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).

An abecedarian

A review of Joseph Harrington's 'Things Come On {an amneoir}'

Things Come On: {an amneoir}

Things Come On: {an amneoir}

by Joseph Harrington

Wesleyan University Press 2011, 108 pages, $22.95, ISBN 9780819571359

Amneoir. An amnesiac’s memoir. What would this look like?

Art. (See Collage.)

From Alan Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy, translated by Louise Burchill (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011):

“There are only bodies and languages except that there are truths. […] Taking the form of sciences, arts, politics and love, these ‘things,’ endowed with a transworldly and universal value, are what I name truths.” (22)

“this Second Manifesto is the result of our confused and detestable present time forcing us to declare that there are eternal truths in politics, art, science and love.” (129–30)

Collage. (See Art.)

Collage frustrates, or helpfully restrains, teleological narratives because its disparate parts intervene repeatedly to slow the drive toward the conclusions of these parts; this is salutary for the narrative when it is already highly teleological, namely, the story of death, or when it is the story of a public event whose conclusion is already universally known: the death of Elizabeth Harrington, in the former case, and Nixon’s resignation, in the latter.

Collage allows the writer to broaden the text’s point of view by allowing in other voices, and as this textual cobbling foregrounds difference, it becomes possible to position contrasting registers and narrative concerns without forcing the reader to reconcile everything into one uniform and coherent voice or narrative.

Moreover, the constant textual intrusions aid in deepening the sense of the overall pertinence of the themes as the reader sees that these concerns are under discussion elsewhere as well: how to deal with the death of a loved one (Love), how to deal with insufficient scientific knowledge (Science), how to deal with political deception (Politics), and how memory serves as an artistic and agile means of recovering and understanding experience (Art).

Amidst the collage’s many juxtapositions, one dominant point of comparison and contrast emerges: the mismanagement of Elizabeth Harrington’s breast cancer and the nefarious deceptions practiced by a democratically elected president. Collage allows coincidence; it affords chance to be meaningful. It offers an analogy, two situations for mutual contemplation, without a one-to-one relation having to obtain.

Yet in any analogy, there is a first term and a second: the second comments back upon the first, whose importance is greater. The first is a breast cancer patient’s death. The second is Nixon. For me, the most pointed moments of insight provided by way of Tricky Dick & Team include the following:

EX 1
“Going back to the analogy of cancer and the war in Vietnam, the ‘medicine’ we gave that country was too strong to attack only the invaders. B-52 bombers, massive artillery, napalm, and defoliants were too random and indiscriminate to hit just the ‘enemy’: hundreds of thousands of helpless, innocent people were killed or wounded as well. In the end, the country was destroyed by the evidence.” (23)

Poignant, closely analogous situation to Elizabeth Harrington’s breast cancer “treatment.”

EX 2
dr. a: “In order to keep [family and friends] from falling apart, the woman tries to keep her chin up and have a smile plastered on her face — at a time when she herself is most defenseless and in need of support.”

dr. d: “It was my particular concern with the fact that the President did not seem to understand the implications of what was going on.” (26)

An anonymous woman, brave and strong, suffering from the pathology of cancer; an international man, the president, cowardly and delusional, suffering from the pathology of paranoia.

EX 3
“without going into the details — don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is a comedy of errors, without getting into it.” (59)

Misplaced trust in figures of authority — the president and the doctor.


If the writer senses the unavoidable imbalance within the analogy, this insecurity is in no way damning:

there’s a strange conflation of Nixon with the mother. I’m not sure that’s OK […] Are we meant to feel empathy for Nixon in the way that we do for the mother? […] What does it mean to put an enemies list up against psychological strategies for dealing with cancer? It continues to be unclear to me what kind of analogy is building here. […] The documentary materials […] seem to function only as distancing devices, a strategy to escape the overwhelming pathos of the personal story. Is the reader only an observer of tragedy here? (19)

This reads like a reviewer’s comments — feedback notes given to the writer on a draft — valid to a certain point, though inaccurate in evaluating the artistic technique: collages don’t produce 1:1 correspondences, and analogies don’t give equal weight to each situation under consideration.

These moments of doubt recur in the text, and often their voice seems equally to be that of society impinging upon the narrative and that of self-doubt. The writer, active within the collage, considers his possible objectives:

Perhaps this isn’t an analogy […] perhaps it is the record of a person’s death. Or a history coming apart. A descent into the underworld, where Ulasewicz taped a key to the bottom of the locker. Presenting skullduggery; oncology astrology indicated. (44)

If erasure would displace the writer making voice an ambient mirage, collage allows the writer’s voice to remain present; and this is a good thing since the complete absence of the writer’s voice here would eliminate the possibility of pathos, which arrives at the end most clearly for me not in the depiction of the patient or the writer, then a boy, but in that of the patient’s husband: “[The nurse’s] face in real pain, upturned slightly, she said, ‘Mr. Harrington? I’m sorry; she’s gone.’ He grimaced jerkily and made to snap his fingers, like he did when he remembered something he’d left at home. ‘Oh, I wanted to be there!’ he said” (64). Imagining myself the husband in this situation is very difficult to do; and being able to convey the scene’s emotional sense relies upon the details of personal experience.


As the writer tries to come to terms with this traumatic though distant event, he is forced into the role of investigator, very much akin to the private detective faced with the extra-judicial (because the authorities have failed) task of solving a crime. Again, this role is necessary for two reasons, the first being personal: “Writing all this was supposed to make him feel better, to solve the semantic puzzle, remedy the ontic ache. We should be able to vote on the road to recovery in real time […] Do something other than merely watch” (63).

The second is practical: not only did Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, where the writer’s mother was treated, destroy the patient’s records long ago (11), but she never kept a written record of her own experiences and hardly spoke of her feelings (26): “I have no oral history on paper from her, so I can neither confirm nor deny” (9), and “'She just never talked to you about her feelings?’ ‘Not much …’”(26).

The text creates the possibility that through a thorough investigation — through an accumulation of data and its painstaking analysis — the truth will reveal itself. At least that is its objective presupposition. But the authorial voice doesn’t believe fully in this:

AUG 2 1974
(all of this is true history — isn’t that enough?
since whatever you’re feeling
stays invisible in you no matter how many words without)          

Data, however much you can accumulate, will never accord with the feeling of experience.

Beyond the writer’s role as an investigator, he is also an observer. The textual polyphony obscures the writer (imagine watching a surgery behind a thick, translucent window …) and provides him the distance needed for skeptical reticence. He is an observer to his desire to construct a history for himself but equally a history for his mother who never had the desire to author the story of her own life, or in some macabre notation, to tell the story of her death:


This passage captures the ambivalent emotions and thoughts that go with telling this story. The basic task seems almost impossible: to reconstruct an event so long after its fact (1974 to 2004, thirty years …); and to speak for someone whose story, told from her perspective, would be the most vital sort. This perplexity recalls the horror and shame that many survivors of concentration camps felt as they were asked to tell the story of their experience: very many felt that theirs was not the true story, which could only be told by the dead. (Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz). This is a story you want to get right and yet feel like you never can.

Lastly, as an observer, the writer allows the narrative to reach toward the universal and not to get caught up too intimately in the nuts and bolts of personal emotion: “— Joe, Sugar, don’t confuse your readers so. Why don’t you just come right out and say what you mean?” (31). Because the story isn’t about just him. Because the story isn’t easily articulated. Because the story is also that of the historical times and how time’s passage doesn’t imply progress:

31 July
— progressive — and Progress

A disease is progressive, but as it reaches its end, you could hardly confuse that (death) with “Progress.”

— What? That’s it? The mother dies, and the country
  (Today We Know) only got worse. That’s the ending?
That’s all you can say for yourself? Where’s the redemption
  in that? The Revelation? The positive example of survival
  and endurance?
— Tragedy means you can only observe,
       static, while everything changed. (71)

These are the two poles within which to steer: the forced epiphany/emotional enema of the Hallmark® Resolution, and the passive, nihilist, impulse to deny yourself the right to speak at all. This text avoids both.

There is one last point I would like to make about the collage, and that is how the flipping back and forth to the notes after the narrative, something I did almost on a page by page basis, may well provide an empowering role for the reader. It activates the fingers and then the mind to the suggestion that there are considerable gaps here, and voids that no logic can fill.

In this the text argues again for the possibility, even the necessity, of telling stories — your own or others’ — despite the difficulties inherent in the task. Perhaps the hardest thing is to find your story or your family’s story worth telling — personal stories that include heartbreak, but that rise above it, and so above the simple, feeble cry you would like to emit in the face of time, death and your relative helplessness.

Diachronic/synchronic. (See Fact.)

From Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (Verso, 2005):

From a limited series of conventional and reassuringly simple narrative options (the so-called Master Narratives), history becomes a bewildering torrent of sheer Becoming. […] It then proves reassuring to abandon these diachronic dilemmas altogether, and to turn towards a perspective and a way of looking at things in which they do not even arise. Such is the realm of the synchronic, and we may well ask ourselves what replaces narrative and what representational forms are available to articulate this new systematic view of the multiple coexistence of factors or facts, what mode of Darstellung could possibly accommodate this historiographic material. Only to do so would involve a review of everything from the so-called plotless or poetic, “modernist” novel […] to experiments in historiography. (88–9)

This text as synchronic, as evincing the coexistence of multiple facts and facets of historiographical matter.



From David Shields’s collaged Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Vintage, 2011):

My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists in a multitude of forms and media […] who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work. (3)

Facts as reality; breakage and rupture and suture; the trauma of realizing new forms.


The Gothic suggests that many of the most familiar things — those things that are even overfamiliar in their routine presence in our lives — are in fact not fully understood. At one point we might have tried to understand them and failed, but now because their presence dominates us in its ubiquity, we never have the chance to distance ourselves sufficiently to understand what they mean. Here, these terms might be the hospital, the doctor, the mother, and the president.

The Gothic also suggests that within these domesticated elements lurks a violent, frightening underlayer, always present; and that, given the right impetus or context, this repressed layer will emerge. This is the advent of horror, and the nightmare is one of its basic modes: “a complete horror story” (12), a “NATIONAL NIGHTMARE” (58). 

Pathology within the body. Paranoia within the mind.

Furthermore, the suggestion is that the conscious mind wants to continue to repress these pathologies at any cost so as to retain power over the body and so maintain the illusion of control. Not only does breast cancer itself imply some environmental hazard whose existence we repress as it threatens our ideology and lifestyle, but also the patient’s body transmogrifies due to the surgeries and medicines, all the efforts to restore the system’s control, and to deny the fact of the system’s failure:

6 AM — very difficult for pt. to swallow — followed by seize of coughing. Tongue and inside of mouth coated blue from Urised, a terrible midnight blue. (58)

Urised, a urinary fixed combination drug, contains the antiseptic methylene blue.

7:15 — Lt. hand cold — grunting @int. —
                                 Shallow cyanotic (63)

Cyanotic, as a medical term, describes a condition of a bluish discoloration of the skin due to insufficient amounts of oxygen in the bloodstream.

So fear, terror, nightmare and horror.

Echoes of Frankenstein’s monster, the doctor’s control of science inadequate, his hubris fatal, his ignorance startling.

MRS. G — — : Well, the cancer didn’t kill her, the chemo killed her. (36)

Echoes of the origin of forensic science, the detective story. Poe’s “The Murders in Rue Morgue.” Compile the data — the facts — and the truth will emerge, howsoever strange it might be! 

Horror. (See Gothic.)



From Chapter “f, memory” of Reality Hunger:

In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, is also the mother of the nine Muses.

Tell the story of your life that is the most emotionally cathartic; the story you “remember” is covering the “real story,” anyway.

Reality takes shape in memory alone.

Memory: the past rewritten in the direction of feeling. (56)

And so, the form of the memoir, “truth” telling and fact. The ambiguity of it all, and the positive unreliability of all narrative. Or, alternatively, to break free of the specious debate: how text creates meaning.

Nightmare, where the Gothic and the dystopian/Utopian intersect.


Reality. (See Fact, Diachronic, Memory.)

Scrapbook. (See Wunderkrammer.)

Suffering, a note, in relation to the body.

At some point the depiction of the female body in poetry changed. It changed from being the locus of male pleasure to that of female suffering; it changed from being a metaphor for the divine aspect of the carnal to the literal location of female physical suffering, with suggestions both of the depredations (see predatory, prey) and degradations (see humiliate) to which patriarchal society subjects women and also to which capitalism subjects all people.

The contemporary situation argues forcefully that the depiction of the female body is not to be taken lightly: a man must think before putting words to page.

Here the writer does not expound upon the physical charms of his beloved but writes of the suffering of his mother. He does this carefully so as not to fall prey to the second most common cliché about women — the long-suffering mother, true symbol of womanhood. The collage with its an analogy gently shifts the emphasis from the merely morbid to something greater, the political dimensions of an individual’s suffering and the pain of the times, America circa 1972–74.

(Yet I write this full of longing to read carnal depictions of female and male bodies — for bodies of any gender — together in love. Written by men. Written by women.)

Truth. (See Badiou.)


. (See Scrapbook.)

From Giorgio Agamben’s “The Cabinet of Wonder” in The Man Without Content, translated by Georgia Albert (Stanford University Press, 1999):

Art collections, however, have not always had such a familiar aspect for us. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, in the countries of continental Europe, princes and learned men used to collect the most disparate objects in a Wunderkrammer (cabinet of wonder), which contained, promiscuously, rocks of an unusual shape, coins, stuffed animals, manuscript volumes, ostrich eggs, and unicorn horns. Statues and paintings stood side by side with curios and exemplars of natural history in these cabinets of wonders when people started collecting art objects. (29)

The collage — the disparate, the eclectic, as a cabinet of wonder to inspire contemplation.


As the elevator moves skyward, it reveals a widening horizon

A review of Rena Rosenwasser's 'Elevators'



by Rena Rosenwasser

Kelsey Street Press 2011, 72 pages, $17, ISBN 978-0932716750

Rena Rosenwasser’s latest collection of poems from Kelsey St. Press, Elevators, explores axes of perception that unfold into thought. Elevators engages the intersections of vertical and horizontal perspectives that change as the body and mind move through space, insight, and linguistic form. Rosenwasser’s collection reveals that the “vertical passageway” of elevator travel is also beautifully horizontal:  as the elevator moves skyward, it reveals a widening horizon (37). From this relationship, dimension emerges. The vertical and horizontal are organizing coordinates of thought and sight in Elevators, and Rosenwasser’s poems chart their grid-work, unfolding across, up, and down the page. This movement engages the dimensions that emerge from the extension of the poems’ forms into thought. The eye/I of Rosenwasser’s poems is thus the intersection of a constantly changing series of planes that open onto light, landscape, sense, and idea: “Louis Sullivan leaps through clear grids / shimmering horizontals / skeletal vertical” (58). 

Richard Tuttle designed Elevators’ covers. At the bottom of the cover, the reader’s eye meets a sea of magenta with faint blue gridwork beneath it — the grid recalls grid paper, Agnes Martin’s grid paintings, and the cages of early elevators. A quarter of the way up, the magenta fades and a pattern of black squares appears like a checkerboard on top of the grid. The cover’s images and associations resonate with Rosenwasser’s poem “Storyville,” in which she writes, “Figures that had once captivated her on canvas now gave way to a passion for abstraction: penciled grids on canvas or painted surfaces filled with washes of color. What was it, she thought, if the field of the painting moved outward into a horizonless space?” (51). Finally, at the cover’s top, the gridwork ends below black chain links reminiscent of William Blake’s illuminations and colored in a pink wash against a flesh toned cream band; above the chains, the book’s title appears horizontally in black, capital letters. You have to open the book to see it’s full title, Elevators, for “ELE” is on the back cover, “ATORS” on the front, and “V,” a balanced union of the vertical and horizontal, appears on the spine, extending onto both the front and back cover.

It may seem strange to linger on the cover, by which we are taught not to judge a book, but Elevators’ cover has the wonderful effect of producing depth from line and color, or, perhaps slightly differently, the cover allows depth to become perceptible:  the book moves outward. It offers a different kind of invitation than that of an “open book” toward its reader; here, the book moves through space toward the reader — it extends to her. Rosenwasser’s poems achieve this extension too. Another name for this movement in Elevators is travel. Elevators is an epistemological travelogue — travel as the body and mind’s movement through intersections of light and stone, metal and vision, history and dream, surface and dimension. Travel in this work is also an exploration of forms of knowing and feeling that Elevators’ movements unfold. It is comprised of the lover’s hands “long on exploration” (11), “the self […] ventur[ing] out in curiously Baroque attire” (17), “temple / verticals lift” as an ancient temple moves in the Nile from the island of Philae to the island of Aswan, “senses [that] roam over where she reads” (45), “climb[ing] from the depths of the subway to natural light” (49), and the “vertical leaps” of riding in an elevator (61). 

Travel, Ronsenwasser suggests, is both an intimate exploration of space and also of time and tense: “pressure of the present implodes” and the past emerges in Elevator’s poems (31). In the collection’s opening poem, “Triptych,” the stanzas are comprised of a single line that runs over three lines of text: “Stretching myself, I cover sequences of words that fill three lines.” “Stretching myself” appears, and a few lines later, “I extend myself” (11). These assertions resonate in the poem as strangely literal; the self in Rosenwasser’s poems stretches and extends to meet crumbling church walls, the fresco artist who painted on them, and the restorer who retouched the frescoes. The past and present meet in the wall and the poem, and the self who attends to them does not impress itself on the world it discovers but rather opens itself to greet and engage it, to be with it in “the conjunction of being” (17). 

The long lines of “Triptych” give the horizon of the page at the same time as they explore “cracks” running through walls, frescoes, churches, and human bodies. In the poem, “screams of pleasure accompany further cracks in the surface” (11). This accompaniment is crucial to Elevators’ explorations of place, time, and relationship. Lovers travel together and discern in “the continuous present” a past traceable in cracks that have been filled and cracks that progress. These breaks become inhabitable as an alternate space between familiar forms. In “Gurgling in the Monster Depths,” the poem’s speaker accomplishes a hard won shape-shifting:

I erotically seized          
by perpetual displacement

 of the Usual knowing/un knowing Pleasure
negotiating an alternative position Bandaged

my breast so tightly this breast/lessness Let
this constriction subjugate meaning

The reader’s interpretation of the shape of the poem’s lines and stanzas allows the fragments to produce different senses. “Displacement” becomes both a subject and an object:  it seizes and is seized. In Elevators displacement becomes not only a mode of exploration but also an ethics. It demands the self extend in openness to inhabit “alternate positions,” and it reimagines meaning. Elevators itself wavers between two forms of open language — sentences elegant in their clarity and fragments vibrating with possibility. Rosenwassers’ declaratives have the gentle, absolute force of constatives: “Night walks over me.  Dreams concur. Inhabitants negotiate motion across fields” (47). Her fragments offer, interrupt, and revise meaning.

Elevators takes its title from the book’s eponymous closing poem. Part history, part memory, part vertical travelogue of New York, “Elevators” maps an emerging city grid and skyline from the perspective afforded by a rising elevator: “Electric lights on Roebling’s bridge // The city // From the top from above. / We can see / time ticking // all the way to Canal Street” (54). The poem also maps a personal consciousness imprinted with New York’s bridges, streets, and buildings; in a section titled “The Interior is the City within the Self,” Rosenwasser writes “Who would have ever imagined / in augmentation / rising / high //as if we had taken Coney Island / home // in our mind’s eye / forward was rushing up” (60). Traveling from exterior walls to interior elevator cages, attending as carefully to “Manhattan’s” skyscraping surfaces as to the inventers who created them, the poem creates an imaginary, multidimensional linguistic thought map of New York.  Rosenwasser concludes “Elevators” and Elevators with the line, “let the platforms rise” (70). The book has beautifully earned this command that is also an invitation. In Robinson Jeffers’s words, “what an enskyment.”

Serious play

A review of Yahia Lababidi's 'Trial by Ink'

Trial by Ink

Trial by Ink

by Yahia Lababidi

Common Ground Publishing 2010, 143 pages, $30, ISBN 978-1-86335-759-3

As the subtitle — “from Nietzsche to Belly Dancing” — suggests, Yahia Lababidi’s essays wiggle their hips in many directions, from sacred to arcane, from pop to professorial. What he admires in Wilde is just this, the writer’s “ability to play with serious subjects. To make light of them” (12). In fact, the true subject of Lababidi’s writing would seem to be these poignant interchanges between seemingly disparate spheres. The spiritual and sociopolitical resonance of belly dancing. The small, contained dynamic between reader and text, between the personal and universal.

Born in 1973, Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-Lebanese poet, essayist and aphorist. His work has appeared in journals throughout the world, including Agni, Cimarron Review, Idler, Poetry, New Internationalist and Bidoun. The Independent (UK) chose Signposts to Elsewhere, a collection of aphorisms, as one of its Books of the Year (2008). His writing, much anthologized, has been translated into Arabic, Slovak, Swedish, Turkish and Italian. 

Trial by Ink is rather difficult to categorize. In one sense, the collection avoids Emerson’s foolish consistency by taking on such a broad array of subjects and approaching them in a variety of moods and modes. Lababidi offers up literary essays, cultural critiques, and startlingly astute examinations of pop stars. His voice and method are distinct and consistent, however. The essays always encompass, in addition to the surface topic, a study of the author’s approach to that topic. In the preface, Lababidi calls his book “a sort of mental autobiography and a collection of judgments” (ix). He maintains that he writes “to determine what I think about a given subject” (ix). Trial by Ink is admittedly, though unabashedly, subjective. Nonetheless, it doesn’t come off as a string of unsubstantiated and freefloating opinions — the love child of Intro to Philosophy and the blog age — but rather a coherent series of shrewd, thoughtful reflections. 

Lababidi’s writing is rapacious with quotation, allusion and learned reference. Rimbaud, Kierkegaard, Eliot, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Ruskin, Heine, Sontag, Gide, Socrates, Melville, Montaigne, Arnold, Pascal, Rilke, Gogol, Nabokov, Henry James, Beckett, Larkin, Stephen King, Chuck D and (almost literally) countless others cross the stage of this slim book. Nietzsche walks the boards so many times you’d think he was looking for his hat. This never seems forced or pretentious, however, but rather enthusiastic and necessary. Many of Lababidi’s essays concern readers, texts and the cagematch between the two, and he often inserts himself, as both reader and writer, into the fray. He portrays the writer as martyr, invalid, abstainer, submissive, mystic, and healer.

Trial by Ink is divided into three topical sections: literature, popular culture, and the Middle East. The first category incorporates all manner of coherent digressions; biographical, historical, analytical and personal approaches to literature are intermingled. Part II, covering popular culture, embraces Michael Jackson and murder, silence and celebrity, while the last section takes on belly dancing, sexual repression in Egypt, and the many paradoxes and ironies of the modern Middle East. The putative topics, throughout the collection, are diverse, but Lababidi manages to make them cohere through his idiosyncratic perspective and style.

Lababidi is equally deft with the highbrow world of Friedrich Nietzsche and the plucked brow milieu of Michael Jackson. His writerly gaze and attention to significant detail never waver, regardless of the subject at hand. This is Michael on Oprah, fielding questions he never quite answers:

And there he was: an unthreatening, bizarre specimen, a slip of a man, more a geisha girl really, simpering, whimpering and tittering […] And, you couldn’t really take your eyes off his face, not only because it looked like nothing you’d seen — sexual, ambiguous, uncanny, alluring — but because you were desperately trying to read it, scanning its otherworldly surface, rummaging beneath its mysterious skin (70)

This description is lucid and animating, never descending into parody or obviousness, and the prose helps breathe life into the portrait. Moreover, the popular culture essays are funny, which helps leaven the high seriousness of the literary pieces.

“Monks of Los Angeles” is a canny reading of Morrissey and Leonard Cohen, two faces of enigma and melancholy in popular music. Lababidi distills the charms of these singer-songwriters with the quick (yet potent) thrusts and parries that mark his writing. His analysis of their hummable anguish is representative: “By making their anxieties public, these artists assuage the loneliness of their listeners the world-over, while serving as leading lights to brethren of solitaries” (81). Despite a penchant for alliteration, Lababidi strikes another killshot with “brethren of solitaries.” 

The Middle Eastern essays are, for the most part, concerned with social, cultural and political criticism, but the writing is characteristically agile, vivid and often witty. In “Empire of the Senses,” for example, Lababidi discusses Egypt’s sexual and gender mores: “a woman’s virginity is governed by a kind of gift shop morality — break it, you buy it” (112). Like the best aphorists, Lababidi can be funny without sacrificing poignancy.

By far the most intriguing element of Trail by Ink is Chapter 2, “The Prayer of Attention: A Conversation with Yahia Lababidi.” The name Alex Stein appears under the title, as if he’s interviewing the author, yet the text is positioned in the third person. Although a conversation did take place, with Stein goading Lababidi with questions and interjections, the piece is presented in standard essay format. The interviewer thus becomes disembodied, or rather more disembodied, than usual, the author refers to this dynamic as “assisted monologue,” though “dialogic provocation” might also work. I hesitate to simplify the piece with any facile categorization. It could be regarded as short fiction or memoir, recalling both the mock-interrogation of Camus’s The Fall and Kafka’s short parables.  Lababidi is, with purpose and finesse, manipulating our expectations with regard to genre, technique and perspective; his method is experimental, inciting the piece toward unexpected conclusions, but the reading is never “difficult” or ostentatious. On the contrary, his writing manages to be highly complex and sophisticated without losing its readability or elegance.

Fortunately, “The Prayer of Attention” is as compelling in substance as in style and structure.  It’s a meditation upon — a scrum and ruck against — art, inspiration, influence and the individual’s transformation through and because of these things.  Lababidi foregrounds his own thoughts and inner-djinns in this essay, even more prominently than elsewhere.  This seems to be his special talent, anchoring his own peculiar experience to the universal spirit, Emerson’s Over-soul.  The piece is odd, alluring, wholly original, a tour de force and, in my view, the linchpin of the collection. 

Although Trial by Ink is chock-a-block with literary allusions, it’s the subtitular Nietzsche who looms most steadfastly over the text.  Lababidi, in Chapter 1, mentions the presumptive arrogance of the philosopher, and we might wonder if it’s presumptuous for Lababidi, a virtual unknown, to write about his own work in Chapter 2, sandwiched between essays on Nietzsche and Wilde.  Lababidi might argue that all writing is an examination of writing, the self, one’s influences and the irresolvable struggle among the three.  Throughout the book, he returns to the idea that you can’t choose writing, but rather writing chooses you, so, according to this model, we can’t hold Lababidi accountable for making himself the center of his work.

Trial by Ink is compelling, ardent and sometimes febrile.  The prose is confident and polished; like a frozen lake, it is sturdy yet translucent.  Lababidi has a polymorphous, gluttonous intellect, one which is able to absorb and synthesize a wide range of ideas and communicate them in a poised, nuanced manner.  In the bravura Chapter 2, he addresses his youth: “Those were the days when I would read and think without sleeping, sometimes for two or three days in a row” (12).  Indeed, throughout the book, I envisioned a sleep and daylight-deprived young man stalking and devouring books with vampiric fervor.  Literature and philosophy are revealed as simultaneously transformative and self-revelatory.  Books can make you more like yourself even as they convert you into someone else.  He refers to Nietzsche, for instance, as “him-that-was-also-me” (13).  Lababidi recounts going into the desert to read Zarathustra “with the intention and in the belief that I [was] going to encounter that part of myself that [was] not entirely accessible in other circumstances” (13). 

Lababidi has very sharp insights about thinkers and artists.  He says of Nietzsche’s writing: “It doesn’t care much for you.  It may, perhaps, want you there, but it doesn’t need you there.  It doesn’t seek to appease the reader.  It is not eager to please.  It wants only to declare its harsh, bold truths, and if you can stand it, you can stay” (13).  Here, the author demonstrates a meticulous subtlety and understanding of one of our most misconstrued thinkers, so often imprisoned within oversimplification and critical misprision (Nietzsche as The God Is Dead Guy or The Fascist Guy).  Lababidi is a natural aphorist, but not a composer of shiny-but-fatuous sound-bites.  Rather, like Nietzsche himself, he is genuinely gifted with the ability to reduce a truth to its most unadorned dimensions and, at the same time, encase it in a tidy, attractive box.