Crossing Over: Temporalities of Erasure and Recuperation in the Contemporary Long Poem, For Example, in Erín Moure’s The Unmemntioable and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!
by Margaret Christakos
One is adrift,
the many drifts.
Glen Lowry, “Of—If Not In—A Vernacular,” West Coast Line 50 “Staging Vernaculars”:4-6.
I woke Sun Feb 2, 2014 with a roaring headache. Was it a viral transfer from being at my mother’s nursing care home each of the previous three days? It was impossible to tell if her diminished speech was a sign she’d had another stroke or if she was so miserable that her desire to communicate was self-dismantling. One of her eyes was black and blue from the fall she’d had in the middle of the night last week; there was a purple goose egg on her left temple. Her right eye was inflamed bright red with some undiagnosed infection. She looked like hell and it is impossible not to flinch and try to erase the image of your parent from your consciousness when you face her in this debacle; there is a pain threshold that in collapsing operates to save you from being able to think, being able to name. We can literally make ourselves unable to describe our own voice. Or at the same time was it cumulative snow blindness from staring at the snow-piled lake? Was it the sense of responsibility pounding in me to make a pilgrimage on foot across the frozen lake to the island where I had carried my father’s soul in February 2011? This wasn’t possible as snowdrifts were immense and illegible, putting into question each step’s depth and stability. Hell, I couldn’t even get to the lake really, past the mounds and mountains of snow amassed along the shore between the many pines and birches. The yard and beach had become a range of huge white drifts hardened with the dessicating battery of wind these last weeks for it was a “real” winter, the kind many older people claimed to “remember” from their childhoods. I too have told many younger people this, that winter used to be harsher and fuller of weather, mounded with snow, coagulated with drift, as if they can’t know this about the world, since they live closer to the thin, flat, self-interruptive present. We were deeper before all this, is what we like to tell our young. You, you, have a problem with attention.
On Mon Feb 3 in the morning it is important to say how generous and generative and radical both Erín Moure’s The Unmemntioable (House of Anansi, 2012) and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (Wesleyan, 2008) are; how these long poems narrate a procedure of mourning and embody testimonial and tribute; how they each represent receiving the story they tell from other sources, how the authors struggle to write continuity with generations of ancestral voices; how there is a pulse of difficulty and of desire; how speaking among familiar and foreign languages rises up in both texts, as if English is permeated by all of the languages it has so violently displaced, leaving it flecked with loss – that there is a personal reality to this ancestral linguistic palimpsest in each of us – that the shards and shreds of mothertongue and othertongue quite literally are the foundations of our own subjectivities whose fragility is felt as soon as we stand inside a foreign tongue and experience in our mouths its disorientations of time and space, and its dissolution of certainty and authority; how each text knowingly makes itself wonder if it knows what it is trying to say; how each is a bit of a slog that threatens to collapse, that collapses, lapses, that makes a reader sense exhaustion and want out from it, maybe to watch a little TV, then to return; that verges on maximalism’s overredundancy with words that circle through repetition and reverse-trample themselves and break to sonic particles; that consider the page an installation space which both invites occupation and resists it; and finally – for the moment on Wed Feb 5 – that innovative poetry is a materialized curiosity about silence in the context of history explored by humans almost unbearably hinged to and dressed always within language, in speaking from one letter, one syllable, one phrase, one stanza, across to the next, as if carrying a spoonful of salt, say of sel de mer, of the sea, and a Brossardian “L’Amèr / the sea our mother” – for it is too hard to admit that it is a spoonful of cremated ash of one‘s mother’s own material body carried across an ocean, as if the need to bring speech like water around salt makes us thirst for the others around us, invisible; how both Moure and Philip bear the rather shuddering awareness, like Michael Ondaatje in his introduction to The Long Poem Anthology (pub 1979), that “the movement of the mind or language is what is important” (12) and that “everything can enter the poem” (13) ; and that this poetry – disjunctive and fractalled – performs a new, linguidiverse rhetorics of a futurity that is both “delicate and harsh” (Here I am quoting Robin Blaser from his “Statement” in The Long Poem Anthology about the poetics of the long poem).
In a paper outlining his concept of “Lyric Ethics,” published in volume 55 of Canadian Poetry, Adam Dickinson writes beautifully about what he suggests to be poetry’s vital instrumentality of “material metaphoricity.” Answering claims made by proponents hitching a global ecopoetics agenda with aesthetic efficiencies of plain-speech realism, empiricism and accessibility, he argues instead for the vivid and sense-bending reach of the lyric’s capacity to contain figural multitudes and conduct a prosodic disorder, semantic displacements and imagistic interfacings. He emphasizes how the poetic figure which carries one image across to the shores of another image and therein lays itself alongside its own alterity – and here he quotes Agamben’s discussion of the example as always outside itself — and points to Jan Zwicky’s reminder that the Greek root of the term metaphor is indeed to ferry across – vitally calls into question monologic ontologies and embodies an ethics of co-presence; the virtuality of metaphor is a communication technology for our urgent need to operate across difference in service of an ecopoetics of saving the planet, hear, hear! But Dickinson does not mention the cultural and linguistic hierarchies that minoritize non-English and Indigenous tongues and subjectivities, that use the present as an eraser of the past, or speak toward how the act of naming the world of things multilingually may begin to restore that uncanny gesture of naming the new alongside its other names which are also, always, noticing a simultaneity of co-absence and co-presence, there and here; in short I think it would be intriguing to hear Dickinson and Ondaatje of 1979 extend their notions of what the lyric and the long poem do well in the context of the translation multiplying material limits as the guiding metaphor.
The movement of rhythm is survival. Beckett’s The Unnamable (1953), best known by those last lines “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” is an incantation whose use of phrasal repetition injects momentum into the telling of an immobilizing existential crisis, nicely echoing Gertrude Stein’s affective frame of “repetition as insistence.” The throb of language speaking the I to an I who listens tells a dialogic story of the body infused with its experience of itself staged by language, still. For those of us who are alive, and everyone visible in this or any room, silence is described with language, and the absence of language is hewn of language, and silence is only possible because of language.
That’s fine for the living; but what about the dead, little trout; is their language in our body?
There I am far again, there I am absentee again: it’s his turn now, he who neither speaks nor listens, who has neither body nor soul. It’s something else he has: he must have something, he must be somewhere. He is made of silence (there’s a pretty analysis), he’s in the silence. He’s the one to be sought, the one to be, the one to be spoken of, the one to speak. But he can’t speak: then I could stop, I’d be he, I’d be the silence, I’d be back in the silence, we’d be reunited, his story the story to be told.
But he has no story, he hasn’t been in story? It’s not certain: he’s in his own story, unimaginable, unspeakable. That doesn’t matter: the attempt must be made, in the old stories incomprehensibly mine, to find his. It must be there somewhere. It must have been mine, before being his. I’ll recognize it, in the end I’ll recognize it: the story of the silence that he never left, that I should never have left, that I may never find again, that I may find again. Then it will be he, it will be I, it will be the place: the silence, the end, the beginning, the beginning again – how can I say it? That’s all words, they’re all I have – and not many of them: the words fail, the voice fails. So be it. I know that well. It will be the silence, full of murmurs, distant cries. The usual silence, spent listening, spent waiting, waiting for the voice.
from Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
Rhythm moves up and out of a text, any piece of writing, in the particular pleats and flounces of its language of conveyance, as Lisa Robertson so often discusses, and today we have congregated in a context of enactment of writing, hearing, reading and speaking in English. We knew Fri Feb 7 in the afternoon, we knew colloquium, we arranged all of our comings and goings to allow for this being in a room, at a time, a reading of papers, a listening of voices, but perhaps most of all among us, we expected a consensus of English.
Expectation is a temporality we already can check onto our list and then check it off. That is the knowing part, amid its limits. Where there is knowability, there is also the other, constituting a relation between subjects requiring facilitated translation, which will involve a folding and unfolding, a set of repetitions and comparisons, a weighing of how meaning can be assessed, exchanged, made commensurate, comemsuate, or I think that’s what I heard her say, it was accented speech, and I was laughing at the time.
In this talk I am writing Sun Feb 2 I am interested in the compositional permutations of thinking that occur Thurs Feb 6 as I try to track and find my subject. I think it may be adrift or drift toward considering how the survival of the (we?) can be located in revising limits from the individualist abjection of social silencing, movements onward despite human cruelty, continuations despite official censure: a poetics of vigilance and resistance, its sidetracking excesses and longwindedness, its self-prompts to mean differently when that is not what I meant, at all. Quand ca, c’est pas ce que je voudrais dire, pas de tout. I hear something about this cloudily issuing from the CBC right now: they hesitate to cover the 2014 Sochi Olympics on-site, but they are covering them because they can’t afford to lose audience. Boycott is not an option. CBC patrons are just as conflicted; acts of pure erasure tend to wipe out the vague yet hopeful voice of reconciliation-to-come in some possible future if species extinction is avoided, where social wounds have been healed to greater justice. But that is a long poem away, indeed. At least in the media oration of the Olympics, a responsibility to translate across languages must take visible place, and for a week or so, corporate media “covers” cultural and linguistic plurality as (we?) measure the resistant leaps and justice-seeking torsions of hidden, violently redacted bodies, versions of events, damage tallies and what happens after.
Though I have read and heard Erìn Moure for many years, since 1983 or so, I am still finding out how to read and hear her. Does her most recent long poem whose name shall not be mentioned ask me to read it from its beginning as if embarking along a journey of clues, gleaning meaning and carrying it forward to assemble some sort of experimental narrative – I know it doesn’t, that that’s old hat, but still I am likely to read it forensically; or, can I direct myself to read and hear its drifts and rifts, sensing a series of limits to simultaneously recognize and incorporate about the indelibilities and permutabilities of being in place, in time, and in relation? If the second – and I hope I’m flexy enough for that — then instead of any single point of embarcation, reading and hearing Moure is a continual influx of embarcation’s possibility. This can pose itself as a kind of barrage on the reader, one that enervates and abrades almost like paralysis. I am writing Sat Feb 1 and I have read this book’s improper disorder silently in my head and aloud to my head alighting from the work’s many folds and cupping its multiple languages and voices in my palm. Gradually, its inner and outer undulations suggest a self always accompanied by looking.
So, The Unmemntioable. Why deliberately mis-spell a word? Particularly, that vowel combination, “ioa,” doesn’t appear in English – it seems eastern European – and causes my tongue to trip every time I get to it. Why do we care so much if words unfix themselves from the task of incessantly pretending they are stable units of meaning?
Why take a word and mix it up, or hack it, take out one significant letter and simultaneously install a graft in another location? What bearing does the mutated or surgically altered word have to the word’s fidelity to its etymology and agreed-upon exchange-value in the present, and what might be its meaningful prospects in the future? More errancy and mutation? Or, greater translingual mobility, with good entry-level position in a vibrant start-up featuring new enunciative pathways?
Everyone “gets” the also-title is The (Unmentionable), and with double-knowing therein we begin with a conceptual visual aural pun that is also an micro-performative enunciatory stumble – for you have to feel the two in your lips and mouth and weigh how they move alongside each other, consider the relationality of their bearings, which then are your own body’s bearings – Moure stages such acts in our own bodies, instrumentalizing each of her readers as researchers of experience. Something similar proceeds with the author’s name, the old name Mour-ay, with the accented e, and Moure, what she goes by now, and how the badge E.M. is staged as a narrative agent in The Unmemntioable. By inserting the “m” alongside the first e in the title she makes a little ruffle of self-reference –the untimely infiltration of that “em” – that while, flagging recognition, also disturbs the word’s “normalcy,” ciphers it. In the same split second of reading, we split the term, spill the first and second iterations, and recognize a plenitude of unsamenesses. Within this theatre of speech and speaker multiplied, Moure inserts a persona called Elisa Sampedrin, “E.S.”, familiar to readers of Moure’s previous O Resplandor and Little Theatres, who follows and examines “EM” as a subject in the study of Experience, as Moure travels to Bucharest after performing a pilgrimage to her mother’s homeland, the site of a small village in Ukraine brutalized in WW2.
Translation is an intricacy of installing near-meanings across languages, I am writing Fri Jan 31 but also, Moure suggests, across the multiple potentialities of words within the diverse and divergent situated contexts of their own language. In her 2007 contribution to WCL‘s “Staging Vernaculars” (vol. 40, no. 2) speaking of her book Little Theatres, she describes her translative poetics: “The book allows one language to enter another, not to fray the first language (English), but to expose that it is always already frayed.” (21) Like disparate languages filtering through each other in a poetics of translation, writing performs reading, and reading performs writing, and both sources and targets oscillate on axes of attention – which are also limits in and from whose vicinity we verge, converge and diverge – over which the reading subject and the writing subject in mutual mirrorings cross, and cross again, and again, cross.
One could say that for each of us in this room, there was a younger moment. Each person here can recall a moment when they were younger, any moment really before this moment, when each of us had the taste of salt.
And that tasting in the past can be in the mouth now, and also we can imagine salt coming into our mouths in the future. We can imagine all of these things, in the mouth in the past, and in the mouth in the future, as a private memory that occurred to each of us uniquely, and also as a collective moment where all of the people you were with at the moment you were with them had his or her mouth fill up with salt, or saltwater, or blood, which tastes quite salty, with iron mixed into it.
On p. 29 of her book, Moure directly names how the text is essaying “the responsibility for the death of my (m)other” and then wide-zooms to a philosophic thesis, quoting Emanuelle Levinas, from ‘Notes on Meaning’:
Responsibility here is no dictate but all the gravity of love of the neighbour upon which the congenital meaning of that word love rests and which every literary form of its sublimation or profanation (I, je, eu) presupposes.
- (Emanuelle) Levinas, ‘Notes on Meaning’ (maybe)
She punctuates the authoritative gravitas of this insertion with a humorous “maybe” in parentheses — the personal Moure as colloquial explorer of the unknown taking back the microphone from her expert. At another point the song lyrics Keep On the Sunny Side, Always on The Sunny Side are installed in the poem’s ear, memoried by EM; the mother’s advice about where to locate a happy life, a serious memory actually, a wager of psychological survival. I have always found Moure to be, temperamentally, one of our most optimistic and relational poets, lifting her complicated writerly intellect clear of the indulgent risks of lyric romanticism, her eye on the social field, on everyone in it, on citizenship, on embodiment and justice. This might seem light or loose to say, but the finicky rigour of her incessant inquiry and syllabic mendings and amendings, though speckled with autobiographical particularities, is not isolation-compelled; no, always perambulant toward others, like a small lakefish, a trout perhaps. What language does a trout speak? Moure has always posed this riddling transspecies lark; Seriously though, trout, what tongue do you push in whose mouth?
NourbeSe Philip’s reach is also toward bearing (as to carry and as to test the limits of) memory of unknowability of experience across time and place, and the ethics of invoking continuity with the ancestral dead; Zong! enacts her own poetics of continuity with the African diaspora entered through the imperialist language-door of the administrative economics of slavery. This 200-pg constrained proceduralist poem Zong! is built entirely from the wordset used in a white English European man’s disembodied insurance law case text enumerating the profit-motive for the ruthless disposal into the ocean of 150 African enslaved people. Her gestures of appropriation gradually scrape away the adhesions of the given words to their fixed limits, breaking their syllables down to decomposed bits of human speech material. Across the book’s numerous sections, she stages an erasive exertion whose intensifying fragmentation produces increasingly resonant rhythm and recuperates the potential of new speech recognitions and audibilitities. It is a fractalling through the imperialist authority of the original English text that starts to initiate sounds and contestative cadences of an altogether other, prior, or future language system, one that to me moves alongside or into the indigeneity of minoritized or erased transhistorical otheredtongue. I would argue that Philip is enacting a “material metaphoricity” that gestures indigineity through this linguistic and semantic decomposition. The text and Philip’s performances of it enact the possibility of a future temporality, by repeating and insisting on language as re-insistent movement itself.
Like Anne Carson’s Red Doc> and Carolyn Forche’s The Angel of History, both Moure’s and Philip’s texts make reference to and offer homage to personal loss, but reduce or hide or camouflage grief’s personal weight of wordlessness amid philosophical engagement with an intricately larger historical and cultural measure of how to speak loss. Somehow, even though the compositions formally use the metaphors of embodying effects of rhythmic phrasal repetitions and variations, sonic riffs and refrains, and enunciative comparison amid many other physicalizing imprints, it seems the social architecture of reading, which tends to disclude the body’s involvement from a model of readerly responsibility, keeps these texts firmly on the page, untranslated to movement. But the books seem to call out for some kind of installation and staging beyond what we normally think of as reading, and The Reading.
Speaking of movement, I want to spend a little bit of time thinking about the way we read online, especially now on social media which carries primarily nuggets of oration, for those of you who participate – and if you don’t, you’d really have to ask why not, at this point, maybe the kind of resistance many people feel to the category of “poetry” in general; the morphology of reading has profoundly changed from a continuous linear horizontal movement of the eye side to side, incrementally dipping line by line downward through one page to the next, to a crossweaving recombinatory side-to-side and up-and-down dislocational and relocational scrolling of the gaze across screens – much like we all learned to do with newspapers, actually – but now this serpentine gaze is operated by the pulsive instruction of our fingers selecting and mobilizing screen-frames from incessant streams of disparate, discrete, textual entries staging a heterogeneity of rhetorics, from the confessional to the documentary to the pictographic to the propositional etc . Co-produced and co-published by countless individual authors posting updates in their own vastly shifting array of voices, digital social media is a materialized “outer forum,” within which the individual checking her or his newsfeed, filters, scrolls through, selects and processes hundreds of received units of textual effects understood to originate at about the same time from hundreds of human conductors (says some data under my finger/eye: “there are over nine billion devices connected to the Internet, and data generation is …projected to grow to 35 zettabytes in 2020…”). Despite the undeniable reality that humans post pictures of cats as a sacred relic of their own transspecies consciousness, social media is still a socialty of human communication, en route to cyborgian and fully post-human potentialities. Okay, maybe the odd orangutan has posted on occasion, with zoologists and scientists promising foodstuffs, but I want to start with a moment of reflection about how it is that humans marshall language as technology to build a text as technology to perform acts of direct and indirect social address through a wide variety of new and newer communicative technologies, and that the act of publishing, of making public, is still a highly performative self-iterative activity through which speakers stage discontinuous signs of existence, of subjectivity, of experience, of relational need, of attentive capacity. Maybe the real long poem that matters now is occurring 24/7 on social media, and that against its simultaneity, polyvocality and incessantly revisatory drift and flux, we can only hold up the book as a plea to hold time, to slow time, to name time as a protracted set of attentive relations that belong to the privileged, those who can sit and read continuously, immerse themselves in the truly human virtuality of extensible deeper-spiralling enactment of thinking in the I through the I reading, carrying the I across into utopic realms of engagement with questions of existence, of subjectivity, of experience, of relational need, of attentive capacity. In some way, the material folds into and out of the virtual and the virtual folds into and out of the material, and a poetics of proliferative attentive capacity – which is really what we’re talking about when we flag the poem as “long” – can really only be “read” in this oscillating, disturbulent transtemporal mode of watching how reading is enacted as all of its stages continue to permutate not “in our midst” but because of it.
I’m using the term “outer forum” in relation to how Erìn Moure knits a quote by Giorgio Agamben into The Unmemniotable on p. 23:
A subject speaks (amid the trees). Is that experience?
Or is speech a subject’s very constitution and assembly, which then
makes experience possible. “Subjectivity is nothing more than the
aptitude of the speaker to posit its self as ego; it is in no way
definable by a feeling an individual might hold in their ‘inner
forum’ or ‘sanctum’.”
Having no inner forum suits me just fine. In me there is no inner law.
Agamben’s “in no way” lies quietly in my mouth beside “definable,”
pushing it sideways. When I kissed her
the cord of the voice entered my body from her mouth, passing over
the back of the tongue, its ligament, and down the esophagus or
bronchi, piercing to the genitals.
Je n’ai pas de vie interieure, c’est le monde qui m’interesse.
“When I kissed her,” and then this is crossed over with a black line. It is not removed; it is not covered in a black bar and invisible. So: Draw a line through a word. Score it. Malign it. Indicate its deletion from the text it sits in, but don’t replace it with another word, a better word. The crossed-over word is no dead-ender. Though it is annulled it remains visible, accounted for; and the hand of deletion is emphasized, materialized. Declaration is there and not there, like an argument between power and dissent, made visible. A potent slippage occurs next, from the phrase “the cord of the voice entered my body from her mouth” – undeniably a trope of matrilineal transfer of tongue/language through the mouth to her child – as patriarchy denies, so it is against the Law – but wait, what other lawbreaking is going on here, who was kissed, and when? Here in the text is the treason, the mentioned but simultaneously taken out of mentioning, like in the title’s imprinting with the author’s insignia and ruptured as if by another language altogether. Here, an anterior articulation of lesbian identity ruptures/already did rupture the lawful reproduction of patriarchal heterosexuality, thus after the giddy “laughting” and the becomingness of desire, the maternal-familial endearment of “trout” is crossed over, marked, made visible in the spectrum of consequent silences and recuperations. The trout is the coming-out to mother signifier, who is not thrilled, but who remains. If the crossout line could be rainbow, that would work all the better. The italicized last line? Yet another languaged self, denying investment, reproducing the negotiation of inner and outer, both a source and target of experience’s limits, “amid” whose subjective interest – that which “m’interesse” — can be seen to contain “trees.”
I think you’ll agree this paper is a bit beside itself, a series of adjacencies like the ghostly imprints of bodies resting in the bottom of a boat adrift on an ocean. When I turn on the television to get a break from trying to write this paper Fri Jan 31, the Fifth Estate is airing a documentary Voyage of The Black Dragon about the fishing boat-load of 130 Chinese migrants forcibly left on the shore off Vancouver in 1999. The migrants have been on the ocean for two months, having tried to buy their freedom from black market immigration sharks. Some say that for migrants, “The conception of past time as simultaneous was established at the moment of migration and exactly because of the act of migrating.” (Transatlantic Subjects, by Ioanna Laliotou, University of Chicago Press, 2004: 117) But what, really, can be said about their experience of time by the point they were arrested as illegal aliens? When RCMP apprehended the boat, it found that the hold below the deck was completely awash in vomit, feces, urine and mold. I guess the RCMP doesn’t have a lot of handcuffs these days because all of the removed people had their wrists and ankles bound by a sort of plastic sawtoothed pull-tie, the kind I have seen used to tie large garbage bags; this is the way these people were treated upon their dumping on Canadian shores. Then all were detained, childen were taken from adults, and many months later in the dead of one particular morning they were rounded up and put on a plane back to China. You want to walk across the lake to enact your own personal mourning but the drifts of your culture’s mourning swamp you; improper shame, forbidden disturbances of the surface, so many unmentionables.
The next time you turn on the television to get a break from writing this paper Sun Feb 2 there is a documentary about cave diving and cavern diving. This has become a popular pursuit since the mid-80s. The benefit of it is that you literally cannot think of any other thing besides surviving the dive, finding your way back out of the cave or cavern, conserving your air supply, staying mobile and not panicking. Cave diving is pitch-black; there is no light source from above, and you may have to swim thousands of metres to retrace your route to a hole in the ceiling. What gets deadly is getting lost. Redundancy is a method; you make sure you have three lights, extra air, some sort of inner chant to mesmerize your fear.
In order to begin now, I will claim that this kind of content encounter and aggregate, the dance with the aleatory, that this paper is in part performing – was the structural drift of many of the long poems we think about when we think about the Canadian long poem. Consider Daphne Marlatt’s discussion, included in Ondaatje’s Long Poem Anthology of 1979, of structure in her long poem: “I think of Steveston as actually a movement around, based on return. …my image for it was a network, the ways in which all of the poems & all of a poem’s parts, as all of us & where we live, are interconnected. … It uses other people’s speech, other voices my own moves with & against. It moves around & around its own end where the river disappears, & it ends when it can go no further, where it dives back in to the heart of things.” (317) An interesting continuity with statements on genre, perspective and time offered by Gail Scott, in reference to her novel The Obituary, in a conversation with Lianne Moyes called “Architectures of the Unsaid” (Open Letter, Summer 2012). Although her work is considered fiction, Scott says, “I feel a kinship with Conceptualism’s insistence on radical poetic gesture … I look to … construct ‘voice’ as a sort of composition, comprising not only personal impulses, but ‘voices’ which come from everywhere, so the subject slides, or bleeds into the text, is consciously no longer singular.” (129) Speaking of her use in The Obituary of the architectural trope of the Montreal Mile End triplex, Scott says: “The fractalled nature of the narrator(s) opens space for many voices to come in. They come through the fissures in the house, from the past, from the contemporary street, etc.” (130)
Smaro Kamboureli in her 1991 study on the Canadian Long Poem, On the Edge of Genre, observes that, “By foregrounding the materiality of language the long poem demonstrates that its meaning derives from language as act (not as representation); it also shows that its present tense functions as the vehicle of its signification process, a process equally derived from the acts of writing and reading.” (102) Sticking to the diverse local, to gleaned textual fragments, to nowtime and the processual, many contemporary lyric long poems still operate the same heterogeneity of content, and implement the metaphor of a first-person narrator repeatedly beginning to tell, multiplying the temporal entry points and building a composite, social “I”. Moure, however, imports an architecture with numerous unfolding nodes and an agile multilingualism, and incorporates ways of theorizing experience and subjectivity from numerous important informing influences, including crossover text segments imbibed from philosophers, cultural and linguistic theorists, and ethicists such as Agamben, Nancy, Levinas, Butler, Derrida, poets Celan and Chus Pato and others. There is always a symposium at work in her poem, with translation in place; Moure is writing the sympoemsium, let’s say, and she tends to like to show up in a few chairs, heteronyms piping-warm.
Reading Temporalities / Aloud
Lisa Robertson, in a 1999 interview (Open Letter, Summer 2008), talked about the temporality of the book in a way that interests me today: “Writing does not begin and end at the computer screen. it begins in socialty, it begins in conversation – and in reading also as a form of conversation with prior, or further, people. And the entire making of the book and offering of the book and giving of readings in all kinds of contexts – from private to friendship contexts, to presenting the book via public readings in institutional settings and the chit-chat that goes around that, to working with my publisher and with the book designer – it’s all a politics of presentation. It’s all a gestural rhetoric, rhetoric in the old sense of the body speaking across, giving…. My work aspires to socialty.” Book culture has developed as a privileging of reading as individual consumption; but is private, silent reading the ideal parlour for any poetic text, and in particular for the long poem?
Lengthy poetic texts, once they are made, are complex and intricate environments that can continue to become inhabited and instrumentalized by not only readers but by speakers; yet it is rarely feasible to live-perform such texts in their entirety. Often an extract will be read aloud, chosen to stand for the poem, chosen to exemplify its variegations of cadence, theme, and rhetoric. The durational poetics of the long poem pose a problem for performativity, different from works of theatre, and music, different from the live reading of prose fiction, or indeed of any prose, including the public lecture, involving an unruly attentive commitment from performer and viewers/listeners alike. When jw curry live-performed all of bpNichol’s The Martyrology over a 3-day period, it was the rare attendee who experienced all of the performance. Gerry Shikatani’s 7- or 8-hour-long live-reading of his 300-page textwork Aqueduct, presented by Toronto’s Scream Literary Festival, was structured to include dinner, drinks, breaks, and unusual tenacity for author and audience; other long poems staged as durational performances include Christian Bok’s Eunoia, Christopher Dewdney’s A Natural History of SouthWestern Ontario, Lisa Robertson’s The Men, and Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies (as well as later, my own Excessive Love Prostheses, an enormous artistic privilege for me facilitated by Jenny Sampirisi of the Scream). The immersive pleasure of these evenings, for listeners, was similar to continuous inner reading yet it was experienced relationally as a social happening, a mutually aware listening. When conceptual artist Marina Abramovich performed The Artist is Present for almost three months at MOMA, the piece relied on the constant audience replenishment of individuals coming for the chance of a direct physical gaze-based interaction with the silent artist, but there was also the frisson of being part of a public exposure, a spectacular objectifying excursion that reeked of the surveillant panopticon rather than inclusive assembly. Despite publication space in Canada for maximalist heterogeneous textual engagements, there is very little threshold for the orational staging of these works that probes the affective and aesthetic effects of relationality they most explore.
What interests me most to discuss Feb 7 about Zong! is the author’s continuing experiments with its diversity of embodied performance, the kinds of social architecture the text can build, and in particular, the transformative durational choral polyphony it can generate among gathered audiences recognizing themselves as constitutive of a collectivity instead of as an assemblage of disjunct, individual listeners, where those who might have been contained in a private readerly role or social listening role in relation to the text step across over into the text as a participant in a memorial, a thanksgiving, a protest, a happening. I can’t think of another Canadian poet who has crossed over into this depth of embodied conduction with any text, but especially not one that is so radically conceptualist and proceduralist; nor can I say that experimental opera or text-dance or new musical composition that emerges through improvisatory collaborative vocal and instrumental practices is at all alike what M. NourbeSe Philip exerts in her recent performances of the entirety of Zong! These deeply resonant choral stagings have developed very gradually over several years from the first year or two after Zong!’s publication, where the text was initially performed as a slowed, intensified minimalist lament issued in Philip’s voice alone, one that produced a votive spatiality testing the poetics of silence, and an extensile, ceremonial temporality. The current engagement involves musicians, a circular arrangement of audience around the performance, and a spacious text-referential reading mode made available to all who attend with the invitation that every voice may become co-present in reading the text aloud, in synchronizing oration with the group, in diverging into personal timing, in vocally occupying the text at any of its many nodes in relation to a loosely conducted choral inhabitation of it. As multiple voices converge and diverge building a rough choral volume, Philip reads the text section by section, embarking into improvised attentions upon particular phrases, moving her body rhythmically, walking, bending, pulsing, pivoting incantatorily around segments whose crystallizing refrains later emerge as group memory for the entire assembly. Gorgeously lyric lines flooded with the body drift up from the dense polyphony of errant, approximate, frayed synchrony: two of the lines that salted my experience became “are they mad or merely men lacking maps sing a song ruth” almost tinged with the singsong rhythms of Victorian nursery riddles – and “go ask rome why they come for me for us for we” – a plaintive and resistant protest call linking the individual victim of violence to a collective calling for account, occupying past and present, and instructing reconciliation. The performance is both conducted and chaotic, shaped and unravelling, literary and something altogether busted into the commons out of the legal source text Philip took as the limits of her lexicon, posing it first through and into the solemnity of a rite of remembrance for the wrongly enslaved and murdered, now continuing to recapitulate the text’s bodyspeech forward as an inclusive experience of recuperative responsibility. For many Canadian poets raised on the Four Horsemen’s caterwauling kineticisms, the sonic aesthetic dynamics are similar; the participatory ethics of Philip’s performance of Zong!, however, bear more in common with the Indigenous round dance, the protest chant, and the call and response of slave and prisoner field songs whose survival drive infuses the African-American Blues. Zong! has multiplied from its initial poetics of appropriative occupation to generate the sonic potentiality of a refigured protolinguistic prompt to again gather, to place a wager on inclusivity no matter how pained and unpredictable, to be continuous with ancestral presences, become among the gathered, to begin again to go on, despite.
As with any poem, even the longest of them, a text and an oratory must close, as in ice on a lake. Here is the last section of The Unnamable, but I’ve altered all of the pronouns to reflect a collective speaker:
We must go on, that’s all we know.
We’re going to stop, we know that well: we can feel it. We’re going to abandon us. It will be the silence, for a moment (a good few moments). Or it will be ours? The lasting one, that didn’t last, that still lasts? It will be we?
We must go on.
We can’t go on.
We must go on.
We’ll go on. We must say words, as long as there are any – until they find us, until they say us. (Strange pain, strange sin!) We must go on. Perhaps it’s done already. Perhaps we have said we already. Perhaps we have carried us to the threshold of our story, before the door that opens on our story. (That would surprise us, if it opens.)
It will be we? It will be the silence, where we are? We don’t know, we’ll never know: in the silence we don’t know.
We must go on.
We can’t go on.
We’ll go on.
If you are taking part in contemporary communications culture you will be aware that this is the perfect moment to send a tweet about the experience you are having in this moment, in this room, a kind of generous textual reposte you can post as a situated correspondent conveying an unique point of view to an omnipresent audience, a readership always shifting but also always guaranteed to exist, in the manner of a deity. This is a form of writing, and if you aggregate all of those missives you could declare them to constitute a poetic structure that is long, serial, paratactic, and also, too, quasi-narrative, as the intimations of events and circumstances of your individual tweets can easily be inferred as a chronology of noticings, hewn through subjective authenticity and authority. To me this is the stuff a long poem is made of, its verge, its salt, its multilingual paratweet, contemporarily. The structure otherwise is a relic. Oh we said that already. Back at the beginning.
My sincere thanks to Dr Smaro Kamboureli, for inviting my contribution to the Graduate Colloquium on the Long Poem, Feb 7, 2014, University of Toronto. The paper was given as continual homage to bp Nichol, and to walking the inchoate-now. The delivered text was shortened to suit the format of the academic panel; this version retains TV and winter-time. –MC
Margaret Christakos is the Toronto-housed author of nine collections of poetry, including Multitudes (2013), What Stirs (2008) and Sooner (2005), all with Coach House, and Welling (Scrivener, 2010). She has taught part-time for two decades, at present with the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies (2006 to present), and OCAD University (2014). She was the recipient of a Chalmers Arts Fellowship in 2012-2013, and is a past winner of the ReLit Award for Poetry, a repeat nominee for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and a shortlistee for the Ontario Trillium Book Award. She designed and facilitated Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon from 2006-2012.