Friday, September 05, 2008

K. Silem Mohammad Reads Elizabeth Bachinsky

Dawn’s Athlete: Washed Talent? Satan Held Wet Death, Lent Saw, Hated Lawn Set, Stew, And Lathe (Lead the Wants/The Waste Land)

Thanks to Elizabeth Bachinsky for her generous and thoughtful commentary on my Sonnagrams project. It’s my turn now to talk about her Lead the Wants, an anagrammatization of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The Waste Land is an apt object for Bachinsky’s treatment, as it is itself a signature instance of violent modernist experimentation. What Bachinsky’s letter-jumbling does to it is not that far from what it does to the literary sources it pillages. The passage of time has perhaps dulled many contemporary readers’ senses of just how radical Eliot’s experiment was. It may now seem to some like just another dry entry in the Norton Anthology, a “handful of dust”; to many of its contemporary readers, however, it was capable of provoking reactions ranging from puzzlement to moral outrage. These days, no one is likely to be outraged by a poem on account of formal devices and compositional procedures alone, though there is still a great deal of resistance to experimental poetics as such. Eliot’s first hostile readers saw an affront to what had seemed unassailable values grounded in firm beliefs about the legitimate applications of language, whether used in a poem or a political speech or a treatise on natural science. Readers who are unfriendly to poetic innovation now more often than not have no such deep-seated moral convictions about syntactical decorum, but are merely suspicious of what appears to them a confidence game of empty mannerisms and pretentious affectations intended to be intellectually intimidating. In some cases they have good cause for these suspicions.

One can easily imagine one of these wary readers confronting Bachinsky’s Lead the Wants in a state of guardedness approaching high alert. Here are the first few lines:

1. Ribald Teeth Of Bead

Brilliant duel them corset her penis.
A million toxic duds dangle. Get a
Night-rise or day-rites—merge, mend.
Withstand null grip or soir.
We saw murder in it. Veto kept
Slough for wine—a ten cent ring.
Dried, brittle, few fillies that
Murmur homage on Rubens’ trees disperse rug-covers—those
Clowns! What death sheer torpor paid to a waif on
The run. What neon cadet lit nine gone gifts? None.
An anathema of need, our offer lacked
Stamina, snarl. Deadening, the unseen music dug kitsch
Instead. Her brine-randy nukes were arched (whack!)
And look guilty. Who’s she on? Et tu, commie?
It’s a night friend, a washed mare, said e.
E might tow on the wed old air-wand
I tread. Nigh in ten and no one fights worth much.

And for comparison, the corresponding lines in The Waste Land:

1. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

Bachinsky’s method is more constrained than my own* in that she attends closely to the exact letter tally of each separate line in the original, so that for example “April is the cruellest month” becomes “Brilliant duel them corset her penis.” The lines are quantitatively identical except that Bachinsky’s is missing a G, which I believe she carries over to the next line. (When I try to trace her exact procedure, I get confused—even bearing in mind that some of the letters from the dedication to Pound get carried over into the section title, I can’t quite make it all match up—but I’m pretty sure there is some kind of consistent isometry between Eliot’s individual lines and hers.) The sense created by this close correspondence of letters per line is that of a warped mirror-text, a poem that constantly displays recognizable traces of Eliot’s structure but subjects them to extreme deformation.

I’m struck by the similarity between the surface texture of anagrammatic writing and that of homophonic translation. One might even consider homophonic translation a subcategory, or the flip side, of anagramming. Both practices substitute linguistic equivalents for original signs: the difference is that homophonics does it at the sound level of the signifier only, and anagramming proceeds from the visual level (which naturally also always entails a sonic corollary). And both techniques have the effect of rendering language as a conflicted system hovering unstably between reference and self-referral, connotative sensuousness and asemic grotesquery.

It may even be reasonable to suggest that a great percentage of the poetic innovations of the past century, that is, those innovations which have given rise to the designation “innovative” and related terms, have their basis in a general tendency towards the kind of extra-referential application of morphemes and phonemes found in anagrams and homophonic translation. At the extreme poles of this tendency one might locate on the one hand transrational writing such as zaum (nonsense syllables invented by the poet), and on the other truly asemic “pseudowriting” (improvised scrawls and figures that resemble writing but do not adhere to any preset code). Because anagrams and homophonics encroach upon but do not fully extend to these poles, they place us at an ideal vantage to observe both the signifying and non-signifying properties of “poetic language” at work. (I place this phrase in quotes because of course there is no such thing as a uniquely poetic language per se, but only more or less poetic ways of conditioning our response to language in various contextual frames).

What assumptions of value guide a project such as Bachinsky’s, or homophonic translation, or other poetic forms where sense is at best an occasional illusion, one that like as not will flare up in the momentary form of isolated mini-themes or allusive winks before fading back into a jabber of blind mouths? Put another way, how and why is such a work to be read? For a certain type of reader this question needs no answer: the poem provides its own justification as an imaginative stimulant, a tonic barrage of verbal sensations just this side of any conceptual premise or telos. Though I myself may be one of those readers, I nevertheless suspect that this is not a satisfactory stopping point—or if it were, it is the sort of thing that should be a little embarrassing to admit. So if not this, what then? I want to suggest that anagrammatic projects such as Bachinsky’s, and perhaps my own, have as a significant part of their purpose the staging of exactly this question: that is, what are the limits not only of the writable and readable, but of the literarily evaluable? More importantly yet, what determines such limits? What world needs this work, and why?

When I say that works such as Lead the Wants stage this question, I mean at least two things, the second of which follows from the first (ideally if not necessarily). First, most obviously and most superficially, they thematize it. Their difficulties and intractable opacities quite simply point to the problem. They seem to say, here is something it seems like no one could ever really be able to read with any serious attention—let’s see what happens if anyone should try. This is the “experimental” part of experimental writing. It is the equivalent of mixing random chemicals with little or no prior sense of what might happen as a result, and by itself it is just as foolish, except that the chances of real physical injury and damage to property are somewhat lower. But the second thing I mean by staging is an action undertaken with an eye not only to a hypothetical set of results, but to a conscientious examination and testing of one’s materials. The materials in question might encompass a wide range of objects. In Bachinsky’s case, they are Eliot’s original poem, the anagram procedure itself, the convention(s) of the contemporary experimental poem, the community of anticipated readers and their intellectual habits and expectations, and so on. What is being staged, then, is not just a rote avant-garde gesture, but an entire set of cultural conditions in which such gestures might have “meaning.”

I put “meaning” in quotes not to signal some facile relativism, but to indicate my awareness that it would be silly to attempt a critical reading of Lead the Wants in which I argued that some deep psychological or political or other significance was somehow embedded in the poem’s imagistic and linguistic feints, in a way that would not be so silly if I were attempting a reading of, say, Eliot’s own poem, as disjunctive as it is. Where Eliot shores up fragments against his—and Western literary culture’s—ruin, improvising a motivated edifice out of cannily selected fragments, Bachinsky, if I’m not mistaken, has no such ambition in mind. Her staging, unlike his shoring, assumes that ruin is a foregone conclusion, at least the ruin of a particular civilizational formation of aesthetic values in its familiar manifestation as a canon of taste and craft standards. Eliot wrote for those, like himself, who could still appreciate and even partly partake in the grandeur of a mode hurtling towards oblivion. His prosodic fractures and discursive ruptures were more elegaic than ludic, undertaken in a mood more of desperate regret than native instinct. Bachinsky writes for us, the inheritors of a debased estate in which the last elegaic strains are heard chiefly as canned schmaltz piped into the corridors.

This means, inevitably, that Bachinsky’s poem, at the level of utterance, is more trivial than Eliot’s. Any promise it offers of semantic significance is a sham promise, a joy buzzer evident in her palm well before the clasp of the handshake. Its significance, beyond its immediate appeal as a textual party favor, must subsist in the extended context of its circulation between interested parties. It requires, that is, a suspension of sensible objections on the part of the reader in order for its full poetic aura to emerge. Walter Benjamin famously wrote of the aura of a work of art as that quality which inhered in its being the exact physical object it is on account of the precise conditions of its creation, its being located in a particular space and time that attest to this ontological authenticity. He was speaking chiefly of painting and music, of course, but literature since (at least) the invention of mechanical print has for some time anticipated the photo- and phonographic innovations he had in mind, in that it presents a challenge to conceptions of the aesthetically authentic, as it resists the model of an “original,” a material object that bears the traces of the artist’s labor in the three classical dimensions. Whereas the aura as Benjamin described it was a function of what he called the work’s “cult value,” its status as a quasi-religious relic bearing witness to the artist’s unique conversion of direct perception into corporeal form, the aura in our own time (or what has come to replace it) is often a function of the work’s resonance within a specific communal constellation of values. The values that accommodate a work like Lead the Wants are values reflective of a shared willingness to participate in a fiction of significance and readability, with the subtending goal of securing a position of relevance for poetry in a world where the old relevances are in one way or another compromised.

And yet, as they say, words mean things. Content never goes out the window completely. One of the key features of anagrammatic composition, in Bachinsky’s work as well as my own and others, is its inclination towards a curious variety of eroticism—curious in that it works upon the erotic in much the same way that the process itself works upon language. That is, it both reduces eroticism to certain absurdly gauche strokes of arbitrary sexual pseudocontent, and activates a free-ranging libidinous logic of syntactic association, making the text into a sort of total erogenous zone of free linguistic play. Unlike most traditional “erotic literature,” which draws the basis for its eroticism from a core of sexual content treated as though it precedes the text, the anagrammed text starts with nothing but letters, which in themselves are about as sexy as a tax report, and finds in them a latent Metamorphoses of chimeric couplings and bawdy mis-joinings (e.g., “Brilliant duel them corset her penis”). The entire field of signification becomes, if you will, a perpetually excited surface of semiotic erectile tissue, productive of pornographic delirium.

A few more representative passages from Bachinsky:

O Hymen cave a fist. Youth is a gray gear
They chill. That iced hymen. Real.
Tactile. Rome began a feather, waged hymen.
Our tiny new land—sacked. Her, truly warm.

and

He, the Savanna wind, saw Eve’s ugly Goth coupon
By angel, Barb, amorous of Phil, the thick hen, (e.g.
Lightly feathered, red, nice sort—yet hung.)

and

He wag her pert tuft, then, word new,
I axe it with a bling bank g riot,
Bling binge, rob houses. I wield it better than hot wives.
World, ma. Thin. Weeks in elf-red male beast scan.
I’ve star-teeth. Violin-teeth. Hear sour hung hot TV.
O, her maw dandles bright—a sense of Roma or him
For them. Metaphysical teeter aghast the bitter kiss: L.A.
Love? Days of sand in nits, Hero. Tout
Peril. How lofty wounds pout. E, I reads
Stein. Hard binds, Mr. toying boy-couch, these lunar stays.
Van hid been reptile other dada thing.
O lips, stop, lips recess, cyan damask stings.
I sold, I rest, wait, wear minks, held dung;
St. an received her there, cold spotted fen.
The two sexed it agape: duet to ice.

I cite the last passage at some length to show how the blatantly sexualized material magnetizes and activates the other language, so that words and phrases which would otherwise be neutral (or neuter) take on some of the charge of the more loaded content. When nothing really means anything, everything sounds dirty. This is a primary tenet of surrealism and absurdist art in general, a fact Bachinsky appears to nod to with her Stein-reading capital vowels, “lunar stays” (a faint echo of Loy’s Lunar Baedeker?), and “other dada thing[s].”

The recurring intrusion of the carnal in what could otherwise be a sterile set of lettristic manipulations is a reminder that it is impossible ever to separate language from its use as a prosthesis, an appendage (or anemone-like array of appendages) whose primary purpose is always the supplementation of some bodily desire or lack. Bachinsky’s title hints at an apprehension of this directive: you can lead the wants to water, but…? The wants in this case are the familiar profane ones, but also perhaps indications of Bachinsky’s desire to shore up a few ruins of her own, to reach across the gulf of time and share a little reciprocal trauma with her predecessor. As she writes toward the end of her first section:

O, Eliot—dead—this wound an offer. Thanks.

I don’t know how Eliot would have received this gesture, but my own response is no, thank you.
-K. Silem Mohammad, 2008

———

*Bachinsky writes in her post that I occasionally “drop a letter down a line or two for the sake of sense.” In fact, I go much further than that. After the initial process of anagrammatizing each line individually by computer generator, I then shuffle the letters around at will. I make no attempt whatsoever to preserve the letter configurations of the original lines. Letters that were originally in line 3 might end up in lines 2, 7, 8, 10, and 12. And of course there are always leftover letters after the body of the anagrammed sonnet is complete, and those go to make up the title, which explains why so many of the titles are so stupidly bad. The only real constraint governing the poem (aside from the meter, stanza form, and rhyme) is the ultimate letter count. That is, if there are 14 A’s in Shakespeare’s sonnet, there must be 14 in mine, no more and no fewer, and so on through the rest of the alphabet. The only reason I use a computer anagram generator on the individual lines in the first place is to give me a starting field of text that is identical to Shakespeare’s in terms of total letter count, but carries over none of the thematic content.

K. Silem Mohammad is the author of Deer Head Nation (Tougher Disguises, 2003), A Thousand Devils (Combo Books, 2004), and Breathalyzer (Edge Books, 2008). With Anne Boyer, he edits Abraham Lincoln, a magazine of poetry. He is an associate professor in the Department of Language, Literature, and Philosophy at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

5 comments:

Nick said...

This sure does give one hope for the poetry blog as forum for intelligent discourse. A refreshing change from all of the thinly veiled me-porn one encounters on the web.

I love how this discussion keeps "the supplementation of bodily desire and lack" at the forefront, and manages to truly engage with history and theory rather than merely flaunt it. It is generous in much the same way Bachinsky's poetry is.

I was wondering when Curio's anagrams were going to be taken up in a serious critical discussion. Had to wait three years, but worth it to have it rendered in such insightful and readable prose. Thanks.

While I am here, I do have to take issue with another post awhile back dissecting the margin notes scrawled in a used copy of a Sharon Thesen collection. While I understand lemonhound's frustration with the reader's lack of engagement, I think that attacking someone who doesn't yet have the luxury of a full page to formulate a response is a little like trying to debate with a two year old child. Also, that they sold the book "they were given" is probably more indicative of the state of the book reviewer's fridge than their sense of economic decorum. I think there's probably a million examples of a review lemonhound could have held up to that sort of interrogation; reviews that have moved beyond the margin's "ughs" into actual sentences. I know that post was awhile back, and has travelled off into the archive ether, but I still thought it was worth mentioning.

Anyway, thanks for the blog. I appreciate it.

Lemon Hound said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lemon Hound said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lemon Hound said...

Thanks for the visit, and comment. I take your point about the Thesen post, which I think I said I had mulled over whether or not to post or not for a long while. Ultimately I thought that the comments illustrated a certain strand of thinking about poetry and so warranted a post.
Though yes, in general conversations such as this between Kasey and Liz's work are much more productive and certainly what I'm interested in fostering here.

Me-porn made me laugh.

This is the third attempt to post this with all parts in tact.

Cheers

Amanda said...

i'm really enjoying the discussion. thanks for these great posts, LH :)