Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Surgeries and Cuts of Ivan Blatny

So a while back I posted this poem because I think it's really fantastic:


So restoration is not spelled au
I spelled it so thinking of the czech word restaurace
to restore
and go with a lady to the Room
like a unicorn in the mirror
all naked in the mirrors
so that I could see the blood trickling.


Joseph Hutchinson attacked it for being "phony"/senseless/cliche "avant-garde" and suggested I defend it. Now I am totally opposed to the foundations of pretty much all of his criticism. I am opposed to defending a poem that I love; I am opposed to the idea that there must be some kind of organic unity of the poem that can be revealed through close (but apparently, as you'll see, not very close afterall!) reading; I am opposed to the idea that sharp turns in poems are bad, or that ephemerality is bad; and I am opposed to the use of "avant-garde tics" as a criticism (this is the most common form of dismissal without having to engage with something - call it both conventional and avant-garde, people have been doing that from the start, in fact it was the start in many ways).

However, against my better judgment, I will now attempt the stunt of showing how this poem makes a lot of sense and perhaps to show however sketchily what appeals to me about it.


Mr Hutchinson himself does a good job of getting the ball rolling. For one, he suggests something about the ephemerality of the poem (it feels like it was written on a napkin). I not only like this quality about poems, but it's at the heart of Blatny's later authorship, as the poems were written during his time in an insane asylum, and much of what he wrote appears to have been tossed out by administrators. "Bixley Remedial School" was salvaged by one of his nurses.


Another important thing to start talking about this poem and the Bixley book is the multilingual nature of the project. Blatny was a Czechoslovakian poet who moved to England in the late 1940s. The book consists largely of poems written in both Czech and English (and sometimes German).

As Brian Henry noted in the comment field to my previous post, the book does a really interesting job of "translating" these multilingual poems: in the translation, the Czech lines are translated into English, while the English lines are put in a lighter font, as to show the difference. This multilingual element is interesting to me, how it hides some text and renders the English lines strangely dubious. The lighter font does something very interesting: it suggests there is an element of translation about the "original text."


Blatny's multilingual aesthetic actually goes back to poems written before he moved to England. For example, there's a great "early" poem called "Treti" ("Third") that plays with a bit of translated Langston Hughes: "Waiting for my mammy -/She is Death" ("mammy" remains in English in the Czech text).


Those of you who have read this blog before know that I am very drawn to Deleuze and Guattari's notion of "minor literature," the literature that inside of a major language makes a strange language.

This is opposed to the "major" literature, literature that seeks retain the illusion that there is a major language, an official language, a true language. In Bakhtin's terms, it's monoglossic literature: literature that tries to cover up the melee of different languages. This framework of reading literature becomes: how does it follow standards, how does it sound "hard", rigorous and official. Language as an organism (in which all the parts work toward a unified effect - "no noise in art") is a "major" aesthetic.

It makes perfect sense to me that Ron Silliman does not read works in translation and that he is adamantly opposed to "non-native" translators who create texts that sound foreign to his "American tree"/"ear." Ron is on the side of the major.

Blatny is on the side of the minor: his foreign languages not only work in tension within the poems, they seem to pull and tug at the English much like how D+G say Kafka uses Yiddish to "deterritorialize" the German language.

One of my favorite examples is from "Janua Sapientiae": "The Monx speak Monx/I speak czech and english..." The "Monx" being of course a kind of blend of czech and english. And the spot that marks that interaction is - as in old treasure maps - the "x". (However, in most places it's far less specific.)

This is of course also the topic of "Misspelled": not just of misspelling a word, but of being misspelled by politics, being dislocated/relocated.


Another thing that irritated Joseph was the abrupt/disrupt change in the middle of the poem. We go from a discussion of misspelling to suddenly going to a "lady" in a "Room." These two don't go together, according to Joseph!

This disruption intrigues me. It's more than an abrupt change, the verb tense and everything seems to change inside of one sentence. It has the feeling of a *cut* - as in montage and collage. And like in those practices, I have the sense that the first sentence could be continuing to some other destination, while the second half seems to have lost its original destination. There is dislocation on a very formal level.

It is not however without any sense. As Eisenstein, the Master of Montage, would tell Joseph, montage makes connections between different stuff - sometimes as obvious as in Eisenstein's October in which the image of one hauty officer in connected to an image of a toy nightingale.


"I thus argue that the hysteric body was not simply a figure depicted in the modernist poem or film, but more provocatively, coincided with the fragmented and dissociated bodies created *as* montage." (Susan McCabe, Cinematic Modernisms)


What we have following the cut is a confusing scene, a confused narrator who perhaps looks in the mirror and sees himself as a unicorn (not quite mechanical nightingale, but related to the Eisenstein montage). Unicorn perhaps because the "lady" is a prostitute and he is erect (has a horn), but also perhaps because he looks ridiculous like a unicorn, a figure of childish innocence in a place of not-innocence.


The blood might be from the loss of innocence, from the strange violence of displacement, or - my favorite reading - from the montage "cut" in the poem. Going with McCabe's idea, it's the dissociated body of montage.


Another important thing: there's an element of montage about the entire "school" that is supposed to be the space of this poem. Frequently it appears to be a school, but also a military training camp, whore house and hospital. The room could be a hospital room with a nurse.

I love how the "misspelled" goes from being the "school" meaning of the term (something which a teacher corrects) to the physical damage/pleasure of the hospital/whorehouse. And in the process it comes to mean something much more profound, and physical than I might originally have seen in it, it comes to mean how all these things bear on the dislocated, dissociated, montaged body of the foreigner.


I love the unicorn. When was the last time you read a poem with a unicorn?

I read the unicorn in part as something akin to "camp." That is the appropriation of mass-produced kitsch to create a kind of art that is not so easily invested in heroic authenticity (Major Art, Macho Pollock etc), but a kind of inauthentic or minor authenticity. I think the unicorn functions in a similar way: but here not an emblem of the inauthenticity/perversion of the homosexual, but of the foreigner, another figure who is repeatedly conceived as a fake/perversion.

(No less by the kind of framework put forth by Ron Silliman: translations are not great! They are fake! Non-natives don't speak correctly! Or his insipid commentator Curtis Faville: Foreigners are ruining our English Tongue! Or all those heaps of people who used to attack me as a young immigrant for being gay: there's something weird about this guy! He must be gay! His body and language are inauthentic!)

OK, I hope these brief notes give you some idea why I think the Blatny book is one of the best books around. Certainly one of my favorite books publish over the last 20 years.


Blogger François Luong said...

RE: the ephemeral, has Mr. Hutchinson read anything after Baudelaire or Mallarmé? Because that Blatny poem reminds me of the latter's "L'après-midi d'un faune," but condensed.

Yay to unicorn poems.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

You're right. The late 19th century vibe is prevalent in a lot of these poems.


10:49 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Sarah Vap: "Hemisphere Semi-Precious" quote: "grrrrrrr!—the aquamarine-unicorn on my underwear/
carries lunatics away. soft-porn, asscrack—these are my matrimonial summons." That's actually a third of the poem...

And Kirsten Kaschock has a "Unicorn Killer" series. Rebecca Wolf has one, Camille Guthrie a whole book; the ladies have been bogarting outsider unicorn, campy unicorn, minor unicorn...


2:31 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

I especially love that the unicorn is not romanticized at all.

4:23 PM  
Blogger brian (baj) salchert said...

1. The English language, especially American English, is not pure, and is daily becoming less pure.
2. The notion of a minor literature appeals to me.
3. Disparagement of someone who is different is usually merely parochial prejudice.
4. Poems of the order of Ivan Blatny's "Misspelled" can be written without the impetus of a prior theory.
5. I am not put off by the structure of this poem, and the seeming disjunctures may at base be more logical than is readily perceived. The "I" in it is purposely being secretive, and that is what is intriguing about it. So, while I am neither excited nor delighted by it, I am captivated by it.
6. Strangely, I was reminded of a poem by Fernando Pessoa. I don't remember exactly how it goes, but this is the gist of it:
After I was born
they locked me
inside myself,
but I escaped.

My soul has been
searching for me
through hills and valleys.

I hope my soul
never finds me.

Brian 2009-03-26

8:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I posted a lengthy response here, Johannes:

Francois is right, of course. I've never read anything after Mallarmé. Pass me the absinthe! It might make me want to read a condensed version of his finest poem.

A footnote: I feel I should step in and correct the misspelling of my name. It's Hutchi[no "n" in the middle]son. One of these days I'll write a poem about many ways such a simple name gets twisted by inattentive readers. Think I'll call it "Misspelled."

7:52 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Your comment doesn't make sense at all. Social Realism was not avant-garde (in fact it was the repression of avant-gardism) etc. Your framework for literary history is mind-boggling! What these incidents should tell you is that there are different frameworks for reading - you obviously have yours and I tried to explain mine. To suggest that I have something in common with Stalin is just about the most outrageous comment I've read in the blogosphere. Totally unconvincing.


8:13 AM  
Blogger Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

The unicorn is a fave meme amongst the Flarfists. Just so's ya know.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I'll have to reiterate here my response to your comment on my blog. You taken a remark that is clearly not personal and make it personal. If I'd wanted to compare you Stalin (if I'd wanted to be that ridiculous), I would have done it. My point, quite obviously, was that using theory to invest art with value is, from my point of view, wrongheaded. (I've laid out my position on this here.) If you think using theory this way makes sense, by all means say so. But reading personal attacks into a simple debate demeans both sides and distracts from the real issues. Don't you think?

11:37 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I made a comment on your blog, Joseph.

All evaluation of art includes some theory of what is valuable.

You may accuse me of taking the arguments personally, but you NEVER actually engage in my arguments - you consistently come up with side-arguments.

If you disagree with the D+G, make that argument. Don't try to squirrel away from the arguments.


11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I refuse to engage you about D+G because the particular theory is not the point; that is, if Blatny's poetry is "minor literature," fine—but it confers no special value on it. At least for me.

I have to add that I read widely, in all kinds of traditions, but I don't feel bound to like a poem because some theory-pundit says I should— because it fulfills some Modernist, Avant-Garde, New Criticism, Old Criticism, Renaissance, Marxist or whatever other "framework" people care to concoct. For better or worse I like what pleases me, and I think no one has any obligation to pretend to be pleased on someone else's authority. That's what I mean by reading "without theory."

And I don't mean that one shouldn't constantly examine one's assumptions, and I don't mean that all readers don't have a "framework." You may not like mine, and that's fine, because I don't care at all about your opinion of me. I find Exoskeleton interesting, which is why I've been reading it, but I'm going to stop reading it because it's clear you're an ideologue, and ideologues are a dime a dozen.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I suppose this goes back to the very source of this argument. You wanted me to say why I liked it. I had doubts about this enterprise because it didn't sound like you were going to like this book no matter what I said. But in part because i had been thinking about this book already I wrote a piece showing what interested me about it. You accused me of valuing theory over art. You have your theory, as you say, and I have mine; but if you want to refuse to admit that you have a theory while making wild accusations about my theory of art, then how can there every be any kind of argument?

It also strikes me as strange that you so easily get offended what I say about your arguments, all the while claiming that I am thin-skinned about your own pretty nasty critiques of me (phony etc).


12:37 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, I am an ideologue for Czech exile poetry? Wow, that's a tough stance to take.

Also, I don't call you names, you have called me all kinds of names (a dismissive "pundit" most recently) and make all kinds of insulting references (to Stalin etc).


12:39 PM  
Blogger Name: Matthew Guenette said...


the "reading" of the poem didn't reveal anything at all other than this: the poem can be made to mean ANYTHING to ANYBODY, which is one definition of poorly crafted work...the "imitative fallacy" (i.e. the poem IS disjunctive because it's about disjunction of madness) has long been a refuge for bad writing,,,

5:00 AM  
Blogger xemgil3 said...

'Crabtree's Bludgeon is a foil to Occam's Razor, and may be expressed so:

"No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated."' (from Wikipedia)

In a crazy way it informs the challenge of this poem. It is difficult to not impose meaning from without and yet I like to think the poem, as Eliot suggests, means without being understood. I find the poem enchanting both ways yet it leaves me more unsatisfied than I like. I think that it brings me to a somewhat disturbed state is the value of the poem.

7:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, xemgil3—

Unfortunately, you don't quote Eliot accurately. What he wrote was: "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." This assumes a number of things. One: there are genuine and disingenuous poems. Two: genuine poems communicate something. Three: genuine poems can be understood—and understanding can be the result of a process begun with the initial, not entirely conscious communication. To say that Blatny's poem "means" in a way that does not lead to understanding is to say it is not a genuine poem. At least I think that's how Eliot would put it. It's certainly the way I would put it.

8:05 AM  

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