Community as culture

A review of 'Poetic Intention'

Poetic Intention

Poetic Intention

by Édouard Glissant, trans. Nathalie Stephens

Nightboat Books 2010, 231 pages, $16.95, ISBN 9780982264539

Édouard Glissant died on Thursday, February third, in Paris. Born in 1928 in the former French Caribbean colony of Martinique, he left for Paris in 1946 where he studied ethnography at the Musée de l’Homme and history and philosophy at the Sorbonne, introducing into critical discourse — in his dissertation on Aimé Césaire and the Negritude Movement — his idea of Creolization. He taught abroad and in America, both at LSU and then, from 1995 until his death, at the CUNY Graduate School.

Glissant began his publishing life in the 1950s, notably with his novel The Ripening in 1958, for which he won the Renaudot Prize, and this polymath’s literary and critical work numbered some forty volumes. Twice a finalist for the Nobel Prize in literature, Glissant was also a political and social activist. He was appointed by former President Jacques Chirac to organize a national museum dedicated to the history of slavery, and he was the founder of the Institute du Tout-Monde whose mission is to broaden awareness of the complexity and richness of human cultures.

Glissant was also a signatory on the important 2007 “For a Global Literature in French Manifesto” that sought to erase the categories of center and periphery, or French and Francophone, and replace this rubric with a more expansive and inclusive global category that would allow writers to express all parts of their history and language without fearing the repressive constraints of former pigeonholes. Glissant is perhaps best known for his poetics of relation (or cross-cultural poetics), and a collection of essays published by Gallimard in 1990 bears that name. Here, too, these ideas are fully in evidence.

Poetic Intention is somewhat a rattlebag in that it collects essays, many of which the translator, Nathalie Stephens, notes were written between 1953 to 1961 and appeared as “partial publications” (233) in Les lettres nouvelles and in texts of the publisher Galerie du Dragon before Seuil published the monograph in 1969. It is primarily through the poetics of relation that the idea of poetic intention — the title to one section of essays — comes into play as a critical concept.

A poetics of relation is Glissant’s theory of the possibility attendant upon a re-alignment of cultural imagination; it comes hand in hand with his critique of Western discourse’s monopolizing intents, in History, with a capital H, and the ways by which Western political agency have used their self-centered (and -serving) epistemologies to justify their often unconscionable and otherwise lazy and chauvinistic practices against the rest of the world.

This includes colonialism, and that includes colonialism in the Caribbean, a zone that Glissant says has been rendered mute to itself and its own histories: “Was not what you [Western thought] call History incomplete, not only in reach but yet in ‘understanding’? Is there not in your weary disdain for the historical a sort of affront to those who never had a history for you? The history you ignored — or didn’t make — was it not History?” (23). However instructive, this is now commonplace as a post-colonial critique of Western historiography; but Glissant, among the most hopeful thinkers, goes further.

Two figures emerge. The traveler-discoverer-poet and the mute man who himself becomes a poet. The first is not immune to all the pratfalls of the Western mind: it is not enough to go into the world, but there you must contact it. Even once the traveler-discoverer-poet leaves the comforts of home, they must also leave the comforts of mind: “[p]redictable defeat of the generous who intended to allocate himself “essentially” to the other; totalitarian constraint of the Catholic for whom the other is mingled in the commuted essence of the Whole […]” (111).

This new person, with a new consciousness, must not attempt to fold the other into an already satisfying account of the world, but rather accept the opacity of the other as the terra incognito, as a finistère (end-of-the-world), where sharing and understanding might begin: “He proves: that opacity is fundamental to unveiling; that opacity, the other’s resistance is fundamental to his knowledge; that only in opacity (the particular) does the other find himself to be knowable. Lastly, that unveiling is the very principle of the Tragic; and that opacity, submitted to unveiling, presumes slowness, accumulation, duration” (168). This figure must accept the world as relation and begin the labor of understanding.

With this new mindset, this traveler-discoverer-poet is ready for the confrontation of difference in this newly designated zone of cultural interaction. The mute man, too, must step up, announce his own history, provide his resistance; he must become a poet, and more so in his case, a communal poet, delving into the unspeaking past to root out what the land says of his own history, seeing as how his history has not been recorded in books, certainly not those of the West.

The “to-discover[er]” (15) must “enter abrupt and knowledgeable into the simple or thrashed truth of one’s materiality, knowing that that which is not destined to a relation to the other is worthless” (16). The particulars of life where you live, in your country, as experienced by you is the new objective: “The aspiration (the pretention) to the universal must be interred in the dark secret soil where each lives his relation to the other. The poetics of this shared quotidian is fastened in the succulence of your country. (As long as you display the succulence to the aspects of the other, as long as you elect it before the other and tie them together)” (16).

Both now are poets. For Glissant respects the possibility of poets in a way so sanguine that it is difficult not to think of Shelley. Only the poets, Glissant writes, have the ear to the land as they ought; only the poets (of the West) saw the totalitarian dogmas of their inherited consciousness (36). Now the poets, one from here, and the other from there, are to come together, speaking for their own countries, their own selves. The mute man turned poet speaks through Glissant: “And I listen to the voice of the Occident, the greatest politics, the deepest dogmas, the most just creators, I can hear the silence every time it comes to this future in which to share the different abysses of man. In respect to which we are similarly new, one and other, in the new injunction” (36). Now there is not a hierarchy of difference, no West-East sway to thinking; every one to every (and not all) other.

So thus a critique on universalism and on idealism: “The threatened being who ventures and plays in the drama of the world, that is our being. How impossible is the vow of totality! Necessary, and illusory. It intends to force man (the poet) to watch with lucidity, attentiveness, selectiveness, over all fronts at once. Without forgetting that all idealism erupts without fail by every breach” (111). So thus a goad toward the particular, the cultural: “[…] the relation (the road) winds, discomfited or uncertain, at the non-global, non-absolute practices sewn through space […]” (111). So thus a poetic attention/intention toward whichever island is that of your birth, toward whichever landscape: “To experience the landscape passionately. To disengage it from the indistinct, mine it, ignite it among us. To know what it signifies in us. To carry this clear knowledge to the earth” (228).

This recalibration of contact among world cultures seems salutary and hopeful. He urges thinking that seeks to de-polarize world relations between West and East, between self and other, between have and have not. But among the things that Glissant’s theory is not include two concepts that his complex thinking (worthy of dissertations more so than reviews) might be construed to support: multiculturalism, or “diversity,” as a cultural prerogative; and relativism.

The first, as indicated by the quotation marks, has become a clichéd talking point of politicians that often fails to be more than the most superficial gesture of the relational: “[…] ‘[C]ontact’ is often a lure, whose fruitful consequences might easily be foreclosed [...]” (111). Secondly, moral relativism serves as a justification for inaction; as a kind of a negative eschatology, it works backward to say that since no God exists and so no fixed moral good, then, if not exactly everything goes, then at least don’t tread on me. This is almost nihilistic. And this is also almost the exact opposite of what Glissant wants: he wants interaction; he wants a confrontation of rooted cultures, self-conscious philosophies; he does not want to replace one totalitarian system (the West) with another (moral relativism).


All of this being said, much remains unsaid. For instance, why has Nightboat, a poetry publisher, published this translation? Previous translations have been published by presses with interests in Caribbean studies, Francophone literature, and philosophy and critical theory. Nightboat, as a curator, or judge of a reading community’s interest, suggests that this book is relevant to poets today. How so?

Several possibilities exist. The most obvious would be that the volume includes essays on René Char, Victor Ségalen, Paul Valéry, Stéphane Mallarmé, Aimé Césaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Saint-John Perse, Paul Claudel, and Pierre Reverdy — poets all, some unknown to American readers.

Beyond this comes the poetry of his language. While the text features a variety of modes, from the knotted language of French critical/creative theory, to the sparseness of abstract allegory, to the directness of personal anecdote, throughout all of this his distinct poetic voice emerges, the most salient feature of which would be his accretionary style. Think of those Russian dolls — dolls within dolls. Think of a beautiful handcrafted basket made of straw — rows upon rows encircling and extending. This is a style that matches his imperative: go to the terra incognito; listen; and through the gradual incursions of understanding, build a relation.

The text also offers an analogy pertinent for contemporary American poets. The book serves not just as a means to help reinterpret historical processes (which itself would be enough) but, should you think of the Caribbean islands as poetic enclaves and the West as the mainstream force of tradition, then you have a new context in which to apply his thinking. Community as culture. How, either as a poet coming from Tradition but with a mind open to the newly relational, or as a poet coming from a historically oppressed enclave (also with a mind open to the newly relational), how both have new hope toward approaching the other. The revisionist goals of postcolonial criticism having largely been met, an invitation to multidirectional interaction appears. True, poets must speak from their own “country” and not seek to undervalue difference; but opacity, or difference, here does not suggest a lack of dialogue or interest. Glissant’s views are of beginnings — of setting out — of beginning a long, hard process. And with beginnings comes hope.

Lastly, this book is valuable in its re-insistence that the reader think and its reminder that while thinking is difficult, it is also full of joy. An idea, newly found, cannot take on its whole weight immediately but develops its depth and meaning in time and through the accretions of experience and contemplation. This book argues that a text that bears re-reading is one that doesn’t shed its fruits upon first, easy contact; rather, due to its recalcitrance and its thoughtfulness, such a text is one that takes time to find its rightful place in your mind.

With his death, perhaps now there will begin a sustained championing of his work. The odd fact that it has taken forty-one years for this book to be translated not only implicates America for its disregard but also speaks to his ideas’ broadening resonance. His ideas don’t apply just to the Caribbean or just to French literature; with the recognition of American culture’s fragmentation, his ideas of inter- or intra-cultural movement and exchange speak as ably to the dysfunctions, as well as the possible avenues to hope, we experience today.

Trying to keep your voice clear (your voice will break)

A review of Joseph Lease's 'Testify'



by Joseph Lease

Coffee House Press 2011, 63 pages, $16, ISBN 9781566892582

A new volume by Joseph Lease is cause for celebration by the most discerning readers and writers of poetry. Testify emerges at a timely point in American history, in which verisimilitude has become the order of the day; rote mimicry retains the tinny sound of a better past; and reflex has been turned away from what collective inner feeling remains. Against this ominous backdrop emerges a book that simultaneously owns the cultural realities, while refusing their inevitability.

Lease is the master of tenderness, crafting a deeply felt synthesis that is as potent in its specificity as it is accurate in its intuitive musicality. Each word feels equally found and chosen. One senses an unprecedented level of balance in the intellect and the heart that undergird this poetry. Not only does work by Lease speak to me, it singes while it sings, it reminds me of better selves within us all, selves that reach and recover and refashion the raw bounty given us.

Joseph Lease functions as the quintessential poet. The successive versions of his poems depict continual renewal that vibrantly shows in the works as it evolves far beyond their original versions. Lease’s singular use of anaphora, the deliberate repetition of a word or phrase for a specific effect, achieves perfection as it sings or cries its musical reality in repeated chant-like fragments that become in their aggregate more whole than any more traditional construction would allow.

And this is and you are and we
are: say we are the people: we are people, the people:
say democracy: say free and responsible government, say
popular consent:
say democracy so polarized, say polarized, say paralyzed (22)

The fourfold structure of Testify begins with the long poem “America,” and proceeds into “Torn and Frayed,” a sequence of shorter poems that distinguish multiple symptoms of harshness that define the current state. The work then moves into a reverent and powerful prayer sequence of “Send My Roots Rain,” concluding with “Magic,” a fusion of the emergent and desired miracle posited as the optimal definition of the possible.

Rarely does a book of poetry release universal truths so skillfully and passionately by pinpointing such surprising and specific images as “There’s a fist of meat in my solar plexus / and green light in my mouth and little chips of dream flake / off my skin.” Lease carries the reader with him as he allows supreme vulnerability to be sung.

In Lease’s words, “I’m trying to make change actual, to embody change. It has to do with the lyric sequence, and feeling tone, and scene structure. You can play self-consciousness, the way you can play the violin or the cello.” As a reader, I am more than willing to be carried forward by Lease’s work, implicitly trusting where he will carry me. Embracing knowledge as responsibility is the reconstituted innocence of Testify. A heartrending trio of lines, italicized, is allowed to guide “America”:

the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure
of generosity, the neglect of widow and orphan, the oppression
of strangers and the poor, the defrauding of the laborer —

Coming right out with the most accurate accusation of the greed that has been allowed to flourish as a national raison d’etre, Joseph Lease has mastered the art of selecting the harmonic that brings to life the pain of being induced into the scheme that has dissolved our collective dream. Testify becomes the act of trembling with courage to scream whispers to the hardened sky. The cap across the horror, the realization of the horror, the recognition that horror can be multiplied, and multiplies itself …

Rarely have I been so relieved to hear a person say the word “prayer” as I was in Lease’s poetry. The work instills a willingness to connect beyond limitation, in search of a full stop to the collective (t)error. The animal self-turned-narcissist, the sensory deprivation, the heart’s starvation, becomes the permanent and pure desire for touch, for release, for an inherent and everlasting music. Lease voyages to the right side of the brain where lines dissolve and the great act of “rescuing” a hypothetical democracy becomes possible again through recognition of the truth.

The chatter that fuels polarization through recitation of empty phrases like “free and responsible government,” “popular consent,” along with the projection of “Airbrushed / Gwynneth” and a host of recipes “write to your congressional representative,” further distance us both individually and collectively from the inner impulse to imagine an inherent music: “they keep showing / the real world on TV” (20).

Nature holds, primal scream holds, colors hold. Surfaces and edges hold. Just as “You / Are past the boundary now And repetition of the definition of “the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God” gathers material meaning as it continues like a snowball collecting dirt and tiny stones. In the poem “Enjoy Your Symptom,” we hear:

Really your whole stance of precious self-regard, your whole delicacy and force, is a fart at this point. No one cares. You’re just one more sensitive ice cream cone in a world of unemployable spaniels. (29)

The symptom assumes multiple forms in Lease’s work, as the poet gently, artistically splinters words across the page, depicting the constancy of desire, even as it has been warped away. In a parallel fashion, Leases uses insistent, syllabic points across to share a renewed form of reality:

Traces of snow in the
Autumn soft
Sung moons (36)

The brain, “ready or not,” delivers an interior, monologic, pounding chant:

You’re in the rain a million miles from rain and you and you
and you and you —  (41)

At the threshold of the moment, threats to the abbreviated individual immerse the psyche in its own possibility, acknowledging the bountiful arena of infinite holiness, of an unfathomable tenderness that never loses the word “vow,” the word “try.”

Authentication failed. “Dignify my renaissance.” In the
rhythm of hair and sky, in this telling so rivers and hedges
and horses, in this so hard then, so hard and free, in this
telling cradled by slow moss, breathing September. I can’t
break again. I want to give you this. Wander all day, sleep
like a dog, sleep like a wren, sleep like a fire. (“Your eyes are
made of cash and going broke.”) If I fall down or dance or
go across the road where orange leaves are spinning in a
thin gray rain. If I fall down or dance or go. (44)

Lease encompasses the division line between the specific self and the wall of community. “God won’t leave our / dreams alone” (53).

I find a singularly remarkable feature in Lease’s poetry that sets him apart from every romantically inclined writer I know. Lease can capture, depict, and bring to the forefront of consciousness the horror of human failing to be human, and without restraint transform the essential self to do what needs to be done. Consciousness becomes synonymous with responsibility.

turn toward night, speak into it: the bright invisible red
blood: you want, you need, which is it —

something tawdry, he writes behind glass, on life, on death,
cast a cold eye — passersby pass by —

the eye, O priests, is on fire, the buried life, the buried life —
                        shower door on grass, shower door on grass,
rain beads on jade — “you’re it” — (61)

The final section of the book, “Magic,” deliriously unfastens each of the specific figures and integers and points of understanding from its lockstep position.

branches, desire, little ifs of white spin in the bowl — (70)

Lease questions the “I,” the “me” the narcissistic spree of nonsense:

Jesus told “me” so, he gave “me” laws, he gave “me” diamond
rings, he gave “me” laws, he gave “me” nations too —  (71)

And in a final moment of chanted magic, the book closes with:

pro-business policy solutions solve your child’s sleep
problems book-birds shining leaves hang fat grapes so mist
deep kiss mouthful of wind like wet peonies his head is
winter are you a worker health insurance health insurance
health step into the water and step into the road step into
the water and step into the sky health insurance greed
health insurance greed before you know it you’re lying in a
pool of blood
            I hear that everywhere I go (75)

The singular, passionate, precise, and potently skilled energy revealed in Testify consists of truths that, as I repeat them in my voice, his voice, other voices, with which I can barely cope, knowing their accurate pain. This is poetry that is what it speaks. The sounds themselves attest to the power of immersion in the emergency of our culture.

If you do not buy any other poetry book this year, buy Testify by Joseph Lease. Read it aloud to anyone you love. And read it carefully, specifically, reverently, while trying to keep your voice clear (your voice will break). The breakage will be real, beyond mere sentiment; it will be the “fist of meat in [the] solar plexus” (11). You will experience word choice recovering the ingredient that found your pores. All of them.

This collision of multiplicity and singularity

A review of Thomas Fink's 'Yinglish Strophes 1-19'

Yinglish Strophes 1-19

Yinglish Strophes 1-19

by Thomas Fink

Truck Books 2009, 44 pages,

While this is a review of a particular title, I deliberately chose a title from Chris Alexander and Kristin Gallagher’s (quite) newly formed Truck Books. The press, based in Queens, has been publishing since 2009 and has published six titles to date. This Spring 2011 they have made three publications available: Robert Fitterman’s Now We Are Friends; as well as titles by the editors — Gallagher’s We Are Here (an expanded continuation of the latter half of her experimental essay “Some Limits of Ratio; or, Aesthetic Has No Goal” from Crayon 5, Roberto Harrison and Andrew Levy’s sincerely useful journal); and Alexander’s Panda.

Interestingly hidden among the book reviews in that same issue of Crayon is a (sometimes cruelly dismissive) provocation, “Neoliberal Poetry,” by Alexander, Gallagher, and Matthias Regan that writes from the accusatory observation that poetry’s marketplace has assumed the structure of deregulatory, free-market capitalism in which community gathers and functions through competitive need, and the winners are those whose self-promotion brands a product that recognizes and fulfills a market niche. In opposition they propose a recognition and reinvocation of a history of poets’ and poetries’ activity outside the logics of capital market and the communal activities (and communities) resultingly invented.

With Truck Books, Gallagher and Alexander gesture to community before market by making attractively designed perfect-bound books accessible on a sliding scale of $5 to $25, and by offering free PDFs of each publication. I don’t know of another poetry press that so explicitly accounts for and attempts interaction with the varyingly broad individual financial states of its community of readers. I’m writing this review not only out of a very active interest in the work of the poets they are publishing, but also in support of the ethics of their endeavor. Whether this model of publishing will be sustained by the community it invites remains to be seen.

(Tangentially: is there a conscious relation between this press and David Wilk’s alternately labeled Truck Press or Truck Books of the 1970s that additionally served as an effective small press distributor?)

Thomas Fink’s Yinglish Strophes 1–19 collects in one volume the series which has been appearing in his published work since After Taxes (Marsh Hawk, 2004) and which is now extended beyond nineteen in Peace Conference (Marsh Hawk, 2011). Each of the nineteen strophes writes a syntactically interrupted and incomplete English that emerges filtered through the syntax of Yiddish. These lyrics are set to a repeated formal constraint, in which the first line of the poem isolated is followed by a three-line stanza, a five-line stanza, a three-line stanza, a four-line stanza, and then sometimes another stanza of varying length. In this repetition lies the strophiness, I suppose, and its consistency forms by contrast the continuously interruptive style of the series. 

Rather than representing the Yiddish-syntaxed English of the Ashkenazi-American immigrant as a gap in the complex (and often neurotic comedic) transfer of trauma between an immigrant generation and their English-fluent offspring (think Philip Roth, Art Spiegelman, Woody Allen), Fink’s strophes perform the translative gap in the landing of Yinglish syntax as both an investigation of the speaker’s expression of immigrant experience and, in a productive simultaneity, the flexibility and concerns of the poet-descendant’s hearing.

Though only a few of the poems explicitly infer a younger, English-fluent addressee, an intergenerational relation is active in each poem, for as Fink’s writing of Yinglish syntax creates a distinctly heard voice from poem to poem, it also plays a multiplicity of meanings in the word apprehended by the writer/listener whose generational status as emerged cultural fluent arrests the syntax as a subject of investigation. This is to write that these poems are distinctly not persona poems, in the most productive way. For while they consistently write a person’s voice, they write that person through the poet’s attention to the problems of signification in language. The titles of these poems (“Yinglish Strophes¹,” “Yinglish Strophes²,” etc …), by maintaining the plural of the series title (“Strophes”) in each instance, performatively point to this collision of multiplicity and singularity in the poems.

(Note: sometimes the inversions and absences of the Yinglish syntax explicitly express ambiguities in the space between people, i.e. “Sometimes friends / grow out you or / you grow out them.” While expressing the assertion of singular identity (an outgrowing and separating from your friends), the syntax also speaks a sense that friendship and identity are inseparable multiplicities in which people are growing from the bodies of others.)

Remarkable to these poems is how the poet’s attention to the multiple significations in the inverted English syntax of the speaker — an attention marked by interruptive line breaks and punctuation, mis-punned hearings and spellings — can also reflect itself back onto the person-voice in the language, not as mockery, but as a compassionate (a compassion not rooted in nostalgia) imagining of what this language signifies about particular immigrant experiences. What is investigated is an experience of identity in repeatedly speaking an English through Yiddish

“… No more 66 years.
Still greenhorn on the mouth
that’s me."

that expresses a non-distinction in perceiving abstract concept and physical object:

“                … The small
of the sentence, cavity
spoiling the mouth off.”

that inverts subject and object:

“Everyone keeps when they go 

to war things.”

walks a tonal ambiguity between statement and rhetorical question or exclamation:

“                              … She
wouldn’t let you anybody 

should help her”


“(A baby can explain

both assigns the gendered pronouns of Yiddish to objects and confuses the pronouns of English, can quickly cross the line into incomprehensibility, and must forcibly repeat the gap between the intention of saying and the said.

These investigations are often conducted through individual poems that begin with a subject integral to immigrant experience. “Yinglish Strophes²,” for example, writes the expression of adopted American nationalism in relation to Cold War politics:

Yinglish Strophes ²

Everyone keeps when they go

to war things. You remember
Miss Liberty? Russia’s a liar;
I don’t believe him. How

 far are they? They’re in
Cuba. They’re slaves. And they

want to expand over the whole
world they want. Not human
people there to give human

rights anyone. I like capitalism.

As far as I remember
is a lot progress. My

dentures isn’t Republic or Democratic.

Listen, it’s just as bad
all around and no president’ll
do any better. To find

meaningful jobs the unemployed. High
cost of living what can
we do about. A great

country like this shouldn’t
have their own oil, their own
everything? I have sweet potatoes
don’t give me. Soon, soon,
soon, soon you’ll get your

The speaker here expresses her/his relation to the US and Russia as gendered and pronouned: “You remember / Miss Liberty? Russia’s a liar; / I don’t believe him” (in which I’m strangely hearing Dylan’s reply to the “Judas” screamer!); and then voices ethical concerns of communist expansion: “Not human / people there to give human // rights anyone.” The situation of the stanza break in these lines critically reflects back on the expressed refusal to view the communist subject as human, by constructing the self-justifying nature of such as refusal in the statement “to give human, rights anyone.”

(Note: by instigating the addition of absent words and punctuation to fill out the sentence, Fink uses the Yinglish syntax as an expansion of the possibilities of reading by filling absences into multiple significations.)

The speaker then voices a permissive relation to the foreign policy of her/his adopted nation (“A great / country like this shouldn’t have / their own oil, their own / everything?”) that reanimates the origins of American manifest destiny with the debt of experiencing the nation as a refuge from persecution. This sense is affirmed and identified with its relation to capital gain and comfort of material possession by pun in the last lines of the poem when the speaker interrupts to address the listener: “Soon, soon, / soon, soon you’ll get your / steak.” 

Not all of the poems in this volume are so explicitly referential. The first six or so poems in the volume tend towards the declaration (with a not too filtering fidelity) of a discrete subject, while these subjects (nationalism, capitalism, religious and generational differences, narratives of an othered past) then seem to happen less as organizing principles in later poems, but rather reoccur within the poems’ somewhat entropic trajectory. 

Considering that quite a few lines have been drawn in the last few decades’ sand between poem as language subordinate to a speaker’s voice, and poem as investigation of the way meaning is produced in language, it is significant to read work that is clearly concerned with what performing both might mean. In Fink’s Yinglish Stropes 1–19, this involves creating a second-language speaker as an investigation of underlying structures in signification, but not only, it also uses the significance of those structures to better perceive the speaker’s world in relation to the act of it being written.  

A Marxian whelm of a pillowcase

A review of Timothy Donnelly's 'The Cloud Corporation'

The Cloud Corporation

The Cloud Corporation

by Timothy Donnelly

Wave Books 2010, 144 pages, $16, ISBN 9781933517476

Timothy Donnelly’s second full-length book of poetry, The Cloud Corporation, is chock-full of feverish strings of iambs and strictly measured stanzas that deftly lilt their way into the subconscious. Donnelly’s virtuosic aptitude for employing traditional poetic form to deliver delightfully idiosyncratic content will come as no surprise to any reader already familiar with the poet’s previous collection, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit. As Richard Howard observes in the foreword to that volume, “every poem coils about its syntax like a sleek python of reticulated verbality” (ix). What moves The Cloud Corporation into distinctively new, and welcome territory, is Donnelley’s inspired decision to indenture this formal prowess into the structural backdrop for his text.

The poems in The Cloud Corporation are fundamentally aware of themselves as objects of production. Donnelly frames each poetic art-object as an aesthetic commodity with the reflective capacity to wonder “why clouds we manufacture / provoke in an audience more positive, lasting / response than do comparable clouds occurring in nature” (31). This approach frees Donnelly to embrace the role of aesthete even as he dissects poetry’s inevitable complicity in the construct of capitalism.

The Cloud Corporation is populated by a mélange of first-person personas with an array of spatial and temporal origins. There are historical, contemporary, and imagined characters occupying landscapes that range from ancient Mesopotamia to the 9/11 Commission Report. These voices are intensely communal, mapping themselves over a “we” that sifts through both time and space. Collectively, these protagonists, whatever their origin, strive to imagine “what it might be like to live / detached from the circuitry that suffers me to crave” (146). They systematically chip away at the finely crafted veneers of the poems they occupy, all the while rebuking themselves, and us, for our inability to see past them.

A cloud of hypocritical guilt looms over the proceedings, which constantly calls into question the efficacy of any resistance these voices prepare to implement. If a poem’s position as an art-object provides a soapbox from which to launch a program of resistance, it is also a potential prison, where aesthetic value is prized absolutely. “I don’t want to have to / locate divinity in a loaf of bread, in a sparkler, / or in the rainlike sound the wind makes through // mulberry trees,” writes Donnelly in the book’s fourth poem, The New Hymns, “not tonight” (10).

Just as he plays the restraints of form and meter against the emerging voices of these poems, Donnelly allows the notion of singular transcendent genius to collapse under its own weight. “Listen to them carry on / about gentleness,” he continues later in the same poem, “when it’s inconceivable / that any kind or amount of it will ever be able to // balance the scales” (10). Rather than pulling away from introspection and self-discovery, Donnelly writes straight into these modes, embracing them with a cacophony of self-reflective “I’s” all reflecting at once. The result of this rhetorical end run is a sort of communal transcendence that refuses to accept compartmentalization.

To call these poems political, at least in a conventional sense, would be a distinct misrepresentation. These poems make no attempt to call readers to any particular action, aside from a general resistance to the status quo. And yet, neither are they apolitical. The poem Dream of Arabian Hillbillies — an amalgamation of language appropriated from Osama Bin Laden and the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies — searingly underscores the absurd repugnance of our contemporary political power structure even as it outlines, with businesslike pragmatism, the humble species of resistance we can hope to expect:

                                   May your life
not be a lifelong movie of your life
     but a steadfast becoming other than that

which you are: a slave to the power
     fiddling among hills of fed clouds and shaken
into wonderment like a shot horse barely
     gathering will to lay down with it, y’hear? (82) 

These are not propagandistic poems of revolution, but neither are they a battle cry for the disillusioned. Rather than simply identify the ills of society, Donnelly deliberately exposes the systems, both internal and external, that prevent us from righting them. These poems are fundamentally disinterested in oversimplification; they strive to expand their net of introspection “to know the world’s big backslap // unhampered by the stream of this or any downpour” (92).

Donnelly presents us with a veritable Marxist tract for the twenty-first century, fueled by a nagging uncertainty about revolution’s inevitability. He redeploys complex Marxian notions such as commodity fetishism (“I hear the naked hands of strangers make // my dumplings but experience insists what makes them / mine is money”) with such simple poetic panache they resonate with unexpected clarity (70). The Cloud Corporation, in all its temporal and self-reflective tumult, unearths the taproot of contemporary political malaise — our internalization of the new manifest destiny, an unwavering belief in the inevitable expansion of capitalism.

On the outskirts?

A review of Stephen Coliss's 'On the Material'

On the Material

On the Material

by Stephen Collis

Talonbooks 2010, 128 pages, $17.95, ISBN 889226326

For some years now, Stephen Collis has been working on a grand plan, a mission even — a plan toward which the volume under review, On the Material, apparently plays little part. Collis’s last two volumes of poetry, The Commons (2008) and Anarchive (2005) were contributions to what he has called The Barricades Project, an amorphous work-in-progress originally envisioned as including maybe three or four books of poetry and a novel, but now increasingly expansive and (the same thing?) ambitious. (For more details of the genesis and ongoing metamorphosis of The Barricades Project, see The Poetic Front, the online poetics journal Collis edits. He currently sees the pre-existing volumes as part of an initial section, “Platform,” while a second section, “The Architecture,” waits in the wings.) The focus of these first two volumes, and what they tell us of the scope of Collis’s project, is instructive.

Anarchive takes as its explicit subject matter the Spanish Civil War, but draws a lot of tangential material into its gravitational field: the anarchist thoughts (and deeds) of Kropotkin and Bakunin; Durutti and Ferrer; the Picasso of Guernica; Buňuel; Robert Motherwell; Lorca; Lorca as interpreted by Jack Spicer; the apocryphal Ramon Fernandez of Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” (rather than, or maybe in sync with, the real life critic); and, last but not least, Joe Strummer and the Clash (via “Spanish Bombs”). Despite the punning title and the self-depreciating self-depiction of himself “pulling down texts,” what is most striking about the volume is Collis’s continual passion and engagement: this is not backward-looking historicism for him, not an academic exercise; these are not dead battles:

I produce what is past
again and again
our souls slumped against
the desk whispering
throw it down
throw it down
at the heart of the future
this hope this elegy
espero elegio
that the violence of forgetting
will be remembered
with indignation
and a correspondence
over Spain will be
the always of revolutions

(There’s even room for a good bad joke: “and you called it paltry / when I spoke only of chicken”).

This powerful sense of empathetic engagement is carried over to The Commons, where the focus is now on the romanticism of Wordsworth, Clare and (via a quick transatlantic leap) Frost and Thoreau, the disputed reality of enclosure and landownership underlying their supposedly neutral “landscapes,” and the ideal of “wandering” as political act. Collis fervently disagrees with Frost’s neighbor that “good fences make good neighbors;” “The Frostworks,” the first sequence in the book, is a commentary on/palinode against Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and sets the agenda by preferring commonality over separation:

something there is
isn’t just
yours or mine
but between
the light of
eerie dawn or
dusk I coat
the fresh rockery
with movements
and maybe
stone fish fibre
crack block breath
bends leans turns
this onto that
in structure
I’m leaning
Into you too

Collis sets revolting peasants, Levellers and Diggers against enclosure, John Clare’s solitary journeying against confinement, a variety of period tourist guides to the Lake District against Wordsworth’s monolithic vision, all the time stressing freedom and variety over restriction and dearth: “O fence us not to fringe our senses” vs. “enclosure came / to dampen rambles.”

The aim of both books is seemingly to render a lost historical moment tangible again, for the grain of unused potentiality buried in the strata. Borrowing an epigraph from Frederic Jameson — “History progresses by failure rather than success” — Collis casts this belated quarrying piercingly:

What is history but the record
of the places where we were broken?

The triumph of these books, however, is that they refuse to see this situation as merely hopeless:

the wall
between us
is a collapse
of constituency
the boulders
are loaves
we break
all is pine
or apple trees
only he says
with nothing
between us
how are we
yet broken

In contrast with such ambitions, On the Material is “just” a book of poems. It is, in fact, the most disparate full-length volume Collis has produced thus far (even his debut, Mine, was unified in the attention it paid to the mining history of Vancouver Island). Given that The Barricades Project is, in prospect at least (and contra Pound), a poem containing everything, what does it mean to designate On the Material as outside the work? Is it even possible for there to be an outside? One of the most obvious differences, although it yields to complications on closer inspection, is that, coming from a poet more usually concerned with the epic (or, at least, the semi-epic, or post-epic), On the Material offers a relatively joyful (though occasionally sorrowful) romp in the fields of the lyric.

The first section, “4 X 4,” is the most contained and immediately engaging and attractive. Made up of forty-four sixteen-line poems, each organized into four-line stanzas (4 x 4), topped and tailed by a “double” intro and outro of eight four-line stanzas, making for a grand total of (48 x 4) 192 stanzas and 768 lines, it is shapely and orderly despite its locally disjunctive syntax. Such order both does and does not fit the subject matter. The sequence recounts a period “between February and May 2008, while travelling (or in anticipation or the immediate aftermath of travelling) in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Toronto, Buffalo, Portland, Anaheim, and San Diego,” the planning beforehand and the retrospection afterward. Place tends to bleed into place, and the titular vehicle becomes the defining constant. It all makes for thrilling contrast: as with all true satire, it flirts to some extent with the thing it professes to hate, and Collis does a good job invoking the sublime joy of the automotive:

Looking out the window I will
SUV all over this tarmac world
Fogs lights on                        suburban gladiator grill
Crunch of rock under tire

Whenever such elevated perspectives induce dreams of hubristic, panoptic power, the poem rights itself with playful bathos:

Here is a claw I
Took from a crab and now
Pretend to pinch at people with
Allegorical delight

Indeed, “4x4” and this volume as a whole allow Collis to stray away from the history of the Barricades volumes into genres (lyric, elegy, satire) and contexts (contemporary landscapes both tangible and geopolitical) previously alien to, or on the margins of, his poetry. In fact, it is somewhat shocking to encounter Collis so resolutely in the “now”:

We were in the last days of the
Poem            sun glinting off countless new and identical
Condo towers                        hard and the warmth of
Gourmet coffee            car idling at the curb

References to “Dubai indoor skiing,” “Hotel Europa,” “Ikea,” “Rumsfeld insisting insurgents / No longer be called ‘insurgents,’” “my Google brethren” and “the vast salt deserts of the Americas” abound, showing Collis’s mind out beyond his immediate physical peripheries, roaming the biosphere.

“4x4” ends stalled — as all satire must? — in “the desert of desire,” with a mere Utopian glance at a possible “ark of resistance” as “horizons future-lit burst bright beyond the frame.” Fun and games continue in the book’s second section, the Sonny Curtis, Bobby Fuller and Clash-echoing “I Fought the Lyric and the Lyric Won.” Collis has long rewired the lyric to carry epic-heavy freight, but has he been explicitly antilyric in the process? Well, if a prominent, foregrounded and consistent “I” is the lynchpin of “lyric” poetry, then that has never been the primary concern of Collis’s history-centric work, even if it has never directly denied the subjective: he simply wasn’t there personally and — as the “Dear Common” sequence shows — The Barricades Project keeps floating the possibility of the communal instead, of a subsuming of the lone ego in the mass.

Equipped, then, with a newly defined, individuated ego, the poems in “I Fought the Lyric and the Lyric Won” ring the changes on a whole gamut of recognizable lyric forms — the death haunted nature-inspired epiphany (“The End of Flight”); the modern(ist) twist on the classical (“Aristeus Mourning the Loss of his Bees”); the ode (“The History of Plastic” — more than ambivalent, admittedly); the intertextual conceit (“Self-Portrait in a Corvette’s Mirror”); and, last but not least, the ekphrastic ars poetica (“Poem Beginning with the Title of a Cy Twombly Painting”) — all given a Collis-specific spin (a natural-epiphany poem in Zukofskian five-word quantitative lines? A bee-filled Virgilian pastoral complete with cell phones, emptied accounts and spy cameras?). In its lack of a single unifying theme or approach, this section may seem the slightest of the three in the book, but that overlooks (or undervalues) the considerable wit on display and the degree to which these poems, precisely because of their “outsider” status, throw up microcosmic metonyms for Collis’s whole project, sometimes plaintive:

Is making itself
the problem?

Sometimes strident:

This means build I think
The architectures of dream the
Streaming columns rooms of gold
With poetry walls all jade
And gleaming and dark with
Night and wanting the firey
Posts shining lintel and above
This I’ll hang a flaming
Bird and its eternal flight
Will take whatever I have
Built with it

The book’s third and final section, “Gail’s Books,” carries Collis’s newly established lyric perspective further into the realm of elegy. The introduction relates how, shortly after the 2002 death of Collis’s sister from cancer, a fire destroyed her house, taking with it her worldly possessions, including her library, with the exception of only a few books: Kathleen Raine’s Selected Poems, Rilke’s Book of Hours and Novalis’ Philosophical Writings among them. With poetry presented as the “hinge” where the siblings’ interests met, it is not surprising that Collis seizes on the textual as a possible bridge between his own materialist perspective and the mystical and spiritual concerns that gave his sister what he calls an “outsideness to time.” The section takes it epigraph from Michael Palmer — “There’s still no truth in making sense” — and many of the poems seek to reverse the phrase’s logic, wringing some kind of hidden truth out of near-nonsense. The sequence “Variations and Translations from Rilke’s Book of Hours,” for example, translates not only homophonically (leading to such splendid right-wrong titles as “The Night Dies Sick and Stunned, Its Root Mic On” and “Ditch Water Nixed my Steam Watch”) but also “from one English to another,” yielding depth-sounding counterfactuals:

Swell, eye, to end times
Mic a bee whispering
“Lover of sheaves,” night
And waking feel the stream
Oven on, it’s cooking books

A stream wants moss
A rung lower, and tongs

Everywhere, Gail’s present absence is palpable. This is the burden of elegy, and, unsurprisingly, it draws from Collis some of his most tender and hushed writing to date:

Who speaks in limits is smoke

Whose hand opens the book points threads

Whose sister is the fire forming smoke

Whose ash is now ash’s ash

Who walks in that tall flame smoked

A politics rests its hands on its knees

A bird is in one hand it is
a flicker

The final (and title) poem links this individual loss back to Collis’s overarching rationale for poetry:

Though long dead
they reach you
with lines more
material than you
could have imagined
stays and spars
holding your vessel
in place

Whatever the individual attractions of the poems in On the Material (and they are, as I’ve hopefully indicated, numerous), as a whole it drives this reader at least to more general questions of inclusion vs. exclusion and the role of the “long poem” (or, even more dangerously, the “epic”) in early twenty-first century poetry. Is On the Material mere “parergon,” fingerwork warming up for the next bout of Barricades-related poetry? That belies the emotional heft of “Gail’s Books” and the satiric energy of “4X4”. There are things here, emotions and techniques, that, so far, Collis has not included in his longer work. One suspects the vacillation itself — is this out or in? — to be creative, a sort of built-in irritation out of which (does the oyster want the pearl?) further poetry will grow. The juxtaposition generates its own effect: this is Collis’s most personal volume to date, but, due its place alongside his other ongoing work, it never feels blandly confessional, rather just one more avenue of possibility.

The attraction of “The Barricades Project” as title, as concept, as riff on Benjamin’s Arcades Project, is in the translatability of raw material, the cobblestones that allow for swift transportation transfigured into defenses and obstacles that thwart access. Move them from one street to another, wherever the fighting is. Collis, as poet, unsurprisingly sees such flexibility and use in words themselves:

Try a “Barricades Project.” It can be made of words — it (power/revolution) always is. Tear them out of text and put them up against the sky, across the street.

Collis writes of the lifepoem, the work like Wordsworth’s The Recluse or Pound’s Cantos so tied to the poet’s life that death alone provides (artificial) closure. What does it mean, now, to adopt such a model self-consciously? Can one plan a ruin? Collis, quite likely, would assert that matter dictates the matter and that his expediencies and plans are as nothing compared to his whims and the necessities of his project (remember Pollock: “I am nature”):

It’s not that I advocate errantry
It’s that movement says rive

 So, is On the Materials in or out? If you say so.