T.C. MARSHALL Reviews
Poems to Work On: The Collected Poems of Jim Dine. Edited with Foreword by Vincent Katz
(New York: Cuneiform Press, 2015)
Woodrat Flat by Albert Saijo
(Kaneohe, HI: Tinfish, 2015)
Guantanamo by Frank Smith. Translated by Vanessa Place
(Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2014)
“Three Angles on View”: A Combined Review
The idea of reviewing these three books together rose out of my first look into them, when I saw the radically different angles on poetry that they embody and what they have in common. I had chosen them from Galatea’s “purse,” http://grarchives.blogspot.com as Eileen Tabios calls it, based on interest in the three writers. One, Albert Saijo, was a naturalist and a companion to a few of the famous Beat poets. He was also the brother of an admired acquaintance of mine, Gompers Saijo, who painted the wildflower poster that most of us used back in the day for learning to recognize and name California’s botanical highlights. I was pleased to see new poems from this sentimental old favorite poet and anxious to see how the concerns of the naturalist fit with the attentions of the poet.. Another was a great NY painter, Jim Dine, whose “Hearts” adorns a poster on my covered back porch. He is another sort of sentimental favorite, but his sensibility is from that other coast and from that other world called “painting.” I wanted to see if I could discern a clear relation between his acts of painting and his poetry. The third was an un-sentimental un-favorite that I had only recently first encountered because of the furor over her work that re-inscribed Gone with the Wind as a series of tweets. Vanessa Place’s name is there only as translator for this book by Frank Smith, who is said to be “a French journalist, nonfiction writer, and author of multiple books of poetry,” but it was her name and concerns that drew me. As the press release says, “translated into English by Vanessa Place, Guantanamo unsettles the categories of law and poetry, innocence and guilt, translation and interpretation.” It is her “Translation and interpretation” intermixed as something like “trans-terpretation” that engages me with this book because of her efforts in this realm of “conceptual poetry” and the meanings that they have taken on for progressive poets and readers of poetry. I wanted to see what she was putting forward for us, whether the concept was all there might be to “get” from the original “trans-terpretation” by Smith of interrogations of prisoners. It is these admixtures that engage my attention in all three books: the lyricism and naturalist leanings of Saijo’s late work, the poetry and painterly sensibility in Dine’s Poems to Work On, and the unsettling of categories pushed into each other by Frank Smith and emphasized by Place.
“Appropriating language from the interrogation minutes, Smith shapes these questions and answers into a literary world as faceless and recursive as the interrogations themselves, leading us away from the comfort of reason and the hope of resolution,” says that press release that Les Figues inserted into my copy of Guantanamo. What is especially interesting about this is how it speaks to the other two books as well. We are asked to recognize this shaping as poetic. In Smith & Place’s text it might be purposely questionable to call it poetry, and this helps in questioning the relations in the other books between natural science and poetry or a painterly eye and poetry. These two last combos have become naturalized for us as poetry readers and writers. Even Smith chooses as his opening epigraph William Carlos Williams’ “no ideas but in things.” This is the sign under which our poetry mostly gets written and read, the catalogue of the seen. If we step back and ask each of these books about what it sees and shows us, we may see that the three are not as different as all that because they all use a mixture of angles to make their meaning.
Start with Saijo’s book. With his Beat friends and all that has come out of their impetus over the last half century, Albert Saijo appears to just be making poems here. Great claims are made in Jerry Martien’s intro about “a post-apocalyptic wisecracking prophet, speaking the language of the human future,” but that also is the to-be-expected of poetry these days and right in line with that Beat heritage. What’s actually in the book is more than that. Martien has it when he points out that “what further connects, and makes each entry [in the daybook middle section] more than a brilliant or quirky perception, is the autobiographical poem that weaves through the journal.” This sense of the sensibility of the poet is a primary characteristic of our dominant poetry aesthetic: poets tell their own story and we benefit from their perceptions. What’s tricky about that here is the way Saijo is more than one of those poets. As Martien puts it, this is a “poet and outlaw gardener, the lover and husband and dissident, the guy who calls himself Nature Boy and regards his doomed nation and his place in the animal world with equal curiosity and amusement” (17). All this creates an admixture of detachment and engagement, the double bind of our world and its aesthetics. Often in this book, I get the feeling that that is what Saijo is really writing about.
Much of the book deals with outlaw growing back in the day, and it expresses opinions about the law’s various approaches to stopping people, but it also hangs loose and speaks science and sharp-eyed observation of what nature tells us. The “doomed nation” of policing is recorded just as the growth of plants is. “Smart Plant” is one such nature observation, but in the company of poems like “Toward a Legend for Our Time and Place” it takes on socio-political meaning. That one makes observations about C.A.M.P. and ends with
UNDER THIS FOREIGN DYNASTY IT’S DEFINITELY HARDER TO GROW BUT WE WILL SURVIVE AS WE SURVIVED THE PREVIOUS LOCAL DYNASTY—SO HUM IS PROBABLY THE WORST PLACE IN THE STATE TO GROW NOW BUT YOU PLAY THE CARD LIFE DEALT YOU—NOW IT IS A GAME OF WIT & CUNNING AGAINST AIRBORNE FOREIGN DYNASTY DRONE—THE YEAR SNOW FELL ON THE COAST AND STAYED AND FROZE (127).
That last bit is the “Nature Boy” staying present to the world even through his more engaged thoughts.
To be the “Nature Boy” that first comes to mind in the late twentieth century, through the voice of Nat King Cole, is to be a wise wanderer who knows that the greatest power in the world is love. This seems true to Albert Saijo’s life and vision. In “Long Gone,” near the end of the book, Saijo writes of an attempt to “sue the govt for nonlegal status.” Harassed for his efforts to grow “a plant that teaches you what freedom means,” he chooses to disappear instead. At the end, he says
NOW I’M NONLEGAL—LIKE LIFE—I’M NATURE BOY BUT I’M SURE GLAD I KNOW THE LANGUAGE AND CULTURE HERE (129).
Cole’s song has some resonance here because the models for its writer came out of a 1940s Hollywood raw-and-health-food cult seeking “lebensreform” through the tenets and practice of the “wandervogel” movement, a hippie-ism of late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe.
Saijo’s model in this book reaches back a little further, as it seems to be Thoreau’s journals, which he brings into focus a few times in the book, three times on page 86:
THOREAU OF JOURNALS IS THE FUTURE AMERICAN
THOREAU DIDN’T HARM ANYONE HE DIDN’T BENEFIT ANYONE—ALL HE WANTED WAS TO BE ABLE TO STEP OUT HIS DOOR & RECOGNIZE EVERY FACE THAT GREETED HIM FROM NATURE
THE SUN CLIMBS TO THE ZENITH DAILY OVER ALL LITERATURE AND SCIENCE
This stance sets Saijo just a little apart from the Romantic vision of union with nature or the Beat critique of our “doomed nation.” He mixes both these elements to hold himself outside the law and the common culture, loose from both the critical “comfort of reason” and the transcendental “hope of resolution.” Woodrat Flat is an exercise in maintaining this balancing act without a leg to stand on.
Jim Dine’s poems balance on the gap between seeing and saying or hearing and seeing. They are not as imagistic as you might think a painter’s poems would be, though many of them had their original setting among his painted or collaged or photographic images. Vincent Katz’ foreword tells us the history of Dine’s progress as a writer and how there was an early period, a hiatus of two decades, and a later period that continues now in his eighties.” Both Dine’s early and later poems play with the language of common speech, glorying in it and confuting it by odd word choices and difficult syntax,” writes Katz (20). These gestures, rather than cancelling each other out, enhance the poetic sense of free play combined with focused effort. In Katz’ estimation, the later poems “leave more out” and depend more on the arrangement of letters on the page. Some of these poems are written by hand but often on large sheets of paper pinned to the wall of his studio. Katz reports that Dine “says he can really see the poems that way.” This palpable quality demonstrates that “the words are visual objects” for him (21).
The book’s pleasant design, by Kyle Schlesinger working with Dine, makes this clear for us in examples from the graphic works where some of the poems originally appeared. One such piece is reproduced facing page 21 in the foreword, and the poem in it appears alone on page 173. The latter version, with the words set in type, is visibly different from the graphic “chromogenic print” version. The generous presentation of that version unfortunately creates the feeling that many of the other poems would have been more interesting in their more painterly presentation. The reproduction of the print shows that each letter is painted onto the wall with attention to its shape and its relation to the other shapes around it. We also see, by comparing the typed version, that several words of the poem are “erased” in the painted version; they are obscured by being lightly painted over or brushed in a much lighter way. Dine himself notes at the end of the book that erasure is an “important tool” in both his poems and drawings (un-numbered last page). This pair of pages works well to show us the use of erasure and other graphic tools in these poems, but most of the poems do not enjoy such a pairing.
Dine’s words are engaging, fun, sometimes mystifying, and always delightful in small ways. The sense of their employment as visual objects is missing, though, from most of the poems. The book is already a fifty-dollar one, and it couldn’t include much more without going over the top in pricing. That’s just simply too bad because the value of Dine’s poems lies most often in this graphic engagement with the words. He is working with what the words make us see and with the poetic work of saying what he sees, but beyond both those angles is his thrust past “the comfort of reason and the hope of resolution.” The poem on page 173 says
This morning, when I was young
I went into a little room where there was
A CLEAR MIRACLE LIKE
OBJECT A big sculpture
In the room—
CONFUSED YET CLEVER
I VISUALIZED a non-material ACT.
IT CAN APPEAR OR NOT APPEAR
On the page in the foreword, words are erased or corrected so that this poem says
I went into a little room
where clearly a miracle
caught your eye
in the room
The poem-only version is more of a poem, but it leaves out the erasure of those several particular phrases that exhibits the “non-material ACT” of Dine’s hand and mind reaching beyond resolution or reason into the aesthetic act.
The aesthetic act is the center of Guantanamo’s balancing. Its content is taken from the transcripts of interrogations at our prison facility in Guantánamo , Cuba. The small fact of that being occupied territory is not given any attention, though I will always remember a Jacques Cousteau special where the marine scientist visited Fidél and was shown a drawer full of rent checks from the U.S. government never cashed by El Lidér that he said he was holding in protest. The protestations of the interrogated prisoners might seem to be the inflammatory material of this book, but Smith’s arrangements of the Q&A in French and Place’s translations of them into English focus our attention more on form as we read. We get several variations in his presentation of segments, and even more variations in her choices of different ways of translating the idiomatic phrasing of the impersonal third-person as in “On dit.” The achievements of this book by Smith and by Place are also in some ways its limitations, as it moves our focus away from content to event and the framing of voices.
Frank Smith presents, in his French version, several different frameworks for the question and answer of interrogations. The book delivers segments, some of them apparently repeated, in a variety of formats. Each is given a Roman numeral, ending at XXIX. Some are framed as “Question:” and “Response:,” imitating a simple transcript. Some are put into unified objective narrative. Others are redacted as sequences of “On dit” or “On demande” and “On répond.” Still others have narratives containing the framing gestures of naming the two voices as “the interrogator” and “the interrogated.” There are other variations including giving all one voice’s words in one paragraph and then all the sentences of the other voice, so that you can put the back-and-forth of it together in your reading. Other sections simply concentrate on one voice, usually that of the interrogated, and give a narrative encapsulization of that person’s claims. Reading through these, what we notice is mostly the variation and the different qualities it brings to each statement. This is most noticeable where segments of interrogation are repeated in different forms. Sections XVII and XX tell apparently the same story in two different frameworks.
For us as reading poets looking for the “poetics” in the book, these variations are its contribution much more than any revelation about the content of the interrogations. We tend to know already most of what was being said. The tone, though, changes as the framings make for different emphases. We feel for “the man” in XX or XVIII, while in XVII the emphasis of “We” as the focal pronoun sounds maybe more protesting. And in the sequences given with “Question:” and “Response:,” we feel more of the antagonisms passing back and forth. In “on dit” fragments, the blurring of persons sometimes occurs as “we” shows up within what the character designated as “They” is reported as saying. This actually happens because of Place’s choices about translating the construction of the “on” that is so natural to both objective reports and gossip in French.
Place makes several variations work for this phrasing in her English. She has passages that mark the exchange by using “they” and “we,” while others use our casual “they” for both persons. She has some, like the very first in the book, where person is only suggested through verb forms and pronouns are left out: “Asks” such and such, and “Answers” like so. These further variations add to the rich texture of the book, but also seem to lead us to think more about these frameworks of “person” than about the persons incarcerated and tortured. Torture is mentioned at a few points in the interrogations; medical help is even asked for in earnest pleas. The expected denials and accusations are also made. The intervention of the poets is on another level and scale. Place comments about it at the end in her “Translator’s Note” (154-155).
She says that pronouns were her focus, and she comments on shifting these deliberately. The way she frames her own acts of translation takes its direction from Derrida and Spivak, it seems. Her biggest claim about the meaning of this book is that “the language lesson of Guantanamo is there is no point of origin” (155). This, of course, tips the book toward being about translation and choices. The voices in it are pushed into the shapes of the translator’s concerns with languaging. Place’s focus is on her insistence that “no fidelity to any event that can be counted by calendar or clock” will find the truth “because the text event as such is the only event which counts.” She sees this book as having created a sense of an original through its “doubled text” of French facing English, and we can see that the necessity of that doubling is created by her multiple choices of translating the “on” phrases. She claims that none of the “usual substitutes,” including “one,” was “sufficiently close yet impersonal, particular yet universal, … inclusionary yet exculpatory.” Because pronouns are “relational,” she says, she “thought to shift these relations commensurate with their possible alliances, linguistic and otherwise” (155). This work is admirable, but the politics of the book get their strength elsewhere.
The final section is poignant and obviously chosen for that position in the book because it depicts a “detainee” who, when asked by the President of the Tribunal about where he would like to go if released, says “I would like to … go to the United States, this is what I wish for most in the world” (xxix 153). The irony is almost too heavy here, but it implies an “innocence” that seems characteristic of many of those interrogated. The ironies of expression and voicing that are played up by the author and translator are put in their place by this irony. The irony in that ending section is preceded by an almost greater one in the penultimate bit. Faced with accusations beyond his comprehension, one detainee identifies himself as “an insignificant person” and puts all of this interrogation in perspective with a plea that is both frank and sadly humorous: “No one has time to feed his family while doing what you accuse me of doing” (XXVIII 151).
This closing, those last two pieces, carry the book back past the intellectual concerns of Smith and Place. Their doubled look at framework and content, at the powers of form, is not in conflict with the focus in XXVIII and XXIX. Those two sections, though, manage to bring the focus back to the detainees by letting them have the last word in doubled contexts and in social as well as linguistic ironies. The doubling of the form is the real strength of Smith and Place’s work, just as it is with Dine and Saijo. Each of them works to put at least two angles into play in making meaning with words. This is the labor that all three of these books exemplify, in varying ways that should illuminate both their subject matter and our work as poets.
T. C. Marshall has never left home; he has taken it with him from Toledo to Phoenix to Tucson to La Mesa to San Diego to Toledo to Covina to San Diego to Berkeley to San Diego to La Jolla to San Diego to Tsawassen to New Westminster to Burnaby to Vancouver to Fort Collins to Boulder to Vancouver to Fairfax to Palo Alto to San Diego to Santa Cruz to Aptos and to Felton. And now he's thinking of Toledo again, or Ithaca.