from AGNI, Issue 74
They have put in place draconian state controls, including widespread internal surveillance, to silence our anemic left. They know how to direct the rage of the right wing toward the last pockets of the cultural, social and political establishment that cling to traditional liberal values, as well as toward the most vulnerable among us including Muslims, undocumented workers and homosexuals. They will make sure we consume ourselves.
"I wanted to be an artist, but I wanted my work to matter," writes Patti Smith in her disarmingly tender memoir, Just Kids. The "but" is telling. In the age of entertainment, making art that matters is almost as unhip and contradictory as building weapons of peace. Is it even possible for art to matter in our culture? For it to feel consequential, don't there have to be tangible consequences to the ideas artists express?
The last book to incite a response from an elected official in this country may have been Robert Coover's masterpiece, A Public Burning, which Nixon's people did all they could to bury. Censorship of literature is dead. You would think that's a good thing. Isn't this what the culture wars of the Eighties and Nineties were largely about? Fiction and poetry, we argued then, are not polemics. They can't, by definition, slander. When Rushdie writes about Mohammed, he is referring to a Mohammed who isn't the same as the historical Mohammed. His is a fictional Mohammed. Literature is an "art"—and art is, well, an experience apart. But apart from what? From any responsibility on the writer's part for statements made between his covers? And the result? The neutering of what had once been, among other things, a vital agent of societal, as well as personal, metamorphosis.
Talk to writers from the Middle East and you'll quickly see why, to them, literature matters in the way it did to Eastern Europeans a few decades back. In Egypt, until recently, writers were not only censored but also arrested and occasionally shot for their fictions.
I am by no means yearning for a world in which we are again persecuted for our anomalous ideas. Rather, I am trying to understand why working as a writer today feels different than it did twenty years ago.
Maybe this is how social progress feels.
Anyway, why should our governments bother with art when markets do the job very nicely? Books with clear commercial potential are systematically and vigorously promoted (in order to "boost the industry," so "all boats can rise"); those without are generally met with gritted teeth and near-universal silence.
One of the most thoughtful analyses of the present situation for writers and others who seek to use language as an instrument of illumination rather than distraction comes from Julian Assange. "The West" he observes, "has fiscalized its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on." By this I understand him to mean that in place of words as locators of value, we now use numbers (generally tied to dollars) to articulate the worth of just about everything, from the price of coffee to the reach of a person's intelligence to the rate at which entire populations may be allowed to starve in plain sight because our politicians and their owners have decided not that response is impossible, but that it isn't cost-effective. That numbers do not move the heart is precisely the point. As a result, Assange continues, "it is easy for speech to be 'free' because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments." And that is why speech, in the West, "as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free." Like birds and badgers, we're at liberty to prattle on: free to call Cheney a war criminal, free to ask President Obama what it's like to taste first blood, free to claim the Supreme Court is dominated by a corrupted ideology. "In states like China," Assange continues, "there is pervasive censorship, because speech still has power and power is scared of it." We may expect that at its current rate of fiscalization, China too will soon begin shrugging its shoulders when confronted by the cries of its critics and dissidents. And we'll consider this a victory of sorts, even if we're left wondering why it feels like a defeat. Assange concludes that "we should always look at censorship as an economic signal that reveals the potential power of speech in that jurisdiction."
What does this have to do with poetry? Properly speaking, wrote that lyrical fascist Ezra Pound, "we should read for power. A book should be a ball of light in our hands." So it once felt.
And so it still does, now and then. Books continue to empower those coming on certain ideas for the first time—for the young breaking free of repressive households, for those under siege inside authoritarian cultures, Eastern or Western, for isolatoes of all ages everywhere. I remember clearly the shock of the new: reading not only Howl, Ulysses, and The Dharma Bums, but also Whitman's poetry and Kazantzakis' Spiritual Exercises and the political writing of Noam Chomsky, and feeling the roof of my prison blown away by a hurricane of language. It wasn't just language, of course, it was the insight these writers offered about other ways of seeing and being. There's a time in every reader's life when art "matters" not just on principle, but in practice. That's why people become readers. How reading is to keep its power must remain a lively question for all who wish to sustain the discipline in a meaningful way through middle-age and beyond.
Censorship, however, is not the sole gauge of significance. Our finest artists have learned how to fly past those nets while delivering to readers the kind of news, the sort of truths, that can still help us orient ourselves in a world for which the term Orwellian feels too hollow and shopworn to carry a charge. I'd like to consider some poems from new books by two of our very finest poets, Tom Sleigh and Thomas Sayers Ellis. While their work has hardly been censored—indeed both are among the best-published and most respected poets of their generation—Tom Sleigh and the slightly younger Thomas Sayers Ellis aspire, like Smith, to make art that matters. Perhaps the clearest similarity between them, aside from the fact that some of their stanzas look alike, is that both are purposefully intellectual, speaking to the heart via the mind, proposing elaborate tropes and, especially in the case of Ellis, developing satisfyingly loopy arguments, inside their tightly wrought verse. Both also willingly engage the public realm: war, race, and politics claim a place in their chiseled lines. This alone would set them apart from the majority of their peers—as would the challenge they pose to readers. Unlike the brutally accessible poems by some of their celebrated colleagues, Sleigh and Ellis demand the kind of concentration insisted on by writers like Vallejo, Stevens, or Hölderlin. Their individual rhetoric and their approach to their subjects, though, differ considerably from each other's. In fact, if they share a philosophy it is in their claim for the absolute uniqueness of phenomena. Nothing is "like" anything else. After reading them I found myself stopping before making any comparisons: every being, thing, and event has its own integrity, its own relativity. Any effort at comparing is bound to lead to confusion rather than clarity.
Ellis puts it this way:
"Everything supposedly 'like' something else or forced into skin / has already been taken advantage of / by an Aesthetic (Affirmative) Action."
Neither of them has been censored, but if the State Department hires a close reader of poetry, they may yet be.
Come to think of it, I wonder if Ellis doesn't believe that, in years past, he was.
* * *
Ever since Robert Lowell confessed the obvious—that his mind wasn't right—our culture has witnessed a weird transformation. The very nature of confession has been stood on its head. The private has gone public, while policies affecting the public are increasingly classified as state secrets. The secularization of the confessional, along with the commercialization of absolution via TV (televangelists were early precursors of "reality performers"), have further absorbed the attentions of an audience which once turned to art for clarification and as an aid to reflection. As Sven Birkerts ominously reminded us at the end of The Gutenberg Elegies, "Behold what we become as we become what we behold." These trends should drive literature—once the leading arena in which people could expect to see what their neighbors were like behind the scenes—to attempt something different. Either language, meter, and the means of poetry have something unique to offer, or they don't.
Both Ellis and Sleigh emphatically affirm that poetry still matters.
From the start, Thomas Sayers Ellis has tried to shake up a complacent literary community. In 1988, he cofounded The Dark Room Collective, which The New Yorker called one of the most important African-American literary movements since the Black Arts movement of the Sixties. The reading and living space of the Dark Room (originally a house in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts) provided a platform for such poets as Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Major Jackson, Sharan Strange, and Tracy K. Smith. But unlike other, far less enterprising ventures encouraging young writers, the Dark Room took seriously its mission of linking the arrivistes to a tradition that encompassed Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Derek Walcott, and Maya Angelou. Working with poet Joseph Lease, Ellis co-edited the prescient anthology On the Verge, in which many of the above-mentioned writers were first gathered. After a decade's dedication to such organizational activities, so essential for effecting long-term changes to a discipline, he moved on, first to Cleveland, later to New York. As often happens, public work led to the even more important imperatives of the artist and his craft.
Unlike many others who've pursued a similar trajectory (flashes of personal gift, followed by immersion in the bohemian grove, giving way to the re-emergence of the solitary, self-generated genius), Ellis didn't come back merely to sell his brand. Rather, and this is rare, he appears in his second book with his street cred intact, and with a credo that clarifies, or maybe complicates, our sense of what he is up to.
Ellis is one of the only poets I know who dares, in his verse, to speak in the first person plural. His is a voice that doesn't fear assuming the mantle of something that resembles "the community." His new collection, Skin, Inc: Identity Repair Poems, leads with an anthem that seems more like a conclusion than an opening gambit. He ends the poem: "I don't allude like you. I don't call me anything. // These genres these borders these false distinctions / are where we stay at / in freedom's way."
What follows is one of the most allusive books in recent memory, though his allusions, I grant, are NOT like mine.
Is this poem the place, though, where we're supposed to begin? The speaker sounds like he is beyond the debate, liberated, done. Or maybe not quite: "Those who know this also know / some content of struggle .... " Then he must be one of us. He mocks the overintellectualization of the writing process: "never thinking shit / like Should the body govern the next line / or the mind?" Yet the poet's craft, his self-consciousness about his own process, arises as a subject in poem after poem. Much of the rest of the book examines different styles of psychosexual, political, and rhetorical entrapment, and perhaps liberation. These are poems from the repair kit, after all.
Many of the poems here belong to an ongoing treatise in which Ellis lays out an ars poetica that can be strikingly epigrammatic: "In nature, always reality. In art, always nature." Ellis's cerebrations and his agility with abstractions, against which we've been warned for nearly a century, are refreshing. In "Smudge," we find him reflecting: "To express Expressionism, the thumb of time / smears humanity, blurring history." While the poem's immediate occasion remains obscure, the abstractions succeed in part because in the poet's arguments with himself he keeps returning to roots, where all the ladders start: "Truth, too, contributes to the pain-pulse of memory / as if color, comprehension and flesh-spectrum, / as if, and only if, the materials / are men, women and children. / All in their greasy mornings."
You feel him negotiating the tension between oral and written traditions, looking for a middle way, what in "Two Manifestoes" he calls "A Page Versus Stage Alliance." In it he speaks, persuasively, to both constituencies: "The work of the performance body is not without craft, control, or form.... The work of the idea body is not without attitude, improvisation or flow."
Ellis suggests a singular synthesis of Langston Hughes, Baraka, and the two Charleses, Olson and Bernstein. Like them, he can be hortatory, a teacher expounding doctrine and theory: "A perform-a-form occurs when the idea body and the performance body, frustrated by their own segregated aesthetic boundaries, seek to crossroads with one another." The word "crossroads" feels like an allusion to the place where Robert Johnson made his infamous pact with the devil. Ellis would have his contract signed by a few other parties as well. The poet's internal divisions are of course partly the legacy of race and racism: "A black arm, unarmed, bent upward / at the elbow / so the blow slides off. / Wanted so bad, / back then, to hit back." The blow wasn't an assault on his body, but rather the insult he felt perpetrated repeatedly against the performance aesthetic so clearly integral to his life. His struggle wasn't so much with racist bullies in high school as it was with a conservative European poetics: "Their ruled, loose-leaf, paged air. / First they conjugate you, then you die." Control a man's language and you own his soul.
When he organized his first poetry reading, Ellis moved beyond pointing out inequities to creating new realities on the ground. His purpose remains clear: "No more little boxes, / stacked like the ones in poems. / A deeper sense of verse frees skin. / I am not merely in / this thing. I am in. I am it." By identifying entirely with his commitment to his art, he moves beyond the reach of others' judgment. It is an earned confidence. His literary skills range from the epigrammatic ("Emancipation takes practice.") to the playful: "the same sun / that rises in orange juice / sets in mac and cheese.") to the pugnacious, as his progressive aesthetic continues to challenge his peers:
And while it is rare to attend a poetry festival
or a conference and see poets (established and
emerging, white and black, academic and non-
academic) being treated as equals, consequently it
is even rarer to discover literary editors and publishers
open to 'all' levels of class intelligence. The first
task of activism is the removal of all one-dimensional
judges of craft.
Among the poems here destined for the anthologies, "Race Change Operation" must register high on the list: "When I awake I will be white, the color of law.... "
While Obama appears in a number of poems, it's hard to generalize Ellis's attitude to the phenomenon: "Barry Obama was / African American ... / / Barack Obama is mixed, / race-less Blackness." The poem ends enigmatically: "Once a man loses his mother, / he can accomplish / damn-near anything. / / I heard this on the streets / of Washington, D.C., / right outside the office of citizen."
The book's longest poem, "Gone Pop," examines the life, times, and legacy of Michael Joseph Jackson. It begins with a heart-wrenching quote from James Baldwin expressing the unlikely hope that Jackson would have the good sense "to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success." If only Michael had listened. The poem includes pointed observations about the familiar story of Jackson's birth to a father who wanted something else: "Joseph wanted little falcons and got peacocks, / infinite vultures, a lonely prodigy" as well as an analysis of the work: "There are many ways to read Thriller, the video: / / My favorite is that it's a metaphor / for Joe and Katie's courtship." One of the poem's accomplishments is to give a reader not nearly as invested in Jackson a deeper sense of not so much why, but how he mattered to so many: "Yes, Maya, 'We Had Him,' he was ours / all of him—the needle marks, clusters of bruises, and burnt scalp. / Although the lighter his skin got / the more unlike us he got. ... "
Skin, Inc. ends on a more intimate note, an invitation to readers that in its lyrical gentleness recalls another writer thus far unacknowledged but surely hovering in the background of this extraordinary book, and that's ee cummings: "We know there's a recognizable We, / an I-dentifiable many. / That right there that's me, / one of the us from us who see us. / / ... there's more to words than becoming books. A challenge for you, You-ness. / Add yours."
* * *
The cocktails Sleigh shakes are bracing. Sleighmakers contain the most bizarre ingredients: Saddam Hussein's execution, Shakespeare, Youtube ... It's a heady mix that hits hard, over and again. You'd think a collection exceeding one hundred pages would have longeurs, emotional caesuras allowing readers respite to bitch. Forget about it. Army Cats is all dance and sting, dance and sting.
I was taught to read poetry in the manner of "New Criticism." Long in the tooth though it may be, in the right hands the method can yield insights into a poem's inner architecture, giving readers a fuller sense of a poet's web of sounds, allusions, and internal echoes. Restricting oneself to that approach, however, risks turning poetry into a rarefied form of sudoku. These days I'm as curious as ever about what the poet has to say regarding our common lot. What can I hope to gain from Sleigh's retelling of Saddam Hussein's execution that I couldn't get from watching the event on Youtube?
"This Thing of Darkness," a prose poem, treats the massively reported, poorly processed, and in many ways incomprehensible event. Hussein's execution, unlike that of Bin Laden, was a semipublic spectacle. Found cowering in a coffin-like underground shelter near Tikrit, the town of his birth, in December 2003, Hussein was subsequently tried and sentenced to hang. The operation to capture him, incidentally, was named "Red Dawn," after a Patrick Swayze film (don't feign surprise when Jerry Bruckheimer is appointed U.S. Minister of Information, or even the Czar of Homeland Security). Hussein was finally executed on December 30th, 2006. The significance of this shouldn't be underestimated. After all, nearly a million Iraqis have been killed or displaced by what turns out to have been a family feud, as well as a power-grab, driven by a Texas tribe known as the Bush-men. Yet I confess that by the time it finally happened I hardly registered the event. Here we were enjoying the Christmas holidays, preparing for New Year's—there, well, who cares? While the Iraqi government subsequently released an official video of the execution, apparently an Iraqi soldier filmed it with his phone camera and posted it to the internet, revealing a proceeding far less neat and tidy than the "made for TV" version. I admit I haven't seen it, and don't intend to.
I'm therefore grateful to have the experience further mediated for me by poetry, where in fact it acquires a depth and emotional weight it didn't have before. The poem begins matter-of-factly. We learn there's a cell phone video, of poor quality: "The voices in the room reverberate like pieces of metal clanging together, Saddam's footsteps, as he climbs what look like steel stairs to the scaffold echo too loudly, the execution chamber, if that is what it is, distorts every noise in babbling over-and-undertones that resonate like the acoustics of an indoor swimming pool." Somehow this relatively straightforward description creates a chilling atmosphere. Dreamworks still has nothing on the imagination. You can hear the chains and bones rattle, prodded by Poe's ghost.
Then, in a brilliant maneuver that's a hallmark of Sleigh's poems—his uncanny gift for getting at his subject through an improbable and wholly unexpected point of view—we discover what none had imagined: "Whoever is holding the cell phone—and it is my hunch that it is Shakespeare, since who else could write such a scene .... " From here, the poem plays out the implications of that hunch. By choosing to retell Saddam's death as our contemporary narrator imagines Shakespeare might do it, the poet manages to make us reconsider what we thought we knew, and what we had forgotten to feel. He puts Saddam on stage alongside Richard III, Titus, Macbeth, and even Lear. The narrator revels in the ghoulishness of his conceit: "Later, after viewing the video back in his room, Shakespeare concludes the overall effect is crude, but the scene builds well .... " Poem-time allows us to honor the mordancy, and invites us to reflect on what we've seen: "Take it from Will Shakespeare, former butcher's boy and glover, you've got to skin and tan it with your own mind before you can relish it, deplore it." The poem's final sentence in effect suggests that one needs the process of art, and more, the skinning and tanning of a thing with one's own mind, to grasp an event's true weight. The poem, in its cumulative effect, restores a vital sense of macabre horror to the tyrant's slaughter. This thing of darkness, which we helped to create and nourished along, is at last our own.
These are not all poems of the battlefield, unless we use the term loosely to imply the universal confrontation with death. Elegy may be the dominant mode, but the elegiac is hardly the ruling note. Death even gets its own ode, "To Death," which begins: "You won't wipe away my joy .... " Wandering through the orgy of life, which also happens to be Death's "theater / of fantasies touching God knows what // in this delirium of bodies ... " the speaker espies Death itself "leaning over // secretly spitting in everybody's drink."
One of the volume's highlights is the aptly named "Triumph." Here again the poem plays out two premises. The first is the mundane yet intimate announcement of the opening: "My mother, sure, everything I know / is from my mother." There's something homely and disarming about the utterance, as well as a little creepy. I mean, "everything I know"? Everything? The poem then proceeds to rehearse fragments of the mother's life. In just a few lines Sleigh evokes a style of deprivation whose consequences echo across a lifetime: "everything she's been through, my father's death, / her children's cutting silences, her hardscrabble childhood / on the farm when they lived on fifty cents a day / and once, when she dropped the money through the floorboards, / they had to pry them up so they wouldn't go hungry .... " A lot remains unexplained, alluded to, and elided over. What was the reason for "her children's cutting silences"? A confessional poet would have gone into it. We might have heard a horror story of the sort we've perhaps heard too often. Instead, Sleigh makes a different move: "But she's also got that mad nobility / in her voice that makes me imagine her / riding like a Roman General on her horse through / everything she's been through .... " The confluence of these improbable images—an old lady dressed as a Roman General riding her horse through scenes of her own life—transforms the subject. The beleaguered mother is suddenly granted a "mad nobility" that by rights has been hers all along. Properly understood, all human life is tragic: only when we recognize its gravity can we feel the simultaneous lightness of being. As he plays out his conceit, the mother rides into the eternal city, where, "down among the mob, your son / stares up at you riding despite your wounds, the mob / of Rome shouting and applauding you in your triumph .... " Here we feel again something of the madness of family life, as well as its grandeur. The poem ends hauntingly: "and behind you there follows, in accordance with the ritual, / a slave crying out, Remember, you're nothing but a mortal."
Finally I want to point readers to the ravishing "Hunter Gatherer." The poem, "after" sculptor Ellen Driscoll's installation of the same name, shares something of the delicacy and grace of Wyatt's "They flee from me": "Snow falling on the roof falls like it used to do / when freeze and thaw hardened to a satin sheen / and nothing moved in the offing but the lighthouse beam." Its particular triumph is in poignantly animating an intimate moment until the spell of the specific envelops the reader as if it were his own memory: "Remember when I told you / / in my aspiring bad boy way, how I found / in a footnote to Plymouth Plantation / the dissenter put to death with the cow he sodomized? / / As if I'd made you dare, your eyes met mine, / then you went back to your drawing, your concentration / now made perfect, cutting me down to size. / / And the brown and blue ink flowing from your hand / mingled into lines only the ink could intend." The simplicity of the utterance belies the painstaking process of selection—of memory, image, diction, and observation. Each of the poet's choices tells more than itself, and the final couplet in particular stands fully charged and weighted with an artist's certainty.
Sleigh's poetry rings with a cool ferocity that's rarely heard in English verse these days. It has something of the timbre of Wilfred Owen or the Walter Raleigh of "The Lie." Here "the lie" would be the blurring of truths through self-serving judgments, and the imaginative poverty of conventional locutions. The speaker of these poems won't be intimidated by the rhetoric of power, even when it manifests as a tank in Beirut. Instead of seeing in it the threat of you-name-it, he emphasizes the comedy of frustrated soldiers trying to repair an outdated machine: "What weight oil / does this cocksucker use anyway?" A restrained rage surfaces obliquely in the book's many elegies: "The first word God said made everything / out of nothing. But the nothing shows through—" One wants to say: someone noticed, thank God! While the poet occasionally traffics in mockery, the mock-heroics of his stance undermine the risk of posturing. Rage against the dying light is balanced by stiff-lipped scorn for the coming dark.
* * *
When Patti Smith inserted that "but," saying she wanted her work to matter, was she hinting at something that's been lost since she started making music—or is my hunch about what's changed over the last decades no more than curmudgeonly grumbling? I wish it were so. I then could wait for the mood to pass. But I believe I'm registering a cultural shift pressed forward by more factors than I can begin addressing here. These include, but aren't limited to, the ongoing transformation of our physical landscape by technology, as well as our changing national demographic, and the U.S.'s shifting role in the world. At whom does the imperial artist aim her work? Who is listening to you? To whom is this addressed?
Appropriately enough, the only speech still capable of waking the fat dumb drowsy dogs of power turns out to be nothing less than an echo of their own words. The Wikileaks release of State Department cables caused an uproar because it broadcast the behind-the-scenes machinations of statecraft. Red meat for a Shakespeare. By humanizing what appears in the public realm as a faceless shadow-play (policy decisions are made away from the public gaze, and often in opposition to the public's interest and will), sometimes exposing the names, faces, and politically incorrect attitudes of our "public servants," the Wikileaks cables reveal the flawed behaviors of fallible humans. No one in power likes to thinks of themselves that way. There's too much at stake. That's why God gets called on to rubber stamp so many politicians' imbecilities. God relieves them of responsibility, and grants them the kind of divine immunity they seem thus far to have enjoyed. Millions may die because of their lies, but deus lo volt. Are you ready to take on the Big Kahuna? Better to play in the sandbox and make art. Assange has done the artist's job of holding a mirror up to nature, and nature doesn't like what it sees. An enhanced image of what's in that mirror is some of what you'll find in these two books of poetry. Just remember, you may not like what you see either, but you still gotta love it.
About the Author
Askold Melnyczuk, founding editor of AGNI, has new stories and essays out or forthcoming in The Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, The Denver Quarterly, and The Writer's Chronicle. He is finishing a new novel with the working title "SMEDLEY's Secret Guide to World Literature."
Editor: Sven Birkerts
Founding Editor: Askold Melnyczuk
Senior Editor: William Pierce
Fiction Editor: William Giraldi
Poetry Editor: Lynn Potts