This collision of multiplicity and singularity
A review of Thomas Fink's 'Yinglish Strophes 1-19'
While this is a review of a particular title, I deliberately chose a title from Chris Alexander and Kristin Gallagher’s (quite) newly formed Truck Books. The press, based in Queens, has been publishing since 2009 and has published six titles to date. This Spring 2011 they have made three publications available: Robert Fitterman’s Now We Are Friends; as well as titles by the editors — Gallagher’s We Are Here (an expanded continuation of the latter half of her experimental essay “Some Limits of Ratio; or, Aesthetic Has No Goal” from Crayon 5, Roberto Harrison and Andrew Levy’s sincerely useful journal); and Alexander’s Panda.
Interestingly hidden among the book reviews in that same issue of Crayon is a (sometimes cruelly dismissive) provocation, “Neoliberal Poetry,” by Alexander, Gallagher, and Matthias Regan that writes from the accusatory observation that poetry’s marketplace has assumed the structure of deregulatory, free-market capitalism in which community gathers and functions through competitive need, and the winners are those whose self-promotion brands a product that recognizes and fulfills a market niche. In opposition they propose a recognition and reinvocation of a history of poets’ and poetries’ activity outside the logics of capital market and the communal activities (and communities) resultingly invented.
With Truck Books, Gallagher and Alexander gesture to community before market by making attractively designed perfect-bound books accessible on a sliding scale of $5 to $25, and by offering free PDFs of each publication. I don’t know of another poetry press that so explicitly accounts for and attempts interaction with the varyingly broad individual financial states of its community of readers. I’m writing this review not only out of a very active interest in the work of the poets they are publishing, but also in support of the ethics of their endeavor. Whether this model of publishing will be sustained by the community it invites remains to be seen.
(Tangentially: is there a conscious relation between this press and David Wilk’s alternately labeled Truck Press or Truck Books of the 1970s that additionally served as an effective small press distributor?)
Thomas Fink’s Yinglish Strophes 1–19 collects in one volume the series which has been appearing in his published work since After Taxes (Marsh Hawk, 2004) and which is now extended beyond nineteen in Peace Conference (Marsh Hawk, 2011). Each of the nineteen strophes writes a syntactically interrupted and incomplete English that emerges filtered through the syntax of Yiddish. These lyrics are set to a repeated formal constraint, in which the first line of the poem isolated is followed by a three-line stanza, a five-line stanza, a three-line stanza, a four-line stanza, and then sometimes another stanza of varying length. In this repetition lies the strophiness, I suppose, and its consistency forms by contrast the continuously interruptive style of the series.
Rather than representing the Yiddish-syntaxed English of the Ashkenazi-American immigrant as a gap in the complex (and often neurotic comedic) transfer of trauma between an immigrant generation and their English-fluent offspring (think Philip Roth, Art Spiegelman, Woody Allen), Fink’s strophes perform the translative gap in the landing of Yinglish syntax as both an investigation of the speaker’s expression of immigrant experience and, in a productive simultaneity, the flexibility and concerns of the poet-descendant’s hearing.
Though only a few of the poems explicitly infer a younger, English-fluent addressee, an intergenerational relation is active in each poem, for as Fink’s writing of Yinglish syntax creates a distinctly heard voice from poem to poem, it also plays a multiplicity of meanings in the word apprehended by the writer/listener whose generational status as emerged cultural fluent arrests the syntax as a subject of investigation. This is to write that these poems are distinctly not persona poems, in the most productive way. For while they consistently write a person’s voice, they write that person through the poet’s attention to the problems of signification in language. The titles of these poems (“Yinglish Strophes¹,” “Yinglish Strophes²,” etc …), by maintaining the plural of the series title (“Strophes”) in each instance, performatively point to this collision of multiplicity and singularity in the poems.
(Note: sometimes the inversions and absences of the Yinglish syntax explicitly express ambiguities in the space between people, i.e. “Sometimes friends / grow out you or / you grow out them.” While expressing the assertion of singular identity (an outgrowing and separating from your friends), the syntax also speaks a sense that friendship and identity are inseparable multiplicities in which people are growing from the bodies of others.)
Remarkable to these poems is how the poet’s attention to the multiple significations in the inverted English syntax of the speaker — an attention marked by interruptive line breaks and punctuation, mis-punned hearings and spellings — can also reflect itself back onto the person-voice in the language, not as mockery, but as a compassionate (a compassion not rooted in nostalgia) imagining of what this language signifies about particular immigrant experiences. What is investigated is an experience of identity in repeatedly speaking an English through Yiddish
“… No more 66 years.
Still greenhorn on the mouth
that expresses a non-distinction in perceiving abstract concept and physical object:
“ … The small
of the sentence, cavity
spoiling the mouth off.”
that inverts subject and object:
“Everyone keeps when they go
to war things.”
walks a tonal ambiguity between statement and rhetorical question or exclamation:
“ … She
wouldn’t let you anybody
should help her”
“(A baby can explain
both assigns the gendered pronouns of Yiddish to objects and confuses the pronouns of English, can quickly cross the line into incomprehensibility, and must forcibly repeat the gap between the intention of saying and the said.
These investigations are often conducted through individual poems that begin with a subject integral to immigrant experience. “Yinglish Strophes²,” for example, writes the expression of adopted American nationalism in relation to Cold War politics:
Yinglish Strophes ²
Everyone keeps when they go
to war things. You remember
Miss Liberty? Russia’s a liar;
I don’t believe him. How
far are they? They’re in
Cuba. They’re slaves. And they
want to expand over the whole
world they want. Not human
people there to give human
rights anyone. I like capitalism.
As far as I remember
is a lot progress. My
dentures isn’t Republic or Democratic.
Listen, it’s just as bad
all around and no president’ll
do any better. To find
meaningful jobs the unemployed. High
cost of living what can
we do about. A great
country like this shouldn’t
have their own oil, their own
everything? I have sweet potatoes
don’t give me. Soon, soon,
soon, soon you’ll get your
The speaker here expresses her/his relation to the US and Russia as gendered and pronouned: “You remember / Miss Liberty? Russia’s a liar; / I don’t believe him” (in which I’m strangely hearing Dylan’s reply to the “Judas” screamer!); and then voices ethical concerns of communist expansion: “Not human / people there to give human // rights anyone.” The situation of the stanza break in these lines critically reflects back on the expressed refusal to view the communist subject as human, by constructing the self-justifying nature of such as refusal in the statement “to give human, rights anyone.”
(Note: by instigating the addition of absent words and punctuation to fill out the sentence, Fink uses the Yinglish syntax as an expansion of the possibilities of reading by filling absences into multiple significations.)
The speaker then voices a permissive relation to the foreign policy of her/his adopted nation (“A great / country like this shouldn’t have / their own oil, their own / everything?”) that reanimates the origins of American manifest destiny with the debt of experiencing the nation as a refuge from persecution. This sense is affirmed and identified with its relation to capital gain and comfort of material possession by pun in the last lines of the poem when the speaker interrupts to address the listener: “Soon, soon, / soon, soon you’ll get your / steak.”
Not all of the poems in this volume are so explicitly referential. The first six or so poems in the volume tend towards the declaration (with a not too filtering fidelity) of a discrete subject, while these subjects (nationalism, capitalism, religious and generational differences, narratives of an othered past) then seem to happen less as organizing principles in later poems, but rather reoccur within the poems’ somewhat entropic trajectory.
Considering that quite a few lines have been drawn in the last few decades’ sand between poem as language subordinate to a speaker’s voice, and poem as investigation of the way meaning is produced in language, it is significant to read work that is clearly concerned with what performing both might mean. In Fink’s Yinglish Stropes 1–19, this involves creating a second-language speaker as an investigation of underlying structures in signification, but not only, it also uses the significance of those structures to better perceive the speaker’s world in relation to the act of it being written.