“To acknowledge fracture is to depart from the linear”: A Conversation with Adrian Lürssen about History’s Echoes and the Poetry of Displacement – curated by Henk Rossouw

Adrian Lürssen was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and Washington, D.C. and has lived for the last three decades in the San Francisco Bay Area. His poetry has appeared in Fence, Witness, Interim, American Letters & Commentary, Boston Review, Posit Journal, and places elsewhere. He was recognized as a finalist in the Tupelo Press 2022 Sunken Garden and Snowbound Chapbook contests for his chapbook Incoming. His chapbook Neowise is available at Trainwreck Press. Awarded the 2022 Colorado Prize for Poetry, his full-length manuscript Human is to Wander appears in November.

Henk Rossouw: Having just read your stunning debut, Human is to Wander, I’m drawn to the long serial poem at the book’s center, “A is for Angola.” The syntax, imagery, and diction of these prose poems in series are striking and yet strangely familiar–uncanny even. Part of that uncanny feeling stems from, I imagine, our shared South African context. As a reader, I wouldn’t need an expository note at the back of the book stating that during the 1970s the apartheid state committed war crimes in Angola–South Africa’s Vietnam, if you will–for indelible lines, such as “The enemy becomes a song, held by time,” to resonate with me on a deep level. At the same time, I know that when Human is to Wander recently won the Colorado Prize for Poetry, it was judged blindly. None of the readers, nor the final judge, Gillian Conoley, would have been aware of your name, let alone your South African background. Perhaps that uncanniness, which I feel is integral to the power of “A for Angola,” was further conveyed to North American readers through its procedures and collage of source materials. (I love, for instance, how the trope of the talking yam, borrowed from the West African folktale, emerges and re-emerges: “The yam is a nuisance, but it allows naming as a form of answer.”) On my first read, I didn’t need to know that “A is for Angola” used the Oulipo procedure, Analytic Dictionary, in order to appreciate its haunting sentences. That said, knowledge of your writing process–“how” is a recurring word through the series–does add to the impact of these prose poems. All that to ask: What would be gained and what would be lost by adding notes–on context, sources, procedures–at the back of Human is to Wander

Adrian Lürssen: Thank you for this question. It immediately gets to the heart of one important aspect of the book for me. Before I address that, I would suggest that it is, more generally, perhaps also a question about how to be one type of reader. I am reminded of a conversation early in his career when Michael Palmer said of his own work, “It is a kind of poetry that insists that the reader is an active part of the meaning, that the reader completes the circuit.” If I had a poetic license next to my driver’s license tucked in my back pocket, Palmer’s phrase would be printed in the spot typically left for organ donor instructions. (I have no presumption that my writing deserves any comparison to Palmer’s, so maybe it is a Reader’s License I describe.) I think of a lifetime of pleasure learning to read his work, and the work of many others, as an act of continuous engagement with numerous extraordinary registers, some of which only make themselves known over time. Collage is involved, active engagement with source texts, lexical exercises and formal constraints, generative processes, fragmentation, absurdity, endlessly interesting registers that require investigation ... and so on. And, of course, there is also the text on the page, an invitation into the field and the music and subsequent echoes that it contains. The text is (should be?) wholly unto itself and, from there, offers all manner of opening out into something more. I would find it unsatisfying if I was handed the key up front. It would diminish my role as reader. For me, some of the richest reading is in fact the act of learning to read.

I realize, of course, that there are numerous counterpoints to an argument for “textual mystery,” including documentary poetic work in which the archive, the existing record, takes a central role while many of the same questions of language and meaning and authority register on the page. I think of your remarkable Xamissa, and Susan Howe’s archival engagement, and Susan Tichy’s Trafficke, and NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, and ... an endless list, of course. Here, as I set out as reader and writer with some general ideas in mind of where I might or might not be headed, my sense of “completeness” often came from work that arrived after engagement with a number of primary sources, but did not explicitly acknowledge them. And, as I said at the start of this long-winded answer, there are also some specific reasons for that.

For one thing, a key “register” for me in the book is one of migration. My own, informing the biographical context, and also the notion of conflict, forced migration, and precarious human existence that defines this century, sublimely captured by Norma Cole’s lines that open the book and serve as the basis for my title: “At some point or at gunpoint/ Human is to wander....” As I understand it, Cole wrote those lines after conversation with Barbara Guest about the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, but one need not know that to feel the utter weight of the observation today. Migration is, among other things, chaotic, untethered, a swirl of threat and confusion. I hear Fela Kuti’s voice when I write “confusion” as he commands attention, speaking into his microphone, indicting authority for sowing chaos, a weapon for control. And confusion is central here. Sense making is required; no one will do it for you. Another, to spark a related resonance, has to do with “representation” and – often in the African context – its almost total absence, or inability to escape generalities. The mad former president of this country described an entire continent as a shithole. Enough said.

In the first and third parts of the book I do indeed borrow individual words and occasional phrases from primary texts in acts of collage and reference, but the Angola series is the only place I don’t do that. Setting aside for now the Oulipo conceit, which was hugely important for that section’s completion, your initial question about context is vital. As you articulate so well, for us and many other South Africans of this time, the name Angola brings to mind something very specific about the apartheid past. However, I actually started writing that section while coming to terms with my new American citizenship, trying to address a series of echoes in my life that I had not expected to experience. It was not lost on me that while “Angola” was held in my family’s story as one reason why we left South Africa (from my parents: “We did not want our sons to be conscripted into the military”), in fact the United States has an Angola all of its own. Something entirely different, and also perhaps not. Perhaps the question is, are both equally invisible? (Am I sounding for absences?)  As I sent out this manuscript over the years, I have written a note of explanation about this, and finally decided against it, rather letting the work ‘speak’ for itself. But, indeed: there are two Angolas at work here. The second is my adopted country’s largest maximum-security prison, named for the site of a slave plantation upon which it is built. I consider the child soldiers who serve their time within it as part of what is registered here. And I believe it is, largely, an invisible hole within this country, much like our other Angola is/was as well.

So, for me, your question ultimately brings to mind the echoes that interested me as a new citizen of another land, as I set out writing whatever eventually became this book. I introduced the talking yam at the start of the Angola section because I am a fan of absurdity and wanted to signal its role in the confusion. I realized after the fact that it, too, is one of dual resonance. When I first read your question here, I turned to my wife — an American — and asked her if she ever ate yams. She replied, “Yes, on Thanksgiving.” For this particular work, I don’t think I would be doing readers any favors by highlighting one Angola over another, or any one echo over the other. Give thanks for duality.

One last thought that might pertain to your question about context making. As a white of South African legacy, as a white male, a person of privilege pretty much over-represented in every aspect of this life, I wanted to bring witness to something carefully, and without appropriation. I was heartened by an exchange with Gillian Conoley, the judge for this prize, who said to me when we finally connected: “…all of it lifted right into all war for me. Nothing doctrinaire nor anything present that asked for pity.” I am so pleased to read that and I am unsure I could explain in more detail how it came to be, except to say that I think it would be a complete failure of imagination and work for me to have said, “This is what I am writing about and this is what I want you to think.” I have a hair-trigger fear of being obvious (read: pedantic) in my poetry, and if I skew too much in the opposite direction, that – again – might be because of my reading habits. I think there is an important distinction to be made between obvious and accessible. (I am not alone with this, of course, and feel self-consciously Obvious saying it.) I see obviousness as a single moment in time that passes quickly, while accessibility becomes a verb with a future, a call to action, an invitation to access and engage, ongoing. I find this to be one of the great pleasures of a lifetime of reading, returning again and again to favorite texts and finding those many paths into and out of the work. (I was going to say paths forward, but the direction isn’t always linear — another part of the pleasure.) Accessibility is something you work at achieving, as a reader, I like to believe.

As I write this in reply to you I also happen to be organizing the end notes for my manuscript as we ready it for publication. The book will be accompanied with a list of source texts and, I imagine, a few other contextual explanations. So perhaps my answer here is entirely moot, but I certainly hope that some readers spend time with the book without my additional framing, instead creating context of their own before seeking out the notes. I wish that mystery and open possibility for them. Start with the music, should there be any there to be heard. And, to borrow your phrase, the uncanny.

HR: In your response, the word “echo” keeps returning. “Echo” echoes, so to speak. Revisiting my question, I think “echo” is a far better way of describing what’s compelling in “A for Angola” than my “uncanny.” I’m thinking of John Hollander’s The Figure of Echo, which is a striking analysis of the Echo and Narcissus myth, and how echo is generative as a trope for poets. Sociopolitical echoes, too, feed your work: As you say, the echo between Angola prison, near where I live in Louisiana, and Angola, the country South Africa tried to destroy. The echoes between apartheid signage–“Whites Only”–and signage in the American South. What’s fascinating to me is that in Human is to Wander you are using echo at the level of the syllable, of the word itself–the signs get slippery, in other words. For instance, the poems titled “Troupe” and “Troop,” which I found to be riveting, are positioned side-by-side in the “A for Angola” series. This is partly because the Analytic Dictionary structure feeds such echoes, but also for the terrifying yet playful overlap in meanings. Thinking of chiasmus here, the sentence “The troupe entertains; the troop fights a war” could just as easily be: “The troop entertains; the troupe fights a war.” Your powerful sentence in “Troupe” implies what I’m saying more elegantly: “A unit performing exercises for the right hand (piece called ‘Camp at Noon’).” Exercises for the piano; war exercises. So, could you say a little more about this crucial dynamic of echo in your work?

AL: Thank you for focusing on this aspect. I realize, as I respond to your prompts, that there are shorter answers to be had. Above, I might have said, “I appreciate rhizomatic reading.” Here, I might say, “I appreciate polysemic wording, multiplicity of meaning.” But, that would not capture the importance of echo for me, especially relative to one impulse informing the writing of these poems. And, yes, I think it is some kind of play or twist on the “echo” around which poets seem especially susceptible. Ergo troop versus troupe. My parents kept me out of the South African military. I appear to have become a poet.

Many years ago, immersed in the poetic intricacies of Chinese gongfu tea, I read that the Chinese word for aftertaste — say, for example, the fruity dryness on the roof of your mouth after sipping Oolong — is the same word for rhyme. (Mind blown: “Of course an aftertaste is a rhyme!”) It was one of those small moments in which permission is granted, a door opens. In this case, I began thinking of the poetic rhyme — or, as I say almost interchangeably, the echo — in a very different way, at a larger scale. I think the Stein quote at the start of the Angola section captures it well: “History is the learning of spectacular consistency privately and learning it alone and when more comes they receive.” So, the rhyming of history, personal and otherwise.

My children were quite young and, beyond our immediate landscape, the country in which I had recently become a citizen found itself in distant wars (Bush wars of the post-9/11 world, in fact) that felt like an echo of something eerily familiar. Years before, when I was their age and still in South Africa, I came upon my father (a journalist) watching a television piece about the Angolan border war. The program showed a strikingly beautiful African scene: dry veld, grassland and scrub, a river, and beyond it scattered Acacia trees. Scene of a bush war. My father attempted to explain what unfolded, between the trees on the screen, to his child. I don’t recall his exact wording in that early memory but my young takeaway was shockingly clear and has stayed with me: hidden on the borders of our lives, terrible violence occurs in which we are implicated, and there appears to be no end to it. (One might say that my family’s story of migration was, among other things, an attempt to distance ourselves as much as possible from that particular violence. A naive assumption that such an act might “leave it all behind.”) 

Thirty or so years later, I now found myself with children of my own, concerned again by distant wars, roles reversed but echoes apparent. A bush war had become a Bush war. Using the Oulipian analytic model, I began writing what I thought of as a dictionary that might explain all of this to my children. And, contemplating the echo chamber quality of politicians explaining the need to go to war, I wanted to use defined words as defining words — echoes of echoes of echoes registering the absurdity of it all. Around this time, I had also stumbled upon a job in Silicon Valley and was responding to that entire experience. So for example, the echo in a word like “mine” (part of the Angola section) reflects that cruel instrument of warfare; as well as data mining; as well as the mine of acquisitive, consumer-driven, materialistic culture; as well as the gesture of a toddler imposing linguistic order in their world with newly learned words, grabbing an object and possessing it with a “mine!”

The word “mine” also takes on a particularly important echo, as it created a thread into other sections of the book. Working in Silicon Valley, I had become aware that Coltan — a valuable ore used in pretty much all electronic circuitry — was, in no small way, fueling and funding the conflicts of Central Africa. The entire globe needs Coltan for everything from video game players to mobile phones to drones and, when you spend any time learning about it, you realize that the ease of our connected lives comes at tremendous, hidden human cost (as if the Foxconn factory conditions aren’t enough to make this point). Coltan is mined under appalling conditions by hand. It is part of what is labeled the “resource curse” of that part of the world, and the hunger for it results in a turmoil and devastation so poignantly captured by Norma Cole’s original lines (“At some point or at gunpoint/ human is to wander...”). 

I became aware of the story of an executive from Intel, the chip maker, who traveled to Central Africa with his wife to see the mountain gorillas there. Their camp was raided by Interhamwe guerillas, who kidnapped the group and took them deep into the forest. The result of this horrible story is that this particular executive and his wife were both killed (the only two in the party to be killed). Through the enormity of this tragic detail, a grotesque echo: that an executive whose livelihood was based on chipmaking, would die at the hands of killers inevitably funded by the need for chipmaking. Living and working in a landscape in which the word “execute” is used daily with glee, I began to think of Intel and then intel of the military sort, and then of course “in tell” the representation, or lack thereof, of all of this extraordinary human loss on the continent of my childhood. And, in this way, I wanted to embody something new in the telling. Which is how I arrived, I think, at a new narrative — if we can call it that — that relies on collage and lexicon derived from original sources, but in which I think the passages opened by new lines are more important than the source. It is, perhaps, in the telling.

I also want to say that, in the context of echo, I often saw the act of my writing, especially in the Angola section, as something akin to taking a photograph with one of those cameras in which you are required to superimpose two images, one upon the other. You click the shutter when you’ve brought the lenses together into a single, clear image. However, in my case, I did not want to click when two images became one. I wanted to leave the qualities of each lens intact and look for something in each without fully combining them. An acknowledged fracturing of parts that cannot come together again, and what that creates. 

(But then again, in some cases, I only included one lens. For example, I hear the word “evening” which appears in the two-part poem “An Evening Line” not as the pastoral evening of the end of a day as the sun departs the sky. It is, I think, the straightening of a line, like an horizon always in the distance. The closer you get, the less the evening. I am unsure there is anything pastoral in this book.)

And finally, rhyme versus echo. I do feel I use them interchangeably, but probably see echo as the more resonant of the two. Pun intended. I like the idea of an echo’s strength coming from the distance sound travels from its source to the object that reflects it back. I do find my life is filled with unexpected repetition, and calling those repetitions echoes acknowledges distance traveled, and hidden objects therein that cause the reflected rhyme. To acknowledge the echo is then perhaps to acknowledge and attempt to understand the unseen force causing it. (Speaking of being heavy-handed!)

HR: Your meditation on echo resonates with me internally. I, too, “like the idea of an echo’s strength coming from the distance sound travels from its source to the object that reflects it back.” I think of Human is to Wander as not exactly set in the United States–these poems resist the lure of obvious representation–but there is the sense of the US or the West as an object reflecting back through echo, toward the African continent, the sonic associations we bring to tropes such as “antelope” or “child soldier.” In the poem “Bush,” for instance, if we pick up Palmer’s thought where “the reader completes the circuit,” I read the final line–“It is the ostrich at the door, like a river without a message”–and I can’t help but think not only of the echo between the bush war in Angola and George W. Bush’s wars but also of burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich as the true cost of Bush’s wars, and other such wars, come to light. The image of the ostrich echoes back and forth across the Atlantic, so to speak, and becomes an implicit metaphor of critique in the circuit of my reading. We’ve already spoken of uncanny echoes between Angola, the country where South Africa conducted its bush wars, and Angola, the infamous prison in the United States, as well as Silicon Valley’s complicity in coltan mining in Central Africa. So I’m wondering what other ways do you see these poems as acknowledging and attempting to understand the unseen forces–of power?–in which a hidden “Africa” echoes within the United States? In a way, I’m asking about the relationship between the powerful and enlivening poetic forms you’ve developed in this book and the unseen forces you speak of.  

AL: As I think of the myriad ways I can answer this, I am reminded of a moment in Claudia Rankine’s remarkable Just Us, in which she describes being rendered invisible while waiting for a cup of orange juice on a flight home from South Africa. It is a powerful book for many reasons, of course, but I was deeply struck in that scene by Rankine’s quote of James Baldwin, who said that South Africa suffered “from the same delusion the Americans suffer from — it too thought it was a white country.” 

And here we all find ourselves, in 2022, alarmed, outraged, and fighting against legislative developments that at best — and this feels a generous take — are yet more disturbing signs of the evil stranglehold of white (male) minority rule. As we’ve said before, uncanny echoes.

I arrived in this country as an early teen. My father, a journalist, was sent to Washington, D.C. to cover, among other things, U.S. sanctions of South Africa. The privilege of this arrival —we were flown in by his newspaper — meant that my first image of “the land of the free” was from above, in a helicopter. My parents had read the fine print on our Pan Am airline tickets and as a result we were shuttled from JFK airport to midtown Manhattan — and, wow, what a way to arrive. Burned in my mind is a scene of black kids, including some my age, on a gritty NYC basketball court playing a pickup game. I arrived in New York after a childhood in apartheid-era South Africa, raised by parents vehemently opposed to that system, and yet, still in it. Difficult to commit this to words without sounding absurdly naive, but in my excitement I took that street scene below me, that first scene, as a picture of Freedom, yes with a capital F. The arc of my life since that moment might, in some way, be described as a lesson in how wrong I was. 

In many respects, this is a deeply racist country, ruled by a minority, in which all manner of groups are erased, politically and culturally, and legislated to the margins. (I am writing this on Jun 24, 2022, I need not spend too much time and space with examples – they’re hourly, daily, weekly in the news.)

How to write about this from a position of privilege, and also with a strong aversion to the didactic? I don’t think I have an answer to that question yet, but in the book — especially the third part, Watched for Music — I feel I am starting to come to terms with it. I feel it may just be a start. We shall if it goes further.

At one point during the Trump administration, I was listening regularly to John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ written in response to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young African-American girls. Daily news headlines, including several from contemporary Alabama, further added to the sense of a great unraveling in this country, an undoing of so much that had been hard won during the Civil Rights years of the 50s and 60s. Forgive the hyperbole, but in that context, I find that one piece of music to be an extraordinary American moment. I became obsessed with a video (on YouTube) of Coltrane and his fellow musicians playing Alabama, dressed in suits, sweating but entirely poised under harsh television studio lights. They are superb musicians and their composure and grace are infused with despair, sadness, and controlled rage. That is how I receive it. Coltrane composed the piece following the emotional range of Martin Luther King, Jr’s eulogy of the children murdered in the bombing. It is riveting.

The video shows a public moment, a communication between musicians and audience, that is both profound and, I think, also largely invisible. This is nothing new. Raising children in the United States, I have been struck by how easily white childhood can entirely overlook the blackness, the Africanness, of this country. Put in sharper terms: so many white children in this country appear to be entertained by, for example, music created by people they never actually know in any meaningful way. 

In the notes accompanying my book, I talk about the sources used to construct Watched for Music — specifically, the series of poems under that name. In short, it is the beginning of my attempt to register a particular kind of invisibility that lives, daily, in front of us, and at the heart of it is my engagement with American jazz. In my limited but growing understanding of this purely American art form, jazz briefly represented an opportunity, a true communication between black and white in this country. From the book, a music borne in cells. That moment appears to have passed, inevitably.

Further all of this: Quite literally in my first weeks of high school in the U.S., I met a group of kids, mostly refugees, who had arrived in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., as a result of American misadventures around the world. A kid from Vietnam. Another from Afghanistan. One from Lebanon. They were entirely invisible within the culture of this mostly-white public high school. We all shared in common a total ignorance of American sports, so during physical ed. we stood on the sidelines getting to know each other. I wrote profiles of them all for the school newspaper. One kid from Cambodia had watched as soldiers executed his father in the courtyard before their house. He and a sibling had hidden in trees during the day and traveled together at night to get to Thailand, and then eventually the U.S. Now, white kids in P.E. class ridiculed him for his strange name. This is how he was welcomed in the land of the free.

I thought of this person a few years ago when I traveled with my wife and children to Cambodia. At the site of the killing fields, dominated by a tower of skulls showing how easily and wickedly a citizenry can turn on itself, we read testimony by a survivor of that genocide: “I see myself as broken glass. Only I know how to find the pieces. Only I know how to put them back together.” Lines of witness that speak to the cruelty of that time, but also —I think—register the fractured self at the heart of most of the historic cruelty that informed the writing of my book. I am perhaps most interested in engaging with that fractured self, which might return us full circle to the start of this conversation. To acknowledge fracture is to depart from the linear, to avoid the obvious. Much of what I say here deeply informed my thinking as I wrote Human Is to Wander. It may not be immediately apparent to anyone reading the book, which takes on a fractured life of its own, and I am entirely okay with that.