Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"A little derivative, / but what isn't, these days?" John Beer and Gizelle Gajelonia Rewrite _The Waste Land_

Too easily forgotten amid the many spilled words over T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is the fact that the waste land was and is a place. The city, by way of Baudelaire, may be "unreal," but it is also London, as is its Thames river of voices, from Cockney to the Queen's English. The place the poem keeps is also significant; it has grown streets and suburbs and exurbs by now in the voices of poets who went to school, literally, to the poem. So perhaps it's no surprise that two new volumes of poetry take The Waste Land as their place, namely John Beer's The Waste Land and Other Poems (ring a bell, anyone?) from Canarium Press and Gizelle Gajelonia's otherwise Stevensianly titled, Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus from Tinfish Press. Eliot left St. Louis for the metropolis of London; Beer and Gajelonia pull him back to us (if I may call us us)--Beer to Chicago, Gajelonia to Honolulu. Where Beer retains Eliot's title, Gajelonia calls her poem, "He Do Da Kine in Different Voices," after Eliot's original "He Do the Police in Different Voices."

"Save Now," my blogger helper advises in blue, right next to TheBus orange "Publish Post" button. Why now? Why re-publish The Waste Land in these different voices? Are we so far on the other side of post-modernism or Language writing or post-Language writing or new new new formalism that we can now reconsider and transpose the 20th century's great poem (or one of them) into new voices? Let us say so. And hypothesize that what we term "derivative"--in this era of derivatives (you read it, so I don't have to)--may be the new new. Make it new, Eliot's miglior fabbro, Old Ez, ordained. To that, Beer's Spicer responds, "Someone's got it in for me" and earns the moniker of "the fabber craftsman," a mixed homophonic and ordinary translation of Eliot. To be derivative is to translate, and to translate is to recreate one place in another place.

Hence Beer's setting of the first section of the poem, namely Eliot's "The Burial of the Dead," as "The Funeral March (Chicago and Orleans)." Orleans is already a wonderful playful place. Does he mean New Orleans, from which Chicago got its music, by way of the river, Mississippi, and the train tracks that threaded their way north, through St. Louis, at about the time its exile Eliot was writing about London? Does he mean a city in France? Does he mean a band that sort of flourished in the 1970s (remember "Still the One"?) I hope not. Does he refer to the Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, a place nearly as full of simulacra as his poem? Read the first section of the poem and you cannot be certain of Orleans, nor even of Chicago, despite the Heartland Cafe, where the speaker is to meet his younger brother Stetson, he of the corpse planted in Eliot's garden.

But the place in Beer's poem that is most a place is (ironically?) called "V. Death to Poetry," where Orpheus awakens to find himself not in hell so much as in the poem about hell. "Orpheus awoke in the poem of disguises, the poem once called 'The Waste Land.' Friends, listen up. He gathered the remnants of the life he had dreamed. He renounced the burden of the name he bore. He began to walk." Where does he walk? Chicago: "down Milwaukee Avenue toward the Flatiron Building." Along the way he passes a catalogue of immigrants and musicians, students, teachers, cops. The world is clearly ending, as SUVs are burning: "the asphalt ran liquid and Orpheus saw the dissolving sky and he knew that the name of the poem he had entered could not be 'The Waste Land' . . . This is the death of the poet." While this section of the poem isn't broadly parodic; it's too damn serious (and exhausted) for that, it takes a funny turn when Beer turns not to shoring fragments against his ruin, but instead footnotes. Here what had followed the text as a kind of self-parody is brought into the text as broad parody as "These footnotes I have shored against my ruins . . . / no longer the mirror, no longer the poem"[.] The narrator proclaims himself not-Orpheus and declares that the city he is in is called "Barnes and Noble" (which is where you will find it). The poem's "ruse" is abandoned, and the buildings begin to sing a song of kissing and of never getting up. The end.

Gizelle Gajelonia's "He Do Da Kine in Different Voices" is at once closer to the original (she follows its plot more closely) and farther away from it (as Honolulu is from London). Where Beer's poem takes place in Chicago and the USA more generically ("THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS. / WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES" could be anywhere), Gajelonia's poem has as its speaker Queen Liliuo`kalani, the Hawaiian Kingdom's last queen, deposed in 1893 by a gang of American businessmen. She is at once the Marie who must hold on tight (the rich girl of Eliot's opening) and a prisoner surrounded by the ruins of her kingdom, wondering how to set her lands in order at the end. She is trapped inside a canon of European and American poetry, wanting out. And she is also trapped, like us, inside the contemporary Hawai`i of tourist land and reality television:

Real Unreal City
Under the gray vog of a winterless dawn,
A crowd flowed over Waikiki Beach, so many,
I had always thought Hawai`i had fucked so many.
The mindless pimps, with their eyes fixed on the Other,
Walked up the strip and down King Kalakaua Street,
To where Dog the Bounty Hunger kept the city safe
With prayer, Beth's breasts, and pepper spray.

Where Beer lards the old poem with contemporary references and slang, Gajelonia takes Eliot's cockney and replaces it with Hawaiian Creole English, or Pidgin, which Lisa Linn Kanae and others have termed a "language of resistance" to Standard English and all it represents. The bar conversation in Eliot's "The Game of Chess" about how Albert is demobbed and Lil has an abortion becomes, in Gajelonia's poem:

I said, what, you no feel shame fucking around?
But she was like, whatevaz Honey Girl, Kimo fucked
Around with so many sluts, I had sex with
Junior Boy because I needed
Money to buy school supplies for the kids, because
Kimo is a good-for-nothing-son-of-a-bitch.

But Gajelonia's waste land returns to Hawai`i's queen, where in section V. she asserts that she is "the constitutional ruler of my people." The final words in Gajelonia's version of the poem belong to Queen Liliuo`kalani:

I sat on my bed
Thinking, with my people behind me,
Shall I sign the proposition handed to me?
The monarchy is falling down falling down falling down
O ka halia`loha i hiki mai,
Ke hone ae nei ku`u manawa.
O oe no ka`u ipon aloha,
A lo ko e hana nei.

It is for them that I would give th last drop of my blood;
It is for them that I would spend everything belonging to me.
Aloha `oe, aloha `oe, aloha `oe.

If you want to read the lyrics to Queen Liliuo`kalani's "Aloha Oe," you can read them here, and you can make them your ringtone. There's something horrible about that, which I can't put my finger on. But I do love the posthumous rendition of the song by Johnny Cash, which follows an ad for "Sins of the Father." No comment. Gajelonia's Queen does not speak the Queen's English; her song is in `oiwi, or Hawaiian, that has only since the 1970s been reborn.

These new waste lands are sometimes parodic, often terribly funny. But they are more than parody, pastiche, or humor at the expense of the Anglophone Eliot. It was Eliot who inspired Kamau Brathwaite's interest in nation language through his performance of The Waste Land in the 1950s, by which time he was mocking his own work, sounding more like a tuba than like a bard. It is that Eliot who inspired Gajelonia's rendering of his poem as the history of Hawai`i. And Eliot's ragtime is probably responsible for Beer's importation of the King of Pop into his version of the poem: "Buskers / danced in supplication of the shadows, / mirroring the disgraced King of Pop. / White noise announced the train. Orpheus wept." If Orpheus is made to weep, then we should be grateful for his tears. These two renditions of Eliot are, if not improvements on the classic, then worthy covers (and re-upholsterings) of it. The poem has been re-newed. Derive contains within itself both the word "riven," or "to break apart," but also the word "la rive," or river bank, shore. Shored against its ruins, Eliot's poem washes up against a new bank. There are too many puns to attend to there, you know. So I'm off on my bark until next time.

[The title of this post comes from John Beer]

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