There’s a certain type of poetry that orbits around an on-going absence, giving the reader the sense of ghostly not-there-ness with images that are all the more vivid for the emptiness around them: trees, lone houses on wind-swept beaches, blackbirds among twenty snowy mountains. But this absence isn’t necessarily premised on loss. Rather, the absence can sometimes be based on a restraint that’s all the more mysterious for being so exact. If the poets of absence were on a sort of scale of formalistic experimentation, Wallace Stevens might be at one end and John Cage at the other. Strand and Lauterbach and Ashbery and Palmer would fall somewhere between them. And James Shea would have to be in that number, too. His brilliant new book, The Lost Novel, is haunted by absence in the way other collections are haunted by memory.
The first line in the first poem (“Thinking of Work”) emphasizes a brushing back, an act of clearance: “A brief storm / blew the earth clean.” It’s an appropriate line for a book that often seems to take place in an aftermath, placing the calmness after the storm and not before. Yet the poem is not an ode to this cleansed earth, but rather about how to carry on post-storm: “There was much / to do: sun to put up, / clouds to put out, / blue to install…” And this response — this nature shaping and re-shaping — is emblematic of the collection. For all of Shea’s close attention to the natural world, to the intricate details of leaves and “cloud-shaped stones,” his poems are less about a cohesive organic world and more about the aesthetics of nature. In “New & Selected,” he writes, “Best to begin loving someone / in the late fall or winter, when / nature will not outshine you.” Nature in both this poem and “Thinking of Work” is seen almost as a stage set, a phenomena that might “outshine” its actors.
This highly aesthetic approach to nature is often seen in the poetry of absence. If nature isn’t a plenitude, then each image becomes not a marker of truth (spiritual or otherwise), but simply a sign, and the natural world itself becomes “an empire of signs” (to use Barthes’ phrase in a very different context). There are moments in the collection where this act of reading signs is explicit. In “The Phrase You Gave Me,” Shea writes, “I remember almost / nothing of what I’ve written, except / that it begins thusly: Crows seal the sky. / They speak of their suffering in long, distant sentences.” But usually the reading is implicit. In “Supervenience,” he writes, “Dusk approaches, wild geese overhead. / The mind can build upon the brain.” As the above lines suggest, Shea, like Stevens, is fascinated by all kinds of art-making, both literal and metaphorical, and, also like Stevens, he is drawn toward the paradoxes of this making. In “Poem By Tolstoy,” the poet writes, “For ten years or so I haven’t had such a wealth of images and ideas as these last three days. I can’t write, they are so abundant.”
The title itself hints at absence, too, though in this case it’s an actual loss: the lost novel. Is the novel “lost” as in left behind somewhere, and cannot be found? Or lost in the sense of the writer having lost the thread of the novel and therefore not being able to complete it? Or is the title meant to be literal, with “lost” being the theme of the book? (Of course, the fact this is a poetry collection and not a novel seems to also be at play — as if this “novel” is so lost it can no longer even be rendered or described in prose, and instead is referred to in a different form, marking yet another degree of separation.) All of these questions are implied by the title, and in the title poem itself.
There are nine sections in “The Lost Novel.” The first lines are addressed to an ambiguous “you” that might be the novel itself. “I wrote you once for years. / I called you many names.” Not “I wrote to you” but “I wrote you”: implying that for the speaker the novel has be transformed, anthropomorphized. The following section gives us some of the names/titles: “Party of One. Sexy / Hypothesis. Miss Bliss. / The Instrumentalist.” Because this is a lost novel, there is no final name/title, only a list of possible ones. The next sections pick up on this fragmentation. In section four, the poet says, “Some chapters just sketched out, others quite filled in.” And later, in section six: “Chapters 6, 7, 8: / Develop character!”
Despite the injunctions, these fix-it notes to self, you begin to think that this novel — like a modern project grounded in its own failure and/or incompletion (Beckett and Kafka come to mind) — is a work that cannot be completed, that houses its own missing parts within itself. As the poet writes near the end, “I still have all my notes,” suggesting that though these notes will never lead to a completed novel, they continue to hold promise, the “still” being a wager against the impossible.
“To celebrate Action Books’ 10th anniversary of publishing extremist literature from a broad swath of countries and cultures, we are pleased to announce an open reading period from March 15th to April 15th. We will gladly consider submissions of full-length manuscripts of poetry, translation, and genre-promiscuous work! We will select at least two manuscripts to publish, one of which will be a work in translation. We look forward to reading your work!”
– Joyelle McSweeney & Johannes Göransson
I have a new essay, “Toward a Sensationalistic Theory of Translation.”
In many ways it’s a response to Mia You’s review on Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream published in Book Forum a while back. You basically made the argument that we (the American readers of Kim Hyesoon) were “gross sensationalist” because we lacked the proper context for understanding her work.
I picked up on this critique and turned it around because I think the idea of context as a stable, determining force has become pervasive in our culture – both in discussions fo poetry and translation, but also wider culture – and that this is an incredibly simplistic idea of the way art works. The context-model posits that context basically determines “meaning” of a work of art. As a result, translation becomes impossible. Instead we get “gross sensationalism” and “appropriation.”
(I’ve even been accused of appropriating Swedish poetry, which I think is a really interesting charge because it makes clear the problems that not just translations, but immigrants, cause to this model of “context.” And authors – as I mention in the Volta essay – are not always (or even mostly) central figures of some kind of monoglossic illusion of “central”, true language/culture, often existing in peripheries and crossing all kinds of borders.)
Rather than stealing or decontextualizing, what translation – and art! – does is continually forge next contexts. Don Mee Choi and Action Books have for example forged a lot of contexts for reading Kim Hyesoon’s work. There is not one true meaning of Kim Hyesoon’s poems that can be gained from some supposedly stable idea of Korean culture (the instability of ideas of “context” is actually brought out in You’s essay since she questions some common ideas of Korean culture in the US); there is in fact no one true context for reading her work. In one recent interview (in South Korea) for example, she talks apprecriatively about what an essay I wrote about her work as “gurlesque” for the Swedish journal 10-tal, discussing how this brings out the important figure of “the girl” in her work. This is how poetry work: it constantly brings artworks into contact with readers and writers, creating new “contexts” for reading.
This doesn’t mean we should forget about the fact that Kim Hyesoon is a Korean poet, and that Don Mee Choi translated her. That is why I invoke Joyelle’s and my phrase “deformation zone,” a booklet we wrote for Ugly Duckling in which we argued that artworks are deformation zones (“appropriating” this terms from Aase Berg’s Swedish poem) that includes various contexts and deformations and translations and forgeries.
“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.