This astonishing, terrifying work by the incredible feminist artist Nancy Spero is reproduced stunningly by Siglio Press. The 14 panels are reproduced in full, then showing the details in their full legibility. It’s hard to get a sense of scale from a book, but even so, this work seems massive. Not just in size but in scope.
The collage is sparse, encasing the fragments of testimony and witnessing, and of Spero’s imagery in swathes of visual silence. The kind of silence that engulfs the actual practice of torture. Often, the reproduced typographical accounts of the experience of torture seem small, in comparison to the emptiness of the scroll-like panels they inhabit. That contrast is also an affirmation, that the torture which attempts to silence, attempts to obliterate self and speaker, can not be allowed to reign. That Spero as an artist is compelled to counter that imposed silence in the same way as the survivors of torture do: by discussing it.
Spero frames her collage discussion within a mythic context; the story of Tiamat and Marduk serving as the archetype of the torture of women. This framework, and the nearly blasé factual reportage of the testimony, help Spero avoid that kind of pleasure in the obscene that appears occasionally in art about tragedy and violence. There is no moralizing, either, merely outrage, anger, and pain.
The critical essays following a selection of quotes by Spero about her role as a politically engaged feminist artist are insightful and thorough. Going through the work again alongside the critical explorations forced a kind of slowing, a more careful engagement with the work, exactly as good critical frameworks ought to. The final piece is a short story by the Argentine author Luisa Valenzuela, translated by the phenomenal Margaret Jull Costa, called Symmatries. It’s haunting, about a single man’s obsession with two deaths, as he puts it in the beginning. It unravels, conflates stories of imprisonment and torture and desire and love across time, and species. I really don’t want to say more about it, because part of the joy of reading it is seeing how the pieces fit together, and knowing more in advance would spoil it. But it’s really astounding.
Is it a prose poem? A lyric essay? A hybrid essay-poem? A hybrid poem-memoir? Yes. I’ve long contended that genre is mostly useful to define reading strategy (define? demand? encourage?). We read a poem differently than we do a memoir. Or an essay. And I’ve also suggested to my non-fiction writing friends that poetry and non-fiction have more in common than most realize. Except for those working between those forms: Susan Howe, Anna Joy Springer. Poetry lends a freedom that can be dangerous (I recently heard C.D. Wright give a phenomenal lecture on poetry, in which she discussed poetry as a catch-all for writing that doesn’t fit anywhere else, and how that’s a problem…the essay is part of a forthcoming book that I am holding my breath for). But that Claudia Rankine puts that freedom to wonderful use.
There are several threads through the work: death, depression (occupying the most memoiristic moments); racism, and the response to 9/11/01 (the social/ethical commentary made personal); and a searching for a way to express, which ultimately fails (the most poetic moments fall here). Towards the end, she seems to be struggling most with this question of poetic possibility/responsibility. What is the purpose of a poem, in the face of death, depression, racism, tragedy?
Or, well, I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness. The world moves through words as if the bodies the words reflect did not exist.
But she addresses these questions that poets (especially women poets, especially women poets of color) have to ask themselves (perhaps in a way that other poets aren’t forced to, because their poetry is not read as representative of their gender/race/etc.?). In a section following the discussion of the shooting death of Amadou Diallo (who in case you don’t remember was unarmed, leaving his house in New York City, was shot 41 times by the New York City Police, and died at the scene having done nothing but walk out of his door) Rankine writes:
Sometimes I think it is sentimental, or excessive, certainly not intellectual, or perhaps too naïve, too self-wounded to value each life like that, to feel loss to the point of being bent over each time. There is no innovating loss. IT was never invented, it happened as something physical, something physically experienced. It is not something an “I” discusses socially. Though Myung Mi Kim did say that the poem is really a responsibility to everyone in a social space. She did say it was okay to cramp, to clog, to fold over at the gut, to have to put hand to flesh, to have to hold the pain, and then to translate it here. She did say, in so many words, that what alerts, alters.
Loss runs through the book. Loss of her sister’s husband and children, her own happiness. She says of 9/11/01 that perhaps what we lost as a nation was our complexity (as in “you’re either with us or you’re against us”). This is another one for my list of sad books, though it doesn’t deal with the specific loss of a beloved. It’s about the loss of self as much as anything else, an identity crisis brought on by too much tragedy, too much racism, too much too much. Instead of retreating to a self-occupied first person, Rankine’s “I” is wide open to multiplicity. Her language is open to uncertainty, is open to failure, and her uncertainly and pain and failure is encompassing of my own. I am implicated (I the reader, I any reader) throughout, as someone troubled and worrying and sad and uncertain. This is a poem that speaks of its time.
The interruption/sectioning of the poem into discrete units separated by images of a television (sometimes displaying static, sometimes displaying images from the news) adds to this outward motion. The encompassing of the lyric, its multitudinous multiplicity. Though dealing with tragedy on personal, and national levels, Rankine ends on (to my mind) a hopeful note. That the value in poetry is that of a handshake (Celan, via Rosmarie Waldrop), a handing over, an assertion of hereness. “This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive. … In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.”
That dangling preposition opens out into the absolute of possibility: indicating the presence of me, of you, of all of us, of this life, of this world, of this place, of everything absolutely everything. And to come to that, through everything that comes before, feels optimistic. In some way, as long as the “I” (mine, or hers, or anyone else’s) is here in the world, there is possibility, and that possibility will contain sadness and tragedy and death (mine, and hers, and everyone else’s), but also hereness and coming together.
Another book in three sections – that makes quite a few I’ve read recently. I wonder about this – the trinity, the triptych, is this indicative of something wanting to go on? Something that needs to move in different ways across the same set of pages? The sections, not overtly connected like the ones in Susan Howe’s That This, are still noticeably linked by images and phrases that repeat. This is the landscape. It has to repeat.
The first eponymously titled section was by far my favorite. The language is so sharp, and the sentences keep swerving one after the other. Each sentence could be its own poem, for the most part, and that expansive concision is remarkable. This section is concerned with memory, with stasis and continuation, and how time moves and doesn’t. That slipperiness of time is one of the threads that connects through the three sections, but is most appealingly engaged with in the first. A lot of the action takes place in the artifacts of memory: photographs and film. The distancing of memory that makes it unfamiliar, unimpeachable.
When it is raining it is raining for all time and then it isn’t
and when she looked at him, as he remembers it, the landscape moved closer
than ever and she did and now he can hardly remember what it was lie.
Another thing that strikes me is how easy and everyday the language is. It’s not wrought, not overtly poetic, most of the work happens at the level of sequence, syntax, and observation. The incision is all in the details, grammatically and imagisticly speaking:
Their wings are narrower, their tails forked
but the note from the tree I’ve never heard it before.
The reflection that takes place is at the same level: studied, but not self-absorbed. These poems move like a camera on autofocus pointing out a window into the past as it moves by: the subject is clear, then blurred, a new subject displaces, but it could be the same subject from a different angle, from slightly ahead or behind.
The relative motion of two objects moved.
I write to you as an approximation of intimacy.
The intimacy of memory, of object in relation to subject, to subjectivity in relation to poem, is so much more than approximation though.
The second section was intriguing at first, until I understood several poems in that they were in a space of dream-logic; whether or not they were actual descriptions of actual dreams was irrelevant to me, because as soon as I was located comfortably within that space the things that had drawn me in no longer attracted me.
The final section, “Quotidian,” treated the idea of familiarity, of dailyness, with the same slippage of recognition as memory and dream. The three link together in this, their interest in the failure of perception, and the generative gaps between object and viewer, between subject as memory and present-tense subject-hood. And though my interest in her treatment of her themes sustained me through the book, when I finished the final section I returned to the first section and re-read it, both because it was so compelling the first time I wanted to re-experience it, and because I wanted to leave the book as excited as I had been to begin it. What wasn’t quite as strong for me in the second and final section was how surprising the first section was able to be, without seeming manipulated.
This book has three sections, each remarkably different from one another, and yet connected by a recognizable poetic voice and interest. The first, “The Disappearance Approach” is about the unexpected death of her second husband. Add this to my saddest-reading-list-ever; it fits alongside Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking and Goldman’s Say Her Name. But these shortish prose-blocks are distinctly poetry, where the others are memoir. Of course, the lines are not quite so clear-cut between the two, but her frequent moves into the lyric, the shifts into non-normative syntax, and the recurring failures of language on the page to continue on are all gestures that belong more fully to poetry. The end of the first prose-block, for example:
He was lying in bed with his eyes closed. I knew when I saw him with the CPAP mask over his mouth and nose and heard the whooshing sound of air blowing air that he wasn’t asleep. No.
Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said
The description begins normatively enough. Then that “No.” with its doubling function: affirming her knowledge and simultaneously rejecting it. And then the total shift into lyric, a statement that merely fades rather than ending, a kind of hopelessness in expression, the collapse of logic, the inability to express. No being the only possible utterance. That form shapes the rest of the section: straightforward, surprisingly unsentimental descriptions and memories, followed by a brief lyric diversion.
The second section is extremely different, cut-up collages of type. What’s fascinating for me is how the mind always tries to create meaning, to render legible. These collages are for the most part un-readable, except in parts, and still there’s an impulse to read slowly, to extrapolate from the fragments to create words, sentences, context. They’re beautiful as objects and fascinating as textual remnants.
The final section is composed of sparse, almost hymnal poetry blocks. This was the least engaging for me, but that’s because I’m less interested in the Christian metaphysical mysticism and more in the quality of language. The shift back into legibility is welcome, though, after the difficulty of the middle section.
I’m so glad I finally made the time to read this. Inspiring, as always.
**I drafted this post a few weeks ago, and wanted to have more in my spreadsheet before publishing, but CLMP just announced a new chapbook/zine membership which you can read about here and I figured I should just get this posted.**
I’ve been into chapbooks for a long time. Pretty much since I started working in literary publishing as the senior editor for the fascinating Arrowsmith Press, edited by Askold Melnyczuk. There’s a lot to love about them. One of the things I love most about chapbooks is their size – just long enough to seriously engage with, but short enough to read in one sitting. The brevity of the form leads to books that cohere in a more satisfying way to me than many full-length collections do. Especially in poetry, but I think also in cross-genre, short-fiction and the literary essay. I think of a chapbook like a really great album (ok, now I sound old, but I worked in a music store for a while, and yeah, it was sort of like Empire Records). A great chapbook, like a great album that has an arc to it, a movement, thoughtfulness, even perhaps an argument (implicit or explicit). Where a lot of full-length collections are more like a best-of, or a comprehensive catalog, a chapbook can establish an internal poetics and logic that is often impossible for longer works.
Another thing I love about the chapbook is the ephemeral quality of it, as a physical object. A lot of chapbooks are small, handmade objects that are out of place in bookstores. I can only think of a handful of bookstores that even consider carrying chapbooks, and even then they are sort of hard to spot, as spineless as they often are. Of course, that’s usually enough to intrigue me when I’m browsing, but I imagine they get overlooked more often than not. They’re often made in extremely limited editions, numbering in the hundreds or less. Since most literary title distributors won’t carry chapbook-only presses, they’re awfully hard to find, at least comprehensively. All this lends a kind of mystique to the form, and a certain pleasurable sense of illicitness. This isn’t the hipster urge toward the underground as a kind of cultural cache, this is a kind of quiet art that moves in undercurrents, hand-to-hand often.
Thanks to presses like Ugly Duckling, the format is not quite as ignored as it once was. There are now a handful of review outlets that occasionally review chapbooks (usually from the ‘larger’ presses that just happen to run chapbook series). And more and more presses popping up that are publishing them.
Which leads me to this post. I’ve been compiling a list of chapbook presses (in a public, open-to-comment Google spreadsheet), in part to submit my own work to, and in part because I think it would be a good resource to have and I haven’t found an up-to-date and comprehensive list of them anywhere else. I’ve been pulling from the Poetry Society of America, Poets & Writers, CRWROPPS (the creative writing opportunity yahoo listserv), CLMP, and Duotrope. But I’d love it if people in the know about chapbooks contributed and sent me ones I may have missed. This is step one in what I hope will be an ongoing project to create a resource for accessing this diffuse publishing community.
I just received an advance review copy of The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight, forthcoming in January from Altaire Productions & Publications. I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard of the poet or the press, they are in Australia and it’s a sad reality that very few books published outside the US gain any real attention here. There are a handful of UK presses I know and love, because I lived there briefly, and I’ve worked hard to gain expertise in the literatures of the countries I translate from, but when it comes to English-language literature outside of the US (like most of my peers) I’m unfortunately inadequately read. So when I got an email from Michael Tasker at Altair Productions asking if I’d be interested in receiving a review copy of the book, I was intrigued.
I was further intrigued by his description of the book, it ticks all my happy-boxes: handmade elements, small independent press, collaborative book, and a reclaiming of an ancient literary woman-figure. All things I’m extremely interested in myself. Though I did not expect to receive (and in fact did not) one of the handmade versions, the review copy is still a beautifully designed and printed book.
Then I opened it up. The poetry is extremely lyrical, and sparse on the page. I’m not going to go into it too much here, because I think I may actually write a review for it, but there are really exquisite moments of grotesque excess, and an intense emotional pitch that one reviewer categorized as juvenile, and is certainly challenging to the dominant cool irony of the contemporary aesthetic. And it’s pretty sexy. As in there’s a lot of sex, as there should be in any good tragedy.
I was definitely intrigued, but as I said this isn’t intended to be a real review of the book. Intending to write a real review, I did what I normally do, and I started researching the poet. I hadn’t heard of her before, and there’s no biographical information included in the book or press release. I went to the press’s website, which has a beautiful landing page and nothing else on it. I went to the book’s website, which again is nothing more than a beautiful landing page. I looked up the author on Goodreads (nothing but this book). I then started googling. It quickly became clear that this press and production company was set up by the author (they seem to have done some film work, so not expressly for the purposes of publishing this book, but I can’t find any other work they’ve done). And then I realized: the person who emailed me was named Michael Tasker. The illustrator of the book is Terrance Hasker.
All of a sudden things that seemed like interesting stylistic choices, like leaving the verso (left hand) pages blank throughout the book, made a little more sense.
Ok, now, I’m definitively not opposed to self-publishing. I think a lot of great writers do it, either programmatically or to get a start. I think it’s becoming easier and easier to make beautiful books (as evidenced by this one) and to get them into the world in a way that previously only larger publishers could manage. This book has already been reviewed at The Kirkus Review and called juvenile by The Portland Book Review in a very brief once-over. I’m sure more reviews of it will be coming up, since they are aggressively marketing it, and it is quite a handsome and interesting book.
What I object to is the charade. This is clearly a self-published book. I might even call it a (much more derogatory) vanity-press book. Because claiming to be publishing other books (as the publicity material claims, without specifying titles, authors, dates), and having a couple of websites with nothing but front pages (literally fronts), to disguise the fact of self-publishing is disingenuous at best. It’s too bad, I think, because I do think the book is interesting in a lot of ways. But having to ‘uncover’ this rouse (and still not getting any biographical information about the poet, which was what I was originally looking for) is annoying. Insulting, perhaps.
Of course, there’s a good reason for the rouse. Self-published books tend not to get critical attention. They are often dismissed. Sometimes unfairly, and sometimes justly. But the thing is, most professionally published books get ignored too. At least most poetry books do. So while I certainly think re-evaluating the stigma (which is already disappearing) around self-publishing in “literary” circles is absolutely essential, I also think that in order to actively challenge that books like this one shouldn’t try to disguise their origins. Instead, Marie Slaight should be proud to have written this, proud to have produced such a beautiful book, and proud she’s capable of generating as much publicity as a professional publisher could for it.
I’m still annoyed, though.
I just finished the 376 page abridgment of Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s “true” History of the Conquest of New Spain selected, edited and translated by David Carrasco. I stumbled across this book in a reference, an extended quote, from another book I was reading on the history of the feather (Feathers by Thor Hanson). A vivid description of the splendor of the aviaries in Tenochitlan, and their subsequent targeted destruction by burning by Cortés.
Though I didn’t find either of the quotes in this selection, it did provide an extremely thoughtfully contextualized overview of the Spanish perspective of the conquest of Latin America. Abridged from a much longer document, the sections included describe in (sometimes excruciating, sometimes tedious) detail the progression of the Spanish invasion, their relationships with native city-states, their duplicities in negotiating, the extreme cruelty on both sides of the wars, and the fascinating religious and political justifications for the two infamous massacres perpetrated by the Spanish in cities that were not warring. Woah, that was a long sentence, sorry about that.
The essays following address women’s roles in the conquest as property, anchors, and interpreters; the exaggeration and distortion of the practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism; and the political motivations for the composition of this text in the first place. A really accessible, fascinating collection of scholarly essays.
A great engaging text, and a wonderful translation. The translation renders the language simultaneously accessible (the tone is clear, crisp, the usage mostly standard) and poetic. Diaz del Castillo was a skilled storyteller, and was using his skills for gain. The motivations behind the composition are exquisitely evoked throughout the translation. Carrasco leaves in gestures that continuously remind readers of their distance from the text in space, time, and language, while making sure that it remains engaging. A perfect balance for a text like this.