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The Graph Poem–A Manifesto

September 7th, 2016 margento No comments

Photo (c) Benediktas Janusevicius

The manifesto was presented at the TEXT-WORLD — World-TEXT Symposium (on the relationship between experimentation, politics, and literature) at Forum Stadtpark (Graz, Austria), June 17-18, 2016; the symposium was organized as part of the CROWD Omnibus Reading Tour (http://crowdlitbus.eu/eu.crowd-literature/#/start).

Also published on frACTalia, http://www.fractalia.ro/2016/06/01/chris-tanasescu-margento/

The Graph Poem. A Manifesto

Graphs—networks of nodes connected by (multiple) edges, ever-ramifying, ever-expanding, ever (dis)connecting—are both the micro- and the macrocosmos of poetry. A poem works when there is coherence between its microcosm and its macrocosm, its quantum level and its multiverse, its inner and outer graphs, its code and its interface—when the “personal” is indeed political and the political is inevitably (im/non/multi)personal.

When the community is so mathematically and digitally translatable that it loses both its (projected) commonalities and its uni([d]enti)ty/ies in translation, and the graph poem reassembles it as toolkit and database.
(We’re actually already there; the question is now what kind of database; it is perhaps for no reason that on the semantic web and in scalable RDF storage, the cutting-edge are… graph databases.)

Poetry iterates (Falstaff: “O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed able to corrupt a saint”) translation within iconization through re(im)mediation.

The graph [within/as/around the] poem renders translation topological (Theseus: “to airy nothing/ a local habitation and a name”), iconization asemic (within and without the vernacular; also, Peter Barry: “there is no such thing as reading […], rather, there is ‘just looking’”), and absorbs remediation into intermedia & polymedia(tion).

Abigail Susik: “[T]he operations of the meme suddenly empty the image of one meaning only to fill it with the next. This occurs through a rash of collectively executed permutations, exhausting the image’s reserves and precluding canonical preservation in the future. The meme is constantly recoded by perceivers, rather than decoded […]”

Charles Bernstein wrote some years ago: “Digital poetry 2003: In 1975, everyone was worried about the idea that language is code; in 2003, everyone is worried that code is language.”

In 2015, everybody is thrilled that the digital has a reality principle of its own, as digital space goes beyond the real-virtual binary opposition. We don’t need and we can’t afford to wait another 30 years as in Bernstein’s statement to see the flip side of the coin. It’s not only that the digital is a universe in its own right. Physicists say there is actually a possibility that our world itself is merely a simulation. The universe is a computational app. Interfering with that, accounting for that, enacting that is the job of contemporary poetry.

Tell that, tell the world is an app to the victims of the civil war in Syria, to the refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean and elsewhere, to those in the Afghan hospital recently bombed by the Americans “by mistake.” To the children starving and not affording education in Somalia. To the victims of the Russian troops illegally stationed and “secretly” backing up the Russophone separatists in Transnistria, Moldova. In Kenya a woman is raped every 30 minutes. In India—every 20 minutes. Tell those women the world is an app. Then give them a voice. That is also contemporary poetry’s job.

Literally. If there are people in the “3rd world” starving but still owning a cell or even a smartphone—and if this proves the worldwide penetration of the military-industrial complex—this also represents an opportunity for “us,” the “others,” to hear everybody, be connected to everybody, include everybody in our performance/poem while we are included in theirs. Poetry is the tab, the pad, and the board.

“The tens of thousands of migrants who have flooded into the Balkans in recent weeks need food, water and shelter, just like the millions displaced by war the world over. But there is also one other thing they swear they cannot live without: a smartphone charging station.

‘Every time I go to a new country, I buy a SIM card and activate the Internet and download the map to locate myself,’ Osama Aljasem, a 32-year-old music teacher from Deir al-Zour, Syria, explained as he sat on a broken park bench in Belgrade, staring at his smartphone and plotting his next move into northern Europe.” (Mattew Brunwasser, “A 21st-Century Migrant’s Essentials: Food, Shelter, Smartphone,” New York Times)

Hi, I am Youjin! I’m making the first real documentary on digital nomads. For the last few years, I’ve interviewed traveling freelancers, remote workers and founders of distributed startups. I feel a revolution is happening with many people replacing the “template” life at home and instead flying out in to the world, to live and work from anywhere. They are people buying a one way ticket and I want to tell their stories. I need your help to make this possible. https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLe8GPIAc1-T-zzofV33On0G9ZsfsRgblP&v=Mnm0q4husfU

The lines of flight the migrant can take across maps—quite often thanks to the “territorializing” mapping apps—are both prompted and sectioned by thick mapping and by (the music’s, by the livestream across-border-and-across-time-zone collective performances’) vertical time:

text

Fragments as echoic nomadic statements, echostates. On-journey-through-the-states recyclopedia. Echostates in chaos media.

[An echostate from a forthcoming article on Gellu Naum:]. In his development and exemplification (by analyzing George Oppen’s poem “Route”) of the concept of “placing poetry,” Ian Davidson seems more preoccupied with “circulating entities” which represent or bring about the “place of travel [that] becomes place,” such as the car (or the invading Nazi tank in Oppen’s poem) “continually placing its occupants in different contexts.”6 While journeying and movement are ubiquitous in Gellu Naum’s poetry, I find more relevant to his poetics a question that Davidson asks a bit later in relation to placing: “Is it possible to conceive of a language that is on the move, which users are always placing, but is never placed?”7 This latter direction is perhaps more useful in examining Naum’s poetry—and not only—, but it still needs to be taken to the next level, particularly with a further emphasis on “placing” read as an action expressed by an intransitive verb, place-in-progress, place-as-process, and specifically, place-as-performance, especially if corroborated with studying the dynamism and processuality instilled and explored by poetry in (and as) place/ing.

Poets—secret legislators? Rather Mechanical Turk annotators.

Manual annotators, manuscript manufacturing manumitting amanuenses.

Dealing with, employing, and producing Big Data. Out of and into big data through data intensive approaches, that will be the way of contemporary poetry. The contemporary (graph) poem has to draw on “distant reading” and “cultural analytics” approaches; moreover, it has to represent an instance of distant reading in its own right; and it will have to become a distant reading tool.

The Manifold Scholarship platform of “iterative and networked monographs,” for instance, has done in the field of academic publishing what poetry has to do in the field of everything and everybody. Actually, the (graph) poem not only has to cover—culturally, (multi)lingually, performatively, in cross-artform and intermedia fashions—what the manifold monograph does academically, but it also has do the job of platforms as well. That is what the contemporary (graph) poem has to be like—iterative, networked, interactive, boundless, live—while also hosting and/or employing other poems, apps, [digital humanities] projects & tools, users, social media, games, virtual & augment(ally)ed reality, search engines, poems as queries to datasets, “conditional texts,” [real time] performance(s) and venue networks, updates, chatting, comments, etc.

The poetry graph is a multimonograph,
and its manifold form is that of the platform.

Where is the body (in a world of poetry as networked poems/people and platforms)? Most likely at the intersection of the “technological unconscious” and the “new unconscious.” Where the border between the digital and the flesh is totally blurred. The “traditional” (“page”) poem is the body as (re)created by the vibrations of (virtually) sensory subjective/self-perception. The digital poem is the body (re)shaped by the interaction with the virtual as digital affordance. In both, the poem is the (convergence of) media; the body included, as comm(onal/oral/)(un)ity. The graph poem is both of them, in both their [app(aren’t)] discrete differentiation and their contiguous asympto[(auto)ma]tic conjunction.

Speaking of scale, the graph poem proves being in
finite as a palpable inexhaustible di
(uni/multi)vers(e)ity; in terms of temp
orality and loc(k)al(l)ity, co-(t)here
nce brings about improbable connections, I(’)m-pro
viso others, and vicinities,
while asymptotically merging inkOherence & Inc
ou(n)ters into tempLate temples.


3 Martin Heidegger quoted in David M. Berry, Critical Theory and the Digital, 60.

4 Jerome Rothenberg, “The Steward’s Testimony,” in Triptych, 33.

5 David M. Berry, id., ibid.

 

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MARGENTO/Paget/Inkpen Paper Accepted to FLAIRS-29

March 8th, 2016 margento No comments

Automatic Classification of Poetry by Meter and Rhyme
MARGENTO (Chris Tanasescu), Bryan Paget, and Diana Inkpen

Abstract
In this paper, we focus on large scale poetry classification
by meter. We repurposed an open source poetry
scanning program (the Scandroid by Charles O. Hartman)
as a feature extractor. Our machine learning experiments
show a useful ability to classify poems by
poetic meter. We also made our own rhyme detector
using the Carnegie Melon University Pronouncing Dictionary
as our primary source of pronunciation information.
Future work will involve classifying rhyme and
assembling a graph (or graphs) as part of the Graph
Poem Project depicting the interconnected nature of poetry
across history, geography, genre, etc.

Introduction
The huge amount of data available in the digital age has attracted
the attention of major scholars and has developed
into its own research paradigm. There is no consensus as
to when data are large or complex enough to qualify as the
object of data-intensive research, especially since huge or
massive may mean completely different things in different
fields and disciplines, but Levallois, Steinmetz, andWouters
advance a relevant and potentially useful definition: “dataintensive
research [is] research that requires radical changes
in the discipline” involving “new, possibly more standardized
and technology-intensive ways to store, annotate, and
share data,” a concept that therefore “may point toward quite
different research practices and computational tools” (Levalois,
Steinmetz, and Wouters 2012). This paper introduces
our endeavour to redefine the scholarly approach to poetry
analysis by applying data-intensive research methods and
eventually mathematical graph theory.
The earliest stages of the Graph Poem Project (MARGENTO
2015) resulted in…

MORE at the FLAIRS Conference, see you in Key Largo…

 

Categories: The Graph Poem Tags:

MARGENTO & Inkpen Paper @ New Directions in the Humanities Conference 2015

June 17th, 2015 margento No comments

Chris Tanasescu (MARGENTO) & Diana Inkpen: “Poetry Computational Graphs: Applying Graph Theory in Poetry”

 

Excerpt:

… As we have already seen is the case of the previous publication in poetry computational analysis, collecting data and the features of the databases analyzed are more intimately related to the specifics and performance of the resulting classifiers and computational tools than one would suspect, and moreover, they also involve weighty even if implicit or unconscious cultural and literary choices.  But the issue is even far more complex than that.  Data in general and particularly the huge amount of data that is continuously made available and that grows exponentially in the digital age has attracted the attention of major scholars before and has actually meanwhile come to represent not only a self-sufficient subject and a challenge to a variety of disciplines, but even a new research paradigm.  This fourth paradigm succeeds according to Gray and Szalay (2007) three older ones, the experimental, theoretical, and simulation paradigms, and in computer science “it means that the term e-science is not primarily concerned with faster computation, but with more advanced database technologies.” (Levallois, Steinmetz, and Wouters 2013, 152)  For Jim Gray, a late computer scientist “celebrated as a visionary” (id.), we are witnessing the evolution of two branches in every discipline, “a computational branch and a data-processing branch” (ibid. 153), and the new field dedicated to studying such ramifications is called data-intensive research or data-intensive science.  There is no consensus as to when data are large or complex enough to qualify as object of data-intensive research, especially since huge or massive may mean completely different things in different fields and disciplines, but Levallois, Steinmetz, and Wouters advance a very relevant and potentially very useful definition: “data-intensive research [is] research that requires radical changes in the discipline” involving “new, possibly more standardized and technology-intensive ways to store, annotate, and share data,”  a concept that therefore “may point toward quite different research practices and computational tools.” (id.)

In the contributions quoted above the poem datasets are in the hundreds (the largest one, the Malay corpus containing 1,500 elements, while the other handful of papers ever published on computational poetry analysis employ significantly smaller sets or corpora), whereas our first paper—focusing on multilabel subject-based classifications of poems—analyzed over 11,000 poems in Poetry Foundation’s database, and since we have meanwhile consistently expanded our corpora by including material from more and more print and online sources, we can assert that the size of our databases and corpora can count as the basis for data-intensive research.

On the other hand, we do use different research practices in that we put together a model that analyzes poems comprehensively and not limiting the approach (as the precedent computational analysis approaches have) to only (one or several aspects of) one poetic feature—diction, subject, form, etc.  Moreover, using graph theory applications in analyzing both particular poems and poetry corpora is a completely novel poetry criticism and analysis practice, and it involves in its turn different computational tools than what has been used so far in the field.  These tools range from meter parsers to locating enjambments to assembling weighted graphs of poems and analyzing features such connectivity and spotting cut vertices.


from the Conclusions:

The Graph Poem Project is:

•The first big data poetry analysis project;
•The first data-intensive poetry project;
•The first application of graph theory in poetry computational analysis; with further poetry criticism and creative writing related benefits;
but, also has to:
•Keep developing the data-intensive work towards comprehensively covering the print and online poetry in North America, in the English language, and in English translation;
•Continue refining the tools (the issue of syntax in contexts of erratic punctuation; tropes).

 

http://thehumanities.com/…/program-and…/schedule-of-sessions

http://thehumanities.com

 

Categories: The Graph Poem Tags:

Daniela Gioseffi–In Search of a Poetry Community: On Being a Women Writer with an Italian Name in American Literature

April 24th, 2015 margento No comments

 

(Photo Credit: TKMultimedia.com)

 

 

 

 

 

Forging into the mainstream of American poetry with the Italian name “Daniela Gioseffi” was not an easy thing to do in the 1960′s. It was a bit like a Tarantella dancer trying to perform a classical ballet, but that fact hardly occurred to me—naïve and blithe spirit that I was then! My Italian-born father’s deeply passionate nature, his ability to empathize with other’s sorrow, joy, and longing—even when they were characters in poetic dramas and romantic novels—much inspired my writing. His histrionic sensibility was not in the stereotypic style of “all-American” culture. Perhaps, as an immigrant daughter, I felt I was among the misfits whose family manner or mode of expression was misunderstood in those literary circles dominated by T.S. Eliot recitations and modes of understated white Anglo Saxon angst.

Richard C. Robertiello and Diana Hoguet in their 1986 analytical text on the subject, The WASP Mystique[1], demonstrate that Latino-, Italian-, African-, and Jewish-American styles of communicating—modes with passionate displays, talk with gesticulation, animated body-language, folksy warmth and informality—were misunderstood by the “all-American” style of social behavior. Robertiello and Hoguet conclude that this emotional restraint has caused much neurosis in ethnic peoples, and sometimes in white Anglo-Saxon Protestants themselves. These polite inhibitions seemed to dominate literary styles, and particularly during my college years, they made any display of passion in poetry seem unacceptable.

At the same time, it seemed there was a kind of “passion envy” afoot in “all American” life and art, the sort of fascination which had made Hollywood characters like Valentino fascinating for my father’s generation and which would make Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and John Travolta fascinating in later decades. I recall that a student-poet named Frances Vanderbilt Whyatt—in workshop sessions, which I attended early on at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery—wrote a poem titled, “The Passion Through Daniela’s Window,” in response to my work. I was embarrassed by a quality I had not realized others saw in my writing. In any case, the Italian operatic style in which my father read literature to me as a child motivated me to write poetry and caused much of my work to have an ornate emotional or dramatic content.

My identification with the drama of my father’s immigrant struggle against prejudice and discrimination was strong because of the feeling with which he related the painful stories of his youth. His family, like many others in southern Italy in the early part of the century, came to the United States to escape poverty and hunger, only to be met with bigotry. His father, Galileo, sought his fortune, as so many men of his Mezzogiorno[2] village did then, in the New World, later sending for his family via steerage passage. My father and his family were to be met with much prejudice and snobbery in their attempt to Americanize themselves and assimilate.

I inherited my love of literature from a poor, hardworking, immigrant father who had struggled to achieve an education. His constant quoting of Shakespeare to me as I grew was, and still is, an important influence on my themes and style. He’d memorized the Bard’s plays while tending a parking lot at night, and working his way through Union College with an ambition to learn the English language better than his American tormentors. Felix Stefanile[3], an Italian American poet, told me he deliberately portrays working men’s themes in classical, formalist style. Like my immigrant father, he wanted to use perfect English and metric form to portray ordinary lives.

My father’s first American teachers and his classmates had cruelly mocked his immigrant speech when he’d first arrived through Ellis Island in 1910. With very hard work and study, he amassed an extensive English vocabulary and spoke with eloquence. He wanted to use language better than his American classmates.  He admired Abraham Lincoln, and believed in the log-cabin mythos of Lincoln’s life—”the American Dream.” That dream forged my ambition as he read to me such authors as Cervantes when I was ten years old, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet–weeping with me at the finale. He loved Italian Renaissance painters whose work he would show me with pride in color-illustrated and much-treasured books he’d labored to buy. He was very proud of being an Italian and always told me anecdotal narratives of the lives of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Fermi, Caruso–those whom he considered to be the great Italian men.  However, he never mentioned a woman to admire in his stories of Italian accomplishment!

Since my father had always dreamed of becoming a writer, my writing has been an attempt to fulfill his dream for him. I can still picture him sitting with his back to us, hunched over his typewriter, forgoing the glories of a sunny afternoon, trying when he could, between the duties of his full-time-job as a chemical engineer, to become a writer. “American Sonnets to My Father” in my second book of poems, Word Wounds and Water Flowers (VIA/Bordighera 1995) written the year he died, 1981, is dedicated to him. It honors his struggle to be an American and tells of how I’ve attempted to fulfill his desire to be a published author. I managed to win a scholarship to the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony for the Arts the year he died and while there, walking alone in the woods, grieving his loss—he forever so dear to me—I wrote:

You died in spring, father, and now the autumn dies.

Bright with ripe youth, dulled by time,

plums of feeling leaked red juices- from your eyes,

pools of blood hemorrhaged in your quivering mind.

At forty, I climb Point Pinnacle, today,

thinking of you gone forever from me.

In this russet November woods of Millay,

I wear your old hat, Dear Italian patriarch, to see

if I can think you out of your American grave

to sing your unwritten song with me.

Your poetry, love’s value, I carry with your spirit.

I take off your old black hat and sniff at it

to smell the still living vapor of your sweat.

 

You worked too hard, an oldest child of too many,

a lame thin boy in ragged knickers, you limped

all through the 1920s up city steps, door to door

with your loads of night and daily newspapers, each worth

a cheap labored penny of your family’s keep.

You wore your heart and soles sore. At forty,

not climbing autumn hills like me, you lay with lung disease

strapped down with pain and morphine, hearing your breath

rattle in your throat like keys at the gates of hell.

Your body was always a fiend perplexing your masculine will.

You filled me with pride and immigrant tenacity. Slave

to filial duty, weaver of all our dreams, you couldn’t be free

to sing. So be it. You are done, unfulfilled by song except in me.

If your dreams are mine, live again, breathe in me and be.

 

You never understood America’s scheme.

Your wounded dream, father,

will never heal in me, your spirit mourns forever

from my breath, aches with childhood memory,

sighs for my own mortality in you,

which I, at last accept

more completely than ever when we

laughed together and seemed we’d go on forever –

even though we always knew

you would die much sooner than I

who am your spirit come from you.

Remember, “a father lost, lost his!” you told us,

preparing us with Shakespearean quotation

and operatic feeling for your inevitable death.

 

Good night, go gently, tired immigrant father

full of pride and propriety. We, your

three daughters, all grew

to be healthier, stronger, more American than you.

Sensitive father, I offer you this toast,

no empty boast, “I’ve never known a man braver!”

The wound that will not heal in me

is the ache of dead beauty.

Once full of history, philosophy, poetry,

physics, astronomy, your bright, high flying psyche

is now dispersed, set free from your tormented body,

but the theme you offered, often forlorn,

sheer luminescent soul, glistened with enough light

to carry us all full grown. (9-10)

Yet, my immigrant father with all his passions, and despite his sensitivity, had told me it was a useless endeavor for a female “meant for cooking and bearing children” to go to college. It was the men of my generation who left the home to achieve as professionals, not the women. When I dared to defy my father by going to college, I commuted only a few miles from home to a state institution in Montclair, New Jersey.

The message I heard from my father—that a daughter was less than a son—drove me into a feminist rebellion. I began to read such feminist sociopolitical critiques as those written by Emma Goldman[4], and I fondly quoted her declaration, “If I can’t dance, I won’t join your revolution.” I also greatly admired Isadora Duncan’s[5] rebelliousness.

This made women’s themes important in my early work, particularly my first book, a novel The Great American Belly (Doubleday 1977). It is a comic feminist satire that deals with an Italian American heroine, named Dorissa Femfunelli, who travels the country performing a feminist ritual dance celebrating childbirth and women’s nurturing ways. Dorissa—a Goddess worshipping eco-feminist—rebelled against patriarchal religions and her Italian father. At the same time, she was always anxiously seeking his approval.

In addition, an early poem of mine, entitled “Belly Dancer,” was used at the end of my novel to show the triumph of the birth-dancing heroine, Dorissa Femfunelli. The poem celebrates womanly powers and the ability to bring new life into the world:

An Etruscan priestess

through whom the earth speaks,

enters veiled; a mystery moves toward the altar.

Unknown features, shadow of death, of brows,

of eyes, mouth, lips, teeth of the night,

jaw thrust forward like a pelvis,

navel hidden, mysterious circuit,

electrical wire of the first cries

thrust from the womb.

Silk veils hover over her,

turn with a whirling gestures

—the  moon glows in her belly.

Her navel winks in an amorous quiver.

Amazing belly that stretches large enough

to let a life grow. She glides, dips, shimmies,

thrusts one hip, then another.

The music breaks. Pain fills the drum. She

falls to her knees, doubles  over, leans back on her heels

as her stomach flutters, rolls with contractions, upward,

downward. She raises her pelvis, arching, widening.

Arms rise like serpents from a flesh basket,

beat, caress, nip, shimmer the air with rhythmic

pulse. At last the bloody mystery emerges,

inch by inch the head presses through the lost hymen.

Her pain works into a smile.

as the decked and bejeweled mother

pushes out her ecstasy.

Formless fluid shot into her,

molded, fired in the secret oven,

emerges, a child crying: it lives!

Its voice rings in her finger cymbals.

 

She rests her body, slowly rises from the earth.

Her breasts fill with milk.  She shakes them:

these are food; I am life; I give food!

 

Woman, whose nerve-filled clitoris

makes her shiver, ecstatic mother, dance with a fury

around your circle of women.

Spin out the time locked in your own womb,

bloom from your uterus,  Lady of the Garden.

The moon pulls you, crashes waves on the shore.

Undulate the branches of your arms in the wind,

Goddess of Trees, of all living things.

Your flesh is not defiled by

men who can’t contain your mystic

energy of woman. Belly

that invites life to sleep in you,

breasts of mortal ambrosia,

Amazon groin that lit the hearth,

altar, oven, womb, bread, table, Earth

Mother, pagan witch of magic birth,

from whom all suck  leaves that flow

through the body’s blood,

cave of your sex, our home,

moon of earth, Great Mother! (180-2)

 

Thus, the poem portrays an ancient folk ritual performed by women as a birth dance in imitation of birth contractions. The performance of the belly dance was a primitive Lamaze type of exercise to prepare women for natural childbirth—the quintessential feminine dance of life and birth—counterpart to the male “war dance” or “dance of the hunt.” It became a café spectacle after being put on display at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, but had been a folk art ritual of the Middle East and the vineyards of Italy and Greece.

“Belly Dancer” became an important part of the theatrical performance “The Birth Dance of Earth: A Celebration of Women and the Earth.” It was a choreo-poem with music and dance which I performed on campuses and in theatres around the country, travelling from Miami to Milwaukee, San Francisco to Buffalo. During the performance, I danced, with other women joining in at the finale, joyously celebrating woman’s birth-giving and nurturing abilities.  The tour culminated in a performance at the Brooklyn Museum where the leading feminist artists of the day featured their works.

If my father had taught me that women were only meant for bearing children, I devised a liberating way of celebrating the fact, and making it a feminist ritual. My work on the belly dance was published by MS. Magazine in a centerfold spread, titled “The New Dance of Liberation.” My earliest publications in those first issues of MS. were what encouraged me to persist in these womanly themes down to the present day as the Feminist Press prepares to reissue my international anthology of women’s writings, Women on War: Voices for Survival in the Nuclear Age.

Early on in the 1970′s, I also created an experimental, dance theatre and poetry piece, with visuals, titled “Care of the Body,” which won me a grant from The New York State Council for the Arts. I used the grant to create the first “Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk,” a multimedia street theatre piece with David Amram, famed jazz flutist, as Pied Piper, and poets reading poems about “The Bridge.”  We walked over “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” Hart Crane’s “harp and altar of the fury fused,” reading Lorca, Mayakovsky, Walt Whitman and others through megaphones. We carried hand-painted placards I’d adorned with poet’s names. Seeing mine as the only Italian name on the list of grantees for the State Council on the Arts, had given me license and ambition to forge on in that mode or form. It was a great impetus to my sticking with writing as a career.

I’d based the “Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk” on an Italian Renaissance custom expounded by Florentine historians. The people of Florence, for example, are known to have paraded Michelangelo’s statue of David through their streets to celebrate its creation. Also, Italian street fairs where an experience of my youth when huge sculptures were carried through ghetto thoroughfares to celebrate saints’ days with festivals. Such influences explain why much of my early work was performance poetry for theatre and street theatre.

I chose to acquire my higher degree in world drama, not poetry; all of this bravado for performance, I believe, came directly from my father’s, Donato’s, operatic way of storytelling. I had wanted to be an actress, and had acted early on with Helen Hayes and Ann Revere in Brechtian and Classical dramas.  I also wrote a playlet, titled “Daffodil Dollars.” Again, the theme was women’s empowerment. I was a part of the early experimental poetry scene in New York’s Soho—creating “happenings” or multimedia poetry events involving performance, music and dance. From there, I made a slow segue from poetic drama and theatrical performance to poetry for the page.

Although my feminist writing takes delight in all aspects of women’s lives, the women in my family—my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts—seemed to be bound to the home, the kitchen, and the sewing-machine and did not seem to find much joy in being women. I viewed them as repressed; their limitations and their need for liberation inspired me to write about women’s lives. I wanted to release them from the patriarchal culture in which I was raised where only men’s opinions were voiced because they were the only opinions that mattered.

My poetic monologue, “The Sea Hag in the Cave of Sleep,”[6] which tells of the sexual and mothering adventures of three women of different ages, was produced off-Broadway from 1968 through 1972. The “sea hags,” characters inspired by James Joyce[7], represented my Italian aunts and grandmother telling the stories of their struggle as women in a male-dominated world. They tell of how Pandora and Eve are blamed for all the troubles in men’s lives, and all the while macho ways are causing destructive conflicts, famines and other brutalities that follow war. The poem ends with the lines: “I come out of my own legs into this world,” which is meant as an affirmation of women’s self-actualization. Woman is born of woman, and that’s a different phenomenon than being man born of woman.

In tribute to this, and to Grandma Lucia (my father’s Neapolitan mother), I wrote a poem which seems to embody all that was self-sacrificing and limiting for women in a patriarchal culture and performed it at Casa Italiana, Columbia University, in 1978 at the dawning of the current Italian American renaissance in literature[8]. The poem, titled “Bi-centennial Anti-poem for Italian American Women, 1976,[9]” is not only dedicated to my grandmother—Lucia La Rosa or “Light the Rose”—it was also inspired by Ernesto Falbo. Falbo had been in the audience at one of my earlier readings[10] my reading of mine where, afterwards, he said to me, “You’re one of only two or three Italian-American women poets in this country. You’re a pioneer. There are fewer of you known than Black or Puerto Rican women poets.” Through this statement, he inspired the following:

On the crowded subway,

riding to the prison to teach

Black and Puerto Rican inmates how to write,

I think of the fable of the shoemaker

who struggles to make shoes for the oppressed

while his own go barefoot over the stones.

 

I remember Grandma Lucia, her olive face

wrinkled with resignation,

content just to survive

after giving birth to twenty children,

without orgasmic pleasures or anesthesia.

Grandpa Galileo, immigrant adventurer,

who brought his family

steerage passage to the New World;

his shoemaker shop where he labored

over American factory goods

that made his artisan’s craft a useless

anachronism; his Code of Honor

which forced him to starve

accepting not a cent of welfare

from anyone but his sons;

his ironic “Code of Honor”

which condoned jealous rages of wife-beating;

Aunt Elisabetta, Aunt Maria Domenica, Aunt Raffaella,

Aunt Elena, grown women huddled like girls

in their bedroom in Newark, talking in whispers,

not daring to smoke their American cigarettes

in front of Pa;

the backyard shrine of the virgin,

somber blue-robed woman,

devoid of sexual passions,
to whom Aunt Elisabetta prayed

daily before dying in childbirth,

trying to have “a son”

against doctor’s orders, though

she had five healthy daughters already;

Dr. Giuseppe Ferrara, purple heart veteran

of World War II, told he couldn’t have a residency

in a big New York hospital because of his Italian

name; the Mafia jokes, the epithets:

“Wop, guinea, dago, grease-ball.”

And the stories told by Papa

of Dante, Galileo, Leonardo, Fermi, Caruso

which stung me with pride for Italian men;

how I was discouraged from school,

told a woman meant for cooking and bearing

doesn’t need education.

 

I remember Grandma

got out of bed

in the middle of the night

to fetch her husband a glass of water

the day she died,

her body wearied

from giving and giving and giving

food and birth. (7)

 

Though I devoured Nancy Drew mysteries in grammar school like any all American girl, in my teens I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay. The drama of her life, the fact that she won a scholarship to Vassar for a poem she wrote and her subsequent rise from poverty into the light of poetry really impressed me. It was a dramatic story like the ones my father told of his struggle to become educated and respectable from humble beginnings. But Millay was a woman and a feminist, and to see that a woman could work hard to become a writer–from humble beginnings –and be respected for her work, really influenced me. She was such a great beacon to me, both her life and her craft with language. I was pleased to find how Millay had marched for Sacco and Vanzetti. Her poem “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” is a tribute to the Italian immigrant struggle in America. Her example as a liberated woman and her involvement with social justice inspired me greatly.

My father didn’t teach us Italian, not for lack of pride in it, but perhaps because he’d experienced so much prejudice for being an Italian immigrant. It’s a little remembered fact that there were concentration camps for Italian immigrants in the United States during World War II, similar to those in which Japanese immigrants were unjustly incarcerated.  I remember a poster I saw in my ghetto neighborhood as a child living in the Ironbound section of Newark. I wrote this poem as a result. It explains why I, born during World War II, am not fluent in Italian:

 

“Don’t Speak the Language of the Enemy!”[11]

reads the poster at the end of a gray alleyway of childhood

where the raggedy guineas of Newark

whisper quietly in their dialects on concrete steps

far from blue skies, olive groves or hyacinths.

Bent in a shadow toward the last

shafts of sunlight above tenement roofs,

Grandpa Galileo sadly sips homemade wine

hums moaning with his broken mandolin.

Children play hide-and-seek

in dusty evening streets as red sauce simmers,

proverbially, hour after hour, on coal stoves,

garlic, oil, crushed tomatoes blended

with precious pinches of salt and basilico—

a pot that must last a week of suppers.

The fathers’ hands are ugly with blackened finger nails,

worn rough with iron wrought, bricks laid, ditches dug, glass etched.

Wilted women in black cotton dresses wait in quickening dark,

calling their listless children to scrubbed  linoleum kitchens.

In cold water flats with tin tables, stale bread is ladled with sauce,

then baked to revive edibility. Clothes soak in kitchen laundry-tubs,

washboards afloat. Strains of opera caught in static

are interrupted by war bulletins.

The poster pasted on the fence at the end of the block

streaked with setting sun and rain reads:

“Don’t speak the language of the enemy!”

But, the raggedy guineas can speak no other,

and so they murmur in their rooms in the secret dark frightened

of the government camps where people like them

have been imprisoned in the New World.

They teach English to their children by daylight,

whispering of Mussolini’s stupidity–

stifling the mother tongue, wounding the father’s pride,

telling each other, “We are Americans. God bless America!” (36-9)

In addition to the time period I grew up in, my grandfather, Galileo Gioseffi, was also a great influence on my life and writing. From him I learned to question and rebel; Galileo was an iconoclast who loathed the Church’s hypocrisy and his rebellious attitude rubbed off on my father, and then onto me. No doubt the prejudice he suffered inspired me to join the Civil Rights Movement in 1961, at which time my writing turned to journalism for a spell.

I became a television journalist in Selma, Alabama on WSLA-TV during the days of the Freedom Riders and lunch counter sit-ins. Because television programming was not integrated in Alabama in those days, I was beaten and sexually abused by the Ku Klux Klan for making an announcement on an African American gospel show. There were burning crosses and broken watermelons on the lawn of the television station the next morning. It took me many years to write about that as I wanted to spare my father the truth. He never knew what happened to me, and I was ashamed of it, too.

I was over fifty when I finally published “The Bleeding Mimosa,” a story about my rape and abuse at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. Luciana Polney, a younger Italian American woman writer, adapted it for the stage, and it was produced at the Duplex Theatre in New York City’s Sheridan Square in 1994. It was a very liberating experience for me to view my story acted out by others. I watched the scenes between the immigrant father and the American daughter; the conflict in those scenes—to be a good daughter, and at the same time, to struggle to overcome prejudice toward liberation—was my conflict. I felt healed as I saw it played out to a survivalist’s conclusion.

Now, as I’ve reached the age of sixty and look back over my career as a writer, I can clearly distinguish my influences. My Italian father—his passionate nature, his frustrated desire to be a respected writer in America, the prejudice he suffered, the reading he taught me to love, the education in literary art and science which he worked hard to acquire—was a large influence on my tenacious desire to forge my way into the mainstream of American letters. On the other hand, my Grandmother Lucia’s subjugation to my grandfather’s will; my coming from an immigrant family which rebelled against the Church’s ways, but in some measure upheld its patriarchal values; my own rebellion against Old World ways, seeking for truth and anarchistic liberation from the past; my desire to keep my father’s surname and strive for acceptance as a daughter who could not be a son, as a woman who wanted to make a loving father proud: all these factors had a profound influence on my drive to become the first educated woman of my family, and my strife for an accomplished voice imbued with feminist themes in American literature.

My immigrant Italian forbearers made me who I am for worse or for better, and I can never deny that rich heritage of passionate emotions—the suffering and joy that art portrays—which I learned early on from my Old World Italian family. Despite my feminism, I have to say that my Italian patriarchal father’s love of literature—his tenacity to fulfill the American Dream—was my greatest inspiration to being a writer. Sandra Mortola Gilbert, Diane Di Prima, Josephine Gattuso Hendin, and I—we feminists of that 1970s era—have I hope, offered some impetus to the women who began to publish later. The following poem says it all for me. It was written when I finally made the pilgrimage back to my father’s village of origin, Orta Nova, near the Gargano—the spur of the boot—not far from Bari, in 1986, five years after his death. The poem is titled after the village, “Orta Nova, Provincia de Puglia”[12]:

“Land of bright sun and colors,”

you’re called in Italia.

Near Bari and Brindisi where the ferry

for centuries has traveled the Adriatico,

to and from Greece.

Orta Nova, city of my dead father’s birth.

How strange to view you, piccolo villaggio,

with ladybugs, my talisman,  landed on my shirt.

 

They show me your birth

certificate–”Donato Gioseffi, born 1905,”

scrawled in ink, on browning paper.

When I tell them  I’m an author, first of my American family

to return to my father’s home, I’m suddenly “royalty!”

They close the Municipio to take me in their best town car

to an archeological dig near the edge of the city.

There, the Kingdom of Herdonia, unearthed with its brick road

leading to Rome, as all roads did and still do,

back to antiquity’s glory! Ladybugs rest on me at the dig

of stone sculptures the Belgian professor shows me. I buy his book,

“The Kingdom of Herdonia: Older Than Thebes.”

 

Ah, padre mio, the taunts you took as a thin,

diminutive, “guinea” who spoke no English

in his fifth-grade class

from brash Americans of an infant country!

You never returned to your ancient land where now the natives,

simpatici pisani, wine and dine me in their best

ristorante. I insist on paying the bill. They give me jars

of funghi and pimento preserved in olive oil–their prize

produce to take back home with me. They nod knowingly,

when in talking of you, I must leave the table to weep–

alone in the restroom, looking into the mirror

at the eyes you gave me, the hands so like yours

that turn the brass faucet

and splash cold water over my face.

For an instant, in this foreign place, I have met you again,

Father, and have understood better, your labors,

your struggle, your pride, your humility,

the peasantry from which you came to cross the wide

sea, to make me a poet of New York City.

Which is truly my home?

This piccolo villaggio near Bari, with its old university,

the province where Saint Nicholas’s Turkish bones are buried,

in hammered-gold and enameled reliquary,

the province of limestone caves full of paintings older than those of Lescaux,

this white town of the Gargano, unspoiled by turisti, this land of color

sunlight and beauty. This home where you would have been happier

and better understood than in torturous Newark tenements of your youth.

This land of sunlight, blue sky, pink and white flowers, white stucco houses,

and poverty, mezzogiorno, this warmth you left to make me

a poet from New York City, indifferent place,

mixed of every race, so that I am more cosmopolitan

than these, your villagers, or you

could ever dream of being. This paradoxical journey

back to a lost generation

gone forever paving the way

into a New World from the Old. (57-8)

 


[1] Robertiello and Hoguet, The WASP Mystique, New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1987.

[2] Mezzogiorno, literally meaning “midday,” is used to refer to southern Italy and sometimes connotes stereotypes of southern Italy, including notions of poverty, illiteracy, and crime, that still persist today.

[3]Stephanile (1920-2009) was won many prizes for his poetry and work including the Emily Clark Balch Prize (Virginia Quarterly Review 1972) and the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement (Italian Americana 1997).  In reference to Stefanile’s collection of poetry, The Dance at Saint Gabriel’s (Story Line P 1995), Dana Gioia wrote that “To say that Felix Stefanile is the most significant living Italian-American poet does not do justice to his achievement.”

[4] Goldman (1869-1940) was an early figure in the women’s rights movement, birth control history, and the free speech movement. She supported anarchism and lesbian rights. Many of her papers can be viewed at “The Emma Goldman Papers,” Berkley Digital Library SunSITE. Ed. by The Emma Goldman Papers Project. 2005. The University of California Regents. 10 Dec. 2009 <http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Goldman/>.

[5] Ducan (1878-1927) was a dancer, adventurer, revolutionist, defender of the poetic spirit. She broke away from convention in an attempt to return dance to its sacred roots. She has endured as one of the most influential figures in twentieth century dance.

[6] Poem published in Gioseffi’s Eggs in the Lake, fwd. by John Logan, Brockport, NY: BOA Ed., 1979. 46-50.

[7] See “Episode 3: Proteus” in Joyce’s Ulysses.

[8] A few years prior to 1978, Richard Gambino of Queens College had joined with Ernesto Falbo, in editing Italian Americana at the State University of New York, Buffalo, a historical fact which Gioseffi attributes to signifying the dawn of the Italian American literary renaissance.

[9] Published in Word Wounds and Waterflowers, West Lafayette, IN: Bordighera, Inc.

[10] The reading  mentioned was held at the State University of New York, Buffalo in 1976.

[11] Published in Symbiosis: Poems. New York: Rattapallax Press, 2001. Rpt. in Blood Autumn/Autunno di sangue: Poems, New and Selected. New York: Bordighera Press, 2007.

[12] “Orta Nova, Provincia de Puglia” was published in Gioseffi’s Going On: Poems, Lafayette, IN: Bordighera P, 2001.

————

Daniela Gioseffi won an AMERICAN BOOK AWARD in 1990 and has authored sixteen books of poetry and prose from major and university presses. She was a multicultural pioneer editing anthologies of world literature since 1988. Her books and writings have been translated into Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, and Serbo-Croatian, and published worldwide. She’s published in hundreds of major literary periodicals. Gioseffi’s renowned anthology, Women on War: International Writings, (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) was reissued in a new edition by The Feminist Press: City University of NY, 2003. It’s a women’s studies classic in print for over 25 years.

This essay (which I have solicited and received from the author in 2010 while commencing the Poetries & Communities project at San Diego State University) also appeared in 2013 as:

Gioseffi, Daniela. “Forging into the American Mainstream since the 1970s: On Being a Woman Writer with an Italian American Name.” Pioneering Italian American Culture: Escaping La Vita Della Cucina, Essays, Interview, Reviews, by and About Daniela Gioseffi. Ed. Angelina Oberdan. NY: VIA FOLIOS 85, Bordighera Press, 2013: 119-130.

Folios/Bordighera Press: http://www.bordigherapress.org/

http://amzn.com/1599540592

Many thanks to Angelina Oberdan for bringing the reference to our attention.

Categories: Poetries & Communities Project Tags:

Could Poetic Incantations Redeem Historical Disasters? Felix Nicolau on Ange Mlinko

March 3rd, 2015 margento No comments

 

 

 

 

 

In the post-postmodern era highly-encoding your creation may be a cultural suicide or a dignified way of masking one’s frustrations. Just try to criticize this phenomenon and those absorbed into the Establishment will label you as a frustrated loser. Ange Mlinko mythologically stresses her poetry, but keeps a keen eye on the catastrophes of recent history. The stake of the bet is recklessly increased but, in the end, she saves the day for poetry by galvanizing the cryptic content. The poems become incantations, which is not the final aim of the poet, as she provides glossaries of the ancient terms used. She ambitions to conjoin polyphony and critical discourse, both of them wrapped in a beautiful language and an elevated vision.

The most ciphered environment of communication is sophisticated poetry. In such a cultural context the addressee has to “translate” allusions, ironies and cultural concepts. In spite of reducing the dynamism of understanding, this cultural contextualization offers spacious shelter for past traumas. Ange Mlinko envisages a healing capacity of poetry when she resorts to complex means of reflecting historic catastrophes. The effort of comprehending her poetry involves not only methods specific to cultural studies and aesthetics, but also others pertaining to mythological hermeneutics.

In an interview with Tyler Burgoise, June 13, 2013, in Paris Review, Ange Mlinko proved her impressive intellectual capacities. Her answers are more documented than her poetry, which is not a negligible aspect. As the interviewer remarks, Mlinko “treats the reader to lines that feel both alive and spectral” (document without pagination available); she also makes extensive use of lots of unfamiliar words and names. As it were, this kind of poetry is not as much as cryptic, but allusive and a bit aloof. The poet, in her turn, points up to the fact that she focuses on exploring time and allows for “measure of strangeness” in her poetry, especially with the help of voices: “I grew up listening to languages my immigrant parents didn’t want to teach me, so I get a regressive pleasure out of feeling my way through sounds to their possible meanings” (ibidem). What the author targets is not Ostranenie, the Defamiliarization practiced by the Russian formalists, but the pure sound experiment; an evocation of events past bearing upon present. Of course, every possible profane reader (how utopian can I be?) of her literary production could enjoy the in-take as sound poetry, as long as her cultural “affiliations” remain obscure for her readership. On this level, poetry is music; on the following one, there show up intricate mythologies and history – a symbolic fantasy with memory scars. In her volumes we have lettrism, but also rich content. All in all, a musical cargo floats on melodious villanelle scores or proceeds in parent-speaking ritornelles. Formal mastery gets embedded in historical allegories and prophecies. Past and Future are filtered through the Present and the other way round. In using repetitions and variations, Mlinko admits to Wallace Stevens’s influence, although she also bows to Wordsworth, Omar Khayyam, Robert Browning, S. Coleridge, and Philip Sidney’s and to other famous sources. Then, she invokes T. S. Eliot’s imperative of comprehending a poem before understanding it. This means that tonalities are preceded by the riddles embedded in the text.

 

Is there something like musical and mythical memory?

THE GOD CATEGORY, a cycle of poems in Marvelous Things Overheard, is especially rich in exotic and picturesque sonorities: “in nearby Baabda,/ connate alexanders in Quadisha, fodder vetch in Zgharta,/While rocket in Sour, gypsywort in Mrjeyoun,/ headed ziziphora in Baakleen, bladder skullcap in Batouk” (SYMPHONIC EXPANSE) (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 31). Or let’s lend our ears to the atonalities of this BAYT, with the subtitle 1. LABID’S “LAST SMILE”: “Is as if she were an earn// gebideo prey for her eyrie.// Perched alertly,// ahoegtesse,// her heart-glittered feathers// suddenly she sees//a fox on the westen.// At that she rouses,// heaved up on high,// and heads straight at him,// in harrowing hoeste// Hearing her, he freezes// his tail. He’s terrified” (Ibidem 34). The author helps us out with a glossary:earn= “eagle”, gebideo= “waiting, alert for”, hoegtesse= “female seer”, morgenceald= “morning chill”, westen= “desert, wasteland”, hoeste= “violence”, stela= “scaling (along the ground)” and so on and so forth. The bits absorbed into the poem from medieval texts, like The Wanderer, are also explained or “translated”. But do we really need a semantic translation here? Isn’t it preferable to translate them into musical signifiers, without an intelligible signified?

Mlinko drops a clue when she warns: “A culture that belongs to science and journalism abjures myth” (Bourgoise). Nevertheless, myths refuse logical and exhaustive explanations. What matters in their case is not clarification, but empathy. That is why she dismisses the possible accusations of intricacy and elitism when she insists that the sophisticated constructs in her poetry are “less of an intellectual pleasure than incantation against absence and loss” (Ibidem). However, we smoothly shift towards polyphonic tonalities, as sounds become incantations on plural voices. This feature is consistent with her allegiance to the traditional poetry and philosophy, as shown above. She refuses assimilation into the group of language poets, as she points out that descriptivist linguistics is void of human pathos. When history is a series of tragedies, how could poetry remain sterile, in an abstruse and abstract realm of ideas? Is her mythological affiliation a genuine one? I would say no: Mlinko always mixes myths with blunt and bleak reality. Sorrow and pain are indiscernible phenomena, they must not be forgotten, but nor mournfully worshiped. They have to be spiritualized and made perennial in our souls through mythization. That is why WORDS ARE THE REVERSE OF PAIN: “Had something gone wrong then I wouldn’t be here/ to tell you this: In November 1944 a baby boy was born/ in Germany – ‘in a cave’, they kept saying,/ ’she gave birth in a cave’. Who thinks a woman in labor might be dancing?/ From a distance of gods, Leto might have been dancing,/ The Leto Whom Hera hated. The Leto who reeled/in search of a place to give birth/Fled Arcadia, Leto did./ Fled Parthenium, fled the land of Pelops (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 5). Myth is thus endowed with Christian valences, whereas femininity is highlighted at the expense of the sanctity of the sanctified baby. It could lead us towards a Catholic approach of glorifying the sufferance of Virgin Mary. But before the end of the poem we realize that myth and religion are localized and “globalized” in order to imbue the horrors of history with a hidden meaning and an unexpected dignity: “not the normally hospitable Corcyra, not Cos./ It can seem so cordial, this sea, with its views/ clear to spiky urchins fifty feet below. And the islands/ close but uncrowded, like cousins slumped about/on pillows waiting for an adored movie to begin./ Think of Leto groaning amid them trying to sweat a pearl./ Think of us cousins/watching Rudolph on (Christmas Eve,/ so many years after the camps and the ruses-/ lifetimes ago – are pretending to be Polish!” - DEMYTHISATION (idem, ibidem)

Is this postmodern demythization, as one could infer from the disrespectful postures or from the “presentification” of worshipped circumstances? I’d rather incline towards a post-postmodernist vein owing to the lack of obvious irony and to the close-ups on maternal and humanitarian stances. In the quoted interview with Bourgoise, Mlinko opposes truncation to condensation. The first manner of communication imply a loss of sensitivity “in an age where information is privileged over symbols”, whereas the second one “must use intuition and sympathy”. Besides, poeticity is not only about subtlety, memory-commemoration and voices. “Poetry must still dance”, the poet brings forward and she reminds us that atrocities shouldn’t become a burden that makes the artist cut a dour figure. Writing about Marvelous Things Overheard, Rebecca Ariel Porte dwells upon The Aesthetics of Enchantment to be found in this volume. Mlinko would have the mysterious ability to re-enchant what has been disenchanted.

 

Sorcery can beautify dire realities

So, are we speaking about an irrational post-postmodernist witchcraft? Or could it be an artistic craft stirred by some Dadaist techniques? Hardly! Not even some surrealist blasts of imagination could be traced along these pages. Porte invokes the figure of Marie Taglioni (1804-1884), prima ballerina, who in 1835 tamed a Russian highwayman by dancing for him upon a panther’s skin spread over snow during a starry night. The suggestion is that Mlinko’s enchantments are pure art and clever craft. THE MED is the poem built on Taglioni’s risky performance. Such a poetic “expertise” is the result of Mlinko’s trips to Orient as well as of her voyages on cultural wings in time. “The Med” is short for Mediterranean. This explains how the poet can hybridize all realities in her texts, but still manages somehow to keep them whole. Chiron, the centaur, is the symbol of successful magic, as Porte puts it: “a hybrid beast, half-horse, half-man, botanical savant”. His half-ness is disentangled from many other halves or quarters. In fact, only this hybridity insures the genuine communication without which there is ever-lasting conflict and masked terror.

The motto of the book is taken from Aristotle’s On Marvelous Things Heard: “The she-goats in Cephallenia do not drink, as it appears, like other quadrupeds; but daily turning their faces towards the sea, open their mouths, and take in the breezes”. Confronted with this fragment, we are left with two interpretations: either the “positivist” Greek philosopher preserved a large quantity of naivety, or he simply stuck to the Platonic poetical vein, in spite of his scientific mindset. In the second case, it means that what a scientist brands as “miracle” may be something unexplainable for the time being and very beautiful, irrespective of its lack of logic. But not every illogical deed or phenomenon attracts poetry. It is the symbolic absurdity that engenders significant openings: “When I turn my hand mill, I think of the dowager/ who ground gems on ham for her guests;/ the queen who ground out two cups of flour/ on the pregnant abdomen of her husband’s mistress” – The GRIND (Mlinko,Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 3). Mlinko does not simply “hear” things; she “overhears” them, conjuring the miracle out of the easy-to-explain realm. Her miracles are mostly phonetical ones, exotic in-takes in the magma of her poems. She “has a tendency to glorify the administrative potential of language a little too firmly at times and to glance askance at emotions that occupy the more disagreeable, anarchic registers” (Porte, no page numbers). Rebeca Ariel Porte, in the same interview, notices that “words may be the reverse of pain but pain is also the parent of language” (ibidem), so it would be a folly “to forget this, to live in the tyranny of a poetics in which words offer pleasure and onlypleasure” (ibidem). Without any doubt, Mlinko dwells on the causes and effects of pain, even if she dodges, most often than not, the aesthetics of ugliness.

 

The music of encrypted communication

Giving birth, for instance, is a painful situation, but ennobled owing to its consequence. The stress will not fall on the misery of delivery, but on the context of the semi-tragedy of not being allowed to add to life: “There was an island not permitted to anchor,/ named Asteria. Asteria wandered/ across the Aegean, across the Saronic Gulf/ until some unnamed wind blew that midwife,/ part earth part skiff, and Leto together/ The island took pity, and let Leto deliver./ Hera couldn’t intervene. Asteria had once been a woman/ Who accepted punishment rather than bed Zeus./ Double bind rebounded./ After succoring Leto, the island could anchor at last/ She became renowned as the heart of the Cyclades, Delos” – WORDS ARE THE REVERSE OF PAIN, (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 6). This fragment pinpoints that this poetry is both musical and para-musical. Every concert needs an auditorium with a fine acoustics. If the “unresolved tension between plaisir andjouissance explains Mlinko’s fascination with angeliques, chatoyance, psittacines, Pterophyllum altum, the regenbogen, medusozoan nerve nets” (in Porte, no page numbers), we should add to all these the ability to stage this sonorous tension against imposing symphonic contexts. Deeply rooted into the soil of modernism, which is not so far away from high postmodernism, this art does long for a romanticGesamtkunstwerk: a well-organized totality. Such a holistic approach to poetry – through history, myth, music, architecture and many others – could counterbalance the “continuous process of disenchantment in which mystery recedes into personal interactions” (in Porte, no page numbers).

I may infer that Mlinko does not care particularly about communication, but about recovering and working towards sublime memories, myths and legends – the stuff of a petite histoire. Her process of enchanting sufferance is not an escapist one, although she refuses to pass judgments or to insist, at least, on instances of torture or unhappiness. As Rebeca Ariel Porte remarks, “enchantment can have an ethics only insomuch as it has a politics”. The politics here may be that of saving the celestial beauty of an aggressive sublunary world. The bird’s-eye-view dispenses with atrocious details and selects only contrasts, counterpoints and splendid effects of confrontation. In this way, it is hardly possible for any literary critic to label this art as being a scaffolding of phonetic oddities. But then, it is true, such a poetry is digestible only in medium-sized portions and even in these circumstances not to every mind’s stomach. Mlinko’s eavesdropping is not democratic, but definitely elitist. Of course, one can listen to her poetry as to atonal music, without understanding its message. Disenchantment cannot always be told from enchantment, and poetry can be tackled with the stoicism a patient accepts her treatment. The purpose is to avoid oversimplification or fast conclusions. We should remember a poem from Shoulder Season: “It’s a little spa for the mind-seeing butterflies/ set themselves down by the dozen like easels/ on bromeliads, when out on the street the boutiques/are dilapidated, construction can’t be told from ruin./ A single taste bud magnified resembles an orchid/ but what that one’s drinking from is a woman’s eye/which must be brineless. I wonder what she consumes/ that her tears taste like fructose. For minutes she’s all its./[…]// And each tree casts its shade in the form of its summary leaf./ Is a woman’s eye a single taste bud magnified?/ Yet construction can’t be told from ruin./ Out on the street the boutiques are dilapidated// by the dozen like easels. But the mind – it’s a little spa” (Mlinko, Shoulder Season 2010: 1).

 

Yes, it is irony that redeems complexity

All these poetries are permeated by healthy irony. The purpose is to dissuade both excessive enchantment and excessive disenchantment. It seems that the pride of the poet resides in her (cultural) lucidity. Her approach to history and art is subtle, all-encompassing and redeeming. Such an architecturalized poetry has the dignity of a temenos, “the meticulously ordered temple precinct dedicated to a god or hero in archaic Greece […] the product of such divinatory thinking, governed as it is by taboos of pollution and the cult of purity” (Tzonis 1992 1). Mlinko’s art is a multi-layered and strictly hierarchized edifice despite apparent democratic contiguities: “brilliantly spooning up Aphrodite/ to Greek porticoes, and our potatoes,/ and plain living which might be/ shaken by infinitesimal tattoos” – THE GRIND (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard, 2013: 4). But this masked stratification is even more detectable in THE GOD CATEGORY cycle, with the poem 2. SQUALL: ECHO: “What we need is a suitor perpetually new, the wives agreed/ (their imported spreads, their filigreed eyelids)./ What we need are marvelous things, they said, but Echo/ could not say what she had seen./ Sitting among their pale accessories, all in harmony with white/ceramic tile,/ eggshell balcony railings, green-grape sunlight spilling on the/ metallurgical sound of the waves – more like staves-/ collapsing,/ and so collapsing every riff into one note// The sand was all one color, oat, and the grasses kept/ rebearding where hosanna-ing thalassas/ massacred oysters to pure nacre” (Ibidem 10). Obviously, there is strong and miraculous meaning in this ever-renascent reality. Irony expurgates vanities and fetishisms only to re-state the salient beauty of existence. Thus, Ange Mlinko celebrates the Lévinasian “ethical subject”: “The rationality of the human psyche is explored in the intersubjective relation, the relationship of one person to another, in the transcendence of the ‘for-the-other’ initiating ‘the ethical subject’, which initiates the entre-nous” (Levinas 1999: XI).

I wouldn’t take this reassessing of cultural memory as social involvement, but as a cultural critique of history. Mlinko is not seduced by contemporaneity; she whirls her words up in intricate spirals and she highlights their beauty by chopping away bits of the shameful deeds committed by our ancestors. The beauty she targets is truly artistic, not simply enchanting for our senses – a trans-beauty: “Art and beauty are not, of course, synonymous: one can easily think of many art works that deliberately eschew beauty in order to pursue some other ideal or effect” (Burns 2002 1). A complex, Briareus-like art, may be less artistic, but deeper and more significant. A cantata may remain both ex-temporal and cross-temporal: “Lynette, the stars are kerned so far apart-/ Through a herniated zodiac I almost see your waled skylines/ your shocked Capricorn and Cancer./ In the hundred and two years since you were born, and the/sixteen since your heart failed, and the nearly sixty// Last night, Lynette, my son thought he saw his father in the jumbo jet roaring over cherryhurst: the weather/softer, flight paths altered./ Pastoral ding-dong is OUT”, Lynette wrote, and no wonder -/bombs hidden on the glossy knolls./ In the sorrel./ In the termentil” -CANTATA FOR LYNETTE ROBERTS (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard, 2013: 56-59).

 

Is this tap dancing or tango?

Mlinko’s assumed stance is that of a difficult artist, although many of her verses are impregnated with less-elevated ricochets. Actually, this is the compost which nourishes the branches of her elaborate poems. As Neil Roberts realizes, there is an academic doom in what concerns the poets on the threshold between the 20th and 21st centuries: “Especially in America, to be a professional poet almost necessarily means teaching writing in a university, and in the latter part of the century, especially in postcolonial studies and the influence of poststructuralism on writers such as the Language poets, the discourse of academics have merged” (Roberts, 2003: 2).

Could this be the source of Mlinko’s many-voiced, even polyphonic low- & high-pitched “intonations”? She may share the fate of high-brow poets, as Dana Gioia envisaged it: “American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class, poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individuals they are almost invisible” (Gioia, 1992: 1).

 

A happy paradox

This is the paradox: to belong simultaneously both in the academia and in the subculture. In both cases, the point with the poets and their verses’ invisibility stands aloof, I could say. Shoulder Season and Marvelous Things Overheard are homogeneous volumes in what concerns their beehive multi-level structure. Maybe the former keeps communication – understood as permeability – in higher esteem: “We went to the vivarium – to see/ the tropical butterflies in a/ walk-through biodome. They were/ cocooning, their insides filled/ with meconium. The chrysalises looked/ like jade and rosy quartz pendants/ for ladies’ ears – with gold worked in,/ something Babylonian./ Enormous specimens/ breathed against tree bark.// Belated naturalists we./ I kept repeating to myself:/ the mind is not a little spa./ The Mind is not a little Spa./ You can’t retreat to its imaginary/ standard distance/ when outside construction/ can’t be told from ruin” – TREATMENT (Mlinko, Shoulder Season2010: 2). The message lurking behind the indirect approach clearly specifies that with the end of the Ancien Régime the ivory tower has become not only immoral, but downright impracticable: inward there is a nightmarish mindscape. The poet as mythical flâneur pinches the cords of an instrument with vast possibilities of expression. Its diapason is so wide, that only powerful choirs could enact the grandiose opera imagined by Ange Mlinko. The plurivocal implications of the verses save them from bleak cultural affectation and cleanse them of phoniness: “Like architecture, rhetoric is formed around divisions that enclose and exclude; Plato’s ideal republic famously excludes poets because of their tendency to adopt duplicitous multiple voices, yet poetry’s multiplicity is inseparable from rhetoric, and keeps seeping back even into the text he is writing. Plato’s democratic vision also excludes women, and the doubly excluded figure of the poet who is a woman offers a revealing point from which to explore the interwoven aspects of language and place that form the contemporary city”(Skoulding 2013: 2). This is Mlinko’s miracle: to pour life into highly-refined formulations. What with other poets would have ended up as formulaic language, with her becomes commemoration and inciting communication: “‘How easy it was to put treacherous beacons on the shoals;/steal a map; distribute counterfeit maps;//falsify navigational charts, or the names for things/in foreign languages.’” – THE HELIOPOLITAN (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard, 2013: 18). How difficult must have been for the poet to use the mythological paradigm in order to protest against recent history’s aberrations!

Primary Sources:

Mlinko, Ange. Marvelous Things Overheard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, USA.

Mlinko, Ange. Shoulder Season. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2010, USA.

Secondary and Theoretical Sources:

Burns, Allan. Thematic Guide to American Poetry. Greenwood Publishing Group Inc, 2002, USA.

Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Minnesota: GRaywolf Press, 1992, USA.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Entre-nous: on Thinking-of-the-Other. Translated from the French by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 1999, USA.

Roberts, Neil, ed. A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Blackwell Publishing LTD, 2003, USA.

Skoulding, Zoë. Contemporary Women’s Poetry and Urban Space. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, USA.

Tzonis, Alexander. Classical Architecture, 5th printing, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992, USA.

Webography:

Bourgoise Tyler, Poetry Must Still Dance: An Interview with Ange Mlinko, June 17, 2013, Web 26 November 2014, http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/06/17/poetry-must-still-dance-an-interview-with-ange-mlinko/.

Porte, Rebecca Ariel, The Aesthetics of Enchantment: Ange Mlinko’s “Marvelous Things Overheard”, in Los Angeles Review of Books, Web 26 November 2014.http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/the-aesthetics-of-enchantment-ange-mlinkos-marvelous-things-overheard.

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Felix Nicolau is Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Communications, The Technical University of Civil Engineering, Bucharest, Romania. He defended his PhD in Comparative Literature in 2003 and is the author of five volumes of poetry (among which the latest, Kamceatka – time IS honey, 2014), two novels and eight books of literary and communication theory: Take the Floor. Professional Communication Theoretically Contextualized (2014), Cultural Communication: Approaches to Modernity and Postmodernity (2014), Comunicare şi creativitate. Interpretarea textului contemporan (Communication and Creativity. The Interpretation of Contemporary Text, 2014), Homo Imprudens (2006), Anticanonice (Anticanonicals, 2009), Codul lui Eminescu (Eminescu’s Code, 2010), and Estetica inumană: de la Postmodernism la Facebook (Inhuman Aesthetics: from Postmodernism to Facebook, 2013). He is on the editorial boards of Poesis International, The Muse – an International Journal of Poetry, and Metaliteratura magazines. His areas of interest are translation studies,  communication theory, comparative literature, cultural studies, translation studies, and British and American studies.

 

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

2. Poetry Computational Analysis Paper Accepted to FLAIRS Conference

February 18th, 2015 margento No comments

The paper “Multilabel Subject-based Classifi cation of Poetry” by Andres Lou, Diana Inkpen, and Chris Tanasescu (MARGENTO) has been accepted to the 28th Florida Artificial Intelligence Research Society–FLAIRS–Conference

Here is the abstract:

Multilabel Subject-based Classi cation of Poetry

by Andres Lou, Diana Inkpen, and Chris Tanasescu (MARGENTO)

University of Ottawa, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Abstract

Oftentimes, the question “what is this poem about?” has no trivial answer, regardless of length, style, author, or context in which the poem is found. We propose a simple system of multilabel classifi cation of poems based on their subjects following the categories and subcategories as laid out by the Poetry Foundation. We make use of a model that combines the methodologies of tf-idf and Latent Dirichlet Allocation for feature extraction, and a Support Vector Machine model for the classi fication task. We determine how likely it is for our models to correctly classify each poem they read into one or more main categories and subcategories. Our contribution is, thus, a new method to automatically classify poetry given a set and various subsets of categories.

Categories: The Graph Poem Tags:

Jericho Brown–The New Testament–An n-dimensional Hybrid of Homogeneities

January 4th, 2015 margento No comments

 

Jericho Brown combines confessionalism with mysticism, sexuality, and politics with an energy and determination hardly ever proved by any other young poet nowadays.  And the feverish will to fuse and diversify concomitantly is paralleled by the wide formal range that he masters like a true virtuoso.  In a longer sequence like “Motherland” for instance, the free verse and alternation of voices in a family reunion episode is followed by elucidating prose accounts, by a sharp blues on Teddy Pendergast being shot, and a sonnet where Brown typically rewrites a biblical passage.  This time he deals with Eve’s temptation—which pans out even more intriguingly than one would expect as the ‘realist’ fragments in the rest of the poem tell the story of an abused wife who finally decides to take fate into her own hands.

But shrewd contextual interplay aside, Brown has an indelible way of revisiting the holy scriptures, neither simply heretic, nor just ironical (if ever so), nor simply rendering it (homoerotically) political, but while indeed doing all of the above actually reinterpreting and profoundly reliving the scriptural scene in a way that will stay very long with the reader.  The sense one gets is that while Brown’s rereading of the bible may be strongly iconoclastic and subversive, it still unveils an unexpected, secret, and deadly profound meaning hidden in religion—which is as a matter of fact quite the feeling we get while reading William Blake, isn’t it?

 

No matter how low she seemed squatting to piss,

 

The damned snake couldn’t stop staring, and she couldn’t

Understand—though he inched close enough

To whisper something wet and true.  He needed to confront

Her with what he knew, needed her stuffed

 

On a sweet that made her see herself, see him

And every beast in the young world watching.

 

This black Blake, Brown, very much like the English Romantic, won’t hesitate to descend to hell to celebrate his mystical marriage; it is only that he has the advantage of also celebrating a ‘satanic’ racial color and a damned sexual orientation.  The latter actually gets to eroticize—uncomplacently and with no easy romance—hell and death itself.  Instead of saying black and homoerotic is not bad, the poet chooses to be ultimately defiant and save even the supreme evil by making it black and gay, and thus sensual, playful, intimate.  Being intimate with an Other portrayed as “The one with the gap/ In the teeth only I get/ To see…” (“At the End of Hell”) invites a telling ambivalence by dint of a strong enjambment (“I get/ To see”) which only announces the powerful image of taking death’s head from the closely following lines; the lingering ambiguity helps to conjoin soon the impressive staging of the descent to hell with a surreptitiously subversive yet equally overwhelming (one could say per…verse) sexual meaning—the head is taken because… head is being given:

 

To see.  What if I risk

Taking the head of death

Here in the dark, far

And deep, where

[…] nobody witnesses

My underworld gangster

Play kidnap, play Mama’s

Baby turned queen, and

If I scream, Pastel—he

swears he’s sorry…

 

Hell/death not only becomes the speaker’s lover but at the same time, a hidden place where the “underworld” game of turning into a “queen” can be played safely.  Unlike the British prophet-bard, the young American poet can of course write in slang and in (consistently transparent) queer lingo while still being mystical and submerged in the experience of hell.

Jericho Brown is actually not the only one doing that.  Other young African American poets have also explored such potential convergences to further cultural ramifications and minuteness.  Amaud Jamaul Johnson, for a brilliant example, has included in his Darktown Follies (Tupelo, 2013) a poem on Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, in which the star is reified as both “homegrown” [“pigmeat”] and, given his career—that eventually emerged out of the chitlin’ circuit only when absorbed by the mainstream ‘white’ entertainment industry—a Frankenstein of segregated America, “the artificial Negro.”  Johnson, like Brown, also explores the infernal corrosiveness of Blackness, but taking advantage of Markham’s story as forerunner of rap, he also bundles up apocalyptic imagery, entertainment glamor, and mock ‘White’ gibberish or pretentious phrasing, and translates them into hip hop rhythms and rhymes:  “Here comes the first crystal stair./ Here, come Hell or high-water, Hell// Or some falter.  All the ease in legalese./ Here comes my tautology—// A blackness of a blackness of a blackness./ My monochromatic rainbow” [emphasis in the text].  Apocalypse [is] now [and] is black, as Markham’s “heyeah (here) come da judge” schtick gets restaged and reperformed  by the poet as a tap-dancing second advent on an African American Judgment Day: “Here.  Step.  Stutter-step, hush.  I come./ Here comes the judge.  Here comes the judge” (Johnson’s emphasis).

And of course, the brazen sexual connotation is also there (fitting perfectly in the larger ‘traditional’ orgasm-death-apocalypse paradigm), “I come.”  But the most remarkable accomplishment of these wild African American poets is I think the way in which they can talk so naturally about sex, spirituality, and cultural-political issues in the same poem and, more importantly, in the same language.  That is, the same words and phrases, and ultimately, the same speech, can be read as either erotic or political or religious in a way that ensures a totally verisimilar cohabitation of all these registers while not impeding on their own specific contiguity.  Their poetry is therefore an n-dimensional hybrid of homogeneities.

And as an illustration of that, let us go briefly back to Brown’s poem quoted above.   The speaker’s screaming “Pastel!” during the “kidnapping” (erotic wrestling) game could be read in slang as—if I’m not wrong—“[this is too much], I’m giving up” and/or “[this is so powerful/overwhelming that] I’m passing out.”  But at the same time there is a more sophisticated reference there; Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” does exist in a couple of pastel versions, hence in less stark or striking colors.  But Jericho Brown’s speaker detests ‘lighter’ to the extent to which he detests light itself.  “A few bruises” are, he ends the poem, “[b]etter than the light/ Called spring, and I love/ It, every drop of God/ Weeping over me.”  Damnation and redemption, crucifixion and communion, as well as a graphic climactic scene—signalled and anticipated by the “annotated” enjambment “I love/ it”—are all there, all contained by a minimal yet layered diction.

A diction also empowered by form and by the already mentioned tireless and merciless enjambments.  Look how strongly the latter work here, deeply embedding eroticism in denouncing racism (and on top of that, interracial exclusion), and sexual-orientation-triggered discrimination; also, repeating a sentence but changing the place of the line break is a shrewdly ironical nod at William Carlos Williams: “Will black men still love me/ If white ones stop wanting me// Dead?  Will white men stop/ Wanting me dead? …”

A brief note on form in this collection.  I have already mentioned the sonnet (Shakespearean or irregular), the blues as well, couplets, alternations of couplets and tercets (irregular wavelets, if you may), irregular terza rimas (sometimes arranged as blues), blank, free verse, and prose, and there is also a trademark compressed ballad of sorts, where the syllable count is either 5, or 6, or 7, and the beats alternate, 2 and 3 per line, a meter that lends a compelling Nina Simone sound to the poem.  All this amazing formal diversity does not stem from sheer exuberance or ostensive experimentalism though, but (paradoxically?) from the author’s compulsive if not obsessive focus and adamant involvement.

—MARGENTO

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Jericho Brown. The New Testament. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2014.

 

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

Jericho Brown–My Poems, My People

December 7th, 2014 margento No comments

I strive to be clear—not obvious.  I am neither afraid of nor married to difficulty or accessibility.  I mean to write poems that are felt before they are understood.  Of course, anyone who reads or hears my poems can tell that I have an investment in story and folklore, particularly as they are understood in the African American literary tradition, but no matter how obvious the narrative, I have never thought that knowing exactly what is going on in a poem makes it attractive.

I think of writing, first, as a process of listening to some series of sounds that enter my mind and, second, as a process of embodying those sounds.  I try and leave as much as I can to instinct, intuition, and reflex—even in the final stages of revision.  Because I’m so interested in both music and voice, I find myself trying to figure the personality of the sounds as I am composing.  At some point in the writing of a first draft, I start to take on the characteristics of the voice asking to be channeled through words that convey what I think of as a necessary mixture of the sacred and the profane, the ironic and the ecstatic.  An example of this might be something as simple as punching the computer if the voice is pissed to the point of violence.

I hardly feel that I have any control or power over the “story” that begins to emerge from a poem while composing it.  I do my best writing when I am most vulnerable to the writing, when I allow for the construction of images and lines that, in the midst of composing, frighten me.

When I write and revise, I imagine myself in the middle of a conversation, often a disagreement, with someone I love.  I mean for the experience of writing to be like the experience of saying, “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or “Baby, please don’t” to a person I need in my life.  The only difference is that, because those phrases are so trite, I have to find the language and pacing necessary to let that someone know I really mean it.

I negotiate the personal and the universal by understanding that the universal, as it has been presented to us over and over again, is a lie.  I know it’s a lie because, though I’ve witnessed audience members at readings ask gay poets what a straight person can appreciate about their poems, I have never seen a straight poet asked what gay people can appreciate about his or her poems.

The civil rights movement was not meant to erase race.  As a matter of fact, one of its goals was to make the history and contributions of various peoples in this nation all the more prominent.  I wonder what would happen if we stopped telling the lie of universality to our poetry students… if we, instead, told them the truth of difference, of the magic found in range and in oddity, in writing that which is, dare I say it, queer.  Yes, syntactical acumen just might be universal, but content is definitely not.  Content has nothing to do with anything we love.  If it did, we’d all have better boyfriends.

American poetry is at its best when it is as vast and varied as American people mythologize themselves to be.  Further, an American poet must be the poet who understands the vastness and variedness of herself as an individual.  And that poet must be vulnerable to her work. . .  so vulnerable that complete contradictions come through her poems in a gorgeous way.  I am everyday feeling more and more homeless because of a kind of thinking on the part of artists of color and queer artists who call for an erasure of identity that is supposed to somehow allow them (and me?) to be better artists.  Our lot in life as poets in this nation has a great deal to do with how many ways we can see a thing and accept its complexity as well as how many ways we can see ourselves and put into our art every inch of us.  We’ve done some work when we pile a bunch of adjectives in front of the word “poet” and allow ourselves to see the poems within the context of all those adjectives.  Without every adjective, we fall for the silly idea that there is only one way to evaluate an art object, and that idea never bodes well for innovative work.  That idea makes for really lazy reading.  That idea is un-American.

I am all about those multitudes Whitman saw himself containing.  I am enchanted and encouraged by the ways American poets of my generation show proof of this part of our inheritance through writing poems that make apparent a multi-voiced speaker.  Still, I do hope that this trend does not lead to a loss of responsibility for all that comes along with any one part of those multilayered identities.  I hope to read in the essays and interviews you are collecting a white poet who says that he is white and that the privileges that come along with whiteness in the United States have indeed informed his poetics…

. . . Which is why it is so important for me to say that I am male and that I am completely aware that my work explores maleness and masculinity (what ever the hell these may be) in the way that I think several poets of the American tradition do and have done from Whitman to Sandburg to Tony Hoagland (bless his heart).  But I haven’t done a damn thing if the poems do not admit and question the privilege that attends being born male in this nation.

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Jericho Brown grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, and worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before earning his PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston.  He also holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Orleans and graduated with a BA from Dillard University in 1998.  Brown is the author of two books of poetry.  His most recent collection, The New Testament (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), was described by Yusef Komunyakaa as a chronicle of “life and death, personal rituals and blasphemies, race and nation, the good and the bad” that illuminates “scenarios of self-interrogation and near redemption.”

 

Categories: Poetries & Communities Project Tags:

Diane Raptosh–”American Amnesiac”–The (Non)Self as a Thousand Localities

October 24th, 2014 margento No comments

 

Diane Raptosh’s Cal Reinhart/John Doe is a nephew of John Berryman’s Henry—“Named after/ my father’s uncle”—hence possibly named after Berryman’s good friend “Cal” Lowell, as his disruptive  speech is also strongly marked by Lowellian deep concerns regarding (American as part of a wider) modern culture.  But he is also a grandson of Beckett’s Molloy, while also having the penchant for ‘aberrant logic’ arguments and dislocated common wisdom of Ionesco’s characters.  Although self-declared American, he is a citizen of the global age whose speech contains surprisingly scanty popular cultural references—or quite ‘honorable’ ones, Frank Zappa appears in a couple of poems for instance, alongside (in quite a Zappian fashion) Zorro, Nietzsche, and Dali—but profuse high art, world history, multilingualism (a rare gift in nowadays US verse, have you wondered why?), and philosophy, while once in a while seemingly quite well-versed in business, cuisine, word games, puzzles, and ecology.

The result is a philosophical fata morgana in an ever fresh playful language spiced with self-irony, political sarcasm, and mordent humor.  The character’s pretended amnesia is infecting in the sense that the poems manage to distract us by their continuously funny and captivating surprises, thus swiftly transforming us from bewildered witnesses into pervert accomplices to this psychological suicidal (as we enjoy the riddles and pretend to forget they are actually about us too).  Therefore, Raptosh’s ingenious scenarios speak not only about contemporary human condition, but also about the cultural and linguistic conditions of engaging with that condition.

In such a context, any identity marker is curtly rebutted and contradicted in a zigzag of misleading assertions, sudden shifts of perspective and register, and (suspiciously) ingenuous refutations.  The map of this self-description is thus a continuously distorted and delocalized one, but the cartographer is nevertheless obsessed with locality and specificity.  “The name’s Joe Doe.  And I am a place, the holder of a pose” begins a poem, typically orchestrating the gradual alteration and corruption of meaning in Raptosch’s fluctuant poetics.  A no-name speaker introduces himself as such, but then the locus (as in “common place”) seems to become a literal locality.  The Shakespearean “habitation and a place” conferred by naming things is here (apparently) a strong assertion of identity and, at the same time, the possible inception of a captivating geography of the self.  But this is once again twisted into a mere frame for readymade postures and attitudes, “poses.”  The “common man” belongs in (and therefore fundamentally is) the public place, the agora, but at the same time he craves the exceptional; whence the cloned stances and… the masquerade.  Still neither the raving speaker nor the ironic poet holds elitist views here, they both rather circumscribe the topos of public interactions as melodrama and (in Peter Brooks’s terms) (melo)dramatic psychology and posturing.

Here comes the punch of the second line of the couplet though—“All selves serve as other people, and I’m no exception.”  An agile sparring partner, the poet seems to anticipate our suspicions and knocks them out even before they actually loom in our minds.  The self appears in the plural and thus the brilliant phrase “selves serve” consists of two words almost identical in sound but triggering multiple tensions and complications.  Although it is pretty close to “self-serving,” it most likely means the opposite, but as we read the whole line we realize that it may actually accommodate all opposite partial or transitory meanings.

Yet even the inclusion of so many conflicting messages is in its turn no more than one of the several things the poet strives—and the speaker off-handedly allows himself—to include.  As we read in the last couplet, the soul is declared global, planetary, but only after it requests a definition by “something kind and specific,” which one suspects may be a distortion in the speaker’s rambling speech of “something kind of specific”…; besides, of course, the allusion to one’s tribe or kind, the kith and kin to whom he has been anything but kind (the suspicion arising in a previous couplet about his killing his wife is confirmed later on in the book):

 

Since then I’ve searched for something kind and specific.  Der Tafelspitz

in den Fleischtöpfen Wiens, to start.  The soul’s composed of the entire planet.

 

Raptosh articulates a credible psychology of the ‘global man’ whose daily life is connected to or even incorporates “the entire planet” but at the same time is hungry (even literally so, as in the quote above) for the local and the specific.  Still, the latter is inevitably delocalized as the “soul” is (de)“composed” now on a global scale, and thus what is expected to become a landmark ends up by spawning disorientation and confusion.  Whence the obsession of those suffering from this “Transient Global Amnesia” with localities, itineraries and connections, mazes and architecture, (crossword) puzzles and word games (a poem simply consists of a wordsearch table with a “theme of the day” actually so relevant for the whole book, “get and give”), and (brilliant pun,) You-Q tests.

I have mentioned cartography already [and I shall further look into certain possible aspects relevant to topology and graph theory in a future posting in the “graph poem” section of this website], but here I would like to insist a little bit more on the configuration of place and the role of toponyms in this book.  In Poetry & Geography. Space & Place in Post-war Poetry (University of Liverpool Press, 2013), the editors Neal Alexander and David Cooper draw in the introduction (among many other brilliant elucidations) on Peter Barry’s distinction between “setting” and “geography,” the former being urban generic while the latter loco-specific (toponymy included).  In Raptosh’s case, we have an interesting simultaneous combination and deconstruction of both setting and geography.  Ravenna is in that respect a very telling example, one that appears a couple of times in the collection as part of almost identical formulations.  First time, in italics, as a possible quote, “How mad would I have to be// to say He beheld a better order in Ravenna, where he began/ to unbelong from every place he knew?…” and later on in another poem, “I beheld a better system in Ravenna, but I didn’t stay there,” where we realize that the feared madness has already happened, as the speaker assumes the voice he has earlier resolutely censored.  This is symptomatic of how voices and identities (along with localities) shift throughout the book, and typically several times actually in the same poem.  Still, can we solve the puzzle?  Is that “he” by any chance Dante who died in Ravenna, thus “unbelonging” from his beloved Florence, and is the order he beheld there his vision of the Comedy, entirely written while in exile?  Or is this about Antonioni’s celebrated movie The Red Desert (shot in Ravenna), whose haunting theme is indeed unbelongingness?  Or about Byron’s sojourn in the city and his political realizations and disappointments?  Or is it Oscar Wilde who in “Ravenna” extols the same Byron right after bowing to Dante, but not before describing the legendary place as the site of, again, ultimate unbelonging: “here, indeed,/ Are Lethe’s waters, and that fatal weed/ Which makes a man forget his fatherland.”  Yet what if this mysterious character in Ravenna is one and the same with the “[o]ld man cuffed in Italy” in another poem later on in the collection?  The latter may very likely be Pound while locked in a cage outside of Pisa, but then the “order/system” in the quotes above is a fiercely ironic opposite of the one advocated by Byron and Wilde.  It may also very well be something (also) autobiographic, since Raptosh is herself of Italian descent.  Maybe either, all (opposites included), or none of the above, and anyway certainly also something else that has eluded me here.

In Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) Ian Davidson argues that contemporary poetry increasingly “refuses a fixed location and shifts between places” (31) thus actually redefining place as “a kind of open field or three-dimensional network with unlimited potential combination and connectivity” (30) (again a view relevantly converging with our own graph poem project and computational graph poetics).  One can indeed sense this unlimited connective and combinatorial potential in Raptosh’s treatment of place, as seen in the particular example above.  Not only that her poems shift from one place to another all the time, but even the apparently fixed geography proves to be an intersection of so many other cultural loci and localities.  Just like the “self.”

“The self is a thousand localities” begins indeed another poem, and then is seized by the anxiety of being/representing a(n emerging but already dissuaded) transnational nation.  Unlike Walcott’s character who trenchantly rules that he is either a nation or nobody, Raptosh’s everyman is a “nobody” (a… John Doe) because of being a nation (American) and an inter(net)nation.  The former—Americanness—is just a “term” shattered by his manic (and mnemonic?) punning that uncovers the property and production-centered gravity forces interacting, through consumerism, with family and private life—“America is one such term.  It contains acre and cream/ acme and ma, crime and me.  America has a mashed car in it” (author’s italics).  As for the latter (the global/virtual nation), its definitory interconnectedness still requires cartography to reach—through demarcations nonetheless—a possibly actual togetherness: “assembly required: borders and roads…”

The poet’s shrewd language memorably charts the paradoxes of being connected (across various kinds of distances if not divides) and astray, outside and inside (or ‘in the loop’), in ways that x-ray the ongoing negotiation of social relationships in a world where things have apparently become easily or instantly reachable but overwhelming nevertheless.  In such a world, poetry is a huge effort for no more than a ditty, but therefore (who would have thought?—not even poets maybe), through its both integrative and discerning processes, possibly on of the most typical act of this age.  The poetry of this age, says Raptosh, is this age.  But the courage of such a vision results, in her case, in neither celebratory, prophetic stances nor in dismissive irony or detached ennui.  She does not take sides, she does not look down on anything or anybody, and she does not take things lightly either.  Raptosh’s speaker wants (and actually has no choice but) to experience this age to the full, and his total immersion into his time as personal sociopathic disease is the poet’s way of bearing witness of a transgressive culture not (only) of “anarchy and futility” but mainly of infecting and fundamentally mutual (or should I say collusive?) beautility:

Which reminds me that everyone I’ll have to live without

I must help to find a place within.  Which is an act

 

of granite will.  A strain.  A ditty.

An exercise in utmost beautility.

[author’s emphasis]

 

A brief note on the form too.  The vast majority of the collection consists of sonnets, most of which are written in couplets with erratic rhymes and irregular meter (generally gravitating around an alternation of loose iambic octometers and heptameters).  Why sonnets?  Well, this is almost like asking why poetry.  For one good reason, the cacophony between the speaker’s gaudy Americanness (is he one of Santa’s reindeer, by the way, a rein… hart?) and the high cultural European references.  But why couplets?  As a deconstruction of the clarity and impetus of the classic heroic couplet?  Maybe; but also, one may suspect, as a means of crossing the sonnet and the ghazal.  The poet needed both the methodical pace of the former and the capricious unaccountability (or mischievous non sequiturs) of the latter to illustrate best the manic dissociative disorder of her speaker.  Moreover, with this choice she also proves to be quite un-amnesiac about Adrienne Rich’s, John Thompson’s, and Phyllis Webb’s work in this vein, thus joining a motley contingent of other contemporary maybe less consistent but as unpredictable practitioners of the form, such as Jill Peláez Baumgaertner and Amanda Earl.

 

—MARGENTO

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Diane Raptosh. American Amnesiac. Wilkes – Barre, PA: Etruscan Press, Wilkes University, 2013

 

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

Bruce Bond–Poetry and Community

September 26th, 2014 margento No comments

In a cave in southern Germany, archeologists found what they believe might be the oldest surviving musical instrument, a flute made of vulture bone, and they thought, so that’s it, that’s why the Homo Sapiens survived and the Neanderthals, who were physically superior, did not. Not the mighty flute, of course, though it no doubt raised some spirits along the way, but the flute as evidence of music as evidence of community, of social organization. My mother sang to me as a kid, and then at a certain age she stopped. Many years later, she died. I hear that singing still.

And yes, part of the power of music is its phantom nearness, like the breath that sings. The poetry I love is like that. Sometimes when I write I close my eyes to see how things sound in the dark. Sometimes the silence around the language has the power of another person in the room. It is not of course. And yet, as a part of language, it becomes part of the expressive yearning, that hunger for connectivity and its opposite, for the play of meaning, that longing to be two people and one at the same time.

Of course the communal is in there, the historical, the political, and even our conditioning to say they are there—though it is a lie to say we see these things any more clearly than we see what it is that is original in our own decisions, our gestures, our errors and gifts, our words. Language is where we feel most acutely the tension between the individual and the collective, the private and the public—a tension which, mercifully, never resolves.

I feel most honest if I begin my musing on community by conversing with one person, real or otherwise. That’s how days tend to begin, by talking to one, considering, if I am mindful, that person’s face, how full of character it might be, what is in there and not there yet, the inner life in all its lovely complexity that dissipates in the hands of the larger categories. I think I do better, starting with one to see the many. This way I am more acutely aware of what in “the one” is and is not of “the many.” Both seem central to my imagination of humanity. My experience. Both. And I would say, likewise, both seem central to the experience of language. Particularly language that would embody most inclusively what we are, paradoxically by way of radiant essentials. Particularly poetry.

I am not terribly invested in the label “poet.” I tease a friend of mine who is a well-known poet who said in a radio interview that he is not a “poet,” just “a guy who writes poems.” Oh, brother. He laughs about it now too. We are all on a path somewhere. If you have written a poem, you’re a poet, I say. But “poem” can mean a lot of different things. Too many to discuss here. Perhaps central to the question about community is that “poetic activity” and what I find valuable in it is, to me, universal. It meets a universal need. That need and its symbolic expression allow for the wider resonance of poems that, in light and in spite of their inner intensities, refreshes many.

When language reaches beyond its utilitarian dailiness, via play and singularity of expression, to model one’s inner life as invested in and shaped by the outer world, it engages in something poem-like. For this reason, I find it useful to be out and about each day, trading words with whomever, because they surprise me, feed me, feed my writing. And what I say in return surprises me. Our greatest animating tensions are between the private individual and the public world, and poetry aspires to bear fuller testament to what those are by refusing to separate or conflate them absolutely. They dream the reconciliation of dualities more largely, of facts and values, culture and nature, imagination and reason. Metaphor as the heart of the poetic does similar work: bringing together without dissolving the vital energy of difference.

I see poems as “the other self,” or conscience, of philosophy. Likewise as the conscience of sociology. We’ve all seen it: the ardent Marxist, usually young, who is so smart and full of both good intentions and a desire to matter, full of the handed-down categories, brilliantly recast, the large mannered gesticulations that are the signature of civic mindedness—but the jargon has a way of effacing individuals in the distance. It’s not my intention to throw this jargon out or condemn such things, but one way of making immediate the notion of dialectic is to consider what these categories do not say. This means considering what the category of “community” can never say. Poems enact that kind of mercurial questioning, or can if they aspire toward the subtlest of inclusions. They are the one hand clapping, the one calling to the many, the many calling to the one. So when the topic turns to politics, just who is that person speaking? Who is listening? Who is imagined as listening? Are we getting better? Closer? Getting things done?

So yes. Poetry is fundamentally communal. It has the power to bring us together in the way that music does, to fill an auditorium with palpable awe as the last word falls. Perhaps it changes the behavior of some. Possible. Unknowable perhaps. Or rare. Surely it can voice a conscience that we recognize as something the culture desperately needs. I hope so. To put this hope into action is to let the best words inform our own, and so on. Words that are heard by many would be good. Really heard, the way poetry encourages us to hear by breaking into lines, slowing us down. “Bombs with slow fuses,” that’s what Ginsberg called poems. Or perhaps they comfort a mother who, in hospice, has a book by her bedside. There was a book like this at my mother’s place, a book she discussed with no one I know. I want to think it moved her. It made something enormous happen. I do not know this. I want to say, however sad or happy, it made her feel less alone.

(first published in 32poems magazine)

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Bruce Bond is a classical and jazz guitarist and professor of English. He earned a BA from Pomona College, an MA in English from Claremont Graduate School, an MA in music performance from the Lamont School of Music (University of Denver), and a PhD in English from the University of Denver. He is the author of a number of collections of poetry, including The Anteroom of Paradise (1991); Radiography (1997), winner of the Natalie Ornish Best Book of Poetry Award from BOA Editions; The Throats of Narcissus (2001); Cinder (2003); Blind Rain (2008); Peal (2009); and The Visible(2012). His poetry combines personal lyric and metaphysical inquiry as well as the influences of music and jazz musicians.

Bond has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts. He is a professor of English at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, and a poetry editor of the American Literary Review.

 

Categories: Poetries & Communities Project Tags: