A Few Words about a Late Scalapino/Poem
From Cynthia Hogue
This is a piece that starts with a meditation on the late, great Susan Sontag’s penultimate book, and ends with a contemplation of a work by the late, great Leslie Scalapino—a complex and fierce critique of the thinking that contributed to the invasion of Iraq. I offer these quite raw thoughts in the spirit of a tribute to Leslie Scalapino.)
Toward the end of her life, the fierce cultural critic and writer, Susan Sontag, published a book entitled Regarding the Pain of Others, which was a meditation on war photography and war art, catalyzed by the Bosnian War and the siege of Sarajevo in the last years of the twentieth c. In photography, obviously, the same verb is used for killing someone with a gun and taking her picture: we “shoot” an insurgent (or as is increasingly a strategic tactic among warring parties, a civilian); war photographers have “shot” soldiers in action (dying, raising a flag) that have become visual symbols in twentieth century history. * In writing, interestingly, we use the same verb, compose, to refer both to the process of creating a work and to setting it in type (since the advent of modern print culture): to cross from the immaterial to materialize form.
Sontag raises questions about the purpose and intent of the photographic war image that have also haunted culturally engaged postmodernist poets, who extend the notion of the graphic image into the ideographic poem, reacting to war’s ravages, investigating the very mindset of war-making as a way to undo the unthinking vengefulness and cynical opportunism that led to the Iraq war. Sontag remarks, writing about an early German film including documentary film footage and photographs of combat deaths in WWI, that “artists believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war” (14). If the ideology of war remains seductive to a populace on its eve, artists who question that ideology by mirroring war’s actual consequences back to citizens as graphic imagery have been accused of being suffering’s voyeurs, and as Sontag puts it, “Some of the reproaches made against images of atrocity are not different from characterizations of sight itself. Sight is effortless; sight requires spatial distance; sight can be turned off (118). Yet the artists disrupting our visual comfort are also proffering, she argues, a deep and humane “invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers” (117). And if there is an antidote to the ideological seductions of war--an issue that takes a woman to raise, Sontag wryly notes—it in visual imagery that reconfigures its process of composition.
I want to turn now to consider this issue in terms of a poetics of cultural and political engagement at work within, upon, and beyond the thematic, works with multiple radiants (if we think of Pound’s redefinition of the Image with a capital “I” as a radiant node, a complex) generated in the ideographic and visually typographic text. I am concerned to contemplate methods the poets themselves have investigated to transmute and contain outrage and grief, cross boundaries from emotion to concept, idea to ideograph, and enter the public sphere. Such a text appeals to and affects the sensory field via sight, catalyzing multiple levels of attentiveness that refuse conventional seductions of both consolation and clarity. As Lyn Hejinian remarks (although you must forgive that I repeat quite willfully an initial innocent misreading of “politics” as “poetics,”), “It is, sadly, in the context of atrocity that a poetics of difficulty must evolve; it is in such a poetics (and in the artistic activity that would shape it) that the substance of meaningfulness will be able to appear (The Language of Inquiry 320).
The poetics of difficulty as Hejinian imagines it is a shaping force. It affects—envisions—a politics of difficulty, giving them substance and materiality. Such art goes beyond the poetry of consolation and mourning, for although such a role is surely among poetry’s most significant cultural tasks, who in the world can be finally consoled today? A poet of difficulty shifts the terms of the poem’s materiality not to express grief, though the poem may well be saturated with that emotion, but to concentrate into analytic focus lines, letters, morphemes that shatter and expose duplicity. The last sequence, “DeLay Rose,” in Leslie Scalapino’s recent collection, Day Ocean State Of Stars' Night, fastens on the figure of the corrupt former Texas senator, connecting him to the complex and shifting forces the effects of which are represented by the Iraq invasion and an inundated New Orleans that saw no aid arrive from the federal government for five full days after the flood (it was two full months before residents were allowed into the city to survey the damage).
Scalapino’s poem oscillates among the three figures, which surface and sink, visual metonyms that radiate out with a complex of associations. “DeLay Rose” is a documentary-style serial poem that includes collaged-in quotations from current events (our gov’t’s use of “extraordinary rendition,” for example, while claiming publicly that “We don’t torture,” 196 ), but it is also a text exploring the possibilities of a dematerializing materiality, a meaningful shattering of the hypocritical cynicism the powerful use to stabilize their control (at least, temporarily), which the series itself terms “decomposition” and “dismantling” (198). The series moves among its dislocated subjects in seamed and shifting passages of fractured lines and words, fissuring the unstoppable U.S. gov’t’s illogic like so many fracture breaks, or, heart-rendingly, body parts blown off by mines.
The series is elegiac for the multiple social and cultural losses, and for friends who died during the series’ writing—specifically for Robert Creeley and Jackson MacLow (just as this raw piece is elegiac for Scalapino herself, who died before I could revise and expand these notes into an essay). “DeLay Rose” opens by tracking (quoting) Creeley’s notion that two people in conversation are “in outside’s motion”: their “words” “catch up to being (in) one’s events” (168). The terror of the ecstatic is how we might describe how it feels “having to be in one’s events and not being// in them“ (168), but typography is what we use to track the di/vision:
wrecked Iraq Occur’s first with dome floating our penned
president’d for photos kiss the green corpses swim
ing in the flood than the living transported in
outside’s motion–the occurrence between–
(“DeLay Rose” 1)
Here Scalapino sketches in what Sontag has called, speaking of the determining spectacle effect of war photography today, “the CNN effect” (104). Iraq and the Katrina evacuees are real and tragic occurrences that have a life of their own outside the words used to refer to them or the photo ops that put them to crass use. If words and speech do not catch up with being, are they, then, lies?
Scalapino asks piercingly whether “’everything [is] only lies’” to destabilize Syria (or Iran) if:
ing is the inten
The investigative scrutiny of such governmental duplicity bespeaks a trenchant awareness of the transnational reach of a global superpower, but its typo/graphy destabilizes and exposes the destabilizers.
Delay’s geographically specific corruption functions like “an isobath”: an isobath is an “imaginary line” which connects points of equal depth – not only all that “DeLay” signifies, but also flooded New Orleans, which the gov’t DeLayed aiding, and Iraq, where soldiers were ordered to slaughter prisoners rather than “return with them to base,” and the soldiers followed the chain of command “until Fallujah filled // with// corpses”:
…………………naked Iraqi corpses tied as a deer on a Hum
sport Occur’s first a corpse killed driven on the hood through
the streets dome floating ours penned starving, moved–The
worst thing is–of the flooded poor here, left corpses swimming
–some of these people (will) want to stay in Texas, as if they
already do will want, the mother
of ‘our’ president says who’s from Texas.
The source of power may be invisible, but in this passage, the envisioned, geographic specificity renders blindness born of class privilege trenchantly visible.
Following the isobathic line of the imagery reveals (and ravels together) that which occurs beneath the surface, the surface being literally that of flooded New Orleans (but symbolically that of Atlantis). The graphic images are drawn from the same depths, horrific details uncovered by horror.
As Scalapino recalls within the frame of the poem,
Mac Low said to me I don’t believe in the ‘inside’
‘only’ or ‘when’ they ‘r making both?
r/both side s/at once
single syllables ‘s halo halos of an exterior circle which
(rather than our being in it ‘circular’) (which)
one hears as he’s ‘do ing’ this the syllables there?
and we’re not ‘in’ that
Hejinian, rereading Adorno’s famous contention that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” argues for an oppositional stance that seems to me pertinent to Scalapino’s poem. Reading “barbarian” for its etymological roots in Greek meaning “foreign,” the poet as “barbarian,” Hejinian envisions the “poet-barbarian”: one who refuses to speak the same language as those purveying atrocity (326). In the passage above, Mac Low does not “believe” in the “inside”—whether inner circles of power and core meanings—taking nothing on faith. Syllables’ “s’s” function as “halos of an exterior circle,” shifted from aural to visual, the glowing emanation from the text: the paradox of the poem’s envisioning alternatives to insidership materializing through luminous and sibilant extraction.
The images in “DeLay Rose” seem at first separate, but as the poem unfolds in probing investigation, it tracks an isobath of hidden connections that the poem both reveals and discovers. “DeLay Rose” ends with the big wave outside our (the U.S.’s) shores, the “tsunami,” the “’wave.’” The two words are almost right justified, each on its own line. “Wave” is italicized. The wave hovers, both on the line and in our imaginations, both graphic and ideo/graphic, both word and—in the way of deep contextualized poetic engagement so distinct and consistent in Scalapino’s poetry—world.
NOTE: SEE Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).
Cynthia Hogue is the author of several critical and poetry books. Her most recent book is Or Consequence (Red Hen Press, 2010)