Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Odd Doc Tuesday: Charles Bernstein meets the DOE Ethnicity Information Form

This form came home with my daughter yesterday after I got a call from the school's counselor, a man with a lovely Irish brogue (he would be an L on the form). As you can see if you click on the document, Radhika's parents (both Ls) had listed her as "Other" in the ethnicity category of a previous document. The school informs us that "Other" is no longer a category (would that this were true!). So we were asked to provide a more appropriate label for her. Mr. Ellis read all of these categories to me over the phone; the only one that applied was (R) "Other Asian." How much more specific that is than "Other" is hard to say, but her Nepalese heritage has no place on the form, so she becomes an (R). Her name is Radhika, so I guess that's appropriate. She is a bit jealous of her brother, Sangha, however, who has a category, (N), or Indo Chinese (Ex. Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian). Far be it from me to tell the composers of such documents that the Cambodians and the Vietnamese are traditional enemies, and that Cambodians are mostly of mixed races, Khmer, Chinese, and others. For purposes of the form, they exist as (N).

I was reminded of a poem included in Charles Bernstein's new book from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, All The Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. The poem is "In Particular" and was originally published in a beautiful chapbook by Chax Press, Let's Just Say. Written as a list, the poem catalogues people by their ethnicity (or a feature like dyslexia or addiction) and has them do something; it's very much an update of Walt Whitman's section 15 of Song of Myself, a poem that aims to envelope Americans in the bard's long arms, bring closer President and prostitute. You can click on a site oddly called "Infoplease" to see that poem, here. The poem begins this way:

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane
whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordain'd with cross'd hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loafe and
looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm'd case,
(He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother's

and it ends this way:

And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.

The inward and outward are one, like Stevens's dog and dachsund, because the poet is large enough to encompass them. Bernstein's poem has less poet and more particularity sans commentary. Here are the first two pages of the four and a half page piece.

There's humor here to deflect what now seems grandiosity on Whitman's part: the mixing of ethnic markers with ethnic activities undermines the notion of category, even as the poem runs solely on the principle of category. Hence the Afghanistani who eats pastrami and Filipino eating a potato and a Buddhist financier and an Armenian rowing to the typo of Amenia. [Editor's note: it's not a typo, but a town in New York State.] Bernstein's "conclusion" resembles Whitman's, in that he brings groups together, but his means of doing it leaves the poet out of it, except as a gatherer and randomizer of categories. So the first two lines of the poem: "A black man waiting at a bus stop / A white woman sitting on a stool" are also the poem's last two lines, but inverted in terms of gender: "A white man sitting on a stool / A black woman waiting at a bus stop." Not all boundaries have (or can?) be crossed, but Bernstein suggests that some can be, sometimes.

But back to Radhika's school form, sent to us by "The Federals," as they are termed, by way of her public elementary school. We can surmise from the fact that "'Other' is no longer a category" that categories do sometimes shift. That they spring back, stronger than ever, we glean from the plea for "your help" in finding "the category they now wish you to choose." There's humor in this letter, too, just peaking through the bureaucratic prose. It belongs to the Irishman (L) who composed it. Is his humor Jewish? Or is Bernstein's Irish?


Jonathan Morse said...

For more fun with deer and dachshunds, see the fourth comment following this blog.


Great educational post (yours, I mean). It brought back memories of my move to Honolulu from Detroit shortly after a Detroiter named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in a bar parking lot by auto workers who accused him of being Japanese and taking away their jobs. My students at UH were incredulous. They asked: "Couldn't they tell he was Chinese just by LOOKING?"

Jonathan Morse said...

Google-mediated correction to my previous comment: Vincent Chin was murdered after I moved to Hawaii, not before.

Susan said...

Jon, have you read Mark Nowak's poem about Vincent Chin's murder? It's in _Shut Up, Shut Down_, and is well worth a read.

Jonathan Morse said...

Thanks for the tip, and almost the entire poem is available as a sample view in Google Books! The rap rhymes don't seem to me to work well as language for the very much north-of-Eight-Mile death of Vincent Chin

(Eight Mile [Road]: the city limit demarcating the black city of Detroit from e.g. the Polish and Ukrainian industrial suburb of Warren, or say demarcating Motown from Eminem City),

and furthermore I think Raymond Williams loses strength on the translational voyage across the Atlantic from Women in Love country to Melvindale,

but oh boy that picture of Die and Supply! To speak of somebody being held down so his skull can be crushed with a Louisville Slugger, I should think we need a language that either communicates its disappearance or just withdraws, without communication, before the silent archaeology of what were once words. That the image does.

Susan M. Schultz said...

You don't think the kids above 8 mile listen to rap? In any case, have a look at the book--an interesting exercise in collage work throughout.

Most of my students have never heard of Vincent Chin. Interesting to introduce them to him by way of a Polish American poet from Buffalo.

Jonathan Morse said...

Radio waves penetrate the boundary as if it weren't there, but farther down the electromagnetic spectrum there are (or were when I lived at the corner of Greenfield and Fenkell, generations ago) two cultures, one black one white, speaking two languages. (In coordinate nomenclature, Fenkell would be Five Mile.) Of course there is (or was) some bilingualism, but less than you'd imagine. That's one of the things that make Detroit interesting -- unlike, say, monorepublicanglot Indianapolis.

But speaking of generations ago, I got the "Couldn't they tell he was Chinese just by looking?" reaction from my own freshmen at a time when the UH undergraduate student body was 60% Japanese -- i.e., much more like Indianapolis than it is now. So it's great to hear that the current generation is open to Nowak (and Schultz).