Thursday, August 16, 2012

Blogging The Arcadia Project

For the next several months I expect to be blogging regularly at Check out my first post: "Heavy Weather, or: Why Postmodern?"

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

An Interview

An interview with me conducted by Stephen Ross in which I talk about The Barons, The Arcadia Project, Robert Duncan, and diverse other subjects has been published over at Wave Composition.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On Not Being a Winner

Yesterday I received the best possible news about my manuscript The Barons and Other Poems: Omnidawn Publishing has accepted the book for publication and will bring it out in Fall 2014. This is thrilling news for a number of reasons. One is that Omnidawn is one of the most exciting, relevant, and hard-working presses that the contemporary publishing scene has to offer. Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan have built an astonishing list in its decade or so of existence: their authors include Cal Bedient, Norma Cole, Gillian Conoley, Richard Greenfield, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Hoover, Devin Johnston, Myung Mi Kim, Hank Lazer, Laura Moriarty, Craig Santos Perez, Bin Ramke, Aaron Shurin, Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and Tyrone Williams, all people whose work I respect and in some cases revere. They have demonstrated a level of commitment to their authors that is unparalleled, working tirelessly and of course without compensation to edit, design, and promote their books. But most of all, I’m excited to be publishing The Barons and Other Poems with Omnidawn because for the first time since my chapbook Hope & AnchorI’ll be working with a publisher directly, without having to win a contest first.

I won’t pretend to be outraged by the contest model that has been so good to me: I’ve won four of ‘em, after all. No one likes to pay reading fees, but for the most part I haven’t minded subsidizing presses whose work I respect. Omnidawn has three poetry contests, without which I’m sure the press would not be able to produce books in anywhere near the same quantity or quality. This time, I neither entered nor won a contest: there will be no prize money, nor can my book be touted as a prize winner. This is a good thing. It means that the person who fell in love with my book, who believes it to be worth devoting a considerable quantity of time, energy, and money, will be devoting herself personally to its success. It’s far better, in my view, than having an outside judge pass along a winning manuscript to an editor who, however dedicated, won’t own the process in the way she would if she had chosen the book herself.

It’s not my intention here to disparage my former editors: far from it. No editor has worked harder on my behalf than Jim Schley at TupeloPress did when he was in charge of shepherding Severance Songs through the publication process: he even functioned, wonder of wonders, as an editor, making suggestions and recommending cuts and rearrangements that helped to make it a better book. That’s shockingly rare in the poetry world; I suspect it’s become rare in the world of fiction and trade books too.  I look forward to a similar back-and-forth with my Omnidawn editors. But I feel somehow that the exchange we have is going to be more profound, more fundamentally collaborative, and cut more closely to the bone of what I’m trying to accomplish with this particular book.

The Barons and Other Poems is my most ambitious book yet, in part because it’s a collection (as the title implies) and not a “concept” book or a “project” in the way of my other books (and of so many other poetry books published today--the vast majority, I'd say). It’s open. I have a longstanding interest in open form in the narrow sense, and you can see evidence of that in almost everything I’ve written, even the sonnets of Severance Songs. But this is the first time that I feel I’ve produced a truly open work in the sense that each poem makes a gesture, hazards something, contradicts itself or what’s gone before, without ever, as Mallarmé said, abolishing chance—the possibility of things going (always already being) disastrously wrong. The fault is in our stars and in ourselves. There’s an intrinsic roughness and shagginess to this work. I feel so lucky to have found a publisher who will respect that, and may seek even to enhance it, and to complete the book’s gesture which I have come to understand can only happen when a book is properly designed AND distributed AND promoted—talked about—believed in—by its publisher.

I am sure there will be disagreements and disappointments, but I am equally sure that this is happening at the right time, with the right publisher, and the right book.

And not least of all with this news comes a sense of liberation: the ability to close the door on one body of work and to open the door onto something unprecedented and unpredictable. Will it look like poetry, or fiction, or something else?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My Romanticism

A few posts ago, I defined Romanticism in a rough-and-ready, ahistorical fashion, "as a stance that assumes the mutual dependence of self and world, or if you prefer, freedom and determination." My colleague Bob Archambeau, who is a scholar of Romanticism and far more qualified than I to opine on the subject, asked me rather reasonably what I meant by that. So I will try and explain, in my pragmatically poetics-minded way, what Romanticism means to and for me as a writer in the early 21st century.

The broadest and most persuasive recent definition of Romanticism I know comes from Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre's book Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity The title efficiently boils down the book's thesis: Romanticism is a broad, multinational weltanschauung that emerges in the late 18th century as a reaction against the Enlightenment, bourgeois capitalism, and industrialization. To paint with an even broader historical brush, I would say that with the emergence of modernity we see the dramatic rise in significance of "the world" and the worldly, in the face of the retreat of the divine as sole arbiter of value. Against forces that assert the primacy of "the world"--of the social, of rational systems--Romanticism rises as a sometimes contradictory wave in support of individuality, which seeks to restore the divine as a counterweight to the social (but in so doing reinforcing and exaggerating the fatal separation between divinity and world: Romantics flee organized religion and toward the cultic, toward individuals and small charismatic groups). Therefore, the 21st-century Romanticism or post-Romanticism that attracts me is a secularized Romanticism, which takes as its territory the wounded dialectic of self and world: wounded because that third thing, the divine, is present only in its absence, conditioning the territories of self and world.

As intellectual history this is pretty sketchy, but it gets across some of my sense of what Romanticism is, or what function it might serve, for our post-Language era of poetry: a reassertion of subjectivity that is not naive or reactionary, that has learned from the efforts of Language poetry to represent and negotiate with larger social systems. But there is another sense of it that I take from Robert Duncan, best encapsulated in Ezra Pound's phrase "the spirit of romance." Pound's book of that title tills the ground of the Troubadours, reaching back for a sense of Romance that is medieval, pre-Renaissance, which locates the ground of reality in myth and dream. In The H.D. Book Duncan writes that "The images of the poem, then, were not impressions translated from the given reality of the poet into words but were evocations of a dream greater than reality, a New World coming into existence in the opus of the poem itself" (97-98). What Duncan calls "the stuff of a poetic reality" is what I think of as the material of the Event: the Event as shaping act of the imagination creates and conjures Truth and the Subject, calling them forward from a background whose tangible immutability no longer goes unquestioned. The divine--the only truth-actor in the pre-modern dispensation--reappears as secular truth-action, materialized in the fidelity of the poet to her materials, which are the unevenly distributed products of her selfhood, of history, of tradition, and of her environment.

For a while now I have been interested in another more specific but related category of the poetic, the visionary. Poetic seeing in the visionary sense is something completely other than mimesis, even the mimesis of imagism: I would go so far as to call it a counter-mimesis, to relate it to the idea of the counter-factual. A poet like Blake creates, via or on the way to achieving fidelity to his (quite literal) visions, a "New World" in his poem. Such new worlds may be seen as offering an escape from what passes for Blake's reality (dark Satanic mills, etc.), but I think that visionary images are always dialectical: like a negative mimesis they comment on the qualities missing from the given world (the way Adorno says all lyric poems do) but they also conjure, in their process or adventure, the spirit of Romance or the spirit of Reality with a capital R: the revolutionary spirit from which all real changes, all real truths, emerge. The visionary poem rehearses creation. And I think the visionary, in that spirit, is what our historical moment may be calling for.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Force Multiplier, or the Subject of Poetry

My thinking about "the multiple" as a category for poetic thought began when I first began reading Alain Badiou back in 2009, then took a detour through Bruno Latour and the fashionable new philosophical field of object-oriented ontology (OOO to its fans), and lately has arrived at a rereading of Hannah Arendt, via Robin Blaser (whose wonderful essays in The Fire I seem at last ready to read and whose care for what he calls "particles" make him an orienting figure in the new poetics I am exploring).

The notion of the multiple grounds Badiou's ontology: there's a pretty decent summary on his Wikipedia page. But what's really interesting and urgent about Badiou's philosophy is the rupture he describes between ontology and subjectivity: the possibility of action or what Badiou calls "the Event." In my reading or misreading of Badiou, we live in a universe of "indifferent multiplicities," one of which might be given a name like "Politics"--precisely because the most authentic political possibilities are what get excluded from (and thus in mathematical terms "dominate") the set "Politics." The person, the subject, is itself multiple, is in fact non-existent, just a vector or trace assigned to multiple multiplicities and mapped or contained in the iron cage of Foucauldian power/knowledge. But crucially, a subject can emerge: one of the indifferent multiplicities of the universe gets named by the subject, who affirms his fidelity in that act of naming: I choose YOU, out of all the others, as my beloved, and so realize myself as a lover, and my relation to all others in the universe and myself is forever changed. What's attractive about this philosophy is the phenomenon of the Event as rupture, as eruption of Truth, and the importance it reassigns to the subject. Through her fidelity to the Event in love, science, politics, or art, the subject creates herself, and recreates the world.

The poems that have meant the most to me, writing or reading them, have been Events: I feel myself addressed, interpolated, on a level other than rational, and become, for a moment, more. And in that moment of departure from my everyday self, I am conscious of that self as multiple, as a constellation of objects that might be given such names as citizen, professor, father, etc. But the poem calls me away from all that, for a moment: I make a choice, I stake myself on the poem, and when the experience of the poem is over I am somewhere different from where I started, called to responsibility in Robert Duncan's sense: "Responsiblity is to keep / the ability to respond." Which response, more often than not, has for me taken the form of a new poem.

Object-oriented ontology seems to be nearly the opposite of Badiou's, for as a form of realism it affirms the reality of objects in the universe irrespective of human perceptions or relations to them. Its strongest move, from a poetic standpoint (and from the standpoint of someone preoccupied in particular with environmental writing and with the scene of negotiation between self and system) is to decenter the human so that ontology is no longer constructed in terms of self-object (i.e., correlationism) but as object-object. At the same time, there is a Badiouan dimension to OOO in its suggestion of the possibility that ALL objects, not only human beings, can create relations with other objects, and therefore all have the potential of being or behaving like subjects. Imagine what it might look like, the fidelity to an Event manifested by a butterfly, a skyscraper, the Rotary Club, or any other object/entity. Now most of the OOO-folks I've read, like Graham Harman, seem more interested in establishing the independence of objects from relation, tout court: that is, they are not simply interested in separating the reality of objects from human perception's distortion effect, but in disintegrating "relation" altogether. Objects exist, without ontological priority from one to the next, and apparently to maintain this thesis one must bracket the possibility of mediation. But I'm more tantalized by this prospect of an unlimited field of Events: a universe of objects (including objects introjected by the self) that might at any moment manifest as subjects through fidelity to an Event, which itself a sort of relationless relation since the Event is fundamentally creative.

This expansive new field of relations has interesting political implications, one major description of which has been offered by Latour in his idea of the "new Constitution" (in Politics of Nature), which will supplant the "modern Constitution" that tried to purify the boundaries between human and non-human but instead results in the proliferation of hybrids and "quasi-objects." In the new Constitution proposed by Latour, the old barriers come down and the discourses of politics and science (human and nonhuman, subjects and objects) become complementary, so that the Collective is not only redefined (as more inclusive) but is subject to constant redefinition (and ever-more inclusive). Put another way, our responsibility under the new Constitution is constantly expanding as we recognize the capacity of others (nonhuman and even conceptual others, as well as human others) to respond to us and to their environments.

I have wandered rather far from poetry. But my evolving sense of the importance of the multiple, of the breakdown in subjectivity which is also paradoxically an expansion of its limits, helps me to understand how poetry might meet the crisis that almost seems to produce poetry now. That is, the crisis of the public sphere (this is where Arendt comes in): the public sphere that poets have abandoned in droves (the abandonment has of course been mutual), cultivating instead a kind of self-conscious pariah discourse, in which both self and other are neutralized as actors, becoming objects that relate to each other un-Event-fully, suspended in a solution of uncrystallized subjectivity (the largely found language of the postmodern poem) that registers an affect of nostalgia or hostility or bemusement.

What's missing in contemporary American poetry is that sense of responsibility to what affects all of us (Duncan insisted, always, on the universality of experience), which is NOT the same as "political" poetry, nor is it achieved through the insertion of political content. The "poetry world" is a pariah world, really a condition of worldlessness. That's inevitable to some degree because poetic discourse will always be anathema to the rational discursivity that cannot help but affirm what exists while denying the possibility of anything truly new. But poetry is or ought to create the conditions under which an Event might occur; ought to address and be addressed by new human and nonhuman others; ought to indicate rather than abdicate the possibility of public speech, that is, of action. Ought to model what becoming a subject is; ought to terrify us, too, with the uncanny possibility of subjectivity's universality (which is anchored, always, in the particular and historical). I is an other, that's just a starting place: the others are all I's.

There is a spirit in all things, for poets to conjure. A conjuring that happens in obedience and in listening, to words, which are also objects, which make silence speak.

Now come, my Ariel! bring a corollary,
Rather than want a spirit: appear and pertly!
No tongue! all eyes! be silent.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Poetics of the Multiple

Midway through my life's journey comes a long moment of reflection and redefinition regarding poetics (this comes in place of the conversations I might have were I able to attend the Orono conference this weekend). The past several years have been devoted to a number of poetry-related projects: to The Arcadia Project (look for it this August), to assorted Black Mountain poets (my article "Robert Duncan's Visionary Ecology" will appear in issue 40 of Paideuma), and to the newer poems of my manuscript The Barons (which I'm trying to publish outside the contest system for a change; contests have been good to me but I long for a more authentic relation between writer and editor). A great deal of activity, but the novel has been a giant distraction from all that: a distraction that I craved, wanting and needing without quite being conscious of it a kind of breathing space or sabbath not from poetry exactly but from "being a poet," defining and defined by my esoteric art. Now that the novel is done, and wending its slow way into the hands of potential publishers, I am wondering what to do with all the fresh air the novel has left in its wake for considering poetry and its centrality to my life, and the possibility of writing it again.

If the novel opened up an interval in poetry for me, the door to that interval was opened or closed by my completion of my most recent manuscript of poems, The Barons, some poems from which, along with an interview, appear in the latest issue of Spoon River Poetry Review. My previous books were all "projects"; The Barons is a collection in the old-fashioned sense, really a collection of collections, that together constitute a sort of narrative of my activity in poetry since 2004, when most of the poems in Severance Songs were completed. It's a book that engages more directly than the others with my diminished faith in Romanticism: it even scorns and heaps abuse on Romanticism without ever giving up on it entirely.

The drama of the book from a poetics standpoint comes in seeking alternatives to what Jennifer Moore has called "the aesthetics of failure" that she associates with poets like Matt Hart and Tao Lin, which others have begun to refer to as "the new sincerity" (itself hardly a new term or idea). For these poets, Moore claims, "this deliberate embrace of failure is worked out through an explicit departure from an allegedly exhausted aesthetic and a movement toward a renewed emphasis on emotion."

Meanwhile from another direction you have the conceptualists pursuing, as Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman have put it, "strategies of failure" (Place tries to one-up Beckett in this interview: "fail again, fail worse"). And then in one of the liveliest quarters of the post-post-avant you have the aesthetic of the Montevidayans with their devotion to the political grotesque, to body-centered excess that pursues not "failure," exactly, but an aggressive interrogation of the political-social structures that undergird the very notion of "success," embracing poetry specifically (along with video nasties and other modes of marginalized spectacle) precisely for its weakness, its oddity, its place as a kind of malfunctioning prosthetic that calls attention to a profound and irremediable lack.

These three major aesthetics of failure, so predominant in poetry now, are just the latest reactions to (Joyelle McSweeney would say a zombie version of) a barred Romanticism, which I will simply and probably ahistorically define as a stance that assumes the mutual dependence of self and world, or if you prefer, freedom and determination. To continue to speak broadly and crudely, for a long time in American postwar poetry the self bestrode the world like a colossus, in sincere or grotesque manifestations (sincerely grotesque in the case of a Confessionalist like Sylvia Plath). Then as the tide of French theory began to slop against these shores we saw a new predominance of the world in the most interesting poetry, though "the world" appears in different guises: as heavily theorized social text for the Language poets, as gossip and theater for the New York School and its epigones. Now I would say that the self has been fully and completely invaded by the world/the other (on a DNA level, as a prism for the Spectacle, etc.), having been systematically deranged not by and for poetry but by the mediation of systems whose surfaces have never been more accessible (thanks to the Internet) even as their levers (who the boss?) and nodal points (the "tubes" of the real) have never been more obscure. The self wants to make a comeback, but it can only do so through some mode of abjection and surrender. What concerns me, for poetry, is that what's being surrendered in at least the first two versions of failure before us is poetry itself, or more specifically, two of its three major dimensions. 

These three dimensions, of course, are described by Ezra Pound as melopoeia (the music of language), phanopoeia (the casting of images on the reader's mind), and logopoeia ("the dance of the intellect among words"). In essence, the new sincerity and conceptualism have abandoned where they haven't mocked the first two elements and try to persist almost entirely in the third. It is, quite literally, thin stuff: deliberately impoverished, emaciated, Musselman-poetry. Here is a reasonably typical example, from Dorothea Lasky:

Toast to my friend or why Friendship is the best kind of Love  

Laura, Laura I am sad for you
But more than you I am sad for me 
And when I make a toast to you 
I make a toast to me, my friend. 
Here on the front porches of our lives, 
I toast to you, with goblet raised. 
And the house of our lives too, glittering 
With decay. And the fatish ghost 
Of losing and the sun and moon 
Being the same thing outside our house, O! 
That in decay we could find that losing 
Is truly beautiful. I love you and what's so wrong 
With that? Life is before us, so let us live! 
In friendship we are one together and in friendship 
I am all soul. No that’s wrong, too. 
What is a soul all aflame? 
If it’s a bird in snow, 
Then that’s what I am.

In my view this poem practices a sort of deliberate badness, a vacancy in terms of music and image, that by surrendering aesthetic power while telegraphing a naked longing for Romantic plenitude ("a soul all aflame") asks the reader to, in effect, lend it that plenitude, which it cannot itself repay. It's a subprime poem. Tao Lin goes even farther in this direction:

Poems that look weird 

One time I wrote a poem that looked really weird 
It looked like a scrabble board would 
If I were playing against you and losing by three hundred or something 
Because I'd just mix up all the tiles then, and 
You'd be angry but you'd laugh and that would be fun 

This other time you had The Paris Review anthology 
And you were looking for a poem about boats to show me 
And I pointed at a poem that looked weird 
And I said, I hate it when they do that 
And you said, I don't, I think it's pretty 

Another time I was thinking about you 
And I was thinking that you think that weird poems are pretty 
And I think that you are pretty 
I was thinking that there was something there, in that thought 
Some sort of connection that was completely free of bullshit, finally

That last line is where the "new sincerity" comes in: a mistrust of music and eloquence coupled with an ingenuous faith in a weirdly hypostasized "poetry" ("poems that look weird") will somehow cut through the bullshit and establish "connection." It's just conceptualism by another name, since conceptualism almost always relies on some manifestation of the faux-naif voice that colors these poems. It's just that, with a conceptualist poem, the no-bullshit connection on offer is with the world, not the self: a connection that promises to cut through prevailing ideologies and meet the reader (or "thinker," as Place prefers) on the ethically queasy ground s/he already occupies (viz. any performance of Place's ongoing grisly project "Statements of Fact").

The Montevidayans are the most attractive to me of the three modes under discussion, for the simple reason that theirs remains primarily an aesthetic in the primary sense of that word: a mode of feeling. There is nothing unmusical about a poem like McSweeney's "King Prion," especially if you are lucky enough to hear her perform those marvelous "Hoooooooos," a kind of non-linguistic vocalization that clears the ground for the ecstatic, abyssal somersaults performed by each poem (or "possession," as her husband Johannes Göransson prefers to term it). In terms of subject matter, too, the Montevidayans have internalized more successfully than any other tendency I can think of that weird prismatic fracturing, that dissolved boundary between self and world (a boundary named the body), which I think represents the most acute representation and critique of the Romantic legacy for our time.

Install the Flash plugin to watch this video.

Go to minute 33 to hear Joyelle read from "King Prion."

Yet I do not count myself in their number because I think theirs remains a primarily image-based poetics, as partly demonstrated by the group's ongoing fascination with film. (I should make it plain here that I am not speaking as a critic or as someone who seeks to be definitive: this is personal: I am groping toward the poetics that is mine: any prescriptions straying into this text are for myself alone.) Instead I am drawn back again and again to the poets of the 1960s associated with Black Mountain and San Francisco: Duncan, Spicer, Blaser, Olson (to a lesser extent Levertov, to a much lesser extent Creeley). Because that is the moment, I think, when the emphasis shifted, when the self was no longer an adequate platform for Romantic poetics but the world had not yet been theorized so lucidly (or as glibly) as it would be in the wake of "theory." The esoteric dimension in a poet like Duncan, which I once found so frustrating, now fascinates because it represents the attempt of a poet both fully intellectualized and fully alive to the ear to find a means of negotiating the boundary between self and world, means alive to the sensory-perceptual but not sufficing in them.

I want a poetics that takes self and world seriously, even as it struggles against hierarchy: the self is just one more object (or constellation of objects) in the sea of the world, yes--and yet. I am unwilling to surrender a fundamental pragmatism if not a humanism: a desire that poetry be placed at the root of life's flourishing: my life, other lives. The Barons, in its five sections, marks waypoints on the path toward such a poetics, as it slowly sheds the lightly ironized Transcendentalism I learned from Wallace Stevens and sets aside my equally naive, grad student's faith in cognitive mapping and ideology critique. It rediscovers narrative as a kind of alternative furthering of the goals of lyric poetry, since narrative of structural necessity believes in a sort of progress. There are also here hints, I think, of an intensified rather than deflected struggle with the confinement imposed by the lyric "I." The progress of the book tracks my increasing dissatisfaction with the lyric as I had conceptualized it: a vehicle for the single voice. There is for me a natural progression, even if no one else can see it, from the convulsions of these poems and the breakout toward a more genuinely polyvocal and heteroglossic mode of writing. A discovery, incidentally, that made fiction possible for me again after twenty years not writing it or even reading it much.

The last poems in the book try, in an almost Blakean way, to recycle the despair that has dominated much of the book without purifying it or leaving it behind; they push toward a sense of renewal that comes, at least in theory, from uniting with the multiple, in the form of the tropes of the city and the law that end the last poem, "Saeglopur," in a less confident echo of the conclusion of Compostition Marble. The multiple is the governing figure of the new poetics: the multiple within and the multiple without, and of course the multiple within each word, negotiated first and last by music, which happens to/with/in bodies. Which always precedes and predominates over meaning and image, containing within itself the affect that the reader interprets, always after the fact, as logopoeia.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Beautiful Soul: An Excerpt

Certain ideas of Europe closely held by a reader. The American configuration: hostility, curiosity, indifference, contempt, fascination, prurience, a persistent sense of inferiority, lewd speculation, exploitations, saturation, colonization. We are new and they are old. Except for history and the conditions of history's procreation, America owns the New. She dreams of a new Old World in which her own hidden history lies embedded like prehistoric gases awaiting miners to bring about their detonation and release. A Europe of babies and old men and women and nothing in between. Europe of scholars, bearded men with peyes and spectacles, picking up fallen books from bombed-out shelves and kissing them as one does a dropped infant. Europe the furnace of horrors, untold accumulated sedimentary beauties of history heaped and strewn and doused with coal oil in the ashy fields of Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, the once and future Lithuania, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Hungary. Burned: the Paris of the East and the London of the East and the Venice of the East. Not burned: New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Cleveland, Chicago. As the line between the two Jerusalems smolders, incommensurate fires burning in Ramallah and Tel Aviv, fire of the citizen, fire of the subject. One stands or sits down in these reflections, quite at home. In search of a path of resistance to the downward drift of entropy and forgetfulness: dream, reverie, reflection are her methods. Above all, as though distracted, she decides. She does or does not turn the page, does or does not pick up a ballpoint pen with which to carefully underline words, phrases, clauses, sentences, whole paragraphs; does or does not grip the pen close to the tip so as to create marginalia: five- and six-pointed stars, asterisks, a word or two, or the most eloquent marks of punctuation: question marks, exclamation points, while a simple period marks her nota bene. In so doing she emends the quiet of reading, brings greater proportions of noise to particular rows and blocks of black signals, oblique semaphoric signs. Other paragraphs, pages, and chapters are passed over in silence: the reader leaves no sign of her passage. She looks in from the outside of her own experience as half-understood text written by collectives of anonymous authors: her Jewishness, her whiteness, her femaleness (not to her own satisfaction achieving womanliness), her status as an immigrant's child, her relative prosperity, her PhD. Tearing off strips of paper in her mind (in reality motionless), she says: It is a fact that more men survived than women. It is a fact that the killings of and by men are better documented than the killings of women. It is a fact that the widespread rape of women, then and now, has been poorly and inefficiently documented. It is a fact that some women collaborate or try to collaborate with their oppressors, even their murderers, in continual attempts at the survival of themselves and their children. It is probable that Sophie never had a choice; it is certain that Sophie was fictional. It is probably that such concepts as “agency,” “personal morality,” “mercy,” “justice,” “mere decency,” “humanity” have been put under such extreme pressure by the events of the past century that they are no longer fit to be used. It is probable that our appetite for news of these events is inversely proportionate to our appetite for what is called “reality.” It is likely that a patina of something we dare not call “nostalgia” clings to our collective memory of these events. It is a fact that old men who have been soldiers in a war speak of wartime as the best, the only real time in their lives. Subtract “best” from “real” if you like, it makes no difference. To describe is to affirm, to tell a story is to say, You should have been there. The wind rose, rain swept in: you should have been there. I miscarried my first child after seven months of pregnancy: you should have been there. I dropped out of the life I knew into someone else's life, a placeholder life: you should be here. Stuck here in someone else's idea of Europe, an American woman with an American child, secure and comfortable and never for a moment free from fear of losing all security, all comfort. There are certain activities that occupy the entire foreground of one's capacities: movies, music, reading, writing—while leaving the dark background to metabolize, metasticize, to grow tentacles, so that when you put down your pen, your book, your instrument, you emerge into the dazzling matinee sunlight and find that the background has seized your life and you will never be quite the same. As when you stand by the graveside of a loved one, your grandfather for example, and think, “The stage is set,” and “The coffin is being closed,” and “Here I am at the graveside of my grandfather,” and “Here I am heaping a shovelful of dirt onto my grandfather's coffin,” and “Inside that coffin under the earth I put there my grandfather is lying with his eyes closed, wearing a watch, wearing the same suit he married his second wife in thirty years ago,” and none of these thoughts are to the purpose or affect in the slightest the real work going on in the background, the work of being alive inside a wound, pain dimmed by the narcotic haze of self-consciousness. You did not choose this wound, you did not give it a name. It's only a background from which you emerge, like a paper doll cut from a newspaper. The shape of the doll does not affect the news, the contents (front page, advice column, obituary, editorial, book review, advertisement), and yet it is inseparable from them. That is the essential story: daughter of the daughter of a survivor, herself a kind of survivor, once married to a kind of perpetrator, my father, my fathers. Everything else is symptom. So why pursue it? What could be more absurd or pathetic than a paper doll straining to read herself? Yet I am so compelled. I remember, I owe, a debt unpayable. I go forward, to wring blood from stones.

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