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

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

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

[numbered sections 1-5 appeared earlier – here – in Poems and Poetics]

Martí again: “The trees must form ranks to keep the giant with seven-league boots from passing!

An ever intriguing model for our global/local/loco poetics, is the Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid, not the name he was born with but the name he aspired to, who was thrown out of the Scots nationalist party, despite his poetic work in synthetic Scots dialect, for being too international; and thrown out of the communist party for being too localist.

In her collection of Mapuche poets, Elicura Chihuailaf writes that “Poetry does not merely safeguard the cultural identity of a people, it generates it.” In this way, Chihuailaf emphasizes the productive forces of poetry in contrast to the reproductive reflexes of cultural theory. A poetics of the Americas would be less concerned with analyzing the themes and cultural narratives produced in Spanish and English fiction than in listening for – and composing – a collage of distinct language practices across the Americas. In replacing theme and system – “comparison” and “symbology” in Olson’s terms -- with overlays, palimpsests, and collage, I am suggesting that we conceptualize our Americas as a hypertextual or syncretic constellation, with alphabetic, glyphic, and a/oral layers. A constellation is an alternative model for understanding what is often characterized as fragmentation, parataxis, isolation, insularity, atomization, and separate development. Hypertextuality maps a syncretic space that articulates points of contact and that potentiates both spatial connections among discrepant parts and temporal overlays that merge or melt into one another.

The Mapuche volume’s palimpsestic approach emerges directly from the material conditions of the poetics of the Americas: not multiculturalism, but what Chihuailaf usefully calls (in Bierhorst’s English translation of the original Spanish text of this Mapudungun-speaking poet): interculturalism. Indeed, this book is in three languages: English, Spanish and Mapudungun (the language of the Mapuche). Mapudungun is the most recent of the three language to be alphabetized, that is, to be transliterated into writing. At first I was confused as to why no translator was listed for the Spanish, but then I realized it was taken for granted that the poets represented in Mapudungun had made their own translations, or more likely worked bilingually in both languages, perhaps moving back from the Spanish into Mapudungum as much as going from a fully original Mapudungum and translated into Spanish, as if it were a foreign language. Perhaps what makes this indigenous for our Americas is not the single strand of the Mapudungum but the braided layers of the aboriginal, the colonial, the immigrant: specifically the joining of any two against a third, which is perceived to be the greater threat. Recall Rothenberg’s lines – a “jew among / the indians.”

Martí speaks of us as laboring with “English breeches, Parisian vest, North America jacket, and Spanish cap [as the] Indian hover[s] near us in silence,” and goes on to emphasize the necessity of rejecting racism by acknowledging not only those here before the Europeans but also those who were violently wrenched from Africa for a rough landing in a New World, those who sojourn “alone and unrecognized among the rivers and wild animals.” Marti is at pains to not the erase of the personhood of those brought to the Americas as slaves. But he also registers that the new worlds of our Americas require an ecopoetics, as Jonathan Skinner proposes in his magazine of that name.

In the imaginary space of our Americas, none has sovereignty, either of suffering or land, for sovereignty is reserved for the ghosts and the wind, which are forever lost both to and in time.

The poetics of the Americas has for hundreds of years been creating syncretic indigenous languages distinct from the received dictions of the languages of conquest or emigration: indigenous in the sense of born in a region, originating in a place. The place of here, the time of now: necessarily a crossroads.

That’s why I would stress, in looking for the threads that interconnect the poetries of the Americas, innovation and over refinement, as a way to register how important ingenuity has been for our Americas. That is, the points of contact that we may find in our mutual inhabitations of the Americas may not be in how we have extended and refined a poetic language we have inherited, for example from Europe, from London’s English or Madrid’s Spanish, or Lisbon’s Portuguese, but rather how these poetries have worked to disrupt the ascent of a literature of refinement and assimilation.

I hope this may suggest a response to a criticism, often heard, to proposals for expanding the study of American literature to the literature of the Americas. If American, in the sense of U.S., literature is understood as an extension or development of earlier, primarily British literature, then we need, necessarily, to look first to the earlier literature of England to understand our own. This is a primary rationale behind the structure of the English department, where the teaching of U.S. literature was itself a hard won battle in the earlier part of the last century. I say U.S., not North American, literature because U.S. English Department’s have paid scant attention to either Canadian or Mexican literature, which are seen, at best, as collateral to, rather than foundational for, the development of U.S. literature.

In a recent essay, Frank Davey points out how few points of contact there have been between U.S. and Canadian poets and almost entirely in after 1950. When they have occurred, these confluences have allowed poets on both sides of the border to put forward a set of shared aesthetic and political engagements against more conservative, if not nativist, poetic positions in their own countries. At the same time, the official narratives of the national poetries of each country have largely been traced as separate and disconnected:

Always latent in Canadian culture are the facts that Canada’s roots began in dissent from the US, and that Canada has been repeatedly re-affirmed by US citizens themselves as the alternate North American nation. … Canada’s first wave of English-speaking immigrants were United Empire Loyalist refugees from the American Revolutionary War. Canada’s formation as a nation in 1867 was in part a response to the large US armies created by the Civil War. Just as Canadian governments have been restricted by this complex cultural history in the extent to which they have been able to affiliate themselves with US policies, Canadian poets have necessarily been both unconsciously and consciously selective in their associations with US poetries and poetics. In general, Canadian poets have avoided association with hegemonic US poetries or poetries that have celebrated the US nation. [“Canadian Poetry and its Relationship to US Poetry,” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry, 2006]

As Roland Greene argues, the need to reform the disciplinary boundaries of literary study, and move toward what he calls “New World Studies” is urgent. See especially his essay “New World Studies and the Limits of National Literatures” (Stanford Humanities Review, 6:1, 1998), from which I have taken the epigraph from Andrade’s "O trovador":

For new world studies the contact zone is not only the literal places of cultural encounter, but the concatenated spaces where worlds—that is, intellectual or spiritual systems represented by versions through which they can be understood or evaluated—move into critical relation with each other; the coming into play of the term and the concept of "world" is vital to the enterprise.

A syncretic poetics of ingenuity and invention, of collage and palimpsest, is averse to the accumulative and developmental model of literature still reigning in the U.S. literary academy (and elsewhere in the Americas). If we think of literature as developing through cross-fertilization and cannibalization, toward the invention of a synthetic indigenous, of new worlds, then we may find it necessary to consider parallel poetries rather than causal poetries: coincidence will become more significant to us than lineage, points of contact more resonant than common origin. Or anyway: a s   s i g n i f i c a n t. This is why Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s notation of the synchronicity of New York’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-1981) and Buenos Aires’s Xul (1980-1997) is so appealing: it makes no claim to influence, to cause and effect; these are simultaneous developments, yet structurally and poetically related, even twined. (See Livon-Grosman’s “The Questioning of the Americas” in 99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium, which I edited for boundary 2 in1999, which is the starting point for my reflections here.)

The poetics of the Americas that I am imagining is not about comparisons: it is about encounter, and change through the encounter; for if you are the same after such a meeting, then there was no encounter.

The project of America – of the Americas – is a process not yet complete, a process that shall never be finished.

For when it’s finished, it’s over.

Our Americas is still in progress: as a talk, an experiment, an essay. Then again perhaps our Americas is a formal procedure, a hypothesis or conditional, requiring aesthetic intervention, seat-of-the-pants ingenuity, and other-worldly reinvention. And this is why, it could just be, that we see the possibilities of our Americas most acutely in poetry: our poetics viewed under the sign of our exchange.


Anonymous said...

It's over

William A. Sigler said...

The great American assimilation machine absorbs poetry right along with local cultures, of course, but such homogenization creates in the dispossessed a negation that opens space for an alternative. It poisons the mushrooms so that Maria Sabina can learn to heal them with words. That’s the secret of the great creative outpourings the Americas continue to unleash. But one must be extremely careful with this line of thinking, for the truly inassimilable belongs to a personal space that can’t be contextualized, where the negation is a closing on the door of possibility, not the allowing of something because of its impossibility.

“Palimpsestic” is a lovely word, but I’m not sure how parallel the “experiment in exchange” circuits run, with LatAm elites (de Andrade, the Noigandres, XUL, to name a few named in the essay) espousing/subverting Anglo-European modernist causes, Canadians carrying on a one-sided dialogue with U.S. hegemony, and not too many U.S. poets gasping with Celan “O Augen der Stadt, wo ich stürzte und súdwarts geschleift ward!” (O eyes of the city, where I fell and was dragged southward), awestruck at, say, Loxa Jiménes Lopés or the Incan Ikaros singers. The academic hedgehogs can adjust the packaging to canonize/colonize the periphery all they want, but “calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen throw flowers” (Dylan). I put my money on the Hopi to remember the original language better than Sumerian scholars, anyway. (Speaking of scholars, I may be jaded but I would expect someone who wants to be a “New World” scholar (Greene) to at least know that Colon (“Columbus”) was a trick played on the Spanish by the Portuguese.) Yes, “inconsolable coexistances” (Bernstein), 1st-world cocaine vs. 3rd-world coca leaves, with hypertextuality another manifestation of a peculiar destiny to make available at one’s fingertips all the information one needs to keep ones beliefs unchallenged. Yes, it’s a direct engagement with the sum total of all human knowledge but it’s all within the confines of one’s movie (if one is lucky enough to own a studio/videocam).

My point, I guess, is that the tyranny of the reader inheres in his ignorance, not his skill. A point often missed when crime-scene detectives wonder how truth escaped again Houdini-like the confines they had laid.