Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness.
Fifty years ago the poet Muriel Rukeyser knew something about this, and rejected both despair and apathy. One of her poems begins, "I lived in the first century of world wars./ Most mornings I would be more or less insane." The poem goes on to say how the poet, along with similarly crazed friends, making her poems "for others unseen and unborn,"
would try to imagine them, try to find each other
to construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
ourselves with ourselves
After a stanza pause, the poem concludes simply, "I lived in the first
century of those wars." Almost a self-obituary (like Yeats's "Say that my glory was I had such friends"), this is Rukeyser's way of explaining that the struggle with the world and the struggle with the self are inextricably one. It is a way of saying that the struggle can be neither won nor abandoned. Similarly, Bertold Brecht, in his famous "To Those Born Later," writes not only "To sleep I lay down among the murderers," but also "Our forces were slight./ Our goal/ Lay far in the distance./ It was clearly visible, though I myself/ Was unlikely to reach it." Pablo Neruda, in "Letter to Miguel Otero Silva," writes
That is why you write your songs, so that
someday the disgraced and wounded America
can let its butterflies tremble and collect its emeralds
without the terrifying blood of beatings, coagulated
on the hands of the executioners and the businessmen.
In the Talmudic Ethics of the Fathers, a line I cherish declares: "It is not incumbent on you to finish the task. Neither are you free to give it up."
Our condition, then, is not new. But for each time and place there may be appropriately new forms of response to the illness whose two feverish sides are private life and public sphere. In its own time, confessional poetry was such a response. Although Lowell and Berryman, Plath and Sexton have been misread as merely personal, merely self-indulgent, merely sick, what these poets in fact sing, orate or shriek is the individual and society with choke-holds on each other. One might write an essay on the poets of the fifties as seismographs registering the twin impacts of holocaust and atom bomb in the Cold War atmosphere of "containment" in which the American spirit was forcibly, as Lowell says, "tranquillized." Alcoholism, mental illness, an epidemic of suicide among his friends prompted John Berryman to growl, in one of his Dream Songs, "I'm cross with God who has wrecked this generation." Yet, as Lowell sadly proposes, "why not say what happened?" Has anyone ever remarked that the self-destructiveness of a g eneration of poets might not be pure coincidence of private malaise, but a consequence of porousness to the disasters of history?
Let us say that as poets we want--some portion of us wants, needs--to resist surrender to what "Auschwitz" metonymically represents and, with luck, to imagine alternatives. We understand that silence is surrender. Art destroys silence, as Shostokovich says in his memoir, Testimony, commenting on the publication of Yevtushenko's poem "Babi Yar," lamenting the massacre of the Jews of Kiev during World War II and its subsequent cover-up. But how is resistance to be poetically organized? Obviously not by a poetics purely of the self. The poem must include history. It. must contain the news. But a poetics that denies self is also useless; for without a consciousness that desires, suffers and chooses, there is no ethical or political model for the reader.
At root, the issue is a formal [one.sup.*]. "In a bad time," Wallace Stevens remarks of the beggar, "It is not a question of captious repartee./ What has he that becomes his heart's strong core?" The beggar, he answers, "has his poverty and nothing more." But it behooves Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, to avoid the sordidness of bare boards and an unlit theater. "Speak loftier lines," he advises her. "Make sure/ The audience beholds you, not your gown." Language poetry, notwithstanding the political posturing of its advocates, seems to me politically vacuous not only because of its captious repartee, and its systematic abandonment of the lyric "I," but because it denies that the morally responsible human subject is even theoretically possible. As to the other most conspicuous movement in contemporary poetry, neo-formalism, what makes so much (though not all) of this poetry morally expendable is a failure to reckon in formal terms with the historical cataclysms that surround and batter us.
In this essay I want to look at three instances of what I tentatively call the poetics of postmodern witness: Adrienne Rich's "Atlas of a Difficult World," Carolyn Forche's Angel of History, and Sharon Doubiago's South America mi Hija. These are ambitiously long poems or sequences of poems, global in reach, formally experimental, each quite different from the others, but sharing certain common assumptions. Postmodern witness as I see it in these poets is a marriage of opposites. It employs the fragmented structures and polyglot associations originating in Eliot's Waste Land, Pound's Cantos and Williams's Paterson, those epitomes of high modernism. Like them too, it reaches toward the objectively encyclopedic. Like them, it rejects master narratives. It refuses to pretend to coherence. But where high modernism rejects the autobiographical "I," these poets retain it. Or should I say regain it? Eliot's "extinction of personality," Pound's "persona," Williams's "Dr. Paterson" seem oddly evasive in comparison. (W hen, exactly, did poets decide to deny being actual people? When did the tyranny of the impersonal "persona" begin? Certainly not in the time of John Donne and George Herbert, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth and John Keats; or that of Theocritus and Sappho, for that matter.) In the poetry I am looking at here, it is crucial that the poet is present and located in the poem. The poet is not simply a phantom manipulator of words but a confused actual person, caught in a world of catastrophe that the poem must somehow both mirror and transcend.
Probably the best known work in this mode is the title poem of Adrienne Rich's Atlas of the Difficult World (1991). An atlas is both a book of maps. and the name of the mythic Titan. who carries the world on his shoulders. Both senses apply. Rich for nearly half a century has charted America's mental and emotional landscapes in poetry and essays distinguished by tough intelligence, urgent feeling, vivid imagery, a language as tensile as the rigging of ships. She has also been a voice of conscience and conscientiousness:
I have to cast my lot with those
Who age after age, perversely,
With no extraordinary, power,
reconstitute the world.
In the essay "When We Dead Awaken," describing the formalism and restraint of her early writing as "asbestos gloves" Rich went on to say that "In the late fifties, I was able to write, for the first time, directly about experiencing myself as a woman--until then I had tried very hard not to identify myself as female poet." A generation of women poets knew precisely what that meant; the knowledge has revolutionized American poetry; and Rich has broken new ground with each new book. What does it mean, she is constantly asking -- what can it mean to be a woman, a thinking woman, a feminist, a political activist, to be a lesbian, a Jew, a North American, a white person, an inhabitant of a poisoned planet? What does it mean to be a dreamer, a poet? What can we do with our rage, our despair, our love--those "necessities of life?" How are all these realities connected? What are the costs of the lives we choose, what are the risks, the possibilities? What histories lie behind us, what difference can we make to the fu ture?
Always rooted in land-and history, Rich's center of gravity moved a decade and a half ago from New England to the West Coast. The long title poem of Atlas of a Difficult World (1991) includes some signature landscape poetry:
Within two miles of the Pacific rounding
this long bay, sheening the light for miles
inland, floating its fog through redwood rifts
strawberry and artichoke fields....
--this is where I live now.
But the American landscape now also means "the desert where missiles are planted like corms ... the breadbasket of foreclosed farms ... the suburbs of acquiescence." Structurally the poem is a thirteen-part sequence of troubled, fragmentary meditations and memories. The opening section evokes migrant workers poisoned by Malathion juxtaposed with a woman eating those strawberries in a clean kitchen, and anonymous voices "--a woman's voice, a man's voice," perhaps those of the poet's students, the "voice of the freeway" servicing agribusiness, interrupted in turn by the poet's meditation on individual violence: "I don't want to hear how he beat her after the earthquake,/ tore up her writing, threw the kerosene/ lantern into her face waiting/like an unbearable mirror of his own." Not wanting to hear is what we all may feel, and that is part of the poet's point. But the poet makes us, as well as herself, listen. Another section quotes the Black Panther George Jackson's Letters from Soledad Prison. Yet another ad dresses the Gulf War. For those of us (I count myself) thrown into despair by our country's deeds, by flags blossoming on our neighbors' lawns, by media celebrations of the technological fix provided by Patriot missiles, Rich broods:
A patriot is not a weapon. A patriot is one who
wrestles for the soul of her country
as she wrestles for her own being, for the soul
of his country
(gazing through the great circle of Window
Rock into the sheen of the Viet Nam Wall)
as he wrestles for his own being. A patriot is a
citizen trying to wake
from the burnt-out dream of innocence, the
of the white general and the Black general
posed in their camouflage.
Part of what divides Rich's work from the poetry of propaganda with which it is sometimes confused is her insistence on a personal wrestling, which can never ultimately stand in righteously complacent judgment of others. When she writes that "every flag that flies today is a cry of pain," I am forced to recall not only, that Americans are confident killers, but that the killers are themselves in pain-isn't that what the "camouflage" of high-tech control always conceals?
Another part of Rich's strength as a poet in "Atlas" is the unobtrusive way she gathers allusions. A list of battle sites--"Wounded Knee, Los Alamos, Selma, the last airlift from Saigon"-leads to "states without a cause" echoing "rebel without a cause." "Pilgrim ants pouring out from the bronze eyes, ears, nostrils/the mouth of Liberty," are also the, Puritan founders of New England. Chinese immigrants writing poems on the walls of Angel Island, the Pacific Rim equivalent of Ellis Island, are paired with the influence of African design on Alabama quilts. The connection Rich makes between the disasters of war and the natural disasters of earthquake and freezing comes to us all the way from the Bible and The Golden Bough, and "wrestling" is what Jacob does with the angel in the Book of Genesis. Notice too the inclusiveness: "all women ... all men" are Rich's audience and subject.
The penultimate section of Atlas is a love poem to Rich's partner. The close is another litany:
I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a gray day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains' enormous spaces around
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for
you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on
I know you are reading this poem as you pace
beside the stove
warming milk, a drying child on your shoulder,
a book in your hand.
because life is short and you too are thirsty....
I know you are reading this poem listening for
something, torn between bitterness and
turning back once again to the task you cannot
When I last taught Atlas of the Difficult World in my course on poetry by women at Rutgers University, one of my favorite students raised his hand at the close of a class hour to say that he had been mistaken about Rich. Until now he had thought she was "a lesbian separatist," but now he was astonished and moved at her inclusiveness and generosity. I consider this an important response, because it registers both the student's discomfort with an identity politics that divides instead of joining one community with another, and his sense of how engaged the poet personally is in trying to imagine a society of coalition. Hers, too, is the task that cannot be refused.
One way of describing the poetics of postmodern witness is to say that it combines modernist strategies with the poetry of witness. This latter phrase, originally associated with the Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, is the subtitle of Carolyn Forche's anthology Against Forgetting, a collection of work by some 140 twentieth-century poets of "extremity"-poets of five continents who personally testify to our century's horrors, from Armenian genocide to Tienanmen Square. Forche's own second volume The Country Between Us was testimony to civil war in El Salvador; with a few exceptions, its poems were in a conventional "first-person free-verse lyric-narrative" form which Forche has now abandoned. The Angel of History (1994) is another matter. The book takes its title from Walter Benjamin's memorable image:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
Both in content and structure, Forche's poems attempt to represent both "the pile of debris" that is twentieth-century history and the helpless yet indestructible impulse "to make whole what has been smashed." A barely-sketched, always elliptic "I" in one fractured section after another records scraps of her own and others' memories of war, genocide, the disappeared in Salvador, the destruction of Hiroshima, the Chernobyl disaster. The voice dips at times into French or Czech, at times quotes bits of V or Heiddegger or Lanzmann's Shoah, at times begins to record a scene which is then violently blown away. So at one moment the poet's paternal grandmother Anna, whom the poet seems to be visiting in Prague, is stirring a trash fire from which
sparks rise in the night along with pages of
ash from the week's papers.
one peeling away from the rest,
an ashen page framed in brilliance.
For a moment, the words are visible, even
though fire has destroyed them, so
transparent has the page become.
The sparks from this fire hiss out among the
stars and in thirty years appear as tracer
They didn't want you to know the past. They were
hoping in this way you could escape it.
Is the italicized line the grandmother's statement, the granddaughter's private thought? We have no way to know. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe a wind blown from Chernobyl "brought us blue roses ... something was wrong with the milk." Elsewhere again, the poet remarks,
If a city, ruin, if an animal, hunger,
If a grave, anonymous.
If a century, this.
Forche calls the book "a gathering of utterances ... polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration." It is also a book of formal delicacy, precision of phrasing, and recurrent reminders of what language can and cannot do. In the opening section, which takes place in a Paris hospital where the author has just given birth to her first child, we meet a Jewish survivor of Vichy France, "tiny Ellie, at the edge of her bed, peeling her skin from her arm as if it were an opera glove." Hidden during the war, "Winter took one of her sons, and her own attempt to silence him, the other." The world is worse now than it was then, Ellie tells the author. "But when asked in what sense the world was worse, she answered, pardon, est-ce que je vous derange?" It becomes a refrain, which of course is also addressed to the reader. "Bonsoir, je m'appelle Ellie. Est-ce que je vous derange?" Am I disturbing you? Late in the book we walk through a Japanese garden with another woman, a survivor of Hiros hima:
I don't like this particular red flower because
it reminds me of a woman's brain crushed under a roof.
perhaps my language is too precise, and
therefore difficult to understand?
Not difficult to understand, but difficult to bear--and the fragmentary quality of Forche's writing registers the way consciousness cracks under the weight.
Least well-known of the books I am looking at is Sharon Doubiago's South America Mi Hija, originally published by Calyx in 1989, and reissued by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1992. Doubiago, a West Coast writer of poetry, fiction, and memoir, has taken the entire range of the Americas as her scene. South America mi Hija is an extraordinary account in verse of the poet's journey with her fifteen-year-old daughter, from California down through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, to Macchu Picchu, the great city of the Inca--by public bus.
From the start the theme is violence. "Descent: La Violencia" is the title of the opening section:
Out the window, Colombia, out the window
the road beneath the window, the mountain
Out the window men on white donkeys, women
in a crooked door.
Inside the window, back of the bus
I carry our daughter down the cordilleras, the
Out the window armed farmers
carry marijuana to market.
Out the window Bogota, city of thieves.
Out the window, the guns, the revolutionaries,
the lust of the police. Inside the window
the civil war, you must take turns, it is
the sleep. Everyone has had someone
Out the window the bus descends the
We fly faster than last night's news warning of
travel, we fly
over deep green valleys, mist-filled.
He sees around blind curves, he takes us over
flowering rock walls, landslides, a five-year-old
building an adobe brick house.
We fly past women washing clothes on a rock,
above the clouds, above the road, how many
days and nights ...
over the fog, over the coffee plants, over the
jungle, the swollen rivers,
the cows and grasses streaming down the
mountain side, the dark sky
of the East, over the grass huts perched on the
these people who never traverse
to the outside. If we go slow,
it is explained,
the bandits will stop us.
I quote much of the poem's opening page here, to give a sense of its amplitude and tempo, and the way sensuous detail grounds the political. As the journey proceeds, views of the beauty and poverty, squalor, cruelty and mystery "out the window" alternate with "inside" meditations on mother-daughter, mother-son, male-female love and betrayal--biological, psychic, mythic. Sexually threatening episodes recur: a near-rape by border guards, the ubiquity of Penthouse and Hustler pinups, machismo hassling of mother and daughter as fair game gringas. In a park, a man with a small daughter in his lap exposes himself to the poet and her daughter. Young thugs in Lima snatch a suitcase at high noon. There are also moments of comedy and joy, as when the daughter successfully bargains with a moneychanger, or, as they mount the three thousand steps to the ruins of Macchu Picchu:
we climb, Madre de piedra, espuma de los
above the clouds
that splash below us like the sea
"Oh Mom!" she shouts back, "I want
to always travel!"
Several kinds of volatile combinations crosscut the narrative line. Doubiago intersects revisionist versions of Egyptian, Hindu, Christian and classic myths, in particular the Demeter-Persephone-Hades story, with personal, colonial and contemporary history. The sacrifice of female virgins at Macchu Picchu fuses with the conquest of Inca culture by the Spanish, of Spanish Peru by American capitalism, and of the earth itself by human rapine, and there are dream-links to the poet's own complicity in a history of conquest and betrayal by lovers and husbands, attempting to comprehend "why love/ has always failed ... I was the woman/ behind his wars.... Women go blank/ in their wild desperation/ for Amor ... I was pregnant with the world like a blank/ Blanks the impotent make/ in their munitions factories." Fear and muteness are recurrent themes: "My mother couldn't speak I can't." At the same time, linguistically, the book's demotic English opens itself increasingly to Spanish, then Quecha; tonally it shifts betw een the meditative and the oracular, in a medley that is at once quest, lament, and prophecy.
As the urge to the Lord is sexual
As the Beloved is the land
As ecstasy is identical with all existence
as the Muse is a woman in orgasm
As death is Love's accomplishment
As the child is born from the child
As my daughter is my mother
As with Rich and Forche, quotes and allusions lace the poem--Neruda (constantly) and Vallejo, Whitman, H.D., and Duncan, historians and mythographers, feminist visionaries like Susan Griffin, Nor Hall, and Dorothy Dinerstein, whose conviction that "the male-female conspiracy to keep history mad has become impossible to sustain" is a recurrent and agonizing motif throughout South America Mi Hija. Passionately intellectual, Doubiago insists on grounding thought in body. "I touch the stone and know" is the anaphoric refrain of the book's closing meditation. What I fear for Doubiago is the condescension of a fashion-ridden critical poetic establishment that will be inclined to dismiss her conjunction of spirituality, politics and psychic quest as a poetics rooted in the idealism of the 1960's, not sufficiently up-to-date--as if one measured poetic excellence by degree of chic disaffection rather than by beauty and power.
Doubiago herself, in a lucid and forceful essay in American Poetry Review in 1982, on Forche's The Country Between Us and the state of mainstream American poetry and criticism, quotes Meridel Le Sueur's remark that the critic is the Puritan in North America, adding "and that is why ... unlike in any other country, the critic here is more powerful than the artist." It is disheartening to realize, nearly twenty years later, that this is still the case, and that what passes as avant-garde criticism today is even more puritanical than what comes out of the academic mainstream. In my own view, South America Mi Hija possesses an originality (in two senses: uniqueness in theme and form, and obsessiveness about tracking origins) that may out-last more ostensibly sophisticated writing. Besides which, I find it beautiful and powerful.
There are, of course, precedents and sources for the kind of poetry I am describing here. H.D.'s "The Walls Do Not Fall," Rukeyser's own "The Book of the Dead" (quoted by Rich in "Atlas") and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and "Wichita Vortex Sutra" are among them. Whitman stands behind all such work, both as walker in the city and as wound-dresser during the War between the States. There are also numerous contemporary poets who are cousins, kin, to these. I think for example of Susan Howe, of Suzanne Gardinier, of Rachel DuPlessis in Drafts, though in these poets the sense of a cerebral or ideological distance mitigates the sense of vulnerable personal engagement I feel in Rich, Forche, and Doubiago. On the lyric side, I think of how Jerry Stern's rambunctious voice feels like a stave beating and beating away at a world-sorrow that keeps lapping at his toes, or how Cyrus Cassells's visionary compassion forms itself into a limpid mirror of particular people who have suffered and died in this century in Catalonia, A uschwitz, Argentina, Russia, Little Rock; or of AIDS or mere poverty. Close by, in their serried ranks, stand poets like Olga Broumas in mourning and ecstasy, Jorie Graham anatomizing self and history, Marilyn Krysl bathing dying women in Mother Teresa's hospice, helplessly receptive Adrian Oktenberg in The Bosnia Elegies:
The messages continue to come in daily,
desperate messages messages of all kinds
the second-to second pulses of lives flickering
the messages come in come in
come in come in come in
Doubtless I might add more names and titles to this list; my readers might add more as well. My intention is not to canonize but to sketch a moment, a gesture. What the three volumes I have glanced at in this essay have in common is not merely the act of witness. Formally, stylistically, what they represent is a crisis that is at once global and intimate: the simultaneous impossibility of objective witness and of subjective wholeness. It is like a poetic version of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Nobody and nothing stands outside history in these books. The poet's self is a palpable desiring and suffering presence, yet there is no possibility of a self free of the disasters it confronts. In all these books, imagery of the pathos and vulnerability of the physical body becomes, as it were, metonym for the nightmare of history. The books' patchwork quality is in part structural correlative of this vulnerability, in part serves several other significant functions. In Rich and Forche it is almost a parody of the way we learn "the news" from the flickering tube or the advertisement studded paper, in Forche and Doubiago it captures the inadequacy of travel as a source of knowledge or wisdom. It stands for the little we can comprehend, the silence we must honor, the frustration of our powerlessness. Their incompleteness means as well that you will not be able to read any of these books with ease; you will not be able to read them at all without entering into them. struggling to untangle their meanings, to fill in what they have omitted: you will be torn, as they are, "between bitterness and hope."
These booklength works wrestle, it seems to me, for the soul of epic poetry. Individually and collectively they are up against the weight of a tradition which begins with Homer (and the Book of Joshua) and extends to Rambo X, in which war is glorified and warriors are heroes; we must recognize that "great" poetry, "great" literature, that literature which defines a society and a nation to itself, has throughout the centuries affirmed war, affirmed violence and sacrifice. Is there another path to poetic "greatness"?. Can poetry convey the betrayals of the body within the violence of human history without either endorsement or surrender? Is there a poetry in which the body language teaches not only resistance but transformation? In which the "I" exists as a kind of bridge between hopelessness and renewed desire? Doubiago, in her essay on Forche writes, "The tone is of great sorrow, of world weariness, but not of the resignation so typical of her contemporaries." The description applies as well to her own writi ng and that of Adrienne Rich. These works of postmodern witness begin, I believe, to construct such a poetry, such a poetics.
*This essay is intended as a footnote to the title essay of my recent Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics and the Erotic, in which-I discussed three sorts of formal strategy in women's political poetry since the 1960's: the exoskeletal style, Black English, and the use of the semiotic register of language in poetry of communal ritual. This essay appears in After Confession: The Poet as Autobiographer, edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in fall 2001.
ALICIA OSTRIKER'S most recent book of poems, The Little Space: New and Selected Poems, was a National Book Award finalist in 1998.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2001|
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