise.
For Rasula, how a poem relates to noise defines its fitness for transmission. Does the poem suppress the noise of its transmission, or does it elevate noise to the center? Does the poem deny its own static, otherly ground, or does it broadcast its dependence on this alien ground by foregrounding the otherly voices? Does the poem insist on its univocity, or does it propose a frame for the aleatoric interference attending its polyvocity? Poet, critic, and archivist Craig Dworkin addresses this problematic in Reading the Illegible. Quoting Jacques Attali, Dworkin argues that “sound arranged into music ‘simulates the social order, and its dissonances express marginalities,’” that “‘Noise has always been experienced as destruction, disorder, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages:’ [this] allows one to read music as an anticipation of social change.” Rasula summarizes Nathaniel Mackey’s work on noise, which defines poetry’s relation to noise as “discrepant engagement, [which] rather than suppressing or seeking to silence that noise, acknowledges it. In its anti-foundational acknowledgement of founding noise, discrepant engagement sings ‘base,’ voicing reminders of the axiomatic exclusions upon which positings of identity and meaning depend” (124). A withered, politicized hand crawls out from under such a door, gathering holiday snacks for itself. I don’t know whether to welcome it, make a wish on one of its fingers, or drive a nail through it. Mackey nicely reasserts the abasement inherent in any “founding noise,” where the privative “a” at once disrupts the base and reasserts it. Such a paradox haunts every antifoundational, antimetaphysical, and antiuniversalist gesture, in that every such gesture becomes precisely what it disavows.
Rasula’s text is an echoing text. He approvingly quotes Thoreau’s “estimation of Echo [as] … ‘to some extent, an original sound …. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood’” (103). Far from a distorted copy of a pristine original, an echo heralds other voices and other languages. Rasula’s mode of representation organizes itself around this conception. Surprisingly, he takes his cue from those “bats with baby faces [in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land], finding the measure by echolocation” (184). As an alternative to discursive linearity or Romantic self-projection, the echo orients one “constrained by historical dynamics too hard to make out, when neither mirror nor lamp will do” (184). One exemplary instance occurs early in the book, in which Creeley’s “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT” appears in its proper context, that is, as an impoverished echo of Kandinsky and Russian Futurist Alexei Kruchenykh. Here, the historicizing echo rewrites a primal scene of the New American Poetry, all but dissolving the latter’s ground in the continental avant-garde.
Rasula’s transposition of Echo into method mimics Echo’s role in myth, where she “dispels the aura of speakerly control in ways that parallel Hesiod’s mimicry of the Muses”; this is “the turf of that subterranean darkbook Finnegans Wake — an echolalia of prolific sentience that stirs tongues as well as leaves on trees” (103). Echo unsettles Rasula’s own critical voice. This is necessary if his book is to satisfy its own criterion, which he discusses in the preface: “as with a previous book, This Compost, this one tilts the application toward poetics. That’s to say, the writing itself is not an instrumental expedience; it vibrates to the sound waves of its subjects” (x). This invokes the outrageous specter of German Romanticism, whose “venerable provocation [was] a poetry indistinguishable from its poetics” (11). Rasula meets this challenge with his use of echo, which, never merely repetition, affects what it perceives. Or as Michael Taussig puts it, quoted by Rasula, it is “the power of the copy to influence what it is a copy of” (125).
Referring to Imagining Language, which he coedited with Steve McCaffery, Rasula says in an interview in Fascicle: “when I started thinking of Imagining Language as an anthology — around 1985 — I characterized it in conversation as ‘a project in which Finnegans Wake would be normative and central rather than eccentric and peripheral.’” If Modernism and Poetic Inspiration has a work at its center, it is undoubtedly Mallarmé’s Un coup de des. In Malcolm Bowie’s estimation, quoted by Rasula, Un coup de des “‘has brought off that supreme outrage against art, a work that means less as we read it more.’ But this is not necessarily a loss,” Rasula continues, as “‘here is an exercise in reading which requires of us that we unlearn to read’” (21–22). This poetics of erasure leads to Blanchot’s insight, quoted by Rasula, that “Orpheus ‘links poetry with an outrageous urge to vanish’” (121). Aside from aligning itself with the venerable practice of erasure, Mallarmé’s work anticipates modernism’s preoccupation with genre and synaesthesia. Quoting Valery’s description of Un coup de des’s “palpable emptiness,” Rasula adds that “within the scope of synaesthetic suggestibility, this kind of silence could also evoke music” (23). As Mallarmé figured modernism, so poetry’s originary myths figured Mallarmé.
In seeking to renew perception through an estrangement of the senses, modernist poetics attacks genre. Genre stabilizes perception within a horizon of expectation. It reassures, folding desire into pre-worn perceptual tracks. For modernist poetics, such reassurance is death. Benjamin’s dictum that “all great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one” is thus also a statement about decay. This conception persists in contemporary practice. In an April 26, 2008, radio interview on WRVU Nashville, Bruce Andrews assesses language writing’s “failure” in terms of its inability to create a support system durable enough to resist the inevitable institutional containment of it under the generic designation of poetry. “Far from being a category that unifies genres and canonizes authors, literature consists of those writings having in common only the noncompliance that animates them one by one,” Rasula writes (20). To support this, Rasula cites several acts of Mallarmé’s generic disruption: “Mallarmé intimates that … ‘for whoever would read it aloud,’ the typography approximates a musical score. Addressing the conspicuous scatter of typographic elements across the span of facing pages, he goes so far as to identify the white space (‘les “blancs”’) with silence” (50). Rasula reads any generic elision as allegiance to poetry’s technocratic resources.
Again, the Greeks appear to have rehearsed this modernist dilemma in its entirety: “Just as we recognize visionary experience that is not contingent on eyesight, the Pythagorean worldview stipulates a ‘visionary’ experience in the auditory mode, in which we have proprioceptive assurances of harmonies we cannot hear” (116). Here then is a species of synaesthetic proof, which pushes thought beyond its sensual thresholds. If “poetry is a manifestation of such thresholds,” it imposes them on the self it cultivates (110). Rasula cites Deleuze and Guattari as the source for this insight, quoting their belief that “the self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities” (104). If poetry disrupts the generic boundaries that secure the senses, it does so in the service of thought: “There are limits of ratio, naturally, and the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers were intent on estimating where sensation vanished, giving way to cogitation- and cogito to agitation” (197). This argument echoes Rasula’s earlier echo of Ranciere, who thinks “that lyricism is ‘a political experiment of the sensory’” (177). Thus modernist exploration returns to an archaic site, if only because poetry, reminded of its resources by newer technologies like film, recalled the resources available to it from its beginnings.
Forsaking the heights of sublime calm, modernism seeks the faults of synaesthetic slippage. In Rasula’s estimation, poetics with an ethic of contamination sides with the senses against the “bad” rationalization in the service of iteration, as “the senses are always on the alert for an other, a countertrend, a world apart” (184). Literature sees this not as its end but at its beginning. For, “implicitly following Blanchot, Foucault retains ‘literature’ as a field of exceptions to any law, a field known only by the ludic undertow language exerts on discourse” (14). Poetic resources return the subject to this tide so as to disrupt the subject’s appropriation of language as instrument: “Literature attends to what the murmur emits, not what the subject reports” (14).
Tending its patent on the self, poetry watches emergent technologies with an eye to salvage their newly manipulative techniques. Rasula quotes Maya Deren, who wrote in the middle of the last century that “‘the reality which we must today extend … is the relativism which the airplane, the radio and the new physics has made a reality of our lives;’ and such an extension, Deren insists, involves a ‘depersonalization’ by way of ‘ritualistic form’” (66). Rob Fitterman’s Metropolis “16” reveals the liberating variety latent in this vision of a personalized relativism of choice: “Taco Bell / Staples / Gap / Dunkin’ Donuts / Wal*Mart / KFC / J. Crew / Kmart / Starbucks / Sunglass Hut / McDonald’s.” Poetry extends these realities with technical assistance from agencies other than the muse. For example, the “ritualistic form” of the Medusa leaves the subject with two options: one, meet the gaze that precludes the possibility of misprision; two, turn away. But as Celan’s Atemwende indicates, this “turn” is as fragile as it is perilous, consigning the subject to an endless, nomadic circuit which dissolves its subjective consistency. Such an encounter estranges the poet from language. Since such a rift cannot be healed, one must submit to language’s orphanic charge, which can only happen in poetry. Rasula writes: “Faced with the fragile integuments of the I-less poem forever on the way to language …, Celan practiced what he called ‘polysemy without mask’” (182). There emerges “the volatile utopia unexpectedly opened under the frightful gaze of the Medusa” (181). But this is not the end for the poet. One paradox awaits her in her exile: by turning from the Medusa the poet becomes the Medusa, at least from the perspective of the reader; that is, in confronting the poetry constructed of this exile, the reader inherits the fate of the poet, for she too must respond by turning. Celan’s notion of the poem as breath-turn unexpectedly illuminates Novalis’s demand for a criticism indistinguishable from its object. If in its deflection criticism absorbs the frightful gaze the poet absorbed in her deflection, criticism passes the “breath-turn” on to the reader.
I want to close with Bob Perelman’s lineated quote from Derrida’s Glas in his poem “The Marginalization of Poetry”:
One has to understand that
he is not himself before being
Medusa to himself…. To be oneself
Thought waits to be woken one day by the memory of what has been missed, and to be transformed into poetry.
8. Walter Benjamin, in his analysis of Schlegel: “the critique is not meant to do anything other than discover the secret tendencies of the work itself, fulfill its hidden intentions. It belongs to the meaning of the work itself … [C]riticism is far less the judgment of a work than the method of its consummation.” Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 153.
A review of 'Ventrakl'
To quote Christian Hawkey’s quotation of Jean Laplanche:
The movement of auto-translation, the drive to translate (Trieb zur Übersetzung — to use Novalis's term) issues, springs up, not from the translator but from this untranslated or this imperfectly translated [text], which endlessly demands translation. (41)
Ventrakl is obsessed with the idea of translation (and its discontents). It interrupts itself so consistently with critical theory on the subject — not to mention archival photographs, imagined interviews, and poems — that you soon realize the book is entirely composed of interruptions.
For Hawkey, the act of translating from one language to the next has to be blatant. The poem is to be changed irrevocably if it is going to make it across the language barrier — not to mention the century gap between Trakl and his newest translator — with the same “spirit” intact. Though the final product looks completely different — the difference between a house and houseboat — Trakl’s still in it.
After all, any form of translation is inherently flawed, and the author celebrates that fact by filling his book with as many imperfect processes as possible: poems churned through an online translation engine; poems made of every line Trakl wrote that mentions the colors red or yellow ("Redtrakl," "Yellow Trakl"); and even poems made of what remained after leaving a book "outside to decompose over a full year in a glass jar filled with rainwater" (8). All these methods force the reader to trust the translator's premise that this is the poetry of Trakl, though you are provided with little proof. For example, "Reasons Why Orphans Wear Stillness-Mittens" does not directly correlate to any of the poet’s collections; instead it translates Trakl’s obsession with orphanhood:
1. It is difficult to think in the presence of an orphan.
2. It is difficult to think in the presence of the word "orphan."
3. It is like trying to think in the middle of an earthquake, trying to think about something other than what is happening, especially when what is happening is the repeated disturbance of the very ground of thought.
4. Some orphans become orphans, while others, despite being born, are born orphans, and still others are both born orphans and become orphans.
5. These orphaned orphans are the orphans with stillness-mittens (the ground is shaking). (96)
Like many poems in the book, “Reasons Why Orphans” elaborates on a theme from Trakl, rather than presenting one translation for one poem that he wrote. The last poem in Ventrakl, "Grodek," is the only occasion where the English translation appears side by side with the German original. It literally stops the book:
Die ungebornen Enkel.
is translated as:
The grandchildren — unborn. (148)
Here, the words match up quite neatly, but it’s Hawkey's differences — from/of/with the Austrian poet — that drive this book. And it's those same differences that put Ventrakl in conversation with all of Trakl's former English translators, who make an interesting bunch. That lineup includes (among others): Michael Hamburger, the great Celan translator immortalized in Sebald's Rings of Saturn; James Wright and Robert Bly, the dynamic duo of the Midwestern deep image; Robert Grenier, the father/uncle of the Language School poets beloved for his minimalist epic A Day at the Beach — all of whom appear in the 1983 volume Georg Trakl: A Profile, edited by Frank Graziano.
A Profile begins with a question by Rainer Maria Rilke, writing on Georg Trakl: "What could he have been?" (Trakl, 7) — which is apt. What kind of figure could attract and marry the avant-garde tendencies of Grenier with the rural/lyric placidity of James Wright? Hawkey attempts to answer this question by marrying those two aesthetics himself. Poems like “Grodek” are paired with more bizarre translations, such as “Rosencrantz: A Western” or “You Bend My Megahertz,” whose titles alone address the range of permissible interpretation.
The nonstandard translation has its own traditions as Hawkey, in his introduction, points to the work of Jack Spicer, Louis Zukofsky, Anne Carson, and David Cameron, whose Flowers of Bad stands out as a particularly dedicated "bad translation" (Cameron's own phrase). Cameron, for example, takes Baudelaire's poems and puts them through chance operations to create works that are the spawn of the great French poet, if translucently so. Hawkey puts Trakl through similar filters, though his methods don't reveal themselves immediately. The resulting language is more Hawkey’s than anyone else's.
In Ventrakl, he echoes Rilke's question:
The question of what?
Of who is speaking.
Who is writing then?
Who is. (37)
Who is writing is the translator.
1. See W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 1999); Robert Grenier, A Day at the Beach (New York: Roof Books, 1985); and George Trakl, Georg Trakl: A Profile, ed. Frank Graziano, trans. Robert Grenier, Michael Hamburger, David Luke, and Christopher Middleton (Durango, CO: Logbridge-Rhodes, 1983).