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?