Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Activity's Time-Running Antidote": Tourism & Poetry in Ara Shirinyan, Jennifer Firestone, and Rap Reiplinger

The Daily Show's advertisements are heavy on horror and suspense movies; my husband and I have sat through many a bad trailer while watching Jon Stewart skewer the stooges of the right. Last night, I thought the horror was that the trailer had eaten The Daily Show. An ad for A Perfect Getaway went on and on, until I thought we must be watching the movie itself. Set on the Na Pali coast of Kaua`i (by the look of it) the movie tells the sad tale of a couple of newlyweds who, thinking they're going to spend time in Paradise, find big-time apples instead. Someone is killing honeymooners, and they might be the other couple on the trail, the ones with matted hair and sinister smiles. At some point, people start jumping off cliffs and badly managing get-away kayaks.

I've lived near or in tourist locations nearly all my life: Washington, DC, Williamsburg, VA, Honolulu and now the windward side of O`ahu, with stays in places like San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which is overrun by ex-pats, the tourists who come and never leave. I have also been a tourist, spending three weeks mostly inside a van driving through Chinese cities; having my wallet professionally lifted in the Madrid subway; gawking at the burned out buildings in Highland Park, Michigan outside Detroit. If tourism too often resembles watching a video (if it's in another language, there are no subtitles), then the language of tourism is equally superficial. "Look around. There's no place on earth like Hawaii." "THE PEOPLE OF HAWAII WOULD LIKE TO SHARE THEIR ISLANDS WITH YOU." It's this language that causes such a frisson when A Perfect Getaway suggests that someone in Hawai`i would actually prefer to kill you.

And it's precisely this language that Ara Shirinyan skewers in Your Country is Great: Afghanistan-Guyana (Futurepoem Books, 2008). This is not the "great" of Alexander the, but the "great" of "Hawaii is great year-round, but prices fall in autumn," or "Hawaii is great even with the cursed idols," or even "Hawaii was great, not what I expected though??" or "Paris Hilton in Maui Hawaii, looking great in a new bikini." That's what I got when I googled "Hawaii is great." And Your Country is Great is what Shirinyan got (with editing, of course) when he googled the countries from A-G in the CIA fact book and called them "great." What he got, beyond the humor of second language English and the degradation of the word "great," is an examination of the various strands of (male) tourist talk:

--what's to eat?
--what's to drink?
--who's to screw?
--what's the music like?
--what's to fear? (robbers, mostly)
--what's to do?
--where's the "but"? There's the standard line that goes something like, "Hawaii is great, but I wouldn't want to live there."

The word "great" becomes an engine for locating touristic cliches, not simply about each country, but about any country tourists visit. The generic nature of language elicited by the phrase "X is great" is initially eye-opening (if only to see shallow spaces), but begins to grate pretty quickly. As someone who recognizes the lingo, I begin at about the letter B or C to want more. Give me the CIA fact book material! (It's actually a really neat resource, even if the source is spooky.) Kenneth Goldsmith's blurb is accurate: "Instead of accepting current notions of language as a medium of differentiation, Shirinyan persuasively demonstrates its leveling quality, demolishing meaning into a puddle of platitudes." He is also wrong, of course. Because this is merely the language of the tourist bureau and the unreconstructed tourist imaginary. Need I say we don't get the view from the shore?

Not that the view from the shore is necessarily more benign. There's a genre of "tourist go home" poem that objectifies the tourist every bit as capably as the tourist objectifies the natives. The motivation may be different, but the poems aren't necessarily more interesting. At least they get away from the eye candy quality (or lack thereof) of the unreconstructed 747 poem. This is what Rob Wilson and others call a poem by a poet who flies in, flies out, then writes an authoritative poem about the place he (usually) saw from the plane window. But there are alternative views, those that pillory the language of tourism and then add to our knowledge of the place. Take "Guam is Great." Shirinyan covers the bases: the volcano, the beach, the people, the diving, the hotel, the service (not so great), the food, the water activities, the ww2 history (unexamined). Now compare that to Craig Santos Perez's Guam and you'll see the limitation to the "Guam is Great" formula, as well as to the touristic one. Perez shows us the destructiveness of tourism (empire, the military, the loss of indigenous culture and language), but he gives the outsider reader access to the insider's story. Much of the stark pathos (and I realize Shirinyan is not into pathos) of Perez's book comes in the poet's recognition that he is something of a tourist in his own home. He speaks the language, but not well enough. He knows the culture because his grandmother tells him, but she too has gaps in her knowledge. The gaps were instituted by imperial laws against speaking Chamorro (or Hawaiian or Korean, as the case may be). This seems a richer vein to tap than the artery of banal language Shirinyan mainlines.

Jennifer Firestone's Holiday (Shearsman Press, 2008) offers us the language of a tourist who knows she's a tourist, knows she's missing something, and spends her vacation wondering what that might be. While lacking in the ginned-up suspense of A Perfect Getaway, there's suspense in the not-knowing-but-still-sensing that she describes. She knows that holidays are usually "made up" (13), that

Over the bridge
slopes dictate the way
below it shines
don't stop for reflection (13)

where reflection is at once a visual and a meditative act. Firestone meditates, then, on her vacation, and what her vacation prevents her from knowing:

no where or precise memory
just land mountains (14)

[apologies for the lost formatting] and "each shape had names"--but not names that she knows, or she might write them down. The forms of Firestone's poems, airy, open, reflect not simply her reflectiveness, but also draw out the gaps in knowledge that are the paradoxical subject of the book.

Firestone, like the honeymoon couple in the movie trailer, senses danger: "Michelangelo / despised painting / 'fit for women'"; the old masters were out to erase you. (The impressionistic descriptions of the old paintings are among the best passages in the book.) There's violence in the art, there's violence at home (a murder), and there's violence in the American invasion of Iraq.

What Firestone does not offer is the research, the historical depth of someone who returns from vacation and tries to discover what it was she saw. Nor does she offer what Hank Lazer does in Elegies & Vacations, namely a meditation on the self, inspired by travel and by the re-reading of familiar poems in unfamiliar places. Lazer mixes the here and there in fruitful ways, ones that largely and wisely evade the temptation to "own" the place one visits. Pam Brown has performed similar experiments; her chapbook 747 Poems (Wild Honey Press) includes self-aware tourist poems. Firestone begins a process that I would hope she continues. Knowing that she has not lived the places she's visited, this reader would like to see her write poems out of what she looks for when the trip is over.

Shirinyan's book is funny. We laugh at tourist language because we know its banalities so well. What it lacks is something one can find in Rap Reiplinger's skit, namely the voice of a member of the service industry. S/he speaks in "a medium of differentiation," namely Pidgin. Rap manages to mock both the tourist, "Mr. Fogarty/ Frogtree," whom he plays, and the hotel desk clerk he likewise plays--in drag. Click here to watch the skit. Chart in your laughter lessons we might get from reading Shirinyan and Firestone in the same sitting, while overhearing the voices of hotel workers in the paradise getaway we're inhabiting for a week or two. Ah, but who the hell are "we"? And "they"?

["Activity's time-running antidote" is the last line of Jennifer Firestone's book (80)]

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