In an oft-quoted paragraph from his essay, "Poetry and the Politics of the Subject," published in the Socialist Review (1988), Silliman made visible what occasionally had fallen from view of the recent avant-garde--the cultural work of narrating subjectivities, whose collective stories had not yet been fully or complexly articulated in poetry (or for that matter, in any media arena):
Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history – many white male heterosexuals, for example – are apt to challenge all that is supposedly "natural" about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of the spectrum are poets who do not identity as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects. The narrative of history has led not to their self-actualization, but to their exclusion and domination. These writers and readers – women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the "marginal" – have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with the notable difference as to who is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.
It goes without saying that Silliman himself has revised the framing of this tentative space for identity poetry, and has concerned himself more with how poets have continued to work the interstitial spaces between identity and socius, between experiment and tradition, between avant and post-avant, between innovation and homage, etc. Yet, even today, I want to reassert that claim for this asserted space, however minor or residual it might be in our national poetics. How else, but to begin with a story?
Once, climbing the back staircase of the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville with my friend, the poet Michael Magee, I caught a distinct pungent aroma almost hovering in the walls that reminded me of my grandmother's kitchen; that kind of smell that makes the whole space a large deliciously uncleaned pot. I said to Mike: "This is why I can never be avant-garde: because I smell my grandmother's kitchen in the back stairwells of the Seelbach."
What I think I meant was that there is something fundamental and inescapable about my longing to reach back into and through my language toward my ancestors, and that this pull seems incommensurate with the whole orientation of the avant-garde, the advance guard of the revolution, heralding the future in the new.
I may yet change my mind, but that pull of the ancestors, that sense of myself as the ligature between the ancestors and the future, a kind of knot I have refused to cut, is what I share with other writers of recent immigrant or strongly ethnic connections.
Reading Arab on Radar (2007), by Angele Ellis, feels like talking with a recently discovered sibling I never knew I had; a common elegy for (Arabic) language and the world that it created (the Lebanon of the mind), a piquant thirst for peace and justice, living in a society that demonizes and actively wars against the peoples and lands from which our ancestors come, and a hope that language might function not only as ligature between us and where we come from, but as resource for those who work for a better world.
There are plenty of narrative poems, poems that function in just the way that Silliman posed. Having worked as an educator, community organizer and political activist in Pittsburgh since the 1980s, Ellis adds to the tradition of dissenting activist and prison narratives with poems like "The Blue State Ghazals," "Federal Building" and "Allegheny County Jail."
In "Federal Building," Ellis notes the narrowing spaces allowed for dissenting voices, and how the heaven of our democracy is increasingly difficult to pass through, in our security-obsessed State:
I enter through security as a taxpayer,
the needle's eye of citizenship. Bag on the table,
keys in a plastic container that could hold mail
and explosives. The only way in and out.
I remember with strained nostalgia
the protests of the eighties--
South Africa, Nicaragua, El Salvador,
the sit-ins at congressional offices,
the time we rode up and down the elevators
with our leaflets until the guards nabbed us
and threw us out. And that last time,
the sit-in during Desert Storm,
suspended between freedom and arrest,
swimming in ether like exotic fish
while our freinds pressed against the aquarium glass
with hopeful signs
as if we could change history, levitate the building
like Abbie Hoffman tried with the Pentagon.
Now we are lucky to stand unmolested
on the public sidewalk,
the thin edge of the wedge of democracy.
It's "April Ghazals," however, that is suggestive of Ellis' attempts to move into a fragmented form that both tells a story and resists that story at the same time. Here are the second and third sections of "The April Ghazals":
II. I have shored
She sold the ring for a wilderness.
Removed, it made a hole in the universe.
Diorama behind suffocating glass.
A small mammal among predators.
Nostrils filled with the fetor of formaldehyde.
The specimen revolted at dissection.
Human ashes scattered like seed.
Not even hope left in the box.
Hell an absence without flames.
All fire within--lye of lies, of liars.
III. against my ruins
They said she refused to follow instructions.
Words were muffled from behind their masks.
They often spoke of her duty to God.
This is why Whitman preferred to sit with animals.
They mapped her brain with colored Rohrschachs.
Mourning became electric, red and blue.
The slain can speak under enchantment.
Why were they surprised when she contradicted them?
The magician's powers are all in distraction.
Sometimes the object never reappears.
We never quite know the identity of this woman, or the catalogue of her losses. Yet it becomes emblematic of the total losses that the book explores--of languages, of stories, of the older generation, of belief in a future because of a narrated past. Ellis' debut is suffused with the right kinds of questions, engaging and often scintillating language, and in poems like "The April Ghazals," shows how the old stories might be the humus to new ones.
Great post, Philip. The struggle between what you identify as the vanished past and possible future can only be tentatively mapped onto the aesthetics of the avant-garde and traditional narrativity. That second Ellis poem stands, for me, as emblematic of this tentativeness, a stance which is not always possible or desirable...
I agree, Tyrone, that such a poem can only mark the fragmentation of such losses; yet is not all identity marked, in part at least, by fissure, incompletion, abrasion, etc.?
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