Reviews

To return the margin to the center

A review of 'Elleguas'

Elleguas

Elleguas

by Kamau Brathwaite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So cruel is creating
it must be killing to be keeping

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

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

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

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

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


photo of Kamau Brathwaite by Chris Funkhouser

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

The dancer dance to death
but we only know the dancing

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

we only know the dancing (28)

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

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

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

mon Empereur

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dat POR CYAAAN TEK NO MOORE (61–2)

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

 


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

Time's loop

A review of 'Möbius Crowns'

Mobius Crowns

Möbius Crowns

by Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy

QUEUE 2009, 48 pages, $8, ISBN chapbook

 everything takes form, even infinity
— Gaston Bachelard

Near the end of the second chapbook of Möbius Crowns, a collection of aphorisms about the creation of the book, a bridge is constructed between poem and world:

Every poem walks toward the last line that abuts the margin, the margin abuts the hand that holds it, and the hand, having put the book down, might shadow the eye from the sun looking east across the lake or look west against the mountains.

Letters move from one to the next to form words; words move from one to the next to form lines; lines move from one to the next to form sonnets; sonnets move from one to the next to form this book that is read somewhere in the world, perhaps next to a lake or underneath a mountain. The location where the book is read is not predetermined. But that location exists by necessity, and the poems of the book will become poems of the world as they are read.

I read this book in Istanbul on a balcony on the fourth floor of a building with a glimpse of the Marmara Sea.

Before one experiences the aphorism announcing the connection between poem and world, one experiences a box.

The form of this book is a box, held together by two thick paper bands. The top band says “Möbius Crowns.” The bottom band says “Dan Beachy-Quick / Srikanth Reddy.” Between the bands on the front of the box is an image, the design of a Möbius strip in gold, viewed from above. When the bands are slid off, the box opens up. It opens up fully, flattens itself against the table into a shape loosely resembling a bird or a specialized paper airplane. Three objects are inside the box. A single card and two chapbooks. The top chapbook is titled Möbius Crowns and the second chapbook is titled with the image of the Möbius strip.

As I read the book, the pieces that make up the book surround me. The box flutters gently in the wind that comes from the direction of the sea. I put the card inside the second chapbook to keep it from blowing away. I turn the spine of the second chapbook toward the wind to keep the book from becoming flattened open permanently.

The first chapbook contains poems. Each page is a separate poem and each poem is in the form of a sonnet. The first chapbook has two beginnings. There is no front and no back. Each side of the book is a separate entryway into the book. The first beginning is:

A sapling in a circle, roots buried
In air.

The second beginning is:

Now rages in the mechanism’s toothed gears.

In the first, a young tree suspended or growing upside down, exposing its roots to the air. Nature, though a nature that is distorted or, more likely, isolated — a tree without its earth, surrounded by a circle. The second of mechanics, equipment. “Now” is a noun, not an adjective of time — time itself. Now rages in the toothed gears. An eternal now raging forth in a cyclical motion, through the equipment of gears.

Wikipedia describes a Möbius strip as “a surface with only one side and only one boundary component.” This does not sufficiently describe what a Möbius strip is. The object looks similar to a ring, but a ring with a twist. A Möbius strip can be formed by taking a band of paper and attaching one end to the other with a half-twist. This twist turns the two-sided strip of paper into a one-sided loop. In a traditional ring, a single revolution around the ring brings one back to the starting place. In a Möbius strip, however, a single revolution from a point leaves one on the opposite ‘side’ of the surface. Without changing sides, one has moved from outside to inside or inside to outside. A second revolution is required to return to the starting point. During these two revolutions, the entirety of the surface is encountered without crossing an edge.

More than the sea, I see a succession of buildings as I read. Somewhere in the middle I hear the call to prayer, which bounces around the buildings, arriving as a multiple voice.

The question of form invokes the question of natural and artificial. Does something being made, being placed into a form, changed from one form into a new form, necessitate that it is artificial?

Bring me my coronet of rotating gears.
Contrive me a throne from coiled spring.

The throne is not an artificial object made from the natural object of a tree. The throne is contrived from the already-contrived coiled spring. But the spring is presented here as a basic, natural object. This spring and this throne are for a queen who lives “in a clock by the sea.” If one were to live in a world that is a clock, a coiled spring would be a basic, raw material. Of course, we do not live in a clock-world. We live in a “real world,” a world made up of the natural — what the real world provides — and the artificial — what we make of the real world.

At what point does material move from natural to artificial? What amount of work or manipulation must be put in by a human to turn naturally occurring metal into an artificial object of a spring? Is the spring, which begins and continues to remain metal that is originated in nature and earth, artificial?

This spring and clock-world exist in a story told by old men who “know their old story by heart.” The words of this story are stored in the heart. Others are stored in the mind:

Memory occurs before the event
Etches its weight as nothing in the mind.

Words become physically realized objects as:

Graven letters distended by time
The granite mother emerges as moth
A century past.

As I begin reading, a narrow band of sunlight runs across the center of the balcony stretching across my thighs. As I read, my pants become hot, and I sweat a little. I rub the sweat from my brow to keep the beads from falling onto the page. Though I am hot, I drink hot tea to quench my thirst.

In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger examines the line that divides “creating” and “making”:

We think of creation as a bringing forth. But the making of equipment, too, is a bringing forth … But what is it that distinguishes bringing forth as creation from bringing forth in the mode of making? … [W]e find the same procedure in the activity of potter and sculptor, of joiner and painter.

Heidegger then visits the point that the Greeks “use the same word techne for craft and art and call the craftsman and the artist by the same name: technites.” This argument based on linguistics holds a basic fallacy:

… for techne signifies neither craft nor art, and not at all the technical in our present-day sense; it never means a kind of practical performance. The word techne denotes rather a mode of knowing. To know means to have seen, in the widest sense of seeing.

To bring forth, to make, and to create is to know, and to know is to see. And to see is to see a thing of this world. The ultimate question becomes what it is to see the self:

There is this matter behind my face. I
Cannot find a shape to describe it.
If I open my mouth will you look inside?

What shape is the I? The exterior of the body apparently does not suffice to answer this question. The exterior body is the form of the box, but what the object is is also what is inside.

The second book begins:

I twist myself, binding my beginning to my end, thus making of I an O.

The second book is concerned with asking the question what shape has the I of Beachy-Quick and Reddy become after the act of creating? For Charles Olson, form, creation, and the self are all part of a singular process:

Form is not life. Form is creation. It changes the condition
of men. It does not disturb nature. Nature, like god,
is not so interesting. Man
is interesting. (Olson, Collected, 355)

This process not only occurs of itself, it occurs irrespective of nature. The metal spring is still metal, nature has remained preserved. What changes is the queen, who now sits on a throne made of a spring. What changes is the essence of Beachy-Quick and Reddy, who begin as an ‘I’ and end as an ‘O.’ It is their condition that has changed in the process of writing these poems. And it is the condition of the reader that changes as the poems are read.

Would it be so radical to claim that the sculpture or the painting is an object of the world? These objects are fetishized, often selling for millions of dollars. People travel around the world to look at these objects, and in some cases to possess or touch them. The object-ness of the visual arts is firmly entrenched in the art-ness. They remain inseparable, even in this age of mechanical reproduction.

The poem does not carry this same object-ness. The poem, rather, has historically assumed itself a more eternal, infinite existence:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

The lines of the poem give the possibility of eternity to the subject through the poem’s own eternal existence. Is this a reference to the ability to reproduce the words systematically in a way that only recently could be done for visual art? Permanence can be found in the non–object-ness of the poem, which like Shakespeare can transcend time and avoid the inevitable erosion of time, as happens to the statue in Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

But the eternal and infinite of Möbius Crowns differs from the eternal and the infinite of Shakespeare and Shelley. Words are objects, not metaphysical, ephemeral entities. A word must exist in a physical realm, as an etching on stone, ink on paper, sound waves in the air, or neural synapses in the brain. Mother etched into the tombstone over time gets worn down to moth. Words that are read are made into physical entities that abide by the laws of physics. Words do not exist perpetually in an unchanging bubble that avoids the effects of time. Books must be reprinted as the old volumes age, crumble, and turn to dust. Printing and spelling conventions change, requiring updated, edited editions. The living language develops, leaving some words behind and creating new words. A work, even in its ability to pass through time, is also affected by time.

But there is an infinite at work in Möbius Crowns. Each page offers a sonnet. The succession of sonnets continues into the center of the book, where there is a juncture. The two sonnets at the center are upside down from one another, each appended with:

The mark of infinity. Infinity does not necessarily encompass everything; it is not boundlessness or eternity. It can be limitlessness within a system. The book Möbius Crowns is infinite within its own boundaries, endless within its own form. The sonnets are not end-points. Each is a gentle curving back into the book from a different angle. From one center, a return to the front of the book and a delving in from the other side. Two loops through the book are required to return to reach an end, to return to the beginning. Turning from one beginning to the second beginning, there is a sense of déjà vu. In the first sonnet from one entrance there is:

The earth a body the monster turned
Inside out.

The first sonnet from the other entrance contains:

Any house will turn itself inside out
In good time.

These echoes continue throughout the loop back in towards the center from a new angle. Each sonnet is both an arrival and a departure. We recognize bare outlines, remember vague images, but:

There is no arrival, only return to a location we forgot we’d been in before, as the sun marks the solstice, as the sun marks the equinox; we look up at it and see it by its own light: an outline the crown of its own heat blurs.

I read this last aphorism and close the second chapbook. I look up and notice that the sun has moved from above my left shoulder to behind my right shoulder. The balcony is now enveloped in shade, and the breeze cools me. I do not need to shade my eyes from the sun, but I find myself using the book to do this, as if putting it against my brow will allow me to see something further off in the distance that I couldn’t see before. I see so many more buildings out there.

 


Works Cited:

Butternick, George F., ed. The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the Maximus Poems. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

What lyric itself thinks

A review of 'Canto'

Canto

Canto

by Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy

The Offending Adam 2010, 18 pages, $12, ISBN chapbook

              … Infinitely far away,
Where you or someone wrote the first word,

Wait for someone or something to wander by
And push down on it. Then the tower
Will topple, then the field where the band plays

Will lift upward, the music will stop, but the river
Rushing back to its source will be a new music,
No melody but wildness, no finalé but forever.
(Canto 3, lines 32–39)

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past … The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]

1.

From Benjamin forward, there is a decided strain in aesthetics that finds the wrecks of history to be the proper object and responsibility of the artist. In this current of thought, it is the artwork that recognizes and maintains the cut in time drawn by historical trauma; the artist, belated to her own occasion and in the manner of Benjamin’s angel, backs into her own future while looking backward to the living past of trauma. And either the form or the content, or both, of the artwork must commemorate this backward orientation (so the thinking goes) or admit of its own decadent self-involvement. “There is no document of civilization,” Benjamin notes, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another” (256).

The vision of the human in Canto, Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy’s latest collaborative effort, might seem to echo Benjamin’s own vision of Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” as in Canto 13:

                 … I have seen
A human head: a circle with two circles gleaming
And a dark circle below. Look inside, pilgrim.
Write down in musical notation the screaming (lines 27–30)

And to admit, as Canto does through its title as well as in its form (fourteen verses of varying length in a modified terza rima) and in its persistent imagery, of a decided interest in lyric, is in the twenty-first century an invitation to the epithet of barbarity.

As it is, though, the barbarity of lyric after trauma (to which critics have responded by charging lyric in particular with remembrance, with the sudden precipitation of historical condition) is itself predicated upon a presumed isolation, doubly-articulated, at the scene of lyric: first, an isolation of the poet herself, after J. S. Mill’s notion of the lyricist as she who, imprisoned and oppressed, is overheard by the auditor (herself also imprisoned) sighing and singing consolation to herself in the next cell over; and second, an isolation of the lyric poem itself, as Celan in his “Meridian” speech shifts the isolation from the lyric poet to her poem, and casts the two adrift:

The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.

Does this very fact not place the poem already here, at its inception, in the encounter, in the mystery of encounter?[2]

While Mill relegates to separate cells the lyric speaker and her auditor, and Celan imagines her song frozen in the moment of its drift through the transom overhead, theories of lyric sound, too, have imagined something of a backward-looking (or -listening) angel. Susan Stewart, for example, suggests in her “Letter on Sound” that “…unless we are listening to a spontaneous composition of lyric, we are always recalling sound with only some regard to an originating auditory experience.”[3]

But Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s Canto offers a decided challenge here — to those who condemn lyric outright, to those who charge the lyricist with an always-backward gaze in an obligatory mourning, and also to the sort of lyric temporality that Stewart theorizes in her “Letter on Sound.” Canto is certainly studded with the ruins of its moment (whether that of infinite war or of financial disaster):

I woke up and let the war sleep in my bed
Dreaming of garlands and a bride
Displaying her diamond garishly mounted

On a grenade’s ring. The hole in her face lied:
It was no mouth, it was no eye … (Canto 3, lines 1–5)

At the halfway marker along our life’s path,
I found myself lost. It was a dark would,
Green selvage dripping from last night’s bath

Of fog, steam rising from a jogger’s hood
As she passes, no guide in sight, only a forest
Of For Sale signs sprouting up in the neighborhood

We will be leaving soon … (Canto 13, lines 1–7)


Srikanth Reddy and Dan Beachy-Quick

But, at the same time, the sequence erodes the foundation upon which many lyric fictions rest. In so doing, Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s work, in Canto and elsewhere, offers a reinvigoration of lyric — a testing of its values and our expectations, by two of its most careful and ardent practitioners.

2.

As a distillate of “culture,” lyric like any other artifact bears the stain of Benjamin’s barbarism, the thumbprint of the historical victor. And if we continue to assume lyric to be self-involved and belated to its own era, we’re confirmed in our condemnations. But if we consider how lyric sounds — or, more radically, what lyric itself thinks — we can achieve a lyric that at its limit-cases may turn against the very barbarisms that have made it possible. As the charge to the “pilgrim,” above, concludes:

           … Look inside, pilgrim.
Write down in musical notation the screaming,

The sighs, and the laughter. Set it to three-four time,
A waltz for the living, all grace notes, no coda,
Scored for orchestra, fire engine, and mime. (Canto 13, lines 29–33)

Stewart would note that lyric is always recalled sound, and further that, “[b]ecause lyric maintains the convention of the individual speaking voice” — wherein spoken rhythm, even in rigid metrical forms, always trumps the metronome — “[lyric] will not, in the Western tradition, be synonymous with music” (34). In writing Canto, however, Beachy-Quick and Reddy have constructed a useful ambiguity wherein the “dark circle” from which shrieks an angelic horror is also and at once the warm mouth of voiceless human pleasure.

The score imagined in the above lines waltzes forever forward, motivated by the ghost of the fourth beat that haunts every such dance’s time signature. “All grace notes” — themselves free from the very metrical structure they normally ornament; “no coda” — no restatement of “theme” carried throughout, lodged in a memory and repeated at the end. And played upon ensemble, errand, and gesture. In the ambiguity of its at once angelic and human mouth blending its shrieks and sighs, in its regard for ensemble as instrument, and in its mobilization of the balletic or gestural as vehicle of lyric meaning, I’d suggest that Canto imagines itself as that which is written by “pilgrim” in “musical notation,” as its own fourteen verses enact the collaborative, the epistolary.

With only the entire sequence subject to attribution, and then attributed equally to both men, the authorial uncertainty of any given line or stanza or verse emphasizes the persistent lyric appetite that metabolizes author for speaker, person for persona. But while the speaker or persona — nearly always singular in Canto, and when plural, often suggesting a domestic couple rather than a team of writers — in any single instance of the sequence are, of course, markedly different from Beachy-Quick or Reddy themselves, the creation in their poem is no more different from them than is the one in any other lyric utterance issuing from any other poet. In this, Canto’s song is lyric itself, sung of the moment of transformation between historically particular author and aoristic lyric speaker. And as a collaborative project, Canto mobilizes that transformation as an active force at the scene of its reception. Canto’s choral voice, sung in unison, focuses such lyric resource upon cultural transmission — an inoculation, perhaps, against the enabling barbarity beneath such exchange.

With a composite speaker as a sort of open secret underpinning the sequence, emphasis in Canto falls instead upon questions of construction. In their chosen verse-form for this effort — terza rima, but modified through careful use of slant-rhyme — Beachy-Quick and Reddy turn a lyric form based in recollection instead towards an anticipatory uncertainty, in which the return isn’t a memorializing but rather a play upon the given. (Here we might remember Louis Zukofsky’s aside in his “‘Mantis’: An Interpretation”: “Is the poem then, a sestina / Or not a sestina?”)

In their constructions, Beachy-Quick and Reddy give us an organic, unfolding architecture-in-process, one that is perhaps nostalgic — I recall that in the middle of their sonnet-sequence Möbius Crowns, the two men underwent a change of place, and found themselves no longer living in the same city, or even time zone, after years of local exchange — perhaps nostalgic, then, but not with the apparently requisite mourning of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century lyric.

It’s with a maker’s ear trained upon the future and its materials that we hear such as their Canto 7, wherein “duets” jostles against “votes” and “note”; where “home” leads to “the poem” and “his name”:

Response, call and, 49–51.
Members of a flock may emit a sound
In order to remain in touch with one

Another. Some birds engage in round-
Robin calls, while others sing duets
In unison, ie. the quail, shy ground-

Dwelling birds, casting their votes
In song from the long grass’s half-shade,
Half sun. They sing as one the same note

But lay eggs in nests they haven’t made—
Their song may be considered their home.
Cut out of the text with a razor blade,

Figure seven’s gone missing from the poem.
Was it a sonogram of the adult male’s vibrator?
A photo of the author signing his name

In his book for a stranger? … (Canto 7, lines 1–16)

A reader’s reading becomes the plural song of songbirds singing becomes the desperate phatic song of the scattered flock becomes the lyric cycle of here-and-there becomes the dissolution of number into unison becomes “their votes / In song.” Canto 7, then — the lead-up to the silence at the midpoint of this fourteen-canto sequence — might suggest that the one and only fact of “political” belonging (number) finds no purchase in the lyric moment.

As elsewhere in the sequence (Canto 3, for example: “I woke up and let the war sleep in my bed / Dreaming of garlands and a bride / Displaying her diamond garishly mounted // On a grenade’s ring. The hole in her face lied: / It was no mouth, it was no eye … [lines 1–5]), the “public” and the “private,” the “single” and the “plural” are found to intersect with and inflect one another, and precisely at the moment when the individual is called upon to submit to number and republic (even, in each case, of two).

3.

And, finally, Canto, part of The Offending Adam’s Chapvelope One, is not a one, a two, or even a three or a four. Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s sequence, in its own beautifully austere sunflower-yellow saddle-stapled 8.5-by-5.5-inch format (no image on the cover; just a gorgeously oversized printing of title and authors’ names), comes accompanied by a postcard and a microbroadside. The postcard itself is multiple, with visual work by Shawn Stucky and a poem by Jennifer Sweeney. And the microbroadside, containing prose by Melissa Kwasny, is letterpressed in a brown on a fine heavy cream stock; as all such items are an implicit collaboration between the writer and the (here unnamed) printer. So we have a group of three, which is a group of five, but actually a group of six … themselves (as the large round sticker sealing the chapvelope proclaims) all a group of one.

The editors of The Offending Adam have written of their Chapvelope series that their “interests were to create an object for book fetishists, something unique and special, something that can only exists as a print project and can only exist in this specific form.” And while this certainly strikes a chord among all conscientious printers (myself included), the nature of the project itself, at all levels, requires its readers and handlers to consider precisely these sorts of questions — those of number and kind, of how material and exchange dissolve into acts of each other, even as they become more particular and defined. I certainly find that the Chapvelope with Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s Canto speaks to my own interests in the nature of lyric, and how lyric might at once be caught up in as well as fugitive from the networks of exchange, capital, republic, and the like, and I imagine (I can only imagine …) the process of that text’s construction as somehow analogous to the state of the Chapvelope in my office this evening: one piece facing me from atop the bookshelf, another propped up on the door-frame, yet a third (the envelope itself) scrawled with notes, and Canto itself splayed open at my elbow. Where is it? (Where is lyric? I then turn to ask. Could these be the same sorts of questions?) Fragile, insurgent, invasive, and scattered; as the editors at The Offending Adam have noted that they hope to “foster an intimacy of reading, a closeness or [an] ability to draw close to the text,” Canto and its fellow travelers inaugurate a publishing venture that will require close attention in the future to come.

 


1. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 258.

2. Paul Celan, “The Meridian,” in Collected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop (New York: Routledge, 2003), 49.

3. Susan Stewart, “Letter on Sound,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press), 29. Emphasis in the original.

The light contingent on darkness

A review of 'Black Life'

Black Life

Black Life

by Dorothea Lasky

Wave Books 2010, 72 pages, $14, ISBN 9781933517438

Barbara Guest says in Forces of Imagination that “it is the obscure essence that lies within a poem that is not necessary to put into language,” that this essence leaves a “little echo to haunt the poem.” In Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life, the essence is derived from, but not contained in, a directness of language, which while hinting at a sort of arrested emotion, and sounding naïve at times, thinks through concretes and situations. Her echoes reside in conceptual omissions.

If the essence is not in what she says, Lasky’s poignancy is the result of subtle insights, both endearing and intuitive, suggested by what language leaves out. Abstract language is a fantasy of imagination. Candor, however, is the exposed tip of a much deeper truth. In Lasky’s straightforwardness, we are haunted by her innocent remarks and self-dismissal.

If I am anything, I am the fluttering of so many things into one thing
That I am not powerful
At least not as myself (4)

“As herself,” her voice is the acumen of a single experience. By conjuring the ordinary, Lasky produces a specific awareness of universals. The idea of a black life is a type of permutation, a life in which light is contingent on darkness. “The fluttering of so many things into one,” thereby, suggests that the unknowns constitute the whole. This passage serves as a quiet lesson: we will never know the things that make us, but that these housed mysteries are our fortitude.

Lasky makes her own adages, and the effect is resonant:

There is a lot to be sad about
But no point in feeling that sadness
In a world that has no capacity
To take your sadness from you in a kind way (12)

This quaint advice expresses a limit of the physical dimension. The world can only do with our sadness exercises in abuse. There is “no point in feeling that sadness” because suffering does not end the cause of suffering. We must surrender to the idea that a distant and indiscernible presence dictates our affairs. Throughout the book, a sense of this acquiescence to the inevitable persists, expressed here through a series of reversals and self-reflexive clarity.  From “Even Dirty Birds”:

Well who could blame you, I can’t stop you
From loving a ghost of yourself that was willing to speak
Of living things that you so readily had forgotten when you yourself so was
So living so living so that you forgot how to breathe and you died
I will not let you die, no
So there are ghosts that are not me but that I am a reflection of
In that I am living, water, and air, part lime in that I am woman
But I am not a woman so much so that I am air (29)

The first few lines of this passage call on our inability to retain any of life’s daily holinesses, which we so desperately seek to do. “So living so that you forgot how to breathe” explains our attachment to our mortality, our devotion to life at the expense of actually living.

The living and the ghosts metamorphose into one another, wearing each other’s changing masks like the skin of a reptile. The line “there are ghosts that are not me but that I am a reflection of” tells that our lives are evidence of a fundamental transience. Ghosts reflect the speaker’s livingness, reminding us that death mirrors being in that being exchanges endorsements with death.

The topic of death is prevalent in the collection, both through explicitly expressed fear — “It is a black life, but I don’t want to die” — and subtler bouts of wisdom — “You only go towards death / Like it is a very small detail.” If the only way to slip out of the shackles of a fear of death is to conceive of it as an insignificant feature of life, then one could infer that the black life, though difficult and rushing headlong toward death, actually negates fear, breaking the cycle of a fear of fear. Life contains darkness to begin with. 

In “Very Vivid and Horrible Dreams,” Laksy writes:

I woke up and knew all the dead people
That had haunted my life from birth until that period
I knew the men in boardrooms that had been fighting a different kind of war
Only one day die as frail as they came
Only one day to die! I left this life and went into the next
Where I was myself, but a skinny self
A better self (41–41)

The “dead people” that haunt our lives are those shadows of our own being, ghosts, in their forebodingness and legend, which we see and compare our present selves to. In the lines “I left this life and went into the next / Where I was myself, but a skinny self” we find the futility of life is not so sincerely expressed as our investment for a better self in the afterlife. Therein, the promise that death means we are still conscious beings capable of pleasures. Perhaps, only in death are we capable of pleasure.

Lasky’s entire book is made up of small details, which assume a nonchalance of all foreseeable disasters that comprise life. In “Some Sort of Truth,” she writes of her father:

I stood in the white light of the nursing home bathroom
With the sun spilling everywhere on me
And tried to talk to him, but never, he’d never listen
People don’t always listen to you when they are dead
But that’s not sad
I get tired (16)

Here is the rub: we are only ever capable of communing with the living once they are distanced from us, but unable to without this reserve.

She explains humans fall apart; they grow tired, get sad, and fall in and out of love. Together the shades of these events effect the color black. And that isn’t sad. Sun spills into darkness because events are unevenly juxtaposed. Such is this collection. Much of the book is also about love, expressed in equally unabashed candor as death. Lest we forget that love too is an inevitable part of being.

The frankness and affection with which Lasky expresses love (“I was in love once and all I could think of was joy / Not drinking, nor sex, or spaghetti”) do not attempt to quantify or make comparisons, but innovate a new definition by which to measure our own vision. Instead of being sentimental, her words are candid, and earn our trust as an invested reader.

“Black Life” encloses Lasky’s devotions by combining the clarity of distance with the precision of insight. We find through her straight talk and exposed inhibitions that she explores the textures and forms of being:

I am so glad I was brave enough
To leave the place in me that was not wild
To go into the cave of life that is not dead (76)

Here, Lasky demonstrates not just the nerve, but the compulsion to relinquish the predictable in favor of the wild, and that the difficult is where true being lies. Choosing “the cave of life that is not dead” is to apprehend the verve, the unstill, and to see being as unboring. In our quotidian routines we easily forget how to do this.

Throughout the book she demonstrates a duality of being self-conscious and fearless; Lasky leads us into a world broken by death and shattered open with light.

Explorers, anthropologists, and historians

A review of 'from unincorporated territory [saina]'

from unincorporated territory [saina]

from unincorporated territory [saina]

by Craig Santos Perez

Omnidawn 2010, 136 pages, $15.95, ISBN 9781890650469

I was a history major at the University of Georgia, no doubt the worst history major not only in Athens but the greater Southeast. It’s not that I dislike history, you understand, it’s that I cannot interpret history.

In from unincorporated territory [saina], Craig Santos Perez sent me back to the period at which I realized I couldn’t be a historian, to the point where the facts evolved beyond themselves and became ambiguous notations. This isn’t a negative reflection on the book; quite the contrary. It’s a reflection on what drew me into the book in the first place: an exploration of the culture, identity, and language of the Chamorro. Santos Perez leads us all to be explorers, anthropologists, and historians. If anything, I feel vindicated.

This is Santos Perez’s second book, and while I admit I have not read the first part of the Unincorporated Territory saga, it’s not impossible to pick up with Grandma Santos’s story here. She’s a grandmother like many others — like one of mine, even — concerned with reassuring the future that their particular group will find a way through the future, in this case via a sakman, which as far as I can gather is a long-range canoe. The stories and comments attributed to her throughout the course of the books, beautifully pieced together and splayed out via line breaks and white spaces, give us the sense of a language and identity in the middle of a fearful transition:

a map dividing the land covers
my mouth and ears at night
I don’t know if I can say our language
will survive here

yet I’ve never known another place

Maps are lines. I know that sounds self-explanatory, but how many cultures can we name at this point in the twenty-first century that are separated by arbitrary lines that reflect no reality but their own? Voice is the strongest weapon.

But what happens as language changes and the culture begins to be “reinvented by each new gaze?” This is the crux of [saina] and I believe the entry point at understanding the world Santos Perez is expressing, which for a great many of us is generally beyond comprehension. The thing is, these lines that have been previously drawn are all eventually erased, and to an extent, [saina] comes to terms with that realization. Language, culture, and identity are always on the verge of reinvention: it’s just a question of what impetus will lead to the change.

The poems of [saina] are generally anchored in moments like this one at the bottom of page 37:

‘guahan is being briefed by federal officials from us department of homeland
security on new guam-cnmi via waiver program will allow visitors from hong
kong but not from china or russia primarily concerned illegal immigrants or asy-
lum-seekers will enter us along with security issues of military buildup govern-
ment of guam banking on visa waivers for china and russia to drive declining
tourism arrivals.

These moments feel like hinges from which the more personally focused parts of the book are free to swing. What I feel is interesting here is that I have no idea whether this comes from a document or whether Santos Perez is simply writing about something that he knows is going on. It probably doesn’t really matter, as culture is entirely perception, and as the poet says in his acknowledgements, the misinterpretations of history and culture are entirely his own. But that’s sort of the beauty: the determination of right and wrong is immaterial in the poem, which allows the poet to work progressively without being worried about such binary issues. And in [saina], Perez can do that: he can work through any issues he chooses because if the book were an essay, it would be open to criticism based on what’s right or wrong, whereas here, we’re concerned with the poetics.

Much like language itself, [saina] doesn’t settle anywhere on a particular form for that poetics. Throughout the book, prose is mixed with thoughtfully delineated sections, as well as places where the visual décor takes on a falling and sometimes splattered appearance. This too pushes the points of the poems: in order for all these known things to shift, so to must the manner in which we speak of them. If culture is going to adapt and move in new directions and if old identities are to be subsumed and new ones created, then so must the way we think of the poetic line. The way Santos Perez mixes forms is rather indicative of what we’re talking about: we’re taking the old and the new and creating a new identity and culture through language.

A question I like to ask myself in my own work is, “What are the white spaces doing?” Asking of this of [saina], I find myself noticing the breath, the gaps, creating beats in which the previous idea has a moment to settle. I used to feel such things were arbitrary (and thus avoided white space myself), but I see how they work here: the beats and moments of [saina] are the sinking in of renewal. The white spaces are a vehicle for language as it regenerates into more identifiable cultural forms. At one point (page 103), words are even broken up so that “but” becomes “b       ut,” though I imagine it as “buuuuuuut,” drawn out and hesitant.  “We had to be quiet,” the piece continues, spaced out and riffing on the tension of ever having to be quiet when that’s not your choice.

In the pages of [saina] Santos Perez has created a new culture, a new identity through his use of language. Rather than attempting to preserve, the ultimate goal of the book is to embrace reinvention. While I’m still not a historian and hope I never am, it’s OK, because we cannot dwell on history. History being a nightmare and all that, it’s important to remember to move forward. New cultures and identities are to follow, each with their own perspective and attention to language.