A review of 'Canto'
… 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.
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).
… 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?
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.”
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.
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).
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.
A review of 'Black Life'
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.
A review of 'from unincorporated territory [saina]'
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
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.
A review of 'War Rug'
Politically charged investigation raises the stakes of poetry for both the poet (as producer) and the poem (as art object). This type of poetry not only invokes the bardic practice of speaking the wisdom of the group, but also uses the poem as a type of activism. When critics question the role of poetry in the real world or what it can accomplish outside of its own existence, activist poetics that enters conversation with contemporary political happenings offers one of the better answers. This activist poetry can reveal knowledge about real happenings through the conceptual relationship between the real and the world of art.
When it comes to the American wars perpetrated in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, several poets have offered works that interrogate the morality of the wars themselves and the agents of war (i.e., American soldiers, civilians, insurgents, etc.), respond to the patriotic climate of the age with counterpatriotic acts of civil disobedience and consciousness raising, and critique the political environment in the United States of the 2000s. These documentary, investigative, and political efforts are not new, calling to mind a lineage of long-form poems and poets that respond to oppression and outrage, including Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony, James Agee and Walker Evans’s collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Ed Dorn’s Abhorrences, to name just a few.
In the decade just past, the following poets have taken up this lineage of investigation and activism: Brian Kim Stefans organizes a group of poets during the buildup leading to the Iraq War in his blog-based digital poem Circulars; Kent Johnson employs the power of the poetic image to shock and indict those complicit in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War; Kristin Prevallet’s Shadow Evidence Intelligence critiques the simultaneous escalation and failure of intelligence in post-Patriot Act America during the US push for oil-based empire; Juliana Spahr meditates on the global relation of bodies and minds in This Connection of Everyone With Lungs; Gabriel Gudding’s consciousness gets taken over by the wars and political climate as they invade his road-based epic Rhode Island Notebook; Eliot Weinberger uses a collage in the style of hearsay to critique the misinformation used to invade Iraq in “What I Hear About Iraq” from What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles.
And now we can add Francesco Levato’s War Rug to the pantheon of investigative and documentary poetry authored in response to the continuing wars. Levato’s War Rug offers a prime example of what Marjorie Perloff, in her essay “Screening the Page / Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,” defines as differential: “texts that exist in different material forms, with no single version being the definitive one.” I locate Levato’s book-length investigative poem sequence as occurring, in full or in part, in five locations, each site with its own distinct temporal and material concerns that affect how the poem is consumed by readers, interactors, or viewers. War Rug is at once a book-length investigative epoem, a work of contingent or relational poetics via the use of purposeful hyperlinks in the eBook’s “Author’s Notebook,” a gateway for continued investigations on the Internet via the works cited, a documentary work of cinépoetry, and an interstitial, conceptual artifact via Levato’s use of the afterimage as a motif to transcend the eBook’s own differential materiality. War Rug, echoing the Afghan art form from which the title is taken, is apt, as the discrete locations of Levato’s work are woven together, presenting a multimodal poetic device that can serve as a litmus test for how these contemporary American wars embed themselves in the public consciousness or slide away into broken links and lost domains.
To begin with, War Rug is a long poem delivered as a PDF ebook. I first experienced it as such, reading through it as I would any other book, although the “About This e-Book” page explains several possible ways of interacting with the book, acting as a means to guide the reader or interactor. As a book of poems, Levato’s long-poem sequence is divided into several recurring forms that reveal interwoven narratives based on an array of source texts, including “journal entries, firsthand accounts, and news reports to poetic constructs collaged from military doctrine, Freedom of Information Act released government documents (like CIA interrogation manuals, and detainee autopsy reports), and numerous other sources” (vii).
The first page of War Rug reveals important tactics Levato uses to create the poem. His poem includes portions that have compelling lyrical sound work that contrast starkly with the horror inherent in the poem’s content and imagery:
Flash a body reduced to beads of glass
fused in sand at the blast point’s edge
the lace of an exposed cheek
over tooth and jaw;
Pause the space between light (1)
The assonant run of “a” sounds in the first two lines (flash-glass-sand-blast) creates a musicality in the poem that urges me forward and belies the awful reality of “a body reduced to beads of glass / fused in sand” after an explosion. The long “e” sounds of “Filigree” and “cheek” and the full rhyme of “white” and “light” also cause this dissonance between the beauty of the language and the gory images I project mentally while reading it. Just as Levato might measure the worth of these lines in light of his own culpability in the war effort, I also began to question whether I ought to take pleasure in reading these lines, forcing myself to be mindful of what they represent and what the ethical wager is for this investigative, activist poem.
In addition to putting me face-to-face with these moral and ethical implications of engagement, the first page also introduces the concept of the afterimage, which is the central conceit in War Rug: “Afterimage / a thickening of scar tissue, the absence / of expression, of an eardrum, / of an iris.” By definition, an afterimage is an optical illusion in which the image or its inverse remains after the eye has literally stopped seeing it, like closing your eyes after looking at a light source and still seeing the light. In creating a poem that is differential, simultaneously textual, hypertextual, and cinematic, Levato encourages interactors to reckon with this idea of the afterimage (also aftermath) as central not only to his textual poem but also to the intertextual boundaries the poem, in all its forms, implies.
This dissonance continues on the second page as Levato sets up a tactic that controls the tone of the poem. He appropriates definitions, a recurring device within the long-form documentary text, to pull back from the awful lyricism of the opening page:
Enucleation: Complete surgical removal of the eyeball.
Evisceration: Surgical removal of the contents of the eyeball
with retention of the sclera or cornea and sclera.
Exenteration: Surgical removal of all the eyeball contents
which may include the removal of the eyelids.
Ocular Prosthesis: A plastic or glass fabricated eye
that replaces volume of the enucleated eye socket. ] (2)
These definitions, culled from another text, have a clinical sound that is different from the poetic sound work noted above. The lyrical portions of Levato’s poem are constantly balanced by found language, which gives the poem a restrained, journalistic tone. This is not to say that Levato’s stance in relation to the material is ambivalent, but that the documentary intertextuality, not the appeal of the poet’s “I,” does the ethical work of the poem by pulling me, as reader, into a zone of conflict or dissonance. This technique allows the poem to create a complexity that echoes the complexity of the war and its active and passive participants, rather than a moralizing rant against the status quo of the war.
On the third page, the poem begins to expand outward, offering interactors two prose segments, each with hyperlinks that lead to the annotated “Author’s Notebook” and then beyond it to the Internet. The first prose segment describes the relationship between a specific photograph and an Afghan war rug, both of which are afterimages, keeping with Levato’s conceit:
It begins with a photograph and a rug; that so much can be woven into
both, one in dyed wool, the other scar tissue against the undisturbed
surface of her hand. She is in white, he a dress uniform, three-quarter
view. The eye facing the camera is glass. (3)
Levato extracts images here in a fragmented-but-purposeful way. Several images are used, including photograph, rug, skin, military wedding, and glass eye, but the connection between the images and any narrative that might bind them together is cryptic, although the glass eye certainly refers back to the “body reduced to beads of glass” from the opening page of the poem. Levato withholds the full story tactically, entreating readers to mentally project their versions of these images and interactors to engage the links.
These links present the first crossroads of War Rug, revealing its differentiality, as I can now choose to navigate away from the long poem or to continue reading. Although the “About This eBook” page has already explained that each numbered link will take me to the “Author’s Notebook” and beyond, no instructions about a definitive reading of the eBook are offered. I chose to read the eBook straight through at first, finding myself comfortable in the mystery of images offered by the first three pages of the book.
During rereadings, however, I found out that in the “Author’s Notebook,” Levato explains that the prose poem quoted above refers to a series of photographs by Nina Berman called “Marine Wedding,” which features a soldier burned and maimed by a suicide bomber. Clicking the link takes me to Nina Berman’s website and a sequence of eighteen photographs featuring Sgt. Ty Ziegel and Renee Kline, his fiancée. Among the opening pages of the eBook, the “Author’s Notebook,” and the hyperlinks leading me to various websites, new meanings are created that complicate the idea of the afterimage (seeing when the eye has stopped seeing/reading) that undergirds Levato’s project.
Moving from poem to annotation to Berman’s website, the poem appears to realize, to become more real, more fixed, via the transition from poetic image to note to photograph. This movement, however, is an illusion, as I am transitioning between different modes of artistic representation, two ways of capturing the seldom-revealed aftermath of a real war, something that, despite Levato and Berman’s efforts, I can only begin to imagine.
The transition from Berman’s photographs back to the poem is ekphrastic. Levato, by not only textually documenting these images but also providing access, invites interactors to become witnesses, to share in authorship by reading it but also by peeling back the exposed edges of his documentary collage, giving the project a wider scope than if it were simply a textual poem.
At the same time, Levato shields interactors by way of the “Author’s Notebook,” which can function as a buffer between poem (images in imagination) and web-based image (fixed images). Levato does link to two graphic websites. One is Salon.com’s archive of photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison tortures of captured Iraqis. Page forty of War Rug alludes to another photograph — a face peeled off and tossed on the sand — that begins a list of horrible images. Levato quotes from a pornographic website called Nowthatsfuckedup.com (now archived on Unseenwar.com): “The bad thing about shooting them, reads one caption, “is that we have to clean it up” (40). In the “Author’s Notebook” Levato warns of “explicit content” after the link to the Nowthatsfuckedup.com archives, which includes extremely graphic photographs taken by soldiers of mutilated or killed Iraqis as well as crass comments. I have a difficult time describing these horrific images, especially juxtaposed with such disrespectful and cavalier captions.
These vivid and horrifying contingencies provide a counterpoint to Levato’s restrained tone in the textual poem created by the use of appropriated clinical and technical writing, which is the inverse of the photographs because of its dry description of how such destruction is enacted. The section titled “Notation” describes military protocol for informing next of kin about soldiers who are killed in action. Levato incorporates a long list of actual death scenarios from the wars on terror, and juxtaposed with technical instruction in how these messages are to be delivered (as well as other military documents about wound ballistics and other horrors written in the technical language of an instruction manual), the blending of registers devastates. (The documents can be accessed via both the “Author’s Notebook” and, if readers are interested in deeper investigation, through the “Works Cited” page.)
War Rug, as eBook and digital poem, juxtaposes pornographically violent images with the manuals explaining how the violence is carefully planned and perpetrated. This method pushes documentary poet and interactor beyond simply bearing witness to testimony about these wars, revealing the thin line between documenting work and voyeurism. Levato’s relentless investigations evoke Freud’s notion of the uncanny from his essay of the same name. In experiencing War Rug, I feel the interplay of heimlich (concealed/private) and unheimlich (unfamiliar and strange/frightening), and I get caught up in observing what is normally taboo or obscene. When I connect to the Unseenwar.com’s archive of Nowthatsfuckedup.com from the “Author’s Notebook” and spend time on the sight, I too become a voyeur, offered a glimpse of the gratuitous and horrible violence of these wars enacted on insurgents, civilians, and GIs alike, thousands of miles from my relatively safe vantage point. This violence, among other images like soldier’s caskets, is typically censored, controlled, kept from view, and silenced, but it lurks in its home on the fringes of the Internet. Through this interlocutor, what is normally censored is now “on/scene,” to use Linda Williams’s term. As War Rug extends further from long poem to digital poem to film, the differential texts beg a larger question about enculturation in the United States. Even though both graphic sexuality and graphic violence are rapidly becoming ubiquitous, mainly because the adult entertainment and war industries generate billions of dollars, why is gratuitous sexuality decried publicly more frequently than gratuitous violence?
Another text woven into the panoply of War Rug, Levato’s film War Rug, interrogates the question of enculturation, among others. Levato appropriates videos from different places, including old military training cartoons, on-board captures from Apache helicopters, 1950s Americana, and children watching a violent (but to their eyes hilarious) puppet show. The film layers image on top of image, using computer software that modifies sampled film clips to create transparency, showing us two images at once. The layered images are accompanied by an abridged version of the textual poem and a musical score by Richard Fammerée. As a mashup, the appropriated videos become recontextualized in such a way that they are put into dialogue by assemblage. Watching the film, I cannot help but recall the conceit of the afterimage, knowing that the glass eyes of two cameras captured videos that are being recombined to create something new and different. And yet, this afterimage also echoes the picture of Sergeant Ziegel, whose glass eye stares at the camera eye, even as the image is repurposed by Levato’s eye in his documentary poem.
Watching the film, I understand the reach of Levato’s work, especially in scenes like the puppet show, where young children in the 1950s (black and white) are watching one puppet beat on another. The children laugh. Violence is acceptable, permitted, humorous, and entertaining. Violence happens over there, away from me. Violence happens to an avatar, an idea, an image. The film gives a fixed image to accompany the enculturation of violence in the United States: the culture of violence is always up and running, to the point where it cannot be discerned whether it’s overt or covert. The film depicts Apache helicopter attack footage and bombs detonating buildings, both of which look like something from the newest Call of Duty video game. In the film and the game, shapes resembling humans are annihilated. It would be easy to say here that both are mimetic depictions of real or realistic events (but not really real). But neurologically speaking, these images are their own kind of reality, a representational layer of trauma.
The connection of eye to eye, of poem image to website image, of discrete film clips recombined into one, reveals how the afterimage extends to create an interconnected root structure in conceptual space. In her essay “New Media Poetics: As We May Think/How to Write,” Adelaide Morris notes, echoing Gertrude Stein, that “we are, each and every one of us, nimble citizens of an always newly technologized mediated world that hasn’t yet entered, much less altered, our categories of thought. The trick, for Stein, is not to be ahead of one’s time — ‘No one is ahead of his time,’ she says (521) — but in one’s time.” Levato’s poem and film are certainly kairotic, as Morris values and Stein prescribes, but Levato’s War Rug presents the possibility of a future for itself as a conceptual afterimage of the current American wars. Eventually, I imagine the hyperlinks in War Rug becoming dead ends that no longer serve the purpose of linking the eBook to the array of images and documents from the web that help it expand outward, enriching it through this contingency. In fact, as I write this, the link to the casualty notification procedure for the US military has changed locations.
New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts and Theories (left) and one of its editors, Adelaide Morris
These dead ends can be an allegory for the conceptual eye of culture. Eventually these images and their locations, both in the poem and on the web, albeit having an illusion of permanence, will fade out of consciousness and memory, relinquishing their gravitas to time. In this way, I can imagine Levato’s War Rug as the ultimate afterimage: the poem as detritus after the eye of culture stops seeing, stops caring. It is this conceptual future — poem as mediated, differential afterimage, existing in different materialities and temporal forms — that makes War Rug an important new media poem with the potential to be both in its time and conceptually ahead of it.
A review of 'censory impulse'
with all this talk
of an inevitably vain
medium the latest excuse
for misbehavior is
— erica kaufman
As a college composition instructor at a media arts college, I have found it useful to urge my students to think about human bodies and how our attitudes toward them have changed over time. Juxtaposing the plump, reposed Victorian with the androgynous, waiflike flapper with the armor of abs in vitamin infomercials shows students how aesthetic ideals, the ideals that are closest and most dear to us — those of our bodies — are enmeshed in material and historical contexts. In her 1993 book Unbearable Weight: Feminism Western Culture and the Body, Susan Bordo argues that the managerial class of twentieth-century capitalism creates a “double bind” that requires us to consume but shows no sign of excessive consumption. This is a commonly used and effective idea to explore in a cultural studies-themed composition class; in particular, the “Reading the Slender Body” chapter introduces first-year college students to the culture industry and the damage it does — literally, in the form of various kinds of eating disorders — to our flesh. Bordo focuses primarily on the female body and the war waged by the demands of the gaze, but to find her ideas relevant we might look more widely to the woefully tragic good intentions of a contemporary show like The Biggest Loser, which places the excessive (but reducing) body on display each week.
But as I continue to present Bordo’s ideas to this generation of post- (post-post-?) 9/11 teenagers who find the global war mediated through the music of MIA — all of this compressed and delivered on an impossible scale — I realize that Bordo’s brand of identity politics, in particular her recuperation of feminism and activism, needs some translation. Though I am not entirely comfortable using the term “post-human,” if only because it might shut down discussion, I do think students by and large think of their bodies not as actual agents — they do not bear them — but as possibilities crammed into digital media and new social communication structures. They wield them as a language (that yet escapes them as they’re writing their papers). Certainly, the idea of the body as a complex of semiotic possibility is not a new idea; however, the absence of a recuperative ethic, the idea that we can take back the body, implies that restoration is impossible, the dream of the previous generation.
In this regard, students sense, but do not always articulate, that being has vacated the body and finds itself in transit within the sign. And here is where I begin with erica kaufman’s censory impulse, a book of pieces, several chapbooks stitched around an absent center, that takes the human body as its debatable object. In censory impulse, debate or rhetoric, not the body itself, is the object splayed under the lights of the autopsy table. At once an inventory, a collage, a discordant paean-mixtape addressed to the sign — a “play spontaneous / object amnesia tendency / meta-comment stray” (42) — this work
ruin when i think
visible a decline
noticeable in more
two types of recognition available
move past the procedures
the impaired i see horses
chameleons towers (27)
The poem above begins with the three lines, “begin in outlines / it isn’t that i don’t want / faces,” and by this the poet suggests that thinking “begin[s] in outlines” but that these outlines are not loyal to a singular identity. Like Hannah Weiner and Bruce Andrews before her (among many others), kaufman rejects the tidy, bourgeois appropriation of identity by the restrictive outline of a name and searches for a more inclusive — and anarchic, or nomadic — region of outline. And yet, as Weiner and Andrews know in their own ways, kaufman recognizes that the sign, and the outlines imprinted by it on the page, create an embodied (though perhaps arbitrary) limit. The poet asks, “do / i have a right to use / names? if only / for operational clarity. / for a word in that / position. typeset. / so let’s talk” (12). This talk, or chatter, implied at the end, a “meta-comment stray” that exceeds the boundaries we thought we knew, offers us a chance, at least hypothetically, to bypass the usual circuits of logos. And here we might arrive at a new definition of Other, one that doesn’t require the subject to “sketch [its] own profile. // a continuity scheme” (50).
In a section titled “ocular gentrification,” the poet recalls Weiner, perhaps self-consciously (since the epigraph of the book, “be very careful in your intercourse with strangers,” is taken from Weiner’s “Code Poems”):
in the greater scheme
of lasso coupon radio
hysterectomy i am not
supposed to see the hyper-
text of de-mentation
abject cystic display (31)
Throughout censory impulse, the poet toys with ontology just as late capitalism bats around our modern and perhaps archaic sense of individual subjectivity. Employing the lyric and the lower case “i” to this end, the poet admits that subjecthood remains a work in progress (or -digress), as the speaker yet needs to “figure out how / to deal with being modern.” In a tone that feels something like humor — or “de-mentation,” to borrow from the section quoted above — the lyric estranges the reader from normative structures of sense without seeming entirely groundless. This “figur[ing] out how / to deal with being modern” enacts an excavation of the beleaguered and strained body, and though this “site” has been thoroughly mined for any signs of being, the poet attempts to de-frame the “ontological argument”: “the parody / of this ontological argument / is the loss of feeling brings / emotion.” Or, the “ontological argument” finds its parodic shadow close behind. We seem to be groundless, without being, but at least we know it, or can share space on the sidelines along the “negativity parade”:
enough of this
i want to feel
just handcuff me
with bacon and
wait for the wrists
to swell reveling (82)
This work asks: how do we even begin to account for our bodies, much less fight against the forces that delimit, fragment, parse them? How do we question without becoming a participant in the “negativity parade”? Unlike Surrealist and Oulipian predecessors who attempt to dislodge freedom from language, the poet in censory impulse realizes that argument and its familiar embodied form, the logos of the rhetor, cannot escape the bounds of the letter and the “censory impulse” required of all bodies to find proper measure.
On the opening page, the poet writes, “i no longer choose / to write questions.” She implies that we are inducted into a culture that tends to offer denial as a dreadful inevitability. Though we might think we “choose” to ask questions, we realize that pre-scripted answers determine the angle of inquiry. From “fad diets” to fashion magazines that establish aesthetic norms, and even to the critical language we use to couch our arguments against these structures, we find that the ways we think and talk about our bodies pass through a censor committee. Generated from our own desires and cravings, this censor committee affirms the grand loop of totality — again, the “negativity parade” — and houses the “censory impulse.” The poet confronts the subject’s ability or disability to communicate anything meaningful that is not part of the censory machine through which all questions are passed.
And so, perhaps this is why “instead of rabble rousing and picking fights about thermodynamics / and the inherent need for a bionic arm i focus on the numbers seen / on each piece of fruit and the process of reinnervation” (71). Instead of questions, or bona fide lines of inquiry, most of censory impulse reads like a “meta-comment stray,” a reactivation of newfound nerve endings. Though not quite a celebration of the anarchy of language, since the poet tidily and quietly alternates couplets, tercets, quatrains, and a free-form splay, the work nonetheless operates as an amputated lyric. The idea of amputation opens the book:
first i think i need
to come to terms
purpose less than clear. (11)
The poet’s practice of the lyric then appears to be voiced from a phantom limb. Looking for purpose, we find only “operational clarity” and a complexly unsettled ontology:
my cuticles torn. a sure sign of being
overthrown. representational of more than
tragic flaws. try evolution. argue climate
take a photograph of my coffin
and use as a stage for mass protests, vegan
barbeques, and runway lessons. think
of my mouth as amplified unlike my voice.
tape an arrow over. place sweet things. (69)
All answers — “mass protests, vegan / barbeques and runway lessons” and arguments and lines of inquiry (literal, figurative) that we might use to combat the censory machines — seem inadequate to the task of responding to culture’s tragedies. The “negativity parade” consumes us as we consume ourselves, as we merge with our bacon handcuffs, and the question becomes: how can we save argument from itself and find a mode of response that isn’t equal to the question? The lack of ready answer to this very question might incite melancholy or rage, but as kaufman’s work demonstrates, responses are multiform and varied, and the lyric’s ability to converse with this multiform might provide an alternative to mere reply.