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).
a review of 'Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes'
I struggled with this review for a very, very long time. Both Jeffrey Side and Jake Berry's aesthetics are deeply invested in maximizing each reader's unique contribution to the process of meaning-making, and both would vehemently resist any effort that might seem to reduce a poem to a "stable and finite" reading. Side in particular has powerfully encouraged readers to resist merely being "passive witnesses," and to consciously search out "less obvious or appropriate" meanings.
The problem is that a review would seem to work against this aesthetic principle because, by definition, it privileges a single, authoritative interpretation: "Like this poem because I liked it;" "Look for the elements that I found most interesting;" "Mistrust the elements that I found offputting."
I've tied myself in knots trying to avoid the ethical paradox of publishing a review that is a univocal, potentially stultifying, interpretation of a ferociously polyvocal text -- and the result is less a review of Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes than a review of my reading of Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes.
In the interview released on Jake Berry's blog "9th St. Laboratories," Berry and Jeffrey Side variously describe the long poem Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes as "a conversation," "an amalgam," "a poetic symbiosis," and "a work that would have been impossible by either of the poets alone." Side describes the creation of the poem in terms of musical improvisation: a "spontaneous 'call and response' approach, whereby we would each simply respond poetically to what the other had written." The poem would be mailed back and forth between the authors, each adding something new. Even after the text of the poem was finalized, the organic artistry of the volume continued to evolve through Rich Curtis' contribution of eight visual images and Bill Lavender's orchestration of the layout and design.
The final product is very much a collaborative effort, yet the poem itself is a lyric "quasi-narrative," the single narrator an unnamed "I" in circular, polyvocal conversation with himself. Narrative hints suggest that the poem is voiced by a paranoid schizophrenic man in a psychiatric ward, physically trapped but mentally traveling across continents and through time -- "hiding" while "on the run" (22, 23, 40, 41) from unidentified assailants that may be the ward supervisors or may be wholly imaginary.  Because the tale is told from his fractured, inconsistent point of view, it is never clear whether the hospital is literal or metaphoric (or, indeed, how/if the distinction might be relevant).
The poem is full of decisive statements that somehow avoid meaning decisively, and the opening lines foreground Barry and Side’s aesthetic of making/unmaking:
could not be effaced
by the quality
of her clothes. (9)
The apparently simple statement -- a claim on behalf of "her dignity" -- is actually negated by the narrator's defensive tone. Instead of affirming her status, it invites a series of undignified questions, most importantly: What is wrong with her outfit? In effect, the poem opens in negative space, stressing a sense of absence rather than moving forward with a cohesive plot.
The mysterious woman’s dignity is further undercut by the next lines, but, again, only indirectly. The narrator does not say anything against her, but his choice of language pushes her into the background, further obfuscating her concerns and feelings behind an overwhelming self-preoccupation:
I knew this
back near the border
when I was not satisfied.
I recommend highly
a new approach
to the situation.
Such was the time
spent together. (9)
Throughout, Cyclones draws attention to readerly expectations without catering to them. Side and Berry's poem offers just enough of a narrative form to indicate story-ness, but it withholds the kinds of detail that would make up a clearly denoted plot.
The woman of the opening line is mentioned on several occasions, but her significance is all but lost in a narrative that is also a high-speed whirling psychological cyclone, tangled with narrative detritus: bits and scraps of half-memories ("I remember, but I do not recall" 11); pained, introspective questions ("Was freedom as tangible then/as I remember it being,/now that/it is so elusive?" 21); otherworldly proclamations ("The greatest difficulty/may be with the terraces/or the third,/secret hand,/of the gardeners/ that tend them." 17); and allusions so oblique as to be uncertain ("I didn't bother to answer/or even turn away/from the window./I learned long ago/to distinguish between/strong memories and/whatever the world is," 27).
The absence of a familiar, intellectually comprehensible plot contributes towards a raw, visceral sense of readerly disorientation and vulnerability. In Berry's terms:
By its very nature art is subjective -- that is what makes it work so well and gives it such long life. We can appreciate cave paintings from 30,000 years ago, each of us in our own way. How many theories have survived that long? […] Even in its ideal environment theory is just a collection of ideas that may or may not be validated. Art, at least for me, works the other way around. Though an artist might make preliminary sketches, and a poet might revise, without the inspiration -- the air one inhales -- that which comes from outside -- the artist is damned to repeat the past, to reproduce what is known. […] Whether the artist or poet accomplishes it or not, he or she should always try to discover something. Perhaps that discovery is old news to someone else, but that doesn't matter. At the very least the work will be charged with the enthusiasm of that moment of discovery.
In Side's terms:
A satisfying poem is one that enters your mind and turns the key to your imagination. It enables you to find specific meanings and emotions that only you can recognize because they are filtered through your memory traces. A poem that fails to satisfy does the opposite: it tells you what it is about, the feelings you are to feel and the understanding you are to have. The words and images of a poem should be looked upon as devices that you can use to paraphrase every thought you have had, are having, and will have. The words should be twisted, stretched, moulded and freely associated to mean anything you want them to mean. In this way you become, in effect, a creative talent in your own right-you write the poem as you read it, so to speak.
At every turn, Cyclones enacts an aesthetic that demands readerly involvement because the text is tenuously suspended around gaps, elisions, and highlighted erasures. Even in the layout, Bill Lavender carefully and humorously spaced the page breaks so that the enjambment interferes with a reader's ability to process the poem as a linear narrative. A reader may flip back and forth -- mentally and sometimes physically leafing between pages to re-conceptualize images that have been carefully built up on one page and substantially modified by an unexpected final phrase on the next.
of her now
the inevitable (10)
The very dry visual joke works at two levels, both to lighten the slightly lugubrious narrative tone and to "distance" the rather grim narrator -- who ostensibly controls dialogue -- from the mischievous artists (Berry, Side, and Lavender) who control both narrator and the mise-en-scène of the published page.
Throughout, Cyclones treads a very fine line between "inchoate" and "incoherent."  It skims from point to point, moral to moral, swirling with non sequiturs and sustaining no stated purpose beyond the self-evident act of storytelling. There are few moments of relative clarity, but they primarily serve to highlight the overall refusal of clarity. For example, two sentences (given about a third of the way through) seem to offer readers one lens through which to interpret the mad narrator's struggle with "the institute" that confines him. In this passage, the careful deployment of academic language playfully/cynically conflates the physical safeguards that secure a high-risk psych ward with the intellectual assessments and conventions that define a typical university campus and, perhaps more to the point, a literary canon:
Me, I tried
to enter into things
but my maps
and the institute
Now I am
who have denied me
within the hallways
of pedantry. (18)
The lines echo a 2008 interview with Jake Berry:
There seems to be two kinds of poetry in the academy these days. One of them has been there for a while; the anecdotal, usually free verse or some modification, that was originally associated with the Iowa School. The other is Language Poetry. Both have produced some excellent work. As with anything that succeeds and succeeds in being taught, the second and third generations produce work that isn't as strong as the first. Innovation comes from the outside, but by the nature of the institution, the work becomes formulaic. Students try to reproduce what they are taught to please their teachers. […] I suppose that every poet hopes to compose great poetry and every publisher hopes to bring great poetry to light, but there is no road map.
If to willfully discard the roadmap is to risk ostracism from the hallways of pedantry, then it is possible to read the poem as an allegory of non-mainstream poetics: the narrator is always trying to find mental loopholes that will allow him to finally escape "the institute."
Alternatively, it is also possible to read the poem as a drawn-out metaphor for the difficulty of coming up with something new in language when language is already so overburdened with pre-set narrative arcs, given poetic forms, and mainstream priorities.
For the narrator, there is no escape from narrative conventions even though no one form, no one plot, no one image holds it all together. He must stitch together a reality for himself from the only pieces he can grasp -- a scattered confetti of learned narrative patterns: diary form ("As I went out this morning/I had misgivings/about Netscape"), medieval epic ("Over the hills/they came in hordes,/led by two men on horseback/with a cross emblazoned/on their chests" (35-6), spy thriller ("I was/intercepted/when I tried/to cross the border. […] you exposed/my cover/and left me here" 51), horror ("Last night/when the cold dark settled in/I lit it/and immediately/saw your shadow/move across the floor" 53), and many, many others. In 32 pages of text, there are 254 personal and possessive pronouns, including 146 uses of "I," "my," or "mine" -- as if the frenetic assertion of selfhood in the midst of pre-determined narrative plots, stock characters, and archetypal relationships will somehow constitute an identity. But the urgency of self-identification is muted by the frequent use of passive voice that distances both narrator and reader from the details of the (possibly imaginary) narrative action:
Now I hustle
through my days
to stay ahead
of the guards,
the dogs of cognizance
who know nothing at all
to masters that
none of us have seen
or believe to exist.
From my vantage point
on this promontory,
I can see all around.
Sometimes I look up;
sometimes I look down.
look too good.
That may be
from my condition. (22, 23)
Ultimately, every apparent narrative interpretation suggested by one part of the text is undermined by another. In this case, by juxtaposing very serious and frightening circumstances with bored, bland reflections, Berry and Side effect an unlikely and precariously balanced meterological/psychological ambiance of…panicked ennui. The narrator describes the drek of a vivid imaginative life flying at phenomenal, chaotic speeds, but notes it with calm, slightly quizzical detachment -- to read this poem is to watch the storm from the eye.
Rich Curtis beautifully captures this oxymoronic ethos in the cover illustration -- a taut, menacing funnel cloud writhes down from a luxuriously languid storm drawn in fat, slow, curly loops and whorls: lax urgency, frantic tedium, homey adventure, ardent indifference, rational insanity. The structural strength of the poem is in the sequence of impossible tensions because it enacts exactly the kind of "non-mainstream" poetic that Side advocates as the editor of The Argotist Online: "poetry that is aware of the plasticity of language and which places connotation and ambiguity over denotation and precision of meaning. This sort of poetry invites interpretation and allows for plurality of meaning as opposed to hermeneutic closure."  Or, to borrow the narrator's words: "Just at the moment/you think you have/discovered its physics/it explodes into/wild distortions -- " (30).
Enough symbols recur through the text to suggest that meaning is possible, but the symbols never relate in such a linear fashion as to define that meaning. For example, "hands" (literal, metonymic, and adverbial) appear six times: "the third/secret hand,/of the gardeners" (17); "We both played/our best hand then,/but I lost;/or did I really win?" (33); "any sharp implement/they had at hand" (36); "I cough into my hand" (47); "This blood/I look at/on my hand/now remains/for you" (51); "This blood/on my hand/speaks clearly" (52).
Tuberculosis. The red hand of Ulster. Caught red-handed. DNA analysis. Genetic mutation. Gambling. Uncertain stakes. Violence.
The ambivalent associations help create what Berry might describe as a poem that is also a "discovery," not just "the road less traveled" but something of an emotional and psychological "choose your own adventure." The energy of the poem is manifest in the fluid movement between half-related images ("wild distortions" 30) and declarations of identity that are also declarations of purpose ("I must pursue/something" 33).
The multitude of possible combinations are meaningful but unanchored, a pattern of fluid imagery that works toward an organic poetic that Berry has praised in the work of Michael McClure: "direct phenomena that reflects, is in wholeness with, the world through his concept of myriad mindedness and from that, through an alchemy is that is more biological than abstraction."
Having said that -- a fragmented narrative is neither formally nor conceptually innovative in its own right. It raises the stakes without determining the outcome: at best, the gaps in the narrative will inspire the reader to leap between them, forging an electric, emotionally and intellectually galvanizing, unreproducible poetic experience; at worst, the reader will be baffled rather than inspired, fail to connect emotionally, and find no resonance between the language of the poem and her/his own experience.
It is possible that the complexity of the mental exercise involved in reading this kind of poem inspires a more nuanced emotional reaction.
It is also possible that the mental exercise of recognizing and parsing out alternate meanings can act as a buffer to the reader's personal emotional response. A reader can treat a complex, connotative poem like a crossword puzzle to be solved rather than as an emotional stimulus.
I can see how Cyclones could be powerful for another reader, but my personal experience with Cyclones was anticlimactic. I didn't even hate it; I thought the language was banal. The poem opens in negative space, and I think it stays there. Throughout Cyclones, the elusive woman of the opening line incarnates a dozen patriarchal archetypes of woman-as-Other. But to demonstrate that many two-dimensional archetypes of "woman" exist in stock narratives is hardly provocative. As a feminist, I found it a bit dreary and disheartening.
Could these archetypes be deployed ironically? Yes. But ironic to what purpose?
The poem seems like an attempt to be "non-mainstream" that negatively demonstrates the inadequacy of the mainstream by reproducing it in pieces without achieving enough of a unique, positive aesthetic to become persuasively "otherstream." Yet even as I write this, I second-guess myself. If the reader is responsible for meaning-making, can there be "failed" poems or only "failed" readings? (failed readers?)
I worry that some heavily connotative poetics are only perpetuated because they punt any communicative or artistic failures to the reader, as if to say: "If you can't make magic with this, then you are 'mainstream,' lazy, and severely lacking in poetic imagination." Yet that statement seems to sell short the whole concept of poetry -- if it is all in the reader's head, why not make magic with the Reader's Digest? But I still worry that elements of that statement are probably accurate. [How can you tell whether the emperor is wearing clothes in language -- where there are no emperors or clothes that aren't manufactured in your mind?]
I didn't care for the aesthetic outcome of this particular poetic experiment, but it did push me to think about the relationship between the poem and the reader. A review is not the place for a full-blown theoretical quarrel, so I've corresponded with Side about some of my questions, and he agreed to post an interview that follows up on some of these questions in the Argotist Online. [link forthcoming]
The value of any texts' aesthetic to an individual reader is in what the reader chooses (and is able) to connect with in any given moment. Which is to say that I'm glad I read it, but I didn't like Cyclones. Chris Mansel, Matt Hill, and Bill Lavender loved it. 
You may love it.
Go read it and find out.
Berry, Jake. Blog. "New from Lavender Ink: Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes." 9th St. Laboratories <http://9thstlab.blogspot.com/> Posted 15 April 2010. (Accessed Aug 2010).
---. "Interview with Jake Berry, Editor of Outré, Artifact Collective Texts, Anomaly, The Experioddicist, and Currently 9th St. Laboratories." by Alan May. The Serials Librarian 55.1-2 (July 2008): 296-303.
---. Review. Michael McClure. 3 POEMS - Dolphin Skull, Rare Angel, Dark Brown. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/mcclure/mc-jb1.htm> 2 January 1996. Accessed Aug 2010.
Side, Jeffrey. "Abstraction and Ambiguity in the Lyrics of Leonard Cohen" <http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/side.html> 1998. Accessed Aug 2010.
---. The Argotist Online <http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/> Accessed Aug 2010.
5. Cf. Lord Dunsany, "The Wonderful Window" and "The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap" from The Book of Wonder (1912). Full text available here.
8. Lavender's sense of humor is even evident on the library page: "Copyright © 2010, Jeffrey Side and Jake Berry, all rites reserved" (2). The line is a recurring joke that prefaces all the Lavender Ink publications.
9. Cf. Side's blog "To Connote or Not to Connote." In this context, I use the term "inchoate" (suggesting that the text is not wholly unified in a narrative structure) to contrast with "incoherent" (suggesting that the text is incomprehensible).
14. "She" is the unattainable object of desire ("There would be/half a smile/and polite rejection" 9), the lost beloved ("I had a wife then,/and a son on the way./But to dwell on the past/just serves to bring/the present into grief," 18), the soul mate ("When I met her,/those first months,/we had/complete command/of the skies." 21), the object of regret and blame ("I hated my life/because of a beautiful woman" 28-9), the enchantress ("She bound me/so fast/that I half expected/to go mad." 33-4), the damsel in distress ("…I would find her/and save her/from these men/in case her love/became transferred/to them" 39), the sex worker ("…a picture of you,/scantily clad,/apparently/from a silent porno,/1920s." 47), the femme fatale ("You knew/I was never/a security risk/yet you exposed/my cover/and left me here/to bargain/for my freedom." 51), and so on.
16. Quotations available on Berry's blog
Reviews of Tichy, Tadić and Barskova
What does it mean to witness? What becomes of the object of an unsustained inquiry? Gallowglass, Susan Tichy’s fourth book of poems, tries for answers. It’s an afterwards-document of calamity and of a loss of understanding, charged with elegiac grief for one lost and with an enervated sadness at our country’s role in terrible violence in the Middle East.
Gallowglass attempts an ecological, rather than phenomenological, understanding of its subjects. When their material is emotionally severe or politically charged, many poets who use disjunctive forms are tempted to arrange the material into post-Romantic fragmentary flashes, self-dissolution, and apotheosis. (Examples of this kind of work include Martha Collins’s Blue Front and C. S. Giscombe’s Giscome Road.) The subjects of Gallowglass are about as severe and charged a project as a contemporary lyric collection could attempt — but, to Tichy’s credit, Gallowglass represents a rigorous effort to deal with systems (of society and nature) over sensations. The book wants to show us something.
Tichy grids British Isles ballads over the confused cruel grace of birds, our wars in Iraq over Afghanistan with our individual memory’s attempts at the “rescue of dead men” (78). This systematic quality to the language can be startlingly beautiful:
Camera a little too close to a cheekbone, face hidden by a microphone.
Graffiti here says Rich Stench. The singer rubs her thighs and can’t sit still.
There’s a kind of stunned afterglow, for minutes and then for years.
'Be taught by walking’ was the best advice, but my muddy boot left tracks across the carpet. (12)
But at other times, Tichy’s contrasts feel self-conscious and facile:
This is how I must learn to describe peace
A white stork down by the fish ponds
And a blond man in a bathing suit
With an Uzi propped on his hipbone (71)
The book is also riddled with attention-grabbing self-revisions (“Tapestry makes a landscape without depth. I copied that, but it came out death” ), spliced-in quotations (“‘In Encounter everything depends on Perseverance’ / So was that a sheep or a beaver with its mouth full of twigs?” ), and attempts at defining (“Reflective means you can’t see in” ). These feel like old tricks, uninteresting in the scale of the project. And few of Tichy’s interpolations from highland balladry add up to much, just a sense that deeds of battle and violence once called honorable now chill us.
Though the long, collage-heavy, formally regular poems that open the book include a few beautiful and alert moments, the most moving and thought-provoking portions of Gallowglass — the times when its ethical claims seem clearest — come towards the end. “Book, Land, Night,” written in shifting couplets, has a strong, terrible thread of feeling through it as Tichy follows the bearing home of a body:
Splinter of bark is a splinter of lightning
I listen to the birds in the walls, their dry
Fluttering I think must be
The washing of your corpse (67)
By the poem’s end, the portent of “strange headlights in the driveway” makes the reader’s stomach knot. And Tichy concludes Gallowglass with the best thing in it, “To or From,” an intensely physical account of accident and grief.
Not one question, not one nightmare
Skidding a body down five hundred feet of rock and scree
Or sipping tea in the quiet morning
Looking down that god-awful
Slope where the plane went down
Bagging pieces that had been men
You’d held a heart in your hand (77)
The reader is never shown the entire terrible story hinted at here. But throughout the poem, Tichy repeats the phrase “every object discipline,” and the poem does reach an animated focus much more intense and charged with questions than anything in the book’s more essayistic first half. “To or From” ends in space —
Sand on the road and a wind to lift it
This is the image of pause
This is the image of step (79)
— and the reader too is left hanging, out of breath.
So what’s next for Tichy’s poetry? As a systematic inquiry, Gallowglass is mixed, though the effort is enticing. A lyric collection situating America’s Middle Eastern wars in a natural and Western-historical order hasn’t been written yet; in the meantime, Tichy’s next subject of examination might yield more even and energized results.
Stanley Kunitz once said that poetry’s art is not anecdotal, but legendary: that the stories in poetry are magnified, mythic in contours even if not in scope; that they answer a longing not for simple recognition but for allegory or origin story.
Kunitz probably had narrative poetry like his own in mind when he made the claim. But such needs are also met in weirder, woollier poetries: there’s a legendish outsizedness in Lyn Hejinian’s long poems, in Kenneth Koch’s antics in “Nights and Days” and “Fresh Air,” or in the he-she dialogues of Rosmarie Waldrop’s Reluctant Gravities. I originate in grand conversations just like I originate in grand experience, and poetry still shows me how so.
Polina Barskova’s first English collection, This Lamentable City, introduces readers to a poet of legend. Readers meet the giants of twentieth-century Continental literature in her poems, meet angels (“those tall, sexless bitches” ), meet the Lord in a “dialogue / That won’t cease” (27). But Barskova’s voice, in poet Ilya Kaminsky’s English (cotranslators include Kathryn Farris, Rachel Galvin, and Matthew Zapruder), is bitter, ironic, body-eager in turns. Her legend isn’t stately, and it’s never dull.
We met on a Sunday, no not exactly,
we met before, but it wasn’t that either:
you drank coffee through a straw but it was more like
a poor bird stopping in to see a horse in a coat
and you took me by the took me by the took me by the hand … (29)
Polina Barskova and Ilya Kaminsky
This degree of verbal instability characterizes most of the poems here. Barskova magnifies and animates her material, but she doesn’t elevate it. Rather, humans’ “low” and “high” functions of the spirit — rage and anticipation, lust and intellectual argument — occur at the same level of sensation on every page.
I will become any object,
I don’t care what —
I will be this speeding train.
Or a beautiful gay man laughing in the front seat.
The human body is without defense.
It’s a piece of firewood.
Ocean water hits it.
Lenin puts it on his official shoulder. (9)
Notice that “I don’t care what”: separation in Barskova’s poems (death, loneliness, heartbreak) is faced with this same curious mixture of hunger, enthusiasm, and anger, as if the hugeness of our human feeling — its ability to reach forward and back in time — were more important than our objective bodied smallness. Russia’s history is a colossal presence in this work, but humans don’t feel tiny in it. There’s an animating voice that suggests life even in ruin, as in the middle of the short lyric “Moscow”:
To lose your belongings,
Wearing each shirt to a small hole.
To stand under the sky as if in a valley.
In dazzling light: a lonely toilet
Abandoned by human asses.
How plainly now speech pours! (27)
This Lamentable City is a weirdly conceived little volume. It comprises just ten bilingual poems, all in free translation — without the tight formal music of her Russian originals, which Kaminsky’s introduction praises. We’re told she’s written six books. Is This Lamentable City a poetic calling card, the first step in a process of bringing full volumes into English? I hope so; the translations here are fantastic. Kaminsky (disclosure: a former teacher of mine) once lectured a class: “When you translate a poem, don’t use English that an English speaker would use. Use English that an English speaker would love.” I speak no Russian, but the voice caught in these translations is appealingly fierce, funny, and unfamiliar, a credit to the translators’ obvious sweat and exactitude. I hope after City there’ll be more to hear.
Barskova makes unsteady affirmations; Novica Tadić (pictured below at right with translator Charles Simic) a poet of negatives. He doubts reason and faith, human brotherhood and the self. His poems — celebrated in his native Serbia, known in the States mostly through Charles Simic’s translations — are never explicit in their politics, but the oppressive realities of Balkan Communism and the Milosevic regime are present in every surreal image of decay, every spasm of violence. Ending one poem, a soldier sings “I’m a cross of human flesh / on which nothingness is crucified” (31). In another, a dead man is mourned: “May the earth be easy on him; / since it was only today that we noticed / he had been alive” (34). The title poem of his second English collection, Dark Things, portrays human impulse and urge itself in these constrained terms:
Dark things open my eyes,
raise my hand, knot my fingers ….
No force can revoke them,
untangle them, explain them. (15)
The speaker, in the grip of these nasty energies, can only observe wearily and bring the poem to a close.
Essential to the speakers of Dark Things is this knowledge and the distance that poetry permits. Tadić’s poems are never oracular or immersive, despite the visit from an occasional outside muse (such as his “Midnight Lady,” “covered with nets and shining scales” who sits on the speaker’s bed “as if it were her work table” ). As if seeking a difficult precision, the poems fasten to a tone or scene immediately, and rarely last more than twenty lines.
The book is skeptical, but never (as in procedural or post-Dada poetics) anarchic or destructive in spirit. Rather, any unity or force is to be doubted as an unhelpful metaphor. In this collection, we are only as substantial as we tell ourselves we are. So, what are the comforts of Tadić’s work? The poet finds peace in his own grubby, nattering mind, the possibility of fixity in memory (“This dream, I am not / bound to forget” ), and the offer of a stepbrotherly decency toward fellow humans, “the unbaptized of every faith” (31).
To a reader of contemporary American avant-garde poetry, the claims on the imagination in Dark Things seem small. But the poems are unfailingly affecting. Listen to the quiet, perhaps ironic, ending of “On a Train Station, Dream,” quoted here in its entirety:
Small, bent over, gray,
I’m sitting with arms crossed
on my luggage.
I ask nothing of no one.
Wait for no one.
I don’t know where I’ve come from
nor where I’m going.
In the trunk are my books,
in the suitcase my shirts.
I packed everything I had.
On my head I wear
a cap of many colors,
my great pride and joy. (52)
Poof! On — and maybe in — the speaker’s head, the poem’s only flash of color and feeling; a figure (like Wallace Stevens’s “tigers in red weather”?) for the enduring, flimsy, vivid life of the imagination.
That Tadić is the poet most celebrated (after the late great Vasko Popa) in Serbia says something about the role of the artistic spokesperson in the Balkan nations. Tadić’s readers won’t find gentleness or lyric beauty in his work, only the comfort of an acute, undeceived consciousness. The faces of our leaders change, but in these poems’ decayed world, only the products of the animated mind are ever truly new.
A review of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's 'Concordance'
In a 2003 interview printed in Jacket, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge noted, “For me, collaboration has been a wonderful way to open someone else’s sensibility, to use that openness like oxygen or ocean.” Concordance is such a collaboration and such an openness. It is comprised of two poems: the first, “Concordance,” a work by the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and the artist Kiki Smith, and the second, “Red Quiet,” a poem by Berssenbrugge. Berssenbrugge and Smith worked with the book artist Anne McKeown to create the work in its original form, a limited edition accordion book published by the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper. Kelsey Street Press published a trade edition of Concordance in 2006.
Concordance opens with the dedication “for the frogs and toads” and thus begins as an offering to creatures who live in both air and water and who appear as both word and image in the work. These double existences are not dualities as division but rather elements on a continuum of existence that Berssenbrugge and Smith amplify into a sensuous field of attention: “Attention gives light: shine on a baby’s calf; as he hears what I say, I become that,” Berssenbrugge writes in “Concordance.” The poem, written in three parts, inhabits the atmosphere of language and light shared between a speaker and listener, a writer and reader, between body and thought; it attends to the spatial and temporal phenomena that comprise relation. Berssenbrugge’s words and Smith’s images coexist to create a stunning ecology of plants, animals, people, water, air, light, idea, feeling, abstraction, concretion, and question.
Writing encounters one who
does not write and I don’t try
for him, but face-to-face draw
you onto a line or flight like a
break that may be extended,
the way milkweed filling space
above the field is “like” reading.
Because the text is so large, inhabiting the white space that surrounds verse, it is uncertain if the line breaks at the end of the page or has simply run out of room and runs over into the next line. The stanza may comprise a single line or it may be lineated verse. This formal uncertainty holds open both formal possibilities, and the stanza’s claim of “draw[ing] you onto a line or flight like a break that may be extended” resonates as the reader’s experience of the poem’s line. This possibility occurs as a question of relation, a “may be” that extends into existence. “Concordance” itself extends and co-extends; its images and text touch each other. The first “f” and tip of the “a” in “face-to-face” vibrate in a spot of blue ink, which suggests “milkweed filling space above the field,” which is “‘like’ reading.” The openness of the image allows the blue milkweed to resonate as flower or as sun or star. Ink, linguistic image, visual image, idea, and simile emerge in Berssenbrugge and Smith’s ecology as a web generating relations that the poem opens out. “Relation is in the middle, relay, flower description to flower”; these words appear on a page with a blue-feathered owl staring into the reader’s reading eyes. As you turn the page, the owl’s body and feathers extend onto the left margin of the new page. Here, transformation inheres in their presence; they recall the owl while also suggesting plant leaves bordering the text. Animal to plant. Smith’s image becomes both at once, and a single body opens out, transformed, across distinct planes into “asymptotic lines of the flights of concordances”: concordance as harmony, index, context, cross-reference, and genetic trace.
page details from Concordance (Kelsey Street Press 2006)
The poem is a concordance of surprising, feel-able relations and their bafflements: “I write to you and you feel me” and “For the first time, I write and you don’t know me.” The interesting possibility emerges in the work that feeling is a form of engagement that brushes up against and then runs askew of knowing. “Concordance” can be perceived as a textual and visual narrative of feeling thought. Thought becomes a share-able, sense-able experience in the work; it joins bodies and distinguishes them. Berssenbrugge writes, “Desire individuates through affects and powers I place on a page or plane of light vibrations, like a flowering field.” The “milkweed filling space above the field” that “is ‘like’ reading” is here inverted so that what is “placed on the page or plane of light vibrations” is “like a flowering field.” This chiasmic relation between field and text, text and field suggests “Concordance” as a space where the collaborative projects of printing — image and text — and perceiving produce a phenomenal field comprised of text, image, and one who engages them. In “Concordance’s” second section, Smith draws a hand as if reaching for a milkweed pod and milkweed filling the air, and in the third section, opened milkweeds appear, their shape turned substantial, grown the height of the page. This reach is the book’s beautiful work of opening. It is oxygen and ocean offered to the reader.
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Photo: Kiki Smith. Courtesy of Kiki Smith and U.L.A.E.
“Red Quiet,” Concordance’s second poem, is also comprised of three parts. It is printed on semi-opaque, red crêpe paper with fibers that gather and loosen, creating a rippling effect across the page. The slight transparency of the page reveals layers of text emerging from the pages beneath it. This depth appears from the play of light on the surface of the open page, and it appears differently according to the lighting situation and position of the reader. The page seems alive to the poem printed on it, and this vibrancy creates a vibrating field: “If existence is vibration, everything creates sound — trees, heart cells,” Berssenbrugge writes. Vibrating “trees” and “heart cells” sound in and as “Red Quiet.” From the work’s responsiveness to light and its evocation of continuous sound, a singing, palimpsest-like poem emerges. In the poem’s field of resonating light and text, words are both ghostly and embodied. Berssenbrugge notes, “Words spoken with force create particles.” This force, particularized, becomes a form of warmth: “I send out an emotion of warmth, welcome, the way scientists erase sound with sound.” Berssenbrugge’s welcome sings in “Red Quiet.” And Concordance is a great warmth, a great welcome.
detail from Concordance (Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper 2006)