Ancestral White Interiors

First couple paragraphs of my intro to the translations I’ll be reading on Saturday at the Canadian Writers Summit.


One morning last summer, as I was trying to start the intro to my book of translations from Old English, Unlikeness Is Us—it’s a mistranslation of a line, ungelīc is ūs, meaning something like “it’s different for us,” or “we are set apart”—I found myself thinking instead about white supremacy. White nationalists had just marched in Charlottesville, VA, and forest fires to the north of me in BC had obscured the sun in thick white smoke. Just think about those names for a second. A town named for Princess Charlotte, of England. A state named for a Virgin Queen, of England. Don’t get me started on British Columbia? And that Columbia doesn’t refer to a dove, or a wildflower. Anyway, part of the white nationalist schtick is to say poems like the ones I’d translated belong to a superior Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage. And the smoke was rising from a fire that “superior heritage” had fed—five centuries of colonial and industrial rapacity. Now a beetle overwinters more widely and up go the trees. White nationalism, a sky white with smoke, my white screen. What was I going to make of that. I typed out the first lines of the song of a woman caught between dread of her lover’s return and her longing for it:

Lēodum is mīnum          swylce him mon lāc gife.
Willað hȳ hine āþecgan          gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
     Ungelīc is ūs.

As if one had made the people an offering.
They will receive him if he comes in violence.
     Unlikeness is us.

Below it I tried to explain my title:

Ungelīc is ūs. It means something like “it’s different between us,” or maybe, “we are set apart.” To write instead “unlikeness is us” is to dive under the surface after something uncanny in it. Something familiar-strange, at once near and far, in all these poems, a thing not scary quite; unnerving. Freud’s word for it was unheimlich, “unhomelike.”


Rereading it now, I’m struck by how indirect and circumspect it is. Probably an expression of my unease – how confused and ignorant I feel when I try to speak to these questions. Too, though, there’s something to be said for nonlinearity. I’m reminded of the poet Will Alexander, for whom composing not lines of argument but lightning fields –

By thinking in an inclement register, I am prone to sigils, to poetic inveiglement, to what Deleuze and Guattari would call a minor register, an experiment fueled by anti-codification. I agree with them, that poetry is the philosophy of the present age, potent in its ability to inhabit Rhizomes, to de-fuel territorial hardening. Language by not functioning as a claimed dimension, where every iota of its motion opens itself to simultaneous openings, not claimed by a sovereign or a single opening. (Towards the Primeval Lightning Field iii)

– is an act, the activity, of resistance, in form.


With me will be Stephanie Bolster, reading from her wonderful manuscript-in-progress, Long Exposure, about, among many other things, the human catastrophe in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and images of same and their consumption, and Barbara Nickel, reading brand new poems about the draining of Sumas Lake in Southwestern BC, with devastating consequences for the Stó:lō Nation.

 

“Constructions of Whiteness”

Next week I’m moderating a reading and discussion called “Constructions of Whiteness” with the brilliant and talented poets Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel at the Canadian Writers Summit in Toronto. What little I mean to say by way of introduction, follows.


Hello, and welcome to our reading and discussion, “Constructions of Whiteness.” Before we say more we should say that we are meeting on traditional indigenous territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit. Land also with a deep history of use and care by the Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat nations. We are grateful to be able to gather here.

I’m not going to say much by way of introduction. Just that we have taken as our starting point, as invitation and provocation, a passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

[R]ace is the child of racism, not the father…. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.

But for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)

He’s talking about his son’s body and his own there, and the African-American body more generally, and the American body politic, including American whiteness, and we’re here in Canada, and our national experience is different. But maybe not altogether different. We each, the three of us, Stephanie Bolster, Barbara Nickel, and myself, Christopher Patton, want to share with you projects that examine the invention of whiteness, its construction, and some of its attendant destructions, examine them in ways we hope are morally alert, if fallible.

I’ll read first, followed by Barb, then Steph, with some time for discussion after. Each reader will introduce the next one, though since I’m going first, I’ll introduce myself, even if it feels a bit weird.


Curious to hear more? If you’re attending the CWS, join us in Toronto!

Saturday, June 16
2:00–3:15
Loft 1, Harbourfront Centre

Constructions of Whiteness

A panel proposal put together by the best triangle I’ve ever been a corner to. (Side note, do you know how hard it is to persuade a room of undergrads that a three-legged stool can’t wobble? I do know now. I mean, you get it, or you don’t, how to explain it?) For next summer’s CCWWP convention (that mouthful’s the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs) in Toronto. Has a thematic focus whose statement starts like this

As we live this moment of intensifying racial and gendered violence, discourses and policies of intolerance, and environmental crises, we are also bearing witness to and participating in a broad surge of resistance, resilience and reclamation as evident in movements like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. Literature has always had a role in responding, intervening and shaping the historical and cultural present. We believe literature is a way to interrogate anew what it means to be human and living in shared humanity on this land and in this time. Literature creates opportunity for the difficult conversations between us that might address our historical present, how we are haunted and how we can proceed.

and can be read whole here. We wanted to speak to the theme without presuming to speak from anywhere other than where we were. And so this.


In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls out the people “who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” He suggests that race is a shared fiction, one that served and serves the powers that wrote it, slavers, imperialists, eugenicists, white supremacists. Our ongoing shared belief in the fiction makes it real and lethal to Black kids on American city streets, Indigenous women of Canadian cities and prairies, countless others. This panel consists of three poets who, being white, can’t help but take part in the construction of whiteness. They’ll read from works-in-progress that ask whether whiteness might also be witness – how construction might also be re- or de-construction – and then open the room to questions and discussion.

Last summer, as Christopher Patton wrote the critical introduction to his book of translations from Old English, white nationalists were marching in Charlottesville, VA, and the air in Bellingham, WA, where he lives, was white with cross-border forest-fire smoke. His thinking sharpened some about ties between those thousand-year-old poems and white supremacy and climate change. Race wasn’t a thing when the poems were composed – tribe and ethnicity, yes, foreignness yes, but not race as we live in it now. And yet what were their warrior ethos and fear of the other, their love of gold and roiling suppressed anxieties, but raw material for the later construction of whiteness? Add profit motive and oceangoing ships and stir. Can a translator put such values back out in the world without validating them? What help is it, that other values run countercurrent in the poems, self-inquiry, dialogue, empathy for the outsider?

In the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori entered hundreds of ruined homes alone, with his camera. Stephanie Bolster resisted writing about these haunting, voyeuristic images for years, before accepting that the only way out was through; her project, Long Exposure, began in the interrogative mode, with her own voyeurism-once-removed. Evolving politics intensified the questioning and made her see her witnessing as white. In the New Orleans thread of her manuscript, she writes from empathy with the (mostly poor, mostly Black) former residents of these homes, but her recognition of her own subject position means she knows others may see that empathy as trespassing – or, worse, slumming. Can good art arise from, even overcome, guilt? How to strive for aesthetic authenticity amidst this complexity? How to write while wondering what one has the right to see, to say, to feel? Yet how much worse to be silent.

Barbara Nickel witnesses daily the loss of a body of water; she lives on lake-bottom land. The former Sumas Lake in the Upper Fraser Valley of British Columbia was drained in the 1920’s to create farmland. Named “reclamation,” the drainage was an act of irrevocable violence against the land and the Stó:lo people whose lives had depended on the lake. When Barbara discovered that Mennonite settlers from the prairies were some of the first to farm the newly drained land, the tension of her own witness was increased to include the complicity of her own people. Her response is made from vestiges – poems found in historical and contemporary voices, texts and other more visible remains –sandpiper in a museum drawer. As she writes over/in/of the lake’s ghost, she questions her right to do so, asks which roles are authentically hers – inquirer, trespasser, artist, friend?


I was browsing Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, hoping for something with enough texture visible to work in that upper heaven, top of the post, and came to this. Am caught by how all context is. Context of Black Lives Matter, the image is wake-up appalling. Context of Black Mountain, it’s American mid-century innocence enterprising. Phaidon‘s text on its generation, the painter collaborating with John Cage composer:

Rauschenberg said that Cage was the only driver in Manhattan willing to collaborate on such an unusual scheme. Perhaps this is a suitably flip comment to accompany so brisk a work. When asked if the work is a little like a musical stave, the artist demurred, preferring to compare it to a Tibetan prayer scroll. Yet, Cage drove over Rauschenberg’s scroll in the very same Model A Ford that he had carried him to Black Mountain College in a few years earlier; and doesn’t this single track bring to mind a little something of Cage’s featureless score for 4’33” – the silent work that’s never quite rid of the world’s noise?

A few closeups from it:

Road music. Rowed music. Rode music.

That innocence, it’s not gone, it ne’er was.

Bruce Beasley’s Soul Parts

This weekend I had the pleasure of introducing Bruce Beasley as he read from his new book, All Soul Parts Returned, at Village Books here in Bellingham, WA, on the blue wet coast of America. I’ve learned uncountably much from Bruce over the years. Not least he exemplifies to me how to speak to folks as who you just is. He’s one of the most authentic readers I’ve ever encountered – venues! book him! – and though I don’t come anywhere near that, it’s partly thanks to him I have an inner sensor for when I’m in actual contact with, at one and the same time, my core and those I’m talking to – cuz that’s the trick of it – and when I’ve lost that spirit tripod and am on bullshit autopilot. Well here’s give or take what I said.


It is an honour and a delight to introduce Bruce Beasley, who’s going to read tonight from his book just published by BOA Editions, All Soul Parts Returned.

One thrill of Bruce’s work is how he holds a word or phrase up and turns it a little this way, a little that, to see what light glints off it. “Ordinary of the Mass.” “Torn-to-pieces-hood.” “I have taken leave of several of my senses.” Then he breaks the whole apart to see what light the pieces might have in them.

I’m going to see if I can say something about his book by doing that with his title. And so here we go. All Soul Parts Returned.

Part the first. All soul. All is soul, all spirit – very nice, very idealist. Or all is sole, S-O-L-E, all is alone – so lonely. Or maybe all is alone because all is one, that’s the etymology – “alone,” all one. (If you think I’ve left the book behind you should buy it and read it because I really haven’t.) Now what about All Souls’ Day, because that’s called to mind too, day after the day after Halloween, when the spooky bits are over, and the Saints have had their day – now is when the ordinary faithful departed are honoured and remembered.

In one poem, through the sort of linguistic shattering and regathering I’m talking about, Bruce carries a forgotten Scots couplet

The speaned lambs mene their mithers
As they wimple ower the bent

through mediations and mastications and yet somehow arrow-straight to

The speaned man
menes his mither
as he wimples
ower the bent.

“The grown man mourns his mother as he falls in folds over the field.” That’s not the only way to read the verse, of course, that turn and return. These poems multiply. Multi-ply, many folds.

Part the second. Soul parts. Well doesn’t it just. It just keeps on going off somewhere. Except, off from whom? Wait, aren’t I the one, the soul, from whom the soul would go? (That’s kind of the question of the book.) Or, the soul parts, as in splits, into parts – but how can I be fractured from myself? (That’s sort of the question of the book.) Also, sole, S-O-L-E again. Are we talking sole and uppers, and we’re in a shoe repair workshop? “All sole parts returned.” Buy this book, toll-free, 1-800-SANDALS.

Finally, parts returned. Turned then turned again, re-turned? Are the parts spun round and round? “Turn,” when a poet says it, has to mean verse, has to mean poetry. A turn is a line break, a poem is to turn and re-turn. Are our soul parts being turned round, line after line, till they’re dizzy like kids at a piñata? From “Me Meaneth”:

We could trace it if we wanted to: the dictionary’s
words line up like children in a rush,
blindfolded, to bash

a piñata. We could track
T. S. Cairncross himself,
and his lost poem, and his lambs,

the words that merge
into his last name –

Cairn, cross. This tracing has no beginning and it never ends, marking the markers, death, loss, our observances.

I might seem just to be making up some dumb shit here. But this is the sort of crazed linguistic refraction Bruce’s poetry invites you to. Language in his world is a guide who keeps on ducking behind a screen then jumping back out at you wearing a clown suit and juggling deckchairs jellyfish and metaphysics. Then, just when you’ve got used to that, it steps out wearing a mask of oblivion.

Because the work is, meanwhile, also, terrifying. Nothing escapes question here. Not language, not the self, not whether life here on earth deserves it. (That would be Schopenhauer’s contribution. That philosopher is Bruce’s Satan in the forty-day desert.)

Nothing escapes question except maybe ordinary affection. Before and through and after all the play, affection is ordinal, a compass bearing. Affection for language, affection for wife, and son, and this astonishing biosphere, and a loving appalling God who may or may not – .

It’s an affection as true as the spiritual travail it allows is at times harrowing.

The factual stuff. All Soul Parts Returned is Bruce’s eighth book of poetry, following Theophobia, also published by BOA, in 2012. Other recent books include The Corpse Flower: New and Selected Poems (University of Washington Press, 2007) and Lord Brain (University of Georgia Press, 2005). He has won three Pushcart Prizes and has seen his work anthologized in Lyric Postmodernisms, The Pushcart Book of Poetry, and other collections. His work has appeared in Yale Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, New American Writing, Field, and many many other journals.  He’s a Professor of English at Western where he teaches courses in poetry writing, slam poetry, dreamwork, and the ontology of monsters.

Bruce has been a teacher, mentor, guide and friend to me, more than half my life now. I can’t tell you what an honour it is to introduce him to you (although I did just try).

Please join me in welcoming Bruce Beasley.


The image up top is by J. B. Murray, (bio here) untitled. One of his astonishing images graces the cover of All Soul Parts. Here’s another that dovetails with my poetry workshop’s current recent pass through asemic writing –

JBM+154

To translate the translator

Third and last of the aleatory proposals is mine. Strikes me as dullest of the three. Buzz goes, buzz buzz. And with that ringing encomium – read on.


I’ll present on Overject, an exercise in total translation – trans­lation that holds every verbal and visual trace that can be caught of how a poem refracts as it passes through its translator. The project performs various manipulations on its source text, a minor mediocre didactic Old English poem, to investigate the role of the translator’s impurities and opacities in the activity of translation. While the project may not appear classically aleatory, it turns out to encounter and depend on accident at every turn.

SI 3 (89R) - text - newMost of the poems are hand-written, and contingency hangs on the inscription of each character. I set each one down fast, too fast for thought, and a second time just as fast. Then meticulously I ink in the spaces left open between the two passes. The gangly pseudo-graffiti that results is a gestural translation of the scribe’s stately calligraphy. The practice may not be aleatory, strictly speaking, for no random element from outside the poet has been introduced. But although the forms are laid down by my own hand, I experience them to appear from outside my will intention and control. I decide the process, as the aleatory poet decides to roll the dice, then submit to the results. And I take from the practice all the joy and constraint, freedom and burden, the aleatory is famed to offer.

FT 3 (89V)My work with my materials – leaves paper cellophane – also has aleatory respects. Leaves first entered the poem by accident at the corner of my eye, a dogwood in the wind out my window. I picked some and dropped them on a page and that became a thing. Their placement as masks over semantic translations is a mix of chance and design: they fall as they will, then I get to nudge them around, but a little. Meanwhile, most images, after they’re drawn and before I scan them, are put at risk, torn on all sides. What course the tear takes is not altogether up to me. Nor can I say which parts of the tear line will appear, and which will stay invisible, when I take the scrap to my scanner. Lines of scanner noise that become hills and clouds, the very lay of the land.

Questions I expect to address or at least brush on: How do aleatory practices intersect with proprioceptive elements (the embodied gesture) and objectivist concerns (the thing­liness of the poem)? Burroughs said that all writing is cutups – is there a meaningful sense in which all writing is aleatory? Does a practice count as aleatory when the random factor comes from the poet herself or himself? What sympathies exist between the drive to the aleatory and longings among our poets for the organic, the spontaneous, the irrational, the impersonal?


Yeah whatevs. To come soon, student blogs. Some are striding into readiness, a few yes are trudging, a couple have fleeted there. Links to those last, anon.

Confessions of a random researcher

Another guest post on the place of chance in poetic practice, this by Stephanie Bolster, another longtime coconspirator. And need I even say dear friend.


Being a guilt-prone perfectionist (she writes) may make for a strong work ethic, but it rarely makes for strong poetry. It’s when I give up – stare out the window, leaf through a book, check e-mail, scroll through Facebook for five minutes before starting my writing commitment – that I find the living stuff. Someone mentions a poem by George Oppen which, when Googled and read, opens up a universe and suddenly I’m writing and remembering a lake I can’t remember if I swam in with a friend to whom I haven’t spoken in years, but who will call my parents just days after I’ve written her into the poem. Or, more prosaically, a truck rattles past, laden with construction equipment destined for the new development at the end of the street, where a forest was, and the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina, about which I’ve been writing for the past few years, is a little more tangible. Coincidence is my gold star.

Disappointment, too. Knowing a little kindles the imagination more than knowing a lot. What scholars didn’t find when seeking evidence that the site of Vermeer’s “The Little Street” actually existed gave me a found poem. Although I’ve described my research methodology convincingly enough to get a research-creation grant for a trip through old zoos in Western Europe, what I found was rarely what I said I sought. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz led me to the Nocturama in the Antwerp Zoo, but wasn’t the fact that it was closed for renovations more Sebaldian than a glimpse of some eyes in darkness? In Jersey, they were an aye-aye’s eyes that met mine in the five panicked minutes when I thought I’d been locked into that nocturnal hut for the night. That zoo I went to because the writer Gerald Durrell built it humanely exists in a poem as that moment only.

When the Wikipedia article on the Chernobyl disaster’s remark – “This page may be too long to read and navigate comfortably. Please consider splitting content into sub-articles and/or condensing it.” – becomes advice for the poem about Chernobyl and Katrina and Robert Polidori’s photographs of both places I might not be writing about had an exhibition of his work not happened when and where it did, I’m on the right track.


Aside, Steph mentioned, in an email this morning, she’d got a Google alert of this Polidori photograph up for auction. And remarked, though she’s not going to bid, how “the language used to describe the painting is problematic in ways I want to write about.” Dude, check that language out. Graced. Captured. Romanticizing (unironically). Hell, in that writeup, dwell is problematic. Artworld assholes. Not, Steph, to pluck your thunder.


I’ll discuss (Steph again), with readings from recent work, how following the contingencies of live and virtual research has formed my poems. What happens when a poem’s image of a bare field and going-nowhere driveway in New Orleans – seen onscreen a year or two earlier after Googling the address of one of Polidori’s ruined rooms – gets displaced on Google Street View by a street of fresh houses? The poem as process takes on a new life, its own, not mine. Is following accident, distraction, disappointment, always the poem’s true course?


Stephanie Bolster is the author of four books of poetry, the first of which, White Stone: The Alice Poems, won the Governor General’s and the Gerald Lampert Awards in 1998. Her latest book, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 and co-editor of Penned: Zoo Poems, she was born in Vancouver and teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montréal, where she also coordinates the writing program.

Divination: Every poem a hundred small contingencies

A few days hunkered at home. Having been scissed and stitched inside am recuperant. But’ve had it in me to assemble a panel on chance operations in contemporary poetic practice. Here’s a propose and very fine, as guest post, from Barbara Nickel. (I’ll pepper in some links rhizome-style.) (Why when I say that do I think of Psy.)


I’ll present on projects from Consider the Ear, my poetry manuscript-in-progress being written in the village of Yarrow, British Columbia. My presentation will consist of a collage of mini-talks and readings, each led off with a guiding central image. I’ve listed below a series of points and paths that will circle or lead to or away from each image. I’ll select – possibly randomly (e.g., strips of paper from an envelope) – these points for each image and expand upon them at lengths to be determined by the presentation’s time limit.


Yarrow

The story of my choosing to live in Yarrow by meeting Lois in her garden.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, its stalks used for centuries in I Ching divination practices (involving numbers of changing or unchanging lines), its profuse growth along the dyke by my house and Lois’s in a village named after it.

Dykes, places of growth for yarrow, built by my Mennonite ancestors in the Vistula Delta and coincidentally also in Yarrow.


Torn page

Old books on Mennonite theology written by Mennonite men are taken from a pastor’s library after his death to a thrift shop where Lois is employed.

A random meeting of the three poets of this panel in a graduate poetry workshop at UBC in 1992, how one of them years later begins a blog, “The Art of Compost,” in which he describes a poetry exercise called “Torn Page.”

My “Torn Page (‘(old men)no books’)” project as “divinations twice over” (Patton), written in a room of Lois’s house.


Witch hazel

A witch hazel treeHamamelis, planted by the former owners, growing right outside my home in Yarrow, blooming every January.

Witch hazel twigs commonly used as divining rods (for ground water, buried metal, gemstones, oil, gravesites), the conflict in naming between the Latin Virgula Divina (divine rod) and the German Glück rüt (luck rod).

[Can I just say? About that last link? Bad form, to speak to a link? I just got me some fat insight as to where my students’ bad writing comes from. Portentous dialogue & crappy plotting.] [That was CP not Barb.]

Heaney’s description of water diviner as “figure who represents pure technique” in poetry in his essay “Feeling into Words” (Finders Keepers), mentioned in an e-mail by Stephanie, another of this panel’s three poets, also met at UBC in 1992.


A death in January

The story of “Witch Hazel” sonnet, where its path intersects above paths.


Abandoned house

A random decision on a road trip to take an old, forgotten highway instead of the usual route.

A random glance back at an abandoned house not seen previously anywhere or time.

The curious story of a sonnet, “Saskatoon to Coaldale, July, Highway,” written in Lois’s house.


Ear

The ear (in rhyme and metre and “verbal texture” (Heaney)) as divining rod in the projects chosen for discussion.


Questions that grow from the mini-talks, to be explored in the presentation:

What tension grows from the roots of “divining rod” – in Latin, “divine,” in German “luck”?

In other words, in each of the poems and the paths and intersections of paths leading up to them, what is the balance of miracle and luck, divination and design?


Next to come [CP here again] the random differently undertaken by Stephanie Bolster.


BarbNickel3Barbara Nickel is the author of two books of poetry, The Gladys Elegies and Domain, and the recently published A Boy Asked the Wind, illustrated by Gillian Newland. She has received numerous awards, including the Pat Lowther Award, and her poems have appeared in such publications as The Walrus and Poetry Ireland Review. Visit her website at barbaranickel.ca. Also check out that witch hazel.