Getting to know nothing

A review of Peter Gizzi's 'In Defense of Nothing'

Photo of Peter Gizzi by Robert Seydel.

In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011

In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011

Peter Gizzi

University of Wesleyan Press 2015, 244 pages, $18.95, ISBN 978-0819575647

Book by book, Peter Gizzi has made propulsive advances in style and range. Poems sprawl longer, blaze forth brighter in rich fluidities of argument, bare riddling surfaces of ever-more-intricate logic and sound, and all the while offer readers fuller, faster, more enterable poetic experiences. Meanwhile, the gradual emergence of an authorial alter-ego in these poems — an obdurate speaker grounded in quotidian observation, prone to political outbursts, romantic — this signature persona becomes, for the reader, a companionable figure. 

One of the signal pleasures of In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011 is that it offers a chance to take stock of Gizzi’s remarkable growth as a lyric poet during those years. Troubling Gizzi’s career arc is the cultivation of a certain inelegance. The everyman-speaker-avatar is one example, more on display in recent poems. Also providing grit in the oyster shell, so to speak, are too-pithy maxims (“The heart of poetry is a hollow man / a heteronym”), ominous platitudes (“and revolution, well, revolution is everything”), and the occasional smarmy assumption (“Who hasn’t found themselves / praying in an awkward room”). By risking or embracing sentimentality, Gizzi lays claim to lyric ground shunned by contemporaries more spooked by the Foucauldian “death of the author.”

Keats wrote already at an ironic remove from the effete Goth he ventriloquized in “Ode to a Nightingale.” For Gizzi, speaker and argument are artificial, too. That Gizzi irrigates and makes blossom a poetic model still most associated with second-generation Romantics is remarkable.

Gizzi’s deliberate artificiality, his “too-muchness” if you will, is artfully managed. The reader is never asked to suspend disbelief. Instead, she may submit — willingly, irrationally — to a hyperreal lyric experience. These poems blend poetic cadence with familiar affective contents. Readers of In Defense of Nothing can fall under the sway of an unlikely, awkward speaker and enjoy strange pleasures.

Gizzi’s early poems may come across as proofs — elegant demonstrations of novel syntax and musicianship. I am reminded of George Oppen’s meta-riffing on modernist forms in his first collection, Discrete Series (1934). In Gizzi’s early books, too, a calculated distance from form and theme is telegraphed in poems that remix modernist tropes. In Gizzi’s second collection, Artificial Heart, the title of the poem “Will Call” might suggest tickets held at a box office, or a promise that the speaker (or someone else) will return a phone call, or Emily Dickinson’s gnomic tomb inscription (“CALLED BACK”). In another poem, the speaker asserts, “Silence is what we make / of eyes, trees and growing vine,” and it’s unclear if the reader will profit by attempting to parse this definition of silence. The axiomatic proposition “Silence is” is collaged onto a generic description of human and plant biology, an unusual splice typical for this poet.

In Gizzi’s hands the modernist lyric is taken apart like an engine or rifle. The components of Williams’s “machine made out of words,” taken separately, don’t stand for much. But Gizzi retrofits such pieces, drawing attention to the least among them.

Consider the instructions that constitute the opening lines of Gizzi’s marvelous poem “Blue Peter,” originally included in Periplum (1992):

To describe a logic of sight
pull the surface onto target and
arrive at zero aperture. Then
fluctuate to a face, reproduced
in serial format, superimposed
upon marginal pedestrians
traversing a polarity of earth.

Through a hypnotic series of doublings, Gizzi transforms a logical proof into a kind of spell inducing dizziness. How can one separate the “surface” of the target from the target? Is a zero a tiny opening, or is its hole closed and hence no longer an “aperture?”

Gizzi dedicated “Blue Peter” to Jasper Johns, and it makes sense to consider the poem in terms of Johns’s target paintings, where part of the point is that Johns is not only making targets, but also making paintings of targets, and also making paintings about targets. There are telling parallels between the art practices of Johns and Gizzi. Johns’s early paintings are not only about the signs they literally manifest (flags, maps, targets, etc.), but through their highly worked surfaces, they both comment upon and resituate signs.

Likewise, Gizzi’s early poems appear to stand at a reflexive distance from their themes. They gesture toward their status as fictions, as poems, in order to refocus the reader on an act of interpretation and recuperation that is both belated (reading a lyric poem in this day and age) and also, just possibly, primary (experiencing a poem directly, authentically).

One gets the sense that Gizzi’s astonishing acumen for identifying, remaking, and refitting existing avant-garde tropes, in the early poems, is put into service of any number of proscriptions and rules about making new poetry; for example, not repeating existing moves. This can result, occasionally, in poems that feel chilly, poems that don’t throw a bone to the reader who would prefer to settle on one interpretation or another.

With 2003’s Some Values of Landscape and Weather, Gizzi introduces the brawny, richly musical perorations that represent his most ambitious work to date. The title poem is a good example. The first lines, with a nod to Canto I of the Inferno, introduce a speaker who gestures toward a community of listeners:

In the middle of our lives we walked
single file into winter’s steely pavilion.
The moss’s greening, winningly,
made our footfalls pavane in their silver light.
To be out on a Tuesday with Liberty,
her bright flash stinging.
I followed willingly, she sang
haltingly, and I kept closer
to navigate her coo and whisper.

To enter this poem is like absently eavesdropping on a conversation between strangers and suddenly being riveted by the certainty that one’s life may depend on its meaning. Gizzi splits open Dante’s lone spiritual sickness so that it belongs to everybody, the great cohort of those who listen. Thematic materials are deployed with such skill and speed that the topicality of the poem, its significant references to contemporary politics, is kept subordinate to the poem’s music. In poems like these Gizzi manages to resurrect a lyric speaker of sorts, an identifiable and resonant yet mainly generic double and preceptor. The thematic elements of the long poems never quite add up, but the animating illusion of a central speaker makes them feel whole.

Some Values of Landscape and Weather
also sees the introduction, in earnest, of the representative authorial persona, or “Gizzi”-figure. You can glimpse it in “Lessons in Darkness,” with the poet as ordinary suburban pedestrian:

You know, here a dumpster
there a Dane. On the street
I see birds, bricks, clouds
I see a friend getting into her car
I see myself in the puzzle I see.

Or in the moving “Revival,” in which, for a moment, the activities of the lyricist reading and making poems come to seem pointless:

I was talking about rending, reading, rewriting
what is seen. Put the book down and look into the day.
I want an art that can say how I am feeling
if I am feeling blue sky unrolling a coronation rug
unto the bare toe of a peasant girl …

A reluctant ambivalence about the ends of poetry is disrupted by the striking image of sky, rug, and peasant-girl toe. But this uncertainty about the uses of poetry catches up with Gizzi in other poems. If Gizzi insists on including inelegant or quotidian details as well as hieratic ones, it seems partly because he is paying tribute to real but dispiritingly small realities, and partly because his attentions to the mundane provide a gateway for readers entering a poetic space with room for substantial varieties of experience. If you can’t have it all, you can have some of everything, Gizzi seems to suggest.

The Outernationale (2007) sees Gizzi complicating the maximal longer poem which has become his trademark. Particularly fascinating examples, here, are “A Panic that Can Still Come Upon Me,” “Beacon,” “Homer’s Anger,” and the longer poem titled “The Outernationale.” Also included are short lyrics which refine and make more resonant Gizzi’s work with powerfully concentrated forms, imbuing them, for readers, with a more potent felt charge. Threshhold Songs (2011) represents an especial flowering of this kind of short lyric, one in which threads of deeply unnerving personal losses and grief are formed into affecting melodies that become more than the sum of their private sources, and indeed stand as rare examples of truly popular song in recent lyric poetry.

But it is in the longer poems, I think, that Gizzi reaches his maximal artistry. In particular, “Homer’s Anger,” from The Outernationale, builds on the kind of relentless, questing tradition of the beat howl, rumblings which may have identified themselves as the cry of freedom in extremis. The sixth part of “Homer’s Anger” concludes:

Do you know what I mean
when I said anger is not emotion?

When everyone is stolen
I will begin in rain.

Not to be wrong
but uncertain, to want

more than this sentence.
If I say darkness is still

when it falls, understand
I am moving toward you.

Here is a poetic that begins with a radical rebuilding of the modernist lyric and never loses its obsession with this undead tradition. Nevertheless, Gizzi’s work has moved toward a recuperation of the Romantic project, proffering a speaker as straw man and stylized avatar. This poet begins with formulae and witty critique, and develops into a master of powerful argument who makes music through play upon resonantly traditional themes. One’s sense of speaker and reader is never stable in these poems. Indeed, the poet’s troubling of these categories refreshes them in his recent poetry. If Gizzi would purport to defend “nothing,” as the title of this Selected suggests, it is perhaps the “nothing” that, in Auden’s formula, poetry makes happen.

Perhaps even more, this Selected is testament to an engagement with the “nothing” Socrates had in mind when he declared, “All I know is that I know nothing.” For Gizzi, a willingness to edge close to nothingness, nonsense, and awkwardness pays rich dividends in poems that resonate well beyond paraphrase. The product of immersion in arcane traditions of poetic making, this book contains beautifully pieced-together lyrics that are, at their best, endlessly beguiling. This well-edited Selected should give new readers an excellent chance to tune in.

A field of the invisible

A review of Christina Olivares's 'No Map of the Earth Includes Stars'

Images courtesy of Marsh Hawk Press and Christina Olivares.

No Map of the Earth Includes Stars

No Map of the Earth Includes Stars

Christina Olivares

Marsh Hawk Press 2015, 98 pages, $15.00, ISBN 0990666905

“Burnt Code,” the opening poem of Christina Olivares’s debut collection, No Map of the Earth Includes Stars, startles in the intimacy of its address: “You devote years to / listening to, interpreting, misinterpreting code.”[1] Here, Olivares’s speaker addresses her father, who is losing himself to schizophrenia. In a long series of poems in the book’s first section, “Petition,” her speaker imparts her memories, recent and long past, and those of her father, to whom the poems adhere in ways he cannot adhere to his own life.

“Petition” occupies all but the book’s final pages, and takes the speaker’s father’s schizophrenia as the locus of its ongoing second-person address, retreating to the speaker’s childhood in moments and expanding in others to map the speaker’s loss in a larger arc: “Studies show that paranoid and religious phenomenology in schizophrenic clinical presentation is substantially increased in Afro-Caribbean male immigrant population / reasons unknown” (22). The final section, “Other Lives,”moves around similar themes, in the presence of the intimate force of “Petition.”

As Olivares’s poems attempt to map the loss of the speaker’s father, they work to build a set of family narratives. In 2010, Olivares received a grant from the Jerome Foundation to conduct research in Cuba on the practice of Santería and to learn more about the context of her family history that brought members of her family to the US in the mid-1960s. The series of poems that extends from Olivares’s research appears within “Petition” and addresses Babalu Aye, an orisha, or spirit, often invoked in Santería to remedy illness and strongly associated with exile and death.

“Babalu Aye” is often translated as “Lord of the Earth.”[2] The earth that the book’s title maps is the domain of Babalu Aye, and its poems feel like a space of prayer that records what has been and honors people who are dead to make sense of how they died. Images of bodies take the shape of the celestial and the elemental — sky and earth, but also stars and sea — as Olivares negotiates the competing scales of an elegy that’s also a family history and wonders at larger cultural narratives, all while trying to locate the speaker within its scalar shifts.

In “Teaching the Map,” Olivares writes: “the map does not demonstrate well the bigness / Of the world” (73), and it’s this same map, in this same poem, that fails to chart both earth and stars in the book’s title. No map can contain everything, but in the poems each map and each body occasions thoughts toward totality. Olivares echoes Audre Lorde, whose poem “Coal” begins: “I / Is the total black, being spoken / From the earth’s inside. / There are many kinds of open.”[3] The self emerges here, whole from the earth, as a metonym for blackness, the earth opening and the self opening, where the earth is the site of the exchange between individuals and collectives, as it can be for Olivares.

And yet, from her book’s title, we know that the earth doesn’t house everything we might need to see. A map of stars is dissonant with a map of the earth. In “Petitioning Babalu Aye,” Olivares charts schizophrenia as an emptiness that it is possible to encode: “You were a map of stars, drawn all over again. / You a field of the invisible. Things would be drawn into you” (48). Drawing a schizophrenic mind makes a map as it subsumes a map’s surface. Olivares locates in stars the relentless shift of a surface that belies unknowable space beyond. Elements of the speaker’s father appear on a map, but they can’t be shown in all their contours. No degree of care will fully chart them.

Even so, stars absorbed in “a field of the invisible” can help make a map, even if it must be reconciled with others. Olivares shares these celestial models with June Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights,” which includes the lines: “I wanted to go / there by myself thinking about God / or thinking / about children or thinking about the world / all of it / disclosed by the stars and the silence.”[4] Jordan’s stars disclose the private work of thinking that is ratified as it’s shared with them. Stars work for Olivares to model schizophrenia as a gulf between people, the disease opening the speaker’s father to a violent, private world, where his turn to that world opens in the speaker an unfamiliar way of being alive.

A map allows disconnected groups of people to share an experience of space. A map that redraws itself makes that experience impossible, as does a map of the earth, if what you need to navigate are stars and sky. Olivares’s book is strongest when it sets the impossibility of a map that fits an entire picture against its desire to map, whether the loss of the speaker’s father, the threads of her childhood and his, or the larger set of the families of Afro-Caribbean male immigrants who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia in unusually high numbers.

To be useful, a map must be a partial guide, selecting a portion of space and showing a set of its features. In Olivares’s poems “the map” of “Teaching the Map” meets the “no map” of the book’s title, and as it does, the desire to know all of a family history encounters the speaker’s search for peace and the impossibility of recovering every lost story, every contour of how her father disappeared.

The sea in Olivares’s poems also lends form to loss. The book opens with the lines: “Scans show progress in the left temporal lobe. Denial of illness. Disordered thoughts, / made up words. System central to your nervous. I hold your dis-ease, a handful of burnt / threads. Threads made of sea” (3). The sea reappears in other poems, holding disease. In “Sea Claims the Temporary Prophet”:

A sea
taken root
explodes from your skull
wet splitting

was from is.

You stand
inside those white walls, swaying. (26)

The sea takes the shape of the disease, and also contains a collective sense of loss, as in “Why I Went,” where: “The sea is a body that holds / all of what we were forced to / unbecome. Hidden in her / mouths, a wept, wild singing” (43). The poems give great attention to what’s hidden and do wonderful work with silence as they consider the forms a body takes as it moves toward death. The page of the poem “Dictation: Papa Medicated with Thorazine” is left blank under its title. The disease is one kind of trauma, but its treatment is another.

Olivares shifts between lyric characterizations of schizophrenia and declarative statements about how the illness morphs in “Petitioning Babalu Aye,” where she writes: “There is no satisfying or accounting for the daughter’s desire to see with the father’s / unseeing eyes” (52). The poems work to find homologies between memorializing and petitioning the orisha, and the disease, the speaker’s father, and the speaker herself, a petition for a daughter’s desire, as well as for the father she knows she is losing.

In her poems, Olivares’s speaker accounts for her father’s decline with patience and grace, attuning herself to the gorgeous moments with him that she’s offered. In “You Hear Singing on the El Train,” in the same poem that marks the “onset of what / the doctors call paranoid / schizophrenia,” Olivares follows the new attentions of the disease as she evaluates them, and she offers us a tremendous intimacy. We’re there when the speaker says to her father: “you are arrested / by the radiance of every single thing” (16)

1. Christina Olivares, No Map of the Earth Includes Stars (Marsh Hawk Press, 2015), 5.

2. Larry Rohter, “Musical Dialogue Beyond Embargoes,” The New York Times,March 11, 2011.

3. Audre Lorde, “Coal” in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (New York: W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1997).

4. June Jordan, “Poem about My Rights” in Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2005).

'alchemy's new materials'

A review of Jamie Townsend's 'Shade'

Photo of Jamie Townsend (right) by Ivy Johnson.



Jamie Townsend

Elis Press 2015, 110 pages, $15, ISBN 978-0986171017

Jamie Townsend’s debut collection of poetry, Shade, continuously turns for us a promise of utopia that is as perpetually deferred as it is exhausted. Much like a mixtape or a news ticker’s scrolling forecast of weather and stocks, Shade traverses contiguous anxieties about what capitalism renders immaterial and how optimism becomes militarized, with Townsend trailing who (or what) follows us from the streets into our throats, from our dreams into the law. That is, Shade raises again for us “the problem of language & desire — its star maps bound around limbs / — histories we speak ourselves into.”[1] But these histories are, in turn, qualified and differed endlessly as “ecstatic positions where words eventually circle but never / fully penetrate” (14).

The poems of Shade, then, are concerned with — and especially by — transformation, intuiting in that capacity to change a power that is used both for and against, though the wielders and targets of this power remain hidden. Take, for example, the opening lines of the collection, from the poem “Paradise Now” — a list of magnificent things without a clear delineation of the direction of agency or reception:

the real shit of alchemy’s new materials

the historic precedent found in early music video special effects

the ghost mixtape as cipher , making urban Midwest from Yokohama , Sophia

Coppola making Emma Watson teenage SoCal , making heaven together in the dark

outside the luxury condo (7)

Within the alchemical matrix of Townsend’s poetry, a soundtrack has become a secret code; a Japanese port city has become the United States’ heartland; Emma Watson, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and former star of the Harry Potter franchise, has become an upscale small criminal; and bourgeois life has become (or has been revealed to be?) a hell ensconced in a developer’s wet dream. This all leads up to one of my favorite images, what must be an homage to the lush romance of John Wieners: “the tonal range of names cried out in bed, their duration & emphasis / the precision of the vague & its central act becoming nonlocatable / the pink roses by the cash register” (9).

In witnessing the twisting of these places, people, and even fantasies, Shade suggests that paradise can be intuited, if only fleetingly. Our “paradise now” grants us glimpses of the protean shimmering within processes of transformation, often attaining the lyric pitch of liturgy. Consider this breathless moment held in a long stretch of unpunctuated prose from a long sequence of poems titled “Thrown Shade”:

the daily movements of my fellow residents have become theoretical opaque & elusive as if writing about them & myself instead of providing greater clarity & dimension has instead enacting a sort of parasitic drain rendering their forms amorphous shriveled bled out to grey scale & the more i fill up these pages with cyclical attempts at dismantling then reenvisioning modes of lust loss friendship the modes of any life together the more concerned i become with the process itself what my body is doing next to the coffee machine for hours (65)

In passages such as this one, Townsend displays his apprenticeship to the ecstatic prose of New Narrative writers such as Robert Glück and Bruce Boone, in addition to the sexy, body-troubling science fictions of Samuel R. Delany. Still, Townsend makes significant breaks from his mentors in Shade. Glück’s and Boone’s first major works were conceived contemporaneously with the swan song of gay liberation, a singular record set between the door closing on the gay 1970s and opening upon the AIDS crisis and turn to neoliberalism of the long 1980s. Townsend’s poetry sits more awkwardly in relation to any liberationism, optimism, or utopianism. The attitude of Shade — wary as it is of embracing completely the promise of the pop song, wherein we’re “feeling it & offering continuity like / a tongue inside the routine” (50) — is one where good (political) feelings cannot be trusted. Whereas Glück and Boone could rest their imaginations on the notion that the future was tenable, Townsend holds the imagination itself in suspension, turning over again and again the promise of a better tomorrow to check it for malware and Trojan horses.

Townsend’s fixation with deferral and suspension can also be read at the level of form, where clauses refuse to close off and commas and dashes create nesting effects, delaying the satisfying arrival of a final grammatical unit. There’s no (syntactical) completion or individuation, as phrases, lines, and sentences fall off into one another. Bodies become indistinct, only rarely popping up with proper names and subject pronouns. Consider the beginning of “Heartbreaker”:

Antony sings crazy in love and the world changes completely

each inflection draws out sex as portraiture in invisible ink

your flannel won’t save you but the gold lamé bikini bottom 

rises from the pool , lights the apex of your arc , & draws together 

a swarm of celestial parasites glowing in the greater demimonde

a vintage American Apparel model backlit by subterranean grotto 

inverted Mimi diva of the tri-sex self-reflected blinking ,

 closing the camera , looking away 

                  the song obliterates signature (103)

Perhaps in this moment without particularity, without individual signature, awash in fantasy and sensation, we are offered a new mode of feeling. To me, this is the shade of Shade: the space apart from all the boring hours in the aforementioned developer’s luxury condo, in which pleasures and ghosts of pleasures congregate. Townsend’s poems speak to a relation to power and pleasure that is shaded — hidden, obfuscated, cloaked, smudged. This is a queer relation to power and pleasure, absolutely, but one that has been assimilated in a very recent past, the youth of millennial poets, so that now the police and the state also have a vested interest in subjects consolidating themselves even in their shaded desires. At many levels, Shade captures this turn in identity politics, especially queer ones.

Here I’d like to interject that, ostensibly, the title of this collection could also refer to a now-popular slang term that finds its roots in the documentary Paris is Burning. In this film, drag queen Dorian Corey quite memorably defines “shade”: “Shade is I don’t tell you that you’re ugly. But I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly. And that’s shade.”[2] Yet I’d argue that Shade says less about any past aesthetics of sexuality, race, or performance than the title suggests. Instead, it records a contemporary meditation on relations of power and the swift, effective occlusion of these relations via popular culture — a prime engine in the regulation of optimistic production and consumption. Townsend urgently reminds us that Antony Hagerty’s cover of Mariah Carey “obliterates signature” — and thus, surpasses the necessary individualism of neoliberal capitalism. If Shade is a song, it’s a cover, knowingly dissonant with the monolingualism and atomization of the smash-hit single.

In this relation to the mainstream, Townsend’s work is reminiscent of many of the so-called post-conceptual poets (e.g. Felix Bernstein or Andrew Durbin), all of whom queerly appraise and reference pop culture to produce a patina of anticapitalist critique. Still, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Townsend takes for his model of queerness the gossipy, ribald sensibilities of Glück, Boone, and Delany rather than, say, the superficial dandyism of Andy Warhol. The difference is that Townsend’s poems register the enchantment of the commodity — the way it gets under the skin and shoots around the brain with a promise of satisfaction. Shade knows something of the utopianism in allure that leaves the speaker of these poems not aloof or rarified in post-conceptual smugness but vulnerable and stupid before desire, even when he knows better. For example, consider this moment in “20/20,” Townsend’s meditation on Whitman’s America:

i read about fields of light & music like crystals , desperately wanting new things

i buy a shirt in a pattern called KASBAH & listen to Lou Reed sing about Coney Island

for money to buy junk — …

i buy a shirt in a pattern called LOW END cream with yellow roses to petition the sky —

i buy black denim & cannot remember my dreams —

from above huge herds of beasts are the first things we can see , grazing in the light , their

variegated coats shining — (96)

In other mouths, this out-of-control feeling of superabundance might simply be an argument for a triumphant euphoria, but in Shade, we read how pleasure — and even pleasure’s supreme manifestations in satisfaction and ecstasy — is taxed, capitalized upon, even routed back against itself. Townsend writes, “like we’re spoken into existence for now — spoken into each other but ourselves remain (are forced to remain) locked inside aphasia—” (13–14). The pleasure of Shade is attuned to this play of the visceral among the slipstream of the denotative — that we have little to no mastery over that which pleases our tongues. In the face of such a panoply of delights we find ourselves immediately overwhelmed by everything on display.


1. Jamie Townsend, Shade (Elis Press, 2015), 14.

2. Paris is Burning, directed by Jennie Livingston (1990).

The visions and worlds of Hagiwara Sakutaro

Photo of Hagiwara Sakutaro (right) from Wikimedia Commons.

Cat Town

Cat Town

Hagiwara Sakutaro, trans. Hiroaki Sato

New York Review of Books 2014, 224 pages, $14, ISBN 9781590177754

The Iceland

The Iceland

Hagiwara Sakutaro, trans. Hiroaki Sato

New Directions 2014, 64 pages, $10.95, ISBN 9780811221603

You may smash a fly but the fly’s “thing in itself” will not die. You’d simply have smashed the phenomenon called the fly. — Schopenhauer

So says the epigraph to Hagiwara Sakutaro’s “roman in the style of a prose poem,” Cat Town (1935) — in the eponymous volume which also includes his collections Howling at the Moon (1917) and Blue Cat (1923), as well as a selection of other poems. Cat Town itself is a confession of frayed nerves as the author wanders through the countryside and eventually discovers a town populated only by cats. In its final section he retells Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream, in which the difference between dream and reality is thought to be undecided, and ends by stating that somewhere in the universe that particular town of cats, the one he saw, certainly must exist. Like the Schopenhauer epigraph that begins his narrative, one is left asking if one’s “living perception can still recreate” in the imagination what may have been. The fly, like the town of cats, will always exist in its idea.

In his introduction to Cat Town, translator Hiroaki Sato notes that Hagiwara called himself “nearly blind” when he wrote, working off of “inspiration,” and that “the poetic theory he developed and expanded tended to narrow his scope.” This theory conceived of poetry as “any noticeable sentiment,” and that sentiment was expressed as “image”:

[T]he poet’s task was to express his subjective image as accurately as possible. Poetry was a ‘direct expression of music’ only when the poet succeeded in projecting his inner rhythm, namely, his vision. (xxxi–xxxii)

In his own introduction to Howling at the Moon, Hagiwara states that “rhythm cannot be explained,” and that “for someone to express his feelings completely is not something that can be done easily. In such a case words are useless. There are only music and poetry for that.” He also states that “[p]oetry is a language that goes beyond language.”

According to the translator, Hagiwara’s poem “Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground,” the first poem in Howling at the Moon, was completely new to Japanese circles at the time, introducing an indefinite subject through a relatively new, imported style — free verse. By disengaging from previous tropes, as well as adapting a style that appears to be a rejection of form, it seems to display both a highly particularized “inner vision” as well as a less determined language “beyond language.”

Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground

At the bottom of the ground a face emerging,
a lonely invalid’s face emerging

In the dark at the bottom of the ground,
soft vernal grass stalks beginning to flare,
rats’ nest beginning to flare,
and entangled with the nest,
innumerable hairs beginning to tremble,
time the winter solstice,
from the lonely sickly ground,
roots of thin blue bamboo beginning to grow,
beginning to grow,
and that, looking truly pathetic,
looking blurred,
looking truly, truly, pathetic

In the dark at the bottom of the ground,
a lonely invalid’s face emerging.

More complicated are his “war poems” that touch on or praise Japanese militarism and imperialism: “On the Day Nanking Fell,” a commissioned poem that the author was embarrassed over (and is only included in Sato’s introduction), “The Army,” and “The Naval Review Off Shinagawa,” in The Iceland. For the contemporary reader of political history, these poems leave perhaps more discomfort than poems like the above, despite their long-lasting influence on Japanese letters. One may ask whether these “political” poems fall short of, or actually fulfill, the prescriptions for poetry the author sets:

On the Day Nanking Fell

The year about to end,
the soldiers’ bayonets gleam white.
The army travel calendar past summer, fall,
Shanghai scaled last night 100, 1,000 kilometers away.
Our marching days have no rest,
men and horses vie to run ahead,
supplies continuing in mud-oozed roads.
Ah those fighting on this plain
vow never to return alive,
under helmets all sunburned.

Heaven cold, sun frozen
the year about to end,
Nanking here has fallen.
Raise our sun-bright flag,
Time for all to be relieved of anxieties,
our victory decided,
they should celebrate banzai.
They should shout banzai.

In tone the poem reads more like a dirge that borders on the satirical than a patriotic screed. Although he died before reports of the Rape of Nanjing would have reached him, had it been about any other event, or at least the celebration of free verse we see in his other “inspired” and seemingly ahistorical works, this poem would be easier to overlook. Today we often expect a certain “decency” out of poets who broach topics like military intervention, but it would seem that we need to suspend that expectation if reading a poem like this — if we want to get more from it than a sense of disgust.

So probably more interesting to ask, rather than where Hagiwara’s decency is, is how this poem ties together with his statements on “rhythm” and “vision” — his poetics, and if there is a broader philosophical inquiry taking place. As with the reimagining of the “cat town,” is there also an existence which exists outside of its phenomenon, like Schopenhauer’s fly? In other words, does it say something “beyond language,” something that it does not literally say?

Because of its compromised nature, it may be easier to make an argument for communicating “subjective image” more completely in “On the Day Nanking Fell” than in “Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground.” The tone, again, is hardly triumphant; the “banzai” at the end sounds weak and deflated. While no one wants to say something as simple as that a poem doesn't do what it says it will do (which in this case is to celebrate the Japanese victory in Nanjing), it appears that the sentiments in the poem express something other than what they purport to. One wonders what kind of message the poem is sending, and the obvious division between the ostensible subject matter and its delivery is what raises the question. One wonders about the meaning of it “beyond” what it says, but does not ask what it in fact does say. Nevertheless, this hardly answers the question of a precise correlation of subject and style.

Frustrated with free verse, Hagiwara made a “retreat” to writing (ironically enough) “Chinese-style poems” — Japanese poems written in imitation of Japanese translations of classical Chinese poetry. These poems, collected in his last manuscript The Iceland, by default loosely follow Tang-Song rules of prosody, incorporate Chinese syntax and terms, and formally seem over-dense and stiff when compared with his earlier poetry. But within the confines of a quasi-formal verse derivative of the Chinese masters, Hagiwara found that a “language for writing,” as opposed to the spoken vernacular he used previously, was better for expressing his “fierce emotions” that “scream” than the vernacular, which was better suited for a state of “lassitude.”

Calling The Iceland an “accurate written diary,” Hagiwara attempted to write poems that were meant to be read as a “visual language,” that the translator calls “terse” and “masculine,” in contrast to the “sinuous,” “feminine” vernacular Japanese. A “visual” language: the “Chinese-ness” is unspoken, but remains in the characters, and the poems are thus records of scopic collisions of the imagination, and not the “sinuous” persuasions of speech:

A Crow of Nihility

I was originally a crow of nihility
on that high roof of winter solstice I’ll open my mouth
and roar like a weathervane.
Whether the season has epistemology or not
what I do not have is everything.

The intrusion of technically philosophical language into an unspoken context can here be read against early poems, like “Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground,” in which the context is given no direct philosophical claims. Additionally, the “masculine,” “unspoken” quality of the poem is not, as in “On the Day Nanking Fell,” the semantic content or intent, but the lack of cohesion in the poem: the terse language does not persuade the reader. The “Chinese” language abuts the images it represents in their Japanese pronunciations, but instead of resolving itself through “sinewy,” mercurial speech, to this reader it has the opposite effect: the language alienates the reader further.

But this is only a “retreat” from the poetry of dialogue, and Hagiwara gives us a more uncompromising vision than before. It is the inability to present “everything,” the slick poem-as-narration-of-image that the author lacks, and it is only through the concrete untranslatability of an alien language that his feelings can be expressed. “Crow of “Nihility” is, strangely, a poem that combines the evocation of deepest feeling with the inability to say clearly what one is feeling exactly — not because Hagiwara is inarticulate, but because the truly resolute poem, to him, is itself fractured, and at odds with itself.

His poem “The Tiger,” in The Iceland, in my opinion gets closest to presenting the “language beyond language” and the reimagining of the thing that seems at the heart of Hagiwara’s project. Like the town populated by cats, we are given a literal image, but yet cannot imagine any correct context for which it exists. The “rhythm” of the poem is an embodiment of the contradictions of textual feeling — a “Chinese-style” poem with intermittent English vocabulary, and a vaguely industrial/commercial landscape pointing to the absurdities of modern life (“elevators,” in English). His Blakean tiger functions as an irreducible index: the tiger’s “afterimage” is a “total view of a void,” connoting again the impossibility of resolution, and the multiplication of possibilities — perhaps somewhere in “the universe.” Of course, it is impossible to prove one has been to a town full of cats, and it may not be true. However, if one perceives that town, or perceives a tiger on a roof of a department store, it may be a result of vision, rather than of a single obvious world.

Considering the uniqueness of these two volumes of Hagiwara’s, I’m disappointed that there has been (in America) so little discussion of either his poetics, or what may have been his politics — any discussion seems mostly limited to his style. To Hiroaki Sato’s credit, he has always addressed these two issues straightforwardly. At a recent celebration of the publication of Cat Town, he briefly addressed Hagiwara’s politics again — although none of the other participants did, and there were no questions from the audience regarding Hagiwara’s politics either. Perhaps “On the Day Nanking Fell” really is just a blip, or a mistake. Or perhaps it draws out more questions about the supposed limits of the imagination. In the spirit of Hagiwara, it may be our job to read poems against themselves, for what they actually say, and for their worlds of meaning.

The Tiger

It’s a tiger
wide and vague as a giant statue
you sleep in a cage in the uppermost floor of a department store
you are born no machine
you may tear apart and eat meat with your fang-teeth
but how can you know human reasoning?
Behold, under the orb sooty smoke flows
from the roofs of factory-zone town
sad whistles rise and spread.
It’s a tiger
It’s a tiger

It’s an afternoon
the ad-balloon* rises high
in twilight-close city sky
on this high-rise building sitting in the distance
you are as hungry as a flag.

When you scan vaguely
you make the worms crawling along the streets
your live food dark and depressing.

It’s a tiger
on the roof of prosperity in the midst of Tokyo City
where elevators* go up and down
wearing an amber striped fur
you suffer solitude like a wasteland.
It’s a tiger!
Ah it’s all your afterimage
a useless total view of a void.

— On the roof of Ginza Matsuzaka-ya

*terms in English in the original

'silence isn't always a trick'

Thomas Devaney's 'Calamity Jane'

Photo of Thomas Devaney (right) by David Kelley.

Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane

Thomas Devaney

Furniture Press Books 2014, 66 pages, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-940092-04-1

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?[1]

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.”[2] 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”[3] — 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.

1. Thomas Devaney, Calamity Jane (Baltimore: Furniture Press Books, 2014), 1.

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.

3. Ibid.