Love Chronicle XIII (for G)

I want to understand the link between cum and tears

I had been looking for you and when you did not
show, the leaves changed their patterns, losing their
vibrancy in an unexpected deluge

What falls and cannot be un-broken

I find you beautiful, also, a suitable addition to my
collection of mummified love objects

When you said you researched images of AIDS, I
wondered if you played echo or narcissus

But line figures keep obscuring my vision, refusing
to grant me the sanctity of maleness,

Men, you see, have lateral placing, which means
astigmatism bends gender

The tragedy of going blind

I wanted to play Tiresius but you kept drawing me
to Dionysus, so we compromised that vestal virgins
might be interesting, if overrated

I confess to being envious of your beauty, your
colossus-like stride, even as I patched your broken
toe

Blushes and Giggles

Something quiet passes between us, my fear of
intimacy, my desire for infection, the unspoken,
unconsummated

You stopped writing and I keep waiting, living
between love and obsession

To remember, in perfect sentences

Redemptive Turns

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
–T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

In a much-debated essay, Marjorie Perloff characterizes contemporary, mainstream poetry thusly:

[T]he poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.

This description came to mind when I read world-ending poetry in today’s NYT. Without exception, all the poems demonstrated a final “turn” toward something I’m calling “redemptive.” Bob Hicock’s “Leave a Message” ends, “The dead have no ears, no answering machines / that we know of, still we call.” The final stanza of Dana Levin’s “Morning News”:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . what
we call Doom —
which might be a bending —
a flow of permissions —
to forge a mutant form —

Laura Kasischke’s “At the End of the Text, A Small Bestial Form” concludes:

And the wife, the mother, the daughter, the hostess, and those
few people on earth she would
ever wish were dead
were the ones she loved the most.

And on it goes.

It is unsurprising that poems on endings—and end times—should demonstrate this kind of uniformity, a search for “what really matters”: a look, a gaze, love, a kiss, possibility. Eschatological thinking produces its own forms, its own modes of resistance, its own belief in redemption. Editorial decisions also matter.

I’m wondering if a shift from “epiphany” to “redemption” might more aptly characterize the contemporary poetry Perloff so readily dismisses. Look again at the three “scenes” she mentions: imperialism, late capitalism, tragedy. How should one feel about these three “scenes”? Is it some kind of formal cop-out to reach for “redemption,” for what Berlant might term “cruel optimism,” which, as she argues, is a structure that allows “persistence” or, to use Elizabeth Povinelli, permits “endurance” under ongoing conditions of attrition?

While she is a stunning interpreter of poems—I read and re-read her books to learn how to think about poetry—Perloff is often stubbornly ahistorical. “Context” is not absent from her work, but her contexts are more often literary than socio-political. We do not disagree here: from Houston Baker, I have learned the importance of emphasizing aesthetic genealogies. That said, because I am interested in how feelings become conventionalized (expected, circulated, comprehended), I am very interested in works that might be termed “banal” or “common” or “over-used,” even and especially in poetry. Where Perloff sees banal uniformity packaged in inadequate formalism, I see an index of contemporary feeling, a moment when the turns toward the redemptive not only feel necessary, but inevitable.

The lyric speaker that Perloff claims sediments too easily and too readily as the subject who feels—we might ask if Perloff is describing what Berlant describes as the problem of sentimental politics: “sentimental politics are being performed whenever putatively supra-political affects or affect-saturated institutions (like the nation or family) are proposed as universalist solutions to structural racial, sexual, or intercultural antagonism” (“Poor Eliza”)—should elicit our suspicion. We are, after all, in territory covered by Baldwin and Wright, who contested works that made readers cry too easily. And while I understand the urge to contest dominant modes of any genre—I remain modernist, not to mention Africanist, in this particular resistance—I also think a lot about what repetition tells us. For Perloff, it’s about laziness. The contemporary poets she dismisses do not pay attention to the “line” or to the “word as such.” Their “irregular lines of free verse” demonstrate an absence of thinking about aesthetics as construction and experimentation. Yet, at a moment of such intense surveillance and uniformity—consider the lines at airport security of people engaged in endless, repetitive motions of lining up, opening and closing bags, removing shoes, and you see a factory logic of repetitive tasks at work—a time when surveillance compels uniformity, one wonders if these “irregular” lines in poetry enact something we need, and need desperately.

As we understand, daily, how we are living with dying in our zombiefied present—the question is not whether we are poisoning ourselves and the world, but, rather, about the rate at which this is happening across differentiated populations—the turn toward the redemptive is all the more urgent for those who understand poetry as a social actor. The circulation of “epiphany,” to return to Perloff, demonstrates a kind of bad faith, a disengagement from the very political projects that poets ostensibly engage. This is a very real danger—and I’m grateful that Perloff makes it visible. The traffic from the personal to the socio-political or to the structural is much more difficult than being “merely confessional,” as Aaron Bady has recently pointed out. But if we read the “epiphanic” within a logic of redemption, or, rather, as a desire for “redemption,” we might understand something different about feeling in contemporary poetry. We might also understand something different about what Perloff dismisses as the “uncreative” forms of contemporary poetry. We might begin to understand how form and feeling come together to index—and negotiate—our precarious now.

“I Watched the Late Show”

I watched the late show, An Officer and a Gentleman,
which is a movie about factory workers
not having a dream
except to put out when they are shat on
until a man dressed in white
carries one of them
away. Then everyone claps they are so happy.

Forrest Gander, “Distractions from the Real World”

Memos (Selection)

Memos started as an experiment in lo-tech: I wanted to write poetry but did not have a book or pen. Thus, I turned to my (cheap) phone’s “Memo” function, which had a limited number of characters, 100, I believe. The limitation proved to be formally enabling. The original plan was to have 50 so-called memos. I am learning to give up “original plans” and listen to the shape of writing.

When I started this project, I didn’t know about Teju’s Small Fates. I am fascinated by this turn toward the “small,” the “aphoristic,” the “incidental,” the “paratactic.”

Here are the first 35.

Memos

1.
You say my indifference to love is irrational. We are all islanders, after all. Fate-driven.

2.
A man slips and the fall waits. It will catch up. On Sundays grace abounds on wet pavements and gum.

3.
He whispered his shame in the brightly lit studio to escape the nosy doors and the curious paint chips.

4.
Heat waves expand voices to compensate for evolutionary shrinkage. Now we all have white buds.

5.
He thought trouser shorts egregious and yearned for cotton sarongs. The men kept being adjusted.

6.
Attaches to. A man on a radiating brick. That summer tans were all baked sourdough. Wheat clouds.

7.
She’s never even had calamari before. Come here. She’s never even had lamb chops. A thin metal leg.

8.
Echo to Narcissus: It was the tremolo

9.
He thought the question charming and plucked a spiny leaf.

10.
The art of the crisp, white shirt is not hard to master. A maid here a laundry elsewhere.

11.
Job to Saul: my scabs for your blindness.

12.
Saul to Job:

13.
On the first days of wet months as canvas morphs to leather and shiny mirrors slide, dark ice

14.
I was standing by the window when you called, and the smell of fresh and here met a dreaming, ascent

15.
If you look, there might be a discovery, yet to be found, fertility-laden pebbles, and delayed feeling

16.
He asked if 8 would suffice, as corridors walked, and passages climbed, counting architecture, cubed

17.
The three things would have been essential were it not for the five, scales from the fishy eyes, falling

18.
He wanted a story that was rich in irony, but leucocytes kept gobbling up rare bits, ravenously

19.
On the plane, foreignness is always belated, top ten classics for obsolescent regimes, and disco

20.
As though evenings had to end, as with so much. Today there are kisses and a sense of vegetal warmth.

21.
She says that it will get better along three months, when time lines up, moons stretch, bodies fold

22.
As though the inevitability of it could be known, a song ahead of its notes, lyrics before words

23.
He had been humming, a soundless melody. When endings came it was surprising. We did not expect so.

25.
Many.

26.
I want the security of lingering glances, to be specific and particular, but I keep glancing away, overcome by the prospect of possibility.

27.
To stand in the gap means to intercede, but one fragments along uneven lines, offering representative pieces as guarantees.

28.
In loud voices one can say anything

But one fears the sudden silence

The risk of discovery

29.
Untrained, his blushes stain time

30.
You ask if the world can be nudged, time made accommodating, space capacious, if this will ease the sensibility of sensation

Variation One

1.

In winter mud feels black, but without the stick of clay. Green sticks in the ground, though roots are always in flight. Tell me about your dreams. He kept whispering to holes in the ground, waiting for the kindness of termites. Cicadas sang his secrets. Glass shivers in anticipation.

2.

At the change it was sliding. He learned to ice on mud. Have you ever seen this before? The un-newness of slides. The wet of ice and mud is unsightly. But snow retains its cold. We were sliding into place, almost swept away. It remained difficult to stay in position.

3.

Staccato echoes. It says sharp when it is more quack. But ducks lack the elegance of knives. Cutting elegance. Even though hacking is more eloquent. One cannot set music to coughs. Musicians live in cold garrets. Rasp happens. Sometimes when you are hoarse it becomes the occasion for consummation.

4.

Echoes slide but we like to say they bounce. We fear creeping sound. And the silence of open windows. Benign inflation. If you shut the window, the winter sun curls leaves. Green imposters. At the end of the film you will discover that the secrets that must be discovered were yet to be explored. This is called genre.

5.

Hunger. At the end you will be left wanting more than blushes, more than kisses, more than warm toast with slatherings of marmite. Wanting appetite leaves one famished, as though drought can be managed through famine. You will be left wanting. It might be possible to conflate need and desire.

The African Sonnet: Notes on Kenyan Aesthetics

On learning that I have been “hiding” in my apartment as I work on the book, Njeri Wangari took pity on me and invited me to see the sunshine and good people at POWO November, held at the IHub. The topic was, broadly, African languages, pasts, presents, futures, including, and perhaps especially, digital futures. Amidst several provocative claims—Fred Iraki’s prophecy that in 50 years, Kenya’s dominant languages will be English and Sheng; Kelvin J’s argument that Sheng is an African language; Laila Le Guen’s contention that Sheng bridges class barriers; Kithaka wa Mberia’s (very welcome) contention that we need to re-periodize African literatures by considering works other than those in European languages—I found myself wondering, as I frequently, do about the aesthetic resources of African languages.

In brief notes before the session, I wrote:

I have become increasingly interested in sound and its relation to meaning. We see this relationship most explicitly in music, where, for instance, we often dance or move to a beat, less to denotative or connotative meanings. And so I want to push the register of this conversation from that of loss and preservation within systems of denotation and connotation, that is, from the register of summary, paraphrase, analysis, critique, description, and one could use a host of other words, to the register of sound.

I hoped to emphasize two points:

  • All language is much more than meaning understood as denotation and connotation. It is also sound and rhythm and stance and pose and attitude. This is why we can experience emotion when hearing something even when we might not understand the words.
  • While the content of ethnic languages is important, they can also be formal resources. In this sense, it would be possible to write a Gikuyu or Kamba or Kipsigis or Rendile poem in any language, not through the translation of content, but through the formal resources of the language.

Music is one point of entry into how sound works. I think, for instance, about the typical 5/8 time of most Gikuyu music, with its not-quite syncopation. I have often wondered how that might translate into the shape/sound of a poem. Perhaps a modified ballad form with alternating lines of 5 and 8 syllables? Or stanzas that alternate between 5 and 8 lines. (Perhaps not the best examples, but possibilities.) How might the vigorous shoulder-shaking of many dances (I’m thinking Kamba dancing here) translate onto the page, into sound? Obviously, one can imagine repetition as a key element, but imagine rendering the shaking shoulders of multiple bodies on the page or as sound.

Possibilities abound.

The aesthetic resources of African languages can also be approached through what Charles Bernstein might term “close listening,” even though casual listening also works. What do we hear and feel and experience as sound, as vibration, when others speak in languages we do not understand? I’m certainly nowhere near original in this question. Pound’s “Chinese” poems are one model for what I’m suggesting. He didn’t understand the language, but he created “representations” of it. I shelve, for the moment, the politics of such an act.

We experience a range of languages as variously hued and sounded: guttural, melodious, shrieking, harsh, mellifluous, cutting, irritating, spitting, laborious, ponderous, high-pitched, low-pitched, mournful, light, rapid, slow, and so on. I think of Gikuyu as serrated, for instance. Perhaps it is all the “r” sounds. A double finger snap with a slight delay between the first and second snap. Strictly speaking, 5/8 time is not completely accurate, as there’s something more than a little irregular about note lengths—they do not fit “neatly,” if at all, into the time of quavers.

In thinking about the “African sonnet,” I am reminded that sonnet means “little song” and is an adjectival form: the two “main” branches are the English sonnet and the Italian sonnet. But we need not stay within these linguistic parameters with their formal specifications. What might a genge sonnet look like and sound like? How about a mugithi sonnet? Or a benga sonnet? Picture (aurally) a sonnet written in Dhuluo based on Taarab rhythms. Or, a KiKamba sonnet to Pokot dance patterns. Some of these combinations might not work, of course. But imagine the possibilities they open for Kenyan sound, on the stage and on the page.

To argue for the African sonnet is not to dismiss the English and Italian forms. I certainly buy Bill Maxwell’s argument that the sonnet is a cosmopolitan form, not simply in that it travels widely but, reading cosmopolitanism through Derrida, that it is a hospitable form. As one reads the range of authors who have taken up this form to express love, lust, rage, indifference, desire, boredom, irritation, and so on, one realizes its elasticity. That said, I am struck by the incapacity of metrical feet such as iambs and trochees and anapests to render what I hear spoken or performed as Kenyan languages. And I am often saddened when I see young(er) Kenyan poets twisting themselves into pretzels to create mediocre-to-bad poems according to strict stanzaic forms learned from handbooks or from handy “how to write poem” guides published from the U.K. or the U.S.

I am not opposing the value of enjoying, studying, or even emulating what are considered standard Euramerican formal strategies. I have some Lawino in me, but not that much. Instead, I am interested in a vaguely Worsdworthian project routed through Kamau Brathwaite’s T.S. Eliot that articulates a sounding and sounded geo-history. I am interested in more deliberately formal work rooted in our quotidian histories and experiences. Again, my concern is not with content: I am not suggesting that Kenyan poets start writing about mugithi and benga and genge, though I welcome such efforts. I am interested in the formal resources available in our local geo-histories and geo-presents, resources that we have yet to map and take advantage of as poets and writers.

Simon’s Mother

She prays that he will learn to carry someone else’s cross.
That grace shall lead his footsteps and mercy guide his
walk. She prays that he will brave the swells of hurricane
truth. That he will bend with goodness and sway with right.
She prays that he will shelter in the shadow of the cross.
That he will find succor on the road to Golgotha. He will be
found by courage and marked by blood. His splintered flesh
shall tell love’s unfolding story. He will be driven by
compassion and abjure the comfort of distance. He will sit
in the quiet darkness and weep. In the shadow of the cross.