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The Challenge of Phillis Wheatley (poem)

“Phillis Wheatley frontispiece” by Scipio Moorhead – This image is available from the United States
Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a40394
I’m currently taking a MOOC from Stanford University Online called “Ten Premodern Poems by Women,” led by Eavan Boland. It’s essentially a poetry appreciation course, fostering a broader sense of women’s essential and often neglected contributions to the canon of English-language poetry. Each week, Eavan Boland introduces a poem, and then offers some historical and biographical – and even a little formal – context, and then discusses the poem with a guest speaker, usually (so far) one of the Wallace Stegner Fellows in poetry from Stanford’s Creative Writing Program. The course is very enjoyable and informative, and taking it is giving me a chance to try to re-connect with the student experience: we have weekly writing assignments, informal responses to each text. In the past few weeks, the prompts for these assignments have invited participants to compose poems of their own, either in the style of the work we’re reading that week or in reaction to the context and themes of a given poem. I had never really looked too closely at the work of Phillis Wheatleybefore – the first poet of African descent to publish in English. The facts of her life are well known: at about seven years old, in 1761, she is stolen from her home in Senegambia and transported on the slave ship Phillis to pre-revolutionary Boston, where she is purchased by Mrs. Susan Wheatley for a “trifle” of either ten pounds or ten dollars; “Phillis” has a gift for languages that her new “family” encourages, and by the time she reaches her teens she excels at poetry; in 1773, around her twentieth birthday, her poems are collected and published (in England, not in Boston) as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Read through the lens of our own time, many of these poems can seem deeply troubling, as they appear to praise slavery – in highly conventional late 18th-century style – as a means to Christian salvation:Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.” In his 1922 preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson lamented that

one looks in vain for some outburst or even complaint against the bondage of her people, for some agonizing cry about her native land. In two poems she refers definitely to Africa as her home, but in each instance there seems to be under the sentiment of the lines a feeling of almost smug contentment at her own escape therefrom.

Reading Wheatley now, I feel what we get aren’t outbursts but cracks in the mask, in her formal poetic façade, at which something like an agony, suppressed in the interests of her survival as a child in bondage, briefly shows through. What we have, after all, are the poems of a teenager. After her manumission, when she was 28 or 29, Wheatley is said to have composed another 142 poems, now lost; I can only imagine that some expression of that pain must have found its way into that work, silenced by circumstance. One of the ways to honour Wheatley’s legacy, it seems to me, is to risk writing a little way into that silence: not to speak for her – although, in ventriloquizing her seven-year-old self and transposing her voice into an English she didn’t have at the time, I ‘m aiming at least to gesture at that fraught and awful gap, the racially, culturally and linguistically marked distances of the Middle Passage. (“Yummy,” I discovered, is one of a few English words imported from Wolof, Phillis Wheatley’s native language.) I wrote this piece, torsioning the pentameter/hexameter couplets that were a mainstay of her early style, as an homage and as an attempt to encounter those distances. The challenge of encountering Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates argues, “isn’t to read white, or read black; it is to read.” I wanted at least to begin to address that challenge. And since the poem was submitted to a public forum anyway, I thought I might as well republish it here, myself.

“Phillis Wheatley,” July 1761, about seven years old
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate 

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat . . .
I‘m not sturdy enough. My two loose front teeth
fall out: I make a charm to ward off certain death,
jamming them between tarred planks near the keel
like deciduous tokens. I can’t feel
the ghost of my lost mother’s touch. Wolof
has no such words. Crammed bodies reek; men cough
up on themselves, yoked in rusting collars
to be unlocked only weeks later when we dock.
A lady tours the wharf. For ten pounds or dollars
she gets to become my good Boston mummy.
She gives me an apple. I say, “Yummy.”
She tells me, that’s a funny way to talk,
and makes me leave my carpet-scrap cloak behind,
I imagine because she’s afraid I might trip.
She rechristens me after that bad ship.
If only she knew my true name, I shouldn’t mind.

"We Jimmied the Radio": Brad Cran, Gillian Jerome and the Lyric in Public (Audio)

Here is the audio of a conference paper I delivered at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, on September 21, 2012, as part of the Public Poetics conference. It’s called “’We Jimmied the Radio’: Brad Cran, Gillian Jerome and the Lyric in Public.” Although it makes some gestures at what might pass for materialist analysis – as any work that addresses the idea of a public purview, of relevance or of engagement probably needs to do – my approach locates itself pretty firmly in outlining a phenomenology of the lyric, or maybe in describing the collision of the lyric with a phenomenology of commitment, or of community. At the time I wrote this, I was reading Jacques Rancière’s study of Mallarmé– as well as other work by him that seemed to me to be interrogating the intersection of the poetic and the political – so for me some of that matter gets echoed here, though not overtly mentioned. I come near the end of the paper to the founding of CWILA (“Canadian Women in the Literary Arts”) and to what was in the summer of 2012 a controversy around gender and negative reviewing. (I mention Russell Smith at the beginning of the paper, a gesture at some of this debate.) An expanded version of this essay – about double the length – is currently under consideration for publication. (I seem, as well, to have taken a little more than my time on the panel: The talk clocks in at 27 minutes; I thought I was briefer.) One last plug: check out the poetries of Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome. Buy their books.

Never Be Touched Enough

This morning, writer, DJ and Poetry Is Dead editor Daniel Zomparelli posted to Facebook a snapshot of himself lecturing – at Pecha Kucha Vancouver, on April 11 – in front of an unnaturally large PowerPoint slide featuring the front cover of a trade edition of Suzanne Somers’s only poetry collection, Touch Me. The photo garnered a slew of likes, mostly from people who seemed to regard the image as a kind of playful meme. But Zomparelli takes Suzanne Somers’s writing seriously, as poetry. And I want to think about why he might be right, because I do, too.
         I own a hardcover copy of the first edition of Touch Me. Along with my Bruce Springsteen mirror and my Sex Pistols coffee mug, it’s been one of my prized possessions, for years. I’m not sure where or when I found it or bought it – probably in a remainder bin at Zellers, although it’s not struck or marked as a cut-out. I can’t imagine I paid full price, but it looks like I might have. At first, I must have thought of the book as a joke buy, but in the last decade, as it sat unblinkingly on my office bookshelf, I have come to think of her collection of poems as significant, and as worth reading properly, fully and well.
         To take these poems seriously, to take Suzanne Somers at her word, you need to learn to read in a mode that the poems can support. While they present themselves as intimate, confessional lyrics, it soon becomes apparent that they will buckle and wilt under even the slightest pressure of a close reading, of trained formal scrutiny. But they’re not meant to operate as what Cleanth Brooks would have called, in the decades of his influence, the decades  leading up to their publication, “well-wrought” literary artifacts. Touch Me is a key instance of what early 1970s, post-Jonathan Livingston Seagull American popular culture would have understood as aspirational self-expression: “You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way” (Richard Bach wrote this, somewhere in the second part of his groovy fantasia). Furthermore, it’s impossible to separate poetic text from its intentional frame, from Suzanne Somers’s nascent public persona, her unabashed desire for celebrity, to make herself known, as human commodity.
Pages of the book are interspersed throughout with black-and-white images (re-textured to resemble canvas) of Somers in various wistful and contemplative poses; this isn’t, or isn’t only, a faux-naiffeint of authorial presence, but it also openly describes how that sense of intimacy can be simultaneously authentic and constructed, at once a fully-fabricated persona and the real “me” of the title, almost touchable. “I could be all those things for you,” she tells an absent lover in “Some Other Time,” or tells us as his reader/stand-ins; the line mixes the artifice of role-play with erotic candour and intentional deference—and she sustains herself, in these poems, for “him” (often, but not always, Alan Hamel, who appears in two of the photos), and, as his surrogates, for us.
         The poems always, always direct themselves at concocting privacy: “I like the gentle quiet loneliness of being alone.” The redundancy here is all-too-obviously awkward – again, it bears repeating that these poems will easily crumble under too close, and to my mind too unfair, an analysis – but as a refrain it overstates the outcome that all of her poetry craves: a fiction of proximity. The untutored, off-the-cuff bathos of many of her lines – “House plants have a way of invading my privacy” – only further reinforces the sense that we keep drawing closer, poem by poem, to her unguarded self.
Wikipedia dates the publication of Touch Me at 1980, on the crest of Somers’s success on Three’s Company, but the book actually first appeared in 1973, when she had had only a handful of small roles and cameos in film and had been a regular on the TV show Mantrap. More to the point, in 1970, just prior to the composition of Touch Me, she had done a nude “test” photo-shoot for Playboy, but had refused to be photographed for the magazine the following year; those photos were eventually published in 1980 by Playboy, in response apparently to Somers’s repeated public denials that they even existed. Significantly, her disavowal of such intimate images points up the fakery, the constructedness of an all-too-close, masculine scopophilia, exactly the same sort of desire – to be looked at, and to be touched – that her book of poems unerringly affirms. Touch Me, it’s worth noting, contains a satiric poem “The Model,” which offers an extended critique of her exploitation (“The smiling girl obediently transforms . . .”) by the erotic image-mill.
But her acknowledgement that such representation, in word and in image, inherently offers falsehood and deception, is counterposed in a poem fittingly titled “Lies” to the ability of the body (“my hands, my mouth, my caress”) to deceive; corporeal “lies” are worst of all because they mark not simply an artifice but a failure of connection, a hiatus: “And now I know something is over.” The denuded body can still obfuscate and play false, but in candidly confessing her failure, Somers restores a vestigial connection with her readers, as if we were sharing a secret, her small shame. By admitting that her body lies, she strangely reaffirms its truth.
         This is a kind of celebrity apophasis, a disavowal that nonetheless delivers, or at least implicitly claims to deliver, what it withholds. And it’s a confessional marketing tactic that Suzanne Somers has used throughout her working life, a tactic that a severely negative review of her failed 2005 one-woman Broadway career retrospective The Blonde in the Thunderbird (a reference to her cameo in American Graffiti), made abundantly clear:
Ms. Somers is undoubtedly sincere in her desire to bare her battles with insecurity and shame in order to serve as a model, and perhaps a healer, for those whose therapy cannot be subsidized by the sale of Torso Tracks. [. . .] Liberally laced with the bland jargon of self-help books, her story proves the peculiar truth that a victory over low self-esteem often comes at the price of a swan-dive into narcissism.
Maybe so. But it’s this inversion of “The Emperor has no clothes” – a baring all that leaves her fully veiled, publically private – that has informed her self-presentation since Touch Me first appeared. “This is a book,” it says in the one-page introduction, “about touching—about human hands and arms, eyes and mouths, lives and memories, all the instruments of touch.” Well, only in so far as Suzanne Somers can present herself as common, as typically human. “Touch me,” the title poem concludes, “For I was made to be touched. / I can never be touched enough.” This kind of self-making, this auto-poiesis, both depends upon and mitigates against that commonality; we know, after all, that what we’re actually touching, holding, is a book of poems and pictures, a surrogate. She can never be touched enough because she can never be touched at all.
         The echo, hardly deliberate but real enough, is of the Biblical Noli me tangere, “Touch me not,” which the unascended Jesus says to Mary Magdelene (John 20:17), caught in a post-Easter hiatus between flesh and light, humanity and transcendence. In The Space of Literature (1959), Maurice Blanchotconverts and rephrases this distancing imperative, a metaphysical disavowal, into a figure of what constitutes literature per se, Noli me legere, “Read me not”:
La même situation peut encore se décrire ainsi l’écrivain ne lit jamais son oeuvre. Elle est, pour lui, l’illisible, un secret, en face de quoi il ne demeure pas. Un secret, parce qu’il en est séparé. Cette impossibilité de lire n’est pas cependant un mouvement purement négatif, elle est plutôt la seule approche réelle que l’auteur puisse avoir de ce que nous appelons oeuvre. L’abrupt Noli me legere fait surgir, là où il n’y a encore qu’un livre, déjà l’horizon d’une puissance autre. Expérience fuyante, quoique immédiate. Ce n’est pas la force d’un interdit, c’est, à travers le jeu et le sens des mots, l’affirmation insistante, rude et poignante que ce qui est là, dans la présence globale d’un texte définitif, se refuse cependant, est le vide rude et mordant du refus, ou bien exclut, avec l’autorité de l’indifférence, celui qui, l’ayant écrit, veut encore le ressaisir à neuf par la lecture. L’impossibilité de lire est cette découverte que maintenant, dans l’espace ouvert par la création, il n’y a plus de place pour la création — et, pour l’écrivain, pas d’autre possibilité que d’écrire toujours cette oeuvre.
Pardon the long quotation, but what Blanchot is getting at is pretty close, I think, to what Suzanne Somers manages to articulate, in a more popularly pitched and less obviously “literary” text, as the stuff of poetry, of her poetry: the paradox of touch, which Blanchot characterizes as an impossibility of and within reading itself, a kind of persistent secret, the remains of a refusal to be remaindered, to demeure: a fleeting horizon of experience, however immediate and however publically private it might appear.

Singing in Public

Last night, I saw and heard John K.Samson (of The Weakerthans) perform for the second time this year, at the studio theatre of the Chan Centre at the University of British Columbia, where he has been appointed writer-in-residence in the Creative Writing program for this school year, 2012-2013. The first had been on May 12 at the Biltmore, on tour with a band (including Shotgun Jimmie) supporting the release of his solo record Provincial. Both performances were remarkable, not least for his ability to connect directly and feelingly with his listeners. The May show was high-energy and electric, and turned me into a fan, if I wasn’t one already. The previous fall, I had started supervising an undergraduate thesis by Bronwyn Malloy on Samson’s lyrics, and the enthusiastic conversations I had been having with her had really affected my growing belief that Samson was an undeniably powerful poet with a startlingly original sense of line and voice; Bronwyn’s essay turned out to be one of the best pieces of creative criticism I have read in my twenty-odd years as an academic, and I’m happy to admit that many of the better insights into Samson’s work that I want briefly to outline here must derive from my interactions with her writing and her thinking.
To start with, “powerful” is probably the wrong word to apply – at least, without some qualification – to Samson’s art, despite how unreservedly laudatory I’m trying to be here. The actual power of his songs and lyrics derives, I think, from their ability to tap into a pathos of powerlessness, of the social and linguistic disenfranchisement that the characters both represented in and speaking through his texts all seem to share. He voices the weaker than. At the Biltmore, he closed out the set by unplugging himself from the PA – my ears, I have to tell you, were ringing that night; some of those songs, casting back to Samson’s early days as a Winnipeg punk, still asked to be thrashed – closed out the set by unplugging himself and his guitar, climbing up onto one of the monitors, and doing a stripped-down acoustic version of “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure.” That song is the sequel to the “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute,” a song about his cat composed in response to a request, as Samson explains it, from Veda Hille. The subject-matter might at first glance seem incidental and patently lame. (A catsong? Really? Two cat songs?) But this veneer of weakness is belied not only by the cat’s Latinate moniker – derived from the motto on Winnipeg’s civic coat-of-arms– meaning “strength,” but also by both songs’ reach into a common human experience, the tenuous uncertainties around returns on our investments of affection: both lyrics ventriloquize an anthropocentric projection of meaning onto a mute and vanished animal – the cat pleads and explains. But those explanations are hardly conclusive or satisfying, and the latter song ends with the cat’s detachment from language, from meaning, and from human connection, as it struggles to recall what its unusual name might even have been: “But now I can’t remember the sound that you found for me” (Lyrics and Poems 80). The attachment to a name, to a verbal guarantor of a distinctive personhood, reduces to semiotic dehiscence, to sound and sense coming apart. But, what was amazing at the Biltmore show was that, as Samson reached the song’s close, his audience – many of whom had his words by heart and were singing along anyway – turned this line into a choral refrain; unplugged, he became for a time a kind of latter-day balladeer, singing with not just to the sum total of his listeners. Undifferentiated by the electric trappings and apparatuses of performance or broadcast, Samson became a part of his public. (Became his admirers? At last night’s event, he talked about the influence of W. H. Auden early in his life. Maybe so.) And there was nothing saccharine or maudlin, and more importantly nothing cynical, about singing for a lost cat; instead, what he managed was genuinely affective: feeling, shared. He closed out last night’s performance with the same tactic, a version of this same song delivered standing on a chair, unplugged from any amplifiers. Reaching quietly out.
Still, Samson’s songs often doubt, or at least call into question, their capacity to cross through this daunting alterity, this public divide we all seem to share. In “Pampheleteer,” he repurposes a line from Ralph Chaplin’s famous 1915 union anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” turning political call into a lament for lost love:
Sing, “Oh what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one” like me remembering the way it could have been. (37)
As tempting as it might be smart to re-appropriate Herbert Marcuse’s collision of revolution and Eros to explain the doubled trope here, I think it’s better to see the feeling represented in these lines as an unsteady amalgam of alienation and community. The inherent weakness of failed or failing desire becomes what binds us, erotically and socially becomes a name for the absence we all appear, in a kind of contingent solidarity, to feel. In this song and in “Virtute,” that strength in weakness depends on the shortfall not only of memory – of knowing for certain what might have been – but also of re-membering, of picking up the disparate pieces of a civic body in disarray: cats, friends, acquaintances, lovers . . . all the inhabitants of a particular home or place or city, whether hated or great.

          Last night’s concert included two on-stage interviews with John K. Samson by novelist Keith Maillard, the current chair of UBC’s Creative Writing program. When Maillard asked about how he composes his songs, Samson remarked on his slowness, on the agon-like struggle he goes through writing and finishing songs. He said something close to: “The process of trying to remember how to write a song is how the song gets written.” Again, it’s the sometimes effortful reconstituting of failing memory that’s key in his conception. Samson’s songs both thematize and enact the approach of expression, of saying something, to the constantly retreating and collapsing edges of language, the unsayable. Part of his humility, I think, is a recognition of a pathos of the failure of meaning at the core of the lyrical. As one of his characters, a broken-hearted dot-com entrepreneur, puts it in a one-sided overheard plea to an former lover, “So what I’m trying to say, I mean what I’m asking is, I know we haven’t talked in a while, but could you come and get me?” (77). A lyricism of the colloquial emerges in these lines through missed connections, through tentatively expressing the desire to be heard and to make contact with someone else. Community, that is, starts to consist in desire rather than realization, in the mutual recognition of our absences, as both speaker – or singer – and listener. We start to empathize across, and because of, our mutual distances. When in another lyric Samson obliquely defines his poetics, his practice of making, in terms of utility and labour (“Make this something somebody can use” [86]), the insurmountable ambiguities of everyday language convert into common weakness, into lyric public address.
           (I have left out specifically discussing the deftly crafted, mercurial imagery and evocatively kiltered phrasings that are hallmarks of his style. Most of what I’ve cited above are examples of moments of colloquial diffusion rather than of poeticism. But he’s great, trust me. Take a close look at any of his lyrics. You’ll see what I mean.)

Samson, John K. Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2012.