Flow, Fissure, Mesh

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Notes Toward a Practice of Denatured Reading

[I presented this text as part of a lecture in the first week of my upper-level undergraduate course on “Denatured Reading,” taking a cue from – among many others – Graham Harman’s claim that “[n]ature is not natural and can never be naturalized.” What kind of writing do such claims ask for?]
I’m looking for a way to frame a set of concerns for this class, to trace some kind of conceptual architecture. By beginning with what must seem like arbitrarily compiling a handful of poems—some from writers on the course syllabus, some not—I haven’t made it too easy to see anything like a focus, and the syllabus itself, revised from an earlier version of the course, still appears to me a bit cobbled and unkempt—heterotopic, perhaps, to borrow a term from the introduction to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, an idea he develops from reading Jorge Luis Borges. Maybe this amorphousness, this assemblage, is appropriate to the course, too, given the unruliness of the subject matter—the decomposition of contemporary concepts of the natural—and its attendant image-pool—flotsam, junkyards, scrapheaps, wastelands, yardsales, edgelands, cyborgs, plastics, stuff. But I still feel like I need to offer you, and myself, some means of holding the material together, some imperative that drives me, and you along with me, through this slice of the contemporary, of the work of those who  live with us, now. I need, I think, to pose a question—and what comes to mind is a question posed a good seventy years ago, but which has a way of lingering, of insinuating itself into our present.
Ventriloquizing a key half-line from Friedrich Hölderlin’s 1801 elegyBrod und Wein,” a disgraced Martin Heidegger asks, in 1946, “und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?”—”and what are poets for in a destitute time?” or “and why poets in [a] paltry time?” Following on the material and cultural desolation of Western Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, Heidegger inclines toward a version of the religiosity of the late and last Romantics, linking Hölderlin to Rainer Maria Rilke’s orphic vestiges, to discover some remainder of a saving grace for humanity, some reason for our collective persistence as a species, some scrap of holiness:
To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.
Theodor Adorno notoriously excoriates this poetical onto-theology as barbaric, consigning the lyric—except, perhaps, that it makes room in these latter days for the voices of suffering—to bathos and redaction. Even if we remain justly suspicious of Heidegger’s cult of Being, it feels too desolate, too hopeless, to abandon altogether the poetic imperative he articulates. At least, it does to me. How can writing, poetic or otherwise, still manage somehow to face the hard fact of our looming destitution, the tenor of our catastrophic times, what Maurice Blanchot names our “disaster”? “We others,” Heidegger continues, by which he seems to me to mean we readers, “must learn to listen to what these poets say.” Poetry, in our time, emerges around the recalibration of attention. We have missed hearing something, have been less than perfect listeners, poor students. Hölderlin’s poetry, though a bit dire and over-serious, presents an imperative to attend to what persists and insists beyond its human limits: “But there would be, and there is, the sole necessity, by thinking our way soberly into what his poetry says, to come to learn what is unspoken.” Poetry, in fits and starts, still gestures sometimes toward a refiguration of the encounter with the non-human world, the obscurity into which those fugitive gods appear to have retreated, and is still impelled by creative effort. Hölderlin’s adjective dürftiger—needy, meager, scanty, sparse, paltry, destitute—has at its root the verb dürfen—can or may—which suggests both capacity and possibility, a trace of this ontological imperative. When I quoted, a little abruptly last class, a line from Isabelle Stengers’s In Catastrophic Times remarking on “the felt necessity of trying to listen to that which insists, obscurely,” it was with an eye (and an ear) toward framing this poetic imperative. Following James Lovelock, Stengers names “that which insists” Gaia, the inhuman earth, and argues that if we mean to resist barbarism (deriving for her more from Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of capitalism than from Adorno), we need to try—notice how qualified her imperative remains—to think creatively and experimentally, and I would say poetically around and with this imperative. Pervasive anxieties these days around climate change, displaced populations, pharmacology, genomic modification and other environmental and biological incursions of human progress have become shared hallmarks of our human condition. Biotechnologies both reactivate and intensify an unease around what feels like an unspoken and unspeakable ontological threat. What poetry, what creative writing, might be for in our times is to broach the question of how to voice what’s unspeakable, to begin, again, to trace the boundaries, the contact zones, the edges, the membranes between humanity and its others, between the made and the given, between the natural and the denatured.
The philosopher Alain Badiou declared in a fairly recent interview that “[i]t must be clearly affirmed that humanity is an animal species that attempts to overcome its animality, a natural set that attempts to denaturalise itself.” Badiou is not only reframing an enlightenment rationalism embedded in myths of human progress—what remains to us today, maybe, of liberal humanism—but also pointing up an irony inherent in deep ecology and human concern with the environment: an untenable separation of the human and the non-human in the guise of the “natural.”  Just yesterday, an article in The Guardian reiterated that human technologies have fundamentally altered the geological record, that we have inscribed ourselves into the planet such that we have ashifted the narrative of the history of being itself, and hardly for the better. The anthropocene has arrived. “The history of life on earth,” Rachel Carson writes in Silent Spring (1962), “has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings,” but those interactions, particularly from the human side of things, have been characterized not so much by reciprocity as by “irrecoverable” contamination. The three poets we have touched on so far address this contamination, directly. Tom Raworth’s “Beautiful Habit” concatenates the fragmented discursive remainders of those contaminants, and attempts to siphon some form of last-ditch, vestigial beauty from them, the leftover possibility of close listening: “it’s us / or rust / listener.” Paul Farley, by contrast, calls the creative intellect’s bluff, shuffling through the greasy, porous surfaces of man-made objects—a deck of cards, a microwave—trying to make contact with the nothingness—the withdrawn guarantees of meaning or of surety—behind his own crafted and crafty words, his tells and his tellings. Kathleen Jamie wants to attend to the “seed-small notes” along a remote shoreline scattered with natural detritus, to begin to listen to what’s left to her brief attention.  

Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone (Audio)

Also on Sound Cloud, I have uploaded some audio of my paper, “Ecologies of Estrangement: Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone,” which I delivered at Beyond the Nature of Culture: Rethinking Canadian and Environmental Studies, a conference held at the University of British Columbia from 28-30 September 2012. It’s currently being expanded into a chapter, developing connections and contrasts between Carson and Bringhurst by assessing their work on Paul Celan (and Celan’s fraught relationship with Martin Heidegger’s poetic philosophy), and connecting their ideas on translation to Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” In this conference paper, the focus was narrowed to an investigation of the tensions between concepts of poetic ecology and poetic economy. To set things up, here is the opening paragraph, which also works something like an abstract:
Finding intersections between the aesthetics of Anne Carson and of Robert Bringhurst, if you are at all familiar with their extensive bodies of translations, essays and poetry, might appear counter-intuitive at first. Carson’s bittersweet, media-savvy postmodernity seems obviously at odds with Bringhurst’s latter-day highbrow modernism. Her work weaves its genealogy through Gertrude Stein, while his lineage derives from Ezra Pound. Her interest tends to be drawn by the fraught epistemic terrains of language, his by its ontic capacities. Her default to a bittersweet wryness contrasts rather markedly with his typically mindful  seriousness. Still, a critical collision of their work – around their different translations of the “Wonders are many . . .” chorus from Sophokles’s Antigone (lines 332-375) – might prove educational as we try to think through the complexities of how we, as human speaking subjects, aspire to frame the natural. Both Bringhurst and Carson exploit the divagations within the process of translation to call radically into question the results of human technē, and use this foundational Western text to voice critiques of the limits and the reach of poetic and cultural craft, of what people have done and have failed to do for their world.

VISI Art Song Lab 4, Sprechstimme

What came to mind watching and listening to the rehearsals, the workshops and then the performances of art-songs created this past week was a tensile interdependence of cantus and poesis. The poems, as song-text, were written first for the most part, although during the week some alterations and revisions happened, as words were adapted for and inclined toward the music. In some cases, the same poem developed into two distinct versions; in my own case, the words didn’t change, but one of the two composers working from it, David Betz, used an earlier draft (which I had sent him by e-mail, to let him see the progress I hoped I was making coming up with suitable text) as the basis for his composition, so a few words and phrases don’t appear in the finished poem. (For instance, the title of his art-song, “Torn Daisies,” uses an adjective I changed [to “shredded”] in the final copy.) But I am very happy to let these slippages stand, partly because they work in his setting, and partly because I think that such misprisions, whether deliberate or inadvertent, cut to the heart of collaborative interdependence: the words take hold in the music, but also have to be let go, partially and partly, by the poem from which they originate. In David’s case, his setting deliberately mines the original poem for phrases and word-clusters that he seems to have felt resonated with his own textural sound-palette, but he almost wholly disregards the narrative or even syntactical order of the poem itself (although he does end his song, for example, with the last line of the poem, so some structural imperatives could still be translated, for him). In this instance, the poem has to be released from its formal bands, as speech, to adapt to the melodic contours of song.
This tug between cantus and poesis, between song and speech, can be read as a species of translation, but it can also be set apart from translation in its mundane sense, as derivative or secondary language, if by working between media we want to pursue a more primordial pathos. In À cor et à cri (Hue and Cry, 1988) the poet, ethnographer and surrealist Michel Leiris attempts, in a book-length collation of notes and lyric fragments, to map an alchemical genesis, a passage (cri-parole-chant) from visceral cry winnowed through words toward a condition of song: chanterfor Leiris means not merely to put words to music, not melopoeia, but also to materialize a perceptual intensity, gathered by and diffused through poetic language. He juxtaposes this heightened, conceptually genetic (that is to say, phenomenologically vital) modality to the servility of translation:
Peut-être est-ce quand les mots, au lieu d’être en position servile des traducteurs, deviennent générateurs d’idées qu’on passe de la parole au chant?
In practical terms – that is, in terms of the realization of an art-song and not merely its conceptualizing as an idealized poetic state of language – I think one element that might enact this tension performatively, audibly, is the technique of Sprechstimmeor song-speech (literally, speech-voice). In Alex Mah’s setting of the middle section of my poem “First Person Shooter,” which he titled “Drift” after an early version of the text, the vocal literalizes (as a kind of active reading, a lettering) this tension in phonemic stutter and repetition at the outset of the song (“st . . . st . . . stalled . . . stalled”), as if the grieving singer were unable to find her words, as if singing itself, as keening, were an act of verbal grief, stalling on itself. This stutter suggests both semantic shortfall – not having the words – and creative agon, a voice contesting its existential impediments to find an expressive diction. The words of the poem initiate and thematize this agon, but it can only fully realize itself in musical performance, becoming song rather than recitation. A little further along in the setting, Alex introduces Sprechstimme, and even produces a performative version of what Paul de Man named an “allegory of reading” or what J. Hillis Miller might call a “linguistic moment,” as the vocalist falls back into her speech register to utter the word “unspeakable.” It’s a dramatic effect, certainly, but also a semantic paradox, in as much as she says that she cannot say, as song diminishes or frays back into utterance, retreating from the agon in the initial stutter, rendering it all but pyrrhic: a version, or perhaps an inversion, of what Martin Heidegger meant when he claimed, in poetry, that “Die Sprache spricht.” In the performance last Friday evening, Phoebe MacRae did a tremendous job conveying not simply the feeling of grief over the events to which the poem responds – the Sandy Hook shootings – but also the essential pathos of the shortfall of language itself, of our inability to make sense of the senseless.
         I want to try to frame this tension, which I think operates at the core of art-song as a genre, by looking to the last lines of another poem written for use by the Art Song Lab, Leah Falk’s “Directions to My House”:
I am also a door, remember,
                           hinged to wind
                           swinging between
                           a list and lost
It’s a fine poem, which both investigates and resists the teleology of directions, of the map, to interrogate lyrically the concept of home-coming, of nostos. But our sense of home at the poem’s formal close has been unmoored, even rendered abyssal. The speaker-singer herself becomes a transitory and contingent site, permeable and unfinished. (Notice the absence, for instance, of closed punctuation – these sentences begin, but refuse to conclude.) The poem as descriptive list, as a catalogue of traits or a repository of images, hinges on a vowel shift – from the typographical (door-like?) rectangle of the i to the open oval of the o – between empirical certainty and placeless vacancy. Leah Falk’s spare melopoeia, a muted vowel-music, draws her words close to song, while also refusing the semantic surety of bel canto. Pathos emerges for me, as listener and as reader, in negotiating the fissure, the persistent and lyric gap between sound and meaning, not in wanting to try to suture it shut.


Jayne Cortez passed away—went flying home—on December 28, 2012, so this small tribute comes a month or two late, but I did want to record publically my sincere admiration for and indebtedness to her poetry and her performances. There was a proper obit in The New York Times, and there have been many warm tributes, including one from critic Howard Mandel.

Karl Coulthard introducing Jayne Cortez
at the University of Guelph, September 2011
I met Jayne Cortez only once, and only recently, when she gave a keynote talk about her own work at the 2011 Guelph International Jazz Festival. She presented selected recordings she had made over the past 30 years with her band The Firespitters (whose revolving personnel often included her son, percussionist Denardo Coleman, as well as members of Ornette Coleman’s electric ensembles), and her comments focused on elaborating the chiasmic chant from the title piece of her recent Best of CD: “Find your own voice, and use it. / Use your own voice, and find it.” This sounds like advice for new performers – and it is certainly that – but the aspirational panacea of self-discovery these crossed lines offer is only part of their intention.
I have to admit that I am well trained to be suspicious of the expressive, and for better or for worse I incline toward an arch poetic technique that finds its touchstone in Martin Heidegger’s maxim, Die Sprache spricht: language speaks itself. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s affective and intentional fallacies are difficult beasts for me to shake. It can be perilous for a non-African-American like me to associate the expressive with racially marked text, and to implicitly divide it off from canonical, oblique, academically-mediated and difficult Poetry with a capital P; black identity, down that slippery slope, gathers in the emotive and the embodied, while technical linguistic prowess remains the provenance of a white cultural dominant – a racial bifurcation with which I’m not just uncomfortable but which also belies what most poetry, for me, wants to accomplish, to speak. I think George Lewis’s conceptof the Afrological – which he links principally to musical practices – is useful  to invoke here, in as much as it aims to foster dialogue (“Gittin’ to Know Y’All”) without necessarily enabling cultural or racial appropriation.
            My memory of Jayne Cortez isn’t so much her talk as of a conversation we had the next day, by chance. We were both staying at the same hotel in Guelph, and ended up riding in the same Red Car van to the Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto, to catch our flights home. The trip takes nearly an hour. Ms. Cortez remembered me being at her talk the previous day, and asked politely after my own poetry, which I’d read at the colloquium. We talked about emerging writers, and about her husband Melvin Edward’s sculptures, and I remember she praised William Parker’s generosity and musical vision. But most of all, what I recall is her tone and spirit; she talked with you, not to you. She, too, seemed generous and open; she smiled almost the whole time we talked. I admire her greatly that she would so happily and freely engage with somebody she’d just met and hardly knew. It was like she genuinely wanted to know about you and your inclinations, and to share hers. Respectful exchange, a crossing.
            One of my favourite pieces on her compilation CD is a duet with baritone saxophonist James Carter, an improvised blues (called “I Got the Blues,” recorded in 1994) involving, as her notes put it, “verbal call and response between the poet’s voice and the baritone saxophone sound.” Neither she nor Carter is hesitant or diffident; they know their voices. Cortez doesn’t offer any sort of phonemic sound-poetry, but sticks to the declarative, what she does best: an edgy, passionate, and fierce lyricism. Still, the piece is as much interchange as exchange; they listen and speak to – with – each other, and it is the alternately assertive and yielding textures of that conversation, as much as its content, that come to matter. Cortez says that writing a poem is a matter of getting your mouth on the paper, of expression finding its way over a page. But I think that the reverse might also be true: to find a way to sound out off the page, to make those marks speak—mouth to paper, paper to mouth. Jayne Cortez’s work, for me, offers a model of committed self-expression, a finding.