Reviews

Against elegy: Michael Palmer's Book of the Dead

A review of 'Thread'

Thread

Thread

by Michael Palmer

New Directions 2011, 104 pages, $15.95, ISBN 0811219216

“Thread — Stanzas in Counterlight” is Michael Palmer’s Book of the Dead. The title series of his ninth full-length collection, these eighteen interlinked poems are not elegies in the traditional sense. Neither songs of lament, nor, strictly speaking, commemorations for the departed, they reconfigure the genre. In these extraordinary poems, among the most moving and powerful of his career, the dead appear as companions on the way, intimately joined to the enterprise of living. Thread transforms elegy into crystalline paleography — a writing before writing that is also beyond it. Here, the customary polarity between innocence and experience is reversed. Innocence is not what is lost; it can only be gained. It does not precede experience, but is produced by it. For innocence is not a category of purity outside the travails of experience, but a condition that is achieved only by passing through the sorrows of an arduous contingency. The poems in Thread amply testify to this. In “Transit,” for instance, the sight of Creeley’s final book, On Earth, spurs a mournful, yet consoling, recognition.

We’ve come

to the old
echoes again,
swallowed songs,
tongues of cloud and wind.[1]

The delicious image of a “swallowed song” rides on a cascade of vowels. The old echoes go with us, through us, speak out of us, again. So many of these poems feel like fragments of an overheard conversation. Nearly every one of them trails a ghostly double, beckoning us, in their uncanny incompleteness, to listen for further, unheard melodies. In “Fragment After Dante,” the first of a three-part series, the poet finds himself stranded in the realm of shadows: “And I saw myself in the afterlife of rivers and fields / among the wandering souls and light-flecked paths” (34). Amid the suffering of the dead, the greatest torment is to hear them speak, “chatting about nothing,” yet failing to understand them. The second Dante fragment resonates with muted pain.

And she clasped my arm and said,
You, my son, who have lingered

too long among the dead, go
and return to the lighted shore

for those brief moments you have left. (35)

In a haunting image, the speaker’s face transforms “from old to young” as she vanishes. Memory’s dream of what-was mingles promiscuously with its hope for the Not-Yet. Throughout, Thread generously acknowledges that its every word is merely on loan from “the thief’s journal,” Palmer’s phrase, by way of Genet, for the floating para-text of unowned language. This is elegy against elegy: not a quixotic defiance of mortality, but a deepening awareness of it; a way to write into and out of finitude.

Thinking of the dead this way enables Palmer to do away with appeals to the cult of the personal and its fetish for the unique. “The dead” in these poems name an experience in which loss is only another form of continuity. They are always near and yet irreparably distant. In this way, the poem occupies a Rilkean angelic topos: it circulates freely between the living and the dead without making any distinctions between them. To speak the dead this way is to place them in an order of belonging beyond sentimental coercion. They remain strange and vivid; sheltered within memory, but also outside it; irrefragably singular.

Thread inhabits the melancholy landscape familiar to Palmer’s readers, a place where language ratifies itself by signifying its own failure. Written under the agonizing sign of Saturn’s slowness, they are harrowing in their humility and directness. Simplicity here is neither a reduction nor a retreat, but the earned complexity of a late style in a late hour. To call “Threads” a tour de force would only defame it. These “threads” are addresses, colloquies, homages — unanswered questions that concentrate Palmer’s concerns for his art as a site for making counter-meanings, those micro-resistances that push back against the crushing sense of moral fatigue born of loss, suffering, and slaughter.

The “stanzas in counterlight” bring together reflections on the possibility of art with poems to fellow writers such as Robin Blaser, Gustaf Sobin, Alexei Parshchikov, Roberto Bolano, and Mahmoud Darwish. In tone and imagery, the series calls to mind At Passages’ “Six Hermetic Songs,” his elegy for Robert Duncan and perhaps the inaugural poem in his Book of the Dead, though it seems he’s always been writing this way, “ahead of all departure.” With its prayers of intercession and spells for safeguarding the soul’s passage through the underworld, Palmer models his own funerary chants for Duncan after The Egyptian Book of the Dead, guiding the older poet into the afterlife of language.


Photos of Robert Duncan by LaVerne Harrell Clark via University of Arizona Poetry Center.

It’s worth dwelling on the Duncan elegy. “Six Hermetic Songs” begins with an epigraph, taken from The Book of the Dead’s chapter “On the Coming Forth by Day.”

Bring along the Makhent boat
for I have come to see Osiris
lord of the
ansi garment [2]

This ritualistic language sets the scene for the six sections to follow, each of which charts a stage on the soul’s journey through the hazards and judgments of the underworld in its progress back toward day. Here is the first poem of the series.

How did we measure
it says we measured up and down
from the sepia disk
to the crowded ship
of Odysseus

How did we measure
it says we measured
with a copper thread
from the plum flower
to the forgotten gift

Was the tain’s smoke
equal to song
the vein of cedar
to a pin’s bones
Burns each

earlier day
in its soundless weight
measured by the nets
of air
Go there.[3]

The haunting cadences of this solemn poem sound a plangent note, its clipped, roughly five-beat lines counting out a purposeful, liturgical insistence on the body as it remembers gravity, its weighted measure, kept whole by cedar yet dissolved in the “tain’s smoke,” the mist of song passing over a mirror as the last syllable is uttered. As Palmer frames it, measure (or metron) names a messianic splice for keeping time in the poem by interrupting it. The final — “Go there” — commands the dead poet to take passage in song’s “nets of air.”

The measure of the poem here is not made according to traditional prosody, but by what Palmer elsewhere calls the Laws of Forms, that responsiveness of “the poem’s eternal stance against passive subjectivity, against the given, on behalf of the unspeakable and the unheard.”[4] Duncan appears as the keeper of this measure, both by the example of his work and through his role as a guardian of ancient and esoteric knowledge. More than that, though, measure names the predicament of poetry as it confronts the limits of its own saying. In the third poem the older poet speaks, recalling his vanished life:

The calls and careless fashioning,

digits thrown like dice
I don’t think about that anymore

Send me my dictionary.
Write how you are.[5]

For Duncan, the arch-mage of postmodern poetry, the dictionary is nothing if not a book of spells, a grimoire by which the poet might conjure a world, or rather, a web of subtle connections between past and present, the vanished and the visible. The suggestion that Palmer’s mentor has entrusted him with his dictionary implies both the passing on of a lineage and a plaintive cry for the restoration of dear earthly objects, like the ones the Egyptians placed in their tombs to ease the dead’s voyage over dark waters. More than that, the dictionary signifies the limitless potential for bibliomantic conjuration, the thief’s journal par excellence.

The final poem of “Hermetic Songs” is a kind of summoning: a voice, calling over water, over distance, either in final farewell, or hailing return. 

The wrecked horn of the body
and a water voice

The horn of the body
and a slanted water voice

The notes against the gate
and the erasures of the gate.[6


H.D. (undated), via Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

A complex set of echoes is put in motion here, recalling Duncan’s own “After a Passage in Baudelaire” (”Ship, leaving or arriving, or my lover, / my soul, leaving or coming into this harbor”), and back of that, the closing lines of H.D.’s Vale Ave (“I ask for this, the blessing of the Ship, of the ‘Parole,’ / in remembrance of the seven times we met”).[7] “The wrecked horn of the body,” like the Jewish shofar, names both an exalting music and the unyielding stuff of obdurate matter. “Six Hermetic Songs” closes with a set of interrogative affirmations, asking “Whose night-songs and bridges // and prisms are these.”

What figures within the coil
tortoise and Bennu bird

lotus and hawk
palette plus ink-pot.

The Bennu Bird is the Egyptian phoenix, a figure associated with rebirth in an afterlife, while the lotus signifies “the divine splendor that belongeth to the nostrils of Ra,” that is, to the body’s breath, its divine measure.[8] The final image is of the poet composing himself with his familiar ink-pot in the resurrected life, writing beyond the ending.

I’ve revisited “Six Hermetic Songs” at such length because “Thread — Stanzas in Counterlight” so strongly echoes and carries forward its concerns. In the manner of Duncan’s own Passages, these poems ask to be read together, across their separate volumes, as parts of a single work. The first and twelfth poems in the series glow with the same kind of heraldic language that marks “Hermetic Songs.”

Nighthawk and sun-bird
beauty of the world      beauty of the world

How can one write      beauty of the world? (75)

And:

Nighthawk and sun-bird
Who will tell of it

Shore’s eyelid, earth’s rim
light from extinguished stars

bathing us
in time’s wake

time’s long
stream of slaughter

and song
Some love

the one more
some the other. (87)

Thread is lambent with such figurality. The recurring figures of the bird, the fountain, the book; of Babylon, the moth, the lovers — these are ideas as character, emblems of a spiritual imaginary that supersede and amplify the earlier work’s immersion in linguistic metamorphology. Utterly transparent, they militate against concretion, yet their very clarity renders them enigmatic. They carry over Palmer’s analytic lyric into the key of allegory.

In these poems figurality is the idea of form itself. The ideal of correspondence so dear to Baudelaire migrates from the hermetic notion of a mirror that reflects the heavenly in the earthly and the earthly in the heavens, to the fructifying dissonance between word and thing, past and present. Loss prefigures redemption, of course, but only as muted whispers from the realm of ghosts. A devoutly secular alchemist of the word, Palmer invites traffic with the transformative powers of the strange, even as he confutes all claims put forward on behalf of a tyrannical spiritual orthodoxy. 

Tenses of the present, Mahmoud, the (im)possible
present, infinite presents threading
now forward, now back. Amidst the
shattered symmetries and scattered fictions,
between actual river and imagined shore,
actual breath of wind through the frayed (91)

The present is the infinite — expansion of the actual into the imagined, the imagined into the actual. If there can be no final truth, or if it is only and already imperfectly figured through language, the dream of alteriority nevertheless persists, in large part because language is structured to imagine its own outside. As a system for shaping interiority by organizing experience, its logic is geared to continually surpass and subvert its own boundaries. Language is thread, and nothing but — weaving, unweaving, reweaving.

The idea of the thread runs throughout Palmer’s poetry, integral to his project for building “threads of speech and constellations of sound … rather than a single, unitary voice.”[9] The opening of “Baudelaire Series” attests to this, speaking of “the mechanism of the larynx / around an inky center / leading backward-forward // into sun-snow / then to frozen sun itself / Threads and nerves have brought us to a house.”[10] And further on in the same poem we find the Palmerian locus classicus:

What if things really did
correspond, silk to breath

evening to eyelid
thread to thread.[11]

What marks this chain of likenesses is their unlikeness. Baudelaire’s dream is accomplished, not by an intimate metaphysics, but through a language of dissimilarity. Thread’s allure as a constellating trope, its ability to articulate a grammar of correspondence between unlike things, forms the core of Palmer’s conception of language and its polymorphously perverse power to link by way of dissonance. If silk is a synonym for breath, then evening imitates the action of the eyelid, closing over the field of vision. “Thread to thread” promises an exact equivalence, a braiding of identical things. Yet the necessity of repetition casts a shadow between the first and the second instance of the term. “Thread to thread” invites connection, but the slippery preposition can equally signal a gap.

To thread, then, is to work midrashically, for these poems take up Palmer’s abiding concerns with the necessity for dispersing the subject and the concomitant counter-struggle to preserve its singularity, if only as a remnant. In Thread, the figure of the book appears as a messianic object, braiding together now with then, here with there, in a suspension of time where the words of the dead are spoken as one’s own even as the dead speak through the lips of the living. This bewitched chiasmus in many ways defines Palmer’s project, his desire to dissolve and connect, forget and remember, to “add yourself jubilantly, and erase the score,” as Rilke puts in Sonnets to Orpheus. Only in this way can the poem resist succumbing to mere introspective reverie.

Late style in Palmer is not the willful intransigence Adorno admires in Beethoven’s final works. Rather, it is a deepening of themes, a move toward a radical simplicity, a return, in other words, as in a sonata, to first statements, in the key of clarity. In a 2006 interview with Ken Bullock, Palmer describes the trajectory of his poetry as “moving a little bit away from radical syntax into the mysteries of ordinary language, in the philosophical if not every day sense. It probably looks less unusual on the page. And I’ve been interested in the infinite, ingathering potential of the lyrical phrase — not confession, but the voicing of selves that make up the poetic self, from Greek lyrics to the Italians, to modern poets like Mandelstam.”[12] These are the same concerns that have marked his strongest work all along, most notably “Baudelaire Series,” which according to Palmer investigates lyric from Hölderlin on. But if Palmer has moved away from explorations of linguistic syntax, he’s taken up in turn the serpentine syntax of dreams, whose logic is a yearning for a replenishing otherness, as in “Broad Waking.”

Slant from the poem’s mouth
Atlantis arrives, the cries
of children arise, the dance
begins, perfect circle of the
squared poem, its cardinal
points, stillness and motion
and the singing against time,
the dancing in time,
the ringing in our ears,
the silence as the waters rise (47)


The oneiric landscape rises, a figural domain porous with primal interiority. Closer to Gennady Aygi (another poet honored in this book) than George Oppen, it hews all the same to the Objectivist credo of austere minimalism, the sense that each word can be arrived at only through patient struggle. Late style in Palmer is a slow concrescence, an exactitude of means.


Gennady Aygi image via Beijing Language and Culture University.

Along the corridors
of the invisible world, Raúl,

gardeners raise such flowers
as need no light

such flowers
watered by voices

as need no eyes
to be seen. (79)

In this poem to the Chilean poet Raul Zurita, whose most well known work, Purgatorio, recounts the nightmarish imprisonment the poet suffered under the Pinochet regime, the invocation of “the invisible world” where “flowers need no light” but are instead “watered by voices” for the eyeless, attests to the necessity of an inner, allegorical landscape where poetic language can still radiate, free of tyranny and oppression. “The invisible world,” one might say, is the place where disaster is rewritten in a language that translates suffering into the spectrum of recognition.

Similarly, the poem to Robin Blaser attends to the intimate undertow of a poetics that knows all it says is said in the shadow of its own vanishing.

The moth, Robin,
we’ve both learned
at different times
from its motion, a
quantum of nothing
could we say,
dusk to dark morning
before full day,
a battering of wings,
night notes sounding
beyond our extinction

Moth verges on and merges with mouth, an image of transience and longing fluttering in its “quantum of nothing,” a figure for speech “sounding / beyond our extinction” (81). But this is a sounding that also utters hesitation, each comma starkly denoting the pause of breath in a poem that otherwise refuses final punctuation. Narrow constructionists, the kind of readers who’ve made idols of Sun or Notes for Echo Lake, might deride these slender poems as a falling off, but I find them incredibly moving. They represent the distillation of a lifetime’s attendance to the nuances of a luminous art written under the sign of shadow.

What Palmer accomplishes in this book is the meaning of being haunted, poetically – the way a poem burrows into us, becomes an intimate part of our psychic life. Haunting in this sense is not some stubborn refusal to move on after grief. Rather it is an active form of melancholy, a rejection of the proscriptive hygiene for mourning and its insistence on the palliative. It is not a morbid keeping open of the wound, but a preservation of the dead as a still vibrant field of interior force. Far from memorializing loss, it incites recognition. For loss to be loss it must abjure closure. The coda-like lyric for Gustaf Sobin poignantly bears this out.

Gustaf, under earth
by the tiny grave-pits
Merovingian words we
speak by the plague wall
by the house of the suicide
by the Mount of Winds
sits the low house of stone
lies the silk-maker’s house
thread spun and gone.
Words are the distant home. (92)

The enjambed syntax performs a liturgical rite, redeeming spirit in a house of words where melodic frequency is attuned to estrangement’s deeper belonging, its “distant home.” The sense of desolation is powerful here because so carefully modulated. It’s consoling, as only the bleakest measure can be.

This thread of threnodies calls to mind, of course, Duncan’s Great Companions, a theme noted by Geoffrey G. O’Brien in his perceptive review of Company of Moths. In that book, a trend that has always marked Palmer’s work, but which only moved to the fore in At Passages, became more pronounced — namely, his shift to a distinctly bardic register. This shift has gone largely unremarked on, though Norman Finkelstein gives a good account of Palmer’s relation to Duncan’s poetics in his recent On Mount Vision. What does the bardic in Palmer look like? As I’ve already suggested here, it partakes of a heraldic vocabulary, a secular typology that inverts the polarity between thing and word. Here is the sixth poem in the series:

It is the role of the lovers to set fire to the book.

In the palm garden at night they set fire to the book

and read by the light of the book.

Syllables, particles of glass, they pass back and forth in the dark.

The two, invisible - transparent - in the book,

their voices muffled by the book.

It is the role of the lovers to be figures of the book, the

illegible book,

changing as the pages turn,

now joined, now clawing the fruit from each other’s limbs,

now interlaced, now tearing at throat and vein,

then splayfoot, then winged, then ember,

as the music of the book,

rustling through the palms,

instructs. (80)

“To be figures in the book,” even as it burns, even as its burning illuminates the words on its pages, is to guarantee the promise of “the invisible world,” where the poem is continually remade through a kind of doubling , echoing and re-echoing in a gallery of citations and counter-citations. The book, Palmer understands, will always be “illegible;” its burning at once a source of illumination and obscurity; a figure of music alternating between the “splayfoot” and the “winged,” and written in an alphabet whose transparency is only the others side of the invisible, “the muffled.” It must be that which, even in its plain saying, remains hidden, a zero of logic “rustling through the palms.” The book as music. Perhaps this is what I’ve been trying to say here all along.

And I’ve said nothing about the rest of the book. Scattered with the kind of amusing bagatelles Palmer has always written, the highlights of the first section, “What I Did Not Say,” are the three series, “The Classical Study,” “Say,” and “Aygi Cycle.” The first of these features a playful figure called The Master, a kind of trickster male muse who calls to mind both Duncan himself and his Master of Rime: “The Master of Rime told me, You must learn to lose heart. I have darkened this way and you yourself have darkend. Are you so blind you cant see what you cant see?”[13] Gnostic endarkenment subducts the poem into telluric currents of language. Or, as Palmer writes, it’s a game “where silence matters / above all, or do I mean sound?” (6).

“Aygi Cycle” stands apart from and alongside of “Thread.” These ten short poems are a kind of prelude to the longer series. Here Aygi is refracted through the lens of Oppen and Cezanne. The fragility of a single word becomes the very source of its power. It does not attempt to mean, since meaning is too fraught a task, only to persist somehow before its own imminent disappearance. At that wavering boundary line, the indeterminate zone between affirmation and negation, the word hovers, as in the Cycle’s fifth poem:

Within the small poem time
and tales of the preening gods
among the sliding stars

and love’s silent
mirror held up
to the crimes of war

within the small poem (58)

As the tender of silence and smallness, Aygi watches over the garden of ruins, where renunciation opens the portal to the field of the other. In Palmer’s reading, Aygi makes of childhood a space for “entering into awareness and into speech.” His Aygi is brought into conversation with Oppen’s elegy for Reznikoff, where the poem is written “in the great / world small.” Another thread woven, glimmering.

In Thread the dead are not the departed, but those who go along with us. Asymmetrical, they map the jagged experience of living onto the impossible promise form makes to spirit. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the soul is made ready to pass judgment before Osiris before it can “come forth by day” into a second life. The poems in Thread are that second life, the small place, as in “After Hölderlin,” where, concealed from day, abiding in silence:

One must wait
to draw a night song from these names,

the then and the now, the dark and light
as they alternate, just out of reach. (41)

 


[1] Michael Palmer, Thread (New York: New Directions, 2011), 65. All subsequent page references will be placed in parentheses.

[2] Palmer, At Passages (New York: New Directions, 1995).

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Palmer, Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks (New York: New Directions, 2008), 80.

[5] Palmer, At Passages, 33.

[6] Ibid., 36.

[7] Robert Duncan, Roots and Branches (New York: New Directions, 1964), 77; H.D., Vale Ave (Redding Ridge, CT: Black Swan Books, 1992), 76.

[8] The Egyptian Book of the Dead, trans. E. A. Wallis Budge, 20, 263.

[9] Philip Dow, 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate (New York: HBJ, 1984), 341. 

[10] Palmer, Sun (Berkeley, CA: North Point Press, 1988), 9.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] Interview with Ken Bullock, April 7, 2006.

[13] Duncan, Roots and Branches, 170.

This other thing the kids are doing

A review of 'Museum of the Weird'

“A student recommended Mary Miller’s Big World to me the other day; we were at a bar and she brandished it like a pack of the best cigarettes anyone has ever smoked.”

So begins a post (“This new thing the kids are doing”) by J. Robert Lennon on the now-defunct blog Ward Six (curated by Lennon and his wife, Rhian Ellis, for just under four and a half years).

The post isn’t so much about Mary Miller as it is about, as the title suggests, “this thing.” 

“It’s partially a McSweeney’s thing,” Lennon writes. “And it’s also kind of neo-Carverian. It’s minimalist, sort of, and sometimes it’s selfconsciously [sic] odd.” 

He says Amelia Gray does it too.

Gray’s new collection, The Museum of the Weird, is, indeed, representative of a certain kind of contemporary fiction. It’s a fiction that maybe couldn’t have stood a chance of flourishing before Youtube and Twitter. Before LOLcats. Before the Internet really took off. Yes, one story here, “Trip Advisory: The Boyhood Home of Former President Ronald Reagan,” appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency back in 2006, but there’s something else going on here, too, something more.

In one story, “The Darkness,” an Armadillo named Betsy and a Penguin named Ray sit in a bar and drink and talk:

“I fought the darkness,” says Ray. 

“Neat,” says Betsy.

It’s not really an allegory, and its ending doesn’t suddenly recast what came before it, throwing it all into a new light. Really, it’s more like an absurdist joke — the comedic work of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, or of Zach Galifianakis, comes to mind before anything else.

Another story, “Fish,” begins like this: “Dale was married to a paring knife and Howard was married to a bag of frozen tilapia.” She leads with the punch line and then builds a world around it. It’s sublime for its not meaning anything.

Yet Lennon’s critique of this kind of work is understandable: he says it can seem

“precious, or random…like a night spent smoking pot in your sister’s apartment with her grad school friends. You know they’re smart, and you know you’re as smart as they are, but you don’t understand a thing they’re saying. It’s not for you: it’s an insider code.”

The trouble with this kind of reading is that it overlooks the humor, or perhaps simply doesn’t get the joke; misinterprets it as something more earnest — because that’s what Gray’s doing when she writes a story like “The Darkness,” or “Fish”: she’s telling jokes, she’s playing tricks on us.

But there’s this other thing the kids are doing that Lennon doesn’t talk about, and it’s something that Gray does in this collection, too. Her story “The Movement,” begins with this fragment: “The end of an,” and then has three paragraphs about Joseph Stalin’s funeral. The pattern continues: “What they provide and how they function (present day)” followed by a relatively coherent paragraph. Gradually, a story emerges, but it’s buried beneath a choppy form; another story, “Thoughts While Strolling,” does this too. It’s something that calls to mind the works of Donald Barthelme or Lydia Davis. Indeed, the influence of both writers is all over this collection. In “The Cube,” for instance, a mysterious cube appears in the middle of a town and, much like Barthelme’s famous balloon, serves as the vessel through which contemplation can occur. 

But even at their most humorous, Barthelme’s stories gesture toward something bigger — the non sequiturs aren’t just meant to be funny. If Barthelme is an influence here, then his influence is a mixed blessing, for his legacy, really, is most visible on some of the weakest links in this collection — stories in which Gray jettisons tradition altogether and revels in the fragmentary, in the inscrutable. Whereas humor in Barthelme is a means to an end, Gray’s humor, at its best, is the end. It can seem random, yes, like a night smoking pot, but that’s because it is. When it works, it is.

The standouts in this collection are those that behave just as you’d expect them to, yet leave you in a place that you weren’t expecting to be left. They almost operate like practical jokes — luring you in with clean, unadorned sentences and then plodding along from one paragraph to the next. If you’re not paying much attention you can lose yourself in the structure and just kind of float to the end, only later realizing that you’ve been had — tugged along through a story without any real conflict or resolution to speak of. There’s something about Gray’s humor that simply is, and therein lies the beauty of this new thing the kids are doing.

A practitioner's commitment to principle in art

A review of 'An Art of Limina'

An Art of Limina: Gary Hill's Works and Writing

An Art of Limina: Gary Hill's Works and Writing

By George Quasha and Charles Stein

Ediciones Polígrafa 2009, 640 pages, $75, ISBN 9788434310421

Perhaps astonishingly, I had never watched a video by Gary Hill before reading this book. Luckily, the book is designed to keep the work of Gary Hill open, so that when I finally did encounter the videos (all the single-channel work is now online at www.garyhill.com), I was not burdened by the outer husk of a reified interpretation. On the contrary, it seemed that I was seeing each piece in multiple dimensions, making connections with the text and — in many instances — continuing along my own path. An Art of Limina is an invitation to keep seeing the work anew, even to those for whom it actually is new.

For authors George Quasha and Charles Stein, the works of Gary Hill are decidedly not new; the book primarily comprises essays written on the basis of thirty years of collaboration and dialogue amongst all three artists/poets. As Quasha remarks elsewhere, “It takes a life to be known.” But knowledge and time hold a particular significance for the authors, and neither makes claim to any definitive interpretation based on privileged access. Lynne Cooke’s foreword rightly emphasizes a tension between different modes of historical allegiance: Quasha and Stein are noted to consistently elicit concrete precedents while simultaneously distancing themselves from general trends in criticism and art history. This is an important acknowledgment, but its significance can only be understood in conjunction with the authors’ own relationship to the artist.


Gary Hill, Incidence of Catastrophe (1987–88). Courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.

An Art of Limina is not a book “about” Gary Hill in any conventional sense, which is one way that it departs from more traditional art criticism. The distinction between “interpretation” and “the further life of the work” — a trope that recurs with remarkable frequency across a range of otherwise divergent essays — offers an explanation for the tension noted by Cooke in the foreword and situates the significance of their project as a poetics. “Further life” is functionally defined as “an extension of the creative energy and interest that the work itself … projects through its own instance,” which contrasts with interpretation viewed as definitive account and/or assessment in art historical discourse (9). As a “further life” manifestation of the work of Gary Hill, the book is performative at every level, meaning that it is as much a reflection on its own process as on the art to which it explicitly refers. In other words, the authors implicitly evoke (without discussing) the nature of their own work as much as the art of Gary Hill, which is why it is impossible to say anything about the one without reflecting on the other. (It’s important to note that the book is also a factually definitive account of the works discussed, to the extent of correcting errors in a previous catalogue raisonné.)

The “principle complex,” which is laid out in the prologue to frame subsequent text and recurs frequently throughout, serves as a theoretical basis for the book’s pervasive self-reflexivity. In distinguishing “principle” from “concept,” the authors explain that “[u]nlike a concept, a principle is never defined by the work, of which there can be an unlimited number; there is no definitive instance” (93n). Whereas conceptual art is oriented around an external (or previously formulated) standard and is often fully realized with a single manifestation, principle-based art is an organic creation that develops from a ground of open potentiality. The two terms are not dichotomously opposed, but while principle-based art manifests unlimited possibility, conceptual art without a core principle is an effective dead end.

The “principle complex” comprises three inseparable principles, which together can be aspects of a practitioner’s commitment to principle in art: axiality, liminality, and configuration. As a functional definition, the “axial” is defined as “the conscious, radical self-alignment that liberates identity/work into its unknown further possibility” — the principle of dynamic orientation by which an art action is realized as a singularity within a given context/medium (38). Although the true dynamism of this principle is difficult to capture in a single sentence, it has much to do with the commonplace experience of personality maintaining certain integrity across various contexts and interactions; and it applies equally to a body’s efficient mode of operation in space-time.

Directly linked to axiality, the “liminal” implies “a conscious choice to work at the edge and accept the energetic advantage of precariousness” (45). The reappearance of the word “conscious” is no coincidence; liminality, in this specific usage, involves recognition of the processual embodiment of principle (which is never contained within a given body) and operates in that “between” space where axis is assuming particular orientation.

Finally, the “configurative” is a “textualization in process,” the weaving of a particular orientation with its own internal consistency (56). Developing out of previous art historical conceptions, the configurative is an essentially performative response to the realization of radical potentiality:

If traditional representational art is “figurative,” in the sense that it seeks to capture the “figure” — the structure and shape — of the object it represents; and if art that moves away from the figurative is “abstract” (in the precise sense of “drawn away from”); then later art that allows a non-referential yet identifiable image to form anew can be thought of as con-figurative or re-configurative. (58)

Configurative works depart from a postmodern absence of perspectival view with an anamorphic shift in perspective; now that freedom of form is a familiar concept, the question is no longer one of depicting our world, but of creating possible worlds. If figuration is a word in a sentence and abstraction explores its grammar, then configuration follows from the possibility of infinite sentences beyond the first. As such, conscious awareness is equally important for the third term in the complex: “When we become aware of this event of configuration … we are rendering the world-weave accessible to reconfiguration” (ibid). An axis opens to the conscious participant, who is now free to perform its further life, and a new word enters a language.

Gary Hill, Wall Piece (2000); single-channel video/sound installation. Video projector, strobe light and strobe controller with steel
floor mount, two speakers, one DVD player and one DVD (color; stereo sound). All images courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.

With this in mind, An Art of Limina can be read as a manifesto of sorts — the performative rendition of a poetic principle. The authors state as much explicitly in Preliminaries: “That makes this in some ways a work in realizing a general poetics shared by the three of us — that is, a poetics as the working principles of a time-based art, one that pertains to language and a range of visual, auditory, and electronic objectification” (8). And since the principle is simultaneously named and operative, a descriptive passage about a piece by Gary Hill without reference to the authors’ work is illuminating on this account:

This [voiceover] might even be heard as a manifesto declaring a radical new realm of video synthesis, except that the utterance itself belongs to happenstance on the same plane as the developing imagery.… If in the apparent tug of war between word and image the words threaten to overwhelm the video with over-positive interpretation, it is equally true that the images and the process as a whole reclaim what is being stated verbally and refuse to be dominated by the concepts with which they are, nevertheless, in perpetual interaction. Virtual dialogue supplants any inferred polemic. (123)

Although the original context is incommensurate, the same proportions delimit Gary Hill (as video) and George Quasha and Charles Stein (as voiceover). The authors are proposing a critical discourse in dialogue — a mode of speaking with principle-based art and that, in the process of naming, configures the latter’s axis within the consensual medium of language: “the meaning of the image is given by the word, the meaning of the word is given by the image, and together an intimate and significant gesture is performed” (284n). Rather than the closure of conceptual interpretation, their aim is to resonate with the artwork on principle, opening it to ever further associations of kinship: “the premise [is] that the work is never complete — that the distinctions that a work makes are never definitive, but that they are always generative, and that … efforts at definition don’t limit the way a work comes in but encourage continuous beginning from it” (517). And since, as I have argued, the nature of An Art of Limina is self-similar (i.e., the parts resemble the whole), the same dialogical relationship is evident within Gary Hill’s works themselves. The authors remark:

[W]e ourselves are the extended medium of the piece.… Perhaps we should speak of resonance, that is, how an articulated impulse resonates in us, what it continues to do inside us, what it gives birth to in some complex sense that cannot be conceptualized outside of the work’s continuing process. In this sense Gary Hill’s way of engaging with Blanchot, Heidegger, or Bateson is not to discuss, illustrate or comment on these sources but to resonate with them — is not, indeed, so much an intertextuality as an extended textuality, a further life. (200)

Thus, rather than making a video “about” Blanchot, Gary Hill’s video coperforms with Blanchot’s writings by aligning with them on a structural level, elaborating a shared context whose expansion furthers the reach of all contributions and constantly redefines the field.

This review is thus, optimally, an instance of such resonance. In fact, I had the same reaction to An Art of Limina as George Quasha experienced when first encountering Gary Hill’s Happenstance: “Happenstance was like a read-out of a part of my own brain, because it proved something I fantasized was true, that in the deepest sense a poem is an animate force that is active in all of the mind’s projections, visual/aural/tactile” (479). After musing for years about the potential of art to declare context and create worlds — art that “radically orients and reorients space, time, language, thought, even dreams and visions … simply by declaration” — I was astounded (259). George Quasha and Charles Stein have accomplished something that I have long dreamed about: a book that simultaneously embodies and offers a core vocabulary for an entire species of radically performative art. It is an ambitious project, which is reflected in the book’s encapsulation of their thirty years of shared experience.

An Art of Limina has profound ethical and political implications reaching far beyond the delimited fields of art history and poetics. In awakening to the existence of thresholds/limens, we replace “the hypnosis of automatic signification and consensual interpretation” with the discovery and development of complex new orders of human reality (331; 399). This awareness of reconfiguration and its potential opens new orientations of being in the world, and “to model the relationship between thought and world, language and sense … is by that very act to change the intuitive context of the way we think of the world, thus to change the world itself” (292n). Rather than blind indoctrination into an existing symbolic context and consequent exposure to gross manipulation, performative art emphasizes the ethical responsibility of conscious involvement as “art-beings who exist in relation to more or less continuous projection of our own event” (261). (Corporations are already remarkably well versed on this point; see Leadership: Theory, Application, and Skill Development by Robert N. Lussier and Christopher F. Achua, who write frankly on “the process of culture creation, sustainability, and renewal” [370].) Further, the poetics explored here is profoundly democratic; while the significance of conceptual art is often constrained to a select few, in principle-based art “the images carry within their own graphic qualities and sequential structures everything necessary to bring the viewer into ‘initiation’” (227). Perhaps “invitation” is a more suitable word — a call to further the life of the work.

The poet’s novel

A review of ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’

Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station

by Ben Lerner

Coffee House Press 2011, 186 pages, $15.00, ISBN 9781566892742

Some poets transition from poetry to novels rather in the spirit of an enlisted man joining the officer corps. Denis Johnson comes to mind as someone who turned from poems to novels without looking back; even more prominent is the case of Michael Ondaatje, whose best fiction, I think, still has a foot in poetry (Coming Through Slaughter, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid). Others, like Stuart Dybek and Charlie Smith, may continue to write poetry but nevertheless have passed on, have risen or fallen to the identity of the fiction writer.

The rarer and more interesting cases, to my mind, are those poets who write fiction but remain poets. Joyelle McSweeney has written two novels, Flet and Nylund, the Sarcographer; but because their prose is often strange, calling the sort of attention to itself that prose fiction rarely does, they don’t sacrifice the eccentricity of poetry. Better known is the case of Roberto Bolaño, who began as a poet but became famous as a fiction writer. As far as I can tell from the one volume of his poetry that I’ve read, the world is entirely justified in esteeming him only for his fiction; yet he thought of himself as a (failed) poet and I persist in thinking of him that way, for the strange anti-eloquence of his writing and his hilarious grim persistence in writing always only about poets and their rancid idealism.


Flet by Joyelle McSweeney (Fence); Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (FSG); Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje (Vintage)

I suppose that’s really what I’m talking about here: those poets who write fiction as a bid to enter the center of literary attention that novels nominally occupy, versus those who, through temperament or incompetence, are destined to remain ex-centric.

Then there’s Ben Lerner. A ferociously ambitious and successful younger poet from Topeka, Kansas, Lerner, a one-time recipient of Fulbright fellowship to Spain and the author of three generally acclaimed books of poetry, has just produced his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. It’s about a ferociously ambitious and successful younger poet from Topeka, Kansas, albeit one who is not yet comfortable with or fully conscious of either his ambition or his success, on a Fulbright-like fellowship to Spain. His Adam Gordon is as transparently autobiographical as is Bolaño’s Arturo Belano, and at the same time both alter egos are presented to the reader through veils of irony and self-loathing.

In his first-person narration, Gordon presents himself to the reader as an almost entirely dysfunctional human being, preserving a semblance of autonomy through the use of various drugs, prescribed and otherwise. It is not at all clear whether we are supposed to respect his poetry or not — a few samples are presented that do nothing to defy Tony Hoagland’s persistent denunciatory motto, “the skittery poem of our moment.” Gordon himself doesn’t respect it but Teresa, a Spanish translator and one of two attractive women that he finds himself entangled with, respects it enough to want to translate it and publish it in a handsome chapbook edition, a reading from which at a gallery in Madrid is the culminating event of the novel.

Lerner even goes so far as to give Gordon his own nonfiction thoughts; as a note on the copyright page tells us, “The novel includes, albeit in altered form, a reading of John Ashbery’s poetry that first appeared in my essay, ‘The Future Continuous: Ashbery’s Lyric Mediacy,’ published by boundary 2. He also does not fail to remind us that “Leaving the Atocha Station” is an Ashbery poem (one of his most obscure, which is saying something); Ashbery, and the world of poetry Ashbery has bequeathed to us, haunts the book. For much of the novel Gordon is preoccupied by his lack of fluency in Spanish and his attempts to use that lack of fluency “to preserve the possibility of misspeaking or being misunderstood, and to secure and amplify the mystery” that comes with language that fails to be fully communicative.


Poetry books by Ben Lerner: Angle of Yaw (2006), The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), and Mean Free Path (2010)

The consonance of this with poetry, in its deliberate obscurity, its refusal to be “about” anything, is entirely deliberate and forms the major theme of the book: the failure to be present to oneself or to others, in one’s own life or in History writ large (the most significant event in the book is the 3/11 Madrid train bombings, the aftermath of which Gordon witnesses). Language, or rather language’s failure, finds the pathos in this travesty of alienation, even as Lerner finds comedy in it; as Gordon reflects at a poetry reading he gives, “I told myself that no matter what I did, no matter what any poet did, the poems would constitute screens on which readers could project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience, whatever that might be, or afford them the opportunity to mourn its impossibility.”

Gordon/Lerner may intend this as cynicism, but like any display of cynicism there’s a bruised idealism at its center. “If I was a poet,” he thinks later, “I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.” If one is a bad poet, a false poet, that does not injure Poetry’s eidolon; much harder and more adult is to accept that poetry, like any art, can fail as often as it succeeds, and as a human being one can be part of that success or failure and bears the responsibility for trying.

So we have here again another portrait of the artist as a young man, which like Joyce’s novel displays a good deal of irony toward its protagonist without completely disowning either his idealism or the writer’s own ambitions, albeit in a negative, almost Gnostic form.

I can’t decide yet whether this novel constitutes a bid for centrality — if Lerner will now be leaving the Atocha Station of poetry for the maculate shores of fiction — or if its obsessive focus on poetry and failure will consign it to eccentric status. It’s quite funny, I should say — in his self-inflicted humiliations the protagonist reminds me of nothing so much as an intellectual Larry David — and there’s some interesting if lightly milled grist for considering Gordon as an archetypal self-involved radical artist from “the United States of Bush.” How archaic already that designation seems, another sign of American innocence as inexhaustible destructive resource; as Gordon remarks in one of his endless attempts to sound deep without actually committing himself, “The proper names of leaders are distractions from concrete economic models.” The fatuousness of this, even in its truth, damns the helpless self-regard of the beautiful-souled American Left with withering effectiveness.

In an interview with his friend Cyrus Console (who also turns up as a character in the book), Lerner speaks of Adam’s predicament in terms of aesthetic position: “the virtual possibilities of art are always in a sense betrayed by actual artworks.” What fascinates me is how the positions virtual and actual (terms, Lerner tells us, taken from Allen Grossman) roughly correspond to the two genres under consideration here. Poetry, at least modern poetry, in its fragmentation, its gesturality, is the quintessential art of the virtual: it suggests, Gnostically, the withdrawal of the numinous from the space of the poem. The novel is a creature of the actual, even in its greater physicality as object (a distinction rapidly eroding); as young man, I thought to write a novel, like reading one, was in some way to participate the real. (Fantasy novels, oddly, for me always bridged the gap: their worlds were not real but painstakingly actualized, even as their endlessness, their tendency to trilogize or series-ize, dovetailed back into the virtuality of the always-incomplete. This is why I halfway hope that George R. R. Martin doesn’t finish A Song of Ice and Fire, to preserve some speck of the virtuality the TV series had devoted itself to shredding. End of digression.)

“I promised myself, I would never write a novel,” Lerner’s protagonist says — or is his promise really a dare? Poetry perpetuates adolescence through its refusal to actualize: a poem in itself is like a young man dawdling his way through college, refusing to declare a major or propose to his girlfriend, refusing to commit, to engagé. This is the pathos of poetry, even to the point of “Pathetic!” But it’s also the source of poetry’s great reserve of utopianism and hopefulness, even when, tonally, it despairs. Oh I’m sure there’s a poetry of the actual as well, akin to what Robert Van Hallberg calls “civic” poetry so as to distinguish it from the Orphic. But if the former is more grown-up, more resigned, it lacks I think the power to shake the heart that comes with the Orphic. The tragicomic valley of hesitation between them is where Lerner’s novel is located.

To return the margin to the center

A review of 'Elleguas'

Elleguas

Elleguas

by Kamau Brathwaite

Wesleyan University Press 2010, 140 pages, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-6943-1

This is an essay in guise of a review. The book in question, Kamau Brathwaite’s Elegguas, recently published as part of Wesleyan University Press’s “Driftless Series” (a new program funded by the Beatrice Fox Auerback Foundation), is highly recommended. But my argument encompasses more than this volume supports. In fact, it’s the inadequacy of this book to represent Brathwaite’s contributions to our culture that worries me. As Brathwaite, who is in his eighties, prepares to leave this world, I hope that his legacy will be given the attention it deserves. Books like Elegguas (approximately Brathwaite’s fortieth publication) may help the next generation of writers to appreciate his work, but risk framing the writer as an “experimental” poet, one who embraces the margins of cultural life, rather than as a populist and innovator of writing in English who I believe should be regarded as one of the greatest poets of the language in the second half of the twentieth century. Brathwaite deserves such a title, and I expect that internationally, and for decades to come, he will be regarded as the postwar equivalent to English-language modernists like Yeats, Hughes, Stein, or Williams: as a innovator of new forms of democracy in verse. Brathwaite’s postcolonial poetics represent a transformation in the practice of poetry as significant as those associated with these one-time “experimenters,” and like each of these poets, he produced new forms by insisting that poetry must create a public among ordinary people. Like these writers, he may appear to us as part of an “avant-garde” or, as this recent book suggests, as a poet who has developed a highly personalized style. This mistakes the true gravity of Brathwaite’s accomplishment, which is to produce a poetics of the “multitude”: a form of poetry that responds simply, boldly, and effectively to the forces of Empire which shape the world today. In short, Brathwaite is the first poet in English to create an adequate aesthetic response to globalization.

Those not acquainted with Brathwaite should know that he was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1930, won a scholarship to Cambridge University, served in the Ministry of Education in Ghana during the years that it won its independence from Great Britain in the late 1950s, and cofounded the Caribbean Artists Movement from London in 1966. His poetry includes two epic trilogies: The Arrivants (1973), which collects three books, Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands, about African-Caribbean rituals and their transmission through practices of daily life; and Ancestors (2001), which collects and “reinvents” three books: Mother Poem, Sun Poem, and X/Self, about the maternal, paternal, and newborn selves of island life. His histories of Caribbean culture include Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (1970), The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (1971), and History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984). Together, these are among the most thoughtful and influential elements of the Afro-Caribbean Nationalism that flourished on both sides of what Paul Gilroy calls the “Black Atlantic” throughout the 1970s.

At the core of this culture was the development of what Brathwaite termed “Nation Poetry,” a new kind of poetic idiom with roots in Léopold Sédar Senghor‘s and Aimé Césaire‘s poetics of “Negritude,” the Black Arts Movement’s concept of Nommo (a Dogon deity that Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, and others associated with the power of the “animate word”), British and American modernism, and the dub poetry developed by Linton Kwesi Johnson in London and by Mikey Smith in Jamaica.

Breaking with the “imposted meters” of British colonialism, nation poets not only brought the rhythms and idioms of reggae into verse, but imagined a whole new approach to the lyric subject: one that is potentially as transformative of the genre as Hughes’s blues poems or Williams’s Imagism have been. Brathwaite’s goal has been to produce what he calls “tidalectic” poetry, a form of “diasporic music” that could speak of, for and to the people whose being emerges from successive waves of colonization and resistance. In conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey, a brilliantly conceived and executed transcription of a public interview that explores Brathwaite’s struggles as a Caribbean artist in detail, the poet offers us a vision by which to understand the principle of “tidalectics.” He describes looking down upon a woman sweeping sand out of the yard of her impoverished beachfront house:

Traditional early morning old woman of Caribbean history. She’s going on like this every morning, sweeping this sand — of all things! — away from … sand from sand. seen? … And I say Now what’s she doing? What’s this labour involve with? Why’s she labouring in this way? all this way? all this time? Because I get the understandin(g) that she somehow believes that is she don’t do this, the household — that ‘poverty-stricken’ household of which she’s part — probably head of — would somehow collapse [. . .] So she’s in fact performing a very important ritual which I couldn’t fully understand but which I’m tirelessly tryin to …

And then one moorning I see her body silhouetting against the sparking light that hits the Caribbean at that early dawn and it seems as if her feet […] were really … walking on the water … and she was travelling across that middlepassage […] The ‘meaning’ of the Caribbean was in that humble repetitive ritual actio(n) which this peasant woman was performing. And she was always on this journey, walking on the steps of sunlit water.[1]

A number of vital elements of Brathwaite’s approach to poetry are condensed in this moment: the situation is both illogical and an “important ritual”; the poet begins in ignorance, with a question; the question is about domestic labor; the poet sublimates the woman’s task, lifting her onto the water, into contact with Christian immortality and aesthetic beauty while connecting her to a history of colonialism; finally, the “journey” is not complete. On the basis of this humble, dignified, unending motion, Brathwaite’s lifelong project has been to trace the “skid of the genesis stone on the waters of the Caribbean.” What made this project of nationalist versifying different from others is its assumption of a fundamental “?instability — like walking, I suppose, on confusion, or earthquake” in the identity of the disaporic multitude. Brathwaite set out to chart a “creole cosmos” which would “predict” “the dissolution […] of empire(s).”

Throughout, he has insisted that the poet should begin by acknowledging his ignorance of the rituals in which he finds himself and others embedded. Part of the innovative “slipperiness” of Brathwaite’s form derives from his fundamental premise that understanding his own, individual life remains fundamental to the understanding of the story of a people. His poetry is intimate, full of personal recollections about childhood and a sincere effort to capture in verse the “continental feelings” that surge and drift across his own being. But at the same time, he also begins with the assumption that the poet writes of himself but not for himself. He is a populist in the sense that he accepts the duties which the poor require of poets: to find a lasting beauty in the ordinary, to raise daily rituals toward the sublime, to free poverty by force of the imagination. His poetry is never divorced from “the political,” and it registers its rebelliousness in the formal qualities of the verse. But at the same time, this is not “avant-garde” poetry composed for elite, metropolitan audiences; it is written to understand and celebrate and uplift the anonymous poor, to give a balm to the desperate, to encourage the meek and rage against the unrighteous.

For these reasons, Brathwaite’s lines have always skipped/glided/shuffled/danced/stumbled between two realities: a global north and a global south, the here-and-now of material reality and the enraptured visions of a world yet to come. This is true of Elegguas, which records his own steps out of this world and into the next one. Its title calls forth the Yoruban deity also known as Eshu, Exu, Elegba, Legba: keeper of crossroads, spirit of chaos, trickster death. Its subject matter belongs to memory. Reprints (originally published in the Zea Mexican Diary) of three “dream stories” (letters to Brathwaite’s wife, who died in 1986) frame two collections of elegies, memorials, and reminiscences. There are farewells to friends, family members, and fellow writers alongside tributes to Black Nationalists, including the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney (killed by a car bomb in 1980), Mikey Smith (stoned to death by supporters of the right-wing Jamaican Labour Party in 1983), and leader of the Haitian Revolution Jean-Jacques Dessalines (assassinated in 1806): all the poems are acts of grief from a poet whose lyrics fuse personal and public sentiment with rare integrity.

Brathwaite is no stranger to the land of the dead. His earliest books of poetry (first collected as The Arrivants, a trilogy about Afro-Caribbean culture published in 1973) are preoccupied with the relation between acts of writing and Haitain voudoun rites. More recently, the poet has described how he was shot by a “ghost bullet” during a robbery in which an assailant placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger: “and it goes click, see? there’s this click / — I could hear it for the forever of nothing happening / In other words, the bullet — is there is a bullet — pass through my brain without physical contact, or I no longer have the physical contact to receive the bullet.” Since this incident, Brathwaite explains, “I’m not the same / person … either I’m dead / — lookin and talkin to you the living; or I’m talking / to what my sister call ‘a cloud of witnesses.’” Given this intimacy with death, and his remarkable powers as a poet, it is not surprising that Brathwaite’s observations are as sincere and well-crafted as any written in recent decades:

So cruel is creating
it must be killing to be keeping

must be the song beyond the passion
the cup beyond the potter’s wheel

not the wonderful face in the mirror
but narcissus under the pool

we little guessed this raphael
was yesterday a baker’s girl

with flowers in her hair
or that icarus was dying in air (43)

Poetry of this magnitude, this force and grace, comes together maybe once or twice in a generation. It is philosophical and lyrical, allusion-laced yet wholly original.


photo of Kamau Brathwaite by Chris Funkhouser

These lines from the same poem reveal the importance of Yeats to Brathwaite’s vision:

The dancer dance to death
but we only know the dancing

the strings the joints the places
to be oiled the rust after the last
performance are denied to us

we only know the dancing (28)

Like Yeats’s, Brathwaite’s poetry blends the singularity of feeling enjoyed by the Romantic lyric subject with the polyphonic authority of the nationalist by constructing in real (reel) time a personae that gives voice to the multitude. He dons a mask, assumes a guise that registers the “being-toward-others” of the I-self, so that his perceptual experience reverberates across worlds. “To look into the mirror of your thoughts,” Brathwaite explains, is “to look into the mirror of your metaphor, to look into the mirror of your self.” Colonized subjects confront “a false-literary and imagined — migraint— migrained — landscape on which you have been ‘nutured’ — on which you have been force-fee’d,” and it is the duty of the poet to correct this misperception.

But whereas Yeats (like Pound) believed in the necessity of mythic figures for the construction of poetry that could register the scope of national projects of emancipation, Brathwaite insists upon a more democratic poetics, one premised on the often chaotic and unorganized, disorderly, and disobedient musical and idiomatic rhythms of the poor. Like Williams, Hughes, and many of the Black Arts poets, Brathwaite recognizes how power accrues in those utterances which linger beyond the boundaries of the schoolyard and order form, and knows how to turn the language of the powerless into a formal basis for poetic action. There is a precision of statement and complexity of image that accrues in poetry that attends to language in this way. One hears it in these public-spirited lines spoken by the “madwoman” Défilée, the lover of Dessalines, as she collects his mutilated body for burial:

Bright thrones have been cast down before
the leaders stripped & torn from power. fled
or dead. Dessalines my liberator my xecutioner

mon Empereur

my lover of Pont-Rouge like this
who break the bread w/bloody hands who tear
the nation flag at Lakayè & make it red

& make it blue, unfurl it new . where now it stands
for slave & bloody cloth & resurrected
nèg. who stone the whiteman down

from im goliam towerhome at Cormiers
. Verrettes . the crackle battleax of musketeers
against La Crête (73)

 

Or again, and equally, in a poem saturated with private regrets:

How all this wd have been one kind of world. perhaps — no — certainly —
kindlier — you wd have been bourne happy into yr entitlement of silver hairs
and there wd have been no threat

or flaw of cancer or forgetfulness or dementia or enemy break-in
no danger then of that sort and I wd have published our love-
songs in their paradox no matter whe they take us .

the x/hiliration — the fortune accident of so many new & trans-
patient metaphors . not the thin little run-down garden cling-
ing against the hot grey walls of yr lonely afternoon home

but a whole new pasture of egrets & seahaws & parrakeets & almond
tress with their oriental eye the paradaisal semll of ole-
ander lebanon & alexandria all over the limitless green . (105)

The mixing together of sensations which originate in the private bodies of toil, the mindless bodies that suffer shock and pain (bodies that can be beaten and killed), with sensations that circulate in the body of a people as a whole, patterns of thought and action that cannot be betrayed easily by the organic messiness of memory or bewilderment of the flesh because they belong more properly to the radically contingent nature of the spirit (the dream of a whole people), is the practical work of this poetry.

Over the years, Brathwaite has developed a set of textual styles (particular fonts, page layouts, and hieroglyphs made out of lines of type) that create visual analogs to the voices he entwines. Wonderful as these visual elements are, I have not tried to duplicate them here, in part because I fear they distract readers from recognizing the true source of Brathwaite’s innovations, which derive from the language as spoken/sung/stuttered/screamed/sobbed/soloed, rather than written. In his interview with Mackey, Brathwaite stresses that

The ‘virtue’ of the Oral Tradition – of oral poetry , if you like, lies in its SOUNN — in the origin of th(e) composition — in the poem — IN its SOUND — in the culture and cosmos of its SOUND — on the kind of cultural selection, choices, this joy awakes — the speaking voice, the active performativeness, the ‘characters’/‘virtues’/standards/qualities that are privilege in these choices.

The “performativeness” of his poetry corresponds to what I am referring to as the spirit of religion, history, beauty Brathwaite insists upon. He speaks of the need for poetry “to come alive — off that ‘page’ — within a BREATHING houm or audience,” and relates this living quality of the voice to “metaphorical enactment”: the poem’s transcendence of the reality which grounds the idiom. By this act, the poet and his public participate in a dialogic effort to “‘unterrorize’ — revitalize-reterritorialize” the world. This mixture of the visionary and ordinary pulses with the utopian force of possibility one finds in the greatest poets of modern democracy: Whitman, Lorca, Ginsberg, Passolini, Neruda, poets whose work has and will matter for decades and centuries because they sing in the voice of the multitude.

In the last several decades, the global poetry community has begun to realize the profound importance of Brathwaite’s work to the future of poetry in English. He has won Canada’s international Griffin Prize, Barbados’s Bussa Award, and Cuba’s Casa de las Americas Prize. His work has begun to receive some scholarly attention. Abiola Irele’s The African Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2001) and Charles Pollard’s New World Modernisms (University of Virginia Press, 2004) are noteworthy, and Nathaniel Mackey’s chapters on Brathwaite in Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge University Press, 1993) should be regarded as indispensable.

But so far there is little evidence that Brathwaite has found the public he deserves among the next generation of US poets, critics, and cultural historians. Inhabiting the language of the oppressed never has or will invite much praise from the guardians of elite culture, of course, and it is unlikely that Brathwaite will receive such honors as have been bestowed upon the more conservative Derek Walcott, for example. But the next generation of poet/critics need not obey the empire’s hierarchy of tastes. Disobedience in this case will begin when we recognize that Brathwaite deserves more than a vestibular enshrinement. From the beginning, he has struggled against attempts by cultural elites to “police” this democratic poetics in various ways.

Cultural policing of this kind may simply involve the disregard of a writer’s work, but it also takes many indirect and subtle forms. Consider for example this comment on the front-cover flap of the 1967 Oxford University Press edition of Rights of Passage: “Edward Brathwaite (not to be confused with E. R. Brathwaite, author of To Sir with Love) was born in Barbados in 1930.” The parenthetical distinction subtly separates one writer from the other, drawing a boundary by referencing what the reader is asked to recognize as the more popular alternative. The anxiety evoked by Brathwaite’s work is such that this other, clearly more “appropriate” book must be brought in to frame the more nationalistic volume.

I close this review by raising a similar concern about the framing of Brathwaite’s work today. Readers owe a tremendous debt to Nathaniel Mackey for helping to promote Brathwaite’s work in this country, but we should regard the resultant framing of Brathwaite’s material as “experimental” if that requires us to make a virtue of the work’s “marginal” status. We should remember that Brathwaite, in ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey confesses to not having been aware of “the whole business of an alternative school of writing.” Although Brathwaite accepts the efforts of Mackey and other writers to “celebrate marginality by making it a centrality,” there is something perhaps a little too easy about accepting Brathwaite’s poetry as “marginal.” Its goal is not ever to celebrate the broken, the partial, and the poor as a permanent or in some ways even present condition, but to level the relation between north and south by forging a language of the multitude. In recent years, this latter term has been taken up by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in a trilogy of books (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth) about the new subjects of globalization. The global multitude is the “party of the poor” and the true subject of democracy: an entity that is necessarily fractured, multiple, migratory, and tumultuous. The tumult is both a circumstance that must be suffered and source of spirit, an uncapturable energy which drifts past the material and cultural blockades and barricades erected to channel it away from the center. Brathwaite’s poetry is never “over there,” but always also “here and now,” alongside us, insisting that as readers, poets, global citizens account for our own relations to the messiness of the world:

those nights beasts a Babylon who heiss us on sus
but that worst it is the blink
in iani own eye. The sun blott-

ed out by paper a cade fires vamp/ires
a ink wheels emp/ires a status quos a status quos a status crows
that tell a blood toll/ing in the ghetto

till these small miss/demenours as you call them
be-
come a monstrous fetter on the land that will not let us breed

until every chupse in the face of good morning
be-
come one more coil one more spring one more no-

thing to sing/about
be-
come the boulder rising in the bleed

the shoulder nourishing the gun
the headlines screaming of the scrawl across the wall
of surbiton of Sheraton hotel

dat POR CYAAAN TEK NO MOORE (61–2)

Brathwaite is the first writer in English to give poetic voice to this new entity. He does indeed return the margin to the center, and for this he should — must — will one day be embraced as one of the most important writers of our age.

 


1. This and all passages not from Elegguas can be found in Kamau Brathwaite, ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey (Allamuchy, NJ: We Press and Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics, 1999).