Europe's shadows vs. America's dreams

A review of Andrew Ervin's 'Extraordinary Renditions'

Extraordinary Renditions

Extraordinary Renditions

by Andrew Ervin

Coffee House Press 2010, 192 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-56689-246-9

What amazed me most about Hungary is that history is not history there. The events of the past are still present every single day, at every minute, in ways I couldn’t even imagine at first. — Andrew Ervin, Press Release

Europe. It’s impossible to underestimate its allure. And equally impossible to measure the influence of this continent’s history and power on countries like the United States of America. Andrew Ervin’s debut novel Extraordinary Renditions is set in contemporary Budapest, the capital of Hungary. A country that has experienced the glorious highs of classical Europe and the worst of late twentieth century savagery, political intrigue and Cold War disaffection. Extraordinary Renditions is both a homage to this very European country and a journey into history that ultimately sheds more light on contemporary America than on contemporary Europe.

This novel takes its place in the rich “American voyagers in Europe genre.” This genre is a product of America’s fascination with the culture and history of Europe and an attempt to wrest away the best qualities from the old world and revive the uniquely American dream. Ervin is a strong writer in awe of Europe. His novel is immeasurably bettered by the fact that he lived in Budapest for many years and knows its streets and architecture, its moods, and its history intimately.

In this challenging period in America’s history, when America must redefine itself and its position on the world stage, Ervin presents us with the stories of three original characters whose stories are linked by situational coincidences in the narrative: the émigré, the American soldier and the young musician.

In “14 Bagatelles,” (the title is taken from, arguably, Hungary’s greatest composer Béla Bartók’s piano piece “14 Bagatelles, Op. 6”) the first story in this trio of connected stories, a world renowned composer, Harkályi, returns to his birthplace for the first production of his opera The Golden Lotus.

Harkályi was a young Jewish music prodigy when World War II erupted into his personal world. He survived the war largely thanks to his musical ability and the love and insight of his mentor Zoltán Kodály. Harkályi left his family and fled Hungary for the relative safety of America: the safe harbour for many of Europe’s wounded, disposed and displaced after the war.

Portraying a Holocaust survivor is no easy task but Ervin does so sympathetically and concisely. Providing just enough insight into the day-to-day horrors of life lived in captivity and the rare moments when joy invaded the camp thanks to the musicians and their passion. As Harkályi walks the alternatively familiar and garishly foreign streets, we see the composer as a young man in a concentration camp and as an adult in self-imposed isolation within the inner world of music and notation and spaces between notes. He is estranged from the country of his birth and estranged from his religion. While in the camp he invented a novel system of musical notation. One that preserved the musical history of his culture and country and one that was sufficiently flexible and expansive to change and recreate itself as the composer grew, matured and reinvented himself in America.

 It is a smart piece of plotting to bring Harkályi back to Budapest for the first performance of his opera The Golden Lotus. The performance of this opera does indeed provide a stupendous climax to the novel. Ervin employs another structural device whereby all three stories are linked in time and space. The story is set during Independence Day celebrations in Budapest. This works as a structural device, but it’s rather labored and by the end, polemical in a distracting fashion. However, this device can be used subtly and unobtrusively. I think of two recent examples: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier and Nicole Krauss’s latest novel Great House.

The novel is open to criticism that it is three thematically linked novellas rather than a novel in the traditional sense but I don’t see any merit in this argument. Ervin’s novel is a further contribution to this genre whose formally strict structure is constantly evolving. However, for his future novels, I hope Ervin pays closer attention to the subtleties of plot and dramatic devices.

Ervin is profoundly sensitive to music and exceptionally talented in translating into words the sensations and mechanisms of musical notes. So it is no surprise that like a jazz musician doffing his cap to the progenitors of his religion, Ervin evokes the spirit of Kafka. Another beloved son of the region, Kafka was born in Prague, Bohemia, which was then part of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kafka’s prose style and philosophy is evidenced in the very strong chapter “Brooking the Devil.”

There is more than a touch of the desperate film noir thriller in the powerful and poignant story of Private First Class Jonathan “Brutus” Gibson of the United States Army: African American, accidental soldier, philosopher, poet, outsider, loner. Ervin analytically exposes a morally and criminally corrupt US Army culture that has been exported to Hungary and the world in the name of protecting freedom and fighting the “war on terror.”

Along with Levi’s, Marlboro cowboys, Coca Cola, and McDonald’s, to name a few, the American Army has been sold to the world as the pure and true deterrent to the opponents of democracy as it has evolved in Euro-influenced countries. America has always been a country of exceptional salesmen and women. A land where a ponderously named lad called Samuel Langhorne Clemens reinvented himself into the great and iconic Mark Twain. Ervin successfully juxtaposes images of savage bloodletting from WWII with the equally hideous modern devices from the so-called War on Terror.

Sergeant Brutus, with a nickname that evokes the classical elegance and wisdom of Shakespeare, and a patter that reads more Bronx gangster than Philadelphia brother to this non-American ear is marooned in Hungary. An intelligent young man seduced by Army recruiters spruiking freedom, solidarity, money, nobility and a pass to college. In eloquent passages, Brutus details the many ways in which Uncle Sam has proved to be another incarnation of “the Man”: the oppressive, dangerous and irrational racism that pervades American history, politics and culture.

The soldiers are outsiders but not resistance fighters, and cliques abound: whites only, officers only, and so on. Brutus’s experiences are graphic examples of the penalties for standing out in the “vanilla crowd.” Difference is celebrated in sound bites in most democratic and liberal countries but a black, articulate and intelligent man is doomed within the enormous machinery of the American military. The American military’s own mythology and its romanticism by Hollywood usually ignore the stark, brutal and vile abuses of power and desecration of personal dignity and humanity that are committed in the interests of “keeping the peace,” or in this epoch, “wining the war on terror.”

Brutus is the innocent young American abroad who is plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Brutus’s descent into a maelstrom brings out some of Ervin’s best prose: a combination of contemporary American gangster rap and descriptions of Budapest that powerfully evoke the Cold War.

In ‘The Empty Chairs” we meet the final character in Ervin’s triumvirate. Melanie Scholes: violinist, American, young, bisexual, white, outsider/loner, and the novel’s only genuine spark of hope that a fulfilling and generous future is possible.

Although this is probably the weakest of Ervin’s “renditions” (it is obvious that Ervin named his novel after the legal term for the systematic abduction and extrajudicial transfer of persons from one nation to another, but I prefer to think of his characters as renditions, powerful reimaginings of classic tales) it concludes the novel with a pièce de résistance of timing, evocation and prose mastery.

Melanie is one of the musicians tasked with performing Harkályi’s new opera, The Golden Lotus. In a quicksilver night/day of her life, we meet her lover and glimpse their claustrophobic and pointless affair. She is a vexed artist, drifting aimlessly in Budapest’s monochrome world of émigrés and disaffected affluent American youth.

In a masterful and controlled example of character exposition, Melanie evolves from an uninteresting and pathetic figure into the unlikely heroine of the novel. Freed from her inertia by the ecstasy of music and her hitherto dormant ability to reinterpret and transform musical nuance and notation, she explodes orthodoxy and convention in a powerful scene in which the past and future are welded together in the revolutionary power of music to be beautiful whilst uniting people irrespective of color, creed and nationality.

Ervin has written a powerful and sophisticated meditation on identity, nationalism and personal responsibility. Memorable characters and icons: composer, soldier, and musician they are a glimpse into the darkest of human capabilities and the possibility of redemption, however remote. Ervin is a very promising young writer — a uniquely, American writer.

"Say what you know"

A review of Eleanor Wilner's "A Tourist in Hell"

Tourist in Hell

Tourist in Hell

by Eleanor Wilner

The University of Chicago Press 2011, 103 pages, $18, ISBN 978-0-226-90032-2.

Eleanor Rand Wilner’s poems are adventures. These adventures include almost every subject imaginable: war, peace, nature, knitting, mountain climbing, insects and intellectuals. It is an adventure into the labyrinth of an amazing mind. Each poem starts off directly enough; soon you don’t know where the poem is going; then it leads from one surprise to another; until the whole evolves organically into one or more revelations that expand your understanding of what was broached at the beginning of the poem. She writes with the eyes of someone who just got there. But she arrives there with a depth of intelligence. For instance, the poem that begins The Girl with Bees in Her Hair prepares us as though “everything is starting up again.”

The snow is filthy now; it has been
drinking oil and soot and car exhaust
for days, and dogs have marked it
with their special blend of brilliant
yellow piss;

for a week after it fell,
the snow stood in frozen horror
at the icy chill, and hardened
on the top, and then, today, the thaw;
now everything is starting
up again —

The process of writing this review began with a reading of the several books by Wilner. Whoever has had the pleasure, indeed the privilege and emotional/intellectual satisfaction of reading  Wilner’s poems will not need to be told that her work is poetry or that her poems provide remarkable surprises and insights.

In Tourist in Hell, her seventh book, Wilner examines history, current events, literature, mythology, and religion. As with the best poets, she skillfully combines autobiographical details into a larger context. About Wilner’s work, the poet Tony Hoagland has remarked, “Wilner […] has a deep and heroic belief in the transformative power of language and myth. She paddles her surfboard outside the reef where most poets stop; she rides the big waves.” Indeed, to ride the “big waves” with her is an experience that is highly exhilarating. Her poetry and each of her poems is brilliant, erudite, passionate, and amazing. 

In reading through her several books, however, it is remarkable to note the consistency of her voice and the wide grasp of her subject matter throughout, from Maya to Tourist in Hell. Wilner speaks directly to the reader, whether from her own insight or through the insight of another’s voice. Or sometimes, she tells a poignant story in a way not thought of before, for example that of Iphigenia. Iphigenia, best known as the daughter Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces at Troy, had to be sacrificed in order to appease Artemis. According to the legend, when the sacrifice is about to be made, however, Iphigenia is miraculously transported to Taurus, a city on the Black Sea, and an animal is sent to replace her (lucky for her!).

In Wilner’s poem “Iphigenia, Setting the Record Straight” (Maya) Wilner tells Iphigenia’s story with unexpected poignancy; two snippets from the poem may make my point. The first sets the stage while the final stanza brings you face-to-face with the gist of Iphigenia’s story and her bitter observation:

The towers waiting, shimmering just
beyond the edge of vision.
It was only a question
of wind, of the command of trade routes,
a narrow isthmus between two seas, possession
of the gold that men called Helen.

Iphigenia then states at the end:

I have been living, quiet, in this little village
on goats I keep for cheese and sell for wine, unknown —
the praise of me on every lip, the me
my father made up in his mind
and sacrificed for the wind.

It’s a shame to truncate this poem; however, it also highlights another aspect of Wilner’s background and interest — her knowledge and love of the classics. She is equally able to speak to the reader about her commitment to speaking truth to truth; for example, her poem “Love Uncommanded” (again in Maya):

Extraordinary, our friends
the skeptics, who are
ourselves, such an extravagance
of feints, the perfectly spun
glass, exquisite complications, saying
they know that they know nothing,
the oldest ruse, let it go.
Say what you know.

For once, be rid of the urn
with beauty chased in half-relief, the urn
with the false bottom, the ancient goad
to thirst — the right word turned
exactly on itself. Say what you know.

What more cogent advice to writers, especially poets: “Say what you know!” In Tourist in Hell,” her most recent book, the poems are more concerned with war and several of them with the Bush/Cheney administration. “Establishment” is a good example, of which only the first half of the first stanza is quoted:

Death had established himself in the Red Room,
the White House having become his natural
abode: chalk-white façade, pillars lime the bones
of extinct empires, armed men crawling its halls
or looking down, with suspicion, from its roof;
its immense luxury, thick carpets, its plush velvet chairs —
all this made Death comfortable, bony as he is, a fact
you’d barely notice, his camouflage a veil of flesh
drawn over him, its tailor so adroit, and he so elegant

But the one I like best in the Tourist in Hell collection is “Saturday Night,” a chilling poem about war and our seeming distance from it. Again, only quoted are the first introductory lines and then the last, but all in between is full of drama and … nightmare:

Moonlit rocks, sand, and a web of shadows
thrown over the world from the cottonwoods,
the manzanita, the ocotillo; it is
the hour of the tarantula, a rising
as predictable as tide; irritable as
moon drag.  And if this were
an SF film, the spider would be
huge as a water tank, it would loom
red-eyed and horrible, its mandables […]

but now as the film
runs down, in a rush of stale air
the hydraulic spider deflates, the saline
leaks from the implants of the bed-
room blonde, the moon’s projection
clicks off, and the night is as it was,
a place where fear takes its many
forms, and the warships gather in
a distant gulf, where a small man
with more arms than a Hindu god,
has set a desert night alight, and grief booms;
while here, the theatres are full
of horror on the screen, and you can hear —
over the sinister canned music,
the chainsaws, and the screams —
the sound of Coke sucked up through straws,
your own jaws moving as you chew.

There is something riveting about Wilner’s poetry, and I believe it comes from her dictum to herself as to others, in the earlier cited poem “Love Uncommanded:” “Say what you know.”

Well, perhaps this review has quoted enough to give an idea of the range and depth of Wilner’s work. But I would be remiss if I left unmentioned the delightful poems in her book Otherwise that speak to issues such as “How to Get in the Best Magazines,” “Muse,” “Ambition,” and “Those who come After,” just to mention a few of what’s in store for the curious reader or for the devotee who is stirred to enjoy again Wilner’s humor as well as her experience and erudition.

One of my favorite books of hers, The Girl with the Bees in her Hair, is interesting for her playfulness with form as well as with images. Or, take for example the lines “He had made it through so many winters, / an optimist in the blizzard’s heart, staying on — “In this book she keeps introducing the reader to the next possibility, although the last poem in this book, the very fact of life’s limit comes into view:

A window
open on the sea, out there, blue wave on blue,
beyond — more blue, a chair scrapes, breaks
the spell. Words spill: So little time. So much to do.

For the reader who wants to start with an inclusive view of her work, Reserving the Spell is a compilation of her new and selected poems (over three hundred pages) taken from the several books mentioned. — That said, let the adventure begin! 

Hundred-spired muse

A review of 'From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology'

From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology

From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology

edited by Stephen Delbos

Literraria Pragensia 2011, 350 pages, €12.00, ISBN 978-80-7308-349-6

Prague has pervasive literary associations, a fact not overlooked by the hawkers of souvenirs and proprietors of restaurants. In the center you can buy a Kafka mug or t-shirt and have lunch in a pub emblazoned with images from Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk. If that’s not to your taste, there is also a restaurant named after Rilke. Stephan Delbos’s anthology attempts to go beyond this tourist veneer. Though the anthology is styled as a guide, the intentions are bolder. As Delbos, a poet, journalist and translator from New England, writes in his preface, “Walking through Prague with these poems in mind, one has an indelible awareness of the lineage of poetry written in and about these streets and buildings, many of which have remained virtually unchanged for centuries.” In short, he is rescuing the city’s literary heritage from bastardization.

However, the rescue mission comes with complications. The anthology cuts across many styles, languages, nationalities and periods. Poets included range from Jaroslav Seifert, who is intimately connected with the city, to Robert Lowell, who wrote of the city as a distant spectator of the 1968 Soviet invasion. The poets are not necessarily opposites, but they are handy poles in which the poetry represented in this anthology falls. The breadth of poems demonstrates how poets have engaged with their city’s symbols and atmosphere. The result is an anthology of many Pragues.

One constant of Prague’s poetic heritage is that it has acted more as a muse than wellspring of poetic movements. Apart from one exception, to talk about the city’s poetry does not imply a school in a formal sense. Generally, the city’s poetry reflects an interaction of diverse artists whose connection to the city is as singular as the work produced. The earliest poems included here certainly reveal an outwardness of inspiration transposed over an inwardness of subject matter. Symbolism was an especially important movement for the Czech poets at the end of nineteenth century. Echoes of Baudelaire’s urbanism melding with concrete images are found in Antonín Sova’s “Old and New Prague.” However, Sova shows traces of more social and historical preoccupations. Whereas Baudelaire likened Paris to “a hard-working old man,” Sova writes:

But Prague rumbles below so quietly in this idyll!
All the proud flourishings of culture are outside the Castle!
Progress and claims to glory breathe through Prague
And she is a healthy, hearty child!

Symbolism may have encouraged a focus on the city but this passage shows a mindset and a celebration that is local. Given that the poem was written in the nineteenth century, it is difficult not to identify the tone with a growing Czech national consciousness that saw itself outside the confines of the city’s main emblem long ruled by Austrian kings.

Paris continued to be an important source of stylistic innovation. Surrealism, especially that of Apollinaire, resonated strongly with poets of the early twentieth century. Importantly, his piece “Zone” makes reference to the city. Does this fact alone justify the poem’s inclusion? Yes, if we take the intentions at face value. However, the passage concerning Prague does more than check off landmarks.

Horrified you see yourself etched in the agates of Saint Vitus
You almost died of sadness the day that you lived
To see yourself like Lazarus bewildered by the day
the hands of the clock in the Jewish quarter run backwards
And you too crawl slowly back through your life
while climbing to Hradčany listening at night
To the Czech songs of the tavern

The key elements of the city; St. Vitus Cathedral, the Jewish Quarter, and Prague Castle, become fixed in Apollinaire’s voice. He is not representing the city in itself; rather the city is a means for him to realize his artistic vision. This approach makes the poem more about Prague than a poem dealing directly with the city because the poem makes claim to the inspiration he found there.

The one major Prague-based poetic movement, Poetism (Poetismus in Czech) took its cues from Apollinaire. The movement never spread beyond Czechoslovakia, despite the involvement of the country’s leading poets, such as Jaroslav Seifert, Vladimír Holan, Vítězslav Nezval and František Halas. The poems, which represent the movement included in the book, are by Nezval and Halas. As this very small sample shows, homogeneity is difficult to ascribe. Structurally, Nezval built both the poems in the anthology around repetition. For example, “City of Spires” starts:

Hundred-spired Prague
With the fingers of all saints
With the fingers of perjury
With the fingers of fire and hail
With the fingers of a musician 

The poem trumpets and blares, and like “Zone” the poem is not a picture of the city; rather the city is taken, pulled into pieces and reassembled. It is joyous in its openness, shepherding all aspects of the city into the lines. Halas in contrast was more subdued. His poem “Prague” ends thus:

Under blue sadness
the blue blood without oxygen
you are boiling over
Following that train of yours even your dumps are boiling
painfully boiling over
with beggar’s burdock and stinging nettle

may she catch stones

Whereas Nezval seems to be proclaiming his poem from the city’s Petřín Hill, Halas is floating across, suggesting disconnection. Therefore, as we can see Prague’s clearest moment of poetic fellowship revealed great variety.

The invasion by Nazi Germany was the end of the movement. The foundation of the communist regime continued to stifle any new local poetic affiliations that were not officially sanctioned. Nezval started to churn out party appeasing doggerel, whereas Holan and Seifert — who had both been fervent proletarian poets before the war — found their voices in opposition or noncommitment. Holan’s “Simply” with its myriad of voices, its almost novelist’s precision married to a melancholy resignation, shows how difficult it is to read the era into the poems.

We stood outside the tobacconist’s and some of us
had small change and some had none …
On the storefront was a notice:
This shop is for sale
. Someone has scrawled under it
in chalk: FOR BUGGER ALL!
We looked at it for a while and then
walked to the pub.

The lines are timeless — both in its expression of how fine divisions run and the evocation of frustration and boredom in a seemingly simple scene.

Poets who stood more obviously in opposition are of course represented. However, any attempt to unite them tends towards oversimplification. Egon Bondy, who was connected with the underground avant-rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, is in his poem acerbic toward the custom of young Prague lovers meeting to kiss on the first of May, a tradition linked to the nineteenth century Czech “romantic” poem Máj by Karel Hynek Mácha. Jáchym Topol’s “Moreover It’s Clear” evokes the latter years of the regime. The tone is not so much defiantly political as bitter and personal, especially when he writes:

haggard mugs
at the Moskevská stop
remind me of the existence of people
who don’t give a shit

Such despondency doesn’t always require a totalitarian regime. It’s important to remember that as much as Topol was reacting to the political conditions of his country, he was also like poets in the West striking out at more universal moral decrepitude. Having said that, the drab concrete of socialist architecture no doubt exacerbated those ills.

When we take into account the lives of Holan, Bondy and Topol along with all the other poets of the communist era, historical and political reductionism becomes problematic. These three poets were in opposition; however, their relationship was complicated. Holan as stated earlier was a former party member and Bondy, despite his strong association with the Prague underground, always identified as a Marxist. Only Topol showed no political affiliation. Other poets included, such as Miroslav Holub and Jiří Žáček, occupied a grayer area. Holub was a professional immunologist during this time and Žáček worked for the state publishing firm. Yet, the latter offers the best view of the city’s suburbs in his poem “South City”:

Battle zone for high rise brats,
for wolf packs. Whose orphans are you,
floaters from daycares, accustomed to dummies and cats?
If you take after your father too,

Subsuming all poetry under the banner of dissent would marginalize this particularly whimsical view of the city. Poetry does not always align itself with our neat ideological divides.

The more strident political voices came perhaps from the outside. Lowell’s “From Prague 1968” appears to be genuine in its protest even if the subject matter was second hand. The inclusion suggests that the Prague we are dealing with is also one of symbolism as much as cobblestone and churches. In fact, with a collection such as this one, it is important to remember that the urban landscape presented is in part figurative. Ginsberg on the other hand could claim to have felt the pressure of the regime when he was expelled in 1965 after being named Král Majáles, or the King of May, also the title of his famous poem included here. It is not so much the poem’s references to his short time in the city which makes it fitting as the way Ginsberg and the poem have become part of the city’s mythology. Ginsberg was an important figure for the Czech underground of the 1970s. He also serves as a symbolic figure for Prague’s current English language poetry scene — no wonder a recent anthology representing this international literary renaissance was called The Return of Král Majáles.

However, the anthology shows that the poetry of opposition didn’t only congregate in Ginsberg’s camp. Pablo Neruda, who famously adopted his sobriquet from the Czech writer Jan Neruda, visited the city while in exile. The El Salvadorian poet, Roque Dalton, was in Prague because he had escaped execution by a right wing dictatorship in his homeland by fleeing to Cuba. The Cubans later sent him to Prague. His poem, “Tavern” is a wild mix of voices in which Ginsberg is referenced. The inclusion of Dalton indicates more than ideological divergence. Placing the poem immediately after Ginsberg’s in the anthology also means there is one poem referencing another event in the anthology. Of course, it is selection, but history is selection, and an anthology is a way of doing history. It is history of demonstration, connection and juxtaposition. It is the history of giving as much voice to the actors as possible.

Other émigrés, exiles and expats enrich this history further. Ginsberg is only the most notable example of the English poetry which is increasingly becoming part this city. Australian Louis Armand, who is a prominent member of Prague’s international poetry community, offers in his poem, “Leden” (the Czech for Januaury), a poetic vision as much at home in Prague as the poems of an earlier era. Through Justin Quinn’s “Seminar” we get a humorous and sympathetic sense of what it is like to teach the language of this historically new community, which these two poets are only a small representation. One pity is the absence of Sylva Fischerová, whose “The Language of the Fountains” is a wonderful evocation of the city and seems to evoke the very themes of language and place on which this anthology turns.

Russian is another language which is in some way a part of the city. Many Russians came to Prague after the revolution and civil war. Nabokov’s mother was a resident, as was Marina Tsvetaeva, who lived in Prague from 1922 to 1925. There she composed “Mount Poem” and “Poem of the End.” The inclusion of Tsvetaeva forces us to address the idea of “poetry of place” as it applies to Prague. It is only that we know the poems were composed in Prague that seems to connect it. Unless we assume that the city inspired Tsvetaeva in a way no other city can. The notion is not in itself misguided, but it is a bold assumption and one that is hard to prove.

Tsvetaeva’s correspondent, Rilke, further suggests the complexity of poetry and place. That he was born in Prague as part of its German speaking community and wrote about his hometown makes him an obvious choice. However, his relationship with the place was tenuous. When childhood and memory appear in other works it is more internal and impressionistic. The two poems in the anthology, “Hradčany” and “Out of Smíchov,” are as pregnant with significance as his later work, but they are no more of the city than other of the Prague German writers who are absent. Rilke’s stature among English speaking poets is undeniably greater than those others. However, it is a shame that poets such as Franz Werfel and Max Brod are missing, when Germanophones Celan and Ingesborg are included. Given an already rich representation of poetry from and about the city their place is surely here too.

Prague’s place as a literary city is undeniably unique, but it is unique in that all cities are unique. The “Golden City,” “The City of a Hundred Spires,” is a culmination of a long history, a history which is constantly unfolding and of which poetry is a record and an agent. While it would be a mistake to ascribe to Prague some privileged place among urban muses, as this anthology shows, poetic currents are ever present in its streets and its spired skyline.

Permission to be a poet

A review of Eileen Myles's 'Inferno (A Poet's Novel)'

Inferno (A Poet's Novel)

Inferno (A Poet's Novel)

by Eileen Myles

O/R Books 2010, 256 pages, $16, ISBN 1935928031

Inferno: A Poet’s Novel begins as a retelling of Eileen Myles’s tough-girl antics in 1970s New York. She plays, at first, a stomping, horny girl-tornado, a lost Dante high-minded enough to keep yammering on about that likeness. In this story she is very broke but good at it. She sells fake subway token slugs, borrows dollars, works in bars, makes rich friends, steals food off trucks. She is our girl hero.

She writes like no one else, often tying the shape of talk to the page with dead accuracy. “Here we go: puking.” “I went to Queens College for a second.” She catches how ambition and attachment circulate through all of us, together:

Sometimes of course I’d walk both dogs. Alice was pretty busy and of course I had the time. And I had competition. There was a grim Marxist-looking woman, a greasy blonde who obviously had a crush on Alice and she took up the slack when I couldn’t help out. The woman was the religious editor at Majority Report, an embarrassing thing in itself. I’d bump into her on the street, with or without dogs, and we’d just glare at each other. Obviously we had the same boss, and the existence of each other simply lowered both of our positions.

Myles is lethal when she’s diagramming how people wish for things, how they use each other, how they operate in time. All these machinations are built of small gears: “What’s that.” “Um, no.” “Of course.” “Uhhh — no.” “Okay. “Okay.”

There’s a ton of good tall tales in this book, which I won’t go into because they are such perfect pleasures. There are brags and brags and brags. There are sex stories that transmit the whole roaring overwhelm, the anxiety of a lover you have to impress, how a lover is always also a guide out of the disaster they will always wreck.

The story of Inferno is that Dante needs direction. Virgil agrees to be his guide and learns him good. In her take, Myles commits to this arrangement totally, and she covers all sides: she shows herself as an innocent asking “Poet, I thee entreat,” she shows that turning to mentors is absolutely necessary (even conceding that mentors often disappoint) and she shows a little of the strangeness of becoming one.

In pursuit of an admired poet (Marge Piercy) at a reading:

        I wax professional. I stick my chest out. I know you’re just catching your breath, but can I talk to you for a second. I get a warm gleam. Sort of. But unfocused. Tired. Though she’s probably always like this. I went to U. Mass (Boston) and my professor Eva Nelson was a friend of yours. She’s shaking her head.
        Eva — I’m thinking the name sounds kind of wrong. Was that really her name. I forget.
        She went to Hunter. Maybe you knew her at Hunter.
        I don’t know this person Marge Piercy is telling me. No I don’t know her.
        You read —
        I have never heard —
        Eva Nelson.
        No, no she says and now she just wants me to go away.

Other idols she describes open new worlds, or prove haughty and useless, or convince her of her own worth, or take advantage, or literally feed her. In telling the story Myles also positions herself as a mentor and the guidance she offers is serious enough to stay complicated. She argues with anecdote after anecdote that apprenticeship is essential to becoming a poet, but that learning from someone shouldn’t be presumed to be a result of their being any good: “Bad scenes can be essential. The world was coughing up information in record time. I used all of it.”

That we finally reach the section “Heaven” — bragging on having finally got there— is important because Myles admits herself into the company of idols who can fall flat and be wrong. With that caveat implied, she does offer advice as an expert that left me grateful, not annoyed. It’s advice that stands out against a lot of the advised ways of being a poet in 2011. What worked for Myles was a balls-to-the-wall, all-in kind of hunger.

The character [in Hamsun’s Hunger] was going to starve, unless he made money on his art. Which was basically my ideal. Nobody ever told me how to live, they told me what not to do. In all these books about the lives of artists that I read I mean they weren’t guidebooks but they took the simple beliefs in art and freedom and carried them to outrageous lengths. I could do that.

This lesson is implicitly generous. As is her appreciation for how long apprenticeship continues — part of the book is written as a grant “Submitted by Eileen Myles to the Ferdinand Foundation,” a joke on how long you trudge along asking, “Am I there yet?” Myles seems to offer, with some tenderness, that the question “Am I there yet?” is a good companion. It keeps you honest.  

In Inferno, Eileen Myles lays out lots of gifts. Between the sharp humor and the impossibly clean lines she gets a little corny. Mainly she is giving permission: permission to be a poet, in a dated, romantic, full sense of the word. And permission to find new ways of doing that, whatever you need, and permission to be dissatisfied, to continually want to do it better.

Ecologies of the margin

A review of 'Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics'

Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics

Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics

edited by Louis Armand

Literraria Pragensia 2010, 278 pages, £12.00, ISBN 978-80-7308-311-3

Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics, edited by Louis Armand, collects essays by poets about marginal poetries and poets; recalling John Ashbery’s series of lectures on unknown poets, Other TraditionsHidden Agendas does not purport to be some kind of conclusive collection of marginal poetics; its premise, rather, is refreshingly contingent on personal proclivity: “a number of writers / editors were invited to reflect on a poet, a group of poets, or a poetics from the last half-century, that they deemed of personal significance and which they felt to have been underestimated, neglected, or overlooked. Consequently, each contribution is subjective and critical” (4).

Indeed most of the book’s eighteen contributors are probably better known than their subjects. Roughly half of these contributions are about poets and their work; the other half about (the concept of a) poetics. The essays about poets include: Kyle Schlesinger about Asa Benveniste, Robert Sheppard about Bob Cobbing, John Wilkinson about Mark Hyatt, Vincent Katz about Edwin Denby’s sonnet series “Mediterranean Cities,” Stephan Delbos about William Bronk, Jeremy Davies about Gilbert Sorrentino, Louis Armand about Lukasz Tomin, and Michael Rothenberg about Phillip Walen. The essays about poetics include: Stephanie Strickland about digital poetry, D. J. Huppatz with a history of Flarf, and Allen Fisher with an essay about complexity and incoherence.

Before looking at these and other essays, let us first return briefly to the book’s title, Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics, which immediately lays bare the apparent paradox of this anthology: are we offered a report of the unreported, an exposition of the hidden, a centralizing of the marginal? Not necessarily. Perhaps these poets and poetries will be allowed to remain hidden, unreported and marginal even as they are examined in this book. This is true in the obvious sense that this one anthology is unlikely to lead to a widespread retroactive appropriation of these various poets into the various canons from which they have hitherto indeed remained hidden in the unreported shadows of their margins. However, as Louis Armand writes in “Notes in lieu of an Introduction”: “an unreported poetics could not be allowed to simply be thought of as the disenfranchised other of a presumed mainstream” (3).

Another possibility, then, is to consider the marginal not in resentful opposition to the canonical, but as an expression of its own kind of affective difference. “[T]here is the question of how ‘marginality’ itself may be seen to underwrite a poetics — not simply a style or poetic stance, but a technics of composition” (2). Looking, for example, at one etymological root of the word “margin,” we find that apart from meaning something of little consequence, something that resides on the edge of the center, it also shares a root with “mark,” namely, “mereg-” (edge, boundary). For the word “mark” this has a recorded meaning of “sign of a boundary” “any visible trace or impression.”[1] So a remnant of this slight trace or impression can also be thought of as lingering as an effect of the margin, allowing us to think of it affirmatively instead of appositionally. Instead of dismissing the margin as the boundary between text and the edge of the page, perhaps we can think of it in terms of what traces it leaves at this boundary of text and space. Much like Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor literature, Pierre Joris’s (Deleuze-inspired) Nomad Poetics, or Joan Retallack’s poethics of the swerve, a literature that is marginalized in this sense is not one that is forced into a position of powerlessness but one that merely makes a slight difference, leaves a nearly imperceptible, but not insignificant, trace. As a way into this book, Hidden Agendas, we can thus ask: What singular impressions do these poets and poetics leave? What is it that makes them marginal?

 Of course the marginal subsists in what is major, mainstream, of “central importance”; in the same way that mainstream literature/art will carry traces of the inassimilable, the outside, the margin. “The marginal is a complex — a whole web of parallel universes surrounding and overlapping whatever purports to constitute a ‘centre’, yet about which it remains in the dark” (5). What does this notion of the margin as a complex mean? Alternatively to thinking about the margin as something that has veered away from a “the centre,” [2] the margin as a complex might be thought of as being part of the interconnectedness of things — what Timothy Morton has theorized as the Mesh — in which of course there is “a centre” depending on where you stand.[3] But thinking in terms of a complex, or mesh, allows one to think from below about how a poem emerges from its particular circumstances, instead of imposing from above a normative standard in which it must somehow be straightjacketed.

A marginal poetics — alternatively to being opposed to the mainstream — can thus be a poetics of the mesh, an ecology of poetry. British artist, poet, and critic Allen Fisher takes a similar approach in his closing contribution to Hidden Agendas, proposing a diagrammatic poetics, which tries to include a diagram of the poet’s whole environment in the poetic process. Instead of the poem emerging from the supposed deep recesses of a poet’s sensitive mind observing the world from a distance, Fisher prefers to talk about the poetic process in terms of a poet’s proprioception (the body’s sense of itself and its spatial surroundings) in relation to its environment. The focus is not on an ostensibly coherent collection of words that appear as if out of nowhere on a blank page, but precisely on the surroundings that give rise to a poem, what Fisher calls, somewhat awkwardly perhaps, archaeological spacetime. When the poem starts from the poet’s proprioception, “it comprehends the planet as home and proposes both a dig down and a dig upwards, by which can be meant an understanding made cogent from both historical perspective and geological information … the archeological spacetime implicitly fields an ecological understanding in all directions …” (249). An explicit reference here is Charles Olson (d. 1970) who similarly emphasized the specificity of place as a constantly reiterative creation of a Polis, a coexisting.

Similarly to Olson, too, Fisher extends his discussion of the ecology of poetics to include superficially unrelated disciplines such as archaeology, mythology, modernism, theoretical biology, quantum mechanics, and contemporary literary theory. Ecology, the diagrammatic, spacetime; all concepts that emphasize spatiality and dimensionality (as opposed to viewing a poem as no more than the flat words on the page). Letting in spatiality and ecology means recognizing not only a coherence in any situation, but also the inhering incoherence. So in addition to the poem as a straightforward linear narrative, Fisher examines the possible ramifications for poetry of different facets of incoherence and chaos.

Fisher’s multifocal style zaps through historical eras, scientific disciplines, and schools of thought, sometimes within the same paragraph. Witness his discussion of incoherence in which Fisher begins with a rejection of Plato’s view of poetry (as intuited “mental poison” and “enemy of truth”), then jumps forward twenty-five hundred years to cite Alan Turing’s insolvability solution (which proved that there are mathematical problems which cannot be solved by pure logic, thus demonstrating, “within mathematics itself, […] the inadequacy of ‘reason’”), only to borrow from theoretical biology the concept of chreod — which refers to the necessary paths for brain activity and cognition — as an example of the inherence of chaos in equilibrium and vice versa; subsequently showing how this can be “ventriloquized” in poetry in as much as poets’ “consistent patterns or chreods in the cellular connections of their speech productions are characterized and can be discerned in the patterns of their language presentations”[2] (253, 257, 259).

In part two of the essay Fisher discusses Joan Retallack’s Poethics as an example of a poetics of incoherence. Retallack’s poethics of the swerve too stresses nonlinearity and complexity and chaos theory as inspirations for her poethics. “How can one frame a poetics of the swerve, a constructive preoccupation with what are unpredictable forms of change?’ (271). Her swerve brings to mind many other such references to a minor or marginal movement that nevertheless is an impetus for/of change: Lucretius’s famous clinamen (the unpredictable swerve of atoms), or Deleuze/Guattari’s nomadic becoming minor (a movement always away from the major). Retallack writes: “Imagining a cultural coastline (complex, dynamic) rather than time’s horizon … thrusts the thought experiment into the distinctly contemporary moment of a fractal poetics” (274).

So where along this complex and fractured coastline do some of these forgotten poets surface? What swerves did they make in their environments and in their poetry’s environments that make them memorably marginal? And how do we find them if not in the neat chronological presentation of the school textbook, the bookstore’s alphabetically ordered poetry section, the ostensibly all-inclusive, decisive anthology? Hidden Agendas offers a variety of answers to these questions. Amongst these, one very intriguing sounding poet is Lukasz Tomin, whose short life and virtuosic writing is introduced by Louis Armand.

Lukasz Tomin’s life and work started from various positions of marginality. It is poignantly ironic that, born in 1966, he grew up during normalizace, the period from about 1969–1987 that saw the reestablishing of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, in reaction to the reforms of the Prague Spring. As the son of dissident intellectuals, Tomin moved around during his childhood, first to London, then France. Later he moved back to Prague, but by now he had made the choice to write in English, a third degree of marginalization, and one that, at first, alienated him from both the Czech and UK literary circles.

So does Tomin’s personal entanglement within the political turmoil of his time find direct expression in his writing? Is his writing positioned in opposition to the “normalizing” tendencies of the Czech state to which he returned? The answer appears to be both yes and no: Armand argues that Tomin’s writing is not overtly political, but that it is precisely in this rejection to engage with the political agenda as set by the state that Tomin creates works that think directly about “the secret life of what we call ethics” (118): “In the context of the post-Revolution literary nationalism, Tomin’s writing carries no instructive message — it remains alien, unassimilated and ostensibly inassimilable. Against the poetics of tribal evocation, Tomin’s is a poetics of dispossession” (123).

The Doll, for example (the first of three books that Tomin wrote), is on one level a story of the escape and travels of two children who plan to build a large doll as a symbol of hope, but with a Bataillean flavor and “steeped in the ‘perversity of innocence’” the children’s plan “gives way to self-flagellation, confusion, and dissipation” (118). Armand suggests that not only can this be seen as an allegory of itself, it can furthermore be thought of precisely as a critique of allegory, as a tired and ineffectual, and overly didactic form (popular we mustn’t forget, amongst exiled writers, artists, composers) that no longer sufficed as a vehicle for social change. It is not surprising therefore that Tomin, too, rejected a linear coherent style, but rather wrote layered texts which were “a surface kinetics of interpenetrating ‘figures,’” in which “one thing does not lead to another; everything is rather détourned.” (120, 122)

Despite the meaningful and lasting effort Armand argues that Tomin contributed through literature to that “secret life of what we call ethics,” Tomin did not live to see recognition for his writing: he committed suicide at the age of thirty-two (118). And although he is discussed as someone who was not interested in confessional poetry of sentiment, the fragment with which Armand closes his essay hints of the personal darkness with which this young writer must have been struggling:

With an ending.
Try to be homeward try to be sane.
In the river.
Of your choosing.
Secure the wranglings of madmen.
To a nowhere.

Another singular example in Hidden Agendas of a poet writing from the margins is the English poet Mark Hyatt (1940–1973). A drug abuser, gay, and semiliterate, the margins Hyatt was writing from were those of adaptation to the norms of society and “proper” standard English. An important point that Wilkinson makes in his essay is that if subjected to formalist, normative (or, if you will, normalizing) close-reading, Hyatt might not be said to have written many good poems; and yet, Wilkinson argues that Hyatt’s poetry holds up to extended and repeated readings. In a way, Wilkinson writes, Hyatt’s work can be qualified as, “stoner poetry; amidst a general vagueness more or less interestingly warped from poem to poem, something amazing occurs and amazingly often.” (52). Here are some of those lines:

and I am having one
of those sexless nights
where birds fly out
of the mouth
with their tails
on fire. (62)

 And from another poem: “He steals a small poem / And scars it madly” (53). Lines that are — remembering Hyatt’s semi-literacy — pertinent, and even more so when we learn that he even often did not want his grammatical mistakes to be corrected.

Hidden Agendas as a whole is certainly a motley collection, both in the variety of obscure and unknown poets and in the different approaches taken to introduce them to the reader. Although this variegated approach mostly works, some contributions unavoidably seem to be less synchronized with the rest of the anthology. Huppatz’s essay on Flarf, for one, in its very structured and chronological presentation of the movement, feels strangely canonizing for a book about marginalism. Johanna Drucker’s playful essay offers a more titillating counterpoint to Huppatz’s effort. Drucker presents an episode in the history of Language Poetry in the form of a kind of fantasy novel:  

The leaders of the LangPo were scattered, one of whom had chief influence in New York, exceedingly beloved by many people, and others among the Canadians, and the Californians, but their forces were still gathering out of sight to put down the Workshop poets and convert the Traditionalists. (189)

Michael Rothenberg’s contribution about Philip Whalen might for some also be somewhat awkward. Rothenberg’s piece consists of fragments of highly personal conversation and poems from what appears to be Whalen’s last few weeks in hospital, sometimes giving the reader an uncomfortable sensation of voyeurism and nostalgic sentimentalism. A different issue is whether Whalen can really be said to be unfairly forgotten — as recent as 2007 there appeared the nearly one thousand-page tome The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen with forewords and introductions by the likes of Gary Snyder and Leslie Scalapino.

Nevertheless, Hidden Agendas is a welcome stringing together of diverse and forgotten poetic fringes into one diverse collection. It is devoid of the snide competitive remarks sometimes found in academic writing, perhaps since the emphasis in these essays is on personal tribute to a particular poet or poetics. Also, the fact that there is no real organising principle to the book apart from its eclecticism really complements its starting point of poetry as emerging from a complex of factors. It is definitely exciting to have the feeling of sifting through fragments of the past and learning about nearly forgotten poets. The thorough documentation, research (including some nice chapbook cover artwork), and close-readings in many of the essays certainly add to this experience. Hidden Agendas is another of many innovative volumes brought out by the prolific Prague based publisher Litteraria Pragensia.


1. From The Online Etymology Dictionary.

2. This eclectic style can be absorbing and is even sometimes deployed more explicitly as a rhetorical tool to underscore his defence of incoherence. For example, there is a passage of disjunctively written sentences; as well as one grammatically incorrect sentence that is purposively left as it was first typed. Ironically, however, at other times Fisher’s style can be unnecessarily dense, and in these cases unintentionally borders on the incoherent.

3. Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).