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” (9). 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.

 

“Poets Mistake Non-Poet for Fish in Barrel, Open Fire.”

Here is a bad bit of light verse published in this morning’s New York Times:

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 11.16.08 AM

Here is the Facebook pile-on by poets, some nationally renowned, that ensued. We rose up to defend the shade of John Ashbery and the immortal values of poetry:

FB pile-on

It goes on much longer. An umbrage orgy. Here’s why it’s embarrassing for us and for poetry:

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 10.35.22 AM

It was the NYT opening its pages to an ordinary reader. A non-specialist.

No one (including, at first, me) thought to check – everyone just leapt at the chance to pummel this light verster into submission to our post-modernity. It’s high-minded bullying. How are poets going to be critics of the culture if we succumb this easily to its ugliest temptations?


P.S. And here, of course, am I, doing meta-umbrage, its own temptation.

 

America again

And now our government has made the abandonment of children an instrument of policy and a means of gaining political leverage. As if those children had not already had more bravery asked of them than most of our leaders have ever shown.

Exhibit A: toddlers in wire cages with no idea where their mothers or fathers are.

Exhibit B: bone spurs.

On and off all day today, listening to the radio as I weeded the patio, made some lunch, napped through a migraine, tears of anger and grief for these kids, also for the men and women they’ll become. They’ll carry the injuries, many of them in silence probably, all their lives.

I don’t get to say “not my president.” I’ve never thought I do, I belong to the body that elected him and am part of this unconscionable mess, I’m implicated, we all are.

I’m appalled to be an American. “Make America Great Again.” You assholes.

I made a bumper sticker – see top of post. In Bellingham, where I live, it’s how you change the world. Want one? Contact me (leave a comment, or through FB) and I’ll send you one. It’s on me.

“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

Repeal the Second Amendment

I am a kombucha-swilling poet smoking his weed as he listens to Fleetwood Mac on Spotify. So you might not take me serious on this point. You might not take the kids serious though you sure as shit should. Maybe you will take a retired Supreme Court Justice serious though when he says

REPEAL THE SECOND AMENDMENT

Questions? Refer them to the dead.

And yeah, so it’s undoable. Start now, wait till doable catches up, if it takes 50 years, 100, all the more reason to have gotten started today.

Take the guns

So the answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, they say.

The more bad guys with guns, the more we need good guys with guns, and the more guns we need. Sounds like a child-slaughtering racket to me.

Just take the guns away already. All of them. The cost would be small. What we save would be so much. And “common sense” would cease to be the obscenity it’s become in the mealy mouths of politicians when they speak of gun control.

Till then. Have the gunsmiths and bulletmakers apologize in person, on their knees, to the mothers and fathers of every child their handiwork kills. I’m as starry-headed an optimist as I am appalled to contemplate this latest, has it become routine yet, schoolyard mass murder, and have to think the weaponmakers would not, if they knew with their own eyes and ears what what they made had done, would still make the things that they do make.

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.