listen to Thomas Ward reading this essay here.
A few weeks ago, Charles Bernstein, Thomas Ward and I met for a discussion about the politics of poetic representation, and the ways we are marked by and engaged with language arising from our different experiences as secular Jewish, gay, and blind writers, respectively.
Charles Bernstein is a poet and theorist preoccupied with poetics and philosophy. He founded the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry magazine with Bruce Andrews (which became the center of a movement by the same name), as well as PennSound, a rich archive of poets reading and discussing their work. To get in touch with him, I reached out to a dear friend and former student of his, Thomas Ward, a scholar of Renaissance literature and practitioner of shape-note singing.
This talk comes at a time when we are reflecting on our relationships to current anti-racist movements, a subject I touch on here and hope to return to in future discussions and essays. I felt compelled to find solidarity and a field for potential action, both from our discursive moment and my own craving for connection after a year shaped even more than usual by isolation, uncertainty, and change.
Poetry as Direct Action
My journey leading to this conversation began in early September, when the influential anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber died unexpectedly in Venice. Most known for his Occupy Movement phrase “We are the 99 percent”, he wrote about concepts from money (“Debt, the first 5,000 years”) and labor (“Bullshit Jobs”) to the ecological feminist army of western Syria. As I listened to talks by him following his death, his advocacy of direct action struck me–a mode of political action he described as “acting as if one is already free.” Although it started its life as a political term describing forms of protest that seek through expression and action to demand a response, I started to imagine how it could be more generally applied to modes of being and making. What could it mean for me to imagine–as a woman, as a blind person, as a poet–to act as if I were already free?
When pressed in one interview to explain the practical workings of consensus–critical to communal forms of direct action—Graeber first defines the term, as not being able to force anyone else to do what they do not want to do. Then, he explains the importance of understanding the principle as a loose framework around which one must flexibly improvise, rather than a fixed set of rules. He turns to language as an example: we play with language all the time–inventing words, slang, making jokes–but if someone comes to us with a book from 1910 and says we are corrupting the language, we may believe them. This, he says, is what is wrong with bureaucracy, our relationship to civic regulations. For me, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement sprang to mind because it posited just that in the late 1970s, establishing what many of us may take for granted, that syntax is a structure of power and all language is infused with political significance. These writers took Shelley’s dictum seriously that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, as well as George Oppen’s revision: that poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world.
The following passage ending the preface of the 1990 anthology, “The Politics of Poetic Form”, is shot with eerie relevance to our tensely charged, politically fractured social moment in America:
The decline of public discourse in the United States is an urgent matter best not left to politicians and academics, especially since the conception of public space and of public discourse will have to be radically contested if this situation is to change for the better. Poetry remains an unrivaled arena for social research into the (re)constitution of the public and the (re)construction of discourse.
Edited by Charles as a kind of archive of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement, the book features contributions by Rosmarie Waldrop, Jerome Rothenberg, Nathaniel Mackey, and Nicole Brossard, among other luminaries, and covers poetry and race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class, and offers approaches ranging from mapping resonances of pronouns to stuttering as a musical strategy, from the sacred to the erotic, from the memorial to the comedic and absurd. These writers took up their initiatives with energy and hope, but reading them thirty years on I feel that much work is left to be done, and that the need for it was even more urgent. Had they failed in their (re)construction efforts, or had they laid a foundation we could build on? These were some of the questions I brought to the table when Charles, Thomas, and I met to talk.
We began our discussion with the problem of naming, touching on the biblical account of Adam naming the animals as he prepares to rule over the earth. Adamic language, what we might now think of as labelling, is a double bind: an imposed social tag that pretends to precede beings’ existential instances, and with this, an imposed category or place. Thomas and Charles both drew attention to how this imperial fantasy implies the expression of an assumed natural or divine order. We agreed any invocation of natural and divine order is a rhetorical conceit with an unsettling history of justifying covert and overt violence.
Ambassadors of Imaginaries
Relating the issue of naming and control back to the politics of poetic representation, Charles recalled Rosmarie Waldrop’s response to Shelley and Oppen’s dictums about poets as legislators in “Alarms and Excursions”, her contribution to the above-mentioned anthology:
...I am not only astonished, but uneasy with our two quotes, with the poet as legislator, no matter of which world. It sounds to me like a hang-over from the times when the poet occupied a priestly position. But in our time, poetry has no such institutionalized function, and I must say I am not sorry. Or is it a male aspiration? I certainly have no desire to lay down the law. To my mind writing has to do with uncovering possibilities rather than with codification.
The objection Rosmarie raises here is against one form of legal violence: a concern about participating in the linguistic fossilization of institutional oppression. Who could bear the burden of this responsibility? And yet, who can avoid it? Even in opening possibilities in the spirit of direct action, a writer is responsible for what she does not write: in Rosemarie’s words called “to answer to all the insistent voices of the past and to one’s own: profound voice, intimate, calling to the future.”
If not legislators concerned with reclaiming the powers of codification, what other roles can we imagine occupying as writers and artists? Could we position ourselves instead as ambassadors (from the latin “ambactus”, servant) representing and negotiating for our unacknowledged worlds? Thomas brought our attention to Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” (1533), which depicts two Tudor-period men, clad in furs and velvet, leaning on a table overflowing with globes and sundials. Thomas celebrated the oblique, foreshortened skull, stretched across the tessellated floor under their feet. Transcending the typical memento mori death’s-heads scattered about European art, Holbein’s anamorphic cranium manifests the implications of framing, perspective, and a painter’s mastery.
The skull angles into the scene as if representing another dimension, one excluded from the frame; the shadow it casts on the floor insists it is there. While not following the rules of the other objects, it is no less real–an ambassador of a very different kind.
Several concerns came up as we talked about the possibility of labelling poets as ambassadors. Among these were questions of who gets to represent, who gets to name oneself, or one’s group? Ambassadors have a reputation for representing States, and originating from the one they represent. In the case of Henry James novel “The Ambassadors”, for example, they serve as enforcers of the status quo, seeking to retrieve a stray American man from the lascivious clutches of European cosmopolitanism. Charles pointed out that categorical enforcement is a significant assumption in the identity politics of our moment: that only a person ‘naturally’ or ‘legitimately’ from a group can speak of that group—for instance, I as a blind woman (if deemed by the powers that be as ‘blind enough’ and ‘blind in the right way’) may speak of being blind, but for others that speech-act is considered questionable, even dangerous—risking offence or even injury. After all, someone from Italy couldn’t represent France.
But who, indeed, is French enough, and what if an Italian is born in France? Who decides who is a natural or legitimate member of a group? When speaking for a group, one risks assimilation; when allocating speech from a group–tokenism; and when speaking from a group, one risks both falling into and perpetuating an essentializing identity trap. Risk is a condition some are more accustomed to than others. But the wavering line between representation and passing is like an invisible electric fence, live with necessity and chance, privilege, skill, and danger.
In Brubeck’s musical “The Real Ambassadors” Louis Armstrong sang his lines, intended to be comedic, with a full range of feeling, bringing the audience to tears in a story about the 1950’s Jazz Ambassador State Department initiative, which sent jazz musicians abroad to improve America’s image with regard to race relations. By shifting how he inhabited his music, he took part of his representative power back for himself, in this context as a Black American. After a chorus sings a jittery, sarcastic opening (“we are diplomats in our proper hats”), Armstrong breaks in with gravity and soul, “I’m the real ambassador...though I represent the government the government don’t represent some policies I’m for...”. It should be noted that the musical was staged in Montreal, not in America.
This brings to my mind French-Canadian Nicole Brossard’s “Political Poetics”, in which she writes about the pressure, evasion, and inevitability of representing one’s oppressed group(s):
People from groups who have been politically, economically, and culturally silenced or censored have expectations that one of them will speak about them and for them...Those readers want so much to hear or see things about themselves that they can even overestimate the political involvement of a writer. That is why writers from those groups are often asked the question: Are you a political writer? Etes-vous un écrivain engagé? A question that embarrasses them and which they will be tempted to avoid by saying that they write what they write because they are creative.
To be creative, Brossard explains, is to be radical. Not in the sense of pushing left and right political parties to extremes, but in the sense of disrupting thought at its root in an extra-political, pre-political, profusely multivocal intervention.
Charles noted how as someone religiously nonobservant he could not represent all Jewish people, or even his family (and neither would they want him to), and he would also be against representing any intellectual or aesthetic elite, however superficially diverse. He mentioned how we could even understand one brilliantly dissemling strain of secular Jewish humor, as used by the Marx brothers for instance, as a protective ducking of the dangers of just such an identification.
When we hide, or refuse to make public, dimensions of ourselves that would mark us as not belonging in a group, we pass. In section CIX. of “The Pataquerical Imagintion” (under the title Passing), Charles writes, “American culture is filled with both the desire to pass and a resistance to passing: to be absorbed by the dominant culture or to remake that culture. Assimilation is motivated as much by fear as by desire.” Thomas and I have spoken for years about this experience, having both passed in different ways in our college years (he as not gay, and I as not visually impaired). Because my visual condition is degenerative, it soon became necessary for me to be open about my visual loss—and it was not a smooth transition. Thomas, while no longer ‘in the closet’, feels he can turn his performance of queerness on and off—still passing when he chooses. But before these changes, we slyly recognized and aligned with each other and the shadow side of passing—something I’d like to think of as passage.
Conditioned as we are against a categorical imperative, Charles and Thomas agreed that we could think of ourselves as ambassadors of our imaginaries. Ambassadors don’t have to represent a nation-state or be modelled after ones who do. Imaginaries are the communities of our chosen bonds, constantly shifting in locality, register, and membership, including the living and dead, actual and mythic. They are are collectives: we belong to them as much as they belong to us. Before they are anything else, identities are imaginaries. Before identities are violent mass fictions, they are imaginaries.
Imaginaries form a loose affiliation of fluid communities, intersecting but not merging with each other. They are where we can act as if we are already free, even if someone comes to us with a rulebook to say otherwise. Negotiation, debate, and strategic alignment between such imaginaries occurs in the realm of what Charles might call bent poetics, a non-place where some of us feel most at home.
Bent: sharply curved or having an angle, (of something usually straight) folded, or dented. One bends one’s body in supplication, reverence, sex, or gratitude for praise. Informal (British), corrupt, dishonest. Determined, insistent. Inaccurately aimed. Suffering from the bends, or high on marijuana and alcohol. As a noun, having a natural talent or inclination, the state of being curved or crooked, a predisposition to act in a certain way. A declivity or slope, a direction, a course. A transverse frame. Tension, force of acting, impetus. Synonyms: folded, corrupt, queer. Predilection, proclivity, propensity. From old high German binuz, reed.
In Aesop’s fable of the oak and the reed, the oak trusts in its strength to withstand the storm and is blown over, and the reed that ‘bends with the wind’ survives. There is a Talmudic saying “Be pliable like a reed, not rigid like a cedar”. The Tao Te Ching similarly indicates that the hard and strong will fall, the soft and weak will overcome. In a version of the fable from the autocratic reign of Louis XIV, the oak pities the fragile reed and offers it help. The reed declines, saying it has its own way to survive.
The oak and the reed, by Achile Michellon (1816)
Double reed pipes usually have one reed folded back and slit, which vibrates with the breath to produce music. For me, reed music recalls lines from Rumi’s 13th century “The Reed Flute” (as translated by Whitfield):
My wailing is heard in every throng, in concert with them that rejoice and them that weep. Each interprets my notes in harmony with his own feelings, but not one fathoms the secrets of my heart. My secrets are not alien from my plaintive notes, yet they are not manifest to the sensual eye and ear. Body is not veiled from soul, neither soul from body, yet no man hath ever seen a soul.
This cry is heard, and translated in the moment of listening into the world of the listener. Without representing any image of the singer’s heart or homeland, the music is made of and marked by his interior world. The sound comes from and is framed by a body who releases its meaning to whoever accepts it. A wailing arises from a particular person in a particular situation but it reaches others—in other situations, places, and emotional registers. This is bent music.
Tracing one topology of bent poetics, Nathaniel Mackey’s “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol” explores phantom limbs, limps, and stutters in relation to music and passing through existential hinderance and invisibility. Quoting and reflecting on Legba from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, he writes “Phantom limb, phantom limp, phantom link: “I think it’s got a heap of signifying wrapped up in it and it might help you remember what we’re really fighting against” (379). This it does, serving to concentrate a memory of injustice and traumatic survival, a remembered wound resorted to as a weapon of self-defense.” Such resilience through, and transformation of, injustice and injury is a bent of the bent–deeply familiar to those who experience it.
Nate continues, dipping like a skilled shadowboxer around the problem of ableist triumph, turning instead to the dynamic, eclectic skills that keep us alive: “The best to be attained is a concomitance of partial weaknesses, partial strengths, a conjunction of partial endowments....This obliquity (seeing and/or hearing around corners, in Ellison’s terms) is called “an angled intercourse with history” in The Angel at the Gate.”
As our conversation shifted to metaphorical invocations of disability, both Thomas and Charles expressed caution and some anxiety. Charles reminded us of the fraught implications of collapsing this boundary between metaphor and experience. Thomas recollected a sketch from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which a man with a stutter parks in a parking spot reserved for those with disabilities. Charles referred to his own non-normative cognitive style (what he describes as left/right\lexical reversal), and how he felt this was insufficient to claim impairment, compared to the experiences of others. We used language like “more and less serious”, and “safe” versus “dangerous” disabilities to talk about. Stuttering was considered a relatively safe subject, with a long rhetorical history and fascinating crossings with queer identity—a theme I hope to return to soon with Thomas in another essay.
So, what disabilities make for So, what disabilities make for good conversation at cocktail parties? The invisible ones? The ones that can be trained, drugged, or otherwise straightened out of us? And what of experimentation or contrivance with one’s abilities–stuttering for rhetorical emphasis, or wearing a blindfold? Is this offensive or permissible? What if one does it in private, not for attention? But what if one secretly enjoys it? Perhaps slanting through these questions is the thrilling fear of contagion—what if one gets stuck or tainted by this phenomenological excursion? And yet the concern stands (sits?): how does one cut the problematic linguistic and relational flaws (patterns?) out of oneself that one has so long been blind (oblivious?) to, perhaps even turning a deaf ear to (ignoring?) criticisms, in self-defense? The moral bar is, in fact, set so high that only the most able of moral athletes could clear it.
When I listen to friends speak about identification with a group (for example, disabled, poor, trauma survivor), the boxes checked on institutional forms often come up. Rights and privileges associated with such a checked box, or combination of boxes, are also usually referred to. This compartmentalization gives me the impression that American neo-liberal capitalistic hierarchies (and corresponding versions of equality and freedom) have been so internalized as to structure how we identify and name ourselves. And by extension how we relate to others. As if Adam had declared our place. We must acknowledge that we live in a society that enforces that experience. But to me—and I would never speak for all blind or disabled people on this matter—this is an unnecessary and harmful surrender of perhaps one of the only fields in which some of us can enact our freedom: the constellation of our own names, of our own imaginaries. The more porous and inclusive we are as ambassadors of bent life-worlds, refusing to sit still in the box allotted to us, the more we dispel the fiction of the able body and mind.
To put it another way: I am blind, poor, cis-gender, heterosexual female, white, American, an ex-pat, educated, a trauma survivor, a person who experiences depression, a poet, a twin, a fighter, a womanist, a friend, a stranger, a seer, an ambassador, a traitor, a servant, a boss, a being, and other things that are more personal or beyond language. I do not experience these dimensions separately, or gaze through them from some kind of interior panopticon. I did not choose and cannot change all of these conditions, but I chose and can change some of them. I can change what they mean to me. Whenever I want. I celebrate them all without loyalty. None of these identifiers are the most important, and I am not any one of them alone, and I am not alone in them.
Does your list feel inadequate and boring? Are you not sure if some of your ways of being matter? Do the things you hate and/or didn’t choose outnumber the ones that do? Does what you wish to be count? Are there dimensions of your experience you ignore? Do you hierarchize how you are according to social convention? These are questions I hear my friends struggling with, as writers and as people.
In the relatively safe waters of stuttering and dyslexia, we talked about hidden audience, unseen struggles, aesthetics built around the enabling constraints of one’s own quirks, and the experiential skill set that comes with one’s antenormative style (to use a term of Fred Moten’s that describes the primacy of the nonnormative). Charles told us the story of teaching his poem “A Defence of Poetry”, which expounds on the subject of nonsense while scrambling the letters and sometimes the order of words. Some students gave the usual response—this poem is about the materiality of language, the body..” but there was an unseen contingent in the class who immediately recognized it because that is also how they experience language. We also touched on the importance of resisting correction, medical “fix it” models, and dipistemologies of pain, madness, and loss.
In a talk entitled “Blackness and Nonperformance”given at the MoMA (2015), Fred Moten takes this identificatory poetic dissidence to another level. Against ableist social modelling he explains how
social vision, blurred with the enthusiasm of surreal presence and unreal time, anticipates and decomposes the harsh glare of clear-eyed, supposedly and impossibly originary correction, where enlightenment and darkness, blindness and insight, invisibility and hypervisibility converge in the open obscurity of a field of study or line of flight...
I understand this as a celebration of visual impairment in the metaphorical sense, but it resonates with me even more practically. He extends this encounter between the experience of racial oppression and disability, drawing attention to our differently problematic ways of mirroring sovereign delusions, which nonetheless bring us together: “...the apparent racial exclusivity of the underprivledged claiming this disability serially impairs, though it can never foreclose, the discovery that the priority of the imposition of sovereign regulation–of constitutive correction–is false.”
In context, I think Fred is saying that occupying the difficulty of blackness can get in the way of fully recognizing that prioritizing the oppressive nature of epidermal labelling is unnecessary. The nerve he hits here is that people with disabilities struggle with a related problem: we want to grieve for our suffering, claim and even sometimes luxuriate in our differences, through which we hope to find each other, but at the same time we want to dismantle the framework of ability. We need to come together; at the same time, we need to destroy the banner under which we’ve gathered. So we are pulled in several different directions. And we want it all. And our bodies are on the line. Fred’s willingness, in his words, as more and less than one to risk this metaphorical alliance between blackness and disability shows us how intersecting with other collectives of imaginaries moves us towards a reconstitution of discourse.
As we ended our conversation on Zoom, Charles spoke while turning off his camera of how he prefers the intimacy of audio conversation when it isn’t possible to meet in person. Thomas and I followed suit as we said our goodbyes. This simple gesture of speaking without seeing—so familiar to those of us born before the new millennium– reminded me of how sound collapses space by crossing it, and the simple magic that we reach each other at all, sometimes profoundly, over oceans, seas, decades, and imaginaries.. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on this passage from Jerome Rothenberg’s “Ethnopoetics”, which I’ll also leave you with.
In her oral autobiography the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina speaks of her work as being, in effect, a poetics of healing based on a poetics of language. Unlettered herself she reads the Book of Language & she cures through Language. That means that her “I”, like that of Rimbaud’s seer, is other; that in the act of chanting, making poetry, “she” is being thought by “someone else.” For the new poet–the poet of the new–to come to such a realization Rimbaud proposed not only a derangement of the senses but the reconstitution of a language / of language itself. “A new language must be found,” he wrote. Not only for the sake of speaking but of seeing knowing. Therefore–for him & her–the hypothesis would be: I see through language. And its corollary: without language, I am blind.
I would like to express gratitude for the help and insights of several friends on this piece, including Juan Carmona Zabala, Thomas Ward, Cicek Tascioglu, Angelica Sgouros, Samuel Holzman, David Feldman, Lightsey Darst, Charles Bernstein, Gina Applebee, and Andri Alexandrou.
The Politics of Poetic Form, ed. Charles Bernstein, Roof Books, 1990
The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein, Wikipedia
“The Pataquerical Imagination: Midrashic Antinomianism and the Promise of Bent Studies”,
The Oak and the Reed, Achille Michallon, Wikipedia
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952