the disciplinary censoring of lyric poetry

December 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

the-typewriter

“Today poetry is largely ignored by literary studies because it forces the question of the category of the poetic as such, for poetry does not respond very well to current constructions of the ‘discipline’ of literary study, which emphasize the social, economic, or political determinants of literary production. Literary production may be so determined, but critical approaches to poetry from these angles cannot tell us much about the nature and function of poetic language, which may be said to be the marker of the literary, the presumed object of literary study. The form that the disciplinary censoring of lyric poetry takes today is a determined evasion of the special status of poetic language as such. Under the mandate to ‘historicize,’ for example, the lyric reduces to a documentary of the inner experiences and private affairs of a bourgeois ‘individual.’ The lyric is a foundational genre, and its history spans millennia; it comprises a wide variety of practices, ranging in the West from Sappho to rap. ‘Historicizing’ the lyric as essentially a late-eighteenth-and nineteenth-century European invention in effect universalizes a historically and geographically specific model of a subject. And the term ‘lyric,’ still used in this sense, has come to serve as an ideological weapon in the ongoing politicized poetry wars. Whether the lyric is read as oppositional or complicitous, it is still understood to be the self-expression of a prior, private, constitutive subject. Lyric language is a radically public language, but it will not submit to treatment as a social document – of a certain stage of capitalism, for example – because there is no ‘individual’ in the lyric in any ordinary sense of the term…”

–Mutlu Konuk Blasing, from Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words (2007)

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‘Every existence speaks a language of its own’: on the ghazal pt. 4

February 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

8/4/68 for Aijaz Ahmad

If these are letters, they will have to be misread.
If scribblings on a wall, they must tangle with all the others.

Fuck reds    Black power    Angel loves Rosita
–and a transistor radio answers in Spanish: Night must fall.

Prisoners, soldiers, crouching as always, writing,
explaining the unforgivable to a wife, a mother, a lover.

Those faces are blurred and some have turned away
to which I used to address myself so hotly.

How is it, Ghalib, that your grief, resurrected in pieces,
has found its way to this room from your dark home in Delhi?

When they read this poem of mine, they are translators.
Every existence speaks a language of its own.

— from Adrienne Rich, “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib” in Leaflets: Poems, 1965-1968

The most powerful ghazals I’ve read, including those by Ghalib, despite the generally true observation that the couplets in a ghazal tend to be somewhat random or lacking in unity, do hold together in quite powerful ways, creating an emotional or political tenor akin to an electrical field. Thompson is listening to the radio late at night and catalogues his random thoughts; Ghalib describes the sounds of his own grief.

The poem I’ve recorded above is from a sequence by Adrienne Rich called “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib,”  written in July and August of 1968, on the heels of May ’68 and the student uprising at the Sorbonne which inspired the mass worker strike across France; the Prague Spring is on (the Soviet Union will invade Czechoslovakia on the 20th of August with over 200,000 troops to put down the revolution 16 days after this poem was written); there are student sit-ins and protests across North America; the Vietnam war continues.

Rich inscribes the date for each ghazal, indicating how the ghazal functions for her like a transcription of a given day, a given time, as urgent and compelling and as necessary as the news of the day (“what is found there”). The ghazals in her sequence document moments of this revolutionary summer — “the clouds are electric in this university;” the heat; the graffiti, with poetry as analogue, in fact, graffiti as poetry (graffiti in May ’68 at the Sorbonne: “Nous somme tous les juifs allemands,” “Il faut baiser au moins une fois par nuit pour être un bon révolutionnaire,” “Fuck each other or they’lI fuck you”); private moments between lovers.

The power of these ghazals lies in their status as field notes where an urgent political graffito can exist on the same plane as a radio bulletin announcing a war very far away and a private moment transcribed — a single line — in which lovers lie back to back in the heat of a summer night. This is how we live.

The ghazal is ephemeral and points to the essence of lyric poetry as trace: “These words are vapour-trails of a plane that has vanished;/by the time I write them out, they are whispering something else.”

“When you read these lines, think of me/and of what I have not written here.”

 

“a new shape of knowing”: poetry and the virtual witness

September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the winter of 2003, when I was a graduate student at McGill, I participated in the massive peace marches in the freezing streets of Montreal, and later watched the invasion of Iraq begin, from the initial attacks on “targets of opportunity.” Images from street cams set up in Baghdad were broadcast live that first night. There were the shadows of men running through the streets with rifles; and at dawn, the sound of birds singing, picked up by the camera mics. I sat inside my apartment on rue Outremont, on the Ile de Montreal, but I looked out the balcony windows onto the streets of Baghdad.

From that point on I watched the war obsessively, as it was possible to do, live on television and through constant updates on the internet. This experience was therefore always mediated by a screen, heightened by the US military’s use of embedded journalists. In particular, I remember a report by Walter C. Rodgers, embedded with the US Army, in a live broadcast on CNN as he travelled through the desert with the 7th Cavalry of the 3rd Infantry Division as the invasion began: the jagged, granular look of the tanks fanning out before him, the “wave of steel” travelling towards Baghdad.

Photographs appeared on my computer screen: a woman with a tattoo of shrapnel burns on her face; a dead, swaddled infant, lying on its side on the ground, its eyes stitched closed with wet lashes. The war was so closely scrutinized and documented it was possible to track the path of a single missile that fell on a busy market in the heart of Baghdad, and killed many civilians. Later, the reporter Robert Fisk retrieved pieces of the missile and identified the serial numbers on the fuselage — 30003-704ASB 7492 and MFR 96214 09 — confirming their U.S. origins, which had been officially denied.

Fisk’s reports in the Independent became a lifeline for me — if the North American television channels offered a sanitized version of the war, Fisk tore off the bandages to show the rotting flesh, the smell of it, the injuries and waste that lay beneath.

In Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century, published posthumously in 1988, Terrence Des Pres explores poetry’s role amid the suffering of the 20th century; he notes in his prologue that human society has always been violent, there has always been suffering. The difference then — he was writing in the mid-80s — was that this violence had become a transmitted spectacle,  known through new media. Through this transmission of suffering a “new shape of knowing invades the mind” (p.xiv):

“The miracles of modern communications — the instant replay of events on TV, the surfeit of images provided by photojournalists, the detailed accounts of inhumanity given by survivors of all kinds, and then too the documentation from organizations like Amnesty International and Americas Watch, every page of it open to those who would know what can be known — all these sources combine with the cold-war order of things to make a uniquely twentieth-century sense of reality, a consciousness that began in the wake of World War Two with the film footage, miles of it, that gave us our first window on ‘the world.’ That shock of recognition, that climate of atrocity, is now our daily fare.” p.xv

Writing in the 1980s, Des Pres couldn’t have anticipated the evolution of the web, itself the military offspring of the US Department of Defence’s Arpanet, and the advent of new social media in the 21st century, which have the capability to limn the finest details of this shape of knowing. With this “technological expansion of consciousness”, we can know in the most graphic and precise detail — if we wish to look — of the suffering of others, of the injuries and damages inflicted on other flesh by a US drone, or by depleted uranium missiles used in the invasion of Iraq. How easily we can now look into the bodies of others.

Des Pres then speaks of the traditional role of the poet, which has been at times to show the stamina of language, to face such suffering and to provide “language to live by”; language “sufficient to hard times.” This has for me the ring of Seamus Heaney to it — Des Pres uses two lines from Heaney’s “The Haw Lantern” as the book’s epigraph; the haw as a small light to guide us by, modest but sufficient. Des Pres also quotes Kenneth Burke, who observed that “‘poetic forms are symbolic structures designed to equip us for confronting given historical or personal situations'” p.xviii.

These are some of the questions that interest me. How much suffering can a poem admit? What happens to it there? How is it spoken to? Transmuted or transformed? How does this suffering alter or transform the shape of the poem? How is the shape of knowing, the new technological consciousness,  expressed through the poem’s form? At a most practical level, the answers to these questions can only ever be worked out through the writing of a given poem.

I tentatively began to frame some of these questions in a poem I wrote several years ago called ‘”In the long hours of darkness, Baghdad shakes to the constant low rumble of B-52s.”‘ I took the title from the headline of a column by Robert Fisk. In this report he described being in his hotel room at night, and of hearing the constant terrifying drone of the B-52s sent in by the Americans to bomb the Iraqi soldiers who had set up positions in the desert, on the outskirts of the city.

I first read this column in Montreal at the height of the invasion, and was touched by the personal detail he included — the book he was reading as he lay in bed listening to the B-52s, the sound of the bombers, the drop in air pressure as they passed over, the way the vibrations travelled through the walls of the building and made even the flowers in a jar on his window sill tremble. He described how terrified he imagined the soldiers must be, many of whom were essentially untrained civilians.

I was also disturbed by the disparity between Fisk’s eye-witness experience of the invasion in a hotel room in a city on the Tigris, bounded by desert, and my own virtual experience of the war in the safety of a sheltered room in snow-bound Montreal. The form for the poem—which I wrote many years later in Vancouver— took two parts, although I think this was a spontaneous, not a consciously made, decision: first, the description of a man in a hotel room in Baghdad, hearing the drone of the B-52s all night, and tracking this noise out into the night where the soldiers are hiding in the dark; and second, my perception of the war mediated through the television screen.

‘In the long hours of darkness, Baghdad shakes to the constant low rumble of B-52s’ *

In a hotel room by the Tigris a man writes.
A jar with a clutch of flowers trembles
on the windowsill as the air pressure drops,
while out in the desert
soldiers hide in furrows of night.
A pale red stain seeps through—
its penumbra blooms
and is extinguished.
The man writes about the war
about the smell of burnt flesh
along the road north of Nasiriyah,
about this dark sound.
The air pressure drops again. A tremor
runs through the water in the jar
the thin stalks, the petals’ flesh.

Membrane of ice on the windows of this room in Montreal.
I cup my hands, peer into the television’s blue cave, and see
pale slivers of tracer fire in the desert
missiles scattered like black seeds
a pale red stain on the horizon that pours back into the dark.
Through a live street cam, somewhere in Baghdad,
the shadows of men. I can hear them—
they call to one another in their language,
and at dawn, the birds sing.

*My thanks to Prairie Fire, where this poem was first published, 33.2 Summer 2012.

Beyond the two-part division of the poem, the lines are relatively free, organized by phrase and syntax and internal rhyme. I realize now, as I read it again, that each part ends with the observation of a detail from the natural world mediated by technology: the vibration from the B-52s travelling through the flower’s stalk and petal flesh, and, as heard through the street-cam in Baghdad, the birds singing at dawn.

All of the details I record in the poem are true — both the details described by Fisk in the first section, and what I saw and heard through the street cams in Baghdad on the first night of the invasion, as they were broadcast live on television by all of the major networks. This was the night of the “targets of opportunity,” when the Americans said they had received information on the location of Saddam Hussein and attempted to assassinate him in the first strike of the war. The newscasters soon found they had little to report on, so would cut away to the live street cams to “listen in.”

And so, at one point in the dark silence of my room, I listened as men rushed past with rifles, shouting to one another as they ran; I listened as the birds began to sing; it was dawn in Baghdad.

“Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?”

August 18, 2013 § 5 Comments

Lot’s Wife

 And the just man trailed God’s messenger,
His huge, light shape devoured the black hill.
But uneasiness shadowed his wife and spoke to her:
‘It’s not too late, you can look back still

 At the red towers of Sodom, the place that bore you,
The square in which you sang, the spinning-shed,
At the empty windows of that upper storey
Where children blessed your happy marriage-bed.’

Her eyes that were still turning when a bolt
Of pain shot through them, were instantly blind;
Her body turned into transparent salt,
And her swift legs were rooted to the ground.

Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
Surely her death has no significance?
Yet in my heart she never will be lost,
She who gave up her life to steal one glance.

 1922-24

Translated by D. M. Thomas

In Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill, David-Antoine Williams explores, in his chapter on Geoffrey Hill, Hill’s abiding interest in the memorializing function of lyric poetry, as it relates to its ethical function. Inevitably concerns of exploitation arise over taking a devastating historical event such as the Shoah as “subject matter” for a poem; the lyric poem negotiates the difficult balance between the urgent need to remember, and the instinct that drives us towards silence out of respect for the dead.

Hill embodies these tensions in early poems such as “September Song” and in the concept of the belated witness: the witness who comes after the event, who was not there him or herself, but who feels compelled nonetheless to function as witness, as marked in a lyric poem. Susan Gubar, in her Poetry After Auschwitz, considers a similar concept that has arisen out of Holocaust studies, the concept of the proxy witness: the witness who may be a child or grandchild of survivors, or who experienced events indirectly, or who is a belated witness as Hill uses the term. I would suggest we also now have, with the advent of social media and instantaneous transmission of events via Twitter, smart phones, and the world wide web, the experience of the virtual witness: the individual who witnesses for example the events of the Arab spring, or its aftermath, as we are seeing now in Egypt and Syria, albeit mediated always by screens, events brought to us on a digital flood tide.

Geoffrey Hill has written:

“‘I would seriously propose a theology of language; and a primary exercise which might be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming (a) that the shock of semantic recognition must also be a shock of ethical recognition; and that this is the action of grace in one of its minor, but far from trivial, types; (b) that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead.'” (from “Language, Suffering, and Silence” 1999, collected in CCW 405, qtd in Williams p.159)

Williams notes that Hill’s poems tend towards silence, particularly in the elegiac mode. He observes that

“Writing poetry, for Hill, means working in a medium which is ethically marked at its origin. The ethical is built into the very structure and process of language. The menace of language is against our moral being: the abounding opportunities for inattention to language and through language, and for deception and confusion by language, threaten the precision and reliability of our judgements. Poetry is a way of atoning for one’s linguistic trespasses, a way of ‘at-one-ing’ with that from which language separates us….” p. 179

and

“Words exist in the ‘real world’; words represent and refer to things in the ‘real world.’ When Hill writes, in his note towards establishing a ‘theology of language’, that ‘the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead’, he is directing diligence, endurance, and attention—the ethical attributes of attitude and process—towards an ethical end. By ‘late twentieth century’ we understand the post-Holocaust world; by ‘the dead’ we understand in particular the victims of the Jewish Shoah. But Hill also has a more general, comprehensive and methodical memorializing in mind, a memorializing mode for or approach to the writing of poetry.” p.183

According to Clare Cavanagh in her Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska in her mature poems approached this idea of attention and memorializing of the dead as a series of footnotes or marginalia in the great Soviet Book (see also my earlier post, “death of the book à la russe“), lyric poems which function as “self-consciously inadequate witness” (p.195).

Cavanagh traces this idea of the inadequate witness by considering the poems both Anna Akhmatova and Szymborska wrote on the fate of Lot’s wife. I’ve included Akhmatova’s version of the story above, as translated by D.M. Thomas, whose translation of Akhmatova’s Requiem I most prefer.[1]

I like Akhmatova’s insistence in “Lot’s Wife” on the small details of everyday life that constitute its very fabric: the spinning-shed with its association with the making of cloth; the marriage bed, a private space associated with warmth and shelter, and the conceiving of children. Akhmatova then asks, “Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?/Surely her death has no significance?” In Requiem, Akhmatova writes of her own personal experience of loss: her fears for her son in the Gulag, her lover’s arrest and imprisonment, her existence utterly limited and threatened by the Soviet state. By documenting her own situation, she illuminates the lives of the many others who also stood in line with her at the prison queues in Leningrad with parcels to send to loved ones, hoping to hear news.

According to Cavanagh, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn first encountered Requiem in the 1960s, he criticized it for its “inappropriate lyric self-absorption” (which, Cavanagh notes, sounds an awful lot like the same criticism made by Soviet critics who preferred socialist realist prose). Solzhenitsyn said, “‘But really, the nation suffered tens of millions, and here are poems about one single case, about one single mother and son … I told her that it is the duty of a Russian poet to write about the suffering of Russia, to rise above personal grief and tell about the suffering of the nation.'” p.122-123.

Akhmatova had already answered this criticism through her rhetorical questions in “Lot’s Wife.” The lyric poet’s function, she implies, is at times simply to mourn one woman in a holocaust, because each single death is significant. Cavanagh argues that Akhmatova thereby “performs what Szymborska sees as a key function of the lyric poet in an age of Great History: ‘One single human being laments the woeful fate of another single human being'” p.195.


[1] For example, consider Thomas’s translation of the last lines of the second part of Requiem: “Son in irons and husband clay./Pray. Pray.”

“death of the book à la russe”

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

We live without feeling the land beneath us,
Our speeches can’t be heard ten steps away.

But whenever there’s enough for half a chat–
Talk turns to the Kremlin mountaineer.

His fat fingers are plump as worms,
And his words are as sure as iron weights.

His mighty cockroach moustache laughs,
And his vast boot-tops gleam.

A mob of thin-necked chieftains surrounds him,
He toys with the favors of half-humans.

One whistles, another mews, a third whimpers,
He alone bangs and pokes.

He forges one decree after another, like horseshoes–
One gets it in the groin, another in the head, the brow, the eye.

Every execution is a treat
And the broad breast of the Ossetian.

–Mandelstam’s “Stalin Epigram,” translated by Clare Cavanagh

I wrote in an earlier post (poem as threat to national security/as terrorist act I: Guantánamo Bay) that in particular historical situations the writing of a poem has been perceived as a terrorist act or as a threat to national security — recent examples of this include poetry written by some of the prisoners of Guantánamo Bay, anthologized in Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak Ed. Marc Falkoff (2007), and Pussy Riot’s musical expression which led to the imprisonment of  Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Tolokonnikova being currently held in IK-14, in the same penal colony — the Dubrovlag —  that once housed the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who was herself sentenced to a lengthy term in the 1980s for writing poetry deemed anti-Soviet.

The paradigmatic historical example of the poem as terrorist act is Osip Mandelstam, whose “Stalin Epigram” was described by his wife as “uncharacteristically coarse.” (Most of his verse is known for its intimate character and its musical play, poems which proceed by a kind of aural logic almost impossible to translate into a new language.) But as Clare Cavanagh points out in her important book, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, Russian and Polish poets of the 20th century have often found the need to insist upon the private nature of the lyric, the stanza or private room as stay against the monolithic culture of the state. The private realm of the lyric in itself becomes by situational necessity a political space. Seamus Heaney once described Mandelstam as “a reminder that humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being, in ‘the steadfastness of their speech articulation.’ Mandelstam died because he could not suppress his urge to sing in his own way” (XX The Government of the Tongue). Heaney also describes this effect as “poet as potent sound-wave” (xx).

Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda however also noted in Hope Against Hope that she thought her husband deliberately wrote and performed his “Stalin Epigram” for people they could not entirely trust; she saw this uncharacteristic, “coarse” (‘political’?) poem, as deliberate provocation: he was baiting Stalin. Here is Cavanagh, on this “terrorist act”:

On hearing the ‘Stalin Epigram,’ Boris Pasternak reportedly exclaimed: ‘This is not a literary fact, but an act of suicide.’ Mandelstam’s interrogator likewise saw his unauthorized lines as exceeding the reach of literature proper: they were a ‘provocation,’ a ‘terrorist act,’ he charged. And Mandelstam apparently ceded the point: the poem was, he confessed, ‘a widely applicable weapon of counter-revolutionary struggle.’ All three agreed that these were not words, but deeds.
— Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics p.114

Cavanagh offers an interesting challenge to poststructuralist conceptions of écriture, the death of the author, and the death of the book by insisting on the cultural specificity required for such readings (that a metaphorical, not actual, death of the/an author is required). She notes that such phrases as the “death of the author” or the “death of the book” “are bound to give the Slavist pause, not least because such metaphors have had, in recent Russian history, an uncomfortable habit of realizing themselves as they pass from theory into practice” (p.110). She goes on to describe the many poets and writers in Soviet Russia who have had to literally burn or destroy or hide or never write down in the first place, their books, in addition to the many poets and writers who died at the hands of the state — hence the title of Chapter 3 on acmeism, a chapter I highly recommend: “The Death of the Book à la russe“.

poems and things

May 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

In The Material of Poetry Gerald Bruns, with reference to the French poet Francis Ponge, discusses the idea of  “taking the side of things,” as in “siding with things against human egocentrism, meaning (among other things) not just anthropocentrism but human self-importance, what we might call high-culture humanism that regards ‘Expressions of the Spirit’ as foundational, world-making, and the source of the true, good, and beautiful.” p.87 He relates this to the concept of objectivism and Louis Zukofsky. The idea of “sincerity” in Louis Zukofsky, Bruns suggests,

“does not mean speaking from the heart; it means (counterintuitively, perhaps) careful attention to the things of the world and a kind of selflessness and straightforwardness with respect to them — for example, not turning them into metaphors or stand-ins for one’s own experiences.” p.88.

Bruns then elaborates upon construction vs. expression; the poem as constructed by materials/things, not an act of self-expression:

“One has to imagine a poem that seeks proximity with things and not a cognitive transcendence that grasps or contains them or makes them transparent to view. (Proximity here means what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas means when he says: ‘The visible caresses the eye. One sees and hears like one touches…. The proximity of things is poetry.)'”p.89

Bruns speaks of a poem that “shares the ontology of the thing” p.88.

How might this concept of construction versus expression — and the concerns expressed above over a devouring “cognitive transcendence” contrasted with “selflessness” — be connected to certain movements towards the concrete and the unadorned in some post-war Polish poetry, such as that of Tadeusz Różewicz and Zbigniew Herbert?

Czesław Miłosz, Madeline G. Levine, and Clare Cavanagh have all documented this rejection of the transcendent, the symbolic, the ‘poetic’, a rejection in fact of all of the ‘toolkit’ associated with poetry (metre, metaphor, simile, and so on), as some poets came to see poetry and language itself as complicit with or even the instrument used to carry out the atrocities of the Second World War.

In a somewhat different context, but with  similar concerns, Roumanian-born poet Paul Celan, who lost both of his parents in an internment camp during the war, and was himself held in a labour camp, engaged with the German language in particular, his “mother tongue,” where his later collections reworked the very language itself through excavation of its etymologies and unfamiliar or archaic registers, both at the level of the word and the phoneme and morpheme.

Tadeusz Różewicz, who was in his early twenties during the war, a member of the Polish underground, and whose older brother Janusz was executed by the Gestapo, began after the war to write poems stripped of the ‘poetic.’ Here is an excerpt from  “In the Midst of Life”:

this is a table I said
this is a table
there is bread and a knife on the table
knife serves to cut bread
people are nourished by bread

— from Selected Poems (Penguin 1976) transl. Adam Czerniawski

It is as if he needs to rebuild language, which in so doing rebuilds a destroyed world, syllable by syllable, word by word, beginning with the simplest of things. The speaker in this poem reminds himself of the ways in which a knife can be reimagined not as weapon but as tool which serves human interests, in this case, used to slice bread to nourish people. (I’ll come back in a moment to a much later poem Różewicz wrote about a knife.) Yet here the thing is not considered solely in relation to its own existence, in and of itself, but as it relates to human needs.

Or consider Herbert’s poem, “The Stone:”

The stone
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

— from Post-War Polish Poetry (Penguin 1965) Ed. & Transl. Miłosz

Herbert seems to approach this stone with the kind of “selflessness” and “straightforwardness” Bruns describes above. Yet there is not simply an appreciation here of the stone/pebble for its own pebble-ness or “pebbly meaning.” Herbert begins to approach the “proximity of things,” yet we are inevitably drawn towards a larger political context which encompasses knowledge of events such as the razing of the Warsaw ghetto, the Warsaw uprising, and the Holocaust. The speaker of the poem finds solace in this non-human world which exists without desire, and, inevitably, without the violence and inhumanity Herbert witnessed (as with Różewicz, Herbert was also a member of the Polish underground). Similarly, poets writing under the socialist regime in Poland found that simply to write a private domestic poem, a poem set in the privacy of one’s own ‘room’ came to have political implications.

Różewicz writes a much later poem about a knife. His later poems become much less austere, and more eclectic in that they gather much of the everyday world into them. (For English speakers, these can be found most recently in Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems, translated by Joanna Trzeciak, a great collection which was nominated for a Griffin prize several years ago).

The poem is called “the professor’s knife” from a title of the same name, 2001. It’s a wide-ranging free-verse multi-sectioned poem, conversational in tone, incorporating in several sections dialogue between the speaker/Różewicz and his professor friend Mieczysław as they eat breakfast together, talking and quarrelling affectionately with one another. In this excerpt readers familiar with his poetry hear echoes of the much earlier poem on a knife which cuts bread, and see the ways in which he opens up and is in dialogue with his earlier, more severe relationship to poetry:

after all these years I’m sitting with Mieczysław
having breakfast
the twentieth century is ending
I slice bread on a cutting board
spread butter on it
add a pinch of salt

“Tadeusz, you eat too much bread…”

I smile I like bread
‘you know’ — I say —
‘a slice of fresh bread
a slice, a heel
buttered
or with bacon bits in lard
with a dash of ground pepper’

Mieczysław rolls his eyes

The object or ‘thing’ the 6-part poem circles around is a knife made out of a barrel hoop, which his friend Mieczysław (“the Professor”) has preserved all these years, a knife he once used in the concentration camps. At the same time, throughout the poem there are references to a freight train speeding through meadows and forests; both knife and train flicker in and out of memory, in and out of their present benign existence. This simultaneously recalls their earlier use during the war, the train carrying Jews to the concentration camps, the knife which was concealed in the hem of a prison uniform. Human-made things, artefacts, are almost always implicated in their particular uses, their histories:

I first saw it
on the Professor’s desk
sometime around the middle of the twentieth century

strange knife I thought

neither a letter opener
nor a potato peeler
neither a paring knife nor a carving knife

‘strange knife’ I thought
it lay between a book on Cubism
and the last page of a review article
he must use it as a letter opener
in the concentration camp
he peeled potatoes with it
or used it for shaving

why yes — the Professor said —
vegetable peels could save you
from starving to death

his orderly desktop reflected
the state of his mind

you know Mieczysław I will write a poem
about this knife….

poems and other domestic objects

April 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

“It is worth one’s while, at certain hours of the day or night, to scrutinize useful objects in repose: wheels that have rolled across long dusty distances with their enormous loads of crops or ore, charcoal sacks, barrels, baskets, the hafts and handles of carpenter’s tools. The contact these objects have had with man and earth may serve as a valuable lesson to a tortured lyric poet. Worn surfaces, the wear inflicted by human hands, the sometimes tragic, always pathetic, emanations from these objects give reality a magnetism that should not be scorned.

Man’s nebulous impurity can be perceived in them: the affinity for groups, the use and obsolescence of materials, the mark of a hand or a foot, the constancy of the human presence that permeates every surface.”

–from “Some Thoughts on Impure Poetry,” quoted in the Introduction to Residence on Earth xii-xiii

Neruda, who wrote odes on socks, a table, a chair, here describes the marks of labour carried by objects. In an earlier post (“the poem as artefact that carries traces of its own making”) I’ve considered, with reference to Elaine Scarry’s extension of Marx in The Body in Pain, the traces of making that objects carry — the cloth which is “soaked” in labour, which carries traces of sweat, blood, the pin pricks and marks, the very weave of the cloth — and the subsequent alienation of the maker from such labour.

The objects Neruda describes here seem to come largely from the stereotypically masculine realm of labour: carpenter’s tools, wheels that bear heavy crops, charcoal sacks. Does he romanticize these common objects, and is there an attempt also to valorize poetry — I mean, to give more every day value to it — by placing it on the same footing as a sack that carries charcoal, or a wheel that bears a heavy load?

Heaney’s poetry also values such tools and the labour of the farm, in his case, the result of his having been raised on a small farm-holding in Northern Ireland. From his earliest collection, with the pen as substitute for the spade (and gun), he invokes the earth. Later collections return often to the trope of the plough and the ploughshare (again, with reference to the boustrophedon and versus, to the modern line’s turn at the end of each verse, and to the lovely image of the poem which turns back time):

My father’s ploughing one, two, three, four sides
Of the lea ground where I sit all-seeing
At centre field, my back to the thorn tree
They never cut. The horses are all hoof
And burnished flank, I am all foreknowledge.
Of the poem as a ploughshare that turns time
Up and over…

–‘Poet’s Chair,’ in The Spirit Level

The many domestic objects which work their way into his poetry are not limited to the masculine realm. There’s the turnip-snedder in District and Circle: in an age of “bare hands/and cast iron,//the clamp-on meat-mincer,/the double flywheeled water-pump,//it dug its heels in among wooden tubs/and troughs of slops…” There’s also the beautiful dedicatory poems to North, in particular “Sunlight,” dedicated to his aunt Mary:

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall…

He goes on to describe her floured hands and apron as she makes scones, the “plaque of heat” given off by the stove, dusting the board with a goose’s wing. Then comes the quiet moment as she has time to rest between work:

here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

Time is love and food, and the preparing of it, and plenitude — love as a scoop that is “sunk past its gleam.” North quickly descends into the darkness of myth, but still finds its ground in the archaeological objects of a distant Viking and Iron Age past. In this description of baking in the dedicatory poem, there is still the fairly strict demarcation of male and female roles, as there also tends to be when Heaney lays out his various schemata of English/Irish roots in his theoretical explorations of his own poetry: masculine, consonantal, air, clarity and light, the long line of iambic pentameter, all contrasted with feminine, vowelled, earth, darkness, the short, cutting line of North.

I turn often to Eavan Boland to read poetry with domestic objects and experiences from a woman’s perspective: fabric, cloth, the kitchen, children, illness, the confined spaces of small rooms in the suburbs. Boland is particularly fine in her poems that incorporate cloth. For example, in The Journey when she describes her search for a language like lace, or in “The Unlived Life,” her description of quilting in the new world:

to formalize the terrors of routine
in the algebras of a marriage quilt
on alternate mornings when you knew
that all you owned was what you shared.

Cloth in its long history is the history of women.  Elizabeth Wayland Barber traces this labour in Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, and in The Mummies of Ürümchi, where she describes the woven textiles of the Beauty of Loulan and other mummies found on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, along the old Silk Road. Cloth, like DNA, carries signatures, traces of its history, of how and when it was made, of where it comes from. Cloth is analogue for language and for skin, which comes into close contact with another.

In The Material of Poetry, Gerald Bruns, citing Levinas, describes poetry as object, as ethical contact with the world, language as skin. The aural qualities of a poem operate on a different level from the visual which emphasizes objectification, sudden complete comprehension, totality, versus the unfolding of sound over time, which is partial, incremental, and intimate as touch (as radio is more intimate than television). Poetry requires listening, which

“involves a form of subjectivity — indeed a kind of experience — different from seeing; it implies or entails a porous, as against a self-contained, mode of being, and it also implies a different world from the one that seeing, perception, observation or conceptualization constructs or projects onto the screen of consciousness. In an essay on ‘The Transcendence of Words,’ Levinas says, ‘To see is to be in a world that is entirely here and self-sufficient.’ Sound, however, undoes this state of self-sufficiency and contentment — and it is important to know that Levinas is thinking of the sounds of words rather than, say musicalized or harmonized sounds. Specifically, he is thinking of voiced sounds in which sound is no longer a semantic medium or the embodiment of aesthetic form but rather a mode of sensibility irreducible to vision, comprehension, or containment within categories.” p.44

Bruns is referring here to the role of sound in poetry over and above its semantic content; we’re within earshot perhaps of Kristeva’s distinction between genotext and phenotext. He notes also how sound overwhelms the firm borders of the self; “sound bleeds the self.” p.45. Listening to a poem is to exist in the “mode of being touched.” p.43 The poet’s relationship to language is one of listening. [1]

Similarly, Robert Pinsky, in Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, speaking of the Favourite Poem Project, describes the reading of a poem as being inhabited by it, of giving oneself up to this mode of being touched. In fact, the reader becomes “an actual, living medium for the poem.” p.61 This is Jane Hirshfield again, on taking the poet’s breath into your body, to give life to his or her words once more. There is a cohabitation in this, a living with another for the time it takes to speak the poem, a willingness to become the medium for that person’s voice.

But I have gone somewhat astray — or perhaps not. The experience of a poem, as in the wearing of cloth, or in the pleasure of touch, is one of proximity. I was describing cloth as analogue of poem and skin. In Boland’s poetry cloth is intimate with the human body, linked to both labour and desire, and its accompanying dangers:

Tonight in rooms where skirts appear steeped in tea
when they are only deep in shadow and where heat
collects at the waist, the wrist, is wet at the base of the neck,
the secrets of the dark will be the truths of the body
a young girl feels and hides even from herself….

(2. How the Dance Came to the City in Domestic Violence)

Boland describes many other kinds of domestic objects in her poetry. Here she is writing about antibiotics, from the title poem of The Journey:

And then the dark fell and ‘there has never’
I said ‘been a poem to an antibiotic:
never a word to compare with the odes on
the flower of the raw sloe for fever

Depend on it, somewhere a poet is wasting
his sweet uncluttered metres on the obvious

emblem instead of the real thing.

Perhaps I am stretching things by thinking of an antibiotic as artefact or domestic object, but I take my lead from Scarry and her wide-ranging account of the role of human artefacts, including language, in making the world. This brings me back to Neruda again, and his insistence on an impure poetry, an insistence on poem as labouring object, and Scarry’s description of a poem as being able to work on the world in a positive sense, to rework it, and change ourselves as a result.  I’m thinking of the use of a poem in a very diffuse way as this ability to work upon the world by working upon — by touching — another’s consciousness, and transforming it.


[1] I’m less convinced by Bruns’ defence of sound poetry as joyous vociferation; what he describes as an opening of the self to sound (and he describes exclusively male projects and projections here) feels more like unwelcome, one-way invasion, of being forced open.

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