A few years ago I was teaching a class on poetry and politics when my
students got angry with me. I had just laughed at their stated
ambition to make money writing poetry. My laughter, they informed
me--in no uncertain terms--meant that I did not take them or their work
seriously. That day's lesson plan fell aside as I told them about the
(im)balance sheet of Tinfish Press, about doing one's life's work while
losing buckets of money at it. And, hardest of all to fathom, why such a
thing might be worthwhile.
Among recent notices on my Facebook feed was one for the new issue of Big Bridge, in particular a feature on “Neo-surrealism,” edited
by Adam Cornford. Cornford’s expansive introduction to the feature,
which looks back to the history of surrealism and forward to his
selection of living poets, includes this definition of his subject:
“What defines a Surrealist poetry today, then, is what has defined it
from the outset. (This definition embraces both answers I gave at the
beginning, though the latter one, I believe, is the more important.)
Surrealist poetry can only be ‘a cry of the mind determined to
break apart its fetters.’ It must contribute, intentionally or
otherwise, to the liberation of the mind ‘and all that resembles it.’” I’m
not here to argue against the mind’s liberation, rather to suggest that
newer forms of surrealism can be used effectively to record what occurs
before the imagined line break in Cornford’s phrase “the mind
determined to break apart / its fetters.” The breaking apart of a mind,
most familiar to me as a product (or anti-product) of dementia and
Alzheimer’s, can be tracked through what I’ve elsewhere called “documentary surrealism.”
In the blog post to which I just offered a link, I wrote: “To say that
dementia is a surreal condition is probably not to say anything anyone
doubts who has confronted a relative or friend with Alzheimer’s
disease. More interesting, on a literary level, is the way in which
writing about dementia creates a hybrid form, documentary surrealism.
If documentary poetry combines the strengths of historical writing,
journalism, collage, and the lyric, then documentary surrealism opens
up the field to the ways in which the imagination is actualized by
mental illness or other extreme states (such as the post-traumatic
syndrome Andre Breton dealt with during WWI when he treated soldiers off
I’ve just finished a semester of teaching documentary poetry to a
group of graduate students. This mixed form proved extremely
generative. Student projects focused on women in prison, a homeless
woman, a forgotten city, a planned town and its secrets, tourism, food
and activism, and a lost grandfather. All of these projects (chapbooks
and one on-line text) worked like accordians, moving back and forth
between material and abstraction, between persons and communities. If a
drawer can said to be an accordian, then Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’s
project, which takes as its central artifact a filing cabinet containing
his late grandfather’s papers, breathes its histories in and out. (See
the project above: “from The Files of Curtis P. Ah You.") Another of
the central images in his chapbook, made out of file folders, is the
Pulmo-Aide Respirator, whose instruction guide he uses in the central
poem. As the respirator is put together, according to the instructions,
we learn about his grandfather’s links (broken and sustained) to his
past, and of his love for — among other things — University of Hawai`i
women’s volleyball. (A cultural marker if there ever was one.) And of
the fate of the ’Ewa plain, not so long ago an agricultural area, now
covered in Gentry Homes, those Colleps writes about in section 9 of the instruction sheet:
9. (`Eiwa) [Before] [a]ttach[ing] tubing to nebulizer air-
inlet connector, See Figure 6, take
a drive down Ft. Weaver Rd. and
when you wipe the red dirt
from the windshield you
wipe away the gentry homes.
Sugar stalks sweet shoot up
from the cleared soil. Wipe
those away, too.
Over a week ago I received an email from a poet here in Honolulu--not a submission to Tinfish, he was clear on that--but a set of poems that chronicled the St. Louis Cardinals' 2011 season and World Series win. He and I sometimes run into each other on campus, each of us sporting a Cardinals cap. I might be wearing the cap with the bird on it, he a red home cap. Or he an away blue cap and I the STL logo cap in red.
No sooner had I opened his attachment (that word is ever fraught) than I realized that the first poem marked a visitation. The poem's title is "The World Series Fell from Heaven," but there was more of heaven to the poem than my poet friend knew. It begins:
When I watched the Cards lose in DC
in June it was the sort of pure
pain all sports fans learn to endure.
His "sort of pure pain" was over a baseball game gone wrong. "A come-from-ahead-then-fall-behind defeat" describes a game I remember, too. It was this game. I paste in the line-score.
7:05 PM ET, June 14, 2011
Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.
The game started one hour after my mother died; by the time I reached my friends' house in suburban DC and asked that the game be turned on, the Cardinals were well ahead. Perhaps it was 6-1 or 6-2. We were making what small talk we could. And then the Nationals made their come-back, fueled as much by the Cardinals' sorry relief corps as by their own hitting prowess. My poet friend was sitting next to an obnoxious Nationals' fan--one of those who is not really a baseball fan, but cheers loudly for the home team--and I was performing an odd wake for my mother.
That evening, I returned to my hotel room and wrote this blog entry. There is no mention in it of the St. Louis Cardinals. Instead, I wrote in part about a coincidence that brought me back the voice of my father by way of his old friend, Jerry Lawlor. Here is the paragraph on that coincidence:
Ellen took me home with her and Steve. They & Max asked about
my father. I offered history: Michigan farm, auto plant, air force
(when it integrated, he knew Tuskegee airmen), IBM, Western Union.
Ellen said, Jerry Lawler. Jerry Lawler! My father's Irish friend,
office roommate of Col. Dudley Stevenson, Tuskegee airman. Steve called
Jerry; we explained the coincidence. He darted off to find a letter.
Please, do you mind? I'm looking. Dear Jerry, the letter read. My
father's voice, Irished. Jerry, you
never put yourself above others, gave credit to them & did not take
it. The experience of an Irish immigrant. Martha & Susan join me
in wishing you a long & enjoyable retirement.
And here is a photograph of that letter, its wording true:
I've been reading W.G. Sebald's books now that the semester has ended. In Austerlitz, he writes: "if Newton really thought that time was a river like the Thames, then
where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow? Every
river, as we know, must have banks on both sides, so where, seen in
those terms, where are the banks of time? What would be this river's
qualities, qualities perhaps corresponding to those of water, which is
fluid, rather heavy, and translucent? In what way do objects immersed
in time differ from those left untouched by it?" Sebald's work is (dis)organized by coincidences, synchronicities. An ordinary life is never ordinary, hides its memories like a glacier. One such glacier returns a lost man to the author, but not to the man who had loved him, who had killed himself. The dead are never dead, always on the cusp of returning. The living are never out of their sight. Or all of us exist in a time that is sometimes outside itself, wafting like the dust Sebald found comfort in, not clean like the line of a railroad track.
I have always had at the back of my mind this notion that of course
these people aren't really gone, they just hover somewhere at the
perimeter of our lives and keep coming in on brief visits.
It's the nature--super-nature--of these visits that fascinates me in this year since my mother's death. If I have often lived in within her memories (of The War, of an adventurous life that somehow ended at my birth, becoming ordinary), the post-memories I have of her come of other peoples' lives and memories. Her death has brought me new friends, Terry Hong of McLean, Virginia, where my mother lived for many years, and Jee Young (Vera) Lee, of Honolulu and Meadville, Pennsylvania, my mother's home town. Toward the end of her conscious life, my mother confused her memories with mine. I don't do that, but memories are inevitably a mixed genre, her recollections mine in the context in which I heard them. A car seat. A living room. The kitchen where she chopped vegetables. Nothing grand. Just the ordinary events of otherwise unmemorable days, now pushing through time's surface like a fin, or a leaf.
There is something terribly alluring to me about the past. I'm hardly
interested in the future . . . at least about the past you can have
I want to argue with Sebald over that one. Future and past are both provinces of the imagination, both susceptible to illusion. But the passage from his work that strikes me most strongly--is most compelling in its oddity--is this one, again from Austerlitz:
What made me uneasy at the sight of it [the capital of a cast-iron
column in Pilsen], however, was not the question whether the complex
form of the capital now covered with a puce-tinged encrustation, had
really impressed itself on my mind when I passed through Pilsen with the
children's transport in the summer of 1939, but the idea, ridiculous in
itself, that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface
seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember
me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no
longer recollect for myself.
It's the idea that memories do not live inside of us, but that we live inside the world's memories of our passage, that is so awkwardly telling here. To have forgotten is odd enough, but to ask that the world remember for us is as beautiful as it is presumptuous. A death leads to a televised game leads to a poem leads to a box score leads back to a father's 1984 letter to a colleague. The symbolism of loss arrives in numbers on my screen.
100: If Newton thought, said A, pointing through the window and down to the curve of the water around the Isle of Dogs glistening in the last of the daylight, if Newton really thought that time was a river like the Thames, then where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow? Every river, as we know, must have banks on both sides, so where, seen in those terms, where are the banks of time? What would be this river's qualities, qualities perhaps corresponding to those of water, which is fluid, rather heavy, and translucent? In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it?
101: The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home or in hospitals, and they are not the only ones, for a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future.
140: I had constantly been preoccupied by that accumulation of knowledge which I had pursued for decades, and which served as a substitute or compensatory memory.
221: What made me uneasy at the sight of it [the capital of a cast-iron column in Pilsen], however, was not the question whether the complex form of the capital now covered with a puce-tinged encrustation, had really impressed itself on my mind when I passed through Pilsen with the children's transport in the summer of 1939, but the idea, ridiculous in itself, that this cast-iron column, which with hits scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said A, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself.
The emergence of memory: Conversations with WG Sebald, ed. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Seven Stories Press.
Interview with Eleanor Wachtel:
I have always had at the back of my mind this notion that of course these people aren't really gone, they just hover somewhere at the perimeter of our lives and keep coming in on brief visits.
The other function [of using photos in the text] that I see is possibly that of arresting time. Fiction is an art form that moves in time, that is inclined towards the end, that works on a negative gradient, and it is very, very difficult in that particular form in the narrative to arrest the passage of time.
And the photographs can also do this--they act like barriers or weirs which stem the flow. I think that is something that is positive, slowing down the speed of reading, as it were.
[Memory] is what qualifies us as emotional creatures . . . And I think there is no way in which we can escape it. The only thing that you can do, and that most people seem to be able to do very successfully, is to subdue it. And if you can do that by, I don't know, playing baseball or watching football on television, then that's possibly a good thing, I don't know.
There is something terribly alluring to me about the past. I'm hardly interested in the future . . . at least about the past you can have certain illusions.
The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory.
To my mind it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much
greater chance to lead happy lives. But it is something you cannot
possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that you are
inclined to look back over your shoulder. Memory, even if you repress
it, will come back at you and it will shape your life. Without memories
there wouldn't be any writing: the specific weight an image or phrase
needs to get across to the reader can only come from things remembered -
not from yesterday but from a long time ago.
Tim Denevi sends a couple more Sebald quotes my way: "Memory, he added in a
postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head
heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding
perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height,
from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds."
And: "And so they are ever
returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more
than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few
polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots."
How to be a poet in Hawai`i--or elsewhere--who opposes imperialism,
colonization, the military, and yet appears, as a Euro-American, to
embody them? I've worried this issue before on my own blog, and thought I'd think more about it here by way of a new book from BlazeVox by Scott Abels.