Over at Cleaver Magazine, Johnny Payne has written a very thoughtful review of The Sugar Book. In particular, I appreciate the way he – like Carleen Tibbetts in her review in American Microreviews- thinks through the kind of “barrage” that gave Publisher’s Weekly such issues with Haute Surveillance. Payne acknowledges that he felt the urge to cut out some of the stuff from the book but instead of this leading him to knee-jerk attack/dismiss the way Publisher’s Weekly did, he actually thinks about his reaction.
Here’s an excerpt:
This is exactly what Kant meant when he described the sublime as a rapid alternation between the fear of the overwhelming and the peculiar pleasure of seeing that overwhelming overwhelmed: a raging storm that “takes our breath away.” This book is full of a genetic hybrid of Billie Holiday’s strange fruit—as a song that became an ekphrastic poem—the ugly philosophical object of contemplation transmuted, by its very violence, into something lyrical.
Pablo Neruda played with this idea back in 1925, with feismo, the art of the ugly:
el perfume de las ciruelas que rodando a tierra
se pudren en el tiempo, infinitamente verdes.
the perfume of plums that rolling to the ground
rot in time, infinitely green.
The Sugar Book is a full-on assault on the senses, the sharp point of a blunt instrument. I don’t think anyone would accuse this book of subtlety. Its virtue is precisely its overkill. Excess, at its best, becomes a form of complexity. The outrage, while often smirking, runs deep, forcing a core of sincerity into what might easily have become a flippant, cynical take on urban ennui, as I feared when facing such crackling ironic titles as “At the Shrine for the Dead Starlet,” or “ The Heart of Glamour.”
Carleen Tibbetts has a great review of The Subar Book on the website American Micro Reviews, focusing on the sugary, decayed substance of artifice. Here’s the final paragraph:
The Sugar Book is vile and violent, but also asphyxiatingly sweet, choking while gorging on its aloof, artful persona. It unsettles. It takes the reader far beyond their comfort zone, as poetry should. Just like Los Angeles herself, the poems inhabit that glittering/grotesque duality of Kardashian Family and Manson Family. They have that eerie Chinatown feel. They are the disarticlated woman in the Black Dahlia murder. They are Richard Ramirez in all his night-stalking terror. The Sugar Book asks, when any structure decays, when the sugar decays, what do we do with the remains?
The other day I discovered an interesting review of Haute Surveillance on Publisher’s Weekly. Often negative reviews are very revealing – especially when it’s such a negative review as this, especially in a magazine that like to present itself as a “journal of record” that is supposed to be a guide to things published with an air of “objectivity.” If an “objective” record has to abject my book in this way, has to warn instead of merely take note of my book, what does it say about my book’s relationship to “objective” American poetry?
I am particularly interested in the contradictions of this rhetoric: It is both “underwhelming” and “orgiastic,” both “pornography” and “disinteret[ed],” a morass” that “drowns” the reader and “vacuous.” The review repeatedly presents my book as both too much and not enough. This is the hallmark of when people who perceive themselves as having refined taste tries to shield others from work that challenges that taste.
How can a text both be a barrage that drowns the reader and be “exhaustive critique”? The critique suggest a stable place from which to view one’s culture; and that’s a place I’ve never found for myself, and it’s not a stance I’ve found convincing in other writers. (I’ve written quite a bit about my dissatisfaction with this pervasive paradigm of the writer-as-critic, for example here.)
It seem this person is unable to read the text and has to fall back on a number of cliches (that contradict each other): it’s about “spectatorship” (which it certainly is), so it must be a “critique”. If it’s pornographic and masochism, then it cannot be “boundary-pushing” (ie “experimental”). When you stumble into this many contradictions, I think it’s important to ask oneself as a critic if one is actually reviewing a book or flailing wildly?
The review is correct in many ways (perhaps in spite of itself). I think my book mostly certainly is a “morass” and “masochistic”, and it most certainly doesn’t provide a way out, a way forward, a progressive worldview. It is most certainly meant to be a “barrage.” But again, if I were the critic, I might ask myself: Why is this author creating a barrage, a morass? Why would someone want to subject himself or his reader to such “smut”? Can there be any other way than the “critique” of engaging with US culture (and its splendid images, its barrage, its violence)?
The smut is particularly interesting to me of course. The falling back on the rhetoric of “pornography” is common these days. I have written extensively about this (for example here, about “ruin porn”). At the heart, I think this line of criticism goes back to the fundamental rhetoric of high taste: high taste is anxious about art that traffics in sensational images. I have also written about Jacques Ranciere’s “The Emancipation of the Spectator”:
It was in this context that a rumour began to be heard: too many stimuli have been unleashed on all sides; too many thoughts and images are invading brains that have not been prepared for mastering this abundance; too many images of possible pleasures are held out to the sight of the poor in big towns; too many new pieces of knowledge are being thrust into the feeble skulls of the children of the common people…
This also goes back to my last post, which treated the charges that Action Books represented a “sensationalistic” – and therefore immoral, ignorant – aesthetic.
“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.”
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…)
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.
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.