Between generations

A review of Keith Waldrop's 'Selected Poems'

Photo of Keith Waldrop (right) © 2009 Charles Bernstein/PennSound.

Selected Poems

Selected Poems

Keith Waldrop

Omnidawn 2016, 307 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-1632430205

“It’s / true enough that we’ve fallen between / two generations — one drunk, the other / stoned,”[1] Keith Waldrop writes in an early poem addressed to his wife, poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop. It’s easy to imagine that Waldrop, born in 1932, is thinking of the “liquor and analysis” (43) that marked the lives of some of his lionized predecessors, such as Berryman and Lowell, and of the intoxicating, telling wit that can mark their work. In his poetry from the 1960s and ’70s in Selected Poems, one feels that weighty shadow: some phrases wouldn’t seem out of place in Lowell’s Life Studies, as in the throaty sound-play and mock-heroic pose of Waldrop’s “I may, of course, croak tomorrow, stumbling / from the larder” (19). And yet, even in his earliest poems, Waldrop evades that weight through the self-effacing wit and radiant interest in linguistics that distinguish his later work; Selected Poems confirms this continuity across his many shifts in style.

Or, one might say, the book highlights his many shifts in and out of particular styles: 1968’s “Angel to Love, Man to World,” for example, can be read as a smiling pastiche of period gestures. After an opening stanza that, characteristically, is intent on the “stunning silences” that attend philosophical disquisition, Waldrop asks, “Now what possesses me?” (17). It’s as though his theme is clear — said it in one stanza, fifty years ago — and now the variations begin: he adopts the guise of a Stevensian “connoisseur” and mutters a joke in French; he veers from childhood memory to learned citation; he summons himself toward epiphany. The concluding stanzas seem designed to dizzy a close reading into transcendence, to delight and befuddle a squinty scholar. After invoking the super-saturated grandeur of the fabricated sublime, Waldrop revels in similarly intricate diction:

I’d like an inclusive mind, where nothing could
possibly be out of the question. Like Saint
Mark’s façade where, halfway up a
clutter of Christianity and Venetian lace, are
four Roman horses, poised, in place.
Surely it was

thinking like this made Brueghel paint
a windmill near Calvary. When Adam, as it
fell out, got too old to know Eve, he sat
his inspired carcass down by his hoe, watching
his sweaty children screw up generation
after generation. (18)

Yes, “fell out” can refer to the fall of man and to one man’s fall from the potent ability to “know” his wife; yes, “inspired” should be read with its breathy, etymological meaning. “Screw up” touches at least five senses: Adam’s heirs (1) “screw up” their resolve to (2) procreate (perhaps screwily, given the few examples they had), which (3) messes up the kids, which (4) bolsters the construction of a world, much as the (5) screwed-up grist of a windmill does. The jumble of such decoding, of seeing a phrase distinctly stick several landings at once, might please some readers, but I think the line’s primary effect is closer to that of a koan: once a phrase can be read five ways, it points toward infinity, inviting one to assume an “inclusive mind.” I start to wonder: is there a relevant etymological meaning of “sweaty” at play; did “hoe” have the echo, in 1968, that it carries from hip-hop, today?

The question of whether all potential meanings are equally meaningful might dog one throughout Selected Poems. Often, the guidance Waldrop offers at once dons and shrugs off the possibilities of interpretation — “all connections (all) / connect,” he notes, “not always / as we could want them to” (41). The “we,” here, doesn’t refer to the author, whose intent might be clear or not, as much as to the reader who must accept that, tautologically, any connection that one can make is a connection, and yet its nature might exceed our wishes. This “we” presents the author as a fellow reader whose attention to the possibilities of interpretation troubles interpretation itself. It’s fitting that these preoccupations become clear in the poems selected from The Garden of Effort (1975), since their interest in enlivened ambivalence can seem both paradisal and laborious, though in Waldrop the arduous and ardent often twine. In these poems, it can feel as though Waldrop has compressed the final stanza of “Angel to Love” into nothing but phrases as brachiated as “screw up.” The pressure one could apply to such a phrase, to reveal its mass, emanates from the lines themselves. That is, they push back, through muddled or truncated propositional logic that shows the influence of French poets such as Claude Royet-Journoud, whom Waldrop has translated.

These poems can support associative mulling — like the conclusion of “Angel to Love” does — that winds up and up but never winds up in a polished interpretation (“engineering mothers / to make of / being born,” says one poem [56] — am I wrong to hear the syntax of a newspaper headline, as in a phrase like “Congress to Propose Legislation?”). Or they can read like studies in the connective gestures by which poets like Stevens and Ashbery construct sensations of plausibility (“with exploit / in the full / sense will / but is / not quite” [57]). Often, they invite one to meditate on grammar (is “engineering” a verb? is “will” the subject of the phrase?), much as they tickle perspective through overt staging (“A face at the / window and I forget / I’m indoors” [63]) and phrasal knots that arrive at straight strings, as though canceling themselves out (“Some things I’ve / seen through and / vice versa” [63]). Other reviewers can explore how these poems reflect or advance particular critical traditions; but much as the end of “Angel to Love” could satisfy a New Critical reading while, more significantly, pointing beyond the text, conjuring a more mysterious orientation toward reading and world, ditto these poems and Deconstructionism.

Still, it’d be wrong to ignore the affiliation Waldrop’s poetry can have with, say, Wittgensteinian linguistics. And, as with much poetry that offers both its own critical poetics and fans philosophical flames (without merely expressing its fandom of the old flame of a certain theory), it’s tempting to read some of Waldrop’s poetry as constantly reading itself. Waldrop’s poems, one could say, announce that “their language” functions “in / so many senses” (63), and that all literary artifice remains “still on the surface” (70). But Waldrop’s poetry is distinct from work in which this metacritical dimension points primarily to a poem’s own structures, or to something, sayable or not, about the nature of the sayable. First, even Waldrop’s most gnarled grammatical experiments retain an allusive tinge: the poems seem less like theses about language than the residual notation that might accompany wide reading or urgent seeing, showing the ways in which experiences become interwoven with one’s sensibility and thoughts; a poem is marginal, in the largest sense, like any lived-in epistemological assumption. In some poems, these allusions are direct: Waldrop recounts a version of the Pygmalion tale, or he engages wryly with Aristotle and Aquinas. Elsewhere, the traces of erudition can feel more oblique. In one later poem, for example, in which the following ellipses and italics are the author’s, Waldrop writes of

with the charm of
intonation don’t
ever desire contraries …

—   a little wider

… now go
practice with your
mouth closed (202)

Though the poem explicitly depicts the training of a vocalist, it seems appropriate to also think of a Blakean dialectic of “contraries” and that concept’s centrality to many poets since Romanticism. “It must be the brook / Can trust itself to go by contraries / The way I can with you,” Frost writes, for instance, in “West-Running Brook.” Since I made that connection, should I read “mouth” also as a brook’s mouth, and so the poem asks one to dam up the flow of contraries, to achieve an “intonation” that is both wide (like a still pool) and (movingly) free of poisonous charm, a pure and eddying stream? Or should I mingle the metaphor with the mouth of an aspiring orator, mumbling through stones? Waldrop’s allusiveness is obvious enough, often, to suggest such readings. But his more minimal poems do so through suggestions so subtle that I think, as with “Angel to Love,” that one shouldn’t seek a concordance of references but to adopt an “inclusive mind” in which they can play. This mindset need not — and cannot — remain uncritically permissive of random data, of course, because it is continually contoured by Waldrop’s writing, which often reassures an uncertain reader by emphasizing states of liminality and unknowing (“I know the world exists. / I do not know how the world exists” [17], he writes) or by acknowledging, perhaps winkingly, that he is simply seeking a form for what he’s “jotting down” (33), for his “partially organized / bits” (41). By attending to these states, one might construct the kind of “phenomenology of ignorance” (40) that Waldrop identifies as a pressing need, given all we don’t know. Thus, while some highly allusive poetry has a quality of “you had to be there” — in the right seminar, the right café, the right prep school — Waldrop’s allusive tinge seems to ask “what you? what there?”

Second, Waldrop’s work avoids the narcissism that critics of the avant-garde often invoke through its relationship to translation, that most empathetic ground of linguistic play. Waldrop is a prolific translator, mostly from the French, and one might speculate that translation helped mute his feeling that he had “fallen between / two generations,” since even cursory acquaintance with the “two generations” produced by a poet and a translator offer a more complicated view of lineage and liminality, let alone of the “fallen” state of languages. Similarly, the trace of translational practices in his poems might have helped Waldrop both to escape analogy, that well-known ambition of certain experimental writers, referenced in his title Analogies of Escape, and to enjoy the richness of allusion without relying on foregone cultural knowledge. For example, the one-step-away translation from Corinthians in the lines below lets the mind rove, as in response to an allusion that emphasizes its symbolism — yet they foreground the language itself, so where I rove is to a strangeness I have never noticed before within the word “modified”:

If she
the objective
We shall not all
rise, but
be modified. (133)

One can feel a similar spirit of translation — and a similar effect, of drawing a reader closer to the words themselves while also troubling a naïve regard for words’ meanings — in Waldrop’s frequent twisting of idioms, in his reorienting substitutions (“deified” for “defied” [265]), in his entertaining of alternates (“Monstrous colors on / certain things. // Monstrous things in / uncertain colors” [220]). A related method of alteration might have generated the title “Insisting Objects” from the poem’s musing on the parallel phrase “infinite creatures” (162); many other moments in Selected Poems might have resulted from similar processes (it doesn’t seem coincidental that the title of Waldrop’s first book contains the word “windmill” and the title of his second includes “windfall,” a kind of propulsive mishearing or permutation). This investment in the practices of translation also bridges the poles one can see in Waldrop’s more recent works, between observational prose, variously decorous and delectably anarchic, often linked to a personage, as in The Real Subject, and the kind of heightened, reflective lyricism one sees in Transcendental Studies. In The Real Subject, for example, Waldrop follows a whimsical conjecture (“Asked to explain why the hands come back to where they started, his mind wanders to the islands of an archipelago”[270]) with a lyrical reverie that extends from the word “archipelago.” The poet, in effect, has translated himself, offering both verse and commentary.

These two later works — Transcendental Studies, which won the National Book Award in 2009, and 2004’s The Real Subject — are sustained achievements, which show that while Waldrop’s themes and interests have been consistent since the 1960s, his formal explorations have deepened their consequence and scope; the excerpts in Selected Poems should inspire readers to seek the full collections. Especially because it includes the light verse from Songs from the Decline of the West, this volume’s consistency of vision across distinct formal modes brings to mind the poet who might be Waldrop’s closest forebear from that generation of “liquor and analysis”: the mid-century Romantic poet of psychological ecology, Theodore Roethke. In The Real Subject,the breezy metaphysics of Waldrop’s alter ego Jacob Delafon (the fixtures made by the French company Jacob Delafon have, as Waldrop sometimes delights in, application in the bathroom) can recall Roethke in his joshingly elegant mode, if one grants that “all connections (all)” can connect (41). Here’s Roethke, from “The Pure Fury”:

The pure admire the pure, and live alone;
I love a woman with an empty face.
Parmenides put Nothingness in place;
She tries to think, and it flies loose again.
How slow the changes of a golden mean:
Great Boehme rooted all in Yes and No;
At times my darling squeaks in pure Plato.[2]

And here’s Waldrop, from The Real Subject, in a different idiom but with a similar lightness in his combination of stagey comedy and stately romance, in his romantic clown’s regard for intelligent non sequitur:

Jane Floodcab, finding Jacob, as is not infrequent, preoccupied, is wont to fling herself at him, crying out,

“Here I come, body or not.” (295)

The resemblance gains prosodic kinship in moments of Transcendental Studies, which, like much of Roethke’s work, enacts a kind of quest that roots the haunting reverberations of memory in a landscape that is at once alienating and absorbing; that description could apply to the defamiliarized familiarity one sees throughout Waldrop’s poetry, as in a phrase like “silhouette of the bridge,” the title of a long poem (how can we tell the bridge from its silhouette?). Here’s Roethke, from “The Rose”:

Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,
As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,
And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.[3]

And here’s Waldrop, speaking as though near a “lavish” void (293), with a similar meditative lilt, a similar stunned regard for what’s most essential to one’s articulation:

Somewhere in my life, there
must have been — buried now under
long accumulation — some extreme
joy which, never spoken, cannot
be brought to mind. How else, in this
unconscious city, could I have
such a sense of dwelling? (295)

That last line, perhaps, suggests that the common ancestor of both poets may, at times, be Wordsworth, though many longtime readers of Waldrop might object to subsuming his work into an Anglophone canon. Still, Waldrop’s question can be seen as a response to the query from early in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, “What dwelling shall receive me?” We should hope to achieve, Waldrop suggests, only a “sense of dwelling,” not through accumulating experiences that we can later recollect and report but through intimations that “cannot / be brought to mind,” though we know that they occurred, and mattered; the action of recollection remains, without object. Perhaps this type of objectless recollection lets one become more fully tuned to unknowing, or to knowing more closely the signs of life’s “long accumulation.” Connecting song’s functions to memory’s in another poem, Waldrop evokes going “down to the / water bringing / nothing back” (172). Selected Poems is important evidence of what a long life in poetry, in which “nothing could / possibly be out of the question” (18) because the key questions concern the nature of nothingness itself, can actively bring us back from the waters where nothingness lives, thus bringing that nothingness to life.

1. Keith Waldrop, Selected Poems (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2016), 43. Mentions of  Waldrop’s earlier texts throughout refer to the poems anthologized in Selected Poems.

2. Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966; London: Faber & Faber, 1968), 128.

3. Roethke, Collected Poems, 199.

ko ko thett's cannibalistic poetics

A review of 'The Burden of Being Burmese'

Left: ko ko thett at an exhibition of Chinese semizdat poetry books at Shanghai Minsheng Arts Museum, where he read in November 2015. Photo by Victor Shen.

The Burden of Being Burmese

The Burden of Being Burmese

ko ko thett

Zephyr Press 2015, 103 pages, $15, ISBN 978-1-93889-16-1

We don’t choose the world we are born into. Or the nation. As valuable as theories of the social contract may be — the idea that we chose to relinquish the freedom of unfettered existence for the security of a lawful society — the fact remains that no one in our world has ever actually confronted that choice. It’s not a contract we can annul.[1]

The quintessential modernist response to this problem is to imagine oneself as part of a larger, supranational tradition — that of the literary canon or of Western civilization — and so to stand, in a sense, above history, above the nation. From the vantage point of that longing, it’s not as hard to understand Pound and Eliot’s fascist sympathies. In a modern world too overwhelming to contain, too full of despair and angst, there was comfort in the bucolic fantasy of the volk as much as there was in the sense of having been born late, in the wrong time, “an old man in a draughty house.”[2]

ko ko thett’s poem “my generation is best” reads like a child ironically placating false nostalgia of a parent. The child teases:

childhood past life, polio sister, measly brother, river blindness,
 tetanus twitch, bookworm, hookworm, head louse, earthworm
… playing football in the downpour with those low-income diseases
isn’t your generation best[3]

As with so much of thett’s work, even while the poem goes on to skewer generational nostalgia, the simple irony of the opening stanza unravels into more nuanced indeterminacy:

there was no income inequality in your days, everyone was equally poor
no capital flight, there was no capital
... the government never needed to justify its policies through
pro-government policy think-tanks to appease the west

Was life better in a world before neoliberal market logic sublimated all government policy decisions? Was life better before capital?

thett’s poems live within these questions, unwilling to cede an ounce of their undecidability. This is the burden of being Burmese — the burden of asking questions with no good answers, the burden of choosing between only bad options — and it’s a burden that we all share. If the modernists confronted the overwhelming sensory carnival and perpetual political unrest in the metropolitan centers of late-stage capitalism and pined for an imagined Edenic past, thett’s poetics presents a different solution: eat everything. Raw. In “a few ways to eat a city raw,” thett observes that “only humans, and a few other alien species, can eat on their feet” (13). In a world of limited resources, eat when you can, where you can, how you can. The best possible moment is the present; it’s the only one that exists.

The Burden of Being Burmese is thett’s first collection of poetry, but it reflects nearly twenty years of writing by a poet who has already left his mark on contemporary world literature as a translator and coeditor of an anthology credited with introducing Burmese contemporary poetry to Western audiences, Bones Will Crow: Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets (2012). It’s less surprising, then, that Burden doesn’t read like a first book, but rather an artfully and athletically constructed meditation on politics and poetry from a man raised in Myanmar, now exiled in Europe.

The book’s primary poetic habit is the list: thett’s lists are slapstick, capacious, contradictory, free-wheeling, vengeful, and above all cannibalistic. If thett’s ethic is based on eating everything, his poems attempt that impossible feat by piling it all into the stomach of the poem, each morsel separated only by a comma. “urban renewal” is a litany that expresses the frenzy of urban development plans, apparently as fervent in Myanmar as in the suburban expanses of the United States:

dog parks for dogs,
amusement parks for amusements, child-friendly facilities
for the parents of children who may never grow up,
bingo halls for all ages and sexual preferences, clear the
woods on the city’s fringes for nine-hole golf courses,
logging shall be licensed to make way for streamlined
taxiways for international arrivals, plant garden plants
in every department store (28)

thett’s list runs on and on, “malling, walling, enthralling”(29), painting a Bosch-like landscape of the banality of development schema in which organic life becomes demarcated units with assigned spaces, even if that entails clearing forests while planting gardens in department stores.  

As much as thett’s depictions of heady speculation, consumer fantasy, and crony capitalism place this collection in the context of an emerging global culture (as much as “the burden of being Burmese” is everyone’s), the book also offers a window into the particular social and political history of Myanmar. thett wrote the majority of these poems in English and the book is published by a Massachusetts-based press, so he writes of his home country with an awareness of his audience’s loose knowledge of its culture, language, and history; the poems swerve between the roles of translator, cultural critic, travel writer, tour guide. The portrait we get is of a country plagued by decades of colonial and civil war, and still under the burden of autocratic military rule. We learn of the official “People’s Desire,” a legislated worldview that the government has required all publishers to print on the opening page of books and magazines. We are given a tour of a military town named for Colonel Ba Htoo, a national hero who fought against the Japanese during World War II: “the town that honors the anti-fascist hero is a purpose-built / breeding ground for the ultra-nationalist myanmar army / where can you find a better irony” (19). And everywhere the poems signal evidence of severe wealth inequality: “our clinics supply the intolerably rich with aphrodisiacs and antihypertensives / our pharmacies provide betel and beedies to the filthy poor” (15). These poems move beyond pat dichotomies, noting that the choice is often between bad and worse.  

thett’s politics are grounded in the scholarship he has published on Burma’s politics and economy. In a 2012 report, commissioned by the Burma Center Prague, thett argues that the current Myanmar Responsible Tourism policy is “doomed to fail” and leaves the door open for “crony capitalism at the expense of political, ecological and cultural sustainability.”[4] His chapter in Totalitarian and Authoritarian Discourses examines the deep-rooted myth in Burmese political discourse of the indispensability of the military.[5] Fairly direct lines could be drawn between the preoccupations of his poetry and scholarship.

But to note the seriousness of thett’s politics risks missing his deep commitment to humor, particularly sound play. The phrase “flip-flops” appears throughout the collection, at times echoed by the phrases “flip-flap” and “flap-flap.” His poem “after ‘the lie of art’” is a slapdash tribute to Charles Bernstein’s poem of the same title. The delightfully campy poem “timely applause and toothy smiles” would be at home in any of John Ashbery’s more recent collections. Humor is no answer to the fraught political questions at the heart of this collection, but given that thett hails from a country where desires are legislated, it is perhaps not surprising that he turns to humor to unsettle assumptions, to shake loose language.

Laughing along with thett may hurt. It may catch in your throat. There is no promise of redemption here. “[Y]ou don’t want to be another down comforter” (71), thett tells us (and maybe himself) in “the rain maker.” That said, in gestures reminiscent of the work of Derek Walcott (or other Caribbean poets), the collection often uses symbols of water, the sea, and marine life to suggest a world apart. There is an ode to a river, another to a sea, and the tale of “the day he regretted swimming butterfly” across the Baltic with a beer can in his hand. Water and its inhabitants flow freely across the lines drawn by nations, in spite of them. Poems attempt something similar.

1. This point is more fully elaborated in J. M. Coetzee’s novel Diary of a Bad Year (Penguin, 2007), 3–5.

2. T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion,” The Complete Poems and Plays (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), 21–23.

3. ko ko thett, The Burden of Being Burmese (Zephyr Press, 2015), 55.

4. ko ko thett, “Responsible Tourism in Myanmar: Current Situation and Challenges” (Burma Prague Center, 2012), 8.

5. ko ko thett, “The Myth of the Indispensability of the Military in Burmese Political Culture: Totalitarian Discourse in the State of Myanmar,” in Totalitarian and Authoritarian Discourses, ed. Lutgard Lams, Geert Crauwels, and Henrieta Anişoara Şerban (Peter Lang, 2014).

Erasing history

On Jordan Abel's 'The Place of Scraps'

The Place of Scraps

The Place of Scraps

Jordan Abel

Talonbooks 2013, 272 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0889227880

When Jordan Abel began thinking about the book that became The Place of Scraps, published in 2013 by Vancouver-based Talonbooks, he thought he would write historical fiction. He wanted to find a way to work with the history of his Nisga’a Nation ancestors.[1] The Nisga’a live in Western Canada and are known in part for displaying ancestral totem poles on their lands. Growing up, Abel felt that his ancestors’ stories weren’t available to him; he wasn’t even sure the stories had been preserved in any form until he came across Marius Barbeau’s Totem Poles in the University of Alberta library, where Abel was an undergraduate. But Abel didn’t end up writing historical fiction with the material he had gathered from Barbeau’s work; nor did he write in the two other genres, nonfiction or lyric poetry, that he also considered. He ended up writing a book of poetry, using erasure as the main mode of composition. His book is structured by sections that begin with images of totem poles, as well as passages from either Barbeau’s work or entries from Abel’s journal. Abel then erases portions of these excerpts for the duration of each section.

Barbeau, an anthropologist who was based in Ottawa during the early to mid-twentieth century, was one of the first descendants of white settlers to attempt a chronicling of First Nations peoples in Canada. Like much early anthropological work, Barbeau’s is controversial. Andrew Nurse, a Canadian scholar, claims that Barbeau’s work encouraged the Canadian government to view First Nations tribes, such as the Huran-Wyandot, as assimilated into white society. This view became the basis for the dismantling of the Huron-Wyandot reserve in Ontario, Canada.[2] Today, the Huron-Wyandot have reserves remaining in Wendake, Quebec, and Wyandotte, Oklahoma.

Anthropological study involves disruption and sometimes, as with the Huron-Wyandot, dispersal. In the case of the Nisga’a, Barbeau arranged in the 1920s for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to place four large Nisga’a totem poles in their permanent collection. Each pole tells a family story, which is to say each pole holds profound significance to Nisga’a people. Barbeau seems to have thought that these totem poles were merely curiosities for other white settlers to see. And judging from the tone of his description of moving the poles eastward, he seems not to have been concerned with anything other than their successful transfer:

To remove this huge pole from the Nass [River], and transfer it to a museum thousands of miles away was not an easy job. Taking it down to the ground and shifting it into the water taxed the ingenuity of a railway engineer and his crew of Indians. It leaned sharply, face forwards, and had it fallen, its carvings would have been damaged … When it reached Prince Rupert, it had to be cut, as it lay in the water, into three sections, for the longest railway cars are 50 feet. Nor were all difficulties overcome after the three sections had reached Toronto.[3]

Barbeau’s interest in the taxing of the “ingenuity of a railway engineer and his crew of Indians” and lack of concern for the cutting of the poles suggests the kind of white entitlement Abel’s book highlights. The poems’ erasure calls our attention to the lasting effects of European settlers meddling in native peoples’ affairs.

This interference, it turns out, touches the poet’s family directly. Abel’s father, when Abel was an infant, carved totems and made paintings to be sold for white audiences in Vancouver. Readers also learn that one of the totems sent to Toronto is from Abel’s ancestral village. About halfway through The Place of Scraps, Abel describes his May 2011 visit to the Royal Ontario museum to see his ancestral totem pole. When he arrived, he explained to the admissions officer that he wouldn’t pay to see a pole taken from his ancestors, at which point “the staff member [initiated] a lethargic request to allow admission under special circumstances but [was] unable to contact any of his superiors” (143). Abel, in the end, was apathetically granted his request.

Erasure poetry is a compelling aesthetic choice for the poet. Erasure is confrontational. It is also paradoxical. Readers see what is hidden or dormant beneath the surface, as if rubbing here and wiping there will give readers clearer vision. Like any aesthetic technique, erasure is subjective, showing readers what the eraser (author) has brought to the surface. The first Barbeau passage sets up the central concerns of the book. Barbeau is chronicling the origin of a dispute between two tribes over the size and placement of a pole:


Five pages of erasure follow. In one, Abel seems to be building totems for himself out of Barbeau’s work (9):

A couple of pages later, Abel leaves only the letters “h,” “i,” and “s,” as well as one “their,” and a footnote (13): 

Deeper into the book, Abel erases more radically, so much so that readers are left only with punctuation. For me, these are some of the most moving moments in the book, because the absences are starker. One erasure derives from a text detailing the myth of the dragonfly. Abel’s rendering on the next page looks like this (69):

The commas, colon, semicolon, and periods bear the traces of the dragonfly. Abel has the eye of a sculptor: he creates by taking away from the slab of Barbeau’s text. The central irony of The Place of Scraps is that white settlers tried to assimilate — erase — First Nations tribes by wiping out their cultures, while Abel uses erasure to bring his ancestral history into view.

Given that erasure as a poetic technique has become more popular, it’s important to ask who is doing the erasing and why. Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel seems to have had two main goals. One was to create an artwork, using painting, collage, and cut-up technique, out of a forgotten Victorian novel.[4] He also wanted to create an oracle, in the tradition of the I-Ching.[5] Although Phillips considers A Humument “an altered book,” a form of mixed-media artwork, it is often cited as a foundational erasure text. Ronald Johnson’s aim, in excising the first four books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost to produce the book Radi Os, was to “omit most of the text to create a Blakeian visual page and a new Orphic text of [his] own.” It’s worth noting that white men did two of the most famous books of erasure, one of a canonical book by a white author. Neither of those books erases works by authors of color. Their acts suggest a level of comfort with the boldness of erasure and with the canon. Abel’s erasure of Barbeau suggests a pronounced discomfort with the ways interpretations of indigenous cultures have been shaped by white viewpoints.

In light of recent controversies surrounding white Conceptual work, one wonders about the role of discomfort in Kenneth Goldsmith’s presentation of Michael Brown’s autopsy as poetry, or Vanessa Place’s choice to use images of Hattie McDaniel and Jemima’s Wedding Day in her Twitter feed dedicated to posting sentences from Gone with the Wind. Do Goldsmith and Place’s projects project discomfort with their source texts and images in the way Abel’s work cites discomfort with Barbeau’s text as a legacy of white interference in First Nations life? Place has said that her goal with the Twitter feed was to incite a copyright dispute with the Margaret Mitchell estate, as a means of raising questions about ownership and authorship — and white supremacy.[6] But Place has primarily provoked outrage over her feed’s regurgitation of the racist text.

The Place of Scraps goes beyond discomfort. Its impetus involves anger, disappointment, and, importantly, an interest in reframing the discourses around First Nations culture. Abel has erased Barbeau’s text because he wants to understand who he is and who he comes from, including not just his ancestors, but also Barbeau and the myriad white settlers who have shaped his heritage. The mistake that some Conceptualists have made is thinking that any text can be erased by anyone and that sociopolitical concerns are outside the act of appropriation — and outside the text. Yet when an artist chooses a text to appropriate, whether through erasure or collage, there is more at stake. Abel’s work digs into and dismantles the problems his texts are meant to invoke.

1. Talonbooks, “Jordan Abel — Place of Scraps launch, Vancouver, October 2013.”

2. Andrew Nurse, “‘But Now Things Have Changed’: Marius Barbeau and the Politics of Amerindian Identity,” Ethnohistory 48, no. 3 (2001): 433–72.

3. Jordan Abel, The Place of Scraps (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2013), 19.

4. Tom Phillips, “Tom Phillips’s Introduction to the 5th Edition, 2012.”

5. James Bridle, “Tom Phillips And A Humument: How A Novel Became An Oracle,” The Guardian, May 19, 2012.

6. Rich Smith, “Vanessa Place Is in a Fight Over Gone with the Wind’s Racism, But It’s Not the Fight She Says She Wants: An Interview,” The Stranger, May 21, 2015.

'Between appearance and character'

On Vallejo's 'Selected Writings'

Photo of César Vallejo (right) by Juan Domingo Córdoba, 1929.

Selected Writings

Selected Writings

César Vallejo, ed. Joseph Mulligan

Wesleyan University Press 2015, 679 pages, $40.00, ISBN 978-0819574848

Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892–1938) has long been recognized as a defining early twentieth-century experimentalist, but the full expanse of his writing — which extends well beyond poetry alone — has never been fully revealed to Anglophone readers until now. The diverse range of material in Selected Writings will surprise any reader familiar with Vallejo only in English translation. Editor Joseph Mulligan presents hearty selections from each of Vallejo’s collections of poetry along with excerpts from Vallejo’s fiction, plays, critical essays, and journalism. This is all in addition to an excerpt from Vallejo’s published undergraduate thesis Romanticism in Castilian Poetry (1915), as well as selections from his correspondence and private notebooks, all presented in chronological order.     

It is readily apparent that Mulligan’s contention is accurate: “Few times in the history of Western Literature has the representation of such a multifaceted figure been so one-dimensional.”[1] Clayton Eshleman’s near lifelong commitment to translating Vallejo’s poetry resulted in The Complete Poetry, and it was Eshleman who suggested the Selected Writings project to Mulligan (xv). Yet poetry was clearly only one of many avenues through which Vallejo’s critically engaged thinking successfully took shape. Mulligan’s selections are drawn primarily from the dozen-volume Obras Completas published by the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Putting aside the dearth of his non-poetry-related work’s availability to an Anglophone audience, the sheer mass of Vallejo’s output is rather astounding; it is simply an amazing amount of writing, considering Vallejo passed away at forty-six.

Vallejo’s lifelong political and social commitment to the poor and working class is ever apparent: “Everything comes down to this: what’s the biggest and most acute problem of our time? Indisputably, it’s the social problem, the worker. Why don’t intellectuals resolve it?” (477). Yet he refuses the suggestion that his creative work might be complicit with any expressed doctrine: “As a human being, I can sympathize and work for the revolution, but as an artist it’s not in my hands or anyone else’s to control the political outcomes that may be implicit in my poems” (181–82).

The relationship between Marxist thought and Vallejo’s creative and critical work is ever-evolving. At times his stated positions even appear contradictory. He does not hold back scorn for poets whose work he judges overtly on the side of political appearance rather than grounded in artistic merit: “Mayakovsky was a mere intellectual, a simple wordsmith, a hollow rhetorician” (209). And although, as noted above, he argues “political outcomes” should in no way be imposed upon creative work, he has no patience for those who ignore the matter of the worker’s struggle: “He who today walks by the tragedy of the worker unaffected is not a poet. Paul Valéry, Maeterlinck, they are not” (474). As Vallejo evolves as both artist and thinker, the dilemma of the artist’s position in relation to that of the worker repeatedly manifests as a central concern.

Vallejo’s interior struggle to balance the competing and antithetical impulses he feels towards art and revolution lead him closer to merging them together. He argues a revolutionary writer’s work is meant to “shatter the secular barrier between intelligence and the people, between spirit and matter.” (497) But to do so in such a manner clearly understanding that it is “not for the spirit to go to matter, as any writer of the ruling class would say, but for matter to draw near the spirit of intelligence, horizontally not vertically, man to man.” (497) Vallejo is adamant that true revolutionary writing must witness the arbitrariness of any strict divisions between class and social structures.

The revolutionary writer erroneously thinks that there’s a need for proletarian art, considering that the worker is a pure worker, which is untrue, because the worker also has something of a bourgeois in him. The worker breathes bourgeois air and is more imbued with bourgeois spirit than we would suspect. This is very important in order to conceive of proletarian art or art of the masses. (481)

As an artist Vallejo is wary of overly compulsive impulses within Marxist thought which tend toward uncritical acceptance among leaders and followers alike. He describes how for “hardline Marxists, fanatical Marxists, grammatical artists, who pursue the realization of Marxism to the letter” the result is that “life ends up being at the service of doctrine, instead of the latter at the service of the former” (367). Vallejo draws historical parallels, pointing out that the problems inherent in Marxist ideology are nothing new: “These are the doctors of the school, the scribes of Marxism, the ones who oversee and, with the jealousy of amanuenses, guard the form and letter of the new spirit, just like all the scribes of all the gospels throughout the course of history” (367).

Vallejo’s assessments are complex. His engagement comes as both a critical and creative thinker. The limits of perceiving “that Marx is the only philosopher of the past, present, and future” are immediately transparent to him since “according to these fanatics, Marx will be the last revolutionary of all time, and after him no man in the future will be able to create anything ever again. The revolutionary spirit ends with him” (367). This line of thought allows too little space for the unique merging that is the creative and revolutionary drive behind all Vallejo’s writings.

Vallejo’s artistic beliefs often arrive summed up with simple integrity, as in his declaration that true creators are characterized “by devoting themselves without anointing themselves and without besmirching anyone else” (166). Or this, on what it means to stay true to indigenous roots: “Autochthony does not consist in saying that one is autochthonous but precisely in being so, even when not saying so” (166). Vallejo’s frustration over the inability of European readers to grasp his strong native ties boils over at times: “Lorca is Andalusian. Why don’t I have the right to be Peruvian? Why are they going to tell me that they don’t understand me in Spain?” (480). Resisting the compulsion to adopt a more continental outlook, he is ever defending the vitality and richness of experience granted him by his American nativist perspective.

Vallejo’s radicalism is born of his belief in a “human and universal aesthetic” which, as he describes it, deliberately mixes the modernist mindset with the collective roots from which one identifies a homeland. This aesthetic insists upon “straying from the path and obtaining that higher air of the very spiritual disciplines of the race and tradition. This is what Stravinsky has done, based on the Russian steppe, and the Frenchman, Erik Satie, based on the Druid stones” (144). Vallejo is grounded by his hold upon the roots of nativist expression, bringing traditional features to bear upon his distinctly Modernist experiment. His intention to mix tradition with experimentation is reflected in Mulligan’s relating the backstory of how “The book was titled Bronze Skulls and, at the last minute, Vallejo slipped a correction sheet into the galley to change the title to Trilce, a word that he'd invented” (xxiv). The poems represent the beginning of Vallejo’s implementation of the often strange and unusual vocabulary found throughout his work.

Mulligan describes how the radical experimentation found in Vallejo’s second book of poems, Trilce, holds a uniquely central place within the Latin American experimental tradition, remarking that indeed “So great has this book’s impact been on twentieth-century Hispanic poetry that when we consider any other modern literary work of radical innovation, we’re forced to ask if it came before or after Vallejo’s great poetic adventure.” Ranking it “the indisputable catalyst of the Latin American experimental tradition” in spite of the fact that “Vicente Huidobro had already published El espejo de agua as early as 1916,” Mulligan bolsters his argument by citing Julio Ortega’s assertion, made in the introduction to a more recent edition of Trilce (Cátedra, 1991), that it is “the most radical book in the Castilian language.”

Although he relies heavily upon Eshleman’s extensive translation work for most of the poetry in this collection, Mulligan also presents his own rare translations into English in the selections from Trilce. He gives some reasoning for doing so in a footnote to the final stanza of section XVIII, particularly its last line. That stanza reads:

And only will I keep my hold,
with my right hand, that makes do for both,
upraised, in search of a tertiary arm
that must pupilate, between my where and when,
this stunted adulthood of man. (52)

Mulligan explains that “The line mayoria inválida de hombre encapsulates a major idea to which Vallejo returns time and again through Trilce and other works as well: the idea of reaching one's potential” (574). He notes that “Most English translations render this line as “invalid majority of man”; however, mayoriá is not only “majority” but the state of being a mayor (adult), that is, adulthood” (574–75). Eshleman’s translation of the same stanza does not offer the assertive immediacy which Mulligan seeks in his own: “And only I hang on, / with my right, serving for both hands, / raised, in search of a tertiary arm / to pupilize, between my where and my wen, / this invalid coming of age.”[2] Such cases as this wholeheartedly prove the quality and astuteness of Mulligan’s editorial acumen with this project, attesting to its assured long-lasting value.    

Given the generally hectic nature of Vallejo’s travels, two things missing from this otherwise stellar volume are a general chronology and a biographical index of key characters with whom Vallejo either corresponds directly or mentions in his writing. The volume is ordered in such chronological fashion that it invites the urge to follow along simultaneous biographical and historical threads, which at times proves a bit tricky. Supplementary materials would improve reader access to relevant factual data concerning what’s occurring at any given point both for Vallejo personally and within a larger context. These are, however, somewhat minor enhancements and certainly not relevant to every reader’s experience.

Vallejo’s writing, in the end, simply mesmerizes. He writes from a state of constant self-recognition and revelation: “When I read, it seems like I see myself in a mirror” (477). Propelling his work forward, exploring ramifications by sense as much as argument: “Upon a certain mysterious balance between what is visible and invisible in a portrait, between circumstance and permanence, or, what amounts to the same thing, between appearance and character is what the greatness of a creation depends” (212). Again and again, Vallejo’s focus hovers over his awareness within the immediate activity of writing, drawing attention to the vital importance of the ongoing present, as he puts it in one of the short, assertive near-manifesto declarative prose pieces found in “Against Professional Secrets”: “At the moment a tennis player masterfully tosses the ball, he’s possessed by animal innocence” (213). With Selected Writings Vallejo’s diverse, variable work is at long last given adequate representation in the Anglosphere, providing access to an abundant number of fresh insights into the scope of his oeuvre.

1. César Vallejo, Selected Writings, ed. Joseph Mulligan (Wesleyan, 2015), xvii.

2. César Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, ed. and trans. Clayton Eshleman (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 201.

Defiant lightness

A review of Miles Champion's 'How to Laugh'

Photo of Miles Champion (left) courtesy of The Poetry Project, copyright Star Black.

How to Laugh

How to Laugh

Miles Champion

Adventures in Poetry 2014, 72 pages, $14.00, ISBN 978-0976161271

A wonderful moment occurs toward the close of How I Became a Painter, Miles Champion’s recently published book of conversations with the painter Trevor Winkfield, in which Winkfield switches roles on his erstwhile interviewer to ask candidly, “Why do you like my paintings?” For anyone reviewing Champion’s third poetry collection, How to Laugh, this excerpt from his response is hard to resist implementing as preface:

When I visited your studio I realized that we both work in similar ways: starting with one element and then casting around for another that might be interestingly added to it, not really knowing where things are going but trusting in — and enjoying — the process. And then, of course, once the painting is done, you have the sense to simply leave it midway between yourself and the viewer; there’s no conceptual armature or peripheral baggage to get in the way of or limit my enjoyment of it.[1]

What’s especially resonant in this lucid reply is Champion’s concern to “leave” the work “midway between yourself and the viewer.” The work — this decidedly classical ideal insists — is always facing the viewer, always accompanies the reader, just as Adrian Stokes envisioned ballet as a “turning out”: “Nothing is withdrawn, drawn inwards or hidden: everything is, artificially if you like, put outwards.”[2] The poems of How to Laugh are nothing if not “turned out”:

I walk by bouncing
up its pages
where clouds are
faint from farsight’s
tandem red brick
in spoke room
each clock face
to its interval[3]

“Turning out” demands not only that the architecture of a poem should eschew any enigmatic recesses in which feigned depth or posturing might lurk (so the theory goes), or a conceptual scaffolding that might disguise a lack of material integrity — but also, for Champion, that some convivial buoyancy should counter all that architectural weight. And so the title of this volume, with its mock pragmatism and disarming directness, comes into play: laughter as compositional tactic and stoic strategy. There are even out-loud laughs to be had:

In Sweden once this guy jiggled shrimps in yoghurt, contracted leprosy, and became a nun. His father had a silly name for welding struts to a can. (9)

he dictates correspondence in a housecoat
and special shoes with one-inch “verandas” (52)

The pact between lightness and architecture is sustained by a repertoire of keywords — “air,” “smoke,” “space,” “holes,” “fruit,” “dust” — that permeates this poetry, serving to delineate its physics and unifying How to Laugh as a collection possessed of both vitality (erotic, humorous, mobile) and a remove that’s best defined by what it shuns: the solemn, the morose, the overly cerebral, the pious, the didactic. Very occasionally, flashes of resolve emerge from this quietly defiant lightness, in lines such as “stop acting wet” (40) or “in that way a good result denies / The helping hand” (29).                    

It’s useful to pause and recall the predominant poetry culture in which some of these poems (and Champion’s two previous collections) were written — the ostensible leftfield of British poetry in the 1990s and early 2000s, where the repurposing of wounded libido as political disgust was (as it remains) a widely endorsed method for building poems. Such a mode, whereby the poem’s propulsion is essentially a given from the start — “replacing flexible attention with inflexible intention,”[4] as Aaron Shurin puts it — surely left little breathing space for a poetry envisioned, however lightheartedly, as “a profitable exercise / resting on nothing” (3); a poetry whose distinctive address is not a hectoring voice (continuous or otherwise) so much as a generalized consciousness operating in clear concert with the reader, its free-floating surfaces turned toward her or him, collaboratively and generously.

Little wonder, then, that righteous disgust might be defied in favor of a mode that insists on fun, care, and life-giving confusion. If in Champion’s “profitable exercise,” with its dandyish overtones and echo of Francis Bacon’s “optimism for nothing,” we detect the aesthete’s fantasy of play as purity, there is, nonetheless, an implicit ethos. As any reader will quickly sense, these are poems made with such close attention as to suggest the ethical dimensions of a meticulous construction, of a solicitous and vigilant “turning out.”

At times, this “turning out” can feel almost eerie in its absence of authorial or voice-propelled drive. “In the Air” is the supreme instance of this quality:

The exact species picks up background
Using the floor to step out
     a bright read surface
Numbers grip, value’s murk
a clear pencil blackens bafflement
     “bursts lead to bursts”
Preference is an asterisk
      A star dreaming of light
      and torn through touch  (13)

Words bubble up on the surface of the page as if with self-determined autonomy, uncompelled by the predictable shapes of more vocal energies. Instead, this poem possesses the impersonal, seemingly “factual” detachment of an architectural inscription (which may have much to do with its abundance of declarative sentences):

     Angular lassitude
with the “whirr” of a person
nailed to its closed tip a sentiment
     yielding states
human jets strip out of the bandshell
pink rubber dovetailed with night haze
     unbutton, press release
the ripe cycles got collected
     names in their celibacy
     questioning space (14)

“In the Air” is so superbly crafted as to raise the almost anachronistic specter of perfected form — whose concomitant risk is, not coincidentally, airlessness. If one or two of the poems in How to Laugh occasionally skirt close to compositional overdetermination (“Fruit Shadows,” “Walls”), then airlessness, cumulatively, can be compelling: it can freight lightness with relentlessness, with an alien intractability that in fact exactly leaves the work “midway between yourself and the viewer.”

One reviewer (Scott Thurston) of a previous collection (Three Bell Zero) has objected to a “unit-unit-unit” effect in Champion’s poems, a reservation that is worth addressing. Firstly, against any monotony such a characterization might imply, we should note a marvelous knack for enjambment and line breaks: see, for example, the delicious placements of the words “desk” and “plant” in these two excerpts — from “Wet Flatware”:

Eye     like a silent film cleaning
                           out the reference
desk, a focus is expecting dust (21)

And from “Colour in Huysmans”:

In method’s bed? Bilious, lurid
                                                            in the tap water
Plant. The question of a mask
                                                equally guarded (17)

Secondly, Champion’s brick-by-brick approach never makes for one kind of edifice, but instead for an approach in which every poem presents a test of a previously untried structure — from the swift gesturalism of “Curve” to the spacious yet chatty “Sweating Cubism Out,” to the steady unfolding of a poem like “Colour in Huysmans” or poems that seem almost emptied of motion, such as “Bartenders in Leaf”:

They found the summers lightly boxed
and extracted the goods

A cinnamon species in cold guard
misled by the scent

So they fix themselves a soda
order the rocks with ice

That the eyes did hook
or did the eyes tick (31)

Words — and lines — are handled as bricks or “units” here, but just as instrumental is the carefully calibrated erotic friction that binds them, with such unanswerably evident feeling as to make most poetry of the present seem effortful or formulaic by comparison. This is the generosity of How to Laugh: the poems really are for the reader, “turned out” while never vanishing into meaning or message.

1. Trevor Winkfield and Miles Champion, How I Became a Painter: Trevor Winkfield in Conversation with Miles Champion (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2014), 103.

2. Adrian Stokes, Tonight the Ballet (London: Faber & Faber, 1934), 23.

3. Miles Champion, How to Laugh (Saint Paul, MN: Adventures in Poetry, 2014), 39.

4. Aaron Shurin, “The People’s P***k: A Dialectical Tale,” in Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry, ed. Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf (California: Stanford University Press, 2006), 78.