Elsewhere is here
A review of 'The Camel's Pedestal' by Anne Tardos
It’s exhilarating to say things. Giddy and strange to put things in the air nobody has heard. Exultant and juicy to make proposals at the interphase between language and reality. I feel these things keenly reading Anne Tardos. “It must be crisp not cryptic, if you want to write,” reads the first line of “Gentle Deer On 10th Avenue,” “There is this come-and-go of ideas, impressions, fears, uncertainties.”
It’s deeply, profoundly physical, this writing. Perhaps that is why the ungainly but enduring camel has been chosen as an emblem for this collection. Like poetry, it inhabits the starkest of realms with the greatest economy and grace. The suppleness of its toes accommodates different landscapes, types of soil, sand, rock, roughness, and irregularity. It’s an animal of survival. Of nomads and wanderers.
Imagine, if you will, the dunes of the Sahara, the way the sand is rippled and crested by the shifting wind. The universe feels extremely large in the endless expanse of the desert, and it is in places like this that the mystery of existence feels particularly acute. In “The Exact Point,” one of the shorter pieces in this collection, Tardos writes, “I am lost in a desert of my own making”(55).
This is a highly charged statement, both emotionally and intellectually. But note, too, the strange neutrality to the tone of this statement. It’s not a cry, it’s not a lament, it’s a simple statement with, perhaps, an undercurrent — a soupçon — of bemusement. This sense of detached reverie, this abstracted exploration of the interphase between subjectivity and language, runs throughout her work. She avoids lyricism and opts instead for the calmer objectivity of disquistion, the chiseled distinctness of the expository.
“Conditions tend to be favorable,” she writes in the elliptically titled “By Living, We Gradually.” “We want our privacy, space, identity, we want our teeth, hair and all our vital organs. We want a massage” (56).
Tardos also has wit — it’s one of the hallmarks of her writing — and an attentive reader will see the similarity between “massage” and “message.” People go to poetry for various reasons, one of them being illumination, a lightning bolt from the ether, an epiphany. Why not both? Why not enjoy a message that is also a massage, a poetry that works the brain at the same time it soothes and liberates the brain?
“A familiar text,” she continues in the next stanza, “written a few billion years ago, I mean, how could I possibly remember, when space-time measurement and multiverse poetry were visibly detached, so that weakness was avoided, toyed with, accepted” (56).
I love it when poets do this: bring multiple ideas, fields, concepts together into a fused whole. The parallel drawn between space-time measurement and multiverse poetry is potent. It’s also another example of Tardos’s wit: multiverse can refer to multiverse theory in cosmology, philosophy, or religion, multiple-verse retrieval from the Bible, or multiple verse in general, a multiple-verse gallimaufry in multiple universes.
Which brings me back to the camel. The calm, enduring, majestic gait of the camel. This is my sense of discourse in poetry, its combination of intellectual formality with enchantment, its pursuit of mystery with the earthiness and animality of the camel, its goofy appearance but dignified lope: this is poetry itself. This is what poetry was meant to be. “[T]he more I seek clarity the more it eludes me, wears me down in the vain attempt to achieve the unachievable,” Tardos confesses in the penultimate stanza of “By Living, We Gradually,” “ideas that get past my censorious nature and exacting mind, occasionally allowed into the text, slipping past my disapproval and doubt” (56). I can see how she would choose the camel as a totemic figure for this collection. The animal appears so ungainly at first, so awkward, so cumbersome, but then you see the brilliance of its structure, the genius of its engineering, the stoicism of its spirit. The animal is an antidote toward self-censure. Invoking its image mitigates doubt.
The candor of a poet to remark on the trepidations of the creative process during the creative process is an invitation to enter this expanse on the back of an even-toed ungulate.
Add a pedestal to the status of this stately creature and you have a conundrum: what’s a camel doing on a pedestal? I find it amusing that the real focus in this book title is on the pedestal giving the animal an elevated status. There’s a curious inversion in that, a bit of drollery, and a very nimble dromedary.
The mind already feels shifted. The long stride of legs on desert sand.
The work in this collection, like most of Tardos’s writing, has a flair for the exotic and an undercurrent of displacement, of exile and diaspora, what the French call dépaysement, which means, roughly, being outside of one’s usual territory, but more richly carries connotations of disorientation and delirium, the altered state of consciousness we experience under the influence of certain drugs, or exposure to very powerful art and philosophy. Anything that ignites a fire in the brain and dilates our perceptual framework and thereby generates a strong sense of derealization, an alteration in the perception of the external world.
The exotic is foreign. The exotic is new. The exotic is strange. Poetry is inherently exotic since it makes of words objects called poems that are foreign to the uses of speech, new to the boundaries of our perceptions, and strange to the mind. Tardos is uniquely endowed with a sense of the exotic since her personal history is exceptionally cosmopolitan. Born in Cannes, France and spending her early childhood in German-occupied Paris, she moved with her parents to Budapest, where she learned Hungarian, and thence to Vienna following the Hungarian revolution, where she learned German and attended a French high school. In 1966, after spending two years in Paris, she moved to the United States.
The exoticism in her work is not just a matter of geography; her fascination with language is manifest and infectious. It’s enchanting. Her immersion in language conveys an equal and paradoxical detachment. It heightens our sense of it as something both foreign and intimate. One senses her standing outside of it in admiration of its magnificent subtleties and boundless capacity for evocation and plunging into it with the pleasure and vigor of a practiced swimmer.
In section 11 of “Gentle Deer on 10th Avenue” she quotes Hélène Cixous: “The times when under the letter’s sway we suddenly become the stranger, the foreigner in ourselves. We separate ourselves from ourselves. We lose ourselves. From sight, also” (28).
It’s pertinent that the first poem of this collection is titled “The Enigma Of Being Jewish.” “One throws one’s trembling body forward,” the poem begins, “Using gestures, one inscribes what one is saying” (13).
I find it interesting that Tardos begins a poem about ethnicity with a focus on the body. Not a specific body, a woman’s body or a Jewish person’s body, but a human body, this stuff we all walk around in. In other words, the poem begins not with the enigma of being Jewish, but the outlandishness of being, the phenomenality of life, consciousness, self-awareness. We don’t crawl, we don’t retreat, we throw ourselves forward as if in dance. The trembling comes from an excess of life, an insistence on existence, not a cringing timidity.
I also find great significance in the use of the word “inscribe,” and the idea that the movement and gestures of a body are a way of writing our being into the world; writing and physicality are united in a language of text, texture, movement, and skin. “One doesn’t speak,” she continues, “Secretly, deep down inside, one finds the courage to plunge into the arena of contradiction, where pleasure and reality embrace”(13).
These are all action verbs here: “find,” “plunge,” “embrace.” The energy of the poem clears its own space, makes its way with the confident aplomb, delighting in contrariety, embracing the world and eagerly assimilating its dissimilarities. One of the poem’s more salient contradictions is its avoidance of its ethnic claim; it is a remarkably inclusive work, inviting as much into the compass of its trembling embrace as possible. Is this appeal to universality one of the hallmarks of being Jewish? I can’t answer that, but I do find a reinforcing implication of this idea in the further evolution of the poem.
Each line and paragraph in section 2 begins with the pronoun “we.” “We count as far as we can count … We deliver the mail … We contemplate time-reversal invariants … We find things to say … We are amazed … We produce texts … ” “What more can I say,” she ends, “We are moved by childlike innocence” (14).
That innocence is challenged in the beginning lines of section 4: “I am standing in front of the closed doors of the future. / I am the outsider. / Forever forbidden” (16).
This is where the theme of exile and dépaysement begins, but also, as the word “enigma” so profoundly suggests, the catastrophe — but also the miracle — of being, and more specifically of having an identity: of occupying this world with this history, this ethnicity, this gender, and in this particular body.
Subjectivity divides us from the world. The more keenly we feel what qualifies our being, what makes us different, the more keenly do we feel the unanswerable riddle of our own existence.
“And our bodies themselves, are they simply ours, or are they us?” William James asks in The Principles of Psychology. Can mental activity be explained by the interrelation between our bodies and brain mechanisms? Is that where our subjectivity resides? Would I still be me if I had been born in Mali in 1752 rather than Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1947? Most people would agree, I believe, that our sense of self cannot be reduced to our body, but that our body plays an essential role. And so do time, history, geography, ancestors, food, hormones, religion, and language.
“Displaced dispersed exiled” (17), the poem ends. Not a happy ending, no, but an ending that opens out into a wilderness of possibility in which the central nourishment is the meat of infinitude, and its flowering is the return to the physical, the insistence on the physical, the celebration of the physical. Dark energy becomes dark matter by the interaction of exotic particles.
This is the essence of phenomenology. To inscribe something — feeling, perception, idea — is to deliberately commit it to matter by carving, hammering, gouging it into stone, marking it into clay, penning it into ink and paper to present one’s interior life palpably, somatically, pointedly to the world at large. Saying something isn’t just saying something. Saying something is to dance it into being. Tools are involved. Muscle, bone, brain. It is intellect and body working simultaneously. “To which PROPRIOCEPTION,” observes Charles Olson, “the data of depth sensibility / the ‘body’ of us as object which spontaneously or of its own order produces experience of, ‘depth’ Viz / SENSIBILITY WITHIN THE ORGANISM BY MOVEMENT OF ITS OWN TISSUES.”
One senses almost immediately that the work in this book is that of a seasoned spirit writing with confidence and joy, à la Gertrude Stein. “It Changes,” one of the longer poems, begins with an intriguing epigraph by Stephane Mallarmé, “The flesh is sad, alas, and I’ve read all the books” (33). The first line is a reference to the worry over originality, of having one’s voice muted or mutinied or mutated by another: “The concept of an ‘invaded authorship,’ a writing influenced by others, points to the unconscious of a text” (33). This is fascinating. It’s not stated in a neutral tone; there is no real anxiety. It is stating a fact of writing that nobody immersed in language can avoid: there are other voices. There are always going to be other voices. We are all floating down the same river. We occupy different rafts, crafts, inner tubes, and canoes but it’s the same water with the same currents informing our words.
Of course, I’m coming at this from the angle of my particular gender. I’m not a woman, I haven’t experienced the kind of overshadowing and coercion that women are subjected to. Femininity is an experience I try constantly to imagine, and in that imagining I hope to reach a deeper understanding of everyone’s situation, which is (how can it not be?) exile.
A literal exile? No. I’m referring to a cultural exile, the subtle ways in which race or gender might exclude an individual from the full benefits of a society. The glass ceiling, for example, which is a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that keeps a given demographic from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy, or the crippling unaffordability of a decent education for people in a lower economic class.
“There has never been an Abraham Lincoln for the feminine condition,” remarks Eva Illouz, professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “a ‘great man’ who might have consecrated his life, his ideas, his career to the abolition of the yoke of male domination. Certain philosophers have denounced female subjection, but none have taken it on as a great cause. Sartre, the companion of Simone de Beauvoir, who advocated for the colonized, the homosexuals, the Jews, led no public combat for women.”
In Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays, Edward Said characterizes exile as “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”
There is a definite feeling of estrangement running throughout The Camel’s Pedestal; indeed, it is a major — if not the major — theme uniting the poems. I would strongly emphasize Tardos’s universalizing of this sense of estrangement: all humans are subject to its sway. That eternal quandary, who are we and what is the meaning of it all, is a fundamental dilemma of the human condition.
Lines like “I was trying to go inside the world, the garden, inside others — I was outside” (37), “The born outsiders, the unwanted, yearning for disappointment, listening but not seeing” (59), and “By the time you read this, I will be located elsewhere, like a distant galaxy” (69) reiterate this sense of estrangement, this constant search for home and liberation. Any time we find a qualifier of race, ethnicity, or gender pinned to us in some way, however subtly, that search becomes harder, more acute. Our language and art become contrapuntal, a resistance to the general social order.
Tardos states our dilemma brilliantly in these three phrases: “The strangeness of forever being here and elsewhere: Ever here as elsewhere: Elsewhere as here” (33).
These phrases recall André Breton’s statement at the end of his manifesto on surrealism: “Existence is elsewhere.”
It is, isn’t it?
Poetry exploits this condition. Thrives in it. It is this acutely felt sense of dislodged subjectivity that gives Tardos’s work its particular dynamic. The lines are assembled in heterogeneous, paratactic aggregates: they’re statements made by the exquisite physical risk that is writing, but not so arranged in sequence as to create an argument, not marshaled in rhetoric for the purpose of persuasion. They’re not made to persuade; they’re made to interact, interrelate, interweave. Because that’s what being in the world entails: interrelation. Isolation really isn’t an option. Expulsion, yes. Sadly, expulsion is rampant at this stage in human history. As are exclusion and segregation. Those monsters are back with a vengeance. But they’re not reality. They’re the opposite: the psychosis of endless war. Reality is something altogether different. Reality is manifest in the needlework of underlying forces, “As in physics,” writes Tardos, “where matter cannot exist without interaction” (33).
Tardos delights in making statements, but not pronouncements. Statements are provocative. They stimulate thought. Pronouncements are autocratic. They direct thought. Tardos does neither, really; she revels in paradox and contradiction. She likes making statements that subvert their own assertions, that nullify their own logic. Statements like “Foggy, incommunicable truth, where sometimes nothing is less true than the truth” (33), or “I’ve no time to write that I have no time to write” (51).
Tardos also delights in packing words together in a bold excess of seemingly haphazard order, a surplus of semiotic information that results in a joyful, polysemic object. The words acquire a brick-and-mortar tangibility.
“New York City” begins with the line “Derailed vigilantism ectoblastic wannabe linseed oil” (50). This could best be described as what Roland Barthes refers to as a “floating chain” of signifiers, “the reader able to choose some and ignore others.” Barthes states further that polysemy raises questions of meaning and the question has the appearance of dysfunction. I’m not a fan of dysfunction, but I find the breakdown of normal syntactic function to be curiously libidinal in some sense, a form of élan vital in which the language has been liberated from any form of guided message and exists as an autonomous action.
A geranium. A yak. A camel on a pedestal.