Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Another reason to get the fine new issue of Fence beyond my little poem is the poem of my friend and fellow Cornellian Karen Anderson (Karen L. Anderson is her nom de plume—the L stands for Leona. My girflriend Emily Grayson's middle initial is also L, for Lenore. Coincidence? No doubt). Karen has given me permission to reproduce her contribution here. Her title somewhat pre-empts mine and Richard Greenfield's plans for a collaborative project to be called "Journal of Energetic Materials":
Journal of Arid Environments

Sweet in the tea to cover the salt,
the equal seethings of sand and water,
dark green leaves dominion all
over Georgia. The bacon in the pan
heaves like something almost dead,
past the walk-on-water index, extraneous
gravity, density, length. Insects surface
everywhere around the camp, this
sameness. Enough leaf, liquid, heat.
Meat and bread. Legs, arms, head,
blood, feet. To do and see things.
A garden of bristlecones is a word
and a word and a word and a word.
Sun to make water everywhere and
your daily exercise: walk with the lord.
Kind of feels like something I could have written; or more accurately, like something I wish I'd written. It would fit seamlessly into the Severance Songs if you knocked a line off of it.

Henry Gould knocks the whole relational poetics idea that I mentioned earlier; I can't really defend Glissant because I haven't read the book yet. Henry's suspicion of elevating (sinking?) "'social relevance' into a theme or a technique or an ideal" that validates the "we" and invalidates "others" strikes me as understandable; but I think (I imagine) what Glissant is getting at is far less reductive than that, and not at all about creating camps of righteousness. To simplistically reduce a text I haven't read, Glissant's message seems to be: write in such a way as to expand both the writer's and reader's consciousness of the social-historical context of the poem. This way is the way of errancy. Here's the relevant paragraph from Prevallet's piece:
Édouard Glissant is a poet, translator, and philosopher from Martinique whose recent book Poetics of Relation provides a useful example of shifting the focus of Investigative Poetics onto a broader terrain. To Glissant, the word relation incorporates both "relative" and "related." Glissant locates his ideas within the colonial history of the Caribbean, where people were forced to adapt their native languages to those of the colonizer (in this case, the French), and consequently to define new relationships to the interplay between language, culture, and social organization. Beginning with Deleuze and Guattari's image of the rhizome, Glissant discusses what a Poetics of Relation might look like: an enmeshed root system that is strong not because it is a singular stock that nourishes only itself by appropriating all the nutrients around it, but because it is "a network spreading either in the ground or in theair, with no predatory rootstock taking over permanently" (11). Glissant sees the traditional image of "roots" as a metaphor to be avoided because of its centrality to the colonial mind-frame. "Most of the nations that gained freedom from colonization have tended to form around the idea of power—the totalitarian drive of a single unique root—rather than around a fundametal relationship with the Other" (14). To Glissant, this relationship with the Other can be shaped through the poet's acceptance of "errancy" (wandering, polylingualism, multiplicity), in his or her thinking and interactions with the world. Poetry is an arrow that paradoxically has no clear trajectory [a very Kantian notion, don't you think? purposiveness w/o purpose?--Ed.], that leads from periphery to periphery, that makes every peripher into a center but at the same time "abolishes the very notion of center and periphery" (29). Glissant cites numerous African and Caribbean writers, including Leon Damas, Cheik Diop, and Segalen, as well as European and American writers such as Rimbaud, Faulkner, and Saint-John Perse, as manifesting this Relational position. If poetry (or prose, for that matter) is "relational" it is not because it appropriates sources as conquered territories, forcing them into the logic of the new text or subordinating them to some notion of perfection or "totality." Rather, Relational poetics looks at texts as being themsleves in a constant state of motion, dispersion, and permeability that is inseparable not only from the shifting social and political context, but from the cycles of the earth and the diversity of nature.
Prevallet goes on to cite Ammiel Alcalay's book from the warring factions, a book I've made appreciative mention of in the past, as a good example of a recent work of relational/investigative poetics. In practical terms, this kind of writing seems to involve a) a great deal of research and b) a deliberate absorption or subsumption of the "author's voice" into the chorus of voices or texts that he or she has constellated around the thing being investigated (in Alcalay's case the massacre at Srebenica but also U.S. politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the poetry of Percy Shelley, etc.). It's the extension of Pound's "poem including history" into a full-fledged poetics, without Pound's nostalgic/fascist totalization of that history. In a marvelous phrase of Muriel Rukeyeser's (a poet I've never given a moment's thought to whom Prevallet resurrects as a precursor of investigative women poets like Susan Howe, Anne Waldman, and Diane di Prima), "Poetry can extend the document."

Personal history contextualized can also form a solid basis for relational poetry, according to Prevallet, and I'm interested in the possibility of getting my students this fall to try and treat the autobiography that will inevitably form the content of their first writings as history. How can I get them to engage with the contexts that go beyond their high school and immediate family? The imperative for poets of color to do this is a little more obvious, but it wouldn't do poetry any harm if the next whiteboy to come along would make an attempt to locate the historical convergences that have made his privilege possible. Hell, simply awakening a white male student to consciousness of his privilege would be an achievement. On a conservative campus, in a conservative time when the Supreme Court only narrowly votes to preserve one of the only means we've found as a society to repair centuries of racial injustice, we need to stop talking resentfully about schools of resentment and figure out what we have and how best to use it.

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