(This is the fourth in a series of reviews focused on titles released by the Oakland-based small press/poetry cult Timeless, Infinite Light. TIL is currently on a West Coast tour.)
by Christine Holm
In her Poetry Foundation interview with Sara Wintz, poet Zoe Tuck discussed that as she worked on her chapbook Terror Matrix, she
was reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain which is about how the experience of pain is this universal experience but it remains very undescribed and she talks about a lot of really heavy stuff like torture and war and what those do and then she moves to creativity and poetry and what that can do. I was reading that, I was reading a lot of Beckett and thinking about being a U.S. citizen and being complicit in a lot of nasty governmental extracurriculars. I knew that in part that story wasn’t my story to tell, but I was trying to talk about being complicit in that. But it only fails. In a way that’s interesting. It’s poetry.
Complicity is a notion I seemed to return to time and again when I sat down with Tuck’s new release from Oakland’s Timeless, Infinite Light Press. Nearing the end of the collection is “[pretend some business],” a piece filled with prefixes of negation, un– this and no that, don’t and isn’t and without. In the margins, I scribbled: such refusal, such not-quite-understanding of what is ‘un’natural; things out of proportion, out of expectation and the questions, really, become – why, and, why must these things be done?
Not yet an answer, but a complication from the poem which follows, the poem which begins:
The build here amounted to more marginalia – the thinking through of what struck me so about Tuck’s poetry. For now: how stealthily these poems work, relying so much on preconceived notions many of us, however thoughtful we might like to see ourselves, don’t sit down and examine. With that, Tuck weaves her poems which are at once felt full of a sense of the automatic, winding, moving observantly at a steady pace. At the same time, we are reminded Tuck doesn’t spill herself on the page and walk away, leaving readers to make sense of the arcs and lines of written language. Moments when we can glimpse some of her craft’s structure are where we feel most invited in, perhaps not to struggle with her, but enough to make sure we remember we’re reading someone bare here, and that the access we are being offered – goodness, what a privilege.
This synergy is felt wonderfully with the closing of “[i have one job]” –
The focus of our collective gaze turns from mystery of the invited intruder to love, to love, to action. By letting our focus shift, we were made complicit in the crime, and not so unhappily, with Tuck as our guide, our binoculars.
With this language of kinds of torture, of war, of, at the very least, wounds or what wounds do, complicit was an easy and ready word which felt full, captivated, in my synapses as they sparked against the sounds of Tuck’s poems.
Until I realized how perfectly wrong the term was.
A quiet part of the project with Terror Matrix is sussing out a feeling of how to be a citizen in a war-time country where we often feel neither responsible nor terribly involved in choices our government is making. This difficulty is paralleled in how Tuck dealt with understanding Scarry’s The Body in Pain, and the larger project of how Tuck deals with understanding her own body in her own society.
“Complicit,” of course, is all wrong because there is no crime, despite what we’ve been told. When we question our physical structures, the bruises made or the scars our bodies refuse to hold, we’ve done nothing wrong. What Terror Matrix praises is the questioning, binary or otherwise, and the opening of ourselves to uncertainty, to the admittance of unknowing. In her opening poem “[i am compelled to accept your jabs],” Tuck lays out much of the work we will wander around, in and through:
What does it mean to be – feminine? Injured? Privileged? What does it mean? These poems don’t even have to resist a lofty eagerness to keep the reader at bay with philosophical wonderings, they do so with ease. Tuck uses language ranging from technical to colloquial, makes each poem compact in a justified column, and in doing so creates a kind of newspaper clipping. These are broadcasts from the edge of unknowns, but not unreachables.
As Tuck told Wintz in her interview, “sometimes when I’m reading a poem or writing a poem, it solves a problem that I didn’t know existed while rearranging the inside of my body.” These edges, these unknowns – these are the spaces where Tuck calls out to us from – simply, beautifully, to say this is where she is right now.
Terror Matrix is available from Timeless, Infinite Light
Christine Holm began writing poetry while employed in social services and continues to find spaces where creative work overlaps with community service, from writing with palliative care patients through Poesia del Sol to teaching inmates with The Writers in Prison Project.
Part 1 of an email interview conducted with Laura Moriarty regarding her new book, Who That Divines (Nightboat 2014).
ZT: You begin Who That Divines with an epigraph from French feminist Luce Irigaray, who seems to be one of the guiding geniuses of this book. Could you talk about her influence on your work?
LM: As I was writing Who That Divines the project morphed from being called Divination and having to do with chance and with something like magic (in the cheap superstitious sense) to what became a find of feminist diatribe/fairytale. In the first part of the book, the section called “Divination,” I focused a lot on the collages of Bruce Connor as I was writing and I think there is some a feeling of surreality to it. I asked people for sets of words and composed with them (as I had many years ago with some words of Bruce Conner. This is explained in the book I think.) There was an emphasis there on my random encounter with friends and their choosing and sending words. As I was writing, I realized that a kind of feminism was coming out in the work and in my thinking and that I found I could experience it as intensely as I wanted without falling into a kind of speechless anger that used to come over me when I was younger. There was still a spirit of fun about the writing, though, and “Ladybug Laws’ is like femininst fairytale. Then I ran into a book called The Interval by Rebecca Hill. I think it was probably at an MLA and I was very attracted to the title. The book is about Irigaray’s sense of “the interval.” Here is the central passage, taken from the Irigary Reader (p. 167) (and is also p. 1 of Rebecca Hill’s book. )
“The transition to a new age requires a mutation in the perception and conception of space-time, our inhabitation of places and the different envelopes of identity. It assumes and entails an evolution or transformation of forms of the matter-form relationship and of the interval between (them): the trilogy of our constitution of place. Each age assigns limits to this trinity, be they matter, form, interval or power (puissance), act, interval-immediate.”
So Hill writes this whole book about the idea and I write some poems in relation to both writers and I feel , reading it again, like I could write a whole other book because there is so much there. In the event, after I read The Interval with great zeal and, of course, had to reread Irigaray, who I hadn’t thought of since the 80s and had only barely read then. In reading her I discovered I very much like the essentialism that troubled me back in the day or, at least, that people I trusted seemed to reject. Irigaray’s emphasis on the particularity of women, of the feminine, and her sense that “the fix is in,” to use Spicer’s phrase, is absolutely congruent with my experience. The problem for women (or anyone who is non male) is with language and even before language, it is with the foundations of civilization. It is both vexed and an incredible relief to realize that there is nothing you could have done or can do to change this except write against it and assert into it, as she is doing in her work (and, you know, change it.) The suggestion that this is even possible is just by her example rather than what she writes. I came across the phrase “who that divines” in reading her demand, in Sexes and Genealogies, that women invent a new divine, troubling for those of us who don’t believe in a divinity, but fascinating to me. I want to be “free, autonomous, sovereign” even while feeling tragically connected to everything and everyone who is not that. But then I lost the phrase or couldn’t find where I had read it and had urgently to read all around in her work to find it again. So my reading of her was more of a frantic search with moments of fleeting connection than a considered critique. Also, I think that in my response to Irigaray and experiencing this sort of divine hopelessness, I kept the sense of myth and fairytale which, after all, are often entirely tragic. Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market is as central to the “Blood Subject” section of Who That Divines as Irigaray.
ZT: Much of your work proceeds through epigraphs and recombination. With, after, for, and with words from make frequent appearances. What do you think of the idea(l) of a collective voice? Reading A Tonalist, I was struck by the idea that a “single author title” (to be clinical about it) could feel like a curated group show, or be public otherwise than an anthology.
From the Departures I-II/War In Heaven:
We obviously can’t know. We are changed pronominally. We into them and I. Especially “I” thought “I” am not what I was. What am I now? Absolute future. Getting our more or less alive. And what do “I” get? Do I get “you?” For a moment all of the physical assets are on the line. In the line. (92)
or the poem Identity on page 80.
LM: The poetry community and larger community of potential readers is something I am always conscious of writing out of and into. For me writing is very much a conversation or a proposition, a gesture meant to say something like here is this—what do you think? no? what about this? I am more interested in this kind of exchange than in any demonstration of virtuosity or plumbing my emotions or in telling my story–though recently I am interested in my story, partly because as an older person I have had so many lives and so many stories. But then these stories of love, death and politics are the things that we all experience so my desire there is to be common. There are many locations of the commons and the poem seems like one of the best sites to experience or propose commonality– if it is approached in that way. Lately I have been spending more time out in the commons, at the Bay Area Public School, and am fascinated by the possibilities. It is an enormous pleasure to share one’s insanely sensitive sense of language and events with others who are similarly inclined—either in writing or in meeting, teaching etc. The fact that this occurs in person makes it even better. But there is something “in person” about the poem. There are also historical moments of weird connection. “Departures” was written immediately after 9/11 during a time when one felt unwillingly included in a “we” regarded as dangerous by another “we” willing and able to do some real damage. Kazim Ali, my editor at Nightboat, encouraged me to include “Departures” and “An Air Force” in the book. At first I was hesitant, but then I realized why these projects were connected with the other sections and I think it works. “Departures” focuses on war and I grew up in the military during an endless war and was a young woman at a time when 70s feminism was very strong. Including this older material makes Who That Divines almost like a second selected because of the timing of the writing of the various sections over more than a decade.
ZT: What does it mean say “we speak in a human way,” when so many claim/wish to claim some variety of post-human existence? Is this human poetry?
LM: I do read that post human stuff and in my book Nude Memoir was interested in creating a kind of feminine golem who then gets up and walks away (at the time it was necessary for me to reinvent myself and luckily I was off work for a while and could really make a project out of it). And as a science fiction enthusiast I look forward to the singularity (when we and machines will exist in a kind of continuity (if we don’t already). But yeah, human, why not? Another part of that feeling of connectedness. I think “we speak in a human way” is meant to be cajoling, convincing, as if I am speaking as a used car salesmen of the marvelous (I am channeling Jerry Estrin with that phrase). You know, arm around shoulder, “you and I are just humans together and this is an incredible deal.”
Laura Moriarty was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Northern California. She attended the University of California at Berkeley. She was the Director of the American Poetry Archives at the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University for many years. She has taught at Naropa University and Mills College and is now the Deputy Director of Small Press Distribution. She won the Poetry Center Book Award in 1983, a Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation Award in Poetry in 1992, a New Langton Arts Award in Literature 1998 and a Fund for Poetry grant in 2007. Her books include A Tonalist (2010), A Semblance: Selected and New Poems, 1975-2007 (2007), Ultraviolet (2006), Self-Destruction (2005), Nude Memoir (2000), The Case (1998), Spicer’s City (1998), Symmetry (1996), L’Archiviste (1991), Like Roads (1990), and Rondeaux (1990).
Zoe Tuck lives, writes, and reads poetry submissions for HOLD: a journal in Oakland, CA. Her chapbook Terror Matrix was released this Spring by Timeless, Infinite Light. Recent work can also be found in Textsound and Dusie.
A review is a small thing, ephemeral, nothing to duel over, yet in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives an author preemptively challenges a reviewer to a duel for a negative review which he firmly believes the reviewer intends to give his new book. I am safe from Manuel Maples Arce—he died before I was born—but I try to be conscious of the snares of reviewing, one of which is the urge to organize people into movements. Sometimes authors coin movements to assert or create a group identity, or to criticize other authors, but this approach can backfire (see: Impressionism). I’ve done it myself, in print and especially in conversation, so I can see why it’s done. It’s reductive, and small things are easier to handle. Movements are composed of individuals, who might embrace the movement at the time, but who frequently proceed to transgress, renounce, or grow out of it.
And yet, one never merely reads, but always reads in relation to, whether after (the book before) or alongside (other books stuffed in one’s bag) or in advance of (the next book, whether one is reading or writing it). As such, when I prepared to write about Brandon Holmquest’s translation of Manuel Maples Arce’s CITY: Bolshevik Super-Poem in 5 Cantos, I searched for context: Stridentism, the movement Maples Arce co-founded; the Mexican Revolution, ground from which Stridentism sprung; modernismo, the aesthetics against which Stridentists positioned themselves, and European avant-garde Modernists, the Stridentists’ peers. Much of this context can be found in Holmquest’s brief but enlightening notes and afterward, “On Stridentism and the poem,” but I was also left with questions about the reception of CITY, Maples Arce, and Stridentism in the intervening years.
Eighty-one years after Dos Passos first introduced Maples Arce to anglophone audiences, the popularity of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives makes easier Brandon Holmquest’s task of putting Arce’s “Bolshevik Super-Poem” back in this public eye. Much of the novel focuses on the Visceral Realists (a movement based on Infrarealism, which Bolaño co-founded) and their obsession with the Stridentists (Cesárea Tinajero in particular—on this, more later). Bolaño puts a parable into the mouth of his character Iñaki Echevarne which I think makes a good starting point for conversation about CITY:
For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it’s the Readers who keep pace. The journey may be long or short. Then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues on alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path. Then Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey toward solitude. To come near the work, to sail in her wake, is a sign of certain death, but new Criticism and new Readers approach her tirelessly and relentlessly and are devoured by time and speed. Finally the Work journeys irremediably alone in the Great Vastness. And one day the Work dies, as all things must die and come to an end: the Sun and the Earth and the Solar System and the Galaxy and the farthest reaches of man’s memory. Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy. (513)
I think we are at the period in the life cycle of Maples Arce’s work in which it gains new readers and new criticism. Consider CITY’s first two pages in light of contemporary aesthetic and political landscapes:
When Maples Arce speaks like this, I feel him to be a force, or an I empowered to we from the confidence of speaking from a collective energetic body. I wrote that a movement is composed of individuals in order to avoid doing textual violence to Maples Arce. But when a writer asserts revolutionary consciousness, whose operative number is plural, then perhaps the really violent act is to enforce individualism. Maples Arce: “Whose voices are those,/that swim in shadow above me?” (19) and “the scene is inside us” (21). How has this enfolding into plurality moved into Postmodern writing?
Assorted critics as (in)famous as Marjorie Perloff have argued against the notion that experimental literary Modernism changed at some point into experimental literary Postmodernism, in favor of the idea that many writers who self-identify as avant-garde continue to use many of Modernism’s forms and strategies. After a century of use, how advanced can these forms be? However, there is something to be said for the idea that late capitalism does not essentially differ from its earlier form but rather intensifies it. Maples Arce wrote at a time when municipal trolley and rail lines were being bought up and dissolved in favor of buses for the specific purpose of undermining the strength of organized labor. I don’t have to walk very far to see the results of the same process in Oakland. I guess what I’m getting at is that Maples Arce’s world feels more familiar than unfamiliar; likewise his critique. One substantive change from the early 20th century to the early 21st is contemporary writers’ diminished confidence in the efficacy of poetry to effect political change. Maples Arce doesn’t suffer from this lack of confidence: “Tomorrow, perhaps,/only the living fire of my verses/will light these humbled horizons” (11).
Another aspect of Maples Arce’s revolutionary consciousness appears as he repeats: “here is my poem” and as I read it I wondered if this refrain is a way of beginning again, demolishing the previous poem, or whether it corrects or adds to it, like a second story added to a house without permission from the city, but irrefutable in its existence. Ultimately, this repeated phrase emerges as a signal of revolutionary consciousness’s tense: the present progressive. It’s happening. It’s happening, and between precarity’s rock and austerity’s hard place, a new audience arises for whom Maples Arce’s work has relevance, timeliness.
Since Bolaño has sparked interest in recovering or inventing the histories of Infrarealismo for a contemporary readership, other texts have emerged, notably Wave Books’ 2013 publication of Cole Heinowitz and Alexis Graman’s translation of ADVICE FROM 1 DISCIPLE OF MARX TO 1 HEIDEGGER FANATIC and Everybody Suffers: The Selected Poems of Juan García Madero, translated by Matt Longabucco from O’Clock Press. I wonder if the same energy will embolden more translators to take on texts by other Stridentists, such as Germán List Arzubide, Salvador Gallardo, and Arqueles Vela, whose intersection of political radicalism and formally experimentation could provide a model in much the same way as the Paris Commune has for many Bay Area writers.
However, as much as Maples Arce’s city looks familiar so, unfortunately, does the Romantic misogyny creeps from the corners of his poem. He addresses the city, the bay, the continent as women. This is another commonality with other exponents of avant-garde Modernism at the time (and today). I wrote that I would return to Bolaño’s character Cesárea Tinajero, The Savage Detectives’ lost Stridentist, whose absent presence (one published poem) in the limited record of Stridentism so captivates the Visceral Realists that they go in quest of her. As I read the novel, I found this act of devotion to be inconsistent with my general sense of many poetry communities’ entrenched misogyny, whether directed toward the women in these communities or toward poetic ancestors who are at a heightened risk of being lost. In Rashkin’s The Stridentist Movement in Mexico, she discusses the relationship of Stridentists to women:
The Stridentists embraced the New Woman much as they embraced the automobile and the airplane, but that did not mean that their relationships were much different than those of men and women in the past. Thus, even though the Stridentists considered themselves to be on the cutting edge of culture, neither liberal feminism nor the women’s rights agenda of the radical left entered their radar. (138)
However, leveling charges like these across culture and time requires great sensitivity. I believe that we must acknowledge that Maples Arce and co., already othered in the US racial imaginary by being Mexican, are susceptible to more intense scrutiny around these issues. Thus, I enjoin contemporary poets and readers to ask: how can we challenge ourselves to learn from the poetic revolutionary consciousness of writers like Maples Arce while simultaneously perceiving and acting against misogyny embedded in today’s literary cultures, especially ones which aspire to radicalism?
However, this is certainly not a critique of Holmquest’s translation, which stands in much needed opposition to the dearth of translation in the US literary marketplace. Much has been made of US monoglottism, especially in literature, so I will refrain from comment except to agree with the much circulated thesis that this state of affairs screams for change. Ugly Duckling Presse has demonstrated a strong commitment to this need through their publication of authors, historical and contemporary, who are unknown or little known in the US (though often well-known elsewhere). If we only have the works of Rubén Darío to read without the remixed Romanticism of Maples Arce and others, then our sense of the literary climate of this time is greatly impoverished.
CITY is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse
Zoe Tuck lives, writes, and reads poetry submissions for HOLD: a journal in Oakland, CA. Her chapbook Terror Matrix is forthcoming in the Spring of 2014 from Timeless, Infinite Light. Recent work can also be found in Textsound and Dusie.
When was the last time you played a game of telephone? The concept is easy to abstract: this is how a signal degrades over multiple transmissions. The abstracted version of telephone misses the fun of watching your friends lean conspiratorially towards each other, the anticipation as the message makes its way around to you, the hot breath in your ear, the decisive moment—to faithfully convey what you have heard or willfully contribute to the message’s distortion. Finally, the big reveal and the swells of laughter that usually follow. Why is it so much fun to get it wrong? I think we live in an era and a nation in which zeal for efficiency and clarity (that albatross) have such total sway that we are desperate for play, imaginaftion, Dickinsonian slant truth.
I found all these in Jen Besemer’s Telephone, out 2013 from Brooklyn Arts Press. Here’s a poem in full, which gives an idea of some of Besemer’s concerns and methodologies:
to find wilderness in the scraps of cloth held in
fraying fingers : scarecrow-smiles in parcels of toys
: bird cries in sand hissing fast & soft into a pail : an
open mouth from which pours light like a thousand
greyhounds : territories without maps : borders to be
crossed & kissed : to find whole cities in the erasures
of a manuscript of interrogations : rough magic of
thwarted desire : denial : with pain :: (70)
Here Besemer takes a multivalent view of the signal loss that reads to others as chaos. What is it like to live in the death spiral of empire? Need we sing dirges on the way down? Perhaps instead we could “find wilderness in the scraps.”
What are the scraps? One formal answer is the colons which Besemer uses, like Alice Notley’s quotation marks in The Descent of Alette or Dickinson’s m-dashes, as an idiosyncratic system to arrest the flow of the reader’s eye. However, I believe that there is something more: the colon is the symbol of creation, textual
expansiveness, and particularity. Here I name a thing: there I break it into parts and examples. The colon conditions readers to expect this, part of why I believe Besemer gets away with the truly lavish multitude of embodied data (the word images does not quite do justice to Telephone’s sensory sweep).
Besemer’s poetry conjures the possibility of reintegration with nature and the body—not a romanticized version of either, but one which includes “how we become what we inhabit : how our surroundings become us : the moving negotiation of taking place : the breakdown of language for embodiment” (97). Besemer enacts this blurring throughout Telephone, in juxtapositions anthropic and zooic: “fabric-encircled missiles with shark-fins & claw feet” (78). Besemer engages the somatic as CAConrad has spoken about it; both in the sense of memory as a thing, and in the definition of soma as “to press and be newly born.” Besemer presses the self into the service of play, and as Lynda Barry reminds readers in What It Is, “Playing and fun are not the same thing, though when we grow up we may forget that, and find ourselves mixing up playing with happiness. There can be a kind of amnesia about the seriousness of playing, especially when we played by ourselves” (51). It should be noted that Telephone is broken up into sections entitled “call” and “response”. Besemer takes both parts, not in Pessoan affectation, but in such a way that this structure speaks to the real multiplicity of the self: who rides the bus, who works, who returns home, who texts, who absorbs toxic compounds, who dreams.
While hybridizing the material imagination, Besemer also hybridizes the cultural imaginary’s Grimm archetypes, peppering the text with castles, princes, and a sorcerer’s apprentice, but here the castle is “made of dust,” the prince’s kingdom amounts to “nine sentences,” and, as for the sorcerer’s apprentice:
this time when the music starts the sorcerer’s
apprentice will do nothing : will remain absolutely
still : will ignore his text message alerts & his software
updates & the slightly disturbing crackle when he swallows :
this time there will be no terrible accidents
: nothing to clean up or put right : no workplace
injuries or reports of unsafe conditions : no unpaid
overtime & hostile environment : this time when the
music starts the sorcerer’s apprentice will sit down on
the floor & rest his hands on his knees, just so :: (62)
Moments like these feel like graphs of the tectonic shifts in archetypes due to changes in lived experience, namely the global rise of economic precarity and environmental crisis. However, Besemer is not content to graph the shifts but attempts to reverse engineer them, through dreaming. An “epiphytic dream,” seeming to subsist off of air and rain, presumably because there is so little to nourish our dreaming (56). This is the act of an optimist and there is an optimism here which is neither naive nor cruel, as in Lauren Berlant’s definition. Besemer veers away from other poetic responses to the anthropocene, such as self-serious documentary and somber elegy which do not account for literary pleasure: “an exile into sincerity is your doom” (45). Can dreams be the map? Telephone left me in a mood of apocalyptic hope :
Buy it from Brooklyn Arts Press: $15
Zoe Tuck lives, writes, and reads poetry submissions for HOLD: a journal in Oakland, CA. Her chapbook Terror Matrix is forthcoming in the Spring of 2014 from Timeless, Infinite Light. Recent work can also be found in Textsound and Dusie.