Beyond the language of race

 

 

The American poet Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection Whereas was initially published in 2017 by Graywolf Press, Minneapolis. It was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry. A year later, it received the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Published in the UK by Picador, the collection is a response to the Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans, which President Obama signed in obscurity in 2009. There were no Native Americans present to receive the apology, as most never knew an apology was made. In an introduction to the title poem, Long Soldier admits that the book was written as a ‘response directed to the apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting and arrangement of the written document’ (p.57).

Whereas is built on poetics which refuses the boundaries of reading a racial identity. At the same time, it challenges the making of a nation by transforming the page to withstand the tension of an occupied body, country and, more specifically, an occupied language. Indigenous languages are an integral part of the American lexicon though their systematic silencing continues today.

‘Rocking, in this country of so many languages where national surveys assert that Native languages are dying. Child-speakers and elder-teachers dwindle, this is public information. But her father and I don’t teach in statistics, in this dying I mean. Whereas speaking, itself, is defiance.’ [from ‘Whereas Statements’, p.75]

Whereas includes the acknowledgment of writing as a visual act in forms that take on physical boundaries like footnotes, brackets and stitching, disrupted prose blocks. The poems are shaped or fragmented like grass blades or hammer, or boxes.

be

cause

when I

sweat over

diction James

Welch guides me

his angle a marginal

slope corner arrange

 

ment:

[from ‘Part I. These Being the Concerns’, p.17]

Long Soldier constantly reminds readers of their physical and linguistic bodies, whilst she builds the poems as fields, or people.  This is an unsettling collection which questions English syntax and grammar, disrupting the language at its deepest levels of symbolic representations and meaning. What made me read the book over and over again is the sense of linguistic protest of an artist facing a weaponised American cultural system. As a result, Long Soldier turns the language into a weapon which unearths a deep sense of identity loss, subtly going on under our eyes but unnoticed and unspoken about.

‘WHEREAS I heard a noise I thought was a sneeze. At the breakfast table pushing eggs around my plate I wondered if he liked my cooking, thought about what to talk about. […] There at the breakfast table as an adult I looked up to see he hadn’t sneezed, he was crying. I’d never heard him cry, didn’t recognise the symptoms.’ [from ‘Whereas Statements’, p.65]

Long Soldier is usually referred to first as a Lakota or Oglala Sioux poet, then a concrete or experimental poet. However, her poetry navigates further ahead, excavating, as The New York Times acknowledges in 2017 ‘the language of occupation.’ It also defines a new concept of language created for our own personal narratives. A language which knows no boundaries and restrictions, as our own narratives or pains, know no boundaries and limits. Whereas is an exceptional example of poetry which brings one, face to face, with the possibility of courage in writing. I am now back to reading it. For the fifth time.

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

Review published in Stride Magazine, 24 June 2019.

Advertisements

Ourselves of Nothing

The Country Between Us firstly appeared in 1981, published in the US by Harper & Row, at a time when the conflict in El Salvador had finally forced its way into public awareness. At the time of publication, The Iowa Review placed the collection among the most notable books of a young poet in recent years. The book received the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award and it was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. The collection has been reissued this spring in the UK, by Bloodaxe Books.

Structured in three parts, ‘In Salvador, 1978-80’, ‘Reunion’ and ‘Ourselves or Nothing’, The Country Between Us explores the socio-cultural devastation of a country ripped apart by civil war. Although Carolyn Forché worked as a journalist and investigator for Amnesty International, and was closely involved with the political struggle in El Salvador, her poems are personal, immediate, and moving. The collection resists the temptation to sensationalise, and responds to Wittgenstein’s definition of poetic relevance through a masterful use of a language of information which does not, however, give information:

If we go on, we might stop

in the street in the very place

where someone disappeared

and the words Come with us! we might

hear them. If that happened, we would

lead our lives with our hands

tied together.

[from ‘San Onofre, California’]

The horrors of war Forché relates are referenced with subtlety and control of the language. In the poem ‘The Visitor’ she only suggests the cruelty of a civil war, in which ‘There is nothing one man would not do to another’ (p.17), whilst in ‘Message’ she alludes to the war’s impact on people struggling to establish a sense of normality:

Margarita, you slip from your house

with plastiques wrapped in newsprint,

the dossier of your dearest friend

whose hair grew to the floor of her cell.

Leonel, you load your bare few guns

with an idea for a water pump and

co-operative farm.

[from ‘Message’]

Forché builds her lyrical power through subjective connections established between herself and the events unravelling in front of her eyes. History becomes therefore meaningful and relevant to readers, who construct references and personal connections. Her directness brings in focus César Vallejo’s poetics, as well as Pablo Neruda’s and Miklós Radnóti’s, through her ability to correlate cultures and transcend times:

When we listen

we hear something taking place

in the past. When I talk to her

I know what I will be saying

twenty years from now.

[from ‘The Island’]

Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Forché’s The Country Between Usemerges from her ability to confront politics and history, beyond their national and cultural boundaries. It reaches out to a readership who might not ordinarily read poetry. The strength of the collection is underlined by the honesty in exposing human suffering. It is done with sensitivity, maturity and without condescendence. A collection which opens a wider range of questions about the meaning of history:

It is either the beginning or the end

of the world, and the choice is ourselves

or nothing.

 

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

Published in Stride Magazine, 29 May 2019.

 

About ‘poets with history and poets without history’

Study I, 2018

In the past decade, cultural theorists formulated the concept of the ‘cultural fragmentation model’ to incorporate the experiences of ‘contemporaneous social conditions’ as well as the constant transformations within a society defined by change and competition. In contemporary poetry, the fragmentation model accommodates numerous directions and trends, some situated in a position of tension or conflict with each other. This phenomenon generates a polarised spectrum which has yet to crystallise into a cohesive operant model. Consequently, poetry is at a stage of self-discovery and exploration, whilst witnessing significant transformations with the influence of social and mass media.

The current cultural environment accommodates a wide range of poetic discourses, with many writers preoccupied to articulate their art and to engage with the readership and new audiences. However, the idea of tension or conflict in poetry is not new.

In 1934, Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva published the essay ‘Poets with History and Poets without History’ in which she identifies two opposing categories of poets (and poetry): ‘poets without history’ and ‘poets with history.’ The first category refers to poets preoccupied with self-expression, whilst the second category refers to poets engaged in artistic discovery and literary innovation.

Tsvetaeva’s concept establishes a classic categorisation and polarity which are not without relevance within the contemporary British poetry. The current cultural reality has led to a generation of poets which Anne Stevenson defined in 2000 as being ‘at the mercy of technology and in thrall to the media.’ Furthermore, the new generation of poets is getting better at identifying its own specialist clientele and is exploring intense themes like abuse, misogyny, racism and mental illness.

Editors and poetry promoters observe that the poetry market is booming, as audiences for poetry, as well as poets themselves, are diversifying. Nielsen BookScan reported in 2017 a 66% increase in poetry books sales. Despite this positive development, theorists look at the contemporary poetry with criticism, if not cynicism.

Susan Sontag expresses her scepticism in reference to the contemporary poetry which, in her view, appears to suffer from an ‘uninhibited display of egotism’, thus igniting the need to redefine the concept of poetry as an art form. At the beginning of last year, Rebecca Watts published ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’ (PN Review) in which she includes the British poet Hollie McNish in the category of poets viewed as ‘noble amateurs’, preoccupied with self-promotion whilst offering the consumer an ‘instant gratification’. Watts expressed concern about the literary establishment’s readiness to modify the readership’s engagement with poetry. This modification or change implies the acceptance of mass media’s influence on poetry markets and, consequently, on poetry as literary genre.

But going back to the idea of ‘poets with history’/ ‘poets without history’ and the relevance within the current context, Marina Tsvetaeva’s reflections are as fascinating as they are applicable. Tsvetaeva identifies the ‘poets without history’ or ‘poets without development’ those poets consumed by personal expression and lyricism. Furthermore, she believes that such poets have ‘narrow knowledge and they come into world not to learn, but to say and to make themselves known. A poet without history cannot have a striving towards a goal. He himself doesn’t know what the lyric flood will bring him. His poetry has no project.’ (Tsvetaeva, 2010, p.139-140). By contrast, in Tsvetaeva’s vision, ‘poets with history’ are ’like an arrow shot into infinity. They seem to reincarnate in themselves all the days of creation. No more than the tirelessness of the creative will. They don’t have time to turn around to look at themselves, only pressing forward. The loneliness of such walkers!’ (Tsvetaeva, 2010, p.136-139)

The process of ‘looking forward’ implies a continuous drive to innovate and explore new artistic territories. This gives a new dimension to the idea of craft. These poets are not particularly visible on social media and they tend to engage with their readership through their work and public readings. Moreover, they become preoccupied with linguistic nuances and concepts, using language to its full capacity, to surprise and delight the reader over and over again.

Tsvetaeva’s axiom opens the discussion about the type of poetry set to formulate new trajectories in contemporary British culture. This poetry is ‘not necessarily the one which wins competitions in the Irish Times or the New Stateman’, as Seamus Heaney wrote in 1974, but a poetry which defines value systems and reveals new interpretations of the world. Moreover, it is not a detailed ‘self-interview’ but becomes memorable when the writer assumes the responsibility to challenge complacency, and has the courage to experience the transformative power of change.

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

References:

Sontag, S. (2009) Against Interpretation and Other Essays.London: Penguin Random House.

Stevenson, A. (2000) A Few Words for the New Century. In: Herbert, W.N. and Hollis, M. (eds.) (2015) Strong Words. Modern Poets on Modern Poetry.Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, Pages 181-183.

Tsvetaeva, M. (2010) Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books.

Watts, R. (2018) The Cult of the Noble Amateur. PN Review 239. Vol. 44, No. 3. Available from https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10090.

The History’s Dog

‘Man bites dog’ is the first principle learnt at uni. Thought I could never fully picture the concept, I always imagined the breed of dog which would make man resort to such extreme behaviour. Despite its metaphoric connotation, ‘man vs dog’ has proven to be a successful broadcasting formula for decades. With time, the ‘dog’ matters less and other realities take its place.

News moves with fluidity on the axis entertainment – truth value. It becomes irrelevant that the closer to entertainment, the further we slide away from reality. Whilst audiences are locked in a labyrinth of breaking news and data, most people have little time to investigate what goes on in the real world. It is not surprising that among the most googled questions one finds what time is it?, is it going to rain today?, how can I make money? or what is my name?. Who has the luxury to look beyond? We trust that journalists have it, and they should take the responsibility upon themselves to bring forward the missing parts of our world. And they do.

© Committee to Protect Journalists, 2019.

Without their work, I wouldn’t have known that, between 1997-2006, 378 journalists were killed doing their job. I wouldn’t have known that Wikileaks was already one year old in 2007, three months had passed since Anna Politovskaya’s murder, a new diplomatic row started between London and Moscow (over Britain’s bid for extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, an ex-KGB agent accused of Litvinenko’s murder), that Russia suspended participation in the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces Treaty in Europe (a treaty that limits the deployment of heavy military equipment across Europe.)

I wouldn’t have remembered that the EU expanded with two more states, Romania and Bulgaria, Barack Obama was in full presidential campaign and Gordon Brown moved from 11 to 10 Downing Street. 2007, a few months till the Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy, which triggered global recession. The Doomsday Clock was moved to five minutes to midnight in response to North Korean renewed nuclear ambitions and tests. The War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War, in full swing.

These are facts from a distant past now. History. It is already history that 612 journalists were killed doing their job, between 2007-2016. Almost double than the previous decade. History too, last week’s sigh of relief watching Notre-Dame being saved by a near-miracle. In the meantime, history added a new name to statistics: Lyra McKee.

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

Published in International Times on 27/04/2019.

Sonata

 

Violet, by Vasily Kandinsky, 1923, Russian French Expressionist print, lithograph. Geometrical elements, circles, arcs, triangles, straight lines and curves, mix with irregular hand drawn forms in this abstract lithograph (BSLOC_2017_5_148)
1923 / Mary Evans Picture Library

 

 

It starts with a study in curves.

 

Lost in broad daylight, I think

in intimate terms about pencils,

sharpened by a schoolboy

oblivious to Barthes’ empire.

 

Time, the only thing I have not.

 

I shall pray for you she hissed, leaving.

Ashes to ashes I laugh,

turn the machine off, move

closer to anger.

 

Hands, metal, ankles, metal, eye. Metal! Nerves.

 

I practise benign indifference.

 

I learn about human squares and circles,

underline the connective distance

between something lost

and something irreplaceable.

 

© Maria Stadnicka, published at Mary Evans Picture Library.