Monday, November 29, 2010

Random Reading vs. Critical Connection or, What Would Amazon Sell Me?

An odd weekend's reading: Mrs. Dalloway's Party by Virginia Woolf, a "lost classic"; and Dervla Murphy's The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba, published by Eland, one of those presses whose elegant logo remains a guarantee of a provocative read (I'm thinking also of Verso, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year). Woolf's stories, which single out and interweave different characters attending the party that closes her novel Mrs. Dalloway, is full of her customary precipitate percipience -- made all the more marked by the slenderness of each story and character, no more than (no less than: these stories are all concerned with mirrors, fabrics, shimmer) polished surfaces that reflect passionate aphorisms.
Scintillating, soul-charging -- but frivolous? The Island That Dared is about the overthrow of the bejewelled aristocratic society that Woolf eulogises in her novel. Murphy's travel writing has always been intellectually (as well as physically) intrepid, but her engagement with Cuba leads her to interweave travelogue and political history, reading moments from Cuba's various wars and revolutions into the landscape she traverses. More personal and more transparently angry than Sebald, Murphy nevertheless pursues a similar engagement between the detail of place and the layers of human interaction written into it, and from it.
I bought both books at the same time, from the same shop (the marvellous Clerkenwell Tales), along with Bluestockings and The Jewish Husband.
Amazon would no doubt have just the algorithm to understand my purchase (although would it notice the basic common denominator: all four books have female authors) and to predict (or rather, nudge me towards) future purchases. Participating in debates about the value of criticism, and of arts and humanities in general, of late, I've come to realise that there is a common critical understanding of reviewing as similar to Amazon's "If you like this..." function. And, subsequently, wondering how I feel about being a human algorithm/cultural personal shopper, which is where the idea of humanities' "value for money" as currently pitched against the government's cuts ends up -- telling us how to buy better, buy smarter, and make more things to buy.
So how to explode criticism so that it's also a critique of the marketplace in which it (inevitably) circulates? Is it enough to write outside the official circulation of paid criticism, to write subjectively, occasionally, tangentially, speculatively? What kind of connections can my mind make between the books that does not package them into handy recommended reading? What do they share (even in contradicting each other) that is sustaining and sustainable rather than a surface BOGOF marketing hook? Because, of course, there's nothing random about even the most random of reading lists: they are curated by my opportunity (educational as well as retail), language, location and history (all four are publications from the last five years), politics (gender, but also internationalism) and that more indefinable momentousness that Woolf describes so well: the way we are caught in the double web of historical time and the time of consciousness as they link to and break into each other.

Woolf, as a politically-engaged writer, endlessly rehearses and revises her arguments about the "value" of arts and critical thinking, about the social intervention of the artist, not only in her essays but through her characters as they grasp at and flutter with such moments. Murphy's travel books, which move deeper into place rather than moving ever onwards, are in themselves workings-out of Judith Butler's argument that "at global level, there can be no ethics without a sustained practice of translation -- between languages, but also between forms of media" (Frames of War).
Murphy's mingling of sense-impressions and incisive political history is not only a work of translation, but of aesthetics - a response to the particular expressions of colour, sound, joy, ecology, memory and attentive community that she encounters in Cuba. As Woolf writes: "but the root of things, what they were afraid of saying, was that happiness is dirt cheap. You can have it for nothing. Beauty." According to Jeremy Hunt, this is superficially why artists should work for free, 'paid' by the pleasure that we derive from our work. But I think Woolf's argument is more radical and tendentious than that, more in line with Murphy's encounter with Castro's Cuba: that arts can remind people that capitalism is a bizarre wrong turning in human history, a powerful and distracting illusion that stops us looking in the mirror and disallows daring; that turns impassioned writing from a conversation to a commodity and means there's no way for me to recommend that you read these books without shilling for Bertelsmann...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What Can Poetry Do, no. 479854: Judith Butler on Poems from Guantánamo

American poet Brian Turner has recently published a second collection, launched in the UK at Poetry International. His first collection, written in response to his service in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker brigade, is described as Sarah Crown as "pick[ing] up where Wilfred Owen and Keith Douglas left off, impressing the human horror of the conflict on a nation for whom it felt impossibly remote."

But there were poets writing about the conflict who were not impossibly remote, but held in a prison that is ostensibly US sovereign territory on a Caribbean island, poets whose rights and lives were scrutinised in detail by the press, and whose orange jumpsuits have become a visual shorthand in contemporary cinema, poets who do not fit our conventional image of war poets as noble combatants under sufferance. As they were written about, so many of those held at Guantánamo wrote: on polystyrene cups, with toothpaste, and later - as a humanitarian gift from the guards - with paper and pencils. Many of these poems were destroyed as a threat to US security, but some were smuggled out by human rights activists and lawyers, and collected in Poems from Guantánamo.

In her most recent book Frames of War, Judith Butler takes up this collection to explore two questions (well, many interwoven questions, as ever in Butler's complex thought, but two that I want to tease out): what is it that poetry can do, or does, that might make it a threat to US security; and she finds the start of a response to a larger question ("what is the self?") in her answer. Poetry records both the injurability of the body in conditions of war and torture, and its ability to survive. On the surface, both of these might challenge 'official' narratives of Guantánamo by creating sympathy for prisoners, and by providing evidence of torture.

But looking deeper, Butler argues that these poems, recording injurability and survivability, attest to the interconnected social nature of the body and self in a way that complicates the frame of war, which demands, in her words, that some lives be rendered worth less than other lives, or even not lives at all, and therefore ungrievable. So poetry, because it is shaped around recording the affect of the writer and generating affect in the reader, can restore grievability to these devalued lives with maximum impact.

But Butler also points to the nature of poems as written artefacts:
The words are carved in cups, written on paper, recorded onto a surface, in an effort to leave a mark, a trace, of a living being - a sign formed by the body, a sign that carries the life of the body. And even when what happens to a body is not survivable, the words survive to say as much. This is also poetry as evidence and as appeal, in which each word is finally meant for another. (Frames of War, 59)
The materiality of these poems, their embodiment - she goes on to talk about the relationship between poetry and breath - make them part of the exchange that is the interdependence of self and other.

What Butler doesn't add is that there is a long and lasting tradition of poetry as a social art throughout the Arabic and Persian speaking worlds, of poetry as part of the weaving of community as it is performed at ceremonies and parties and in competitions. Poetry is "meant for another" in this sense as well: meant to connect backwards through references to the Qu'ran and even pre-Islamic poetry that still echoes in composition in Arabic today; and meant to connect forwards (or rather sideways, through the bars) to make a prison - an enforced atomisation - into a community where each self speaks with and answers to another, and thus each poet restores himself to grievable life, not by writing for himself, but for the others.

I think this note of cultural specificity, oriented to the shared poetics of the Qu'ran as a communal literary form, adds weight to Butler's reading of how the
poems communicate another sense of solidarity, of interconnected lives that carry on each others' words, suffer each others' tears, and form networks that pose an incendiary risk not only to national security, but to the form of global sovereignty championed by the US… As a network of transitive affects, the poems - their writing and their dissemination - are critical acts of resistance, insurgent interpretations, incendiary acts. (Frames of War, 62)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Fairy Bog Mothers: Aase Berg, Remainland & Kristiina Ehin, The Scent of Your Shadow

I saw Kriistina Ehin read last night at Poetry International in London, as part of an event of Eastern European poets.Not only did Ehin's work sound linguistically completely different from Czech poet Sylva Fischerova and Slovenian poet Tomas Salamun, but it felt -- even smelt -- different (Ehin is very keen on the scent of feelings and sights: hence the title of her most recent collection, The Scent of Your Shadow).

In a dress she had embroidered with the names of her foremothers (going back ten generations), Ehin read poems about the daughters of the sea mother and their green cows; bird-brides; and purple skies. Rather than metaphors, her poems delve into the myth-kitty -- there's no referential pomo fun and games, but an inhabiting. As Sujata Bhatt suggests in her introduction to The Scent..., this full-bodied entry into Estonian mythology and language is political, after a period in which "all those who were writing and even speaking the language of the people had to experience severe clashes and struggles with the oppressor's tongue." Bhatt quotes from the charter for a poetry festival that Ehin organised in Estonia:
Creating poetry was not just some private, personal matter for Estonians but a communal activity and shared joy of creation full of collective power.
Drawing on the tradition of oral poetry to speak to an audience made of humans and the world -- and to remake that world continuously and collaboratively -- Ehin's poetry contains and continues stories passed from mother to daughter and the moss and icewater of the Estonian landscape, as well as the larger political history that has been inscribed upon it. In Ehin's poems, these things are not separate from one another, but contiguous and deeply implicated:
Together with the dusk I become
more like the white lilac
forget-me-not blue
lupin purple
ever more summer-night nocturnal
more noctural that this rainless Seven Brothers' Day night
I fall ever deeper into the lap of night
between the back garden's nettle bushes

I don't need your fire today
today I embrace
the big pure moon
to warm myself
I become more and more evening
ever more boat-like
more girlish and young-mannish
(Translated by Ilmar Lehtpere)

In her writing about motherhood and female sexuality, there is a feminism at once pragmatic and fairy tale, in which "the life of human women / … puts fetters on the heart / … and feelings only give rise to grief." The mood is close to Björk's "Human Behaviour" and to Moominvalley (which lies not far from Finland's Estonian border): Ehin, like Björk, seems to step from the cold, clear water of otherworlds with a solidity and practicality -- and a strangeness –- that our more southerly fey folk have lost.

Although "Aase Berg's poetry is nothing short of cutting-edge," as Lisa Jarnot notes, its language play fully immersed in the challenges posed by modernism and postmodernism to the stability of meaning, the poems in Remainland come from, and with, a similar otherworldliness: one that has been turned swampy and even cyborgic in and by cosmopolitan globalisation. The continuities of ritual and rural life that Ehin draws on -- and of whose disintegration she is keenly aware -- are echoic fragments in Berg's work, which could be called science fiction to Ehin's fantasy. But I hear a resonance between the poem quoted above and Berg's "The Dark Dovre":
Now I have waited here close by in the deep nights of Dovre. I have dropped cold stones into the blue chasm. I have tried to handle metal. I have moved through the graininess of the face. With fingers I have sought you through the ashes of the facial shape. Bloody wing quills have shot out of my hand, and I have dragged dark fins through water.
(Translated by Johannes Göransson)
Daniel Sjölin writes in the introduction to the book that Berg's poetry is "an unstable, risky and asocial research process" and contrasts it to "formal completion, purity and refinement" -- but Berg's poetry, with its fingers getting dirty in the matter of matter and myth, suggests a way out of this dichotomy through what it shares with Ehin's (undoubtedly lyrical) work. Both poets have written viscerally about motherhood (the mater of materia), and they elide and elude ideas of realism and the 'voice' for a more complex, archaic form of story-singing: new Mother Geese with new lullabies to scent the dark with their shadows.