Inanna Scient’s fiction

The project I’m hot at work on now, Inanna Scient, I just realized is science fiction.

I loved reading the stuff in high school, and it’s great to wind down to on the TV, but did I ever think, when I embarked on a life in poetry, I’d be making an SF poetry MS?

No. I did not.

And here I am, making poems out of the buzz at the edge where digital signal meets discrete ambient noise. And imagining it the work of a machine intelligence, its mind just dawning on it – a mind I never could believe in, yet find compelling, as a thought experiment.

I.e., SF.

Here’s the prefatory note I coughed up this afternoon to the project.


PREFATORY NOTE

It’s a story told by a machine intelligence come to consciousness to ask the first question – where has its great mother gone? The materials of inquiry are what it can glean salient from the cultural middens it holds for us. Word hoards, junk mail, a mostly forgotten feminist epic. Its means of inquiry are more peculiarly its own: an etymological core sample – a nonce hieratic script – security lining bricolage. It’s an intelligence I doubt will ever exist as consciousness except in imagination – another god of our hallucination. The text too falls in three parts: an image of a dictionary attempting eponymy; the main illuminated body; my effort to transcribe the monster script that adorns that body.


The epic spoken of: The Inanna Cycle (Sumerian), a.k.a The Descent of Ishtar (Akkadian). The attempt at eponymy or self-naming: a quick deep narrow dive the book takes through the OED, plumbing its sense of the word “scient.”


And a bit of the mind of the thing, I cast it off as close, but not quite.

Text – A piece of

The transcription:

Screen Shot 2018-11-17 at 6.58.41 PM

 

 

 

 

 

An Anglo-Saxon #metoo?

On a final pass through the proofs for Unlikeness Is Us. The title mistranslates a line from a short lyric, The Wolf, spoken by a female protagonist. There aren’t many such Old English poems. Reading this one today, I was struck by how it sits in #metoo’s penumbra, though it was writ 1,000 years ago. It’s hardly news that our crises are not new. Still, the sudden feeling of historical depth caught me by surprise. Even though I’ve posted this translation before, that bit of vertigo felt meaningful enough to share, with revised commentary, and a few new thoughts appended.

The Wolf

As if one had made the people an offering.
They will receive him if he comes in violence.
        Unlikeness is us.
The wolf is on an island. I am on another.
Mine is secured and surrounded by marsh.
The men on that island are glad at war –
they’ll receive him if he comes in violence.
        Unlikeness is us.
I have borne a wolf on thought’s pathways.
Then it was rainy weather and I sat crying.
When the war-swift one took me in arms,
the joy he gave me, it was that much pain.
Wolf – my Wolf – thoughts of you
sicken me. How seldom you come
makes me anxious, not my hunger.
Listen, onlooker, to our miserable whelp
        a wolf bears to woods.
Easy to part what was never joined;
        our song together.

The Wolf

Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc° gife.
Willað hȳ hine āþecgan° gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
        Ungelīc is ūs.° ⬩
Wulf is on īege, ic on ōþerre.
Faest is þæt ēglond, fenne biworpen.                                   (5)
Sindon wælrēowe weras þǣr on īge;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
        Ungelīce is ūs.
Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum wēnum dogode°.
Þonne hit wæs rēnig weder &ic rēotugu sæt. ⬩                                   (10)
Þonne mec se beaducāfa bōgum bilegde,
wæs mē wyn tō þon, wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð. ⬩
Wulf, mīn Wulf, wēna mē þīne ⬩°
sēoce gedydon, þīne seldcymas,
murnende mōd, nales metelīste.                                   (15)
Gehȳrest þū, ēad wacer°? Uncerne earmne hwelp
        bireð° wulf° tō wuda.
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,°
        uncer° giedd geador. ⬩ :⁊

Commentary

More commonly Wulf and Eadwacer. A woman speaks. She’s pregnant and her people are hostile to the father of the child. Not much else is settled about the poem. Wulf may be a raider from another clan; is their encounter a rape, as has often been thought? Her longing for him is tortured but I don’t hear that sort of wrong in the past of it. Something more mutual then. Still, though, the poem is riven with her ambivalence; she wants him to come, wants him never to have come; and the doubleness in her thought sickens her.

That ambivalence streaks the poem with ambiguities. A refrain, Ungelīc is ūs, as odd in composition and placement as Stein’s “The difference is spreading.” A female speaker whose relation to her culture’s masculine warrior ethos is intimate but aslant and has, for us, only a few interpretive helpmates in the AS corpus – primarily Her Case, a poem as obscure in its own ways. Verbs that appear rarely or nowhere else and must be defined in a context almost as unprecedented as they are. A scribal practice that leaves names uncapitalized, making it difficult to discern person from animal from epithet. When is wulf a wolf and when is it her Wulf? And an oral tradition, contemporaneous or not long past, in which the spoken “wulf” could function without trouble as both. The scribe, following his lowercase practice, could preserve the ambiguity, but these days an editor has to choose.

Unlike most, I take ead wacer as an epithet, not a name, removing the third party usually thought involved – a jealous husband, Eadwacer, ready to avenge himself on the raider Wulf. Dramatically, that’s one extra, a late entry throwing off an otherwise finely balanced poem. Her people and her own mind, and Wulf too sort of, are opponents enough. A few other readers have also doubted this third party; Marsden suggests reading the compound as an epithet for Wulf himself, “joy guardian.” I go back and forth between “overseer” and “onlooker,” and end up choosing the latter because it hints at a break in the frame, an address to reader or auditor. That the speaker might assay such a move, moves me.

By this reading, which I admit is extravagant, ead wacer is the one who gehyreþ the spoken poem, the wacer of the written poem – you, dear lecteur, and I. It’s not that we’re her imprisoner, exactly, but consider, if we weren’t here, she wouldn’t be either. She’s hurt into a consciousness so sharp it rends the fabric that gives it voice – tears the air or page that binds her to, even as it divides her from, her only interlocutor, us. Many of the poems here perform like ruptures deliberately, either by addressing the reader directly – riddle poems that invite you to name their subject; maxim sequences demanding you speak from your heart – or by pointing in code, as the runes in His Message may, to the very surface they’re inscribed on. And why should the woman speaking here not tear the fabric her poem is made of? It may feel like her only way out.


That commentary done before the hashtag dawned. A few addenda –

Her cry against him isn’t, You violated me, or That was against my will, but more, This is the unlivable position I’m in now, thanks to you and our peoples. In directing to him a cry against more than him, she captures something about the complicity of an individual in a collective harm.

She first expresses concern for his wellbeing, only then for her own, and their unborn child’s. That her concern unfolds in that order is part of her predicament, and she and the poem both know it.

The power asymmetries between men and women in her culture mean that, while their circumstance may be fatal for both (all three) of them, he at least gets some agency. If he dies it was his choice to show up. All she gets to do is sit and grieve and await her fate.

She makes sitting, grieving, waiting, and articulating that, the work of resistance, and summons a force strong enough to rupture the frame.

The pathos of the poem then is that her resistance is at once minuscule and total.


Notes

1     lāc. “Offering” or “gift,” especially in a ritual sense. A sacrifice; in some contexts a message.

2     āþecgan. The verb appears to mean “to receive” in the sense of food, but with a suggestion of killing, destruction, consumption (Muir 571).

3     Ungelīc is ūs. Either “(it) is different (between) us” or “(it) is different (with) us.” It’s ambiguous whether the gulf has opened between the speaker and Wulf, or between those two and the speaker’s people.

9     dogode. Possibly the past tense of an otherwise unrecorded dogian, meaning something like “to suffer” or “to follow,” maybe here in imagination (Marsden 337). Some amend to hogode, past tense of hogian, “to consider, to dwell upon” (Muir 571–72). My translation draws on both senses.

13    The punctum marks the end of folio 100v.

16    ēad wacer. Most take it as a proper name. Ēad “riches, prosperity, joy, property” + wacer “watcher.” Eadwacer, a possessive spouse and enemy to Wulf. However, because the scribe doesn’t use capital letters to distinguish names, the compound can be taken as an epithet; Marsden (338) suggests “joy guardian,” for Wulf. I hear near the core of the phrase a sense of being thronged by eyes all round. Where “onlooker” downplays the possessiveness in the compound, “overseer,” also possible, would emphasize it. Note that she calls on the watcher not to see but to hear. She will rip him if she can out of his crowning sense function.

17    bireð. “Bears.” Since OE lacks a distinct future tense, this can be read either as a present event or as anticipation of what’s to come. ¶ wulf. It’s ambiguous whether she’s crying wolf here or naming her Wolf.

18    Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð | þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs. “The man easily tears apart what was never joined.” The line doesn’t alliterate. Muir: “[It] has the ring of a gnomic utterance, and may well be an Anglo-Saxon rendering of the biblical ‘Quod ergo Deus coniunxit, homo non separet’ [Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate] (Matt. 19:6), which might account for its not following an accepted alliterative pattern” (572).

19    Uncer. First-person dual genitive – “of us two.” Ours as in yours and mine.

Minor emendations. 16 earmne MS earne.

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. 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 whiteness could mine add to that, what candour? 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 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

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.

Augustine, whiteness, alienation

From an early draft of my intro to the OE translation book. On the trope of exile and how it enacts Augustine’s “region of unlikeness.” But madness in Charlottesville and moral turpitude in Washington took it over. Wanted and still want to think through how the poems, composed by white men before “whiteness” was a thing, still inform this thing we know now as “whiteness.” The poems hold some of the raw materials – patriarchal culture of violence and valour and stoicism; will to dominance; constraint of women and suppression of what’s thought feminine; default stance of fear and suspicion towards the unknown; I could go on. Add ships and maps and a thirst for wealth and stir.

Also in them I find – mindfulness and curiosity, a tolerance for ambiguity, values of restraint and moderation, a love of beauty, playfulness, the thought that much in the sense world could be animate, with its own ways of thinking-and-feeling-through.

Caught between wanting to diagnose a sickness, and celebrate an innocence.

From Unlikeness Is Us: Vagrant Inquiry

Unlikeness not aware of itself is alienation. On the other edge of the country I call mine for now a node of alienated whiteness drove through a crowd yesterday and killed someone. His idiot crew had flags on pointy sticks and torches, pointy sticks.[1] These poems may be ancestors to those supremacist pricks. They’re not on the hook for them, I insist that, but they may provide clues to them. The loneliness in the Anglo heart, the character Western restlessness later takes in it, bold and practical, industrious, venal, unscrupulous, when the age of exploration and colonization starts, and how that goes for the others met – there are clues to that in these poems. Maybe also seeds of the grotesque absurdities of Anglo-Nordic pride as it beetles from the fringes of American life pretty much as I type into the White House bedroom. But that’s later. The poems are wakeful. They take Augustine to heart, they believe in his unlikeness. They take unlikeness in, estrangement from the astonishing felt tissue of the present, their own blooming singing bodies and the shining rampant sense world about. That may be tragic error. It might be the tragic subject all these poems have in common. But they hold a wakeful engagement with their condition as it’s given them. They don’t shut down. They stay brave, eyes open, looking out, looking in. They’re at the root of one of the world’s great traditions of interiority.


[1]. “When questioned about the rationale for Trump’s evenhandedness, the White House clarified that both the protesters and the counter-protesters had resorted to violence. This is notable in that the United States was once a country that did not see Nazis and those willing to fight them as morally equivalent. Aside from that, however, there were no images of anti-fascist protesters mowing down reactionaries with their cars.” – Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker.


P.S.? I hate hate hate having that photo there. Like the smell of fresh shit in a kitchen drawer. To lessen it I’ll note that the douchebags are using for their grand display tiki torches of the sort used to repel mosquitos at family BBQs. Ride, warrior, ride. (Noted by Vinson Cunningham, also in The New Yorker.)

P.P.S.? Not that there’s anything wrong with mosquitos, shit, or a douche, in their places.

Vagrant intro, first para

First para of the introduction to Unlikeness Is Us, a draft of it. Or could be the start of a mystical diversity statement; to my odd way of thinking, anyway.


Ungelīc is ūs. Enigmatic, in the Old English, but it means something like “it’s different for us,” or maybe, “we are set apart.” To say rather “unlikeness is us” is to go after something uncanny in it – and in the poem it comes from and in all these poems – rather than the surface sense. By “uncanny” I mean something both familiar and strange, near and far, about these poems, that makes them, not scary, unsettling. Freud’s word for it was unheimlich, “unhomelike,” and he meant something intimately known, then by choice forgotten, and now it’s come back to be known again, and there’s an inner shiver. Something true of you you’ve become absent or alien to and here it is at the door. It’s how these poems meet me anyway. They’ve always been with us but have we known how to read them? Unlikeness has always been us but do we how to be it? I sit writing in a whitish corner of America, 2017, summer, no clouds and no sun either. Corner of Canada adjacent, where I grew up, is burning. America is burning too, literally,[1] allegorically,[2] morally,[3] anagogically.[4]


[1]. Reading according to the letter. Record-breaking heat this summer, again, and a terrible wildfire season, again.

[2]. Reading for the “truth hidden under a beautiful fiction” (Dante, Il Convivio).

[3]. Reading for the teaching or instruction implied.

[4]. Reading oriented toward the future, eschatology, end times. Note the vanishing of the sun without clouds or night or an eclipse to explain it. Apocalyptic.


I have ADHD. Confirmed last week. Don’t know whether to cry or be glad. A lot of things fall into place. Including why this leap and not knowing whether it’s an overshare, how to tell.[5] I guess, if you can’t spill too much on a blog, where can you.

To everyone I’ve ever talked over, interrupted, I’m sorry. God but I am.


[5]. Good example of unlikeness though whatever else it is.


Image atop is from this article here, about adoption as dissimilitude, and the love of humans and God. Have only scanned it but looks intelligent, and moving, and pertinent to the next paragraph of my intro, which isn’t ready to post yet.

But here’s the bit from Augustine:

When I first knew you, you took me up, so that I might see that there was something to see, but that I was not yet one able to see it. You beat back my feeble sight, sending down your beams most powerfully upon me, and I trembled with love and awe. I found myself to be far from you in a region of unlikeness, as though I heard your voice from on high: “I am the food of grown men. Grow, and you shall feed upon me….” I said, “Is truth nothing, because it is diffused neither through finite nor through infinite space?” From afar you cried to me, “I am who am.” I heard, as one hears in his heart; there was no further place for doubt.”

I hate his theology, as it seems to have come out to be as a whole, but love his writing, as I find it in its concrete instants. And yes I’m playing around w/ ADHD as a form, have been a good long while, apparently, it’s one of the upsides. Thanks for reading.