A review of Chad Sweeney’s ‘Wolf’s Milk’
Wolf’s Milk: The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney, translated by Chad Sweeney, begins with an epigraph by the mythic Juan Sweeney himself: “The letter before A is silence.” This epigraph is having pure fun with form while it issues a grave statement about the nature of creation — like the poems of this collection. This book of translations of Juan Sweeney’s writings — which Chad Sweeney reportedly discovered “on shreds of paper in the walls of Sweeney Castle in Oklahoma, where I was born and where Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre presumably passed away, though his body soon disappeared from the family crypt” — is an ingenious project about the relationship between the act of translation and the lyric persona.
Who was Juan Sweeney? Wolf’s Milk provides us with some information about him, which we immediately take to be tongue in cheek: he “loved cheese and whiskey,” he was “a direct descendent of the pagan king Sweeney the Mad,” and he was so loyal that he “regularly visited all seventeen of his grandmothers, and you should too.”
Juan Sweeney, as the persona of these poems, allows us to meander through numerous locales inside and outside of time: Spain, Dublin, one of Shahrazad’s stories, Bolivia. As an object, this book is also — well — witty. Nate Pritts’s blurb on the back cover reads, “When I was a child, my aunt would read the poems of Juan Sweeney to me in Spanish from a scroll that seemed to disintegrate in her hands.” The poems of Wolf’s Milk are framed playfully, and as readers, we are supposed to carry this with us as we view them, with “Juan Sweeney’s” Spanish verses on the left side of the page and Chad Sweeney’s translations on the right. Yet, Wolf's Milk is not a game about the concept of translation. Instead, this book, comprised of fifty-five numbered but unnamed poems, absolutely demands to be read with all of the nuances of a lyric collection.
Poem 20, which contains the “wolf’s milk” image of this collection’s title, resonates with a quiet beauty, its imagery presented to us in a mythic mode:
The wolves let me ride them
and muzzle their ears with my chin.
They’ve taught me it’s wolf’s milk
silvers the clover and poplar leaves
at night. They’ve clothed me in
their smell, and given me
a name which cannot be translated,
so I guard them while they sleep.
It is important to note that the wolves have both “clothed” the speaker inside “their smell” (a disguise as well as a moment of transformation) and anoint the speaker with “a name which cannot be translated.” The second poem of the collection also speaks to a refusal of translation. It begins, “It’s too easy to accuse God / of infanticide” and ends with “When you translate this / don’t translate this.” The poems of Wolf’s Milk, which at first seem to present a project of translation, ultimately become self-reflexive: a voice is caught in an impossible sort of present where it knows it is being translated. In the original Spanish version, the “translated” voice must have already been expressing itself at such a moment of crisis, anticipating the hunt for origins (or, even authenticity) that the project of translation invites.
Wolf’s Milk presents us with a beautiful paradox. Through the art of translation, we receive an art of persona. Even so, these poems delightfully comment on and obscure the possibility of even searching for the essence of “Juan Sweeney”: as original ancestor, or, author. In a recent interview, Chad Sweeney says that “The speech act is an attempt to cheat death by climbing back into the womb where form and emptiness are not separate.” The translations of Wolf’s Milk seek to climb back into such a space, “where form and emptiness are not separate,” and acknowledge that this yearning is, by its very nature, a challenge to the lyric utterance itself.
We must also remember that the lyric persona is already a translation of sorts, a translation that yields a version of self from — and in — the voice of another. Wolf’s Milk takes itself so seriously in its playful dynamic between the mysterious ancestral poet and the very real translator (who says, “Admittedly, I do not like his poetry much”) because it is making a smart statement about the inaccessibility of the origins of one’s own stories.
Consider how the speaker of poem 23 views “autobiography”:
I stood like a tree and
fluttered when the wind blew.
Woodpeckers watched me carefully
in case I was planning an attack.
I was planning an attack.
The womb was my first house.
Its garden was the world.
Claiming agency over the autobiographical is an attempt that is as willed as an “attack.” Yet, Wolf’s Milk begins with the theme of inaccessible origins fairly neutrally. The first poem of the collection begins with a tone of admission more than anything else:
At least my lies are honest.
Night goes tuning its guitars,
tossing its magnolias into disarray,
and spinning a rough wool
from the last stanzas of dusk.
Notice how the evening sky is derived from poetry itself: the “last stanzas of dusk” signals the end of night via a formal description of the end of a poem. It is important to note that not only is translation itself a vital theme for Wolf’s Milk, but so is creation (poetic and cosmic), as in poem 21, where “The cosmos is a baby / blinking at its reflection.”
But what does it mean for the speaker — the mythic Juan Sweeney, “the most mysterious and influential Spanish/Irish poet to have ever lived” — to take “a name which cannot be translated,” in the words of poem 20, so that “no poet may trap them / into his verses”? It is important to remember that the very first line of this collection of poems is “At least my lies are honest.” One must consider the way in which a persona can be a kind of “honest” lie.
A persona poem, a really good one, reads as a real voice — even while it is a fiction. And Wolf’s Milk, though comprised of fifty-five poems, tempts us to read them as a kind of giant poem — issued by a single, giant personality. In this light, the collection’s epigraph, “The letter before A is silence,” becomes especially important. For a collection of translations so concerned with issues of making and remaking (voice, past, poem), this epigraph invites us to consider the impossible question about what exists prior to world creation (an overarching concern that has haunted thinkers as far back as St. Augustine in his Confessions). But “The letter before A is silence” also asks us to think about what a collection is, via a moment prior to the first enactment of the lyric voice in the collection, as well as how such a collection is made and what it represents.
And so, “At least my lies are honest,” Wolf’s Milk begins. What constitutes the beginning of the body of a work belonging to a lost (or, in this case, made-to-be-lost) person? Such a question begs us to think about the authority of the lyric voice as a creative voice. How does the immediately present text interact with its prior text, the poem prior to translation? How does translation itself invite persona into a new version? Are all translations personas, of a sort, masking the voice of the new author? Wolf’s Milk answers these questions by charming its way out of them — and by charm I mean delight, as well as the kind of transformation that belongs to the realm of magic — thus fulfilling its own important, grave, and beautiful project.
On Paige Ackerson-Kiely
Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s poetry resides in no one’s land, in the heartland of John Keats’s negative capability. In Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed, Ackerson-Kiely makes a bittersweet home there.
This chapbook — a collection of twenty-two prose poems that follow the case of a drowned girl through the eyes of an aloof detective — is filled with lyric possibility, crime fiction, love, loss, solar tetherball, identity questioning, heavy doses of negation, and bleak-as-hell small-city-America depictions. This list, I would bet a Sizzler dinner, covers the thematic footprint; however, it is the poetic nucleus of this genre-bending creation — the proverbial pole to the tetherball’s centrifugal force — that I hope to highlight here.
Central to the chapbook’s intrigue is what’s missing: in its pages we find as much absence as populace. “I like the photos of missing children tacked up on the grocery store bulletin boards,” explains the narrator, the aforementioned small-town gumshoe (12). While his job is, ostensibly, to solve the case (and thus resolve what is absent, mysterious), such observations lean more towards the poetic than the evidential: “If you have any information please contact. I’m trying to focus on the distinctive way the carts are strewn over the parking lot, a plastic bag aloft over rows of old trucks, the beautiful woman, dark hair across her face, starting a van.” In the speaker’s aesthetic eye, the grocery store parking lot becomes a repository for the orphaned, the lost — people and objects absent from some prettier life elsewhere.
In this way, Ackerson-Kiely reaffirms how poetic possibility operates in a sphere opposite certitude, opposite positive information and narrative closure. Such is the central idea of negative capability: the ability to reside in uncertainty, to write within and of a world too complex to be easily resolved or reduced. And what’s brilliant about Ackerson-Kiely’s generic monster is how it sets up detective fiction against lyric poetry to create a tension between the narrative pursuit of information and the aesthetic blur of lyricism.
This tension between aesthetics and narrative gets worked out in a number of ways, the most pervasive being the bewitching presence of eros within mystery. The fifth of the untitled prose poems begins: “The thing about being wanted for a crime is that they want you, even when they don’t know who you are” (5). As though stuck on the idea of a “person of interest,” the speaker moves uncannily back and forth between murder suspects and potential spouses. Finally, thinking about “someone you’d better not,” the kind of person “you’d never marry,” he comes to a terra incognita where domestic bliss becomes his own unsolved crime.
The strange relationship between love and homicide begins in the first poem of the collection, as the detective conflates the dead girl with his ex-girlfriend. The entwining of physical death and failed relationship leads to a melancholic poetry stuffed with abject beauty. The ever-absent “girl” (both victim and ex) is consistently evoked by the gritty reality surrounding the detective, but because of “her” absence, she quickly shades into an imagined, aesthetic realm. For instance, as a result of the victim’s unknown identity, “They called her C. in the reports,” which the detective recognizes as “A good place to start a major scale” (4). Here, missing or negated information leads to aesthetic representation. Consider, too: “My girlfriend broke her leg some years ago. Had to sit on the toilet while I washed up and down her back with a sponge. Each knob of her spine I could not turn to open that little unhappy door, let it out, let it look in the mirror mouthing: enough, already” (6). Again, the frustration of narrative development becomes a platform from which to launch the poetic.
The entangling of different narrative threads leads to another facet of negative capability — a breakdown of identity that in turn allows for sympathetic identification. To conflate murder and breakup not only encourages the detective to find similarities between the drowned girl and his ex-girlfriend; it also encourages him to identify with (or as?) the murderer: “Mad about her death, about her leaving for another life. They are closer everyday to extradition, and I wonder after last supper, when all is said and done. I’d ask not to taste a thing, but for her delivered unto me in live flesh” (18). The metaphoric link between detective and murderer leads to narrative complication, certainly. But it also affords the speaker with other means for understanding himself and his relationship to the world, which is a necessity given the speaker’s realization that “I could not understand my loneliness, the shape of what I was looking at” (8).
The blurring of the speaker’s identity points, inevitably, to a lack of it. He acknowledges his shifty significance, noting “how my face is a room to be occupied” (16). Rather than a firm subject for study, the detective is rather akin to the aforementioned parking lot — a reservoir for feelings that don’t fit neatly into the narratives of daily lives. Non-traditionally, this detective is unable to solve mysteries and instead acknowledges the ill-fitting fragments of the world. Such is the case when a hotel clerk looks at him “with all the books at her bedside flashing in her eyes, words and feelings like obscure designer gowns she had no place to wear” (9). At times, it is difficult not to see the speaker/detective as a place for Ackerson-Kiely to wear the metaphors that don’t fit elsewhere. Indeed, because of its highly poetic language, the author’s presence is never fully occluded by the diegetical world of the chapbook.
Yet it might be more accurate (and productive) to see the speaker as a personification of that desire to be someone different, that need to mean something else, because meaning ourselves has proven unbearable. Such is an all too tragic (and too common, I imagine) human experience, and Ackerson-Kiely slips these moments into the mouth of her speaker: “I wanted to be something else, the kind of thing that needed tending. New model pick-up an old friend washed every Sunday afternoon, by hand, then drove far away” (13). Apropos of small-town narratives, locals here never get loose of the tragedies that surround them. Even when the businesses leave one by one, and only the storefronts remain like so many vacant faces, the speaker is left to wonder (as we all are) how life will continue amidst nothingness, to wonder who will care. Such is the plight and beauty of Ackerson-Kiely’s detective-poet, which is perhaps most evident when he momentarily dwells in the old shed where the drowned girl had resided. Barely interested in the random objects the shed contains, the speaker notes: “The single window looked out over a meadow swaying importantly. There was nothing to see but I saw it all, humming tunelessly to let anyone, anyone at all, know I was there” (4).
1. Readers interested in a brief rundown of Keats’ theory might consider Maria Popova’s article “John Keats on ‘Negative Capability,’ Embracing Uncertainty, and Celebrating the Mysterious” on the Brian pickings website. For more in-depth discussion, W. J. Bate’s Negative Capability: On the Intuitive Approach in Keats, first published in 1939, continues to be a touchstone for critical discussions of Keats’s theory of living amidst uncertainty; see Negative Capability: On the Intuitive Approach in Keats, ed. Maura Del Serra (Contra Mundum Press, 2012).
2. The chapbook is not paginated, so I have suggested page numbers starting with the first prose poem. Each poem appears on a single page with no pages between. Thus, there are twenty-two poems across twenty-two pages.
Paul Pines begins Divine Madness, his remarkable new volume of poetry, with an epigraph from Plato’s Phaedrus: “if any man come to the gates of poetry without the madness of the Muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then shall he and his works of sanity with him be brought to naught by the poetry of madness. …” Thinking about the title, many readers will also be reminded of Emily Dickinson’s “Much Madness is divinest Sense — / To a discerning Eye —” For Plato, as for the ancient world in general, poetic skill is never sufficient; divine inspiration, or madness, must bring the poetic act to completion. But for Dickinson, living at a time and in a culture where such inspiration was more suspect, the poet possessed of this “divinest sense” risked being seen as dangerous, to be “handled with a Chain —” This volatile dialectic of sense (or sanity) and madness is at the center of Pines’s poetry: not only does it determine the act of writing and the poem’s coming into form, but it is also to be regarded as fundamental to the way in which we think about the world. Thus, in the first poem, we find:
encrypting our sleep
like Puritans sniffing out
messages born again
and again from the rubble
of our assumptions
what we listen for
as if decoding
of a diamond (5)
Such is the task of the poet and his readers: in the modern “rubble / of our assumptions,” we listen and decode the messages inspired by divine madness. The poem is both the message and its interpretation.
Pines’s metonymic reference to the Puritans “sniffing out / God’s fingerprints” proves to be an emblem for his entire enterprise here. The book is filled with figures of seekers and interpreters who, in the course of their quests, challenge the equilibrium of the world around them and find themselves variously cloaked in the mantle of prophecy. As Pines declares early in the book in a poem about Thomas Paine, “we never know what to do / with one who appears from nowhere / to change our hearts” (7). This introduces a crucial theme that will be reiterated throughout the book in various historical, theological, and mythic registers. Divine Madness thus may be read as a serial poem. Allusions, archetypes, historical references, and verbal patterns resonate with each other, gathering force and meaning as the work unfolds. The book consists of forty-seven poems, numbered sequentially and divided into three sections. Each poem is no more than a page or two long. The lines are short, clipped, restrained, set into variously indented stanzas: a projective style but intensely measured, as if the poet is testing each verse as it is inscribed. If this is divine madness, it is being suffered and heeded with the utmost care.
Pines’s fascination with explorers, revolutionaries, and visionaries in nearly all fields of human endeavor — among the figures he invokes (in no particular order) are Columbus, Giordano Bruno, Audubon, Heisenberg, Einstein, and Hermes Trismegistus — may be understood in relation to his view of our struggle for knowledge of both the natural and supernatural orders. This becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses, and is articulated directly in poem 42, quoted here in its entirety:
We create our world
but hide the knowledge of it
it is meant
whispered by the Absent One
who holds us together
veiled by cloud
the living water
of an uncharted land
in his madness
Pines’s trope for divinity throughout much of the work is “the Absent One,” who appears in this instance as a power of unity and division, finitude and infinitude. In the hands of the Absent One, we know and we remain ignorant, hiding our knowledge and creativity from ourselves. In uncharted territory, Columbus suffers a kind of “madness,” believing himself to have discovered Eden. In this regard, all of us are like this paradigmatic explorer in our search for self-knowledge, mistaking our very real discoveries for a mythic Eden to which we may never return.
The Absent One is the God who hides in the “cloud / of unknowing” (Pines refers here to the medieval mystical tract that posits that we cannot attain the hidden God through mere knowledge or intellection) — but the Absent One is also, more simply, the absent human father. In one beautiful poem, Telemachus longing for the lost Odysseus is reinvented as a boy
on a bicycle
hugging his radio
through the late autumn streets
of a mill town
in search of
an absent father
the son of a man
in search of himself
both of them wanderers
in the male mystery (26)
This “male mystery” — the question of masculinity, of how to be a man, a father, a son, and by extension, of how men are to treat women — serves as a psychological and social counterpoint to the philosophical and hermetical explorations that preoccupy most of the poems in this volume. When these concerns come together, the resulting poetry becomes especially profound:
What men enshrine in women
is their own pleasure
what seems homage
to those who
mistaking their impact
Men worship in the pink church
of their beloved’s nipples
which they set above
what they need to know
that makes sense
of impotence (36)
The “impotence” to which Pines refers is not (or not only) sexual impotence, but the impotence of (male) intelligence in its quest to penetrate both psychological and spiritual mysteries. Pines himself ranges far and wide in this quest; his allusions testify to the way that intelligence propels itself forward throughout history, continually meeting, and sometimes transcending, the boundaries of our unknowing. Thus we encounter
who tried to ingest
make his mind
a pyramid reaching all the way
at the stake
before achieving the fixed stars (44)
Yet having invoked this saint of intellectual freedom, the poet immediately follows by noting that
of the every-day heart
its coagulatio et separatio
punch a clock
drive kids to school
support the weight
of a routine
in which it’s impossible
to understand an emotion
without destroying it (44)
These lines are close to the heart — the “every-day heart” — of Pines’s vision. To accept one’s mundane responsibilities and remain fully in touch with one’s capacity to feel is a challenge every bit as great as the alchemist’s search for the philosopher’s stone. There is a wonderful intimacy in many of these poems, emerging from Pines’s desire “to understand an emotion / without destroying it.” Despite the occasional references to various hermetic traditions, Divine Madness is not an esoteric book. There are many moments here when I am reminded of the lucidity and directness that one associates with the Objectivists, especially Williams, and perhaps to an even greater extent, Oppen, as in these thoughtfully rendered lines:
that they heal us
on deaf ears
to hear them
in our dreams
in the arms
terror of our fear (38)
As a practicing psychotherapist, Pines certainly understands the ways in which we may “ask / our children’s / blessing” and “require / that they heal us”; likewise, it makes sense that he would stress the attention we must pay to our words as they “whisper // in our dreams.” And it is at this point that we come to one of the most important aspects of Divine Madness. The spiritual experiences to which Pines alludes throughout this volume have their roots in the ecstatic performances of the shaman. In his essay on shamanism in Structural Anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss observes how a shaman treats a patient: “The shaman provides the sick woman with a language, by means of which unexpressed, and otherwise inexpressible, psychic states can be immediately expressed. … In this respect, the shamanistic cure lies on the borderline between our contemporary physical medicine and such psychological therapies as psychoanalysis. Its originality stems from the application to an organic condition of a method related to psychotherapy.” Yet as is well known, shamanic performance is also closely linked to the origins of poetry. As Mircea Eliade notes in Shamanism, “The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that, like the ecstasy or the religious inspiration of ‘primitives,’ reveals the essence of things.” The shaman, the therapist, and the poet all recreate language so that we may again have words for what ails us, and thereby seek a cure. What strikes me as particularly admirable about Pines’s poetry is that his words attain this condition while maintaining the utmost clarity and the most poised lyricism. At age seventy-two, Pines has distilled a lifetime of reading, thinking, caring, and writing into Divine Madness. It is indeed divinest sense.
A review of ‘I Was There for Your Somniloquy’
The ocean is a place of the fantastic and bizarre, a world full of creatures so different from our terrestrial designs they might as well be from another planet. Rightfully, then, the ocean is also a metaphor for the unconscious, that unseen place off the map of ourselves where the old cartographers would write “where monsters lie.” Occasionally these monsters pull down a boat or two, and sailing gently through our lives, we may come across the resultant flotsam and jetsam of some disaster below our consciousness that we can only piece together from its wreckage.
Like our globe, Kelli Anne Noftle’s book, I Was There for Your Somniloquy, is seventy percent ocean. The poems are submersibles which give us a glimpse of an alien world. It is not the cold, descriptive view of the scientist, but more the view of the visitor to an aquarium who can only see the creatures in the tanks through her own reflection in the glass.
In the first section of the book, Noftle uses the mating habits of the sea slug, tape worm, and other sea creatures as tropes to throw light upon subjects of romance and personal attraction, subjects that from a distance can seem as odd and many-legged as the strangest cephalopod. She pairs each poem with an actual scientific description of the creature; the poem precedes the description. For example, in “Penis Fencing” the note from a scientific text describes how hermaphroditic flatworms mate. Each tries to pierce each other’s skin with its penis. The loser of the battle must carry the young. Or as Noftle puts it poetically, “One of us must waste our lives caring for the sting” (18).
The scientific descriptions contain the tropes which are deftly applied to personal relationships. Some hardly need a poem to feel poetic, for example, in the poem “Mating Chain,” where this note on sea slugs is ripe for comparison:
When three or more sea slugs mate in unison, the first animal in the chain acts exclusively as female, the last as male, and the others as male/female simultaneously. (15)
The poems don’t just settle for riffing on the obvious comparison but move beyond, complicating and veering in new directions. She concludes the poem: “I twist and steer each tentacle, / tying knots against the stillness. This one to symbolize love and the other, / savagery. I’m learning the subtlety, braiding between them.” Indeed, the oddness of sea creatures is their amorphous nature, the braiding together of what we consider separate — male and female, body and limb. And the pleasure in these poems is that Noftle blurs the edges of separate subjects, showing just such a precise, strange, and creative braiding.
In the second section of the book, the speakers or subjects in the poems are sailors on the ocean of the unconscious — sleepwalkers. What we see is not what is underwater, but what has surfaced. One character pours milk into the litter box; one becomes a more tender and affectionate lover in his sleep; one (a true story) kills his wife in his sleep; and one drinks wine from a flower vase. The characters stage a play in one world when the script is in the next. The book actively muses on this bridge between the two worlds in “Ars Poetica”:
In a house I am following myself
one mirror after another
not only myself
but also in relation to. (52)
The sleepwalker is the actor of where the conscious and unconscious person touch. It is not only the conscious and unconscious, but the brain also sits at odds: “The Right Side / of the brain brims with hyperbole, the left side sits cold as a Petri dish” (51). There is disconnection, each side illuminating the other, but much is lost in the process as well, and some things happen almost without us, or as Noftle writes: “Sometimes one hand will not stop touching the other” (37).
Other poems in the collection explore the ways our actions surface from the deep through different tropes. In one series, an artist finds certain colors intruding in her paintings: “I started using white. I put it in every picture […] That’s why I started dumping all my pigments into a bucket of white” (53). The colors are thrust from the deep, as are wreckage and remains of past mistakes, which Noftle explores through the metaphor of auto accidents. In “Parts for Whole” the speaker wanders around a junkyard:
from the wreckage — that I would slip
it on, imagine she lost it before
a missed kiss, mistake, to say
an accident happened here
and what ruined skin you have, paint chipped, bruised. (44)
If the subject is the wreckage or intrusion, the act is a piecing back together. A whole picture might not emerge from this scattering, but at least “The paint thickens as you reach the center” (58).
In the end, a description only of the tropes and themes of the book doesn’t do justice to their effect. The project of the book is larger. The comparisons evoke a real and genuine sympathy. Their goal is to get dangerously close to the nature of being a divided creature. They leave one with that uncanny feeling one gets sometimes, for no reason, when sitting at a stop light or opening the refrigerator, of just how unlikely we are. And that is the real pleasure of this book, not just the shadowy subject of our motives, but how they drive us to be.
In this timely and temperamental critical performance, Maria Damon celebrates our brave new postliterary world as a thing of the past. Before neighborhood slam and Flarf spam — the “diaspora poeses” of contemporary America, treated in the second half of this essay collection — there was a beat culture in postwar San Francisco that did more than Howl. In the “shadowland,” beyond the floodlight of Allen Ginsberg’s expressive iconicity, jazz, poetry, and performance communities thrived in a tenuous relation to the literary. Jewish and African American artists exchanged street verse, flamboyant rap, klezmorim and “Jewish jazz,” gospel music, live comedy, epistolary poetry, diary autobiography, and the signifying practices of ethnic identity to form collectives where, as today, “poets are not the only poets.”
The five essays of part 1, “Identity Kn/ot/e/s,” step outside the doors of City Lights Books to tour adjacent “hipster/bohemian” art worlds in San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s. Two figures animate this lively cultural commons: Lenny Bruce, stand-up comedian and “diasporic icon” whose 1962 obscenity trial is frequently eclipsed by the notorious censorship of Ginsberg’s Howl six years earlier; and Bob Kaufman, whose street verse enacts, for Damon, a reflexive sociology of the ethnic politics of jazz communities in North Beach. Lenny Bruce explicitly dynamizes the historical moment as a “cultural lightening rod” (“The Jewish Entertainer as Cultural Lightening Rod,” chapter 1), a subversive disruption to the state as The Plaintiff, aka The People of San Francisco. (Bruce was charged with violating the Penal Code during a live act at the Jazz Workshop on San Francisco’s nightclub strip in 1961.) For Damon, the exposed Jewish male sexuality of Lenny Bruce stands as a “vulnerable” counter to concealed gentile male sexuality, “the capital-P phallus” representing state power (19). But what dichotomies might inhere in the case of Lenny Bruce, Heroic Dissident versus The People are quickly troubled, if not by Bruce’s own “frantic self-displacement” through “philosophical rambling” — what Damon calls the “survivalist compulsion” of “Jewish hyperverbalism” (26), simultaneously the threat of Bruce’s identity as a chameleonic ability to adapt, proliferate, trip over itself only to insist on itself again, but differently — then through its placement by artist-observers like Bob Kaufman. In Kaufman’s poem “Bagel Shop Jazz,” the Jewish entertainer assumes a contingent positionality in a “demography of the shadowland of the hip” (38).
In chapters 2 and 3, the most persistent and compelling analyses among the knotty notes which comprise “Identity Kn/ot/e/s,” Damon reads “Bagel Shop Jazz” as a description of the triangulated structure of desire among creative artists at Co-Existence Bagel Shop in San Francisco’s North Beach. In Kaufman’s social “tableau,” women — “nonethnoracialized ‘Beat chicks’” — mediate between 1) “presumed-male ‘white ethnic’ Beats,” often Jewish men, and 2) “presumed-male hip African Americans (black beats).” Kaufman’s “Bagel Shop” throws into relief broader patterns of social affiliation presented in chapter 2, which introduces Jewish performers’ identificatory desire for African American culture. Against commonly accepted arguments about racial mimicry and assimilation, e.g. Michael Rogin’s account of Al Jolson’s blackface as a means to reject Jewish identity and gain acceptance by the American mainstream, and through readings of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, Ronnie Spector’s Be My Baby, and the exemplary case of Lenny Bruce, Damon argues that for Mezz, Phil Spector, Bruce, and others, blackness offered “a way to be ‘more Jewish.’” These performers were motivated by the anxiety that “Jewish American culture, by assimilating upward, was abdicating the special role of critique available to social outsiders” (42–43). For ‘white ethnic beats,’ identifying with ‘black beats’ was a way to maintain otherness — African American culture “a stable alternative, a nostalgic embodiment of the earthiness and vitality that threatened to get bleached out of secular and assimilated Jewish culture” (50). Moreover, women served as “vehicles … for these Jews’ desire for black masculinity” (46), alternately displayed in the autobiography of Ronnie Spector, Phil Spector’s African American ex-wife (“Phil loved his Afro wig. I guess it made him feel like he had soul or something … Here I was, this black girl, bored out of her mind at a gospel concert, sitting with a Jewish man in an Afro who looked like he was about to speak in tongues”) and in Mezzrow’s jazz autobiography. Mezzrow narrates his transition into African American culture through love and scorn for women, his adoration of Bessie Smith matched only by his anger watching his sister “correc[t] Bessie’s grammar” while scribing her lyrics. Rejecting his sister’s “stuck-up jive” of “‘good’ English” and “fancy high-school airs” enabled Mezzrow to articulate his own (appropriated) vernacular and persona as “the first white Negro.” Damon’s argument is silently indebted to critical precedents describing women’s mediating social function between men, such as Eve Sokofsky Sedgwick’s landmark Between Men.
Throughout these readings, Lenny Bruce stands as a heroic counter: he “reverses the terms” of ethnic exchange, where black musicians “become honorary Jews” (52). Yet Damon’s return to Bruce provides a welcome countermemory to the other “bellwether instance of Jewish male verbal and sexual identity on trial” in 1950s and ’60s San Francisco: Allen Ginsberg, whose obscene art and deviant sexual identity meanwhile fixed his iconoclastic “glamour for a straight white counterculture” (58). Beat criticism has lionized “‘white negroes’ for their individually flamboyant dissidence,” rather than endeavoring to see the kind of complex social portrait on view in Kaufman’s “Bagel Shop Jazz.” This has stultified the popular imagination in a romanticized heroics of commodifiable dissent. (Damon rightly estimates she need not refer to James Franco’s performance of Ginsberg in the blockbuster feature film Howl to make this point clear.)
The politics of identification among postwar artists as presented in part 1 thus provides an uncommon historical lens through which to view the contemporary in part 2, the exploratory “Poetics for a Postliterary America.” Damon toggles between two primary modes of “postliterary” poetries from the 1990s — present: counterperformance, or performance “practiced by poets of marginalized groups in American culture: young people, black people, street people, and various combinations thereof” (172); and micropoetries, a designation that riffs off of ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin’s study of “micromusics,” and encompasses “graffiti, poetry written as therapy, prison poetry, a relative’s topical verse, fortune cookie doggerel … market corporate slogans lasered in gothic script onto wooden plaques, preslam vernacular poetry …” (123). (Micropoetry’s subjects for inclusion, or at least its desire as a category to catalogue apparently endless cultural ephemera, could be said to derive also from Rimbaud’s accumulative recollection of ‘literary’ fondnesses as a child in “Alchemy of the Word,” an epigraph to chapter 10: “absurd paintings … old-fashioned literature, Church Latin, erotic books badly spelled, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naïve rhythms” .) Chapter 7, “When the Nuyoricans Came to Town,” which describes the Nuyorican Poets’ Café tour of the Twin Cities in 1993 — or the cultural collision of Puerto Rican New York slam poets with “Midwestern lyric practitioners” — exemplifies the stakes of “counterperformance” as an analytical category. Damon’s reading of BlacQ/Ibn/Mujaheed/Adam Harden’s performance of “This poem’s about the alcoholic in my home,” for example, notes its “confluence of discourses” — “twelve-step philosophy, public prayer and black religious oratory, the dactylic tetrameter that by convention places it in a folk tradition” — all as “fodder for rich analysis” (123). At the same time, the poem derives traction from its social location, compelling Damon’s account of this context, a poetry slam battle pitting “New York in-your-face” improvisational acts against “Minnesota nice” and its “stoic prairie” poems. In chapters 9 and 10, Damon reads micropoetries to include text from anthropological ethnographies and exchanges of the Flarf collective and SUNY-Buffalo poetics listservs. Cyberpoet Alan Sondheim’s work (chapter 11) solicits readings as both counterperformance and micropoetry; although Damon reads Sondheim through Walter Benjamin, Sondheim’s explicit self-exposure during live web performance echoes the dissent tactics of part 1’s Lenny Bruce.
Damon’s critical method and discursive style are mutually constitutive and performatively engaged. The rough, uneven texture of the prose aspires to its objects, frequently imitating the creative acts it describes: “the Heraclitean flow of the ensemble process” — jazz improvisation — “a steady rhythm overshot with melodic lines improvised and defamiliarized from the individual pitches making up the chord progressions of … pop tunes” — bebop (1), — with Damon here overwriting critical rather than jazz standards; the organization of essays as thematically recursive and argumentatively iterative produces the “‘scrappy’ structure of feeling” (90) that Damon attributes to Adeena Karasick’s work in chapter 5. (Much like work by Karasick, “Jewish Canadian feminist Kabbalah scholar and poet” of “The Wall,” Damon’s project in part seeks to reanimate Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, where Postliterary America is its own “instance of diasporic excess” in which the creator cannot “bear to leave anything out” .)
Not only is Damon invested in “attending to US poetries that have been underrecognized because of their social locations, processes, idiosyncrasies, or idiolects” (12), but she attends to their investments in experimentally mimetic affinity. For example, she not only questions traditional notions of aesthetic value by examining a nontraditional subject, such as typo-infested Flarf doggerel, but by including and narrating through her own typographical errors in the monograph text. The chapter on Nuyorican slam ends in a catalogue of shout-outs and rants, desperate to lift off the page and into spoken word: “You say you want heteroglossia? Semiotic flux and shimmy shimmy coco-pop? Roll over, Bakhtin, and tell Kristeva the news” (143). Damon frequently makes parenthetical asides, offers a “[l]ongish disclaimer” by way of concluding chapter 6, and undercuts and pokes fun at her own critical affect: “It would be excessively corny to point out that AS, as the poet’s initials [Adam Sondheim] comprise an English word that, be it in the form of an adverb, conjunction, pronoun (!), or preposition, always necessitates relation and process — but if one can’t wax excessively corny in an essay such this, then where? And if not now, when?” (125, 215).
Finally, then, Damon’s most enduring argument is one about critical method, modeling a scholarship that performs pedagogical interest in its subjects as a student, or a “permanent apprentice” (203). Damon’s willingness to humor, imitate, and identify with her subjects frequently yields “research [as] emotional play” (123). This method in turn thoroughly hybridizes the genres of academic criticism and autobiography: chapter 3 opens with a reflection on her father and his efforts to “assimilat[e]” (40) in contrast to Jews of his generation who romanced alterity, i.e. Mezzrow, Spector, and Bruce. One can even get the feeling that the texts enlisted were plumbed in the interest of a family genealogy project or a quest for self-understanding as much as an academic argument: but this, Damon’s autobiographical or “I”-based criticism, is its own generative intervention. Rather than shy away from acknowledging the complex and often divergent affective motivations that compel one into contact with an archive or an art form, Damon embraces these “conflicts of interest” as an ethically invested mode of critical accountability. It is the task of the “I”-based critic to register and even explain her complicities and opacities vis-à-vis the historical record. Perhaps one of the next tasks of a “postliterary America” is to restore, or at least playfully retrieve, the speaking subject in criticism, the arena where it has been most comfortable withdrawing. If the lyric “I” marks the sin of solipsism and private taste, the critical “I” meanwhile confesses — “this is not a disinterested analysis” (142) — and promises transparency from our cultural gatekeepers. Postliterary America is at least as “erratic” and “partisan” as Damon says it is — in the hope that postliterary criticism, like postliterary poetry, might have “poetry’s permission for subjectivity or hermeticism” to function as a “laboratory where the microeffects of subjectivity in discourse can be experimented on and with through the manipulation of language [as] a key to contemporary diasporic consciousness” (212); as a “completely appropriate venue for clarifying identities, evolving and devolving, that contribute to a rich, ahierarchic heterogeneity composing a thus far hypothetical democracy” (125).
1. Quoted in Damon, 48. See Ronnie Spector (with Vince Waldron), Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette (New York: Harper Collins, 1990) 171–2. Damon’s analysis does not explicitly note the presence of a white male ghostwriter.