Monday, May 31, 2010

Exotic Consultant

[I haven't had many blog ideas recently. But I'm part of a discussion about race and ethnicity and such for HTML Giant and today I was responding to a question about the danger of "exoticism" in translation. I kind of went on so I thought I'd post it here as a blog entry:]

A lot of people are worried about exoticizing, or incorrectly representing the foreign. They want their translations to be "faithful" to the original, or perhaps - in some more recent experimental translation practices - more than faithful (full of definitions and historical background)… I have a number of issues with this approach. The ultimate result is that fewer translations are published. Translation is simply too “problematic” to engage in it. Is it correct? Is it the right text to translate? Is it good in the original? Is it the best poem from this other language? How can I read it? People are scared because they don’t feel they’ve mastered the foreign language or literature. It’s secretive, elusive. Everybody feels too bad about it all in a lot of different ways. Easier to do without it… Well people have to be a little more daring. Nobody is the master of any literature! Nobody is ever faithful when they translate; translations are simply not faithful. The idea of translation as faithful is based on shall we say a monogamous concept of the artistic experience; a model that is very constrained, narrow. Nobody faithfully gets an artistic message anywhere, even if the poem is not in translation. Art is much more dispersed than that. Art is not monogamous. It’s very unfaithful. It is a slut. (Or, to quote an anthem played at the supermarket here in Mishawaka, Indiana, “You’re under the gun/So you get it on the run.”) It moves across language barriers, across economic borders, across ethnic groupings etc. Reading a poem is to be unfaithful to “the original.” There is no “original” in the sense that there is no true, one and only experience of the poem. Reading is a whorish activity… (“Heard it from a friend, who/heard it from a friend who/heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around.)But there is always this attempt to keep the lineages clean and direct, to keep art as this narrow cause-and-effect experience that we can get if we are properly trained. I’m not properly trained... I think all writing is about sex!... A foreigner is a counterfeit; I can’t give a faithful reading, even if I tried, even of Swedish poetry... Actually the Swedish “tradition” as a marginal literature is actually highly translation-informed. My favorite books when I first started reading include “Pa drift” av Jack Kerouac and “Acklet” av Jean Paul Sartre. I consider that a very Swedish start… I was a whore from the very beginning… To bring this back around to “exotics” – people who “exoticize my otherness” tend to be people who are interested in what I’m writing; people who conversely try to deny my otherness tend to be people who are opposed to what I’m doing, who fear that I’m taking secret privileges, that I’m cheating, that I’m using my immigrant status to access some secret jouissance... I think exotification is part of appreciating art. I don’t like mundane things, I like exotic things. I love hip hop because the puns etc are exotic to me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with white boys in the suburbs wearing hip hop influenced clothing etc. The ridiculing of such figures always betrays a conservative, sometimes even racist strain in the ridiculer… But also: I love Aase Berg’s poetry and translate if from Swedish because she exoticizes the Swedish language and makes it both seem super-Swedish and foreign; and, in translation, forces me, the translator, to exoticize the English language. It reminds me of when I first came to the US – the language was so strange and riddle-like… People like Ron Silliman call themselves "realists" and proclaim that they are interested in “rigor” and “precise” and “hard-chiseled” poetry. They believe in mastering traditions, creating lineages. Translation messes up their “New American” lineages… I’m an immigrant and an iconophile. I have no lineage and my traditions are terrifyingly unclean. I love the wax museum (even the ones in which real people have been covered with wax, or maybe especially those ones). I love secrets (and characters/texts that are “full” of them). I even love metaphors and similes. I love Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger. I love exotic costumes. Especially when those costumes are found in language. That’s my motto and that’s the sun’s.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tarpaulin Sky Press

Check out Tarpaulin Sky Press Almost summer sale:

The Almost-Summer Sale
Any two or more backlist titles $10 each w/free shipping!

Yes, you read that correctly. Through June 20, you can buy any two or more backlist titles for $10 each, including shipping (versus $16-$19 each from Amazon). Choose from any of our titles, from current Lambda Award Finalist Ana Božičević's Stars of the Night Commute to the book that started it all: Jenny Boully's one love affair--as well as SPD Bestsellers, Publishers Weekly and Time Out New York faves; books recommended by the likes of Kate Bernheimer, Rebecca Brown, Brian Evenson, Laird Hunt, Bhanu Kapil, Lance Olsen, et al.; books that will, in short, turn your brains inside out; books from from Mark Cunningham, Danielle Dutton, Noah Eli Gordon & Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Gordon Massman, Joyelle McSweeney, and Andrew Zornoza.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I haven't written anything on this blog for a while and probably won't for another week or so. Paradoxically this is because it's summer so I finally have time to finish my pageant (upcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press). It's kind of growing out of control - as long as a novel - and that was never my intention, so I'm now going to spend some time perhaps cutting it in half. Too much enthusiasm: everything is currently going in.

Including this very good book I've been reading recently: Ronaldo Wilson's Poems of the Black Object, which made me go back and re-read Beyond Sexuality by Tim Dean and a bunch of Lacan stuff about object a and Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination, which made me go back and read about Mike Kelley performance pieces on repressed memory. So the black man who Susan Smith invented to take the blame when she'd killed her kids (the topic of Eady's book) comes into my pageant (which is also really a series of monologues like Cornelius's book) to discuss various All-American fantasies (rape, kidnapping, Disney figures) etc. Wilson has a fantastic amorous sequence devoted to a dead german porn star, and he also makes an appearance.

My book is too long. I've got to cut it.

Luckily, I love cutting. Cutting is what I like to do.

I will start posting comments again next week.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

New Book, Open Reading Period - Action Books

Action Books has a new Book out!

The Morning News Is Exciting
By Don Mee Choi
ISBN: 9780979975561
"Cameraman, run to my twin twin zone. A girl's exile excels beyond excess. Essence excels exile. Something happens to the wanted girl. Nothing happens to the unwanted girl. The morning news is exciting." A debut volume from poet, translator, artist and activist Don Mee Choi. Here translation, aberration, mobility and movement corrupt the would-be verities of the world's hegemonic codes. "Choi translates feminist politics into an experimental poetry that demilitarizes, deconstructs, and decolonizes any master narrative."--Craig Santos Perez.

Read a sample: "A Journey From Neo-Colony To Colony."

Or go to our homepage:
Or buy it at SPD Books.

ALSO! Action Books will hold an open reading for books. Here is the info, I will soon send around on our various lists:

Action Books will be holding an open reading period June 1-July 15. We will consider book-length manuscripts of poetry, drama, fiction, criticism or some version of these for publication. Translations are welcome.

Directions: Please send the manuscript as an attachment to Please write “Open Reading Submission” and your name in the subject header. Feel free to include a short bio and/or a short description of your book if you think this would be useful.
We look forward to reading your manuscripts.

The Editors

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Eshleman's Anticline

In his new book of poems entitled Anticline, Clayton Eshleman takes on many of the themes that he has been dealing with through his prolific career--the underlying violence of the American empire, the border between the animal and human, the ways in which the visual arts and poetry attempt to express the “the human” in all of its often inhuman complexity, with Francis Bacon and Bosch being especially relevant to his more recent poems, and also how the imagination can both trap and liberate us. I have to admit, I think Eshleman has become a better and better poet over the years, and Anticline is one of my favorite books of his yet. His images have become both clearer and stranger, and his political instincts, while always being critical of those in power, have sharpened even further during the Bush years--and yet he has continually kept away from the self-congratulatory moralizing that has bogged down so much of the political poetry written since 9/11. His more political poems tend to be too messy, too riddled with conflict, and, frankly, too horrific, to be self-congratulatory. If the image of war we find in some American poetry can seem as sanitized as the images we see on CNN, the imagery in Eshleman’s political poems are like the more uncensored pictures of conflict we find on Al Jazeera. As Simon Critchley points out in his book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, modern politics is now more than ever about “the control of the image.”

The political framework in Eshleman’s poetry begins with ugliness, with disgust, yet he always foregrounds the person actually being harmed. In many ways, his political sensibility reflects a line from Godard’s Notre musique: “To kill a human being in order to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being.” “In “Consternation II” he writes about the “burnt black arm of an Iraqi 12 year old,” a line that ends with the image of the boy instead of the burnt arms (in other words, not “a 12 year old Iraqi boy with burnt arms,” the way it might be written in a news account). Such a move therefore emphasizes the boy, and not simply the destroyed arms. In “Torture II” he describes the “American Abyss” as “a white 13 by 13 foot room with bash board / on one side / so bodies can be smashed but the damage remain unobservable.” Eshleman is determined to recoup those damaged bodies, to remove them from the context of the small, hidden white room, from the “American abyss.”

His political poetry also manages to be personal without being confessional or narcissistic. He doesn’t feel “anxiety” about the rise of free-market capitalism and the reach of the American empire (as if the poor worry if those of us in the first-world middle class feel “anxiety” about them); instead, Eshleman, much like Ariana Reines in The Cow, moves from terror to almost incoherent rage to nightmarish vision. “I acknowledge the American government’s infiltration of my psyche,” he writes in “Consternation I.” “My mental atmosphere has become grainy, hyphenated, / cabbage-odored with seized distractions.” Eshleman’s Anticline suggests that beautiful, elegant poetry is not only a “sham”--it’s a form of political amnesia.


Though I’ve never seen any criticism comparing Alice Notley and Eshleman, I often think of them as having a surprising amount of things in common, with their work reflecting, for me, the best of the adventurous spirit of the 60’s--both are invested in experimenting radically with form (without ever becoming dry formalists), both have a strong inclination toward excess (Eshleman and Notley have been extremely prolific, and their poems themselves have tended to be very elastic, bringing in wide range of material), and both are attracted to the more turbulent, unsettling branches of unconscious (and sometimes even mystic) experience. Hegel famously wrote that to look in an individual’s eyes is to look into “the night of the world”--a place not of humanist plentitude but of dizzying absence and obscurity--and Eshleman, like his two major influences Artaud and Vallejo, has spent his career exploring this night. In his poem “Abyssand”--one of the early poems in Anticline--Eshleman writes, “Without ugliness and horror at the base of a poetics, form and beauty / are a sham,” and again and again in the collection he returns to the fundamental ontological theme of being and non-being, exploring the echo chamber between sex and death, consciousness and the unconscious. No wonder that in the same poem he calls upon Kali, wondering “But am I up to Kali? Will she deign to show me / life’s full complement-- / the worm strumming in my palm / Stigmata Sutra?” As that last line also demonstrates, Eshleman’s spirituality is intensely physical, not so much a breath in the lungs as a worm in the stigmata.

This visceral quality in Eshleman’s work is one reason why he has been able to explore the self in such a bold and original manner. A few years ago, I wrote an essay for Action, Yes about Eshleman where I stressed the importance of the “head” in Eshleman’s work, and how the head is different from the face. If lyrical poetry tends to focus on the face as the area where the person is most humanly expressive, where the person is their most “true self,” then the head is more generic, more about the sheer material thingness of the person. In Deleuzian terms, the face is the “individual,” whereas the head is the “Figure,” the term Deleuze uses to describe the non-humanist representations of humans in Bacon’s work. Anticline continues this examination of a kind of non-humanist notion of what it means to be human, with the series of poems inspired by Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights being particularly focused on this issue. The “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” like Eshlemn’s highly original work on cave paintings, tries to locate the human within a world that is in a state of perpetual mutability. At one point Eshleman writes, “Might not the swarm of ‘human’ wraiths percolating Paradise / be the progeny of an exfoliating vision by which ‘holy ghosts’ / are brought into physical conversation-- / conversion with birds, beasts, flowers, fruit?”

Of course, the question of self and subjectivity has been a contentious one in American poetry since the late 60’s. Some of the debates have been stunningly reductive, with one side arguing for a lyrical, coherent “I,” and the other for a poetry devoid of the self, believing that to rid poetry (and thought in general) of the “I” would be a move toward permanently disabling the chief means of exploitation and domination. Yet many of the best poets in the past thirty or forty years have had a much more nuanced take on subjectivity. Notley and Michael Palmer have both found ways of thinking about the first person that thoroughly complicates the above opposition. And Eshleman has too. In “A Transmigralation,” Eshleman writes “There’s a pouch of menstrual blood & semen / attached to the back wall of imagination.” The image could be said to be a kind of origin for the self: a self that is curiously impersonal (the “wall of imagination” seems to simply exist, unattached to any manifestation of personhood, while also echoing cave imagery) and yet absolutely material, visceral (the “pouch of menstrual blood & semen”). Like Artaud and Vallejo, Eshleman is fascinated by the elemental (blood, semen, rock, dust, shit, bones), by that aspect of life we try to fit into knowable categories--whether they be linguistic, aesthetic, political, or philosophical--in order to control. And also like Artaud and Vallejo, he sees the “self” has made up of shifting elemental compounds. In “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” he writes, “Better to drag a big speckled bug around by the tail than seek / redemption,” suggesting that any type of conceptual thought that means to cover up or erase the elemental--any type of thought that seeks to “redeem” the elemental--is doomed by its own idealism.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Aase Berg, With Deer

Here's a good review of Aase Berg's With Deer by Robert Fontella in the online journal Stride:

"The result is that the excessive terror contained within these poems becomes thrilling and by contrast, brightens that which has not yet perished through the recognition of being able to flirt on the macabre edge without being destroyed. It is as if fears themselves can only be recognized through such an intense exploration of the dark. Here in a small book that at first glance might look as polite as any other, Berg has managed to shatter the sanitary aphorism 'from dust to dust' and replace it with the sticky, odorous depiction of 'from muck to muck'"

I like the concept of "thrilling" as an antidote to the constant idea of "critique." One asks you to stand outside, and one possesses (see recent entries on Possession, Artaud, Durbin's teenage girls). I've been thinking of a post-Bernstein ("The Artifice of Absorption" being one of the essays that really helped me think about what I was doing once upon a time) notion of absorption. One of the problems I have with a lot of contemporary poetics criticism is that it's all this stuff about subverting and critiquing and eluding/breaking down but very little about the "thrilling" and fascinating aspect of poetry.

I watched Jack Smith's "Normal Love" last night. It has this amazing thrill, fascination, saturation, almost occult possession. Possibly my favorite movie of all time. Just mesmerizing. I wrote about the connection of Berg and Smith in my essay on "the gurlesque" that was published in Calaveras.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gulf disaster

Action Books author Brent Hendricks works for an organization called Center for Biological Diversity (he's a legal guy), which is involved in holding BP responsible for the disaster in the gulf, and it has a good web site discussing the matter.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Zambreno's O Fallen Angel

In the past few weeks I’ve read two excellent recently published books--Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel and Clayton Eshleman’s Anticline--and I thought I would discuss them on the blog. At a first glance, the two books seem extremely different, one being a dark novel on the suburbs and the other a collection of poems about the violently metamorphic nature of thought and experience (Eshleman’s continual theme), but both books do share a love for excess, for the grotesque, and both are wonderfully free of the strictures of good taste. I’ll write about Zambreno’s book in this post, and about Eshleman’s book early next week.

It is tempting to read Zambreno’s novel as a satire--and the blurbs on her book suggest that we should--but the text actually has little of the cool comic detachment found in such satirists as Swift and Godard and Flannery O’Conner, that sense that we are looking through a microscope at the lives of various characters. Instead, O Fallen Angel is more of a grotesque parade of certain social “types” and clichés taken to their furthest degree. The book reminds me of early Robert Crumb, a great deal of Jeff Koons, and even some of John Waters, other artists fascinated by the kitschy, grotesque underbelly of American culture. And like those artists, Zambreno finds this kitsch exhilarating. The overriding tone of the novel is oddly joyful; and while the book is very funny, it's not coolly so--in fact, there is nothing cool or classical about this book at all, and the novel in general brings to my mind certain Dogma 95 films where the camera plunges right into the action, making it purposely difficult to get our bearings. There are no establishing shots here.

The most vivid charater in the book is Mommy--though to call her a character is misleading. Rather, she’s the demonstration of the Mommy-principle. She consists of many of the cultural associations that we have of suburban American womanhood from the past fifty years: she loves the color pink (“Think pink! Don’t think at all!”), she’s largely a-sexual, she prides herself on her housekeeping skills, and she believes children should be thoroughly shielded from the world as well as themselves (“It’s best for grandbabies to sit still or they might hurt themselves!”). If anything, there’s something surreally retro about her in our world of Desperate Housewives and Cougar Town, television shows whose humor is premised on how little the sexually confident and stylish suburban female leads have in common with the June Cleaver archetype, and Martha Stewart, whose image relies heavily on her being the uber-mother or grandmother, but who no one, either defenders or detractors, would describe as being docile. Zambreno’s Mommy is a Mommy of cultural free-fall, an American Mommy certainly, but neither exactly of the past nor exactly of the present.

An example of this not-quite-present-not-quite-past quality can be seen in an early passage in the novel that discusses the Mommy’s rising obesity, and the love of butter that is to blame. “Butter in everything!” the Mommy thinks. “Butter and lard! That’s the American way!” A more modern suburban mother would seemingly spread margarine or some other highly processed “fat” on everything; most of the recent health gurus have been trying to get us to go back to butter and lard. But Zambreno, like John Waters, is especially attracted and repulsed by the 50’s image of the mother because, again like Waters, she’s interested in the suburbs at their most hauntingly grotesque. And the association of “Mommy” with “butter” is so strong that Zambreno takes it on anyway, regardless of its retro-ness (or maybe even because of it). And yet she isn’t purely of the 50’s either. She shops at Sam’s Club and names her dog after Laci Peterson. The Mommy here, then, is a POP Mommy, and I see this book as a whole as not so much a condemnation of the suburbs, but rather the suburbs (circa 1951--the present) made into POP art. A few months ago, I wrote a post about how I considered Chelsey Minnis’ Bad Bad to be a POP poetry collection: I see Zambreno’s novel as a prose equivalent to that type of writing. (As I mentioned in that earlier essay, I by no means intend POP here to be a derogatory term. I mean it in the spirit of Deleuze when he said his philosophy was a POP philosophy. POP as a way of writing that doesn’t burrow “deep” but instead is frantically making connections, creating surface effects, and then moving on--a rhizometic method of writing.)

The other characters are POP types too--types written with such force that they become gargoyles. Mommy’s daughter Maggie, for instance, is a “good Catholic Midwestern girl,” and the fallen angel of the title. She leaves her suburban home for the wilds of the city, where she sleeps with brutal young men who look like Marlon Brando and begins to experiment with drugs. She is a slightly older version of Natalie Wood’s iconic Judy in Rebel Without a Cause. Like previous suburban runaways, Maggie feels hollow and alienated. But Zambreno raises the volume to this pain, making it almost Beckett-like in both its extremity and its inclination toward self-satire. She writes, “Maggie is a public wound…O a more tortured soul than Maggie there never was.” She later interestingly thinks, “How lonely it is for Maggie to be so adapted to disguising her SECERT SELF.” And the fact that “secret self” is in bold seems to imply that there is no “secret self” here in the realist sense, but rather the “secret self” certain characters torment themselves over in particular types of melodrama. Not to belabor a point, but it’s a POP “secret self.”

Books like this sometimes fall between the cracks, and I hope this one doesn’t. Some readers, who don’t pick up on the suburban POP-gothic sensibility of this book, might find the characters too familiar; other readers who simply want a book to attack suburban lifestyles, SUV’s, red state mentalities, and other soft targets could overlook where the real energy of the book is coming from--i.e. its wonderful Crumbian/Koonsian eye for the acutely ugly, the kitschy, and the American grotesque.

gurlesque review

There's an interesting review of the Gurlesque anthology over at Galatea.

It's largely a collection of quotes about the subject matter. There are a few by me, some of which I don't remember writing. I think the one about Chelsey Minnis and "shock" is good.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Carter and Poe

I’ve frequently wondered: why isn’t Angela Carter more widely read in the States? She was friends with Rushdie, who wrote a moving essay about her at the time of her death, and she seems to still be read seriously in England in general. But here she’s a cult figure at best (with Rick Moody being the only writer that I know of to continually name her as an influence--and I think he studied with her for a time too).

I suspect it has something to do with the various reasons Poe has always been more appreciated in Europe and Latin America than in the States. Borges, Cortazar, Nabokov, and Bolano have all talked about Poe’s influence--Bolano even said in one interview that as a youth there was a time when all he read was Poe--but here he seems to be thought of as generally too decorative, too morbid, too artificially Baroque, too “European,” too art-for-art’s sake. The anti-Whitman. (Which isn’t exactly fair: Whitman could have a very dark side too.) Borges loved Poe’s fascination with mysteries, and with the weirder side of the occult, along with Poe’s penchant for logic games; Nabokov liked Poe’s sense of literary self-awareness, his way of making his works self-consciously constructed objects; Bolano was influenced by Poe’s fascination with art and crime, or the artful crime.

Carter shared with Poe a love for an incredibly “poetic” style, her stories and novels teeming with monstrous, beautiful imagery, as well as his way of blending the negative with the ecstatic (sexual, intellectual, even gastronomic). One of my favorite Carter novels is The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and one of my favorite sections is about “the Count” and his mysterious valet. The Count is a mixture of de Sade, Huysmans, and Vincent Price: “He has scarcely an element of realism and yet he was quite real. He could say nothing that was not grandiose. He claimed he lived only to negate the world.” At one point, the narrator and the Count go to a brothel called the House of Anonymity, a place of hallucinatory and nightmarish excess (one of the chambers is called “The Bestial Room”), and where the madam wears “a mask of supple, funereal black leather like the masks worn by old-fashioned executioners.” I especially love the phrase “the old-fashioned” masks. She and Poe, like the Surrealists, had a strong taste for discarded fashions and discredited ideas. And there’s something subversive in that taste, a contrarian desire to not want to go along quietly with pervading social trends, with the neatly linear notion of history, etc.

Lee Edelman's Birds, Sweden, Girls, the webzine Lacker

So I wrote that post below about Lee Edelman's analysis of the birds and Aase Berg and a possible female spin on that interpretation. Turns out there's a much better piece of writing about femininity and The Birds and Edelman in the briliant Swedish ultra-gurlesque, Acker-y literary journal Lacker (and also a very pun-heavy journal).

There's a great piece called "I have nothing to do with birds" by Aylin Bloch Boynukisa, which, if I with my mental disorders is reading it correctly, is in fact a kind of story about Lee Edelman's interpretation of The Birds!

There is all this cut-up stuff from The Birds and Edelman's interpretation of the movie and then there are italic sections between these section where a character named "Lee" publishes a book about birds and children. Here's one section:

[roughly translated:]
"Lee works on his book. It's going to be a great success. It's possible to imagine that he already knows that, even though he's also a little sad. It's easy to get a little sad deep in one's heart and write Fuck the Pope Fuck the Child Fuck the Future so that someone will be guaranteed to fall down pladask. On the book's cover Lee is going to press the children's pig-pale chopped-up faces and the book's title agianst white and green-cool background. One gets nauseous so easily."

I haven't really processed the piece but it seems to be a critique of Edelman, accusing him of dreaming of a "future-free" utopia and engaging in sensationalism and the birds become female(like in my guinea pig analysis) and the girl-child from Bodega Bay is transformed from Cathy into Kathy (Acker?). I love this story. I'll have to translate the entire piece for Action, Yes.

If you can read Swedish, definitely go to the web site and read it. Also, the second issue has a rewrite of Alice in Wonderland by Sara Tuss Efrik, whose work I've clammored about here on this blog before. She's the one who sent me the link to the journal.

All I want to do is read this journal.

"It's about this thing of being a girl. It's about this thing of being a bird. To sex-lessly rush straight up towards the sky and disappear into the scream. To turn around but not to return."

Brillian t.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Killing Kanoko

[There's a pretty amazing review of Killing Kanoko in the new issue of Rain Taxi, written by Sarah Fox and Lucas de Lima. In fact Hiromi Ito was very taken by it; says it's one of the best things ever written about her work. This is an excerpt (of course I chose the excerpt for its reference to Lady Gaga. I will respond to it more intelligently in the future when I have some time. Buy the book here by the way.]

LdL: Yes, there’s a highly oral, aural, and visionary quality to Itō’s lines, as if they were being transmitted to and through her in real time. Simultaneous rather than linear, Itō’s spatiotemporal reach evokes the shaman as much as the pregnant body. Porous are the boundaries between speaker and subject in her poetry. Take the first poem “Harakiri,” in which homoeroticism foregrounds the ritual suicide by disembowelment that, having once caused Yukio Mishima’s death, now excites a certain Mr. O (the moniker, of course, is a throwback to that classic of S&M literature, The Story of O). Mr. O, we gather from translator Jeffrey Angles’s annotations, acts out scenes of harakiri for erotic pleasure. The speaker, initially merely witness to this subcultural eroticism, seems to occupy Mr. O’s subjectivity through the immediacy of the final lines: the first- and third-person pronouns suddenly disappear in a “weird and kinky” identification/obliteration of voyeur and queer exhibitionist. Ushering in the masturbatory ending, after all, is the line "He said he could commit harakiri face-to-face with a woman, he'd be in seventh heaven." Perhaps the speaker joins her subject through what Saint Genet’s version of shamanism would look like—a sadomasochistic avowal, on all fronts, of sexuality and its regulatory construction. So, participation and perversion. In a way, Itō is very Lady Gaga.

SF: Talk about bad romance! She does share Gaga’s affection for grotesque parody and erotic hyperbole, no doubt. I felt the influence of Kali on the poems’ trajectory of shameless destruction: anarchy as the catalyst for radical transformation. (I’m thinking especially of depictions in which Kali, wearing a necklace of skulls, stands triumphantly on the head of Shiva, her tongue sticking out with irreverent insouciance.) The more redemptive outcomes of destructive events emerge in the book’s final piece, “I Am Anjuhimeko,” which is Itō’s retelling of a Japanese folktale. Originally recited by traveling storytellers, the tale was only recently written down, having been transmitted telepathically, “over 20 centuries,” through a spiritual medium. In this story, a young girl is confronted with a series of horrific tasks—in Itō’s version they involve attempted murder and multiple rapes by various manifestations of the father/taskmaster—on her quest towards shamanic initiation. The story has, in a sense, three narrators—the girl Anjuhimeko, her original storytellers, and the medium, all inhabiting the “I.” By retelling this story, Itō adjoins to the polymorphous “I,” and declares her allegiance to mediumistic and oral forms. Over and over again, the narrator asserts, “I am Anjuhimeko,” a sustained projective identification. The allegorical resonance of Anjuhimeko’s narrative allows Itō to assemble a simulacrum of the book’s collective voice and demonstrate how the mythic mirrors and absorbs the autobiographical. She speaks as both mother and daughter in the narrative’s assorted embodiments of those roles, and consequently recontextualizes, if not converts, the annihilating energy of her more personal revelations—the meaning of destruction in the preceding poems is renegotiated. ”I Am Anjuhimeko,” and hence the book, resolves in gratification: “all I have is language, I respond with language, I respond, and as I respond, I sense the desire of the leech-child I carry on my back slowly being satisfied.” The leech-child is Anjuhimeko’s symbol of salvation—the offspring of a yamanba (trickster witch).

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Cute Death Drive: Aase Berg and Hitchcock

Aase Berg's guinea pig poems from her first book, Hos Radjur, has been the subject of much writing, both in Sweden and here in the US, both by me and others. I think the reason for that is that it's a spellbinding work, but also, for me at least, it brings together a lot of ideas that I find interesting, and models a poetics that runs very much counter to a lot of contemporary American poetics. So excuse me if I add my two cents to the already voluminous commentary on these poems.

In her essays about the poems (there are two of them), "From Cosmos to Cosmetics: Aase Berg's Guinea Pigs and Girly Kitsch," Lara Glenum (contributor to this blog) brings in several of these interesting ideas. She invokes Daniel Tiffany's article, "Kitsching the Cantos" and the tradition of Modernist thinkers who used the "fakeness" of kitsch as the other which they defined the heroic High Modernists against (something Silliman still does). She also invokes Sinai Ngai's brilliant little essay on "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde," where Ngai argues that there's an implicit violence in the cute. Following Ngai, Lara argues that the guinea pig poems explores the sadism of "the girl," a figure usually thought pure etc.


In her study of contemporary Swedish poetry, *Jag sjalv ett hus av ljus*, critic Asa Beckman - who seems to on the whole, at least previously to this book, have been pretty opposed to Berg - gives a more Kristeva-ish reading of Berg: "Aase Berg's poetry is discomforting because it lacks borders (or limits - granser). It's hard to say what kind of poem she writes. She works with the dissolution of genres and mixes wildly different types of poetic styles." Perhaps more interesting (in light of discussions about "hybrids" and such in contemporary American poetry, especially Mark W's sci-fi trope of monstruous hybridity in his AWP talk) Beckman writes about Berg's two first books (With Deer and Dark Matter): "two collections that mix nature imagery, science fiction, fantasy and modern science into a sort of abonormal hybrid poem. "The perverse nature continued to take place," she writes in her debut. In her poetry, it's not just nature but all of existence that is perverse and monstruous." (115)(This recalls Jordan's claim that "Berg is infatuated with the intense perversity of the world.")


Another thread of thought familiar to readers of this blog was James Pate's recent entry on "possession" in Kate Durbin and Antonin Artaud: a poetics so diametrically opposed to most prevailing poetics of contemporary American poetry (the anti-absorption stance of "critical distance," the authenticity-realness stance of quietism). What Durbin has in common with Aase is that they take the Artaud and forges it with The Excorcist, b-movie horror flicks, to produce a gurlesque-ing of femininity.


But mostly what it makes me think about is Lee Edelman's book "No Future," and in particular its discussion about Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." So I thought I would say something about that now.

Edelman's book - which was actually first suggested to me on this blog, I think by Jasper Bernes, a while back - has been a very generative text for me; in so many ways his discussion of queerness overlap with my own ideas of the foreigner/the immigrant/translation (which is why I think Jasper suggested the book to me).

The basic argument of the book is that so much of American culture/politics is based on the idea of what Edelman calls "futurity" and "futurism" - perpetuating the social order. This is emblematized for Edelman in the rhetorical obsession with "the child" - ie both pro-choice and abortion proponents speak about the importance of "the children" and "the future."

In these discussions, the queer figure (either explicit or implicit, and I should add, Edelman's examples are very frequently foreign as well, as in the spy in "North by Northwest") represents a rejection of futurity (including constructive "critiques"). Rather than try to become acceptable, Edelman argues that Queers should embrace this otherness, this "no future" position as a protest. Also in this refusal he finds a connection to a near-Lacanian notion of "jouissance" and the death drive.

"The ups and downs of political fortune may measure the social order's pulse, but queerness, by contrast, figures, outside and beyond its political symptoms, the place of the social order's death drive: a place, to be sure, of abjection expressed in the stigma, sometimes fatal, that follows from reading that figure literally, and hence a place from which liberal politics strives - and strives quite reasonably, given its unlimited faith in reason - to dissociate the queer. More radically, though, as I argue here, queerness attains its ethical values precisely insofar as it accedes to that place, accepting its figural status as resistance to the viability of the social while insisting on the inextricability of such resistance from every social structure." (3)

Edelman also insists that this is not a "position" (sounds like made for American poetry with all of its futuritious moralizings) from which some "good" will come: "The embrace of queer negativity, then, can have no justification if justification requires it to reinforce some positive social value; its value, instead, resides in its challenge to value as defined by the social, and thus in its radical challenge to the very value of the social itself." (6)

Queerness for Edelman is not a positive identity but a disturbing of identity:

"queerness undoes the identities through which we experience ourselves as subjects, insisting on the Real of a jouissance that social reality and the futirism on which it relies have already foreclosed... Queerness, therefore, is never a matter of being or becoming but, rather, of embodying the remainder of the Real internal to the Symbolic order. One name for this unnameable remainder, as Lacan describes it, is jouissance, sometimes trnslated as "enjoyment": a movement beyond the pleasure principle, beyond the distinctions of pleasure and pain, a violent passage beyodn the bounds of identity, meaning and the law." (25)

Now obviously a lot of people have problem with this stance, but I think it's very interesting and offers interesting ways of reading various films, poems and art.


(Interestingly, as far as the "Gurlesque Debate" about Queerness, Lara's insistence of "embracing the disease" and questioning identities is in fact a very "queer" strategy in Edelman's definition.)


Back to Aase Berg. Or rather: Back to Edelman's reading of Hitchcock's "The Birds" (Only coincidentally my favorite movie of all time), which to me suggests a reading of Berg's guinea pig poems. Actually, I intuited this connection a long time ago, but I couldn't quite get beyond the repetition, the b-movie quality, the violence-ification of childhood innocence. So here's Edelman's reading in short (you should read the entire thing, it's pretty brilliant):

Edelman begins with the critical reaction to the movie: a pervasive rejection of the "useless" quality of the film, the overwhelming "slugging" of the senses, and its rejection of any "future" or meaning. Everyone in the film already ask obsessively: Why are the birds attacking? Nobody - least of all Hitchcock himself - seem capable of answering the question. On some level, the birds seem to signify their own failure to become an allegory.

But Melanie explains in one scene: the birds are "after the children." But they are, Edelman notes, also associated with children throughout the film (not the least in their screechings). The child assures heterosexual reproduction and meaning; but the movie blends the child with the death drive birds. The birds are "the arbitrary, future-negating force of a brutal and mindless drive." And: "the violent undoing of meaning, the loss of identityand coherence, the unnatural access to jouissance..."


Like The Birds, Berg gives us a "natural" place rendered unnatural by (in Edelman's words) "unnatural cinematic effects" (in his review of With Deer, Jordan notes the cinematic aspect of this work). As in the movie, the guinea pigs connect to both the child and that violent, brutal repetition of drive, turning an emblem of childhood into a nightmarish creature (and in one of the poems, rendering the sister into a corpse-girl). As in the film, the lover seem separate, pushed away from each other, from coupling in a heterosexual union (they run around in the gross corridors of the guinea pigs but can't get away, he becomes a "traitor" to the heterosexual union).

However, the poem puts in interesting spin on this model, one might say a female spin: because the compulsive drive in fact does give birth: incredibly quickly and grotesquely. The entire space of the "cave" becomes a female body, a female body-space that in the end envelops the lovers and turns the lover into a guinea pig (his body, his organs becoming guinea pig), contaminated by the queer/feminine (not mystique but) jouissance/repetitive childbirth.

On some level this turns Edelman's argument on its head, but on another level it makes perfect sense. And here I think of Joyelle's "Future of Poetry" piece (previously posted on this blog a few months ago): the idea of natural child, the natural mother vs the gothic mother. Birth is supposed to be the site of origin, the beginning of the narrative that moves us forward (to the future). But here there's not one birth but multiple births that are so repetitive, and incomplete that we don't get a birth so much as a queering of birth itself. It reworks birth as a place more than a time and collapses the depiction of feminity/masculinity. In many ways it becomes the unnatural motherhood that Joyelle talks about (of course Aase is very much influenced by Artaud and her time with the Stockholm Surrealists and he is one of the key figures in Joyelle's talk).


Another important distinction seems to be the joy of the poem, the ecstasy is even harder to distinguish from pain, disgust, violence than in the Hitchcock (where the birds are pretty bad, harder to get joy from).


And perhaps most importantly: what brings the birds and guinea pigs together is something like the spasmodic movements of both text and animals: the spasm here is the spasm of jouissance...


... I don't know but that's what I'm thinking about right now... Bringing together kitsch, cute children and death drive... That and my cutting disorders...