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.

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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.

 

North

Imagine we are in a train crossing the Urals,

leaning against the back door, watching

spirals of barbed wire spike up towards light.

 

Further, inland, somebody looking like you

climbs up the mountains’ vertical. On his back,

a box the size of your ribcage.

 

Full text, published in Stride magazine.

@Maria Stadnicka, 2018

Orbita – Reconfiguring Contemporary Dialogue

Orbita: The Project, Semyon Khanin, Sergej Timofeyev, Vladimir Svetlov, Artūrs Punte, translated by Kevin M.F. Platt with colab. (166pp., Arc Publications)

Orbita is a creative collective/group of Latvian poets writing in Russian which attempts and succeeds to reconfigure the contemporary dialogue between culture and creative genres. This refreshing poetry collection is an unpredictable Latvian cultural project rather than a straightforward poetry anthology; a cross between concrete poetry, poetry installation and art gallery.

In terms of historical anchors, Orbita invites me to revisit directions proposed by the Black Mountain School and then look back at the British movements like the Gloucester Movement, the Westminster Group and the Scottish group headed by Ian Hamilton Finlay. However, the achievement of this innovative and remarkable anthology comes from the precision with which the four poets define, as Tony Ward mentions in the preface, a cultural path ‘the UK poets of a half a century ago dreamed of but never achieved.’

Semion Khanin, Sergej Timofeyev, Vladimir Svetlov and Artūrs Punte write in Russian and their work is translated by Kevin Platt in collaboration with many other translators and academics. A mark of the project’s complexity and relevance, as well as its polyphonic orchestration.

In Orbita, nothing should be excluded; each poem, photograph, installation are equal attributes in an unitary aesthetic discourse. The humour is dark, with vibrant tones reflected in linguistic choices:

do not think he is homeless
he simply lost his keys
and for the past four months he’s been sleeping
in front of a furniture store.
(Semion Khanin, p 28)

Khanin sets the anthology’s visionary axiom placing the reader at the centre of his preoccupation, as both reader and poet are  ‘surrogate brothers and sisters / related by reason.’ (***, p. 18) His intention is to ‘tell you a story from when I was still a burglar’ (p. 19) but the story unfolds ‘in state of zero gravity’ when ‘motionless on the sofa / and everything within fogs up with your breathing’. (p. 30)

The deictic centre expands with Sergej Timofejev and becomes spatial deixis. The locative space is the world where:

a dog softly barks
at a passing cyclist.
With restraint, the weather grows worse
and the barn falls apart.
Water pours modestly from the tap
not splashing and disappearing in the drain almost at once’
and where during a radio interview ‘a pianist answers every question
with ‘yes’ and no.’
(‘Morning in a Land of Introverts’, p.35)

Timofejev’s preoccupation to formulate the daily existence’s boundaries emerges, indoor again, when observing the quotidian. The present is defined by isolation, routine and angst:

I got to my own place and went to bed.
Woke up in the morning; it was Monday; and I lay face down
On the pillow and waited, but nothing special was happening;
So I got up, showered and went to work.’
(‘Quiet God’, p.36-37)

And so is the literary world:

Write me a novel
That will tell of another novel
All the same I’ll read neither one nor the other –
I’ll depart for Manchuria and perish for nothing.’
(‘Popular Song for Ukulele’, p.45)

Vladimir Svetlov who focuses his poetics on the practical aspects of consumerism similarly negotiates this metaphysical drive:

like a gift for loyalty
to repeat customers
we have been given these days
(‘Hit Parade’ p.63)

Svetlov’s discourse is direct and urgent, placed as critical question about the meaning of our contemporary socio-cultural preoccupations: ‘have you noticed we use the word “to tell” about posts in FB?’ His irony poses a destabilizing threat to our hierarchy of values…[the full review, in Stride Magazine.]

©Maria Stadnicka, 2018

 

Carrying the World

A chisel, a hammer, a lyre; reportage, intimate feelings, quips and criticisms. Maria Stadnicka’s poems are clusters of consciousness, graphic, material images of our world. Her language assaults, bends, cajoles, thrusts a saber into the darkness of the very language she employs to explore death, degradation, the non-recognition of the human individual, war, urban violence, in short, the all-too-present context of our daily lives. Is there an element of grace, a lyrical thread, an invocation of human beauty? Yes, if one can continue to believe in this beauty while contemplating the profound alienation and marginalization that characterizes contemporary Western societies.

Although Stadnicka writes in English, her native language, Romanian, is always close to the surface of the words, forging and sculpting the associations that create the poems’ presence. Her language mirrors the human mind, elliptical at times, obsessional from time to time, fragile and reflective when the moments present themselves. ‘A moon of salt unravels / the shadow between years, / unfolding a passage / grey chapter about mortality’ offers a lyrical entrance to the book. The reader moves swiftly into the core of Stadnicka’s vision, ‘the wounds of freedom’.

One of the most beautiful poems in the book is ‘Restituto’. Transformation of thought and body occurs as the voice of the poem articulates the ars poetica, an incendiary gesture born out of an already-condemned historical contex:

I covered my face with black ink
rounded all my possessions up
set fire to everything.

The gods hid in a poem
with a fresh loaf.

Just us now slicing away
to the end of my days.

What concerns Maria Stadnicka? How do these strangely forced collages that are hermetic and yet entirely exposed allow the reader entrance to her world? She is speaking about the discontinuity of personal space and the intrusion of economic and political forces in an individual’s life that leads to fragmentation and, ultimately, to the dissolution of one’s reality. The chance for the existence of a future or even the future is removed. Literature becomes the communication and solidarity that permit the step towards wholeness. In Stadnicka’s poems social, personal, and literary landscapes are fused and at times must be forcibly dislocated, both repositioned and torn apart, so that one can continue. The reader is drawn to the quote from Czeslaw Milosz that frames the book: ‘So much guilt behind them and such beauty!’

The title poem, ‘The Unmoving’, dislocates the predictability of images and pulls together the motifs of Stadnicka’s poetry. A book slips, the world is seen as ‘a time-capsule sent flying into space’, a missile wakes the ‘half-dreaming’ narrator, someone is walking down the motorway, people materialize with a dog for sale, ‘The music absorbed what was left of Rana Plaza’ and the reader is once again confronted with the Savor Building collapse that killed 1,134 people in Bangladesh. The narrator is displaced and ‘The ground settled between reference points.’

In a sense, The Unmoving is a defense of the marginalized, the poor, the displaced and disabled. The poems create a sense of urgency and mystery. The only escape from the imposed absolute of non-being is resolution to go forward illogically and irrationally free. ‘For the first time, I / walked. Blind, absent. / I became tomorrow.’

@Andrea Moorhead, 2018

Review published in ‘Stride Magazine’.

‘The Unmoving’ is available here.

Restitutio

A new poem published this morning in ‘Stride’ magazine:

Photograph: @John Stadnicki – MMXVIII

I covered my face with black ink
rounded all my possessions up
and set fire to everything
at the top of a hill.

click here to read the full text.

 

 

Landscape

Photograph ©John Stadnicki

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another midnight storm washes away the cold poetry
born at the top floor.
I balance my whole weight
on long words;
frozen stones on my tongue.

I count the mistakes god has done with me,
just to pass the time.

The violent rain hid a blind dog
inside my very bone.
Here, upstairs, both of us in the same body,
awake and hungry,
listen.

 

©Maria Stadnicka, MMXVII

published in ‘Stride’ magazine, available here