A review of 'Museum of the Weird'
“A student recommended Mary Miller’s Big World to me the other day; we were at a bar and she brandished it like a pack of the best cigarettes anyone has ever smoked.”
So begins a post (“This new thing the kids are doing”) by J. Robert Lennon on the now-defunct blog Ward Six (curated by Lennon and his wife, Rhian Ellis, for just under four and a half years).
The post isn’t so much about Mary Miller as it is about, as the title suggests, “this thing.”
“It’s partially a McSweeney’s thing,” Lennon writes. “And it’s also kind of neo-Carverian. It’s minimalist, sort of, and sometimes it’s selfconsciously [sic] odd.”
He says Amelia Gray does it too.
Gray’s new collection, The Museum of the Weird, is, indeed, representative of a certain kind of contemporary fiction. It’s a fiction that maybe couldn’t have stood a chance of flourishing before Youtube and Twitter. Before LOLcats. Before the Internet really took off. Yes, one story here, “Trip Advisory: The Boyhood Home of Former President Ronald Reagan,” appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency back in 2006, but there’s something else going on here, too, something more.
In one story, “The Darkness,” an Armadillo named Betsy and a Penguin named Ray sit in a bar and drink and talk:
“I fought the darkness,” says Ray.
“Neat,” says Betsy.
It’s not really an allegory, and its ending doesn’t suddenly recast what came before it, throwing it all into a new light. Really, it’s more like an absurdist joke — the comedic work of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, or of Zach Galifianakis, comes to mind before anything else.
Another story, “Fish,” begins like this: “Dale was married to a paring knife and Howard was married to a bag of frozen tilapia.” She leads with the punch line and then builds a world around it. It’s sublime for its not meaning anything.
Yet Lennon’s critique of this kind of work is understandable: he says it can seem
“precious, or random…like a night spent smoking pot in your sister’s apartment with her grad school friends. You know they’re smart, and you know you’re as smart as they are, but you don’t understand a thing they’re saying. It’s not for you: it’s an insider code.”
The trouble with this kind of reading is that it overlooks the humor, or perhaps simply doesn’t get the joke; misinterprets it as something more earnest — because that’s what Gray’s doing when she writes a story like “The Darkness,” or “Fish”: she’s telling jokes, she’s playing tricks on us.
But there’s this other thing the kids are doing that Lennon doesn’t talk about, and it’s something that Gray does in this collection, too. Her story “The Movement,” begins with this fragment: “The end of an,” and then has three paragraphs about Joseph Stalin’s funeral. The pattern continues: “What they provide and how they function (present day)” followed by a relatively coherent paragraph. Gradually, a story emerges, but it’s buried beneath a choppy form; another story, “Thoughts While Strolling,” does this too. It’s something that calls to mind the works of Donald Barthelme or Lydia Davis. Indeed, the influence of both writers is all over this collection. In “The Cube,” for instance, a mysterious cube appears in the middle of a town and, much like Barthelme’s famous balloon, serves as the vessel through which contemplation can occur.
But even at their most humorous, Barthelme’s stories gesture toward something bigger — the non sequiturs aren’t just meant to be funny. If Barthelme is an influence here, then his influence is a mixed blessing, for his legacy, really, is most visible on some of the weakest links in this collection — stories in which Gray jettisons tradition altogether and revels in the fragmentary, in the inscrutable. Whereas humor in Barthelme is a means to an end, Gray’s humor, at its best, is the end. It can seem random, yes, like a night smoking pot, but that’s because it is. When it works, it is.
The standouts in this collection are those that behave just as you’d expect them to, yet leave you in a place that you weren’t expecting to be left. They almost operate like practical jokes — luring you in with clean, unadorned sentences and then plodding along from one paragraph to the next. If you’re not paying much attention you can lose yourself in the structure and just kind of float to the end, only later realizing that you’ve been had — tugged along through a story without any real conflict or resolution to speak of. There’s something about Gray’s humor that simply is, and therein lies the beauty of this new thing the kids are doing.
A review of 'An Art of Limina'
Perhaps astonishingly, I had never watched a video by Gary Hill before reading this book. Luckily, the book is designed to keep the work of Gary Hill open, so that when I finally did encounter the videos (all the single-channel work is now online at www.garyhill.com), I was not burdened by the outer husk of a reified interpretation. On the contrary, it seemed that I was seeing each piece in multiple dimensions, making connections with the text and — in many instances — continuing along my own path. An Art of Limina is an invitation to keep seeing the work anew, even to those for whom it actually is new.
For authors George Quasha and Charles Stein, the works of Gary Hill are decidedly not new; the book primarily comprises essays written on the basis of thirty years of collaboration and dialogue amongst all three artists/poets. As Quasha remarks elsewhere, “It takes a life to be known.” But knowledge and time hold a particular significance for the authors, and neither makes claim to any definitive interpretation based on privileged access. Lynne Cooke’s foreword rightly emphasizes a tension between different modes of historical allegiance: Quasha and Stein are noted to consistently elicit concrete precedents while simultaneously distancing themselves from general trends in criticism and art history. This is an important acknowledgment, but its significance can only be understood in conjunction with the authors’ own relationship to the artist.
Gary Hill, Incidence of Catastrophe (1987–88). Courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.
An Art of Limina is not a book “about” Gary Hill in any conventional sense, which is one way that it departs from more traditional art criticism. The distinction between “interpretation” and “the further life of the work” — a trope that recurs with remarkable frequency across a range of otherwise divergent essays — offers an explanation for the tension noted by Cooke in the foreword and situates the significance of their project as a poetics. “Further life” is functionally defined as “an extension of the creative energy and interest that the work itself … projects through its own instance,” which contrasts with interpretation viewed as definitive account and/or assessment in art historical discourse (9). As a “further life” manifestation of the work of Gary Hill, the book is performative at every level, meaning that it is as much a reflection on its own process as on the art to which it explicitly refers. In other words, the authors implicitly evoke (without discussing) the nature of their own work as much as the art of Gary Hill, which is why it is impossible to say anything about the one without reflecting on the other. (It’s important to note that the book is also a factually definitive account of the works discussed, to the extent of correcting errors in a previous catalogue raisonné.)
The “principle complex,” which is laid out in the prologue to frame subsequent text and recurs frequently throughout, serves as a theoretical basis for the book’s pervasive self-reflexivity. In distinguishing “principle” from “concept,” the authors explain that “[u]nlike a concept, a principle is never defined by the work, of which there can be an unlimited number; there is no definitive instance” (93n). Whereas conceptual art is oriented around an external (or previously formulated) standard and is often fully realized with a single manifestation, principle-based art is an organic creation that develops from a ground of open potentiality. The two terms are not dichotomously opposed, but while principle-based art manifests unlimited possibility, conceptual art without a core principle is an effective dead end.
The “principle complex” comprises three inseparable principles, which together can be aspects of a practitioner’s commitment to principle in art: axiality, liminality, and configuration. As a functional definition, the “axial” is defined as “the conscious, radical self-alignment that liberates identity/work into its unknown further possibility” — the principle of dynamic orientation by which an art action is realized as a singularity within a given context/medium (38). Although the true dynamism of this principle is difficult to capture in a single sentence, it has much to do with the commonplace experience of personality maintaining certain integrity across various contexts and interactions; and it applies equally to a body’s efficient mode of operation in space-time.
Directly linked to axiality, the “liminal” implies “a conscious choice to work at the edge and accept the energetic advantage of precariousness” (45). The reappearance of the word “conscious” is no coincidence; liminality, in this specific usage, involves recognition of the processual embodiment of principle (which is never contained within a given body) and operates in that “between” space where axis is assuming particular orientation.
Finally, the “configurative” is a “textualization in process,” the weaving of a particular orientation with its own internal consistency (56). Developing out of previous art historical conceptions, the configurative is an essentially performative response to the realization of radical potentiality:
If traditional representational art is “figurative,” in the sense that it seeks to capture the “figure” — the structure and shape — of the object it represents; and if art that moves away from the figurative is “abstract” (in the precise sense of “drawn away from”); then later art that allows a non-referential yet identifiable image to form anew can be thought of as con-figurative or re-configurative. (58)
Configurative works depart from a postmodern absence of perspectival view with an anamorphic shift in perspective; now that freedom of form is a familiar concept, the question is no longer one of depicting our world, but of creating possible worlds. If figuration is a word in a sentence and abstraction explores its grammar, then configuration follows from the possibility of infinite sentences beyond the first. As such, conscious awareness is equally important for the third term in the complex: “When we become aware of this event of configuration … we are rendering the world-weave accessible to reconfiguration” (ibid). An axis opens to the conscious participant, who is now free to perform its further life, and a new word enters a language.
Gary Hill, Wall Piece (2000); single-channel video/sound installation. Video projector, strobe light and strobe controller with steel
floor mount, two speakers, one DVD player and one DVD (color; stereo sound). All images courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.
With this in mind, An Art of Limina can be read as a manifesto of sorts — the performative rendition of a poetic principle. The authors state as much explicitly in Preliminaries: “That makes this in some ways a work in realizing a general poetics shared by the three of us — that is, a poetics as the working principles of a time-based art, one that pertains to language and a range of visual, auditory, and electronic objectification” (8). And since the principle is simultaneously named and operative, a descriptive passage about a piece by Gary Hill without reference to the authors’ work is illuminating on this account:
This [voiceover] might even be heard as a manifesto declaring a radical new realm of video synthesis, except that the utterance itself belongs to happenstance on the same plane as the developing imagery.… If in the apparent tug of war between word and image the words threaten to overwhelm the video with over-positive interpretation, it is equally true that the images and the process as a whole reclaim what is being stated verbally and refuse to be dominated by the concepts with which they are, nevertheless, in perpetual interaction. Virtual dialogue supplants any inferred polemic. (123)
Although the original context is incommensurate, the same proportions delimit Gary Hill (as video) and George Quasha and Charles Stein (as voiceover). The authors are proposing a critical discourse in dialogue — a mode of speaking with principle-based art and that, in the process of naming, configures the latter’s axis within the consensual medium of language: “the meaning of the image is given by the word, the meaning of the word is given by the image, and together an intimate and significant gesture is performed” (284n). Rather than the closure of conceptual interpretation, their aim is to resonate with the artwork on principle, opening it to ever further associations of kinship: “the premise [is] that the work is never complete — that the distinctions that a work makes are never definitive, but that they are always generative, and that … efforts at definition don’t limit the way a work comes in but encourage continuous beginning from it” (517). And since, as I have argued, the nature of An Art of Limina is self-similar (i.e., the parts resemble the whole), the same dialogical relationship is evident within Gary Hill’s works themselves. The authors remark:
[W]e ourselves are the extended medium of the piece.… Perhaps we should speak of resonance, that is, how an articulated impulse resonates in us, what it continues to do inside us, what it gives birth to in some complex sense that cannot be conceptualized outside of the work’s continuing process. In this sense Gary Hill’s way of engaging with Blanchot, Heidegger, or Bateson is not to discuss, illustrate or comment on these sources but to resonate with them — is not, indeed, so much an intertextuality as an extended textuality, a further life. (200)
Thus, rather than making a video “about” Blanchot, Gary Hill’s video coperforms with Blanchot’s writings by aligning with them on a structural level, elaborating a shared context whose expansion furthers the reach of all contributions and constantly redefines the field.
This review is thus, optimally, an instance of such resonance. In fact, I had the same reaction to An Art of Limina as George Quasha experienced when first encountering Gary Hill’s Happenstance: “Happenstance was like a read-out of a part of my own brain, because it proved something I fantasized was true, that in the deepest sense a poem is an animate force that is active in all of the mind’s projections, visual/aural/tactile” (479). After musing for years about the potential of art to declare context and create worlds — art that “radically orients and reorients space, time, language, thought, even dreams and visions … simply by declaration” — I was astounded (259). George Quasha and Charles Stein have accomplished something that I have long dreamed about: a book that simultaneously embodies and offers a core vocabulary for an entire species of radically performative art. It is an ambitious project, which is reflected in the book’s encapsulation of their thirty years of shared experience.
An Art of Limina has profound ethical and political implications reaching far beyond the delimited fields of art history and poetics. In awakening to the existence of thresholds/limens, we replace “the hypnosis of automatic signification and consensual interpretation” with the discovery and development of complex new orders of human reality (331; 399). This awareness of reconfiguration and its potential opens new orientations of being in the world, and “to model the relationship between thought and world, language and sense … is by that very act to change the intuitive context of the way we think of the world, thus to change the world itself” (292n). Rather than blind indoctrination into an existing symbolic context and consequent exposure to gross manipulation, performative art emphasizes the ethical responsibility of conscious involvement as “art-beings who exist in relation to more or less continuous projection of our own event” (261). (Corporations are already remarkably well versed on this point; see Leadership: Theory, Application, and Skill Development by Robert N. Lussier and Christopher F. Achua, who write frankly on “the process of culture creation, sustainability, and renewal” .) Further, the poetics explored here is profoundly democratic; while the significance of conceptual art is often constrained to a select few, in principle-based art “the images carry within their own graphic qualities and sequential structures everything necessary to bring the viewer into ‘initiation’” (227). Perhaps “invitation” is a more suitable word — a call to further the life of the work.
A review of ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’
Some poets transition from poetry to novels rather in the spirit of an enlisted man joining the officer corps. Denis Johnson comes to mind as someone who turned from poems to novels without looking back; even more prominent is the case of Michael Ondaatje, whose best fiction, I think, still has a foot in poetry (Coming Through Slaughter, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid). Others, like Stuart Dybek and Charlie Smith, may continue to write poetry but nevertheless have passed on, have risen or fallen to the identity of the fiction writer.
The rarer and more interesting cases, to my mind, are those poets who write fiction but remain poets. Joyelle McSweeney has written two novels, Flet and Nylund, the Sarcographer; but because their prose is often strange, calling the sort of attention to itself that prose fiction rarely does, they don’t sacrifice the eccentricity of poetry. Better known is the case of Roberto Bolaño, who began as a poet but became famous as a fiction writer. As far as I can tell from the one volume of his poetry that I’ve read, the world is entirely justified in esteeming him only for his fiction; yet he thought of himself as a (failed) poet and I persist in thinking of him that way, for the strange anti-eloquence of his writing and his hilarious grim persistence in writing always only about poets and their rancid idealism.
Flet by Joyelle McSweeney (Fence); Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (FSG); Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje (Vintage)
I suppose that’s really what I’m talking about here: those poets who write fiction as a bid to enter the center of literary attention that novels nominally occupy, versus those who, through temperament or incompetence, are destined to remain ex-centric.
Then there’s Ben Lerner. A ferociously ambitious and successful younger poet from Topeka, Kansas, Lerner, a one-time recipient of Fulbright fellowship to Spain and the author of three generally acclaimed books of poetry, has just produced his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. It’s about a ferociously ambitious and successful younger poet from Topeka, Kansas, albeit one who is not yet comfortable with or fully conscious of either his ambition or his success, on a Fulbright-like fellowship to Spain. His Adam Gordon is as transparently autobiographical as is Bolaño’s Arturo Belano, and at the same time both alter egos are presented to the reader through veils of irony and self-loathing.
In his first-person narration, Gordon presents himself to the reader as an almost entirely dysfunctional human being, preserving a semblance of autonomy through the use of various drugs, prescribed and otherwise. It is not at all clear whether we are supposed to respect his poetry or not — a few samples are presented that do nothing to defy Tony Hoagland’s persistent denunciatory motto, “the skittery poem of our moment.” Gordon himself doesn’t respect it but Teresa, a Spanish translator and one of two attractive women that he finds himself entangled with, respects it enough to want to translate it and publish it in a handsome chapbook edition, a reading from which at a gallery in Madrid is the culminating event of the novel.
Lerner even goes so far as to give Gordon his own nonfiction thoughts; as a note on the copyright page tells us, “The novel includes, albeit in altered form, a reading of John Ashbery’s poetry that first appeared in my essay, ‘The Future Continuous: Ashbery’s Lyric Mediacy,’ published by boundary 2.” He also does not fail to remind us that “Leaving the Atocha Station” is an Ashbery poem (one of his most obscure, which is saying something); Ashbery, and the world of poetry Ashbery has bequeathed to us, haunts the book. For much of the novel Gordon is preoccupied by his lack of fluency in Spanish and his attempts to use that lack of fluency “to preserve the possibility of misspeaking or being misunderstood, and to secure and amplify the mystery” that comes with language that fails to be fully communicative.
Poetry books by Ben Lerner: Angle of Yaw (2006), The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), and Mean Free Path (2010)
The consonance of this with poetry, in its deliberate obscurity, its refusal to be “about” anything, is entirely deliberate and forms the major theme of the book: the failure to be present to oneself or to others, in one’s own life or in History writ large (the most significant event in the book is the 3/11 Madrid train bombings, the aftermath of which Gordon witnesses). Language, or rather language’s failure, finds the pathos in this travesty of alienation, even as Lerner finds comedy in it; as Gordon reflects at a poetry reading he gives, “I told myself that no matter what I did, no matter what any poet did, the poems would constitute screens on which readers could project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience, whatever that might be, or afford them the opportunity to mourn its impossibility.”
Gordon/Lerner may intend this as cynicism, but like any display of cynicism there’s a bruised idealism at its center. “If I was a poet,” he thinks later, “I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.” If one is a bad poet, a false poet, that does not injure Poetry’s eidolon; much harder and more adult is to accept that poetry, like any art, can fail as often as it succeeds, and as a human being one can be part of that success or failure and bears the responsibility for trying.
So we have here again another portrait of the artist as a young man, which like Joyce’s novel displays a good deal of irony toward its protagonist without completely disowning either his idealism or the writer’s own ambitions, albeit in a negative, almost Gnostic form.
I can’t decide yet whether this novel constitutes a bid for centrality — if Lerner will now be leaving the Atocha Station of poetry for the maculate shores of fiction — or if its obsessive focus on poetry and failure will consign it to eccentric status. It’s quite funny, I should say — in his self-inflicted humiliations the protagonist reminds me of nothing so much as an intellectual Larry David — and there’s some interesting if lightly milled grist for considering Gordon as an archetypal self-involved radical artist from “the United States of Bush.” How archaic already that designation seems, another sign of American innocence as inexhaustible destructive resource; as Gordon remarks in one of his endless attempts to sound deep without actually committing himself, “The proper names of leaders are distractions from concrete economic models.” The fatuousness of this, even in its truth, damns the helpless self-regard of the beautiful-souled American Left with withering effectiveness.
In an interview with his friend Cyrus Console (who also turns up as a character in the book), Lerner speaks of Adam’s predicament in terms of aesthetic position: “the virtual possibilities of art are always in a sense betrayed by actual artworks.” What fascinates me is how the positions virtual and actual (terms, Lerner tells us, taken from Allen Grossman) roughly correspond to the two genres under consideration here. Poetry, at least modern poetry, in its fragmentation, its gesturality, is the quintessential art of the virtual: it suggests, Gnostically, the withdrawal of the numinous from the space of the poem. The novel is a creature of the actual, even in its greater physicality as object (a distinction rapidly eroding); as young man, I thought to write a novel, like reading one, was in some way to participate the real. (Fantasy novels, oddly, for me always bridged the gap: their worlds were not real but painstakingly actualized, even as their endlessness, their tendency to trilogize or series-ize, dovetailed back into the virtuality of the always-incomplete. This is why I halfway hope that George R. R. Martin doesn’t finish A Song of Ice and Fire, to preserve some speck of the virtuality the TV series had devoted itself to shredding. End of digression.)
“I promised myself, I would never write a novel,” Lerner’s protagonist says — or is his promise really a dare? Poetry perpetuates adolescence through its refusal to actualize: a poem in itself is like a young man dawdling his way through college, refusing to declare a major or propose to his girlfriend, refusing to commit, to engagé. This is the pathos of poetry, even to the point of “Pathetic!” But it’s also the source of poetry’s great reserve of utopianism and hopefulness, even when, tonally, it despairs. Oh I’m sure there’s a poetry of the actual as well, akin to what Robert Van Hallberg calls “civic” poetry so as to distinguish it from the Orphic. But if the former is more grown-up, more resigned, it lacks I think the power to shake the heart that comes with the Orphic. The tragicomic valley of hesitation between them is where Lerner’s novel is located.
A review of 'Elleguas'
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.
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
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
come a monstrous fetter on the land that will not let us breed
until every chupse in the face of good morning
come one more coil one more spring one more no-
thing to sing/about
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.
A review of 'Möbius Crowns'
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
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
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.
Butternick, George F., ed. The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the Maximus Poems. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).