To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Charles Bernstein: Our Americas: New Worlds Still in Progress (Part One)

First published in a Spanish translation by Ernesto Livon-Grosman in S/N: New World Poetics 1 (2010) [] and included in Bernstein's Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions just out from University of Chicago Press.

“The conceited villager believes the entire world to be his village.”
– José Martí, “Our America

“Sou um tupí tangendo um alaúde!”
(I am a Tupí strumming a lute!)
– Mário de Andrade's "O trovador" ("The Troubadour")

“Tupy, or not tupy that is the question.”
– Oswald de Andrade, “Anthropophagite Manifesto”

One day I want to write an essay called The Americas Still in Process. In this essay, I would explore the still-imaginary cultural space of a “poetics of the Americas” in terms of José Martí’s “Our America” and Emerson’s “moral perfectionism.” My discussion of moral perfectionism, indebted to Stanley Cavell, would no doubt lead to a declaration of interdependence: that the poetics of the Americas cannot be complete, for if we ever arrive at its end, we will have destroyed its promise to be ongoing, regenerating, and self-cannibalizing.

In this essay I would proclaim, like a Dada Edgar Poe dreaming of Nicolàs Guillén doing Google searches, that the poem of the Americas does not exist. For the Americas is an imaginary cultural space whose mutant and multiform manifestations are as evanescent as the last breaths of a dying tongue.

& then I’d say that this is why the imperative for the poets of the Americas – contra conventional wisdom – has been to tell rather than show. For, telling is the task, as Langston Hughes calls us, of a people “in transition.”

In his 1972 anthology Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, Jerome Rothenberg articulates, with comic force, a problem that remains a central issue as we move, in the U.S., from an American poetics to a poetics of the Americas:

“For a period of twenty-five years, say, or as long as it takes a new generation to discover where it lives, take the Greek epics out of the undergraduate curricula. & replace them with the great American epics. Study the Popul Vuh where you now study Homer, and study Homer where you know study the Popul Vuh – as exotic anthropology, etc.” (Pre-faces, p. 175)

Rothenberg here echoes the sentiments of José Martí in “Our America,” eighty years earlier:

The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in clear detail and to the letter, even if the archons of Greece are overlooked. Our Greece must take priority over the Greece which is not ours. We need it more.

Rothenberg’s two early anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred (1967) and Shaking the Pumpkin (1972) insisted on the immediate (rather than simply historical or anthropological) relevance of the "tribal" poetries of Native Americans (on both American continents), Africans, and peoples of Oceania. As such, they should be read as crucial poetic documents of the 1960s and 70s, works that accelerated a reconceptualization of American poetry as a poetics of the Americas. Rothenberg presented a concerted assault on the primacy of Western high culture and an active attempt to find, in other, non-Western/non-Oriental cultures, what seemed missing from our own. Moreover, the "recovery" of Native American culture by a Jewish Brooklyn-born first-generation poet-as-anthologist (in Rothenberg's words -- "a jew among / the indians"), whose aesthetic roots were in the European avant-garde, implicitly acknowledges our domestic genocide, on both continents of the Americas, as part of the process of recovery from both Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

Rothenberg's anthologies investigate a pluricultural grounding for the Americas, just as they explicitly reject Eurosupremacism from within a European perspective. At the same time Rothenberg’s work is notable for rejecting outright the popular, but nonetheless demagogic, rejection of Europe and Europeanness among U.S. poets, that is, for rejecting Europe in favor of an idealized and singular "America."

The singular, unitary idea of American literature is based on a set of often violent Anglonormative erasures: of pre-Conquest cultures, of the Middle Passage, of the languages of immigration, and of newly emerging tongues.

In 1951, Charles Olson’s visit to the Yucatan inspired a significant and influential move toward a Poetics of the Americas, the most important, among U.S. poets, in the years immediately following the Second World War. Olson’s expansive rejection of the trap of what Robin Blaser, in an essay on Olson, calls “The Western Box,” both echoes Marti and anticipates Rothenberg:

It is not the Greeks I blame. What it comes to is ourselves, that we do not find ways to hew to experience as it is, in our definition and expression of it, in other words, find ways to stay in the human universe, and not be lead to partition reality at any point, in any way. For this is just what we do, this is the real issue of what has been, and the process, as it now asserts itself, can be exposed. It is the function, comparison, or its bigger name, symbology. These are the false faces, too much seen, which hide and keep from use the active intellectual states, metaphor and performance. [“Human Universe,” in Collected Prose, p 157]

Olson went on to articulate a poetics of place that rejects the metaphysical in favor of the historical and particular. Coming into direct contact with Our Americas, he realized that the way in is not by analogy but through a process of active juxtaposition that produces a third term.

Our Americas is a performance.

I want to insist on the word Americas not just to encompass North and South America, but also as a way to register the multiplicity of our senses of America, as a way of registering this multiplicity, not comparison, as foundational for the poetics of our Americas.

In Ül: four mapuche poets, ed. Cecilia Vicuña, tr. John Bierhorst (Pittsburgh: Poetry in Indigenous Languages Series, Latin American Literary Review Press,1998), Vicuña quotes Jorge Teiller: “… my weapon against the world is another vision of the world” (21). What poetry lacks in efficacy it makes up for in conceptual power, Blake’s “Mental Fight.” Or, as Martí puts it in “Our America”: “ … weapons of the mind, which conquer all others. Barricades of ideas are worth more than barricades of stones.”

No issue has dogged poetry so much in the past two decades as identity – national, social, ethnic, racial, and local. Like the Americas, identity is always plural. And like the Americas, identity is necessarily, a priori, syncretic and braided, indeed, self-cannibalizing, as surely as the DNA that flows in our psyches and concatenates our mental projections.

In developing not only our thinking of a poetics of the Americas but also, far more importantly, in our activities in creating a poetics of Americas we would do well to keep in mind Teiller’s remark, that we are creating another vision of the world, one that in its globalism does not follow the dictates of the World Trade Organization and World Bank and in its localism does not become the site of the creation of strange fruits for export, but rather commits itself to a cannibalizing process of self-creation, as first defense against the “Western Box.” A possibility never better set out than in Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Anthropophagite – cannibalism – Manifesto:

Only anthropophagy unites us. …

Against all importers of canned consciousness. The palpable existence of life. And the pre-logical mentality for Mr. Levi Bruhl to study. …

Against the truth of missionary peoples, defined by the sagacity of an anthropophagite …

But they who came were not crusaders. They were fugitives from a civilization that we are eating, because we are strong and vengeful as a Jabuti.
[Tr. Adriano Pedrosa and Veronica Cordeiro]



Conrad DiDiodato said...


you might like John B. Lee's translations of Marti in "Sweet Cuba".

William A. Sigler said...

The word “cannibalism” is only a term of erasure in the denotation used by Anglo cultural imperialism, as a practice “primitive” and “barbaric.” It is also, in a more local sense (not necessarily de Andrade’s sense), a term of openness, in that eating someone is the highest honor one can bestow, a merging. I’d like to believe we Euro-gringos can do a better job with the mummies, aluxes and animal transmigrations of the Americas than we did with the goddess religions, mystery schools and metaphysical underpinnings of the Greeks. Cultures die when rituals do, and our history is to prefer them dead so we can inhabit them. Olson was all over this, calling it “eatable shit” and he would be there with the archeologists now digging deeper than they are supposed to go, knowing that the closest things to our lives are those most hidden. And a Dada Poe googling Nicolas Guillen would know todos somos mestizos, identity is only elusive because the truth is.

Sympathy said...

Great read! Look forward to the continuation...