Thursday, May 19, 2011

Poetics of Displacement

"If poetics, the term in general, has any meaning, it's attempting to find a form that's adequate to its historical moment" — Joshua Clover

I realized, as I looked at the scuffed-up paint on the walls of my dining room, that I'd been living in my current house longer than I've ever lived anywhere: about nine years.  In my generation, that's still a pretty short version of long-term residency: many of us grew up in the same house our parents lived in when we were born, and didn't leave until education or a job took us away.  Now, though, people seem to have become more peripatetic, at least in the United States: the rule of thumb among realtors is that people who own the places in which they live move every six or seven years, while renters do the same every four years or so.

This dislocated way of living — I'm sure a more sociological thinker than I could link it to the state of capital/labor relations in the globalized economy in a couple of bar-graph laden Powerpoint slides — can't help but have an effect on poetry.  In fact, a quick look at a couple of poems by two people whose work I admire, Calvin Forbes and John Matthias, combined with a glance at one of my own efforts, shows that all three of us have reacted to the same great whirlwind of displacement, but done it differently, adapting the poetic resources at hand to the problem of home-yearning in a world that constantly uproots us.

Calvin Forbes' poem "Homing," from his 2001 collection The Shine Poems, begins with a desire to get back home, a desire tied to that most visceral, Proustian of senses, taste:

The water's wonderful there
And the women aren't bad
Neither when you look at them
Twice, but the blame

Lies in that glass from the tap
For making me want to go back.

It sounds like we're in for a poem about the unshakable, rootedness of our experiences in our original homes: there's a particular sweet water taste the speaker remembers in his bones, a taste that calls him back.  But in the middle of the second quatrain things shift, and we start to encounter impediments to our return to a yearned-for home.  I think it's significant, too, that the speaker turns out to be in motion, on a highway: the highway a sign of our mobile, displaced condition, and pretty iconically American:

I went looking for where they get
It from but I got a ticket

For speeding; and when I said
I'm Mister Shine, a black ghost,
Cop said that's too bad.
Glow I was lost.

"Mister Shine" is a character from African-American folklore, a figure who appears in various songs, toasts, and stories.  Some say he's based on an actual historical figure, others say he's a kind of African-American Everyman, with his last name being a reference to the old racist use of the word "shine" to refer to black people (it occurs in this sense in a Louis Armstrong song).  Here, and throughout the last section of The Shine Poems he's a kind of ghost, as he sometimes is in the oral tradition.  Forbes has elaborated on the folkloric figure, giving him a girlfriend named "Glow" and a son named "Shade."  Some of this will be important later in the poem, but at this point Forbes chooses to treat the mention of the speaker's identity as a digression, and gets back to the topic of water:

But my sermon is about the water,
How it's precious like family
When you wanting something familiar.
It made me happy —

It taste like baby's breath,
Like dew.  I never knew sweeter water.

Family, simple happiness, the mention of babies and religion: we're in some pretty primal home-territory here, redolent of childhood and stability, all evoked by the taste of the water of a specific locality.  Surely we're on our way back to the source, the first home, the roots.  Or maybe not.  The poem continues with another sudden turn:

But I'm a spook's spook; I stole
This story from a dead man's mouth.

"A spook's spook" can mean a couple of different things: it could mean "an African-American's ghost," or it could mean something like what "a poet's poet" means: here, an African-American's African-American.  In the first case, it's a kind of a statement of essence — the speaker is literally the spirit of a black man.  In the second case, it's a statement of cultural authenticity.  So whatever comes next will be, as far as the poem is concerned, a statement coming close to the core of African-American experience.  And the thing that comes next is a statement of displacement: of saying that one's story — here, a story about one's deepest longings for home — is "stole[n]," is somehow an adaptation.  What does this mean?  Well, the poems next, and final, stanza elaborates on just that, by telling us about the man whose story about sweet water and home Mister Shine has stolen:

He was a preacher from Virginia
Who before he expired said:
Somewhere there's a well of sweet water.
Somewhere in Ohio or maybe Carolina.

The story Mister Shine tells is a about home represents a displacement of sorts, coming as it does from another man.  And when we look at that other man's story, we find it, too, contains a kind of displacement: the sweet water of home for which he yearns comes from a place he can't even name with any certainty: "Ohio, or maybe Carolina."  This is powerful stuff, because it opens up a kind of long-term, maybe infinite, deferral of home or origins.  The mobile, displaced Mister Shine yearns for home and has to steal another man's story about it.  And the preacher from whom he stole the story was, himself, telling a story about a place he doesn't really remember, and may never have known.  The prospect of an infinite, unending yearning for home opens out to us.  In the yearning for sweet water we can taste a bit of that African-American yearning for lost origins, for the unknowable Africa from which their ancestors were stolen, and to which there is no real returning.  An African-American colleague of mine once pointed out something that should have been obvious to me, but wasn't: I can trace at least some of my ancestry back to specific villages in France's Dordogne and even, thanks to DNA testing, back to certain regions in prehistoric times — but odds are she'll never know where her people came from, except at the vague level of the continent of Africa.  The way she said it showed me that it hurt to be in that condition.  Forbes' poem takes up the idea of displacement and the yearning for home, and, by filtering through the folkloric poetics of Mister Shine, ties it to an enormous historic experience of racial displacement.  The poem can't take him home to the place of sweet water, but it can tie him to the collective experience of an entire people (if my imagined sociologist were to continue his Powerpoint demonstration of the effects of globalized capital on people's sense of home, I'd hope he'd have a slide dealing with the slave trade, cotton plantations, and the textile industry as the one of the first great displacements of labor in the name of capital).

So that's Calvin Forbes' "Homing." Back in the early 1970s another American poet, John Matthias, wrote a piece with a remarkably similar title, "Homing Poem," which first appeared in the collection Turns.  This poem, too, comes out of feelings of displacement and homelessness, but the treatment of the theme is different.  Instead of a folkloric poetics, we get a kind of Poundian modernism.  Matthias, who had been involved in the radical politics of the time, and who'd had a rather traumatizing experience of the police riot at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968, was relocating to England, hoping for a peace of mind that had evaded him in the American upheaval of the 60s and early 70s (our sociologist wants us to look at some Powerpoint slides having to do with Vietnam, neo-colonialist capitalism and civil unrest, but he seems to be having trouble with his laptop).  The poem — slighter than most of Matthias' work, but exactly right for our purposes — begins like this:

An acre, a rod,
and eleven
perches of land

The stone walls
The thirteen towers

And all tithes
& corn & hemp & flax

Unornamented, free of adjectives, all concretion unmixed with abstraction, devoid of the narrative or essayistic: these trim little lines are clearly the product of a poet who has put himself to school at Pound's Ezuversity (distance education branch).  But the Poundianism isn't just a matter of form: there's a kind of ethos at work here that Pound would recognize, a kind of deeply American yearning for Europe as a rooted place, a place where every inch of soil felt as a link to the past.  God knows most Europeans get through the day without feeling the Medieval ruins beneath their feet, or thinking about the continuity of culture from Socrates to Sarkozy.  But the Pound/Eliot wing of American expat modernism is all about experiencing Europe as the living past, or at least as a society with roots and a steadying historical ballast.  And the imagery in these lines, along with their language — with the archaic means of measurement like rods and perches and old-school terms for financial arrangements like tithes — indicates that the landscape the speaker contemplates is deeply redolent of the past.  It's a rooted place this self-exiled American has come to, or so he believes.  But is it — can it be — his place?  The next three stanzas gives us a clue:

An acre, a rod,
and eleven
perches of land

The stone walls
The thirteen towers

And all tithes
& corn & hemp & flax

Inept though I may be with computers, that is not a cut & paste error: the final three stanzas of Matthias' "Homing Poem" are an exact repetition of the first three.  But why?  I mean, it's not like he's getting paid by the word.  The answer, I think, is this: the repetition indicates a kind of willfulness, an insistence that this place that the speaker surveys (and it does read like a survey, with all those rods and perches and crop listings) is somehow his place.  This insistence, of course, indicates that the place is only imperfectly his.  Someone who really belongs somewhere doesn't have to insistently will a sense of belonging or ownership.  The privilege of belonging somewhere is that you don't have to think about that belonging, you just embody it unselfconsciously.  Here we see someone not at home, but 'homing' — seeking to attach himself to a place.  We don't know if he'll ever achieve the sense of belonging and being-at-home that he wants: we just catch him in the act of trying to incant that sense of belonging into existence.

"Home and Variations" — the title poem of a book I wrote that (ahem) makes a fine gift for all occasions and can be ordered from the Salt Publishing web site — takes up the same kind of theme we've seen in Forbes and Matthias.  I'm not quite sure how to explain the poetics of the piece, except perhaps to begin by noting that much of it was a deliberate attempt to cut myself off from the Poundian modernism — imagist strictures, history — that had been so important to me as an undergraduate, and later, in graduate school, when I was Matthias' student.  So I wanted to be as abstract as possible, and to find a kind of music in the sound of abstraction as it repeated.  I think, somewhere in the back of my mind, was the sound I'd heard once, as I sat studying late at night in a library.  Nearby, a guy who clearly thought he was alone, was studying for what must have been a text on analytic philosophy, and he kept repeating to himself little bits of propositional language that I now recognize as coming from Wittgenstein.  Anyway, the poem begins like this:

Some stay in one place.
Others move. Still others move
from place to place, staying
for a while. But some
stay in one. And if they think of this,
they call it “home.” Stop.

I also liked the idea of "stop" as a kind of telegram-sounding out of punctuation.  And I wanted the rhythm of a thinking, obsessing mind to have some sort of break to it.  (Now that I look back, I realize that I took a whole lot of cues from the poetry of Randolph Healy, especially the wonderful "Colonies of Belief").  But maybe that's all neither here nor there.  Maybe we should get back to the poem, which eventually arrives at a statement of displacement:

And if those who stay in one place
and know it are at home, others, moving, or
moving place to place to stay
and move, are not.
And if they know it, know
they’re not at home. Stop.
And if they stayed in one place and moved on
and if they know it, then they know that
when they hadn’t moved, they were at home.
Whether they knew it. Whether they not.
And if they left and know they left
they feel a lack.

So there it is, the sense of lack you feel if you've moved.  But even if you don't move, you're likely to feel this kind of lack: it's a Heraclitan universe out there, and all things flow.  Even if you stay in the old neighborhood, the old neighborhood won't stay as it was just for you:

And others stay in one place. And if
they stay and the place won’t stay as
the place they knew was the place that’s “home” they feel
a lack. Stop. And this tells.

What to do, then, in this world that changes even when we stay put? (One may imagine our sociologist's Powerpoint demonstration continuing with a few maps indicating gentrification, urban decay, white flight, the growth of the interstate highway system, and perhaps a few charts about capital flows and the movement of jobs out of the urban core).

And some who feel a lack will fill
the lack they feel. Stop. And my father
played the phonograph. Played sea chanteys,
played Hank Snow. Played them till my mother,
or went and played them till they stopped. Stop.

All that's true, by the way.  I can still, when plied with enough gin, give a fair rendition of a lot of old chanteys, most of which seem to include the refrain "around that cape we all must go!"  But what do these songs have to do with displacement and the yearning for home?

Played at being with the sailors, played at being
with Hank Snow. Played at doing what
they did, which wasn’t play. Stop. If work
was what men did with hands and tools
on farm and sea and if my father’s father worked
with hands and tools but didn’t sing. Would the
singing of the sailors would the singing of Hank Snow
be singing so my father he could play at
being home. Stop.

The songs, I suppose, were a way of invoking my expatriate American father's lost, working class home in Ohio, a world of glass blowers and bricklayers and shop stewards that he left behind at sixteen, for the Marines, then for beatnik ramblings, then for art school and academe.  It was a path of personal fulfillment, but also of cutting himself off from his roots, by upward mobility, by education, and by many hundreds of miles of geography.  If you're not too bored to look at another Powerpoint slide, you could glance over at the one showing now, which is all about gemeinschaft and gesselschaft, and includes some kind of statement about how, in the era of capitalism, all that seemed solid about social relationships melts into air.  Maybe the idea to write in a kind of bloodless, disorientingly abstract language, with just a trace of specific personal detail was a way of trying to convey, at the level of form, something about this modern, abstract, rootless way of life — I mean, most of us are more familiar with tax forms than folk tales, nowadays.  But speaking of personal detail: the poem ends with the presence of the poet, me, impersonally, in the third person:

                                    And if his son who moved, and
moved from place to place. Whether he wanted.
Whether he not. If he thought of father thinking father
thinking work and farm and home would
the thinking take him farther would the thinking take him home.

Here we're sort of back in the place we were in at the ending of Forbes' poem: looking to someone else's yearning for home, and yearning through it for an ever-more-distant version of lost belonging.  I'm not sure why I didn't want to end with a question mark: perhaps it was a desire to keep the poem kind of flat and declarative.  If Forbes invokes a whole collective experience of displacement, I wanted to invoke something much less community-oriented.  I suppose I wanted to give a sense of the soulless, modern, bureaucratic world, the Weberian "iron cage" of modernity.  And to give a sense of the yearning, within that cultural condition, for an older, more rooted way of being.  It's all very young suburban white boy angsty, really.

Anyway: one widely felt element of the moment we live in — let's call it "late capitalism," and let's date it from, say, 1945 — is surely a sense of displacement.  But (to echo Joshua Clover) what are the poetics adequate for this moment?  I suppose my answer would be that they are plural: folkloric in Forbes' case, Poundian for Matthias, and, in my own case, whatever kind of odd mash-up of impulses we find behind "Home and Variations."  While Kenneth Goldsmith recently claimed that the kind of poetry he cares about is "the most contemporary" kind of poetry, I just can't buy it.  We're all contemporary, and face a shared historical condition — but we find our own ways of doing it.