Thomas Devaney's 'Calamity Jane'
Thomas Devaney’s dedication for Calamity Jane, “A Solo Opera for Jeanine Oleson,” situates Calamity Jane — famous gunslinger, sidekick of Wild Bill Hickok, and star in Buffalo Bill’s road show — more overtly in the realm of dramatic performance than in the realm of Western myth. Born Martha Jane Canary in 1852, orphaned young and left to raise her siblings, she became widely known as the character implied by her nickname, which she received while working as an army scout during campaigns against Native Americans (when she reportedly also began dressing like a man). Calamity Jane fascinated the nineteenth-century public (just as she has the twentieth and twenty-firsts), who consumed her many biographies and sought her tales of swilling whiskey and shooting whomever asked for it. Staged as an opera, Jane’s largely apocryphal life story, the excesses of the Wild West, and the theatricality of American history, somehow become more obvious and — in the homeopathic philosophy of “like cures like” — quieter, less desperate, far stranger, and both too meager and too elaborate for the uniform contours of western narratives, of big and little “w” types.
In this reflectively performative space, Jane’s awareness of herself as a story that’s been told many times remains in the foreground to hold open (rather than to settle) questions about what’s real and what’s true. Calamity Jane begins and ends with poems that inspect givens of measurement, gender, and human and higher law, and extend that skepticism throughout the book to the illusory American vision of control and domination. The book’s opening poem, “Martha Canary,” asks,
How far though?
How far west?
How dry the air?
How frozen the ruts?
Who doesn’t believe her own eyes?
These first lines establish the book’s questioning of limits, moral and territorial. The answers frequently come in words of non-being, negation, and indefiniteness: “nothing,” “no,” “nowhere,” “no one” fleck the poems Jane utters and predict the diminishment of empirical certainty Jane’s “real story” (3) effects. What she has seen and done often exceeds description and belief, as well as the narrative forms in which she is cast as part of the American epic. Ending in the line “only ever out,” “Martha Canary” predicts the receding frontiers of history, truth, nation, and self the book and its speaker-subject become. Delivering in song-poems her venture into the unknown — that stays unknown in the Western traditional sense — Calamity Jane profoundly upsets coherent views of American history and its storytelling.
This disturbance is accomplished by the personality Devaney develops through Jane, which, tellingly, does not speak loudly or more authoritatively than other versions of her “real story.” Although she does occasionally reference the inadequacy and irrelevance of storytelling to her experiences, Jane, who sometimes speaks to an unidentified interviewer and sometimes speaks about past interviews and the novel and newspaper stories they resulted in, talks and sings in a voice shaped by listening carefully. “Jane Improvises a Popular Tune in Her Head” demonstrates the blunt musicality of this voice and the humane patience harmonizing its grace and gravity:
Usually when I am talking to people
I don’t talk so much. They talk plenty
for both. The truth is, I like to listen;
whatever they want to say, it’s fine with me,
it really is. I don’t know how else to live,
but they can talk all night. The good and
the good try, I’ll listen. The winds
of a hundred winters never end. Yesterday
they were howling down from the mountains
right up my back — a shove and a chill;
those gray wolves and that dirty sagebrush smell again;
a child swept away. (13)
The acute attention to other people’s speech anchors all the work of this impossibly fine collection. Jane’s loving unselfconsciousness, conveyed by her affable assurances, “it really is. I don’t know how else to live,” indicates lack of interest in engaging with forms of authority essential to nationalism or markets, whether to combat them or to yield to them. While no one poem from this book can represent its emotional or formal range properly, the turn this poem takes illustrates the way Jane’s voice carries from familiar narrative generalization (“Usually when I am talking to people”) characteristic of prose and conversation and into poetry’s compassion and abstraction, “The good and / the good try, I’ll listen.” In this elegantly compressed movement from describing conversations with chatty strangers to private philosophy, Jane articulates a respect both for divine (like Plato’s Good) and for mortal intentions: God tries and good people try; those who try are good, and succeed or fail, they deserve, in Jane’s thinking, to be heard.
At the poem’s indented turning point, that compassion blows back into personal vulnerability emphasized by the brutal sensuality of the weather and landscape. In that furious howling of a hundred winters’ winds “right up my back,” the chronology muddles and collapses, along with the tactile, aural, visual, and olfactory imagery. A hundred years and yesterday, a woman’s back against the mountains and “a child swept away” swirl in the momentum of emotion and memory, both as unpredictable as the land and the natural forces constantly reshaping it. Jane’s tenderness towards good intentions and personal effort, whether God’s or humans’, comes from her understanding that trying doesn’t really matter when wind and wolves attack. Neither innocence nor conviction will stop the child’s — or anyone’s — swift erasure. Into comfortable national ideals predicated on the primacy of individuality, Calamity Jane introduces the engulfment of non-self that terrifies and harasses, sweeps identity away and splits consent from freedom in the codeless West.
In this poem and in others, Jane abandons claims to self-mastery and the swagger of outlaw heroism essential to the nostalgia and decadence driving narratives of the West, chief among them the closely related myths of will power and exceptional character that sustain belief in progress. While Jane disappears into a vortex of sound, smell, and loss along with the destroyed child by the close of “Jane Improvises,” she more directly refutes the scripts of American individualism in poems where she counters the assumptions of her interrogators. “Jane on how she got by as an Orphan” begins with the line, “The answer is, I didn’t,” and she later summarizes, “More than once I was left for nothing” and “There was nobody, just me.” The poem’s close underlines the urgency of basic needs (instead of restlessness for new challenges) directing her celebrated adventures, “I’d go anywhere where there was fresh water”; the phrase “anywhere where” — duplicating the anonymity of place and the depletion of the imagination — further stresses the desperation to escape cold, thirst, and terror overwhelming the body and eclipsing the mind. Such language that discredits humanist and especially Romantic ideas of individuality and the wilderness through which individuation most effectively emerges reverberates in poems like “Fort Russell,” which ends, “Nothing, nothing. / Blank and nothing — / how long was I nothing?” (22). Jane’s de-idealization of her adventures casts suspicion on the foundations and products of the American literary tradition from Hawkeye to Huck, disqualifying the “usable past” it promotes and invents.
This conceptual shift has formal implications as well. Throughout the book, the limits and definitions of Jane as she has been written and the American West for which she performed as metonymy on Wild Bill’s stage are revisited in the poems’ reversal of the dramatic monologue format. As in the book’s opening lines, what Jane doesn’t know and knows she doesn’t know — how far, how cold, how long, how gone she has been — recasts her life as a wonderment of struggles and luck unrelated to hard work or moral will, not a triumph of the pioneer spirit supporting Manifest Destiny. Not only do these strategies change the dramatic monologue’s lesson about a speaker’s arrogance and the dangers of talking too much, but they also indict the audience for its smugness. Devaney’s Jane is both wise and endearing in her understanding of cruelty (unless it’s directed at horses), but she does have rare moments of condemnation reserved not for the rapists and racists, but for interviewers and readers who mask their indecent curiosity as research or truth-seeking.
In “Fielding the Same Question in Other Words,” an annoyed Jane corrects the dime-novel notion that the West has some understood set of rules of conduct she continues to honor by evading the issue of her conjugal life:
What else can I say? I never was polite.
But I’d never ask something like that;
never ask anyone about bygones like that.
It’s not a code. The West isn’t a code.
I’d just never ask those type questions. (17)
While Jane bats away the fiction that the West was an inscrutable system navigable by those few initiated to and surviving its wilderness, the poem “Fort Laramie continued … ” confronts the complementary motives in which historical interest tries to cover for salaciousness. The poem begins, “I didn’t want to have to insist, but now I have to insist. // Stop with the fucking Laramie questions” and ends, after stanzas confirming a time of constant sexual violence, “What the fuck did you think I was going to say? // Fuck you for fucking asking” (24). Although Jane rebukes a specifically addressed “you,” she’s also calling out anyone who’s eagerly sought the gory details of another’s suffering — whether to provide self-congratulatory contrast to ethical codes and conditions of the contemporary world or to expose self-righteously the wrongs committed by “heroes” and “great woodsmen” against past innocents in the name of national expansion, discovery, or civilization. Fuck them for asking, and fuck us for wanting to know.
This foray into frank obscenity to renounce invasions of private misery, as well as many other far more discreet challenges to misguided assumptions about the Wild West, brings to mind (and not only because of the book’s connection to opera singers) Lauren Berlant’s notion of “Diva Citizenship.” Like Berlant’s real and fictional African-American divas who interfere in the presumed race and gender neutrality of American ideals, Jane’s speech accomplishes a “dramatic coup in the public sphere in which she does not have privilege” that “does not change the world” but seriously vexes the operations of “dominant history.” In “Fort Laramie continued … ” Jane’s Diva Citizenship intervenes in narratives of male exceptionality — heroism, greatness — that often have dramatized and justified their exploitation of land and bodies, partly by locating brutal actions securely in the past. Positioned at a temporal remove, violence exacted and violence survived often become forgivably miniaturized beside their perceived results in the present (like we learned our lesson and won’t let it happen again). Jane’s bitter account of being “Fucked and fucked worse” by men and boys alike challenges the safety of chronological distance with the most basic materials of heteronormativity. The emotional immediacy of Jane’s reaction, importantly, troubles the gender oppositions built into the “fucking” she references. Her anger rises because the interest in what male celebrities she may have encountered as either prostitute or public concubine is promoted by a heteronormative binary in which she is the captive or complicit feminine component, confirmation of which would at once challenge (because she can’t be one of the guys if she fucked guys) or reiterate (because fucking guys confirms her status as woman) her token woman status in otherwise all-male accounts of the West. But Jane’s diva challenge to her inquisitor — what Berlant describes as “flashing up and startling the public” — and to us readers, too, is that the binaries of that ethical framework do not apply to her story, nor to our story. In the encampment, no one had a say; everyone was fucked, clueless, and joyless, all victims and all fugitives. Jane’s Diva Citizenship, her queered dramatic monologue that protects the right to remain silent of the abjected past, insists on more compassion and more complexity of identification from both tellers and readers of the American story.
Jane’s attention to the gendered paradigms that have distorted her story leads to further complications of humanist logic that become especially vivid where she counters the preoccupation with pinning down her sex in order to stabilize her gender. “Blood-and-Thunder Stories,” which operates as one of several introductory poems, begins, “Was I a woman?” Here, and in the book’s closing poem, “The Dead and the Dead,” in which she says, “Someone said I was a man” (45), Jane wonders what has made people ask and speculates in both poems that answer and cause lie with her speech, not her anatomy, conduct, or appearance. In “Blood-and-Thunder,” Jane confirms her womanhood by stating, “Strange that my cursing would show it most” — that “Cursing is a marker between me and men; / and one between men and animals.” (2). When rumors that she is really a man persist, Jane looks again to speech, in this case what she hasn’t said, as the cause for this: “Why? Because I know something I won’t tell? / […] Because I never say I ain’t? / Don’t know” (45). That final statement, “Don’t know,” ends the book in astonishment at what worries and interests people, but it’s a directive, too — don’t know and don’t think you know what people have done or who they are. Listen instead.
Jane’s abdication of moral absolutes in favor of listening gives Calamity Jane its deeply ethical orientation and makes her Diva Citizenship especially compelling. Her insights “flash,” “startle,” and “estrange” familiar explanatory structures of the American past and its authorization of the present, but far more often, Jane models sympathetic humility for the many, nameless transients who, like her, have been at the mercy of luck and weather. Throughout, Jane charts the unpredictable ways power, her own and others’, slips and slides out of conventional modes, like comedy or tragedy, success or failure. She recognizes the false ideological goods her story has helped to sell, yet is glad to “dine out on Wild Bill ’til the day I die, / and in the hereafter too” (17). She accepts gratefully the celebrity name that provides “the best place … to hide” (14) and that makes her story true, despite her real story never having been told.
Even a poem like “All Men Are Mean” twists a generalization into a reminder that perspective and context make exceptions always the rule:
—mean doesn’t mean all bad.
Some bastards are just that: hardened.
Listen, silence isn’t always a trick.
Nice folks aren’t always so nice.
At least with a mean guy you know where you stand. (18)
Collective terms like “mean men” or “nice folks” don’t mean much, and self-knowledge beyond one’s basic skills, like caring for the sick or shooting straight, is a foolish, false consciousness. “No one knows what it’s like to be a man — ” she says in “Something about Men,” “not even the men” (28). Jane often seems a genuine innocent in her steady refutation of interior and exterior selves needed to underwrite epiphanic transcendence (the spiritual version of economic and historical progress), but she is wily enough to recognize when mere words fail. Then, only song can carry the intimacy and horror of the West, a song emerging from silence — not the kind that tricks another into talking more than he should or lies by omission, but the silence required of listening, and of empathy allowed by the courageously unprotected state that invites it.
“Jane’s Daughter,” perhaps the book’s most affecting poem, equates song with the coextensiveness of mother and newborn, a point of pure contact that becomes the invisible, powerful center of a community:
I wanted to tell her something.
there was nothing else.
We were there: she with me,
and me with ye, I’d say.
She holding me, me singing —
the bare wet of it.
There’s no night to take away.
A fit of tears with nowhere else to go. (40)
Called by the song, men and women of many races and nationalities leave the small family humble but badly needed gifts: among them, a moss bag, clean towels, food, and a washing bowl. Through this maternal template, song becomes a vortex, a still point around which gathers a world of listening fields and people, who may hear the song “but never get a look.” This gorgeous, peculiar moment near the close of Calamity Jane seems nearest to divining an antidote for the arrogant ills revealed, unraveled, and forgiven through its restaging of the Wild West. Removed from spectacle and performance, yet singing and meeting “in thirst” for love, kindness, and nourishment, the “nothing” Jane wants to tell her baby becomes the beginning of another possible narrative, one in which people who have nothing offer all they can, in a very different national opera of gesture and generosity.
2. Lauren Berlant, “The Queen of American Goes to Washington City: Notes on Diva Citizenship,” in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 223.
A review of Cynthia Cruz's 'Wunderkammer'
The brain, a kaleidoscopic disco
In her latest collection of poetry, Wunderkammer, Cynthia Cruz sets the stage for her readers with the first poem, Nebenwelt. In German, this term translates literally to “world next to/beside.” Paul Celan is given credit for coining the adjective nebenweltlich in his writing, using it to describe “a level of experience beside that posited as ‘real,’ namely a world of metaphorical transformation, specifically that of poetic language.” The title Nebenwelt appears five times throughout this collection, as if to remind us that these poems enact an otherworldly landscape and a kind of diving into the unknown. Through the multivalent forces of Cruz’s language and metaphor, these poems transcend reality.
Curricula of the mundane
The collection’s title is a German word that literally translates to “wonder chamber,” typically known as a cabinet of wonder or cabinet of curiosities — the word cabinet in this case derives from its sixteenth-century origins, meaning “a secret storehouse” or “treasure chamber,” and from the Middle French cabinet or “small room.” Created as microcosms of the world and as memory theaters, cabinets of wonder became popular in Renaissance Europe; they were crammed with boundless collections of objects and relics relating to natural history, religion, mysticism, art, and antiquities.
Just as these little museums archived everyday life, the bizarre, and the exotic within their walls, Cruz has created a treasure chamber/memory theater between the covers of her book, curating clutter and excess — the stuff of the world/otherworld — into a sort of organized chaos, as in this excerpt from “Junk Garden”:
Sweet narcosis of blonde
Beers and the recurring image
Of your face.
In my new black skirt.
Once, when I was a child, I called out your name.
Meanwhile, the exterminating had begun. (21)
It is German here, in its warp
I’m attracted to Cruz’s work, partly because of its illusory realms that both draw and disturb my attention. I want to place myself in the center/the very deep of its visual and sonic textures. This book is, in essence, made up of collages: layered image/language that readers will interpret/reinterpret in their own way, making their own connections between the disparate objects collected and arranged in this treasure chamber. The poems are never the same; every time I read them, I notice some new detail — an accumulation of details. They bring to mind the photomontages of Hannah Höch, for example, in the way they defamiliarize the familiar.
I experience a natural kinship, reading these poems: I, too, am an American woman with a German mother (and father); I often look to contemporary German artists for inspiration in my own creative work. Whether in the poetry’s language or mood — Schlag or gloom — I feel there is a similar German warp running through my fabric, too.
The din, I am trying to tunnel through
Wunderkammer resonates and glimmers with bedazzled imagery of emeralds, diamonds, and pearls, din layered between fur and velvet. As in these lines from “Mnemosyne Atlas,” words reflect like windows/shards of light in a kind of shifting architecture, from infinite focal points:
What gorgeous and out of nowhere.
And glittering. A silver waste, a warm
Unknown paste of pearl
And jewels. Some small foods.
It’s true. I lose
My mind, but I get
This, instead. (14)
Navigating the nonlinear space/the glitter and afterglow of these poems, I fluctuate between knowing and not knowing who or where “I” is, as if I’m sleepwalking or tunneling through this limbo between reality and dreamworld. It feels familiar, like standing in front of an abstract painting: viewing it from outside the picture plane or inhabiting it with my entire body, and both at the same time.
Paste jewels, a vibrant green bacteria
I appreciate Cruz’s use of color throughout this collection. The prosaic beauty of her palette is striking. “An all-night pharmacy of bright pink / Pills” (33) to “a bloom / Of bright red / Blood” (34), and she limns lines that fluctuate between dark and light: “bruise-like blue of the Gloomarium” (20) and “chalk white stockings” (13).
Overall, the work leans toward greens — or perhaps this pervasiveness is just my own impression of the images/afterimages: “vibrant green bacteria of sea and decay” green lawns, “primordial forest[s]” (45), green Eden, “windows of glass emerald” (14), rooms “painted mint green / Frosting” (26), and “a green ocean of terror” (45). In the science of color/chromatics, green is sometimes considered a positive and restorative color, a symbol of rebirth/renewal. It is believed to relieve depression. In a negative light, the institutional nature of green is associated with illness, and green is often linked with materialism and possessiveness (as in “green with envy”). This sort of contrast/contradiction is a device used throughout these poems: Wunderkammer houses both the excess of bling/beauty as well as debris/decay.
I swear the earth is still humming
Cruz’s poems are immersed in consumption and accumulation, archiving the excesses of material things — of fashion, trauma, dreams, memory, history — the things of the world, humming in a collage/a self portrait/a body of work. In the poem “Zwischenwelt,” Cruz writes:
are lapping, one flooding over
the other. I am the zoom, the snowball white
Of lithium. Empress of waste and excess. Towers
Of bottles of Triple Sec and Zoo. Chaos,
Herzogian, I am inside my childhood, a no
Man’s land of the mind. (27)
In an interview with Adrianna Robertson for Lumina Journal, Cruz says, “the subject matter of [all of] my books is about failure. I think that failure is reaching beyond what you are capable of. It’s about trying to do something that you feel you can’t do.” Just as Renaissance cabinets of curiosity were more than simple warehouses for artifacts, Wunderkammer exists as more than a collection of poems — this book is a rarity, an art object, an installation piece drawn from the mind of Cynthia Cruz, who renders her haunting other-world through its labyrinths and beyond, fearlessly.
3. Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “cabinet,” accessed August 28, 2015.
4. Gillian Ramos, “Blog Exclusive: A Conversation with Cynthia Cruz,” LUMINA, January 28, 2014.
The scar lit district of Jenny Zhang
The Year of the Ram is the year to celebrate the Black Sheep. Jenny Zhang is the New Girl fed up with the Old World crap sheet. Eschewing the coyness that makes the big wigs cream their pants, this Chatty Cathay takes her chances befriending the fierce whores, sodomites, and other forbidden scribes.
Zhang is a far cry from the model minority who genuflects at the picket fence of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E schoolhouse. She follows in the wake of other sister artists who have adapted the lessons of the willful sissy to their own feminist battles, when the brutes or happy housewives prove unhelpful. (The vitality of such a tradition in the post-fifties avant-garde is the subject of Maggie Nelson’s Women, the New York School, and Other Abstractions [University of Iowa Press, 2006].) Asked to characterize her own style, Zhang replies, “Occasional Sensualist, because my poet boyfriend used that word, and I wanted to be his twin more than I wanted to be his lover.” Twinning with each other has meant absorbing the syntax and synapses of their gay poet uncle Frank O’Hara. With daily derring-do and over-friendly melancholy, she courts the misfits past and present who recognize the difference between her vagina and her voice — and sasses the ones who don’t.
The precocious daughter of Chinese immigrants, Zhang (pronounced Jung) emigrated from Shanghai to New York at the age of five. She describes how she was raised by spectral Asiatic hags, as her mother frosted donuts during the graveyard shift and her father put himself through grad school by delivering takeout to Wall Street. Beside her mild-mannered parents, the daughter cuts the striking figure of the punk flâneuse and scrappy burlesque queen who had to kick the softie pianist offstage to discover her true calling as a wordsmith. A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, Zhang has taught high school in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Through her articles and short stories for various webzines, she continues to lure a younger audience of teens and quarters to the candy cottages of the indie prose and poetry presses.
Her latest publication, Hags (Guillotine, 2014), is a feminist manifesto clad in the fleece of a confessional essay; its chief aim is to spin out the artistic implications of the unmarriageable biddy or proud slut of yore. Against the running gag of the “crazy-ass bitch” favored by American media, Zhang has assembled her own pantheon of heroines, anecdotes, and cultural practices highlighting the fierce dignity the hag enjoys in Eastern — and to a lesser degree Western — cultures. Among her many jottings include the Chinese tradition of spirit marriage (ming hun), which ensures the wise crone a mate in the afterlife, and the Filipina lore of a penis-snatcher, a legend she picked up as a former labor organizer for Asian home and healthcare workers in San Francisco: “These hags, these great beauties, these mermaids who taunt, who feast, who slash, who steal, these succubae who cannot rest, my mothers, my sisters, my unborn friends, my keepers, my guardians” (13–14).
Zhang consequently embraces street theatre and the confessional burlesque as genres in which the flaming hag eclipses the ditzy and defenseless model. Detonating her martial farts on a subway car of Wall Street types, giving a leg show from the backseat of the family car, shoving cucumbers from the crisper up her cooch, she enacts her original choreography of hag-hood in the conviction that the squeaky shrew has a better chance at “farting imperialism into oblivion!” Then too, she likes to upset convention by showing up to a Slutwalk in her normal clothes, “betraying all the heroic sluts” who enable her own “magnificence” (16, 15). Insofar as the hag describes a set of traits that the dominant culture prefers to airbrush out of its female pinups, women of color and women of size should not be so quick to disown the charismatic label that assures them voluble visibility, as other self-appointed hags — and fag hags — have pointed out. In her poetic debut, Dear Jenny: We Are All Find (Octopus, 2012), Zhang flashes her Fine China, honoring the friends and family who coax out the haggy virtues of her beautiful irritability, while zapping the smiley viruses of shameless appropriation.
Donuts and daisy chains
Central to Dear Jenny (Octopus, 2012) is a drama of selective acculturation: sorting through the involuntary culture of one’s origin and the willful culture of choice, one discards the odious assumptions of each and learns how to inhabit the best of both worlds. Zhang tells this story through the interdependent poetics of donuts and daisy chains: “my family tree turned into a dam,” the donut is the Confucian choker of obligation that enjoins son and daughter to shore up the circular walls of the dynasty (9). The donut has the same genitive syntax as the snarl of relations one finds in a puzzle book by MENSA. It can go parodic, as in “my sister’s accountant / and your mother’s doctor’s secretary’s gardener / … is my sister’s accountant’s sister” (43), or sincere:
I don’t want to stumble anymore
I don’t want to drive anymore
Then a boy my father’s age kisses me
And a boy my brother’s age kisses my mother
And my mother puts her leg on my leg
And I’m free and anyone can know me. (93)
Even as Zhang marks her distance from the Great Wall of doctors and accountants, nerds and bad drivers, she finds ways to honor the ancestral family without necessarily endorsing its circular, risk-averse notions of the good life. She has a knack for inventing gestures that render more agreeable to the feminist the rituals of familial deference, or in other places, sexual domination. The mother’s leg touch is affectionate without being suffocating. It is the formal donut relaxing into the improvisation of the daisy chain.
The phrase daisy chain may suggest a mode of association at odds with the family circle. Sexual slang for a group of more than two partners joined in simultaneous oral or anal intercourse, it acquires in these poems the status of a freak flag emblem flying above the red-light district of sexual and scatological sincerity. Here, the locals discuss freely their genital health concerning “bloodturds,” “comefarts,” and “lucky pierres.” Such naughty talk, derived from the Queen’s English and the Urban Dictionary, provides the ultimate relief and “comfort” from the pressures of having to live up to the expectations of prestige, marriage, and the baby carriage.
Zhang may not plant her booth in the middle of the gay carnival like Margaret Cho, but she seems to chart the same space of intimacy signified by a banner like the fag hag. She poo-poohs, for example, the “avant guard dood … boring me with the cunts” (88), but serves feline or concubine realness in the presence of gay royalty like Marcel Proust or Frank O’Hara: “You were born a queen … and I feel nothing but lucky, lucky to sleep by your feet” (85). By the same token, she channels personism when she writes of an O’Haran intimate: “I’m inside of a daisy chain and the Lucky Pierre is my boyfriend’s penis / inside a whale inside a universe” (76). These queer and dreamy declarations imply that if a woman has little choice but to swim in a literary ocean swarming with men, she may as well surround herself with the ones who make the air and discourse around her easier to breathe.
But why not with the other housewives? Zhang suggests that the immigrant who’s shy and awkward because of her difference has more to learn about social and sexual dignity from the unabashed freak who has come into his own virtues by inhabiting his difference in a particularly fierce way. Conversely, the unabashed freak may favor the immigrant as the ally and informant who shows him the unforeseen corners of his never-never land: “you find me chinky and very fun” (58). In poems like “Philtre,” and “Michael,” the line of hesitation approaches a horizon line of trust between the loveliest of weirdos:
We find you strange
this wire of weird hanging-ass out
the fiery cleavage, the eternal spotlight
of a sunset line of weirdness inside me
weirding out your mother
who was always weirder than my mother
who was as weird as the first chinese person
to say his name was chinga (56)
This daisy chain of a poem features her characteristic coil of a run-on sentence that anchors the speaker to family, yet gives her enough length to move into other cultural communities for the sake of shared enlightenment, to invoke the rope metaphor of Angela Davis. By the end, the Chinese ingenue and the flaming queen bridge the strange gap of their cultural differences via the urban link of Chingy, a black hip hop artist who takes his name from the Chinese. We are told by the poems that “Jenny” and “Michael” are susceptible to cross-referencing each other’s work, and though such coterie gestures will probably mean little to the average reader, they evoke, like the closing dick-and-jane handshake, a larger pattern of collaboration among women and queer men in the avant-garde: “I noticed your thing hanging out” which “we think is a thing between us / and it is in fact so.”
Hallmark moments aside, Zhang recognizes how the respective frames of the donut and the daisy chain collide. Her bitchy mode of political incorrectness often indicates the sincerity the two may nonetheless enjoy in this “simulacrum where you finally had the courage / to tell your mother you love her a lot — / you penisblowing piece of crap!” (66). It is only within this simulacrum that one does not feel obliged to dance around thorny issues for the sake of propriety. The trust that obtains between absolute friends enables the paradox by which they may express the deepest avocations of care and concern in the crassest way imaginable, one that would meet resistance only outside that space of mutual permissiveness.
Pride and punupmanship
The daisy chain also offers an image for the poet’s superb punupmanship. Wordplay, as Zhang sees it, is the embarrassing spittle of the Nabokovian or immigrant soul who bumbles from one corner of the globe to another, screwing up the host language in beautiful and unforeseen ways: “I wanted to refill this charming hole of shame with a sense of happiness and delight … to take these mistakes and make them not mistakes.” So it is that Zhang transforms the linguistic gaffes of her family into willful idiomatic mixups, catachresis, spoonerisms, mondegreens, and the bumbling voice message that furnishes the title of the volume Dear Jenny, We Are All Find. Her daisy chain punupmanship is perky and profane, switching modes between straight and queer contexts, as when she admonishes the friend who chooses a gay hookup over meeting the parents:
this nurse is a sample nurse
this muse is a sample muse
or thoughts of hairy bung-cold lunges
the luncheon was a disaster
as was the plunging of your fisted-anus
into water where it was cool
you take popsicles into your knuckles
like rings attached to doorbells
that wake up my father (57; italics added)
The paranomasian lady who lunches makes the care imaginary yield to both “the children” and the “equation of homoeroticism.” These poems chide and cherish by turns the honorary donut (with his icy, brass-knuckled bravado) who takes a fist up the ass or in the eye for the sake of sexual politics: “you’ve been in an accident? / I will sew your eyeballs back into their sockets,” she reassures him. Gay care provider and seamstress, “nurse” and “muse”: Zhang recognizes the homogeneous donut and the queer daisy chain as equally valid responses to ethnic or sexual discrimination. Her punupmanship across the line break offers an expedient means of attending to the incommensurable aspirations of parties who may frown at one another yet collectively affirm the miracle of her existence.
Poetics of fraternization
Although Zhang specializes in friendship, it would be wrong to zone her within the tradition long in vogue. She does not write about the classical fraternity of equal-footed friends who push each other towards the heights of Olympus at the expense of the natural slaves. Emerson encapsulates the best and worst of this tradition when he states there is no friendship more noble than the “manly furtherance … among … beautiful enemies” and more overrated than the “perfumed amity which celebrates its days of encounter by a frivolous display,” and the friend who is my “unequal shall presently pass away … a mate for frogs and worms.” True rivalry and absolute candor are special privileges we extend to friends who have earned our total respect and for whom “the Deity” inside me annihilates for you “the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance.” Just not to women, who are too lovey-dovey, frivolous, or housebound; or to the slavish minorities, who stink too much of the bog. In the classic view, only the pearliest of men are perfectly and equally positioned to reap the full benefits package.
No surprise that privilege should blind the superlative rivals of the Emersonian firmament to how the open admission of advantage or vulnerability may sustain friendships more diverse in constitution. In the queer tradition, however, as the scholar Michael Warner reminds us, “the most heterogeneous people are brought into great intimacy by their common experience of being despised and rejected in a world of norms they now recognize as false morality.” Wasps and wannabes dissemble together around their rivalrous acquisition of prestige, while the leveling experience of failure makes the best icebreaker there is for mixed company falling across the thick walls. Flaunting the relationships that society once marked as shameful because they flew in the face of common sense, a figure like the fag hag may discover her potential as an effervescent mascot for the horizon of inclusive relations of care, candor, and commitment falling across delimitations of race, class, gender, age, size, sexual practice, and familial configuration. As Maria Fackler and Nick Salvato write in a collaborative manifesto, the fag hag is a “complex comrade who pushes us beyond the comparatively simple role that sorority may play in upsetting fraternity’s stranglehold on the political imagination of friendship,” one who points us towards a radical vision of democracy still in the making.
The poems of Dear Jenny issue from this space of shared marginality more futuristic in its accommodations of difference than both the chauvinist fraternity house and the sniping sisterhood that once prompted women to reevaluate the feminist potential of the hag. Experience has taught Zhang that certain citizens fraternize with their purported enemies for relief from the matrix of positional suffering as women, as people of color, as sexual minorities, etc. For citizens who are more than one of the above, whose lives are charged by intersectionality, the practice of fraternization may prove more liberating than perfunctory recourse to school chums or the ethnic buddies section. Hope for Zhang means saying sayonara to the hipster gluttons whose street cred ranges no further than the kitchen pantry, but it also means rebuffing the nerdy sister who does little to shake the reputation of the moocow. Dropping from the heights of Olympus, Zhang finds meaningful relief in the friendship of rock bottom:
In the mornings, I slid to the base of the mountain
fulfilled my duties as a rhapsode
denouncing all of Greek culture; “I will not reference
Aeschylus!” I said to my friends who were eating rice
and wearing rice hats and being ignorant of their
ignorant ignorance: “I will bring you the Wu’s, the Lao’s!”
At that point someone banged three pots together
I shook hands with the bromides, the questionable
youth who came already as an imitation of their future
one had wrinkles around her lips and was tired
of the way society treated her like cattle
“Moooo,” I said
It’s all very scientific and it’s all very necessary
You and I keep meeting at the bottom
I meet other balls of dust and together we forge a history
later, in meeting new friends, I forget all of this. (13–14)
Such Kafkaesque rants reveal how the admission of failure may ease the sense of rapport that the monster of privilege only seems to discourage. The classroom scene offers a painful window onto the public square where minorities are clapped into silence by those who like to set the loud firecracker against the silently weeping bromide or bovine. When the audience gets away with “eating rice / and wearing rice hats,” the artist is facing a losing battle against the quacksalvers of Orientalism who confuse the harmonious flavor profile with the grittier bottle of authenticity that irritates their stomach. “Being understandable is subject to all kinds of power dynamics and shifting realities,” says Zhang; “When I go to poetry readings, when I meet other poets … so rarely are they nonwhite, so rarely are they immigrants, so rarely are they any of these things … So there’s always that element of I want to be understood … but I also know there are certain limits to communicating past certain power dynamics.”
Zhang attempts to reach a broader audience that remains ignorant about power dynamics by vexing the relations of friendship they pretend to know the most about. The result is that her anecdotes of failed friendship and friendship in failure amount to morality tales on the price of understandability. “How can I be … both damaged and lovable. How do I become the protagonist of a story?” Zhang asks with rare pathos. What can one do to escape the fate of the perpetual sidekick but to change the desiderata for a hero, a savior, a sidekick, a friend?
By invoking the demonstrative idiom of her favorite queens and hags, Zhang breaks the accursed expectation of Old World modesty that conspires to deny the Asian American subject full range and volume in the chattier arts of the New World. With one fist raised towards the sky, she embraces with the other arm the queer playmate whose willingness and willful difference from her person relieves her from the fate of being pushed into a takeout box with the defenseless bovines and running gags. In these poems of fraternization, of friendship with the purported enemy or unforeseen ally, she transforms immigrant bumbling with the buoyant pride of her adopted queen’s throat and burlesque kick, and through the pricklier feelings disclosed by heterogeneity, shows how the structural evils of racism and imperialism place limits on the pursuit of sincerity across the rainbow. Jenny Zhang is kicking proof that the mantle of the avant-garde still belongs to the belated peoples willing to seize it against all odds: she gives us leg and life, launching her fabulous hagship in the face of failure for the benefit of those still yearning from black holes:
… I grab hold of my friends, my people
the ones who woke me when I was sinking
and on the verge of a colossal disappearance
from this flawed and frangible world. (44)
Author’s note: This article for Jacket2 was submitted and edited for publication in July 2015. Any critique of the parties involved in the Best American Poetry scandal will have been by coincidence. — J.N.
2. Various postwar avant-garde movements have proven hostile to female participants. The New York School of poets bucked convention to become an avant-garde whose cultural production was organized by the collaborative energies and unabashedly sissy virtues shared by queer-identified artists and sponsors, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual. Such social dynamics help to differentiate the unscripted program of O’Hara and friends from the macho fraternity house ethos underpinning the Beats, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain School, and Black Arts movements. See Maggie Nelson, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007); Michael Davidson, Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004).
4. Hags may be said to extend the program first set forth by Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978): “The Background into which feminist journeying spins is the wild realm of Hags and Crones … Haggard writing is by and for those women who are intractable, willful, wanton, unchaste” (3, 15).
6. Some feminists differentiate the fag hag proper from the “woman with gay friends” by the criteria of honorary residency and/or political advocacy within the queer community. See for example Deborah Thompson, “Calling All Fag Hags: From Identity Politics to Identification Politics,” Social Semiotics 14, no. 1 (April 2004): 37–48.
7. Davis invokes the rope trope on several occasions to gesture towards a politics that escapes the tribalist formulations exploited by racists (or naifs) to set people of color against one another: “[R]ace has become an increasingly obsolete way of constructing community because it is based on unchangeable, immutable biological facts in a very pseudo-scientific way … I’m not suggesting that we do not anchor ourselves in our communities. But I think, to use a metaphor, the rope attached to that anchor should be large enough to allow us to move into other communities.” See Angela Davis, “Rope,” New York Times (May 24, 1992): E11. The committed fag hag (of color, such as Margaret Cho) is an exemplary spokesperson whose choice of friends and lovers enacts the intimate cross-racial community that Davis has in mind.
10. Emerson, “Friendship,” in Lectures and Essays (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1983), 351, 348, 354. I pick at the Emersonian tradition for the sake of polemic. For a more progressive defense, see Andrew Epstein, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Epstein tries to make the Emersonian tradition of fraternal friendship amenable to racial difference in the token case of Amiri Baraka, though what he calls rivalry seems to blunt the pricklier feelings of envy, irritation, melancholy, and paranoia that register, perhaps, Baraka’s recurring perceptions of inequality within the state of friendship.
13. Fackler and Salvato, “Fag Hag: A Theory of Effeminate Enthusiasms,” Discourse 34, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 59–92. See also Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London and New York: Verso, 1997). Fackler and Salvato’s manifesto on the effervescence of the fag hag exemplifies a larger trend in the critical literature on friendship responding to Jacques Derrida’s observation that the philosophical discourse on friendship is ridden by poet-politicians who hijack the benign discourse on fraternity to secure regimes of racism and sexism around the world. We can put Emerson in the same storied company as Aristotle, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Schmitt, and Derrida.
14. Perhaps the mantle of the avant-garde belongs to such subjects in the post-millennium. The free admission of white privilege, argues Timothy Yu, helped to galvanize a more total “ethnicization of the avant-gardes” following the Sixties, when student radicals (who, for example, became the first Language poets) undertook the experiment to reframe whiteness in less toxic and grandiose ways, and as various minority groups (Black, Chicano, Asian, gay, and feminist in constitution) fomented collective aesthetic and political consciousness through the group manifestations of little magazines, ethnic theatre, poetry readings, and protests to organize against patterns of grave social injustice. See Timothy Yu, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 3ff.
'Idylliad' by Elizabeth Savage
Deborah Poe: In Lyric Postmodernisms, Nathanial Mackey evokes Zukofsky’s lower limit of speech (or “check,” as Mackey refers to it) and upper limit of music in consideration of the lyric. Mackey writes:
Our recent turn toward promoting check over enchantment wants to forget lyric’s etymology, as though the art might arrive at a point where there were no strings attached. But strings are always attached, even in the most thoroughgoing doubt or disenchantment.
In Idylliad, Savage engages but inverts the lyric and pastoral, disrupting our expectations of those traditional modes. In doing so, she more deeply engages doubt and (dis)enchantment relative to ideas of property and territory as articulated through poverty and war (the strings).
There are three sections of Idylliad: “Matter,” “Comestibles,” and “Chambers,” modeled more or less explicitly on Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. The book begins in “Matter” — fences, walls, the dogs, a mine, a tree, a floodlight — objects of the everyday in a glistening mundane that turn on an axis of elegy and idyll, beauty and fear.
Poems like “Flood Light” in “Matter” attentively complicate the ordinary:
of alien materials
you cannot be a fence
glass & plastic antidote
for the chimney’s
as the sky
does a dead on mimic
no parody, no sun (18)
In a mathematics of materially strange light, Savage insists that the light itself cannot be a fence. We are told that you — an individual — cannot (should not) be a border. Further, a light as “glass & plastic antidote” is what kind of remedy when “chimney’s / intimate smoke,” rather than offering comfort, delivers poison? There is something similarly unsettling about a sky in its theatrics that imitates with its humorless light.
The second section, “Comestibles,” turns to stuffs of nourishment — this is not just a unidirectional nourishment of humans by way of earth’s resources. Nor is the section an idealistic or essentialist representation of nature. A juniper knows June through its summer juice. Lichen is at the mercy of “ravening fire.” A volcano “at its trigger … breathes by burning / sleeps by seeping” (42). The land is a German layered cake, yet layered with the delight are “sugared disdain” and eruptions from the earth.
Throughout this section, and indeed the entire collection, Savage defies anthropomorphism. She elevates and equalizes offerings from the land and the living, where borders between earth and human being are blurred in their communion.
“Chambers,” the last section of the book, brings us into a meditation of the spatial — chambers of exteriority and interiority. “Territory vs Property” reads:
“Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.”
East rails into west
where safe belies spent
& the whitetail leaps
over whitewashed fence
& whitewater streams
like a darkened spring
down the desolate face of June
as bodies run in place
floating hats, flowing boots (68)
In this poem that digs into the terms territory and property, one imagines a train running from east to west across a territory, across property lines. The false impression of safety is given off, when what is present is just overused and potentially dangerous land. The deer’s image comes as a relief, its beauty as welcome as its movement over the fence. The natural world, like the manmade trains, traverses across territory and property. The deer, however, does not have to abide by the agenda of tracks and imposed boundaries. The fence the deer clears, moreover, is whitewashed. And the meaning of whitewashed is agitated, given that to whitewash a situation is to prevent people from knowing the truth. Alliteration and repetition in whitewashed and whitewater intensify the music as much as our understanding of the poem. The use of streams, as both noun and verb, multiplies meaning, carrying not only the movement of whitewater but also a vital comparison between movement and stillness in streams and springs. The poem makes you feel the lines of territory and property, as arbitrary as they are real. By the time we’ve swerved to the desolate face of June, the bodies running in place, the hats and boots floating by, we’ve arrived at something ominous. The running bodies evoke soldiers (or miners) pounding the land without progress and perhaps also the thoughtlessness and self-involvement that goes hand in hand with being consumed by boundaries of home and state. What does the fact that personal belongings flow past person-less say about territory and property? The answer might be that we are impacted by what goes on throughout the entire territory even when we are within the periphery of our own dominion.
Ethel Rackin: What first intrigued me about this vexed juxtaposition between territory and property that Deborah addresses is Savage’s uncanny ability to clear breathing room or space, thematically and somatically, in the face of our ever-shifting personal and national boundaries.
And given the book’s title, this clearing of space does clearly hearken back to poetry that comes out of the pastoral tradition, originating with the Idylls by Greek poet Theocritus. The Idylls are most commonly remembered for their focus on an idyllic landscape as the setting for song. However, as Paul Alpers suggests in his discussion of the singing contest between Thyrsis and an unnamed goatherd in Theocritus’s first idyll, “we will have a far truer idea of pastoral if we take its representative anecdote to be herdsmen and their lives, rather than landscape or idealized nature.”
Savage’s dynamic treatment of the relation between landscape and living subjects is highlighted when we consider poems across sections such as “Path” (from “Matter”) and “Tenement” (from “Chambers”). As Deborah mentions, the collection as a whole meditates on states of exteriority and interiority, enacting a kind of archeology toward an interior.
Everywhere there is a cushion
a spacing invitation
an arm’s breadth exit ramp
caution thrown wide to race
Anywhere there is an angle
measuring a sheet of sky
Somewhere a limit, elsewhere
denote a wind of suspension
of trespassing intention
Thorns will climb stems
thorns will throne leaves
acre over acre of elegy
Elsewhere there is a fastening
a note pinned to your coat
another cyclone centering
suitable for wandering (15)
This poem’s capitalization of indefinite pronouns “Everywhere,” “Anywhere,” “Somewhere” and “Elsewhere” is telling, especially given that “Path” begins the collection. Offering a guide, map, or teleology, “Path” marks off the book’s territory, precisely by calling attention to its expansive immeasurability. As such, the poem offers us a “spacing invitation,” “an arm’s breadth exit ramp” “suitable for wandering.”
However, even as the organic beauty of nature (and the book itself) invites us in, it proffers warnings, of “trespassing intention,” “thorns,” and “another cyclone centering.” So, the path into pastoral is marked as “caution thrown wide” into a fertile and potentially dangerous territory. And while aspects of the landscape of Idylliad are certainly inviting, as they are in the Idylls, persons are continually foregrounded. In particular, Savage focuses her keen attention on the particularities of physical and psychological constriction suffered by those living in a seemingly endless state of poverty, as well as the hardships associated with our seemingly endless state of war. In this regard, the book reaches back to the Iliad as much as it does to the Idyll in “acre over acre of elegy.”
As tempting as it may be to follow nature as metaphor throughout the collection, this would constitute misreading. For nature’s beauty — sublimity even — along with its harshness and dangers, are real to Savage, and made real to us. Just as in early pastoral, the woods are enchanting precisely because they are alive.
This puts me in mind of another contemporary artist who works with nature’s beauty, danger, ephemerality, destructiveness, and connection with human ecology, Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy succinctly characterizes our blindness to beauty’s complexity in his documentary Rivers and Tides: “I think we misread the landscape when we think of it just being pastoral and pretty — there is a darker side to it.”
While Savage’s landscape is, in fact, beautiful, it’s dark besides. As such, Idylliad moves us beyond the notion that the beautiful is merely beautiful, or that beauty is somehow superfluous; rather, beauty itself is always complicated by its own inherent demands and dangers. Savage observes the “coldness” that inheres in much of human experience in poems such as “Tenement”:
no sigh lawning clucks
coo their rote
the same question
the same cold
question all day
long put to you (74)
Beginning with a kind of Steinian punning — “no sigh lawning” or no silencing “clucks” or clocks — Savage lands on an anaphoric cold: the “cold” “question” put “all day / long” to those kept in tenements.
Rather than creating a playful lyric repetition, Savage’s lyric enacts the repeated dead end of poverty, centering on the dwelling space as a kind of repository of grief. The rhyming of “coo,” “blue,” and “you” further lyricize that grief by attaching it to the classical personification of a bird. Again, however, lyric is put in service of a trenchant social observation on injustice. So, beauty is complicated at every turn.
Poe: Ethel writes insightfully above of “Savage’s ability to clear breathing room … thematically and somatically, in the face of our ever-shifting personal and national boundaries.” The last poem of the collection, “Canoe,” carves just such a space. Savage witnesses our connection in human experience.
In truth, there are two
& the violet-footed
evening their ocean
slick in the trying rain (78)
Engaging us directly, “in truth,” the speaker tells us there are two, not one. And in that shared experience is a violet carpet. The evening is not just expansive; it is as boundaryless as an ocean. Our gaze turns from public spaces to domestic ones in the same breath, as wishing pools are turned on their heads like a pair of pants brought out of the wash coinless. This world “without change” exists far from a world where industry profits hand over fist from war and where a world without money is a constant struggle. Yet “without change” also expresses dishearteningly that despite all our wishes, some things (e.g. war and poverty) remain the same. Our frustrations with the state of the world are echoed in the rowers’ experience, “slick in the trying rain.”
Yet the title of the poem seems to acknowledge alternatives. In fact, a canoe is a method of transportation that allows humans to cross and recross personal and national boundaries. The collection ends then not in stagnation, not in constriction (and not in formal terms — to use Nathaniel Mackey’s term — phanopoetic snapshot). The collection thus ends in nuanced movement across an unidealized space.
Rackin: In this regard, Savage enacts the root of (dis)enchantment, with which Deborah started our discussion. Not only, as Mackey suggests, are we at risk of forgetting lyric’s etymology, we are equally at risk of forgetting enchantment’s, and in doing so, we may miss the magic influence of poets like Savage.
According to the OED, enchant comes from the French enchante-r and the Latin incantāre, in- upon, against + cantāre to sing; and its first definition is to “exert magical influence upon; to bewitch, lay under a spell” and “also, to endow with magical powers or properties.” In effect, as Deborah suggests, Savage’s lyrics create “nuanced movement across an unidealized space” through lyric’s spellbinding inversions. Take the opening poem of the collection’s final section, “Chambers,” for instance:
Held tight as empty scales
widows & orphans
what’s gone is gone
money burns a hole in its own
wild song (59)
Savage’s short “wild song” is not song for song’s sake; it becomes money’s “own,” complicating the economy of the poem in a Dickinsonian manner. The lyric itself is implicated even as it elucidates and elegizes the black “hole” of late capitalism’s ravages. As a collection of such wild songs, Idylliad reimagines the pastoral idyll to create a vital new territory for the American lyric, heuristically inviting us to commune and connect long after an individual song is over.
2. Paul Alpers, What is Pastoral? (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 22. My discussion of pastoral is informed by Susan Stewart’s graduate seminar on the subject at Princeton University in 2006.
A review of Louis Bury’s 'Exercises in Criticism'
Early this spring, I perched on top of a table (it was the only space left) to hear Fred Moten talk about “Blackness and Poetry.” The room was teeming with poets, critics, academics, and students. At the end of the talk, a question about the contemporary “mania” or “fetish for rule-based constraint-based poetry in a lot of poetry circles” was asked. More specifically, Nada Gordon wanted to know what this contemporary mania for rules might be a symptom of. Another way to ask this question may be, what does the phenomenon that Louis Bury calls the “recent efflorescence of American constraint-based writing”(18) mean about us?
Moten answered that the constant making and breaking of constraint is something important, which we do all the time — sometimes on the fly and at other times systematically. “We’re always doing that,” Moten explained, but a problem comes with “the monopolization of the capacity to impose constraint or to make the rules.” He argues that when constraint-based work is done right, we all take part in the architecture. In discussing NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, a constraint-based conceptual poem, Moten explained that procedural elements are placed on readership and community. With Zong!, Moten describes that when he taught the book, what became crucial was the “process in which we got together to try to figure out how to read the book. But then it turned out that what we had to do was get together to figure out how to get together to figure out how to read the book.” Moten makes it clear that this undecidability, this indeterminacy, this need to collaborate, is not “infinite regress.” This is the same process of rule-breaking and -making; it is “intellectual life.”
In his new book, Exercises in Criticism: The Theory and Practice of Literary Constraint, Louis Bury takes part in the rule-making and -breaking of constraint-based works in order to, to use Moten’s words, “figure out how to read” these works. More precisely, Bury’s book is part of a recent trend toward using creative-critical techniques to write about procedural poetics. His Exercises in Criticism develops a book-length academic argument about Oulipian and contemporary constraint-based forms while also creatively experimenting with those very forms.
Oulipian literature is potential literature (Oulipo stands for “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” or potential literature workshop, which began in 1960 in Paris) that uses rules and forms — often referred to as constraints, but also as generative devices, or procedural structures — to liberate its authors from other rules of which they may be less aware. For Oulipo, constraint helps us see that the words that just happen to come to us are also mediated by the constraints of personal histories and pathologies, societal notions of what makes literature, and the rules of grammar and conventional forms. Of course, the recent surge, even “mania,” for constraint-based forms in North America must be doing something different than fighting the same midcentury battle against bourgeois notions of inspiration and genius and the limitations of grammar.
Bury argues that contemporary North American writers have transformed the “apolitical literary exercises” of Oulipo “into a form of cultural critique” (13). To execute this argument, Bury acknowledges the personal, performative, and bodily aspects of both constraint-based works and criticism as a whole. Each of these elements of argumentation is woven throughout the book in formal and thematic ways. The book is divided into very short chapters, or “exercises,” which fall under the larger categories of “Anticipatory Plagiary,” “Oulipo,” “Post-Oulipo,” and of course, “The Clinamen.” Each “exercise” takes on a specific work of literature and employs its constraint to write about it.
One of Bury’s central claims is that contemporary North American writers use Oulipian practices to work through a sort of loneliness and depression that is a standard part of the experience of late capitalism. This critique of capitalism is a major divergence from the collaborative practices of Oulipo and what Bury considers their “supper club” ethos (323). The fact that Oulipian practice is taken up as a symptom of isolation also, Bury claims, charges literary constraint with new political possibility. Where the limits on options and creations of mazes may have been about an apolitical escapism for the original Oulipians, authors like Harryette Mullen, Daren Wershler-Henry, and Joan Retallack perform constraint to navigate the excessive consumer options available to us. These options at times serve as “available cultural material” and at others feel like an oppressive and “vast field of cultural detritus that surrounds us” (17).
Bury states it clearly in his lucid introduction: “The recent efflorescence of American constraint-based writing was no accident, but, rather, a response, even if unconscious, to prevailing anxieties about freedom and choice in our current historical moment” (18). In other words, most of the constraint-based writing that surrounds us critiques excess, and the aesthetic trend itself is a navigational tactic in the era of too many options. The other part of Bury’s argument — that isolation and depression is the prevailing response to excess — is illustrated when we catch glimpses of Bury’s depressive state. As Bury’s therapist reflects back to him toward the end of the book, “you’re talking about ways that you kind of feel more comfortable keeping yourself apart” (303). Bury explains that constraint-based practices of today are exercises that we do alone in order to create and perform a feeling of safety around us, or, in order to control and limit one aspect of the uncontrollable and the limitless historical moment.
Why is there a therapist’s office toward the end of a book of criticism? Another of Bury’s central arguments is about the personal nature of literary criticism in general. Bury claims that personal interests, experiences, and pathologies are always bound up in works of scholarship. For this reason, he argues that blatant “inclusion of the personal might be a more honest way of doing it” (24). Indeed, we sit in on a therapy appointment, are afforded a sneak peek on Bury’s feelings about masturbation, learn about his earliest beard hair, and perhaps most shocking of all, in a total relinquishment of the performance of critical mastery, Bury writes that if he had wanted to study Oulipo itself — rather than North American poetry that uses Oulipian practices — that he could not have done it because his French is not good enough. All these indulgences are in service of the larger project. Bury was a PhD student during part of the writing of the book (a transcript of his dissertation defense is in Exercises in Criticism, too) and now he is an academic.
It is intensely personal to watch Bury take on the “exercises,” which make up the bulk of the text. After a one-page meta-critical paragraph or two that describes the work he is engaging and the constraint he will use (these sections are labeled “Context” and “What I was Trying to Do”), we experience the success and failures of this bold style of criticism along with Bury. The way he executes the exercises is inspiring. The exercises are so inspiring that it feels strange to write a review of Bury’s book without engaging in some of the principles of his task. For this reason, I scatter elements about my life throughout. Even the first couple of sentences of this paragraph — with their level of self-consciousness about the criticism they perform — owe much to Bury.
I don’t know Bury, though I feel strongly that I could. I see that we have “17 mutual friends.” Now I am thinking that I should see if he is on Twitter. He’s on Twitter. I’m now following him on Twitter. Neither of us tweet much though.
Bury’s treatment of Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa is honest about the difficulty of Roussel’s text — I feel a kindred recognition in Bury’s description of Roussel’s method of nested parenthetical digressions as a form of “hurtling the confused reader” back and forth (39). Bury’s chapter about Roussel sets out to experiment in parentheses and footnotes in order to avoid ever getting to the point. Yet Bury’s exquisite performance of parenthetical digressions — convincing as a mimetic critique in and of itself — does get to the heart of Roussel’s book after all. New Impressions of Africa is, Bury argues, “a text about the exoticism of digressions … a text about the lure and perils of the unknown” (45). Of course, as soon as he arrives at this insight, Bury’s writing begins to zoom back out. The chapter resists expanding on this assertion. Rather, it challenges the reader to insert an essay on this topic within a parenthetical of its own. The trick, of course, is that Bury’s “exercise” has argued exactly this point: we finish this section knowing quite well the aesthetic of the aside and the type of reading that digressions suggest. It is a playful but diligent reader who wades through the text — the same reader who may click link after link on a Wikipedia article, circling through pages and pages about “tableaux vivants,” “iconography,” and “Frida Kahlo” in order to return, ultimately, to finish the end of the entry about Raymond Roussel.
In the preamble to a reading of Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-ups, Bury gives us this gem: “If the medium is indeed the message, then the message of so many of these chapters seems to be that I want to be a medium” (111). The process of writing literary criticism is engaging with the multiple texts you take as your object; Bury channels these texts, he lets them speak through him and also with him. This is an open and generous mode of engagement. In the same section, he shares another secret of literary criticism, which, because of the “cut up” constraint Bury is performing here, is presumably written partly by Bellamy and partly by Bury: “Criticism must necessarily hear the boiled skull in your voice when what the critic performs is competence, expertise dismembered” (116). Bury’s writing does not perform “competence.” It is full of captivating attempts and fascinating failures, and it ultimately adds up to a critique of expertise that goes beyond dismemberment. It is expertise chopped and diced.
His chapter about Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, “The Exercise and Oulipo,” reveals Exercises in Criticism’s design. Like Queneau’s text, Bury’s exercise here is to rewrite the same content in multiple different styles. The “styles” that Bury chooses to take up range from “Gertrude Stein” to “Morning Talk Show Host” to “Postcolonial,” and it is here that we glimpse the multiple academic lenses and frames that the book employs. His glosses on “reader response theory,” “New Criticism,” and “Marxism” function the way mandatory dissertation footnotes might — they situate his criticism within a discourse — but in a delightful, pleasurable way.
An argument about conceptual poetry as criticism is also an important part of Bury’s critical model (35). Bury sees the gesture of conceptual writing as performing the work of criticism. His chapters on conceptualists Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place show this somewhat, but the argument is brilliantly made through Bury’s own altered poetic text “To the fact, to the point, to the bottom line (on my grandmother)” in the “Clinamen” section of the book. “To the fact” is a gorgeous stand-alone work, based on the notebooks and interviews of Bury’s grandmother, a Jewish-Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor. The piece is almost entirely in Bury’s grandmother’s words; we learn about a food shortage in the Jewish ghetto, and how she was separated from her family because she “could pass for a Polish looking girl” (233). Her personality comes through in thank-you notes, letters, documents, and journals. Here Oulipian-style exercises begin to erupt in otherwise unlikely places. The reproduction of a page in her notebook called “negative,” presumably notes for improving her English, catalogs words that begin with the prefix “in” (273). The list goes on and on in columns: “injustices / injustice / insecure / insensible / insensitive …” By the time we get to “inert,” we see that Bury has done it — performed conceptual writing as criticism as personal expression as critique of Oulipo.
Bury’s argument about the ways in which constraint-based practices implicate the body is the most exciting to me, and it is the one that remains the most latent — the most potential, to use Oulipian terminology — in the text. Bury designates the chapters “exercises” to “evoke the term’s corporeal dimension” and to suggest that “literary constraint has bodily implications even if only by analogy” (15). Sure enough, along with Bury’s personality, his body comes into view in this book. We learn that, when he is writing, he has to “go to the bathroom more often than usual,” for example (159).
He is not the first to make an argument about the connection of constraint-based practices to the body. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young use a “slenderizing” technique from Oulipo in their essay “Foulipo” to suggest an active feminist practice in the use and perception of constraint. They ponder why most language-constraint-based works have been written by men, and also why feminist performance art from the same moment as Oulipo has not had a larger impact on current aesthetic trends. The essay makes a robust argument about feminist reading practices for literary constraints.
When I read this book, I was in the very final stages of a literature PhD program, just like Bury’s speaker. One of the chapters of my dissertation deals precisely with the ways in which literary constraint has bodily implications and bodily constraints have literary implications. In the chapter, I examine feminist body art and also Oulipian practices. More largely, many of the issues that interest Bury interest me. For example, techniques of conceptual writing that could also be construed as criticism interest us both. I had previously read most of the works that Bury discusses in his book, but not all of them. I write briefly on New Impressions of Africa in a different chapter of my dissertation; I have taught Harryette Mullen’s work every quarter since I started creating syllabi; I haven’t read Doug Nufer (I wouldn’t voluntarily admit that at a party, but Exercises in Criticism puts me in the mood for spilling it).
In his effort to depart from Spahr and Young’s essay, Bury writes that a dichotomy cannot be made between the body and constraint; rather, “with the notion of the writing exercise, a tantalizing analogy between language and the body underlies Oulipian practice” (66). I’m not sure that Spahr and Young would disagree. However, their writing is about the female body and its lack of representation in constraint-based work. Bury’s body, even as it is represented in the text through all kinds of “tantalizing analogies,” is not a female body. It is perhaps the typical artist’s body — or critic’s body — represented more fully and completely as such. In this way it is, as Bury hopes for, more honest than most criticism.
For example, though he “gropes” and “attempts to spread his seed freely” in his work on Harry Matthews’s text, Singular Pleasures, this is the one section of the book where constraint seems to entirely disappear. The generative device used dictates that colons appear in every sentence in this section, and the punctuation is remarkable. But it is not restrictive or constrained. The piece recalls Vito Acconci’s Seedbed in which Acconci loudly masturbated under a ramp in a public gallery space (1971), or Nam June Paik’s Young Penis Symphony, a performance of artists pushing their penises through a large butcher paper, making holes and patterns (1962). These works critique the liberated or “free” persona of the male artist, able to spread his fertile creativity uninhibitedly. Bury’s exercise does not recall works about bodies under constraint like Eleanor Antin’s Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, where she underwent a diet to “carve” her body and documented it in nude photographs (1972), or Marina Abramović sitting on ice for predetermined amounts of time (1975), or Adrian Piper’s Catalysis I, where Piper inhabited crowded public spaces after her clothes had been soaked in cod liver oil, vinegar, rotten eggs, and milk (1970). In fact, Antin, Abramović, and Piper’s works would not be useful to Bury’s argument because they are not about excess of choice, but about lack of choice — they are about the real, material, patriarchal constraints of the everyday. These works certainly perform a critique, but they perform a critique of ideology. They perform critique of lack — lack of recourses, lack of options, lack of possible representations — not of excess.
When Bury writes about the work of Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, and Dodie Bellamy, I hear echoes of the feminist tradition of integrating the body into the work in a very material way. Mullen’s “damning enactment of language’s inherited — and largely hidden — biases” (117), for example, may be part of this tradition of ideology critique.
Though Bury doesn’t mention feminist performance artists of the 1960s and ’70s, or their tradition of what could also be considered constraint-based work, he does engage a discussion about the ways that gender and identity imply or disavow certain forms. In fact, his critique of a type of purely representational gender politics is exciting. Bury shows that analyzing a text “based on what’s missing from it” — his example is the question, “why are there so few female members of the Oulipo?” — could continue ad infinitum. Sure enough. He performs this possibility in the chapter “Absences, Negations, Voids,” in which Doug Nufer’s novel, Negativeland, is appraised by its lack of ice cream trucks, sherpas, and positive thinking. Bury may be arguing that instead of this never-ending expression of lack, we should attend to what is there, and in this case something like a clever critique of masculinity may be in order.
But the chapter “Cultural Politics, Postmodernism, and White Guys: Femininity as Affect and Effect in Robert Fitterman’s This Window Makes Me Feel,” the place where we expectantly (myself, excitedly!) look for such a critique, the technique seems to suggest that arguments, or academic critiques of any kind, are interchangeable. In this section, Bury performs a mash-up of academic articles from JSTOR and Jane Tompkins’s “Criticism and Feeling.” The end result is a sort of uneasy caricature of academic feminism. I wonder what I am missing, because it seems to me that the possibility for the type of brilliant helpful work that Bury gestures toward with his critique of representational gender politics comes from this world of academic feminist criticism. This mash-up shows that nothing is outside the boundaries of ludic creative-critical play — but unlike the other sections in Exercises that also show this, “Cultural Politics” does not slyly reveal that the argument was there all along.
Bury’s critique of masculinity actually arrives in “One should not try to go over the limit,” the section of the book that prints a questionnaire that Bury wrote for his father, with his father’s answers. Here we see his father’s reluctance to analyze his feelings or experiences — his father leaves blank questions like “How come you never tried to teach Emily and me Polish” and “Discuss a sublime experience you have had” and “What is the nature of our relationship.” The white space below each question seems aggressively uninformative. Bury’s father believes in limits and composure. In Bury’s therapy session, he describes his father as shy (295), but in the questionnaire Bury’s father appears pointedly guarded. This is tied to Bury’s confession in therapy about how masculinity works, that “men are supposed to be silent and stoic and strong” (299).
As Bury ruminates on his sense of being a writer as a way of being in the world, we can’t help but wonder how this notion of the silent and strong writer plays out within the argument of Exercises in Criticism. What does this sense of being a writer — a strong and silent one — mean for constraint-based practices? It has something to do with the loneliness that makes us feel alone. This is the writerly, strong, lonely silence that separates us — and it is undeniably masculine. Thus Bury’s critique of masculinity is bound up in his writing, his body, and the personal aspects of his life. And for Bury, the honest way to go about making the argument is not to talk about what is missing — but rather to discuss the excess on which each one of these aspects of the book relies.
Exercises in Criticism is not the only recent work to attempt to answer Nada Gordon’s question in Fred Moten’s talk. And it is not the first to use rule-making and -breaking to do it. Bury’s book is part of a contemporary constellation of creative critical work on Oulipo and Oulipian practices, including Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels (Harvard University Press, 2012), editors Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s A Megaphone (Chain Links, 2011), and editors Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim’s The /n/oulipian Analects (Les Figues Press, 2007). All of these works deviate from standard scholarly or academic form in their discussion of constraint-based texts, and each book has an important claim to make about the form and ideology of criticism more generally.
The /n/oulipian Analects is a collection of papers and presentations from noulipo, the conference which took place at CalArts in Los Angeles in 2005. Like Bury’s book of exercises, this collection of essays focuses on the legacy of the Oulipo among Anglophone writers, rather than on the French group themselves. The form of the Analects is like a labyrinth, with all the essays, talks, and questions alphabetized by title or theme. Want to find the book’s copyright page? Look under “C.” The effect is something like Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa — it takes a diligent, albeit slightly irritated, reader to follow an essay through the Analects — but when one does, the result is like a conversation, which spirals forward. It allows the reader the role of interlocutor, making connections and networks within the materials. Bury’s book is indeed more systematic in comparison. I have never been to one of those “boot camps” in public parks, only watched them with curiosity while eating at picnics or taking strolls, and reading Bury’s exercises feels a little like this. We are transfixed by the exertion, but we don’t take part in it.
Among other creative and scholarly essays, Spahr and Young’s “foulipo” was written for the conference and printed in the Analects (it also included a performance in 2005). The essay is also included in A Megaphone alongside several other “enactments” by Spahr and Young that are scholarly and creative, action-based, political, and academic.
The most recent of this constellation, Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, which focuses on French Oulipo, suggests a pleasure-based, reader-centric understanding of Oulipian practices. To this end, like Bury, he exposes that the object of his critical work is deeply personal. Unlike Bury, he doesn’t perform any constraint-based exercises in the book. (He does perform these types of exercises elsewhere — as a member of Oulipo, he writes constraint-based fiction, and creates constraints.) The project of Many Subtle Channels is friendly and pedagogical: Levin Becker argues that constraints — thinking about them, looking for them, creating them, employing them — make us better readers as well as better writers and he explains their use, function, and history to that end.
Exercises in Criticism is different because of its book-length focus on recent Oulipian forms. For this reason, it could replace the now almost twenty-five-year-old Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry by Joseph M. Conte, the major and traditionally scholarly work about constraint-based forms and practices in the US. Bury’s book is thrilling for its exercises, which are like distinct essays that illuminate an individual work. In this way, it is not quite a book of sustained criticism. Conte’s book, though academic in form, likewise feels this way; in the typology it creates, each category of serial and procedural form is fairly disparate. The other collections I mention above celebrate the partial, the fragmented, and the piecemeal. Indeed, this could be a characteristic of constraint-based works — they resist overarching argumentative claims — and this quality of Bury’s book shows that he’s in on the secret.
If recent constraint-based literature — texts by Mullen and Fitterman, for example — “critiques excess by farcically enacting it,” as Bury claims it does (19), Bury’s Exercises seems to do as much for contemporary criticism. In his avoidance of “monochrome argumentation” in his treatment of Roussel, his attempt at becoming a medium for Dodie Bellamy, his love letter to CAConrad, in his 330 pages of thrilling endeavors at getting to the point, we get the sense that a crucial part of the argument is the sheer heft and sprawl of the work itself. Part of the argument is the very performance of these exercises, and we delight to watch.
1. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, “Foulipo,” in A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays About the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-Pants-and-a-Machine-Gun Feminism (Oakland: ChainLinks, 2011), 31–42.