“The poet´s concept of Art is, therefore, related to the theme of translation. She actually believes that Art is an act of translation, a transformation or deformation of form from one medium into another. And she is not afraid of the degradation or decomposition that comes with transformation. The consecutive lines forming “winding sheet music” in the poem depict this concept of de-composition. This phrase, composed of two different expressions (“winding sheet” and “sheet music”) can be taken as representative of the spasmodic Mobius strip into which composition and decomposition, creation-degradation-recreation coexist.”
[I don’t think I ever got around to announcing that I had an essay, “Awash in Mimicry: On the Deformation Zone of Translation” in the last issue of the fine translation journal Two Lines (highly recommended). So I’ll paste in the first half here and hope that it will want to make you go and buy the journal. Also, I have written a sequel of a sorts that will be in a special translation issue of the Volta, edited by Rosa Alcala.]
“AWASH IN MIMICRY”: ON THE DEFORMATION ZONE OF TRANSLATION
“Poetry is that which is lost in translation”: I am fond of pointing out that the most canonical definition of poetry in American literature depends on translation. This suggests that translation – even if it is through negation – is essential to the American concept of poetry. We know poetry through translation, its opposite. It may seem strange to assert the prominence of translation in an age when we know – thanks to critics and activists like Lawrence Venuti, Chad Post, Don Mee Choi and Lucas Klein – that the translator and her translations are “invisible” in our culture: marginal, infrequent, debased. But somehow the translator and translation is both marginal and central, both invisible and hyper-visible – if only as a threat, a ghost, kitsch.
If we want to find out why translation is such a fundamental threat to poetry, we might ask ourselves: What IS this something that is “lost” in translation?
The short answer: the singular text, the singular author, the single lineage. In other words: the illusion of a perfect wellwrought urn of a text that cannot be paraphrased – or rather that is not paraphrased – written by one original author who expresses his or her views in full control of language. And perhaps even worse further: we lose the illusion of a patriarchal lineage, the objectivity of that lineage: What if we don’t know who is influencing who? What if a writer is influenced by a text that is alien to her? Can she really be influenced correctly? Is she misreading it? The threat of translation is the threat of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages. Poetry, it appears, is lost in a noisy, violent excess.
Over the past two hundred years, western (not just American, if I am perfectly honest) theorists have repeatedly discussed the excess produced by translation in terms of a violence. In Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Task of the Translator,” this excess becomes a violent alien-ness within the text itself:
If in the original, content and language constitute a certain unity, like that between a fruit and its skin, a translation surrounds its content, as if with the broad folds of a royal mantle. For translation indicates a higher language than its own and thereby remains inadequate, violent, and alien with respect to its content.
In this metaphor: the act of translation transforms the peel of a fruit into clothes, into excess no longer organically in balance with itself. In that case, it seems to be not a lack (what is lost) but an accumulation, an inflation and an infection of the alien. An alien-ness that is violent in part because it is alien, somewhat like an infection or a disease.
The violence of translation is even more central to George Steiner’s canonical study of translation, After Babel. Steiner portrays the translation itself as a violent act: the translator must, in an act of “aggression” and “penetration,” “extract” the meaning (as if it were gold in some colonial enterprise). However, the translator must take care not to lose his sense of self, before incorporating the new text in the target culture. Steiner warns that translating might – like a sexual intercourse – lead to “infection”: “No language, no traditional symbolic set or cultural ensemble imports without the risk of being transformed.” And this transformative infection may ruin our sense of self: “we may be mastered and made lame by what we have imported.”
In case you haven’t heard by now, the Mongrels have launched their own guerrilla website and it’s pretty shattering stuff. This will be the last time I post on their behalf here or anywhere else, so please check the site out for future updates.
-the former Messenger
Hey, just wanted to mention that you can now “pre-order” my forthcoming book The Sugar Book from Tarpaulin Sky – here.
This is a book I’ve been writing for years – in South Bend, in Seoul, in Malmö, in Berlin. I wrote this in an interview from 4 years ago when Blake Butler asked me what I was working on:
BB: What are you working on now?
JG: A murder mystery novel/poem/notebook about Images and infection, atrocity kitsch and The Law. A Starlet has been murdered, terrorist attacks happen, children are born and get pregnant in mysterious fashion (constantly multiplying), the son is locked in a tower with his favorite horse toy, the penis is a death prong through which – on the ouiji board – the murdered children of the Vietnam War finally gets to “speak,” they talk about the mall and the law, there are twitter feeds about motorcyclists who come from the castle outside of town, terror suspects who are given rubber gloves and led through the mirror, “Kingdom of Rats” it says above the mirror, it’s all about photography, hares, the body in snow, the body covered by a plastic bag, Art as Death. Etc. It’s always a staging, a pageantry, a b-movie. I hope that gives you some idea. I’m calling it The Sugar Book.
There’s an excerpt from a little essay Kim Hyesoon wrote about my poetry on the Tarpaulin Sky page:
…I that follows the I that observes. I that records and condenses. Johannes Göransson’s poetry is a bang bang – art of these I’s. (continue reading…)
Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo Takes To Twitter, Questions Poetry Foundation’s Immediate Questioning of Mongrels
Today’s tabloid headline: the MCAG have a Twitter account! Check it out @AgainstGringpo for more jeers and cheers regarding US poetry’s unexamined racial politics.
Lately I’ve been reading this new book Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz. The title refers to cabinets of curiosity, or wunderkammers, a subject matter I’m interested in. These chambers (sometimes rooms, sometimes boxes) was how back in pre-modern-science days people collected curiosities, often from other parts of the world, objects not following some kind of scientific classificatory system but rather tied together by their capacity to incite “wonder.”
In the book Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga traces kitsch back to this “science”, which in its undead state turns into things like the “fern-craze” of Victorian England, when people would get aquariums and put ferns in them. I’m fascinated the wunderkammer’s inevitable connection between collecting, imperialism, decadence/death and of course Art.
I might even say that Surrealism – which so often stands in for “kitsch” in contemporary US poetry discussions – is based on the idea of the wunderkammer – with its collection of strange, useless, outdated objects brought together by occult forces. Benjamin famously called surrealism “dream kitsch”; and Clement Greenberg called Max Ernst “postcard kitsch.” Between those two phrases you get the connection between the wunderkammer and surrealism.
Of course this can be seen most clearly in Joseph Cornell’s boxes:
These boxes of dream-trash, rescued from the garbage heap of New York City’s dreams.
Cruz’s poems are almost all wunderkammers – some of the poems are actually called wunderkammer, but even the ones that aren’t have the sense of a collection of objects brought together by some strange act:
A Greek crime mars the pastoral.
Charts and maps, an atlas of anesthesia-
Laced nostalgia. A long haired, white
Rabbit, muffled, shot, and stuffed.
And old yellow chiffon gown, the ribbon
Hem, ripped and red wine stained.
Curricula of the mundane.
Symptoms of trauma, like ghost
Spots of water on crystal
That will not be washed off.
In many ways this poem seems to straight up describe a Cornell box. Like Cornell, Cruz’s poem is invested in the necroglamorous: the rabbit is stuffed, the chiffon gown old and stained, the crystal has ghost spots. But it is glamorous nonetheless, anesthesized by “nostalgia” and more specifically the nostalgia for glamor. The numbing seems to be physical: the speaker seems stuck like a stuffed rabbed, she cannot “wash off” the atmosphere of the piece, which primarily consists of the “chiffon gown” -its material seems to immobilize her. She cannot really get out of the box so to speak until the negative ending “will not be washed off” which for me works as a relief from the stultifying, stunting but beautiful glamour.
A ver, compañeros, does “Gringpo” exist? How might its colonialist frameworks operate not just on behalf of but also within Conceptualism? What happens when a conceptualist writer of color faces these frameworks and works to wrest herself out of them?
To open up the discussion proposed by the Mongrel Coalition, I’m sharing an intriguing quote by Divya Victor that Walter–a commentator on yesterday’s post–excerpted from a convo featuring Victor and fellow writers Swantje Lichtenstein and Riccardo Boglione.
As Walter notes, Victor’s take on the need to “circumvent a Western, primarily imperialist pedigree” doesn’t sound far off from the Coalition’s decolonial aims. Victor suggests how the narrow critical imaginary of ‘gringpo’ conceptualism ultimately lies in its Euro/US-centered canon formation and coterie:
I want to argue that if there is to be an articulation of conceptualism’s globality, and if we want to use its trans-national significance as a way to catalogue and historicize contemporary literary production, then we must insist on thinking repetition without Stein. In other words, we’ll have to circumvent a Western, primarily imperialist pedigree. The critical effort (Goldsmith, Perloff, etc.) has portrayed conceptualism as a historical continuity between two origin myths— one set in European, sometimes transatlantic, modernism (Duchamp, Stein, Klein, etc.) and one set in North American conceptualism in the 60s and 70s (Huebler, L. Wiener, Acconci, Cage, Schneeman, Kosuth, etc.). These artists and writers supply our ur-texts that then essentially allow us a convenient, but narrow, regionally- and racially-specific way of imagining the projects that present as conceptualist right now. It gives us good mothers and fathers, and then in turn defines our pedigree. This is obviously insufficient.
If critical efforts have managed and controlled our genealogies of conceptualism, the continually documented simulcast of coterie has defined its geographical parameters. Of course contemporary coterie matters, but that too is only a partial explication of influence. It is necessary for us to imagine and articulate conceptualisms not only as a product of regionally specific scenes or communities— for instance the thriving and brilliant community of poets working in New York city, and circulating in the gyre generated by the compelling and ever-dynamic Segue series. We need to also describe emerging forms of conceptualism as results of historical pressure and consequences of globalization. To do so is to include a consideration of who else is making conceptual works and to pluralize the poets who can occupy the cartography of conceptualist tendencies. To do so is to explain these emerging tendencies as a response not only to already institutionalized origin myths, or already privileged urban centers of making (New York, L.A.), but also as responses to lived practices of immigrants, travelers, or those who have systematically eschewed the fabrication of localized community by being itinerants. Conceptualism has made space for new forms of inclusivity, but these spaces have to be articulated into existence. Conceptualism’s “globality,” in other words, has to also make place for placelessness in practices of writing that come out of geographic transitionality.
In addition, Victor explains how misreadings of her work in the US have been used to uphold the white avant garde’s frames:
As someone who did not grow up in the United States, the record of my own trajectories of influence is quite other. I do not see my work as responding only to forms of art I’ve consumed, studied, or engaged with in the last ten years or so. When I began writing poems, the objects or oeuvres they resembled were entirely alien to me. I made Beckett-like poems or Joyce-like narratives knowing nothing of either writer. I was told I was “channeling” dead white men even as I tried to explain that I had never heard of them. Institutions instrumentalize even alien life, such as my own, and I was understood through my resemblance to these men— their beards and frosted noses superimposed on my flesh. As an immigrant and a woman of color, these networks of influence that have defined conceptualism in the United States— whether modernist literary experimentalism or post-punk commodities— continue to remain alien to me, and necessarily so.
THE MONGREL COALITION AGAINST GRINGPO OFFERS EXTENDED THOUGHTS ON THE TATTERED FLAG OF WHITE CONCEPTUALISM
[Communiqué #2 sent to me by TMCAG. I post on the coalition’s behalf and assume no part in its authorship.]
“Again I was supposed to know them, while they were not at all interested in knowing me. Instead they sought to ‘deconstruct’ the tradition to which they belonged even as they used the same forms, style, language of that tradition, forms which necessarily embody its values.” -Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory”
“… the parasitical nature of white freedom.” -Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
They tell us with a straight face that there is this thing called art–and that some of its practitioners have been into “ideas.” They say: did you know that this methodology is advanced? They repeat in unison: some poets conceptualize their work! Their work is about “ideas” (never specified, never identified).
The Jacket2 authors, in an attempt to elevate the claims, practices, and politics of white conceptualism, violently flatten. The tradition of this practice is so vast it was easy for us to spot.
Glaringly absent is their discussion. All we gauged from their discussion is that poetry critics and their favorite poets are 50 years behind in reading, selective in their memory, fixated and beholden to whiteness as property, whiteness as elevation, whiteness as transcendence.
In their omissions the politics of Gringpo are presented:
Peddling the notion that white male poets make art about ideas…vs what? Black poets write about the body? From their body (because this is so horrific!!!!)? Female identified writings are produced by their feelings? The consistently old Cartesian dichotomy that “some” writers are engaged with the process of ideas (and therefore abstraction and therefore elevated) while “others” are fixated to the realm of the earthly crass and contingently precise: these are clearly marked racialized and gendered divisions. So to get this right: white male writers and their companion poets make work for the mind, of the mind. Let’s not even mention their obliteration of the soul: everyone else is stuck with the body. Gringpo has gotten so sloppy it can’t even dress up its racism.
In addition: to suggest that conceptualists make work centering on ideas is at this point in art criticism sloppy and ignorant at best. To collapse the variations of conceptual art practices (institutional critique, social practice, relational, non-relational, etc, each one with their limits) and their explicit political projects–this reading is behind by at least 50 years. (continue reading…)
THE MONGREL COALITION AGAINST GRINGPO RESPONDS TO THE LINKS BETWEEN CONCEPTUAL ART AND CONCEPTUAL POETRY
[Note: Although I have used the term “Gringpo” in the past, I did not author this communiqué. The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, an anonymous entity, asked me to post it on their behalf in response to the recent Jacket2 article on the relationship between Conceptual art and poetry. ]
“It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” –James Baldwin
WE ARE REMINDED THAT WHITE EMPIRE IS UNITED. THEIR FRONT IS UNITED BY COLONIAL DOMINANCE, CULTURAL ARROGANCE, THEIR DEVOTION TO FINANCIAL CAPITALISM AND GLOBAL DISASTERS.
THEY ARE UNITED IN THEIR ENCRATIC USAGE OF AESTHETICS.
ENCRATIC: LANGUAGE THAT IS PRODUCED AND PROTECTED UNDER POWER (TRINH MINH HA).
OUR RESPONSE TO THEIR UNITED FRONT:
1. The level of bullshit racism that gets to pass as scholarship does not cease to surprise us. Gringpo arrogance is shocking on all fronts!
2. How is gringpo gonna talk about conceptual any fucken thing without ACTUALLY DISCUSSING THE IDEAS THAT ARE BEING CIRCULATED BY THEIR PRODUCERS
KENNIE G AND HIS CREW CIRCULATE THE IDEA THAT WE DON’T NEED TO WRITE OR READ (CUZ WHITE CISHET MALE NARRATIVES HAVE EXHAUSTED ITSELF, SCREW ALL NARRATIVES THAT RESIST AND DREAM OTHERWISE), ALSO SCREW CITATIONS (PATCH FUCKEN WORK!) EVERYTHING BELONGS TO THE WHITE MALE ACADEMIC AND THEIR ANOINTIES INCLUDING IDENTITIES DON’T YOU DARE SUGGEST OTHERWISE
3. Gringpo’s adoration and devotion to mimicking the hierarchies of financial capitalism does not cease to amaze. “The conceptual artist and the conceptual poet intersect as information managers.” Yes! The elevation and celebration of not only immaterial labor but immaterial MANAGEMENT. In this diagram, who remains raw material, appropriated, labor, subcontracted? How are they paid where do they live how are they managed tell us tell us tell us
4. This Strike Gringpo?
For a poet that later became known for his poems that supposedly authentically depict working class factory life in the Detroit factories, Levine’s early poetry is almost allegorical – complete with the kind of poetic artifice that is generally believed to be opposed to the authentic.
And of course that’s why they are so prevalent. Throughout Levine’s early work, when he began to depict factory work, there are angels and almost always they are subjected to violence. For example in “Sunday Afternoon,” the angels are not being worshipped, rather they are attacked: “On the body/of the Angel without teeth/I counted seventeen welts/scored with a bicycle chain.” Instead of the most pristine, the Angel is toothless – as if the poem had ruined its holy beauty – and then inflicted extreme, crude violence on its body, as if the violence itself had to be debased.
This violence against angels is probably most noticeable in the famous “Angel Butcher,” one of my favorite Levine poem. On one very relevant level, this is a poem about a butcher – which stands in for any violent, numbing work – who butchers all that is beautiful within him (the “angel”), the way one has to when one works these numbing jobs: “ we talk about growing up and losing the strange things we never understood and settling.” The “settling” is then enacted as the butcher kills the angel. Along the same line, the violence enacted by the speaker is a kind of displaced violence of blue collar work against worker’s bodies; a return of the repressed, a gothic fable about industrial work.
In a memoiristic essay in his book Bread of Time, Levine refers to the factories in which he worked in his youth as “those terrible places designed to rob us of our bodies and our spirits, we sustained each other.” This adds another layer to “Angel Butcher”: Is butchering someone the same as “sustaining” them? Is slaughtering someone the same as defending against the loss of “spirit”?
In the poem, the angel wants to be butchered “like a rabbit” and the speaker complies. The angel is the customer, he wants to be killed, he orders his own murder. The angel’s body plays a key role in the poem. There is the unsettling description of his thin, vulnerable body: not only does he want to die like a rabbit, his wrist is small “like the throat of a young hen” as he undresses for the butcher, removing his “robe.” His fragile and vulnerable body – vulnerable because it is a body – the angel becomes like an animal. That is to say, the butcher doesn’t have to “settle”; the angel returns him to “animals.”
Why does the angel get naked for the murder? There’s definitely a sexual element to the murder. The angel may be a he, but he is also “smiling/like a young girl.” This erotic element of the angel reoccurs in most of Levine’s many angel poems. In “The Second Angel,” the speaker carries an angel “home” like a bride and accidentally “bruise[s]” the angel’s head by hitting it on a doorpost. But instead of reaching the wedding bed, the strange couple end up “roadside,” where the speaker lays the angel “like a doll,/his eyes still open, seeing,/his wings breathing in and out /in the winds of traffic.” Instead of getting fucked, the angel becomes artifice (doll) and roadkill (the traffic blowing his “bloodless wings” around).
This connection between murdering and fucking angels in/as acts of artifice becomes most overt in the poem “Waking An Angel.” Here the poem starts out as a depiction of domestic harmony. An undefined “she” – we read it as the wife or lover – says “we have been good” but the speaker isn’t so sure. Afterall, “there was sand//as white as powdered glass overflowing/teh vessel of the hyacinth,” as if artifice was taking over nature due to something the couple has done – perhaps because they have become a couple, perhaps because they have had sex and thus perhaps not been “good” at all (according to the Bible). And this physical stuff of artifice is “on my own tongue” when he waks up “in the dark” and starts to “rock” this “she” “gently.” She replies “O, O, O.” Is he fucking her or – as in the title of the poem – “waking” her up?
In “Angel Butcher” we get something similar: the angel undresses as for sex but the speaker murders him instead. The result in “Angel Butcher” is that the speaker’s own body is renewed and metaphorizied:
“When I hit
him he comes apart like a
perfect puzzle or an
And my legs
dance and twitch for hours.”
Through this beautiful erotic butchery, the speaker’s own body begins to “dance and twitch for hours.” It reminds me of Olympia in Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” source of Freud’s famous essay “The Uncanny.” Levine’s speaker becomes artifice, becomes doll-like (like the “second angel” who becomes roadkill), but he also regains his body (“my lungs flower”). Artifice and body – which are so often treated as opposites – are in fact closely aligned. The violence of art brings his body back to life.
Instead of a protest against the violence of industry, Levine’s poem to me suggests that the violence of art – perhaps a displaced, “return of the repressed” violence of industry, perhaps an anti-industrial revolutionary violence (as in his famous poem “They Feed They Lions”) – is what “sustains” the speaker. Unlike a “settling” aesthetic of describing daily life (at the abbatoir or any other place), the violent, extreme art of “angel butchering” brings him to life, sustains him. Art it seems is both like murder and like sex (homosexual – non-reproductive and non-productive).
If the angel might initially align Levine’s poem with some kind of transcendence, it seems that ultimately it’s in fact the opposite of transcendence that sustains Levine: giving the angel a body and inflicting pain on it, killing it.