Saturday, October 12, 2019
Thursday, August 01, 2019
The Exorbitant Quiet
My father lifted his own eulogy from Jacques Derrida. A few weeks before his death, he called me to solicit writing to be read aloud at his funeral. He was moved by the first text I shared with him over the phone: a brief eulogy Derrida composed in anticipation of his own death (to defend others, Derrida said, from the torturous “ordeal” of writing in the wake of loss). Always prefer life and constantly affirm survival. So my father asked me if he could copy the entire thing, and then proceed as if he had written these words as his departing address. I love you and am smiling at you from wherever I am. This must have been the final thing he would ever ask of me. A wish, dying, belated as ever, to be at a loss for words upon – and in advance of – your own death.
This rather absurd instance of falsifying one’s own self-eulogy is made all the more bizarre not merely by the reality that my father never read and was unfamiliar with philosophy, but by the sheer headache-inducing irony of the source in question. We might go on, yes, about the future anterior and the logic of iterability with its iter and itara that cathedralize this scene (to write is to die a living death, and so on). And yet there’s an attendant question between grief and citation I want to pursue here that follows from my father sampling Derrida (and really letting that track play out, perhaps, for a little too long).
What I am moving toward is a claim I suggest is pivotal to a pulse within contemporary poetic production: poetry is at a loss for words. While hyperbolic and glib, this contention intensifies and compounds Marjorie Perloff’s thesis that originality is maxing itself out in the digital age as genius survives the exhaustion of inventio by choking language of its direct expression. Put differently, many twenty-first century poets have renounced language’s capacity to infinitely express original utterances (a commitment that underpins both language poetry and lyric poetry). Poets have begun to seize, instead, upon Walter Benjamin’s literary montage, his “I needn’t say anything” (460), that puts rags and refuse on full display by writing through, within, and against other texts. For Perloff, Benjamin anticipates “the turn writing would take in the twenty-first century, now that the Internet has made copyists, recyclers, transcribers, collators, and reframers of us all” (41).
The difficulties implicit in such a turn, however, can be rehearsed like a litany. The first is philosophical. Writing is necessarily a writing through the voice of the other that precedes and exceeds us while also being, from the first instant, subject to cutting, grafting, citation, falsification, and corruption. The second is largely historical. To announce such a turn risks lapsing into a presentism that blinks myopically at the many modes of “writing through” that are the very tissues of literary histories whether originality and authorship are within the domain of the sayable or not. The third is formal. The so-called deaths of expression, the lyric, and the fragment are not that compelling of wagers to place. Poetry, as Sina Queyras argues, can be lyrical and also conceptual. The fourth is political. Conceptual poetry is often irrigated by a “post-identity politics” that flattens social difference and escalates what Cathy Park Hong calls, echoing James Baldwin, the “delusion of whiteness” in its drive to “casually slip in and out of identities…when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are” (Hong). Hong identifies a certain voluntarism that often infuses constraint-based writing and neglects the entanglements of race, settlerhood, sexuality, gender, able-bodiedness, and class. All language necessarily constrains to different degrees and at different intervals, but these constraints are asymmetrically distributed and interlocking.
These complexities do not contradict that there has been a palpable shift in contemporary poetic production. On the contrary, these critiques establish at the outset four co-implicated pressure points that raise the philosophical, historical, formal, and political stakes of reading and composing writing that steals, lifts, collects, resituates, tarnishes, pulverizes, minimizes, heaps, cuts, and hoards.
And so my question. If contemporary poetry is thus at a loss for words, then something arresting happens when grieving from beyond, across, and below the word: the idiomatic phrase “at a loss for words” attains a second power. It’s commonplace to say that one is at a loss for words when someone dies, but what occurs formally when we lament without literally taking the word as the basis for claiming, grieving, and tallying up loss? What might it mean, then, to grieve when one no longer relies upon the paradigmatic substitutions and syntagmatic relations of the word as the primary site of composition? With the loquacity of a melancholic, one says too much and nothing at all. An odd volubility ramps up the reserve that often afflicts the bereaved. Here, we might encounter an exorbitant quiet that puts into crisis the boundaries between language and silence.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002.
Hong, Cathy Park. “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” Lana Turner 7, 2014.
Perloff, Marjorie. Unoriginal Genius: Poetry By Other Means in the New Century. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010.
Queyras, Sina. “Lyric Conceptualism, A Manifesto in Progress.” Poetry Foundation, 2012.
Kyle Kinaschuk is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Toronto, where he researches the politics and form of lament in contemporary poetry situated within Canada. His poetry has appeared in journals such as The Capilano Review, filling Station, PRISM international, The Puritan, Hart House Review, Poetry is Dead, and FreeFall Magazine. His debut chapbook, COLLECTIONS-14, appeared with above/ground press this past April.
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Wednesday, May 22, 2019
Years of tutoring from friends, football coaches, and professors could not solve the way my brain scrambles numbers. Until I said my final goodbyes to math after college, the subject was always a painful one. People often assume math skills on my part because I’m a professional musician, and musicians are supposed to be good at math, they insist. Sure, the two subjects intersect, and even a basic chord involves mathematical concepts. Those are truths with which I play, express, and improvise on a daily basis. But as much as I can approach mathematical principles, I’ll never be able to work with numbers. The explicit, objective language of math eludes me, a young woman with a graduate degree who has had to blushingly count on her fingers in front of her boss. As it turns out, she could never quite escape numbers.
In college, ever the cliche, I was no less a mental health disaster than any other music student. This was in the Deep South, and when a lesbian at a religious college complains of excess worry and sadness, well, nobody thinks to look any deeper than that. The problem is plainly visible, staring you in the face with sunken cheekbones from sudden obsessive weight loss. Numbers, and all that.
In the wake of traumatic events, faded collections of images holed up in my cells, resurfacing uncontrollably when I tried to eat or sleep. Thankfully, it’s not so severe anymore. But if you ask me to recall the details of my trauma, like "what exactly happened," memory fails and words escape. It is the same helpless feeling as when I try to copy down a phone number and write a 6 where a 9 belongs. I’m reaching for something I can’t grasp, like reaching into a wound and expecting to pull out a date and time.
But you came to read about writing, and here I am talking about trauma.
Writing poetry allows us express mysteries that we cannot articulate in plain terms. Nobody reads a poem to be told outright, “There is both beauty and sadness in the world.” Where’s the proof? But when you see two boys examining bones in the forest, the clues they unearth about the crime scene point toward the broader truth. Nobody reads a poem to be told, “Some things are too tough to be killed” with a line break here or there. But when you see the alligator crawling back from the edge of extinction and moss unfurling over an abandoned shack, then you may feel some approximation of the truth.
So writing poetry is like doing math. “Pi” is a number that is infinitely more than a number, but if even if we could know all its digits, the concept is still better expressed by a simple circle. Math and poetry both work from the same ideas of logic, of economic precision, of man-made languages. Both explain the universe with the help of our own imaginations to fill in the gaps, the unknowns.
There are many ways to suss out truth or, at least, pieces of it. Poetry does not demand explicit recounts of emotions, experiences, and stories, which perfectly suits the PTSD survivor who doesn’t remember what has happened to her anyway. Instead, she can point you to the ruler, the raised voices, the textbook slammed down on her knuckles. Then, the poet can solve a problem or beg a better question. Even an awkward first draft can at least prove a connection where she may have forgotten one existed.
A graduate of Mississippi College, Amy Lauren was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Poetry Prize. Her chapbooks include Prodigal, God With Us, and She/Her/Hers. Her poems have appeared in publications such as The Gay & Lesbian Review with four Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in Florida with her wife.
Friday, May 03, 2019
On Writing and the Self
past moments old dreams back again or fresh like those that pass or things things always and memories I say them as I hear them murmur them in the mud
SAMUEL BECKETT, How It Is
As with walking, there is only one place from which to begin, that being wherever your feet happen to be. I rise from the folds of my interior, a consciousness that began as a seed and expanded into this. Into hands that tap on a computer screen, attached to a torso that belongs to its environment, a head that is habitual and formed by how it is received.
My command, if I have command, comes out of this body, my ability (thus far) to persist. This body lives with me and I with it. You get used to each other. You familiarise yourself with your set of limitations, real, imagined, affected, believed in, and wriggle a little inside your veil of skin.
I am one hundred cats inside a soundproof cube with a hairline leak. Those cats disagree, fight, both with themselves and with each other, change their minds, howl, die, come back to life. I can’t see outside these walls, not with any clarity, not with all this noise in here.
The exterior feeds in, becomes the surrounding fields. A whine overhead, a newspaper headline, advertisements, words of wisdom, the glass shattering in a car window and the sirens that geyser from the scene. Imagine an already damp cloth sprawled out across the table, lapping up the spreading sea.
I’m a venus-fly-trap munching on my own leaf. From the lockjaw of iteration comes a kind of release. An ability to make certain movements, to walk a person through the rooms of one’s house and illume the debris.
Curtains of static and association filter the impressions coming in. You tune the station, fiddle with the channels. Catch a breath of pure oxygen, a swift in flight past an old barn beam.
Walls of tiny metal beads, like ball bearings, rain down in all directions. Each bead carries a small image, a sentence remembered, a name from the deep. And your body charges past, heading for the glimmer of light flickering off some stranger’s watch face as their feet scuff the threshold of the door as they leave. Beads in disarray, metal fragments reverberate like hail, the birdsong of disruption falling back into place. A nearly, a helix of just-missed steam.
Everything detours this way, for a second, a year, a day. And, as with walking, you grab whatever is within reach. Pick up a pebble on the beach. Pass it from one hand to another, admire its curvature, estimate its weight. Do you need it? Can you put it on a shelf? How long should that shelf be?
You juxtapose one thing with another, like a bower bird lining a nest. You select, compare, reconsider, throw away. You turn a thing over, pick at it, chisel. A slab of intensity, finessed, is left to harden. Complete, you step outside, and dance your ridiculous dance in front of the resultant array.