Monday, December 28, 2009

"I do not / want to know": Elizabeth Soto's _Eulogies_

Elizabeth Soto's new Tinfish Press book, Eulogies, is significant for several reasons: it's a book about schizophrenia, the toll it takes on its sufferers and those who love them; it's about mapping minds, locations, and histories of affection; it's a contribution to Hawai`i's literature that is not "local" or "indigenous"; and its design (by Michelle Saoit) marks a first response to the writing. I'd like to address a more limited issue here, however. The long poem began in response to another poem; more precisely, perhaps, it began in response to a simple rhetorical move. The poem is Adrienne Rich's "Atlas of the Difficult World," and the move is that of stating what one knows, while claiming not to want to know it (is there a Latin name for this?). Rich's long poem contains the phrase "I do not want to hear/know" over and over, through several sections; I don't have the poem with me, as I'm on vacation and the book is in my office. But here's a scrap of the poem I find on-line:

I don't want to know how he tracked them
along the Appalachian Trail, hid close
by their tent, pitched as they thought in seclusion
killing one woman, the other
dragging herself into town his defense they had teased his loathing
of what they were I don't want to know
but this is not a bad dream of mine (ll. 45-51).

Rich's long poem participates in a long tradition of American epics, Leaves of Grass, The Bridge, and Paterson, among them. These poems map out an America that the writer and reader do want to know. But they also confront an America they do not want to know, one characterized by violence (actual and economic), -isms of many kinds, and the failure of individualism to guarantee happiness. "I do not want to hear/know," then, is at once certitude and concession. The writer knows, even as she expresses the desire not to know. Any words that follow the blunt statement testify to knowing: in this case, knowing that a man attacked a lesbian couple on the Appalachian Trail.

Elizabeth Soto's poem emerged in layers. The ways in which it emerged are fascinating to me, since I witnessed its growth from the beginning. Lyz began writing Eulogies in a "Poetry & Politics" class, where Adrienne Rich's book appeared on the syllabus along with books by Amiri Baraka, Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand, Craig Santos Perez, Tinfish 18.5 writers, and others. Where most students were writing individual poems inspired by each of our writers, Lyz began writing a sequence about her late ex-husband whose schizophrenia led to his suicide. My recollection (always in doubt) was that her poem began with lines like these:

I do not
want to know
about sediment layers of substances found
in your quiet veins,
about spider scars coursing
your thighs
the undersides of your arms,
about the awkward angled tilt
of your head signaling
the severed cord,
about the blue smudged grey of your
chilled skin
when they found you | (17)

Lyz renders Rich's statement even more ambivalent with the enjambments after "I do not" and "want to know," which suggests that she both does and does not "want to know" about her late husband's drug use and the way in which he died. But Lyz also knows that knowledge requires both a speaker and a listener; "I do not want to know" is, in its way, too simple a statement, because it suggests the poet can know what she wishes to know. Lyz's corrective comes later on page 17:

I do not want to know
if the unquiet lost breath
if the unwanted visitors faded,
if you knew oblivion was santuary,
And they
will not tell me |

The "unwanted visitors" brought by the illness will not tell her if they are gone, nor will the dead man speak to her. "I do not want to know" thus opens a passage whose very revelation is the impossibility of knowing certain things--about each other, about illness, about language, about love.

The lyric refrain that Soto adapts from Rich's poem is but one voice in her fugue-like poem. Other voices inhabit the poem's underworld, its footnotes, which point toward brutal facts like the one at the bottom of this page: " . . . the average life expectancy of people with schizophrenia is 10 to 12 years less than those without
. . . " (17). Other footnotes inform the reader about anti-psychotic medications, the meaning of the word "map," quotations that "rhyme" with the poem. Some of these footnotes are themselves poems. Here is how Lyz lays out an OED definition on the bottom of page 18:

8) Translating fragments
history [t-1. A relation of incidents
(in early use, either true
or imaginary; later only of those professedly
true); a narrative,
tale, story.

That this definition of history is "obsolete" does not prevent it from providing an abstract of what the poem does, although it is not "so long and full of detail, / as to resemble / a history in sense . . . ]" We read the fragments; we are left to intuit their history.

Like other recent and forthcoming Tinfish Press books, Eulogies is about mapping. At the book's center (and at the very center of the book) Michelle Soait has included a drawing of the human brain. In a previous draft, submitted by Lyz for the class, there was also a map of Belgium (where her late husband grew up). One of the poem's fragments is a love story that covers continents and ends on an island. Hence, a section added late in the process:

I have been dreaming of road map directions,
and picture coded legends
with a clear line towards sanity |
The warehouses, holding inconvenient and untreatable,
The factories, building chemical composites of maybe,
have dissolved into myths |

where the "legends" of a map evaporate into the "myths" she dreams will be all that remains of mental hospitals. In this section the phrase "I do not want to know" transposes to an equally simple phrase: "I have been dreaming." Here the poem turns its cheek back toward its central sadness and looks toward a future where "dissolution" will be a marker of sanity rather than illness.

After I read from Dementia Blog at the University of Western Sydney in November, Ivor Indyk spoke eloquently about the elegy as a poetic form. I wish I could reconstruct his exact words, but he spoke of how poets are at once testing their craft in writing an elegy and also trying to remember (the word literalized!) one who has died. While the phrase "testing one's craft" (more mine than his, I fear) might seem to reduce the elegy to a test for the poet, not an expression of grief, there is a way in which they are linked. Lyz's writing away from Rich and into a place of her own grieving forms a significant subplot to the composition of Eulogies. Her re-discovery, to which she bears witness in her dedication of the book to "Erick, because there was also love," that there were layers beyond suffering, was aided (I suspect) by the many layers of composition of the poem. To compose the poem was also to compose a self who could meet the past not as its victim but as its envoy to us:

There is not that much between us
small angles of separation |
Look, there in the window reflected,
we are almost
the same | (43)

[for more on Eulogies, see here.]

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Method is Public, Poetry Not So Much So (Perhaps)

Joe Harrington has been torturing himself (in a good way) over blogs for quite some time, making and re-making taxonomies of the "form." Joe's a reflective guy whose mind runs toward reflexivity. In his latest post, he notes, "The web log, like other logs, is written with time in mind - and marks time's passage. So do journals and letters. In that sense, these are all reflexive forms that invite reflection on their reflexivity. And the temporality is not just backwards (in the format), it's forward (new posts)." So far, so good, in my book. Or perhaps outside my book. For, he writes: "In a sense, a book is private - one has to physically have it; it is enclosed between covers. It costs money and a lot of time to make it. The blog opens out to a much wider audience, and invites that audience in. Immediately. Indeed, it might double-back against the Institutions of Art, or open towards activism against non-art institutions - which is what Mark Nowak's blog does, I think."

I have a quarrel with Joe about the distinctions he preserves between Art and the Public Life, although I understand why he keeps them in play; they're the walls of the squash court in which we pound our definitions and deal with the crazy bounces that ensue. But the question of what is public and what is private is more crucial now than it was in the pre-internet past. My Ph.D. student writes about celebrity in order to write about herself; she refuses to "go public," finds that she can use the odd public sphere of celebrity to get at issues that obsess her. The resistance I feel to using such masks (see Alfred Corn's recent post) is a resistance that surprises me, as I used to maintain a zone of privacy even in what I published. Dementia Blog finished off that notion for me, the most private work I've ever written--private not simply for me, but also for my mother, who is the subject of the work. It's her privacy I wonder about often, even as I think that making her Alzheimer's public will do someone else a private good. (The squash balls sure are bouncing now, aren't they?)

For some reason, I keep thinking about the alphabet as a way to get at the private/public ricochet. It's not that Ron Silliman's The Alphabet sits rotundly on my poetry shelves, among other S's. And it's not that I'm currently reading new books by Mary Jo Bang (The Bride of E) and John Ashbery (Planisphere), both of which organize their poems according to the alphabet, and that I return often to Tiare Picard's twin alphabet poems from Tinfish 18.5 for their richness, but also because I've always found the alphabet to be an odd way to organize the world (hence the chaos of my own paperwork?) The alphabet is a public form; a trip to any library will assure you of that. But to organize one's work alphabetically is to render it private. Or that's my hunch. This has something to do with the differences between method and practice, or that's my further hunch. The boundary between private and public in what we call "alphabetical order" blurs in both directions: the private becomes public, but the public also becomes private, which is the more radical direction, because less expected. The order the alphabet creates is arbitrary, paratactical. It's the kind of order that links "Nixon, Richard" with "non-absorptive writing," as in the index to my book of essays. There's surely something there, but its logic, while powerful, is accidental rather than considered. Yes, writing one's memoir takes one's private life and makes it available to a public one cannot see or even imagine. But there is a significant way in which the public is terribly private, too, not simply in the way we absorb public events, but in the way public events affect our language, our way of thinking. Our uses of language can illustrate the way privatization comes to make public/common spaces mysterious, and not always in ways beneficial to the community.

One of the few times I talked to John Ashbery, a few of us were sitting in a bar in a Washington, D.C. hotel in the mid-1980s. Behind me were bookshelves, the kind provided in bars as decor, not for the sake of knowledge. There was a line of books on the shelf behind me, so I pulled one out, and discovered that I held one letter of a children's encyclopedia. Ashbery's eyes grew even bigger than usual, as he told us that he'd memorized parts of that encyclopedia as a child. That Ashbery's new book is organized according to the alphabetical order of its titles should come as no surprise then, especially, as one of his earlier volumes was also organized in this way. My first encounter with Planisphere (this is not a review of the book!) reminded me of first encounters with other Ashbery books. Over and over I start out utterly baffled by his books, only to find ways of access later. (I'm not there yet.) So the book remains private to me, in code, and yet organized with the efficiency of a librarian or a shopkeeper. Mary Jo Bang's book is even more self-consciously an alphabet book, with titles like "B is for Beckett" and "E is Everywhere" and "I in a War," the last of these titles one of many that wanders away from its first principle. "For Freud" might be a subtitle of this book, as there are so many references to the ur-psychiatrist. Freud is called out by his letter as surely as is Mao Zedong in the "Z Stands for Zero Hour" poem that ends Part I of the book. History emerges out of a single letter, the private code (which is the alphabet for each of its users) rendered public. History as accidental passage.

Tiare Picard's two poems, "L'alphabet" and "Sans les Isles," make an opposing movement. Rather than summon history out of letters, Picard shows how history has privatized the very language we use, and in so doing, has rendered great parts of it into code. What was once history is now hidden, inaccessible, organized by letter only. Hence, "L'alphabet" begins with a colonial story told via the method of the alphabet poem:

bulldozers bully,
down coral-crushed roads,
eunuchizing lingo, and
farting proper, dark smoke. (102)

The response, on the facing page, in "Sans les Isles," goes as follows:

b d z b y,
d c -c d d ,
c z , d
,d (103)
[layout below]

While terribly difficult to decipher, this is a very public move, from one poem to the next. In fact, that difficulty is part of the poem's (sharp) point, for the second poem is what happens to the first poem when the letters of the Polynesian alphabet are taken away from the English. That the English language embraces (or smothers) Polynesia comes clearest when Polynesia is taken out of it. When the bulldozers are done with Polynesian islands, when development has paved over the land, what the land is left with is scatter, the "coral-crushed roads" of the language itself. The book's design, which mimics word game puzzle books, accentuates the effect, as word games are those places where what has been kept secret is revealed as language.

In each of these instances, what is most public in the poem or the book of poems is the method. Alphabetical order is public; it's how we organize knowledge. Monks and google have used it, as it's a- or trans-historical. What is private is the poem's content, even if the significance of privacy is very different, depending on whether you look at Ashbery or at Picard, at a poem that includes Freud because his name starts with F or at a poem that gets bulldozed by development, for reasons greater than the letter D. If C was a Comedian, this D is not, even if the poem is itself extremely playful. If method is always a public activity, then what method enables is less so. But the real blurring of method and poem comes in these instances, like the one in Bang's poems that invoke Freud and Mao because their names begin with F and M, or as in Picard's poems, where what is most public (development, what one cannot not see) effaces history (renders it private, cryptic).

I will now post this blog entry. It will appear in order of the day it was composed and "published" (another private/public blurring). The way in which this day made this post possible is something only I know, or think I do. But when I hit the "button" at the bottom of the "page," its arbitrary order may become less arbitrary to its reader outside the blog box. Time offers an arbitrary order like the alphabet's. It too is a private space, crow-barred open by the completion of this method. There.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Trip on TheBus: Monday, December 21, 2009

I've taught "Poetry & the City" a couple of times now. Better to call it "Poetry & Place," since many of my students are not from Honolulu, but from places like Whitmore Village, an old pineapple plantation community outside of Wahiawa, or from Kane`ohe. One of the assignments that works best is to get students to take photographs of the place they live; the only stipulation is that they not be in any way touristic. Then they are to add captions to the photographs and post them on the class blog. We begin to get a sense of the histories of places that way; I remember one student from Waipahu who took a picture of an old general store that has, in recent years, become a Samoan church. Another assignment that proved even more valuable was to take a public bus (TheBus) and write about the experience. (This assignment has since yielded a forthcoming bus map publication of literature about TheBus and an honors thesis by Gizelle Gajelonia, namely Stop Requested.) Once of Gizelle's best ideas, that the bus is like a cathedral, never even made it into her work. Tinfish Press will be publishing her chapbook, Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus, in the Spring.

Like many of my assignments, the bus exercise was one I had not done myself. With very few exceptions, I have not taken buses since my first year in Hawai`i, which was 1990. But today my husband decided we would travel to Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu from our home in Temple Valley as a way to show the kids how to get around. He's been working with our son on taking the bus for several months now. So we took the 65 to Bishop and King Streets, then a 20 bus to Ala Moana. On the way back, we took the 57A to Alakea and King Street, and then the 65 back to Ahuimanu. Between trips, we spent time at what used to be the biggest shopping mall in the United States, where a manic counter-recession seems to be occurring.

The bus leaves Hui Iwa Street and winds around, only to stay put next to the McDonald's for 13 minutes or so. Then it goes down Kahekili toward the Hygienic Store, a local landmark notorious for its reputed drug market, then right onto Kamehameha Highway, past Hee`ia Pier and Point and down the coast back to Kane`ohe. Once through Kane`ohe, the bus turns up the Pali Highway and into town (Honolulu). We were seated toward the back of this bus where

--a young man in jacket and sunglasses was chatting up a young woman in tank top and skirt; his voice was slurred as if he'd been in an accident or had been drinking--he talked about drinking, something about the cops, too--and he showed her a picture of a woman he'd liked on his cell phone, and later a video off his laptop. Another young man sat at the back with slatted earrings through his pierced ears, on and off his phone. After he left, another young man sat in back, talking on his phone, while the young woman fell asleep.

--near Times in Kane`ohe a man ran to get on the bus. White, in his 30s, with a neat mustache, he was carrying a large military backpack and a camouflage jacket, which he put in the seat in front of my husband and daughter. He fumbled for change, turning down Bryant's offer of a quarter, and returned to his seat. He pulled out a sushi roll, the kind with the plastic wrap around the nori, and ate it. Then he pulled out a quart of milk and started to drink it, and then he pulled out a plate lunch and started to eat that. Somewhere in there, Sangha pointed to the seat next to the man who was hungry, and I spotted the nose of a dog that had a bone in its mouth, just peeking out of the backpack. It was a black terrier, to whom the man fed bits of his sushi roll. Then he pulled a brush out of the pack and energetically brushed the dog. Every so often the man would turn to look at the woman in the back (her conversational partner had gotten off at Windward Mall). His eyes were a bit too big, perhaps. There was a story. He got off before us, and the dog, hunting for crumbs on the floor of the bus, almost missed the stop. She was an unneutered animal, looked like she'd had puppies recently.

--Ala Moana Center Makai Food Court: an old white man wearing a Santa hat and a bib wandered around, in his mouth a pacifier. A few minutes later, he came the other direction, a baby bottle hanging from his lips.

--Alakea Street bus stop on the way home. A young man started offering us advice on buses to take, thinking we were tourists. My husband promptly started reciting the bus schedule chapter and verse. The young man was from Kailua, on his way to the airport to try to get a job pushing old people around in wheelchairs, being "friendly to people," which he said he always was. But the guy in headphones and a slant cap pacing back and forth ("fucking going up and down," he said) made him nervous. The guy was overweight, appeared too old for his gangster get-up, hardly dangerous. A homeless woman sat down, asked the young man what he did for a living. He said nothing right now. "Have you trained yourself?" she asked. Yes, he did handyman work, he replied, but business was slow. "Is it Easter?" the woman asked, chomping on ice from a Starbucks plastic cup, when she wasn't taking a drag off her cigarette. She wore a black dress with floral patterns on it, could have been on break from work. "No, it's near Christmas," the man answered, then got on his bus to Hickam/Airport, along with the gang banging wannabe. The woman wandered away, talking about Easter.

--A woman with Down Syndrome, her hair curly and graying, got on at that bus stop. During the trip she leafed through a photo album (family pictures?), smiled, and stuck her hands in her mouth, as if to retrieve something she'd lost there. She got off in Kane`ohe, and trudged beside the bus, likely heading home.

--[late addition]: two overweight teen-age boys get on the bus at Windward Mall. One pulls out a paperback (looks like sci-fi fantasy, something about thieves) and starts to read it. The other guy sits with a Borders bag on his lap. The first guy says, "I can't believe you don't like to read--always watching the tv! The first book I read all the way through was a few years ago, and I loved it!" He settles into his book, while his friend sits looking out the window.

--The bus wandered back over the Pali, beside the golf course, through Kane`ohe town, and down Kam Highway. A white-haired guy in broad brimmed hat and swim trunks got off the bus with a six-pack slung over his shoulder in a plastic supermarket bag. Bryant said, "going fishing!" When I remarked that he lacked a fishing pole, Bryant said, "perfect." The bus turned left at the Hygienic Store, went as far as the sewage plant, then took a right. On Hui Ulili Street, two women got on, one older, not terribly mobile, the other tall, lanky, assisting her. The second woman had large upper arms, a long heavily powdered face and bleached blonde curls; her legs were large, thick. We smiled as I and the family exited the bus to walk home.

A friend who came through Honolulu recently noticed the homeless problem on the way in from the airport. There are Vietnam Vets begging on Nimitz Highway under the H1 freeway; there are homeless people in tents in parks from Makaha to Kapiolani Park and beyond. Today's trip did not offer witness to that level of struggle. But it did offer much else, the promise of stories that might explain something, not only about the person seated in TheBus, but about the larger community. I look forward to my next trip on public transit and to next semester's Poetry Workshop (if it makes...) which will concentrate on poems of place.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Nothing attested": H.L. Hix's _Incident Light_

Life, friends, is complicated. My husband has two fathers: one who raised him, the other whom he met when he was a teen-ager. My daughter has a brother and a sister, but lives only with her brother. What I call my daughter's sister's mother is a question I've not yet answered to my satisfaction. My husband's cousin's wife discovered she was adopted when she was a teenager. One of my first cousins was adopted; one of my first cousins once removed was adopted. I became my mother's legal guardian (adopted her) when she could not care for herself. If blood can be said to run thicker than water, then so does history.

H.L. Hix
is that rare poet who is equal parts historian, journalist, archivist, and singer. He loves to ask questions, as anyone on the receiving end of his questionnaires knows. Wyoming may be cold, but it contains a buzzing inquiry factory in Laramie. So who can blame him for latching onto the story told him by an artist friend, Petra Soesemann, who discovered, at the late age of 49, that her birthfather and her dad were not the same person? Hix's project is built from questions he asked his friend, documents she gave him access to, and into a genre that has no name I know. "Biography . . . of a sort: biography whose first fidelity is not to facts, but to imagination, biography that loosens reality's hold, releases the life into lyric. Nothing attested, everything sung," he writes in "About This Book." But it's more complicated than that, for the book is written in two voices, that of the interviewer (each poem begins from a question) and that of the teller (using the first person pronoun). So, while Hix cannot be called a ghost-writer (even as there are quite a few ghosts in the book), he is not really a biographer, either. Is this an assisted-autobiography? A fusion of the biographical and autobiographical impulses? Hard to say.

Hix is doing something formally innovative, then, with the age-old story of loss, secrets, and identity. This is no fictional narrative, like George Eliot's Silas Marner; nor is it a series of autobiographical poems like those by Jackie Kay or Jennifer Kwon Dobbs or Lee Herrick; nor is it a "straight" adoption memoir or a "gay" adoption memoir like one of my favorites, Dan Savage's The Kid. The writing in Hix's book is clear, but between the questions and the answers is a silence that seems often to break itself. Like the subject of the book, perhaps, the reader discovers only slowly and fitfully what her story is, or what her stories are, or what her stories might have been. The silences between a daughter, her father, mother, and (missing) father are better defined as the book goes on. Less palpable are the silences between interviewer/poet and interviewee/subject. What is the effect of that silence on the emotional affect of the work, on our understanding of the writer or of his subject? These are questions impossible to answer, hence as powerful as the questions that animated the book itself.

If secrets are shadowy, and yet can be brought to light, then Hix lets us know in his headnote that light is itself a changeable thing. He quotes C.L. Hardin's 1986 book Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow, as follows:

"An object turns out to have a transmission color, a reflection color, an interference color, etc., no two necessarily the same, and each color is a function of detection angle as well as of the spectrum of the incident light."

The passage from which this passage comes is about the complexity of assigning colors to objects; perception is more complicated than we think. The perceiver assigns color as much as the object perceived has one. As Hix writes late in the book, "Color is the comparison, not the light, / a property of the brain, not of the world" (70).

And what tests perception so much as family resemblances and differences, personal and global histories? (One of the most disturbing stories in the book has to do with an airplane seat mate who tells the artist that he killed two Russian prisoners in World War II, and has plans to kill his wife. At the poems end, she relates, "He gave me his card, so I gave him mine" (48). Petra's blonde mother dyes her hair black to match her daughter's: "The real reason is obvious to me now, / as it must have been then to everyone else / in that small town where before then she'd been blonde" (71). Skin and hair color mark the resemblances that we ascribe to family. To change them makes us more so?

The ease of telling murderous secrets on airplanes meets its absolute counterweight in Petra's family silence. We find out, over the course of the book, that her German mother, young and married to her father, had had an affair with a Turkish man, which resulted in the birth of Petra. The two fathers had agreed never to reveal the secret, and Petra was raised by her mother and German father, who moved to the United States and settled in Ohio. For 50 years, the secret was held, past the death of her German father; when it broke, she met her Turkish father and new relatives. And then sat for her portrait with Hix, who asked her the following questions (and more). Some of the questions circulate, returning later in the book.

Where did you grow up?
Did you ever suspect anything when you were growing up?
What is your favorite song?
You must have loved your dad.
Where does your name come from?
How do you feel about having new sisters?
I see now where your features come from.
What have you kept secret for years?

The necessary confusions of Petra's situation result in questions left unanswered, or questions answered in ways the reader might not expect. To the prompt, "I see now where your features come from." the response is not about the "father" (birth) but the "dad" (adoptive). "Dad loved cars, would have studied engineering, / but they could send only one son to school, so / he stayed, worked in the family bakery" (10). What we see is a photo of father and mother, who "look so happy to me here," not of the missing father, whose facial features were the subject of the prompt. The adoptive father is fascinating to me (probably for the obvious reason that I'm an adoptive parent). Not once did he break the secret to his daughter, not in anger or in jest. If he kept an enormous secret from his daughter, he also gave her his love.

He'd worn it out, the ragged cotton dress shirt
he gave me to paint in in kindergarten,
English all day in school but German at home.
I wanted to sleep in that shirt, to wear it
always, I cried when they made me take it off.
I tried to talk, but knew only how to paint
and cry. To this day a man in a white shirt
makes me speak in primary colors and tears. (6)

Her returned devotion is such that she wants to eat the shrimp her dad loves, even though it makes her violently ill. But she suspects something. The girl's inconsolability, projected onto the sound of a boy crying down the street, sounding like the train that wakes her every night, leads her to travel west and then to South America, where she learns about the light in Peru, and finally to a meeting with her "father" (as he's called, to distinguish him from "dad").

Perhaps it's Petra's age (49) when she finds out about her origins; perhaps it's the intermediary poet writing her story for or with her; perhaps it's their combined character, but the book reveals very little of the anger a reader might anticipate. There's much more sadness here, sadness that she could not have shared some of her own secrets with her dad while he was alive; sadness for her grandmother, who has forgotten everything; sadness in the note sent from her mother to her Turkish father, in which she wrote, "Her eyes speak of you." Where Hix considers the story to be "instantly mythical," I would weigh in on the side of history. What Hix has written is a lyrical history, at once personal and political (the shadows of World War II inhabit this book as surely as do personal secrets).

As I read Hix's book, I can't help but think of Dana Forsberg's work "What do we really know?" Jaimey Hamilton has written about it on the Tinfish Press website. In this work by Forsberg, herself a Korean adoptee, a forensic police artist interviews friends, acquaintances and relatives of various subjects, including Forsberg herself and Konrad Ng (better known these days as Barack Obama's brother-in-law, and also an adoptive parent). Based on their descriptions, the artist made a series of sketches of each subject. Needless to say, everything changed. Where we usually ascribe identity to image, here images are so various that each person's identity proliferates. Which takes us back to Hix's head-note about the "incident light." To which we might add Wallace Stevens's poem, "Description Without Place." "Description is / Composed of a sight indifferent to the eye," writes Stevens. The "theory of description" "matters, because everything we say / of the past is description without place, a cast / Of the imagination, made in sound" (Collected Poems 345-46).

My students quarrel with me about cliches; what if they think in them, they ask? One student wrote that writing cliches was "the cross he had to bear." I think he understood the joke, though. To see through the joke is to cast light upon the problem. To shed light on something is to enable us to see it, not as object but in its relationship to what we think is true. An on-line description of an exhibition by Petra Soesemann and Nancy Fleming adds, "Together, they endeavored to present a body of work that 're-packages' and displays ordinary expendable cardboard boxes in an unexpected light." Hix's "incident light" cannot be fixed, but sets our sights on the light, as well as the story (recycled as it is) that the light fixes itself upon. In so doing, Hix unveils some of complexities of one family's life, but also presents us with a way to write poems without committing the violence so common to lyric poems, when the poet becomes his subject, rather than entering into conversation with her.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

M.I.A. reading series & harvest time

[Jade Sunouchi, Tom Gammarino, Ken Quilantang]

Yesterday was the second reading in the M.I.A. series at the Mercury Bar in Chinatown, organized by Ph.D. student/poet Jaimie Gusman. I'll digress first, then move on to the heart of the matter. When I asked the bar owner if owning a bar was like small press work, he said, yes, in both cases you need to define your mission. His was to set up a bar under the aegis of Mercury (a mercurial place), where the music was not too loud, and there are no televisions. So, while the Chinatown alleyway in which it sits is none too inviting, the bar itself is. The first reading in November had featured readings by Ph.D. student, Ranjan Adiga, Jerrold Shiroma, a poet new to Honolulu, Joseph Cardinale, a Ph.D. fiction writer, whose novel is forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2, and myself. Oh, and then there was the performative homage to Michael Jackson by a former flight attendant and current student in fiber at UHM, who somehow managed to make the aftermath of 9/11 funny.
Last night featured work by Anjoli Roy, an M.A. student in fiction and non-, Ken Quilantang, M.A. fiction writer, Jade Sunouchi, M.A. poet, and Tom Gammarino, whose new book, Big in Japan is just out. The readings were punctuated by the work of an improv duo (In Your Face Improv, or IYFI) that worked off prompts like "sheep" and "run" in hysterical fashion. [Photo: INFI, with Chris Riel, foreground, who MC'ed the event]

Two things strike me as significant about this reading series. The first is that there is an audience for writing in Hawai`i that is not exclusively local or indigenous. You could call this "graduate student writing," if you wished. But there has always been writing in Hawai`i that cannot be classified in the usual ways--those that fit the magazines and/or the academies here. This series confirms that power of that kind of writing, even as it sometimes mixes it in with local writing (Ken Quilantang's writing is very much of this place, but benefits from being contextualized in this way). The second is that the range of writing going on in the graduate program is wide. Ken Quilantang's work is gritty, sometimes violent (last night's story contained passages about a young man beating his father with a baseball bat, for example), while Tom Gammarino is making more postmodern moves, using a character named "Brain" to pirouette brainily through concerns like love, religion, and cross cultural desire. Joseph Cardinale's story last month about a boy who falls from a tree and then speaks from the dead oddly complements Jade Sunouchi's novella in poetic prose that features a dream sequence in the underworld of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. In that dream sequence, the protagonist, Aster, confronts the wrath of Malinche (who slept with Cortez) over the incursion of tourists to Mexico. Ranjan Adiga's story was about barely suppressed homosexual desire in contemporary Nepal; Anjoli Roy's non-fiction piece about a farflung relationship and the rats who interrupted it (literal rats). Jerrold Shiroma presented slides of his Shakespeare sonnet project, in which he takes the texts of sonnets and makes them, by "photoshopping them like hell" into stunning visuals. And mine on dementia seemed out of place in a bar, except that so many of my conversations these days are about demented parents (and grandparents) that all imagined boundaries of decorum appear artificial.

Good news, then, that Jaimie has gotten some funding for the series. It's a wonderful addition to Honolulu's literary scene.


Yesterday was also harvest day, the last day of my Literature & Creative Writing (273) and Form & Theory of Poetry (410) classes, the day final projects were due. Here is a photograph of my new collection of chapbooks. First the pile of chaps on my living room floor, then some details, taken by Allegra Wilson, who is hoping to reconstruct her book based on photos she took yesterday.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Blogging (with) Tyrone Williams, _On Spec_

It's too early to perform valedictories on the semester, although the shape of Form & Theory (English 410) seems clearer now than it did in August. The ways in which syllabi morph from "hope" to "experience" to "history" is perhaps worthy of its own entry, but not on this clear, cool morning. Instead, I'll talk about particulars.

The two books assigned for this course were Rothenberg and Joris's Poems for the Millennium, volume one and Tyrone Williams's On Spec (Omnidawn, 2008). I was using the former for the first time in a decade, and the latter I included more on a hunch than anything. But the books enter into call and response. The anthology considers native chants and Duchamp's urinal to be more or less of a piece, while Williams's book re-appropriates the avant-garde in the interest of (among many things) an American culture and history that is largely African.

Millennium One makes an argument I like (that texts not usually considered to have affinities do have them) in a way that makes me uncomfortable (by placing them together in a big book as if the conversation were over already). Surely there are necessary differences in intention, in context, between a native chant, a blues song, and F.T. Marinetti! I'm reminded of a video I watched at the Museum of New South Wales in the mid-1990s, which looked into the rage for aboriginal art that had swept the New York art scene. Aboriginal paintings were seen as "abstractions," and drew enormous prices on the market. But, when asked what their paintings were about, the artists said they were maps of the land they lived on. So, while it's not necessarily a problem that westerners love the work for its "abstraction," it is a problem when the works are not adequately historicized and acknowledged as coming from a very different impulse. Intention matters. And culture provides the necessary context for any artist's intentions.

Tyrone Williams's On Spec provides a provocative bookend to Millennium One. Williams appropriates the European avant-garde to his own purposes. His book is more exploratory and experimental than conclusive, more a record of process than a set product (this is not the say the poems are not sturdy constructions). He puts a microscope to the language we use when we talk about American history, race, sports, art. He employs vocabularies of economics, the law, legislation, music, and many more to peel layers off the scab of bad faith in language. As he wrote to one student on our class blog:

I use "experimental" the way most artists do--not as a way of confirming something I already know or suspect (as a hypothesis) as a scientist would--but as a way of testing the limits of language itself, how far one can push the envelope until one enters "noise." And since noise is the current name for a type of ambient music popular among adventurous DIY "musicians," I think even language that is noise might be interesting as a form of communication...

One of the ways in which Williams's poems operate is through allusions to language that is not included in the poem. Poetic allusions grow increasingly difficult to discuss in the classroom, as students lack a commonly held canon of texts in which to lower their buckets and pull up lines and images. But even more difficult are non-literary allusions such as those Williams makes in "To To Speak," the tenth section of a longer piece, "Ask-Vubba: A Decalogue." A poem that begins from "Eecchhooeess" contains a chamber of them:

The concave dish of reason for a few waves
Convoluted, licentious ears. Eecchhooeess

from now. A hand-set type. Letters rise up
against the word but remain embedded in their plates

of relative license (cf. Freedmen's Bureau): collagen,
silicone and lipowhite: Resolution 1195: "a leader

in the quest for civil rights and justice"
[scale and base invariant]. A see-and-feel-

through Voice
for Good. (119)

"Licentious" echoes forth as "license," sonically. The "Voice" emerges from dishes, as from type faces. Williams takes poetic license to make his poem echo outward into history, where the parenthetical "Freedmen's Bureau" enters literary and cultural history in the echoes emanating from W.E.B. DuBois's 1901 essay on that organization. That essay begins, famously, with the sentence: "The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line." Many pages later, it concludes with the same sentence. Once the color line rises from the page, the reader is met with a triad of beauty products, which render the skin younger looking, or "white," as in "lipowhite." Without transition, we are referred to (Georgia House) Resolution 1195, which you can find here, passed in 1996, honoring Ola Mae Quarterman (what a figurative name that is), who was sentenced to 30 days in prison in Albany, Georgia in 1962 and expelled from Albany State for sitting at the front of a public bus and purportedly using the word "damn" to the bus driver. In the language of the resolution, she is a "leader / in the quest for civil rights and justice" (119). The "see . . . through" "Voice / for Good" evokes the seeing-through Williams has just shown us of the language of race and recompense in the 20th century American South. Echoes grow outward, but do not "solve" problems, just as Resolutions in state legislatures cannot resolve not so ancient histories of racism. There is little restitution in recognition; I quote from Resolution 1195. Williams leaves this language out.

1-26 REPRESENTATIVES that the members of this body recognize and
1-27 commend Ola Mae Quarterman-Clemons for her bravery, for her
1-28 leadership, and for the important role which she has played
1-29 in the history of the civil rights movement in Albany and
1-30 the State of Georgia.

Williams here is quoting without quoting. To one of my students he wrote that he considers quotation to be "a form of homage." But not all homages are equal; in the poem I just cited the quotations (both there and not there) are sometimes honorific, as to DuBois, and sometimes ironic, as to the authors of Reolution 1195.

In one of his responses to my students, Williams wrote about place. He began by talking about the place of poetic tradition. Then he moved to physical places, including his home town of Detroit. What he does in the comment that follows reflects ways he investigates language as place, words as places, and how he works to unname and rename places that have been known. To "know one's place" is a loaded term for any African American person:

The moment we think we know our "place," the moment we accept the names and histories of a place, we have framed, bound, that place and some--not all--of its properties. What remains "outside" our frames is precisely what we cannot know. That non-knowledge is, fortunately, if "we" are lucky, the space of future definitions of a place. Thus, "my" Detroit is not the Detroit of others, contemporaries (like Susan) and young relatives (my nephews and nieces).

Definition as possibility rather than as point of fixity. Non-knowledge as potential rather than absence. That Williams's work looks so far forward in its stripping back of language is perhaps what I most admire about it. On Spec is not easy; my class and I came to several screeching halts after extensive discussion. But the book is extremely valuable, both as a much-needed move in the history of avant-garde art and as a gesture forward.