Sunday, March 29, 2009

"You'll go down if you don't stand up for yourself": Bertolt Brecht, Paul Chan, Lynne Stewart

I assigned to my introductory poetry students over Spring break. Nothing in particular, just a wild ride through the archive of avant-garde film, poetry, ethnopoetics, music, visual art, and criticism. So today I grazed the site myself, listening to some Celtic voice music, then haphazardly clicking on the videos of Paul Chan. His first ubuweb video, "RE:THE_OPERATION," presented George W. Bush's cabinet as wounded soldiers writing home about sex and power (what else is there for Condi or Donald to write about?). It was conceptually strong, but the video was not as memorable to me as was Chan's interview of Lynne Stewart, the lawyer convicted of "aiding terrorism" by defending the man purportedly responsible for World Trade Center One, as she calls it, namely Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. She has attracted a lot of attention, much of it negative, along the way. You can see the video, Untitled Video on Lynne Stewart and Her Conviction, The Law, and Poetry (2006) here.

The video, produced very simply and effectively, draws Stewart out into a conversation about her activism, her work as a lawyer, and her interest in poetry, which she refers to as "an emotional noodge" and (less evocatively) as "distillations of thought." The video's unstated central paradox goes as follows: a woman convicted of making a press release for a convicted terrorist ("words only"), argues for the supreme power of words, by way of readings from work by John Ashbery (whom she accidentally calls "John Ashcroft," until corrected), William Blake, Eavan Boland, and Bertolt Brecht.

Aptly, the Ashcroft / Ashbery poem is titled, "Absence of a Noble Presence" from Shadow Train (1981). Think aftermath of Watergate, of Vietnam. Think of the absenting of Ashbery by Ashcroft:

If it was treason it was so well handled that it
Became unimaginable.

Stewart's own "treason" was not well handled, and her sense of irony is thus palpable, especially clothed as it is in a thick New York accent. Ashbery helps her to say what she means to about Americans who were willing to trade the Bill of Rights for "a sense of being safe"--not safety, merely a taste of it:

You've got to remember we don't see that much.

His poem ends on a note she will take up again in reading from Blake's "On Another's Sorrow," namely empathy for the other one (I write this to avoid othering the Other):

It matters only to the one you are next to
This time, giving you a ride to the station.
It foretells itself, not the hiccup you both notice.

This "fore-telling of itself" reminds the listener that World Trade Center One was followed by Trade Center Two; if we had only heeded the literal, had only had the conversation Stewart says we have never had, as to why 19 young men might sacrifice themselves, then perhaps the over-literal and foretold second event might not have happened. The Blake poem is a lovely meditation on seeing with, feeling for. Her later reading of Boland's "Quarantine," about a couple that dies together during the 1847 potato famine, renders the feeling historical, as well as trans-historical, and the final poem, by Brecht, "And I Always Thought," brings us back to the place where "the simplest words are enough," if only you utter them.

Stewart also talks about her career as an elementary school librarian (the kids would listen when she started "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright"!), her activism with the Black Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and other groups, her work as a lawyer, and the prospect of jail time. On that last note she tears up when she talks about her family, their worries for her. While she says she would die for a cause, but never disengage from it, she clearly understands the personal costs to family.

When I conceptualized this semester's course in Poetry & Politics, I intended the course to be about poems that are political. What Lynne Stewart taught me today, among much else, is that poems (like Ashbery's, like Blake's) that are not ostensibly political can feed a political imagination, show us how the political and the lyrical are braided together, and be used as persuasive rhetoric in a court of law.

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