Thursday, July 23, 2015

Robert Creeley, Poetry Warrior

Great news! The new issues of two of my favorite literary journals, The Laurel Review and The Notre Dame Review, have dropped from the sky.  The latest Laurel Review is a special prose poetry issue, and includes two pieces from my forthcoming remix extravaganza, The Kafka Sutra (in which the parables of Kafka are retold as if they were a Sanskrit sex manual).  The Notre Dame Review features a raft of great stuff, as well as "Robert Creeley: Poetry Warrior," a little something I wrote about The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley, a very fine edition prepared by Rod Smith, Peter Baker, and Kaplan Harris.  It begins like this:
            “The book,” wrote Robert Creeley to Rod Smith, who was then hard at work on the volume in question, Creeley’s Selected Letters, “will certainly ‘tell a story.’”  Now that the text of that book has emerged from Smith’s laptop and rests between hard covers, it’s a good time to ask just what story those letters tell.  Certainly it isn’t a personal one. Creeley was a New Englander, through and through, and of the silent generation to boot.  Yankee reticence blankets the letters too thickly for us to feel much of the texture of Creeley’s quotidian life, beyond whether he feels (to use his favored idiom) he’s “making it” through the times or not.  Instead, the letters, taken together, tell an intensely literary story—and, as the plot develops, an institutional, academic one.  Call this story “From the Outside In,” maybe.  Or, better, treat it as one of the many Rashomon-like eyewitness accounts of that contentious epic that goes by the title The Poetry Wars.
            If you, like me, you entered the little world of American poetry in the 1990s, you found the Cold War that was ending in the realm of politics to be in full effect in poetry.  What had begun as a brushfire conflict between rival journals and anthologies in the fifties and early sixties had settled into an institutionalized rivalry, with an Iron Curtain drawn between the mutually suspicious empires of Iowa City and Buffalo.  The longstanding Iowa Writers Workshop found itself in a geo-poetic stalemate with a younger, more radical opponent, the Poetics Program at SUNY–Buffalo, which Creeley helped found in 1991, and which formalized Buffalo as the institutional home for poets who rankled at the idea that history had ended with Robert Lowell.  For many young poets, it seemed one had to pick a side, and treat the rival camp with deep mistrust, if not contempt.  For others, it all seemed a bit pointless, especially the rhetoric of resentment emanating from Buffalo, perhaps the best-endowed poetry program in the nation at the time.  Reading Creeley’s Selected Letters, which begins with a wartime letter from Creeley to his family and ends with an email he sent two weeks before his death in 2005, we get a view from the trenches of the postwar poetry wars, from their beginnings to a time when they were fading into literary history.  We get, too, a vivid picture of the outsider status, or non-status, of innovative poets like Creeley in their formative years (“we do not have any status as writers in this country” he wrote in 1956).
The whole piece is available in print and in a pdf online here. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Coming This Fall: The Kafka Sutra

Behold! The cover of my next book, The Kafka Sutra, due out this fall from MadHat Press.  The title sequence is one of the odder things I've done—a rewriting of the Kama Sutra as if Kafka had written it; or a rewriting of Kafka's parables as an ancient Sanskrit sex manual.  Accompanying the series are artworks by Sarah Conner, such as this:

Thanks to Sarah; and to Moxie (the scariest belly-dancer in Chicago) for modeling for the cover; to Kriss Abigal for her amazing photo, and to Valerie for work on the layout.  This is my favorite cover yet among my books, in part because the "belly dancer in a top hat" look captures something of both Kafka and the Kama Sutra.

Also, thanks to the great David Kirby, who says this on the back of the jacket:
I’m pretty sure I was the only one reading poetry as I waited for my car to be serviced, but certainly I was the one who rocked the other customers out of their torpor with a belly laugh – not an unrelated occurrence, since I was reading Robert Archambeau’s addictive poems and had just gotten to the one in which men are told they can either become a husband or the lover of another man’s wife; naturally they all choose the second option, and the result is that soon there are no more wives. Then again, a rich irony suffuses all these poems. If you’re heading to the dealership and are looking for brainy, funny lines delivered with a rueful sigh, The Kafka Sutra is definitely the book for you.
And the immortal Andrei Codrescu, who says:
Archambeau has found the cartilage that keeps the body flexible and life Kafkaesque by inventing a musical technique that keeps life’s surging anarchy personalized through the universally usable Kama Sutra.  I’m using it right now!
And to the gracious Maxine Chernoff, who writes:
Reading Robert Archambeau's vastly engaging book, The Kafka Sutra, I feel as if I have gone on several vacations, a safari, and a trip into imaginative space: his far-ranging mind "riffs on, or remixes, replies to, or makes deeply unfaithful translations of what others have written." The book has sound, technique, wit, grace, staggering inventiveness, and above all generosity: from supplying Kafka with a deeply sexualized "new" body of work to celebrating luminaries from David Bowie to John Milton it is all splendidly here, in aces.
And, last but by no means least, to Wendy Doniger, Sanskrit scholar, Kama Sutra translator, and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago who, after reading The Kafka Sutra, said:
Archambeau’s absolutely hilarious Kama Sutra spoof made me howl with laughter! 
MadHat Press is to be held responsible for my crimes against literature.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How to Be A Classic: Four or Five Versions of Edgar Allan Poe

Even though the concept of a literary canon has been in tatters for decades, the fact of a literary canon still, for better or for worse, remains.  And one of the names least likely to be dislodged from the de facto canon of American literature in any foreseeable future is that of Edgar Allan Poe.  But why? One answer is simple, or seems to be: that Poe was an inventor, an astonishing inventor.  Indeed, he was the Tesla or Edison of literature, and from the laboratory of his genius came both entirely new modes of writing and crucial refinements upon still-developing genres.  But as any infomercial seen during insomnia-ridden night in a hotel with lousy cable options makes abundantly clear, not all inventions matter.  Many of Poe's did: they had staying power, influenced important writers, and spoke to generations of readers. This, I think, had as much to do with Poe's moment as with the man himself.

When Poe's short writing career began, there was surprisingly little literary infrastructure in America.  Literacy rates were climbing quickly, and the days when an American writer had to send a manuscript off to England to have it printed were long gone, but the landscape was utterly unlike what we know today.  Not only were there no foundations, or grants, or MFA programs—there were very few places to publish, and those tended to reach fairly ill-defined audiences: a century later writers could send science fiction stories to science fiction magazines, adventure stories to magazines sold specifically to boys who dreamed of jungle exploration, stories with literary pretence to stalwart little literary journals, and so forth.  But Poe had to make his way in the dark.  When he came on the scene the number of Americans who had made a living by the pen could be counted on the fingers of one hand (Washington Irving is the only name still recognized) and what the public wanted, what they were willing to pay to read, remained a mystery (Irving tried all kinds of things: pop history, observational letters, hopped-up folktales, you name it).  So Poe tried everything: his story "The Balloon-Hoax" was initially published in a newspaper and passed off as fact; and his proliferation of inventions was in large measure a sounding-out of the public, a matter of throwing all kinds of words at the wall of fame and fortune and hoping something would stick.  His was a time of the open literary frontier, of risky ventures in an unknown landscape with the hope of vast rewards.

When we think of Poe's limited success in his short lifetime, and his posthumous canonical ubiquity, we might remember Gertrude Stein's thoughts about posterity in her essay "Composition as Explanation":
No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept.  The things refused are only important if unexpectedly somebody happens to need them.
Poe's inventions didn't quite take before his death at the age of 40, but they've proved important to a great many readers and writers later—somebody did happen to need them.  In fact, many people did, and for many different reasons: his wild inventiveness, which was a response to the unformed literary landscape of his time, meant that he came, posthumously, to appeal to multiple constituencies—a factor as important to a writers' posterity as it is to a politician's electoral prospects.

One way to think about Poe's different constituencies is to associate them with the important writers who have drawn from one or another side of the Poe legacy.  Four or five such writers (and their four different views of Poe) come to mind:

Ray Bradbury's Poe.  Ray Bradbury's aunt gave him an illustrated edition of Poe's stories when he was a child and he never looked back.  "I am the ghost of Poe resurrected" he once told an interviewer (he also said he was the new Melville, but that he was Poe "above all").  Among the treasures most valued by Bradbury collectors are the letters he sent out with Edgar Allan Poe commemorative stamps, under which Bradbury invariably wrote "My Papa."  But which Poe is his father?  The story "Usher II," included in the American but not the British editions of The Martian Chronicles, explicitly draws on "The Fall of the House of Usher," but the gothic Poe is of secondary importance at best to Bradbury.  His Poe is the early pioneer of science fiction, the technology-obsessed writer of "The Balloon Hoax."  But Bradbury's Poe is also the adventure writer, the minute-by-minute chronicler of struggle and daring: a story like Bradbury's "The Long Rain" from The Illustrated Man may be set on Venus, but it is every bit as much the man-vs.-nature tale as Poe's "Into the Maelstrom," where inventive problem solving and stoic endurance are the primary virtues.  Bradbury's Poe is the grandfather of many pulp magazine writers of the twentieth century, the progenitor of Amazing Stories and Argosy.

H.P. Lovecraft's Poe.  Many people see Poe's influence on Lovecraft's career as confined to his early, pre-Cthulhu period, and there is something to this.  Certainly the Poe who dabbled in the gothic, the Poe of "The Fall of the House of Usher" was a direct influence on the early Lovecraft—and it's true to say that Lovecraft's development of an elaborate fictional mythos has no real precedent in Poe, owing more to Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegāna than any other source.  But it isn't the trappings of gothic horror that really matter in the Poe-Lovecraft connection.  Indeed, Poe himself wasn't the inventor of the long-established machinery of gothic horror, he was the refiner of that tradition.  His greatest refinement is the application of what he called, in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition," the literary work's "unity of effect"—the conscious co-ordination of all parts of the story to a single affective end, to produce a single emotion in the reader.  This kind of deliberate orchestration is what early gothic writers like Sheridan Le Fanu or Horace Walpole lack—Poe introduces calculated order into the wild garden of the gothic imagination, and the effect is (and is precisely intended to be) spine chilling.  The way a story like "The Pit and the Pendulum" strives, inch by inch, to creep you the fuck out is Poe's greatest legacy to Lovecraft—who applied the lesson throughout his career—and to the black-garbed, eyeliner wearing multitudes who followed in Lovecraft's baleful wake.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Poe.  Poe is not the inventor of the detective tale, which, like the word "detective" itself, has its origins in France. There's a strong case for Voltaire's Zadig as the ultimate progenitor of the genre, and examples appeared sparsely here and there throughout European literature in the decades that followed, notably in the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Poe once worked for a man named William Evans Burton, who wrote "The Secret Cell," a story of police following procedures to solve crime—but it is what Poe does with the genre that is original.  While Burton's story is all about following rational procedures, Poe's three "tales of ratiocination" insist that one needs not only the tools of the scientist, but of the poet, to see into the heart of things.  Indeed, it is the character he invents, the fallen French aristocrat and bohemian outsider C. Auguste Dupin who represents his real innovation: the detective not only as rational man, but as aloof outsider, as a virtuoso of insight, as the master of inferring a world from a small tic, the way a great poker player reads his opponents by their giveaway 'tells.'  This is the character who inspired Sherlock Holmes, as Arthur Conan Doyle is quick to acknowledge: he even has Watson compare Holmes to Dupin (as well he might: the first Holmes story, "A Scandal in Bohemia" is a scandal indeed, in that much of it is a virtual plagiarism of "The Purloined Letter").  The Byronic detective is Poe's invention, and from Dupin to Holmes it's just a short drive to the vast and shadowy lands of noir.

Jorge Luis Borges' Poe.  Borges mentions Poe up in well over 100 different essays and scores of interviews, and posed for a photograph at Poe's grave.  So deep was his love of Poe that he carries not one, but two versions of Poe close to his heart.  The first is much like Arthur Conan Doyle's Poe, the Poe of Dupin and analytic detection.  Indeed, Borges wrote stories in response to Poe, stories best read in tandem with the Dupin stories.  But Borges' other Poe is my favorite Poe.  The Poe of the Dupin stories is the master of the explicable universe—Dupin sees through surface confusion and grasps the thread connecting and making sense of all things.  But there's another Poe who matters to Borges—the Poe of stories like "MS Found in a Bottle," the Poe devoted to mystery, to meanings always on the verge of coming clear.  I often think of "MS Found in a Bottle" as the antithesis of "Into the Maelstrom"—each story deals with an enormous whirlpool drawing the protagonist in, but where "Into the Maelstrom" deals in physics and rational calculations for survival, "MS Found in a Bottle" offers nothing of the kind.  Instead, we encounter mysteries that can't be solved, unless, perhaps, the moment of revelation comes when we exit the known world and allow ourselves to be taken over the border into something mysterious—perhaps death—at the sublime heart of the whirlpool.  This sense of a great revelation concealed but hovering on the verge of revelation is at the heart of many of Borges' best-known writings: we see it in "The Garden of Forking Paths," for example, and we watch scholars search for it in "The Library of Babel."  "The Lottery of Babylon" hints that there may, just may, be a secret order to the world, but we hover on the brink of knowing, just as Poe's protagonist does in "MS Found in a Bottle." This Poe is the modernist and postmodernist's Poe, a Poe not for the mass market pulp magazines but for the literary quarterlies and the seminar room.

To these four we might consider adding another, Charles Baudelaire's Poe.  Baudelaire's translations of Poe were crucial to establishing Poe's international reputation, but I find it difficult to think of Poe as an influence on Baudelaire so much as a spirit-companion, a courage-giver for a kindred spirit.  Poe's writing mattered to Baudelaire, to be sure, but as Baudelaire's biographer Alex De Jonge put it, "Perhaps more importantly, Baudelaire identified with the man.  Poe was the first modern writer: a desperate loser, haunted by his guignon [his bad luck or fated failure], a man who lived a life of misery and drink, and died in suspect and ignoble circumstances."  This Poe matters too, of course, but less as a writer than as a type, the poète maudit.

Many of the writers who drew from Poe exceeded him in one or another form of excellence.  But it is hard to think of any modern figure who equals him in inventiveness.  We might turn to the evolution of the literary market for explanations: the lack of defined genres, Roberto Bolaño once remarked, is a sign of literary underdevelopment: in advanced economies we find whole arrays of literary niches and sub-niches: hard-boiled detective, young adult fiction, swords and sorcery, historiographic metafiction, you name it.  Specialization is the norm—but this wasn't an option for Poe, who worked in a relative vacuum, and tried in a thousand ways to connect with a readership.

How, then, to be a classic?  Invent, try new things, take a lot of potshots, and—this is the hard part—happen to hit bulls-eyes with all of them.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

What I Like About You, David Yezzi: Reading "Crane"

What I like about you, David Yezzi, is that you wrote the poem "Crane," which I read when I was working my way through the small mountain of books sent to me in my capacity as a judge for the Poets Prize.  And I'm glad I got to introduce you at the prize ceremony in the Roerich Museum in New York. You didn't win the prize, but you came close: your Birds of the Air was, along with Mark Halliday's Thresherphobe, a runner-up.

"Crane" is, I think, an unusual book in the context of contemporary American poetry, its virtues (attention to meter and rhyme, and to extending a metaphor) being so old-school that they're refreshing.  The viewpoint, too, is a little outside that which I find in the ordinary range of my poetry reading.  Maybe the best way to describe that point of view, if we can scrape the barnacles of prejudice off the term, is to call it "middle class," or even "bourgeois," if that doesn't offend somehow.  Here's the poem:

Paper creased is
with a touch
made less by half,
reduced as much

again by a second
fold—so the wish
to press our designs
can diminish

what we hold.
But by your hand's
careful work,
I understand

how this unleaving
makes of what's before
something finer
and finally more.

So it's mostly a two-stress line, which is unusual except in some comic contexts, with an xAxA xBxB xCxC xDxD rhyme scheme—the sort of thing that gets you cheered in some circles and booed in others regardless of what else is happening in the poem.  And there are some other things: a nicely placed volta with the "But..." just past the poem's halftime buzzer, and an intensifying of sound echoes with "finer" and "finally" to mark the end.  All solid stuff.  But what I really like is the metaphor, and not just because I learned a little origami back in my student days, so I could perch on a barstool and casually twist a matchbook cover into a butterfly for the woman I was trying to charm (a remarkably unsuccessful strategy, it turns out).

It's all in the phrase "to press our designs," isn't it?  It works on the literal level, since the folding and pressing of paper realizes the origami design.  But it also has a calculating sense to it, and this helps turn the folding of the paper into smaller surfaces into a metaphor for what happens to private life when we are called away from it by our ambitions (in career, in work of all sorts, including the work of art).  This in itself isn't a bad observation, but it's the volta, the turn away from this point, that makes the poem interesting—because the reduction of life caused by the pursuit of our designs ultimately leads to an enriching of life, the creation of "something finer/and finally more" than what we had in the unsullied sheet of paper with which we started out.  All that work that takes us away from other things, that seems to narrow us or limit us—but only for a time, because the focused labor we expend in pressing our designs pays off, and lets us create something that turns out to have been more than worthwhile.  In the end, the poem is that rarest of things (and a very bourgeois thing, in the old Max Weber sense): an ode to deferred gratification.

(At this point the Voice of the Loyal Opposition can be heard, in incredulous tones, muttering "An ode to deferred gratification?!? An ODE to DEFERRED GRATIFICATION?!?").

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What I Like About You, Kathryn Starbuck: Reading "Sylvia En Route to Kythera"

Watteau's "L'Embarquement pour Cythère."

What I like about you, Kathryn Starbuck, is that you wrote "Sylvia En Route to Kythera," which I read in the June 2015 issue of Poetry when I took a break from poring over Timothy Yu's "Chinese Silence #92" and pawed through the rest of the issue.  I like, particularly, how it hesitates over those places where poems start, and makes a little drama out of how we proceed from there.  Some poems begin with an image that lodges itself in the poet's imagination (Charles Simic seems to work this way); others with a powerful emotion (Whitman often seems to begin with a surplus of love, then proceed by looking for something suitably expansive to which he can attach it); but your poem begins with a word, or, more particularly, with the sound of a word:

I never much liked
forsythia, never
liked yellow, but
liked the sounds:
for syth i a
for Kythera for sight
for sky for Sylvia.

When I read the opening lines, I admit I was expecting some kind of anti-Wordsworthian rejection of nature, a kind of "fuck you, daffodils!" gesture, but I prefer what you did instead: taking us into the syllables of the word "forsythia" and sounding them out to discover what those syllables suggest: sight, sky, the Greek isle of Kythera, the name Sylvia.  I particularly admire the way "for" does double or triple duty here: it echoes the sound at the beginning of "forsythia," it serves as a singing kind of anaphora, and it also suggests that you like the word "forsythia" for the things it suggests by virtue of its sounds.

What follows seems to me very much like a little game played with the pieces you came across when you broke up the word "forsythia," something akin to a little Joseph Cornell box made up of things found while wandering down the beach, except there was no beach, just a word. The arrangement you make in the next few lines takes the plant and the name Sylvia and begins to draw a kind of narrative from them, complete with incipient conflict, the sort of thing out of which a story might grow:

Forsythia made an
okay divider between
our place and hers.
Sylvia used to trod
through it to see us
too often so we let
all of it grow massive

and dense hoping
she’d go blind in

The speaker's hopes are a bit on the surreal side—no one goes blind from treading through a massive hedge, and as much as one may find an intrusive neighbor tedious, few if any of us would wish them to go literally blind.  But we're dealing with a recognizable kind of conflict between neighbors, transposed to a real where everything is a bit exaggerated.  This underlines that the real drama in the poem doesn't lie in watching the particulars of a conflict between neighbors, but in watching the imagination sketch figures and find paths out of its original moment of inspiration.

The imagination, of course, doesn't make its sketches on a blank slate: the poetic imagination works in words, and words inevitably come with connotations and associations, and in the final lines of the poem "Sylvia En Route to Kythera" nudges these to the foreground:

      ...then hop aboard
a bumblebee who’d
follow his lovely great
queen as she flew to her
dream isle of Kythera.

Proper names always resound with associations.  When I saw the title of the poem, I thought the Sylvia in question would be Sylvia Benton, one of those grande dames of genteel Georgian-era Oxbridge, an archeologist who conducted significant digs in the Minoan sites on Kythera.  But when we have a Sylvia in a poem associated with bees, we start to associate her with Sylvia Plath, and the association grows stronger when we consider that Plath, like the author of this poem was a female poet born in the 1930s and married to a popular poet (Ted Hughes and George Starbuck being the male poets in question).  This makes the sense of Sylvia as an intrusive neighbor particularly interesting—we can, if we like, accept the suggestion to see her as an influence or perhaps as an angry voice that "we" (and here I am playing with the idea of "we" as "George and Kathryn Starbuck") wish would go away, but can't seem to repress—the voice of woman's anger, of woman wronged, and so forth.  Sylvia is a presence that disturbs the suburban world of neighborliness, domesticity, and border-demarcating hedges.

But what about Kythera?  Kythera, also spelled Cythera, is a Greek island traditionally seen as sacred to Aphrodite, and has been used as a figure for the place of carefree, pastoral love in many works of art, most famously Watteau's "L'Embarquement pour Cythère."  For Sylvia to depart for such a place on a drone following a queen bee is for her to head to a place of carefree love, possibly a place conducted on matriarchal terms.  If we take the invitation to see the Sylvia of the poem as a Plath figure, we can see this as a wish that Plath would have the kind of peaceful and unpossessive love that she never found in her passionate, turbulent, troubled relationship with Ted Hughes.  And we can see that the way to stop the intrusive Plath from entering one's garden uninvited isn't to shut her out, but to create—to imagine—a different kind of love, one without betrayal or resentment.  But for that love to work for Sylvia, she'd first have to go blind to what is around her—an interesting complication, one that makes the pastoral love of Kythera more of a wish or aspiration than an unproblematic reality.  This complication can be seen as a critique of several things: of the desire for love to be unflawed when it is no such thing, for example; or of the artificial satisfactions of pastoral.

This is all offered at the level of suggestion, and can't really be seen as anything like a definitive reading of the poem.  Indeed, more than any kind of statement about love or pastoral or intrusiveness, the poem is a kind of dramatization of the imagination, how it finds potentialities in a word, in a set of sounds, and works out from those toward something larger.

So that's what I like about your poem, Kathryn Starbuck.  But at the same time, there's someone treading through the forsythia and into my reading of the poem—let's call that person The Voice of the Loyal Opposition, and he's saying "Doesn't there come a time when we have to get away from the places where poems start? Don't we want something definite, rather than suggestion?"  I can't silence him, but I can imagine him riding a drone bee out to an island where he'd find what he wants, and keep him there while I enjoy what you've written.


I've just had a chat with the Voice of the Loyal Opposition's living embodiment, and he has some pertinent information.  He notes that there's no way that George and Kathryn Starbuck could have been the literal neighbors of Sylvia Plath (among other things, they married in 1968, years after Plath's death).  But George "knew Plath well from Boston days and the Lowell workshop with Plath and Sexton."  Moreover, says the VOTLO, George "had a torrid affair with Sexton back during the workshop days, but none with Sylvia Plath," though "they were all drinking buddies after Lowell's workshop was over." The VOTLO also directed my attention to George Starbuck's "Catalogue Raisonné of My Refrigerator Door," with its references to both Boston suburbs and forsythia.  Curious indeed!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Camping Modernism: Timothy Yu's "Chinese Silence #92"

"Hot damn!" I thought, when I finally cleared some time to pick up my June issue of Poetry, "It's Tim Yu!"  Timothy Yu—snappy dresser, pavement-pounding political firebrand, and the other North Shore Chicagoan/Canadian hybrid stomping around on the slopes of Parnassus.  Back when he lived in Chicago, it seemed like he and I were always giving readings together in some grimy bar or sterile white box of an art center.  This is the first time I've seen his work in Poetry, though, and I'm glad to see the editors have chosen one of Yu's Chinese Silences.  This is a series Yu's been working on for some time, and, judging by "Chinese Silence #92," Poetry's selection, it's strong stuff.  But it's also hard to say just what kind of stuff it is.  My first thought was that it was a kind of pastiche, but that wasn't it.  Then I thought it was parody.  But the more I look at the poem, the clearer it becomes: this is a kind of camp.

Exile's Letter

"Chinese Silence #92" is, stem to stern, an overt rewriting of Ezra Pound's "Exile's Letter."  Pound's poem, along with others in the collection Cathay, was adapted from the Chinese poetry manuscripts that came to Pound from the scholar Ernest Fenollosa.  And like many other poems in Cathay, its dominant theme is loneliness—the loneliness of the scholar-poet whose audience consists of his scattered friends, strewn throughout an empire by powerful elites they serve but do not love.  It's easy enough to see why Pound was attracted to the Fenollosa manuscripts: he could find, in the circumstances of ancient Chinese literati, enough parallels with his own situation and that of his friends, to sense, or perhaps to manufacture, a kind of kinship.  Modernist poets, after all, tended to be peripatetic, often expatriated, figures, meeting and parting with their few sympathetic peers, and existing on either on crumbs of subsidy and hackwork from the literary establishment or (like Stevens and Eliot) working in some capacity for the materialist financial elites they quietly resented.

One of the things the Fenollosa manuscripts allowed Pound to do was to wax deeply sentimental about his own circumstances as a marginal literary figure far from home, loving art and beauty, meeting and parting from an international and constantly wandering group of the likeminded.  He'd been trying to find a way out of the strictures of Imagism, which seemed to have taken him about as far as they could travel.  But how to make broad, sentimental gestures when one has preached austerity, when one has made commitments to the hard, cold, world of the image?  One way that he'd already explored was the poetic persona, speaking in the voice of another, and the Fenollosa manuscripts gave him the freedom to break his own rules, just like the masks worn at carnivals allow us to break with the restraints of social propriety.  So we get an opening like this:

So-Kin of Rakuho, ancient friend, I now remember

That you built me a special tavern,
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels
                    we paid for the songs and laughter,
And we were drunk for month after month,
                    forgetting the kings and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea
                    and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially,
                    there was nothing at cross-purpose;
And they made nothing of sea-crossing
                    or of mountain-crossing,
If only they could be of that fellowship.
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds...
                    and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
                    smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
Till we had nothing but thoughts and memories between us.

There's a gushing of sentiment here that would have embarrassed the man who wrote something as terse as "The apparition of these faces in a crowd/Petals on a wet, black bough." In the parts that follow there's also a celebration of both friendship and aesthetic delight that certainly resonated with Pound's lived experience, but rarely found straightforward expression:

And when separation had come to its worst

We met, and travelled together into Sen-Go
Through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters;
Into a valley of a thousand bright flowers …
                    that was the first valley,
And on into ten thousand valleys
                    full of voices and pine-winds.
With silver harness and reins of gold,
                    prostrating themselves on the ground,
Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company;
And there came also the “True-man” of Shi-yo to meet me,
Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us
                    more Sennin music;
Many instruments, like the sound of young phœnix broods.
And the foreman of Kan-Chu, drunk,
Danced because his long sleeves
Wouldn’t keep still, with that music playing.
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,

And my spirit so high that it was all over the heavens.

In addition to granting Pound license to be publicly sentimental about the things he really was sentimental about, the Chinese persona allowed Pound to defamiliarize the experience of the scholar-poet, the world in which he lived.  He could clothe it all in unfamiliar names and places and exotic garb.  The kind of experience may have been familiar to those for whom Pound wrote (other modernist poets, a few artists and connoisseurs) but the Chinese context allowed Pound to filter the known through the unknown, and have it come back in a shimmering aura—we could, to paraphrase Pound's pal Eliot, know our circumstances again, as if for the first time.

Timothy Yu Defamiliarizes the Defamiliarization

 To Tom S. of Missouri, possum friend, clerk at Lloyd’s.

Now I remember that you rang a silent bell
By the foot of the bridge at the River “Thames.”
With dull roots and dried tubers, you wrote poems and laments
And grew more English month on month, bowing to kings and princes.
Americans came drifting in from the sea and from the west border,
And with them, and with me especially
Everything was pig-headed,
And I made hay from poppycock and painted adjectives,
Just so we could start a new fellowship,
And we all escaped our personalities, without expressing them.
And then I was sent off to Rapallo,
               trailed by children,
And you to your desk at Faber-Faber,
Till we had nothing but China and silence in common.
And then, when modernism had come to its worst,
We wrote, and published in Po-Etry,
Through all the one hundred kinds of shy and whispering silence,
Into a poem of a thousand blank pages,
That was the first heave...

So begins Timothy Yu's "Chinese Silence #92."  What Yu has done, of course, is to transpose Pound's poem, written in the persona of a Chinese scholar-poet, onto Pound's life.  So-Kin of Rakuho, the imperial official, becomes T.S. Eliot of Lloyd's bank, Ten-Shin becomes the Thames, and so on. But it's all much more interesting than that.  Firstly, there's the matter of the original context from which Pound's poem came.  Since "Exile's Letter" was already a transposing of the experiences of Pound and his expat poet friends onto ancient China, Yu's poem isn't just a turning of the text to a new context, it's a returning of the text to it's original context.  What had been an indirect treatment of Pound's life filtered through the exotic glamor of orientalism becomes, in Yu's poem, a direct treatment of Pound's life, with the orientalism still intact.  But the orientalism now seems alien to its subject matter.  In leaving the glamorous orientalist style intact while taking away the premise that what we're talking about are ancient Chinese poets, Yu draws attention to the style, to the defamiliarizing moves of "Exile's Letter."  He shows us that the poem really is a take on Pound's own life, but a specific kind of take, and he directs our attention to the artifice of glamor.  

Yu's spellings "Po-Etry" for Poetry, "Faber-Faber" for "Faber and Faber," and later "Ben-it-to" for "Benito Mussolini" emphasize the orientalist artifice of Pound's poem.  The names, after all, didn't matter too much to Pound's audience as specific places—few if any of his readers could find them on a map, let alone tell you the history and associations of the places.  In "Exile's Letter" the names are there as local color, as a kind of heightener of the artificial Chinese-ness of the poem: they're the literary equivalent of MSG.  And when Yu spells Poetry's name "Po-Etry," he's not really defamiliarizing the grand old literary magazine: he's defamiliarizing Pound's act of defamiliarization. "Chinse Silences #92" is a way of showing us, as if for the first time, the way Pound showed himself and his peers their own circumstances as if for the first time.

But what to make of what Yu hath wrought?  What, even, to call this thing called "Chinese Silence #92"?

Pastiche, Parody, and Camp

The easiest label to hang on "Chinese Silence #92" is that of pastiche.  It is, after all, a brilliant move-for-move replay of the kind of orientalist-modernist persona poem Pound perfected in Cathay.  If we look at Fredric Jameson's famous definition of pastiche in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, we seem at first to be dealing with exactly the sort of thing represented by Yu's poem: "pastiche," writes Jameson, "is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language."  So far so good—but then there's this, Jameson's critique of pastiche as apolitical: "But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter."  Indeed, for Jameson the proliferation of pastiche in the postmodern period represents nothing more than "the play of random stylistic allusion." 

If pastiche is devoid of laughter, if its choice of old styles is random, and if pastiche is devoid of ulterior motives, especially political ones,  then Timothy Yu's poem is no kind of pastiche.  Laughter? I can't speak to your experience, but the poem got laughs chez Archambeau, at exactly the points where it wanted to.  A random choice of style?  I refuse to believe that when a Chinese-American scholar-poet trained in the modernist and experimental traditions of American poetry chooses to write in the style of an orientalist poem by a modernist American scholar-poet from a prior period, the choice is arbitrary.  And political motive? Yu's got that, too, in that he exposes Pound's representation of Chineseness as a projection of entirely local, western needs and emotions.  Clearly, what we're dealing with in Yu's poem are issues, and politics, of identity and representation.

So this is no pastiche.  But should we, then, call it parody?  Not in the simplest sense of that word, as a mocking imitation intended to undermine or delegitimate something.  But perhaps in the subtler sense outlined by Yu's former colleague Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism.  There, Hutcheon tells us that a certain kind of postmodern parody "both legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies."  This captures much of what Yu's poem attempts.  The subversion we understand—but what about the legitimation? Consider this: Yu's poem doesn't set out to re-ground Chinese-American writing in a tradition untainted by orientalism.  It isn't an Asian-American version of, say, négritude, the African and African-diasporic movement to build a culture based not on Eurocentric models but on African traditions.  Instead, Yu attacks the orientalism of modernism from within, reworking a modernist poem until we see it from a different angle.  The poem doesn't set out to dislodge Pound and Eliot from the canon—if anything, "Chinese Silence #92's" focus on the minutia of the lives and works of those poets re-enforces the reader's sense that he or she ought to know about them, if only to be in on the joke.  When Hutcheon wrote that postmodern parody "manages to install and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conventions and presuppositions it appears to challenge" she might as well have been writing about Yu.  And when Hutcheon tells us that a primary trope of postmodernism is to "de-naturalize some of the dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as 'natural'... are in fact 'cultural'" her words could describe Yu's goal in foregrounding the way Pound invents a kind of sentimental Chinese identity as a way of expressing his own circumstances with an aura of exotic glamor—Yu won't let us forget that Pound hadn't tapped into the essence of Chinese writing so much as he'd concocted a formula useful for his own (western) purposes.

I don't think, though, that Hutcheon's notion of postmodern parody fully captures the relation to Pound's modernism that we find in "Chinese Silence #92."  One thing the dynamic of reinforcing/undermining she outlines doesn't really address, for example, is the question of affection. And as powerful as Yu's poem is in unmasking the artifice or orientalism, it is also a poem with a great deal of overt affection for modernism (an affection, needless to say, intertwined with critique).

Consider the loving piling up of modernist minutia.  Yu's poem shows a tremendous intimacy, even an obsession, with the lives, the poetry, the prose, and the milieu of Pound and Eliot—and the intimacy isn't motivated by malice.  The two are shown as capable of the virtue of friendship, for example, and while Yu is rightly unsparing about Pound's politics, the Pound that emerges in "Chinese Silence #92" is not so much a demon as a figure of pathos, even when being judged for his actions in the war:

And our Roosevelt, who was brave as a rodent,

Was president in Washing Town, and let in the usurious rabble.
And one May he sent the soldiers for me,
               despite the long distance.
And what with broken idols and so on, I won’t say it wasn’t hard going,
Over roads twisted like my brain’s folds.
And I was still going, late in the war,
               with defeat blowing in from the North,
Not guessing how little I knew of the cost,
               and how soon I would be paying it.
And what a reception:
Steel cages, two books set on a packing-crate table,
And I was caught, and had no hope of escaping.

The image of Pound's twisted brain gives us a figure driven mad by events and ambient cultural hatreds, a lost and damaged figure caught and caged—and the poem ends with a similarly pathetic figure:

I went up to the court for prosecution,

Tried standing mute, offered a madman’s song,
And got no conviction,
               and went back to Saint Elizabeths
And once again, later, you stood at the foot of my bed,
And then the visit ended, you went back to Bloomsbury,
And if you ask if I recall that parting:
It is like the hair falling from my hieratic head,
               Confused ... Whirl! Centripetal! Mate!
What is the use of talking, until I end my song,
I end my song in the dark.
I call in the nurse,
Hold the pill in my hand
               As she says, “Take this,”

And swallow it down, silent.

It's not an endorsement of Pound,  far from it—but the gaze with which Yu looks at Pound and Eliot is as much affectionate as it is distanced and judging.  And that kind of combination is best described not so much as parodic but as camp—especially when, as in Yu's poem, it is accompanied by a foregrounding of mannered style.

Christopher Isherwood's The World in the Evening is the locus classicus for the theory of camp, and the attitude it describes seems to coincide exactly with Yu's attitude toward modernism:

High camp always has an underlying seriousness.  You can't camp about something you don't take seriously.  You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it.  You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. 
Yu isn't mocking Pound in the sense of making fun of him—the poem is too humane for that, and the pathos of some of the passages indicates that something other than simple mockery is at play.  But the poem is certainly making fun out of Pound and his poem.  Camp's classic queer form, drag, allows people to both participate in an identity and distance themselves from it, to have affection for that identity while also drawing attention to the artifice involved in creating the identity, and Yu's poem can be seen as a camp take on modernist orientalism—taking part in, but also drawing attention to the artifice of, its style and discursive movements.

I suppose it's no wonder that Timothy Yu has a complex relationship to Pound's "Exile's Letter."  His identity as Chinese American (and as a professor of Asian-American studies) puts him at an odd angle to the poem's presentation of Chinese identity, and draws his attention to the artifice by which Pound constructs, rather than discovers, that identity.  At the same time, though, Yu is himself a poet-scholar, one who has led a peripatetic life in several countries, one who travels for reunions with likeminded scholar-poets and reaches out to them by correspondence.  He is certainly someone who, as a state employee in Scott Walker's Wisconsin, feels at odds with the power elites with whom he is nevertheless connected in complex and subordinated ways.  He is, in short, both distanced from and intimately close to the attitudes and experiences embodied in "Exile's Letter."  What else to do with that old modernist poem, then, but to camp it up—as Yu does brilliantly?

Monday, June 15, 2015

Tragedy and the Gift of Death: How Game of Thrones Ended Season Five

Spectacles both violent and sexual; a world as fully imagined as Tolkien's; plot-lines as richly interwoven as a Celtic knot; a deep understanding of the compromised workings of power (and did I mention spectacles both violent and sexual)—there are plenty of things that draw people to HBO's Game of Thrones.  What really ropes me in, though, is the show's tragic sense of life, every bit as profound as what we see in the gritty realism of shows like The Wire or Treme.  And the final episode of season five risked a great deal by eschewing spectacle (the only battle took place off-screen) to deliver a meditation on the tragedy of human identity.

Tragedy, in the sense I mean it, is the conflict of ethical forces, in which choosing something good also means doing harm—and the ending of season five features a whole array of tragic situations, almost too many to synthesize, but let's start with events in the North.  Here, Brienne faces a classic tragic situation.  She stands watch over Winterfell, looking at the Old Tower for the light signaling that Sansa needs her, but is interrupted by Pod, bearing news that Stannis Baratheon is marching on Winterfell.  We see the agony in Brienne's eyes as she hesitates: should she keep watch for Sansa's signal, or chase down Stannis, the killer of the king she served?  It's a question that cuts to the core of who she is, a truly existential tragedy—because she has vowed to protect Sansa, and to avenge Renly's killer.  If she is true to one vow, she must betray the other, and this matters, because she lives by a code and she isn't just as good as her word: she is her word.  So who is she now? The guardian of Renly or of Sansa?  At the moment of truth, makes the painful choice of Renly, hunts down Stannis, and declares to him her identity and her mission.  Stannis is wonderfully written and played as a kind of stoic, and as one who chooses what he thinks of as right over what he wants, and he looks at Brienne with tired eyes and says "go on, do your duty," which she does by killing him.  He respects her code and commitment, and assents to it—but he doesn't know the tragedy of the situation, doesn't know that in killing him Brienne has betrayed her other vow, and missed Sansa's signal.  To claim her identity Brienne must kill (something we'll see again and again in this episode), but that isn't enough: her commitments conflict, and she can't be true to herself without also betraying herself.

Sansa, unaided by Brienne, faces a tragic choice of her own: to surrender her identity, everything that makes her her, or to risk death.  Caught while attempting to escape, she is told in no uncertain terms what will become of her in Winterfell: everything about her will be stripped away except her reproductive function.  Her self-respect, her identity, and perhaps even parts of her body, will be taken.  She will bear a son or two as heirs to the Bolton dynasty, and then even her womb will have no worth, and she—or whatever shred remains of her—will be annihilated.  She knows this, too, saying "if I am to die, let it be while there is still some of me left." The presence of Reek, the former Theon Grayjoy, makes the situation all too clear: he has been maimed, castrated, and psychologically destroyed to the point where he believes there is nothing left of him, that there is no Theon, only the slave called Reek.  It is seeing Sansa threatened with a similar fate that causes him to finally discover some small spark of his old identity, though, and he does what Brienne was unable to do: rescue Sansa.  But in choosing their identities—in choosing to be Theon and Sansa, rather than Reek and a nameless womb owned by the Boltons—they also must choose a probable death.  Trapped in the fortress when the troops return, they see no escape but a leap from the walls of Winterfell.  It is not certain that they have died, but it is possible, and it is a risk the characters knew they were taking.  Their tragedy was that they must choose identity or life, and they choose identity.  To be oneself, it seems, means to die.

Elsewhere in the north, the formula is reversed.  At the wall, the remaining members of the Night's Watch turn on Jon Snow for letting the Wildlings pass through the gates of the wall.  The Night's Watch has for centuries defined itself as the defenders of the North against the Wildlings, and Jon's embrace of those from beyond the wall is a threat to the only real identity these monkish warriors have left.  When they lead Jon outside and collectively kill him, they say, with each thrust of the knife, "for the Watch."  Even young Olly, to whom Jon was close, chooses his identity (as the last of his Wildling-slain family, as the youngest of the Watch) and in doing so must betray Jon.  We've seen him agonize between loyalties for several episodes, and now he must choose his group identity or his friend.  He choose the latter, and must kill to do it.

Meanwhile, far to the south, we see further variations on the tragic theme of identity and death.  The most notable moment in which someone claims their true identity takes place privately, belowdecks on a ship bound for King's Landing.  It is here that Jaimie Lannister confesses to Mycella that he is in fact her father, and she, saying that she knows, accepts him.  It seems for a moment like a rare moment in a show where identity seems to be tied to killing or dying, but only for a moment.  As private as the scene seems to be, it is as enmeshed in webs of clannish conflict as everything else in Game of Thrones: Mycella has been poisoned by the Dornishwoman Ellisandra, who, in order to remain true to herself and her love of Oberon, must kill Mycella as revenge against the Lannisters. There is no escape from the web of conflict, and even Mycella is caught in tragedy: to remain loyal to Oberon, she must betray (and kill) not only Mycella but her own prince, too, who had forbidden acts of revenge.

In a kind of mirror-image reversal, we find that just as Jaime is confessing his incestuous relationship with Cersei to Mycella, Cersei is denying it.  Interrogated by the Grand Sparrow, she confesses to lesser sins, but will not betray her sexual love for her brother.  She has betrayed a part of herself, in that she says she has repented of her infidelity with Lancel when in fact she does not feel any real sense of sin, but it is a minor part of herself—and so it is fitting that she doesn't face actual death, but a kind of symbolic death, her hair shorn, her body stripped naked and paraded through the city.  It is meant to be a kind of symbolic sacrifice, a death of her old sinful identity and a chance for her to be reborn in terms that the (deeply unappealing) Faith Militant sees as redeemed.  It doesn't work, of course: after she returns to the Red Keep, she vows revenge.  A new, hidden-faced knight (The Mountain resurrected as a kind of Frankenstein's monster) will be the tool of her revenge.  This works in a couple of ways. Firstly, it is fitting that a kind of Frankenstein's monster will be Cersei's means of revenge against the Faith Militant, since the Faith Militant, in its modern incarnation, is her own out-of-control creation, her own Frankenstein's monter. More importantly, it shows that to reassert one's identity one must embrace violence or even kill—something we've seen with the Watch, and in a way with Sansa and Theon, and with Ellisandra of Dorn, and with Brienne.  Respect for life and respect for one's own identity don't seem to be compatible in the tragic world of Game of Thrones

Is there, one wonders, any release from tragedy?  Is there any way to be true to oneself without being enmeshed in webs of violence and death? These questions get addressed most directly in Arya Stark's storyline, and in her relationship with the Faceless Men.  The Faceless Men serve the Many-Faced God, a kind of deity of merciful death.  They assist in the suicide of the hopeless, and they themselves renounce identity, saying that they are no one and changing their faces at will.  Arya, who has trained to learn their ways, wavers when she sees one of the men who betrayed her family, and on whom she has vowed revenge.  Against the instructions of the Faceless Men, she uses the shape-shifting skills she's learned from them to get close to him, then kills him.  The killing is an assertion of her identity—"Do you know who I am?" she asks, as she prepares to slit his throat, "I'm Arya Stark."  For her, as for so many others in the episode, to claim her identity means to kill.  We feel for her, and most of us will root for her: she has been wronged, she has been plucky and strong and heroic and focused and admirable, she has been a survivor.  But she has to choose between respect for life and respect for her own identity: she can't have both.  Game of Thrones is drenched in blood because everyone who tries to be true to himself or herself must kill. Unless there's a way out.  And this escape from the cycle of clan violence is exactly what the ascetic cult of the Faceless Men proposes.

When the Faceless Men confront Arya about what she has done, they say she must be punished, and offer her a vial of poison.  Just as it seems she must drink it, though, the man who has offered it to her, her mentor, drinks it instead.  At first this seems to be a Christ-like act, a taking on of someone else's sins and sacrificing oneself in their stead.  But it turns out to be much more: when Arya touches the face of the dead man, she pulls it away, revealing another face, then another, then another. Finally, she sees her own face.  What does this mean? It seems to be an indication that the Faceless Men don't just renounce their individual identity and shift faces: they believe in a fundamental unity of all living things, in a great Identity larger than any individual identity, and in which we all partake. That is why their god has no individual name, and why he has many faces.  That is why they have no names.  They renounce individual identity and individual ego, and see death not as a means to preserve themselves, assert their identities, or avenge those who have wronged them, but as an escpae from self-identity, as a kind of gift or deliverance from the tragic world where to be someone in particular is to kill.  If there is a transcendence of the tragic sense of life, in Game of Thrones, it is in the renunciations of the Faceless Men.  And Arya, struck blind at the moment when this becomes clear, is likely to remain blind until she understands.

Or perhaps that last statement of mine is a bit too credulous about the Faceless Men.  On the one hand, there's a lot to indicate that we're meant to take their position seriously.  The man Arya kills is clearly an odious person: he tortures little girls in order to feel big and powerful.  But the show asks us to question whether this is all that different from what Arya does when she kills him to affirm her own identity as a Stark.  Certainly he's bad, and the girls are innocent, but both he and Arya are violent, and violent in the service of their own sense of self.  We're reminded of the similarity of the two by the image of blindness: before she kills the man, Arya stabs his eyes out as punishment; later, the Faceless Men make Arya blind for her sins.  On the other hand, there are reasons to wonder whether we're meant to take the asceticism of the Faceless Men as the moral center of Game of Thrones.

The richly imagined nature of the fictional world of Game of Thrones gives us the opportunity to historicize the ethos of the Faceless Men.  They are a cult of Braavos and, although the history of Braavos is only hinted at in the HBO version of Game of Thrones, we do get to know that the city was founded by slaves escaping from the destruction of the Valyria.  Their ethos is entirely different from that of the aristocratic one we see in the houses of Westeros, with its clan-pride sense of honor, and and it can be interpreted as what Nietzsche would have called a slave morality.  The idea of renunciation, in this view, makes sense for those whose lives and individual identities are primarily matters of suffering.  The truth of renunciation, the truth of Faceless Men, in this view, isn't truth in an absolute sense, but truth of a historically contingent kind: truth that makes sense for certain people in certain circumstances. And if Arya had acted upon it, we can only imagine the kind of monstrosities the man she killed would have committed, not only with the girls he had with him, but with others.  Moreover, the kind of stripping of identity that the Faith Militant forces onto Cersei is also a kind of renunciation, a shedding of identity in preparation for a rebirth, and it is presented as a violence forced upon her.  She's certainly a person capable of great wickedness, but it's hard not to see the Faith Militant as having violated her here: in Game of Thrones, even the ethos of renunciation can become a weapon used against the unwilling, a version of Ramsay Bolton's sadistic destruction of others—and even the humility of someone like the Grand Sparrow can become a higher form of egotism.  Is there a way out of the blood-drenched cycle of ego, attachment, and pride in identity? If so, it is a way every bit as vulnerable to corruption as everything else in the tragic world in which Game of Thrones strands us.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Charles Simic’s Stones: Three Speculations

I remember lying in a ditch and staring at some pebbles while German bombers were flying over our heads. That was long ago. I don’t remember the face of my mother nor the faces of the people who were there with us, but I still see those perfectly ordinary pebbles.  
“It is not ‘how’ things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists,” says Wittgenstein. I felt precisely that. Time had stopped. I was watching myself watching the pebbles and trembling with fear. Then time moved on and the experience was over.

Not long ago I was working on a review of some books by Charles Simic when there was a knock at the door. It was a colleague of mine, a biologist, asking if I wanted to hit the bike trails. I did, but I also wanted to show him the passage above, from one of Charles Simic’s essays in The Life of Images, his selected prose. “Why,” I asked, “do you suppose Simic remembered those pebbles?” 

There were so many other things that one thinks might have taken precedence in his mind on that horrible day in Belgrade at the end of the Second World War, when as a child Simic had feared for his life.  I told my colleague the theory I’d been mulling over, and with his help—and his expertise—developed two more.

The Uncanniness of Stones 

Decades ago, James Atlas classed Simic among the "stones and bones" poets, whose imagery seemed inevitably to involve one or another, and Simic's fascination with stones has not abated since: earlier this year, I stood outside a small museum on the Upper West Side, talking to a poet I admire, a poet committed to eloquence in expression and the beauties of traditional forms of rhetoric. Simic's name came up, and the poet told me he always pictured Simic holding a stethoscope up to a chunk of rock, listening for some deep message, for a cryptic Truth. "It's a stone, Charlie! Give it up!" he said miming an action that looked something like grabbing a poet by the shoulders and shaking some sense into him.

Simic has long been aware of how his fascination with stones is seen in some quarters, and even responded to Atlas, saying:
...people have written genuinely about stones and are interested in a stone as the utmost kind of presence. A stone is the uttermost limit; there’s nothing beyond stone. It’s an object of incredible interest and variety. I like stones. I love stones. Stone is so alien to us, distant from us, that any attempt to speak across that distance is interesting... 
Simic's sense of stones as being in our world but alien to it seemed important to me as a way into the passage about the pebbles and the bombers, and was the basis of my first theory of their memorability.

As he lay in the ditch, the young Simic was struck not by the bombers or by the people around him, but by the stones. But weren't they the least relevant of details in the scene? Well, maybe that was precisely their fascination: there they were, palpable, immediate, but also strange—because they were both within but also somehow outside the human context of war. They were part of the scene of fear and carnage, but fear and carnage meant nothing to them. And no outcome of the scene, or of the war, would make a difference to them: they would endure in any dystopian, utopian, apocalyptic or muddled outcome. They were there at hand, the most ordinary of things, but they were also absolutely divorced from human experience, and from the context of war, which was the only context that could matter to Simic at that moment. They were familiar, these stones, even mundane—but at the same time deeply alien.

This simultaneity of the familiar and the strange is, of course, the very definition of the uncanny—that most fascinating and disconcerting category of aesthetics. Certain creepy dolls are uncanny, like us but unlike us; the experience of déjà vu is uncanny, and Simic's pebbles were uncanny, too: hence the way they lodged more firmly in his memory that any other, more clearly relevant, detail.

The Neurobiology of Frightened Rats

My colleague listened to my thoughts about the uncanny patiently—he always takes an interest in humanistic ideas—but I could tell he was not entirely convinced.  I asked what he thought, and he told me he imagined it may have more to do with the neurobiology of memory.  We're still in the early stages of understanding these things, but experiments have indicated that fear has an important effect on memory formation, and Simic's experience seemed consistent with some findings in recent experiments.  The one my colleague recounted in some detail had to do with how rats remember maze navigation routes.  The general idea is: frightened rats seem to have much better spatial memory than rats do under normal conditions, and better visio-spatial perceptions.  Apparently under conditions of great stress, the brain processes visual and spatial information differently than it does under ordinary circumstances, probably for reasons readily enough explained by the invocation of Darwin: it is a positive survival trait to be able to remember how one found one's way to safety under extremely frightening circumstances.

This certainly correlates with my own experience, and that of others, during extreme situations: I remember quite clearly the moment after a suddenly opened car door collided with my bicycle and sent me flying through the air.  When my helmet hit the pavement, it seemed to drag along the surface for a long time, and I remember thinking "why can't I pull my head up? I've got to pull my head up!" Of course there was no chance to pull my head up: the moment of impact was barely a second, but my brain, through some complex form of chemistry, was processing the experience differently than it would otherwise.  Time seemed stretched out, and sensations that would have seemed instantaneous under ordinary experience came to me in great detail.  Simic's brain, in that ditch in the war, would have been working quite differently than it normally would have.

But why the pebbles?  Here my colleague invoked the thinking of C.D. Broad, the man Aldous Huxley famously quoted in The Doors of Perception.  Broad, a Cambridge-based philosopher of mind, had said:
...the function of the brain and the nervous system and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive.... The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.
In extreme circumstances, said my colleague, the mind doesn't know what is likely to be useful, and ceases to filter for probable relevance—hence the better visio-spatial perceptions and memories of frightened rats; hence the strange experience of time and space I had during my cycling accident; hence the openness of Simic's mind to levels of detail, and to things in a scene not deemed relevant under ordinary circumstances.  Hence, too, Simic's sense of time having stopped, and the searing of those stones into his memory.  Of course he would be haunted by them, and wonder what they meant—of course they would become uncanny.  And a sense of the uncanniness of those pebbles would form the habitual patterns of his imagination, populating his poems with eerie, uncanny stones.

The Faces of the Dead

But one detail still remained unexplained: why would Simic not remember the faces of his mother and the other people in the ditch with them?  It seems one wouldn't forget the expression on one's mother's face at a time like that, especially if you were, as Simic was, a child.  One possible answer as to why Simic wouldn't remember comes from a small verbal tic in another of his essays, written two years after the essay about the bombing, and dealing with the end of the war:
It was the day after the liberation of Belgrade.  I was up in the fairgrounds by St. Mark's church with a few older boys, more or less snooping around.  Then, all of a sudden, we saw them!  Two German soldiers, obviously dead, stretched out on the ground.  We drew closer to take a better look.  They had no weapons.  Their boots were gone, but there was a helmet, which had fallen off to the side.  I don't remember what the others did, but I went for the helmet.  I tiptoed so as not to wake the dead men.  I also kept my eyes averted.  I never saw their faces, even if sometimes I think I did. Everything else about that moment is still intensely clear to me.
Everything remembered with intensity: this is consistent with the way memories are often formed under conditions of fear.  But the faces are somehow not remembered.  Or are they?  "I never saw their faces, even if sometimes I think I did," he writes.  Why would he think he did? Why would everything else have been seen, but not the faces? One answer, which can only be speculative, is that he did see the faces of the dead men, and that the memory tries to come back, to swim to the surface of the conscious mind—but that Simic will not, or cannot, admit such a traumatic sight into his known world.  He needs to admit something else, something less horrible, in place of those images, remembers the rest of the scene with great clarity instead.  Everything brightens, to help dim the unacceptable image, which refuses, entirely, to go away.

We might apply a similar speculation to the scene in the ditch: the unremembered faces must have been seen, and the sight of one's own mother in terror would be too much for a child—such a sight reveals the ultimate powerlessness of one's protector, the ultimate exposure of us to deadly forces beyond our control.  It's not a sight to remember: and one must put something else in its place, something less threatening, something that connects us, somehow, to a world beyond the context of the war.  And then there are the pebbles, waiting, there, in but also outside the war.  They fill the space otherwise inhabited by trauma.  And they'll fill that space in Simic's poetry until the day he dies.


The review I was working on when my friend came to the door will cover Simic's The Life of Images:Selected Prose and his collection of poems The Lunatic.  It will appear in Boston Review later this year.