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.

Augustine, whiteness, alienation

From the 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 got in there. Am wanting 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.

But also in them I find – mindfulness and curiosity, a tolerance for ambiguity, values of restraint and moderation, a love of beauty, playfulness, and 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 Introduction”

Exile in these poems is the felt reality of unlikeness. Unlikeness aware of itself, studying itself, in conversation with itself, maybe working to transmute itself, or to accept itself, or maybe mired in itself in alert despair. But keenly aware of itself. 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 and their own blooming singing rampant bodies, and 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. So, exile, estrangement, but not alienation – they don’t shut down, they stay brave, eyes open, looking out, looking in. They are 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.