“A lesson about the stones that wait to rise in our hearts”: A Review of John Guzlowski’s Echoes of Tattered Tongues

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“A lesson about the stones that wait to rise in our hearts”:

A Review of John Guzlowski’s Echoes of Tattered Tongues

By Eric Kroczek

 

My first encounter with a John Guzlowski poem was as desultory as anything in life: I was eating a solitary dinner and barely listening to the news on the local public radio station one evening after work in 2007 when I gradually became aware that I was hearing Garrison Keillor read a poem, a good one. The program was The Writer’s Almanac, and the last poem’s stanza haunted me for days:

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.

At the time, I didn’t catch the name of the poet; I meant to Google it, but forgot. Life went on.

Fast forward several years. I friended this writer on Facebook, John Guzlowski, who was friends with some of my wife’s writer friends, because I liked some of his comments, and why not, right? In any case, he wrote a lot about Polish immigrants in Chicago, which intersected with a memoir-ish thing I was working on. I bought a couple of his books of poems, and I liked them. Their unpresuming, workmanlike free verse was hard and bleak, with only just enough black humor and sympathy to leaven it. From his poems, I learned that his parents had been slave laborers for the Nazis and his family had come to the U.S. after the War by way of a DP camp and settled in Chicago in the early 1950s. And in his book Lightning and Ashes, I found the poem I’d heard years before over dinner, “What My Father Believed.”

Last year, John published Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded, an experimental yet deeply satisfying mongrel at the intersection of poetry, history, biography, and memoir—in the same vein as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, but with poems instead of pictures. Many of its constituent parts have found print in other places, particularly in his previous collections The Language of Mules and the aforementioned Lightning and Ashes. But Echoes of Tattered Tongues isn’t a simple greatest-hits anthology by any means. Rather, Guzlowski resets the older material in a new framework, much as a composer might incorporate musical themes and ideas she’s previously worked out in piano sonatas and string quartets into a new symphony that coheres and magnifies her original pieces.

Echoes is largely the story of Guzlowski’s parents, as well as the story of how he came to learn  from them the parts of that story he didn’t already know. It progresses in three movements, each movement delving deeper into the past—unfolding memory and uncovering missing pieces of the historical record: from his parents’ twilight years, to mid-century—John’s childhood—when they left the DP camp in Germany and emigrated to America, and finally, to the War itself, and the root of the deep unhappiness his parents carried with them to the grave.

Book I introduces us to Guzlowski’s parents in retirement, in Arizona, and gives us glimpses of what happened to them in their early lives, how it haunts them. In “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeberg’”, a deft poem that is equal parts hilarious and horrifying, his mother, angry and sardonic, critiques John’s earlier effort at telling her story—a poem that we don’t actually read until Book III:

She looks at me and says
“That’s not how it was.
I couldn’t see anything
except when they stopped
the boxcars and opened the doors.

And I didn’t see any
of those rivers,
and if I did, I didn’t know
their names.[”]

A serious, if wry, indictment, considering the original poem begins “My mother still remembers” and goes on to catalogue everything she supposedly saw from the eponymous cattle train. But then, she goes on to tell him some of what she did see, and to say, “Even though you’re a grown man / and a teacher, we saw things / I don’t want to tell you about.’”

We come to know Guzlowski’s mother well over the course of the book—the asperity of her outlook (“Why My Mother Stayed With My Father” begins “She knew he was worthless the first time / she saw him…” and ends “She knew only a man worthless as mud, / worthless as a broken dog, would suffer / with her through all of her sorrow.”); her violent, abusive rages (“Later in the Promised Land,” “Danusia”); her sardonic bitterness (“My Mother Was 19”—the harrowing denouement of a series of poems, written at different times, that are variations on the story of what happened to her and her family before she was sent to the camps). She stands in contrast to Guzlowski’s passive, sentimental, “worthless” father, who is the viewpoint character of much of the horror we see in the wartime Poland and Germany of Book III.

But before that, in Book II, Guzlowski guides us through his family’s experience as immigrants to America, who brought with them little more than a wooden trunk full of necessities, a heavy burden of trauma, and what few skills they had. As outlined in “What My Father Brought With Him,”

He knew there was only work or death.

He could dig up beets and drag fallen trees
without bread or hope. The war taught him how.
He came to the States with this and his tools,

hands that had worked bricks and frozen mud
and knew the language the shit bosses spoke.

The family slowly finds its bearings in the Polonia Triangle neighborhood in Chicago (made famous by Nelson Algren in The Man with the Golden Arm) in spite of poverty, crime, pedophile priests, his father’s frequent drinking bouts, and his mother’s violent mood swings, in which she lashes out at John, his father, and his sister Danusia—an elusive figure who holds an obvious emotional valence for Guzlowski, but who never comes clearly into focus, and whose story, one of sweetness and innocence lost, is never resolved. Several of these poems are unsettling stories told by or about others who had fled Europe after the War, and one (the charming “Kitchen Polish”) is about being a non-native speaker, who grew up speaking Polish at home and English everywhere else:

I can’t tell you about Kant
in Polish, or the Reformation
or deconstruction

or why the Germans moved east
before attacking west,
or where I came from,

But I can count to ten, say hello
and goodbye, ask for coffee,
bread or soup.

I can tell you people die.

It’s a fact of life,
and there’s nothing

you or I can do about it.
I can say, “Please, God,”
and “Don’t be afraid.”

If I look out at the rain
I can tell you it’s falling.
If there’s snow,

I can say, “It’s cold outside
today, and it’ll most likely
be cold tomorrow.”

Book III takes us into the nightmarish central Europe of Guzlowski’s parents’ wartime experience as prisoners of the Third Reich, and it is among the emotionally keenest of such chronicles. Few war poems I have read equal the intensity of “Landscape with Dead Horses, 1939”:

Look at this horse. Its head torn from its body
by a shell. So much blood will teach you more
about the world than all the books in it.
This horse’s head will remake the world for you—
teach even God a lesson about the stones
that wait to rise in our hearts, cold and hard.

Or of “The German Soldiers” (“We soldiers are only human. We love / to kill. It is the hidden God in each of us.”); or of the surprisingly surreal, sinister beauty of the book’s longest poem, “The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald,” about his father’s imprisonment there:

He remembers a movie he once saw
when he escaped from the camp.

In it, one of the heroes is a fat man,
the other skinny. On a boat lost at sea,
they look at each other in hunger and cry.

Then fatty smiles, and skinny cries harder.

[….]

He dreams dogs change into men
and sit at a table to discuss the war,
why it began and how it will end.

He wants to ask the dogs a question
but they can’t understand his howling.

Guzlowski’s attempt to learn and feel the origins of his parents’ pain thus brings us into closer emotional touch with the entirety of the War in Europe, widening by necessity from the particular to the general. It is a unorthodox way of telling such a story: though there are many examples of poems written by poets who experienced the camps firsthand, examples of secondhand histories told in verse are thin indeed. And yet it works, in ways that defy analysis or easy summary. Guzlowski’s empathy and imagination are extraordinary, at times truly shocking. His verse, which brings to mind variously Charles Bukowski, Charles Simic, and Philip Levine, has a vernacular concreteness and clarity that is all the more startling when it breaks sharply with realism, and he deftly captures those quirks of personality that bring characters into full view. Less than halfway through the book, I had unconsciously slipped from thinking What a novel way to tell this story to I can’t imagine how else it could be told.

And as if that weren’t enough, Aquila Polonica Publishing deserves great credit for producing a book that is a beautiful artifact, from its cloth and leather binding, to its creamy paper, to the stunning photographs that accompany the text. In every respect, Echoes of Tattered Tongues is an achievement that deserves wide recognition and long remembrance.

A Review of Leah Umansky’s Don Dreams and I Dream

Don Dreams and I Dream

A Review of Leah Umansky’s Don Dreams and I Dream 

by Sarah Marcus

As a binge watcher of the television show Mad Men and as a feminist reading through a feminist lens, I was interested to discover the manner in which Leah Umansky would address the main character of this AMC drama, Don Draper, a mysterious and not so mysterious cheating-hero. Umansky accomplishes the difficult task of both honoring this fictional man and exposing his distorted idealism and chauvinism in her compelling work, Don Dreams and I Dream. To begin with the end, in her final poem, “The Times,” Umansky admits, “I thought I’d hate Don, like everyone else, but I don’t. I long/ for him the way kids long for the turning of the Ice Cream Man.” Umansky’s pining for Don is matched by her insight and mastery of language as she navigates the boundaries between a public and private sense of past and present and of intimacy and distance.

While these poems absolutely can and do stand alone without knowledge of the show, the experience of this chapbook of 15 poems is much enhanced by understanding the intricacies of each character and relationship. As I entered the world of poet-advertising, I was most struck by how, at first glance, these poems seem to be concerned with the past but are in fact very much about the future. These poems not only look forward, they often exist in a landscape of fearing things to come. In the TV show and in our current lives, there is an ever-present anxiety that what we do will eventually be considered irrelevant, and that we are, perhaps, living too much in this moment. Much of this work touches the very core of our search for worldly permanence.

Love, although not necessarily romantic, is a strong narrative thread tying together each poem in this collection. In these pages, the reader finds love of work, love of self, love as “an advertisement,” and love as “sold and bought.” While considering the many ways in which love is made visible or tangible, Umansky makes sure to remind the reader that they are not in charge here. For example, in the very first poem, “Simple Enough For a Woman,” as if the title was not enough of an affront, the reader is uncomfortably directed to “be happy.” Here, we are also enabled to consider the notion of value. These poems give life to the decision of who and what is valuable and asks us to determine how value is measured. The model of worth and of knowing what we are worth, and to whom, is the cornerstone, the key, to entering this world of consumerism.

To be your “own engineer” is the goal, and to be able to accomplish this, as seen in the poem, “Days of Sterling/ Days of Yore,” one must “[live] the dream” like Don. In the poem, “In My Next Life, I Want to Be an Ad Man,” we receive another bold direction: “Make me look good; the world is dangerous.” Appearances are of the highest import and looking good is always preferable to safety.

The world is dangerous, but these poems inhabit a world of what feels like distant danger, as if there is an awareness of impending doom, but there is inherent fun to be had within this instability. The dangers include not only the extravagant lifestyles (of women, booze, and parties), but also the rise of physical and emotional manufacturing: the steel machinery and the coolness of selling an idea. Near the end of this manuscript, there is even a poem titled, “Beauty is in the Machinery,” where Umansky writes, “It is easy to get turned or turned on,” as if chaos is necessary to vulnerability and the threat of losing yourself is not only worth the risk but is sexy and desired, even mandatory.

Generous wordplay and insistent internal rhyme contribute to a feeling that these poems are flirtatious and lighthearted despite their focus on identity and personal significance. The reader is reminded in poems like “It’s the Selling,” that “[we] want to be told” what to think, what to do, and how to feel. We are essentially being asked to buy these poems and these ideas.  And again, in the poem “How Advertising Works,” we are told to be bold and confident (forceful, even), to “be a stallion.” One cannot walk away from this chapbook without considering what they are selling and what they are being sold.

These poems reveal a meticulous planning and careful stepping, where everything feels on purpose and orchestrated. Perfectly arranged in the poem, “Creation without Design,” Umansky writes, “I want the color/ to repeat itself/ down your neck;/ So you remember/ that lipstick/ wasn’t made for you,/ but for me;/ So that I can remember/ what a man does/ to his woman.” A stunning image, but moreover a statement that a system is already set-up and composed. Something already existed and was done for you and in spite of you.

The manuscript’s final line, “It’s a man’s world, but not for all of us,” references the act of a young woman, one of Don’s protégées, rising in the advertising ranks and accepting a job with a competitor company. She is leaving the nest, so to speak. For her, and for a moment in our solidarity with her (we can taste the us), the world feels wide open and possible—but, it is a man’s world, and Don Draper is the man, and Umansky, like the show’s writers, never lets us forget that we are very much at his patriarchal mercy. This last line of Don Dreams and I Dream reasserts ownership of our delusion in thinking that things could, in fact, ever be different from how they have been. We are dared to want this, but as Leah Umansky cautions us in “Don Discovered America,” “wanting and having/ are two different things.”

Leah Umansky, Don Dreams and I Dream. Kattywompus Press, 2014: $12

 ***

Sarah Marcus is the author of BACKCOUNTRY (2013, Finishing Line Press) and Every Bird, To You (2013, Crisis Chronicles Press). She is also a Count Coordinator for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and an editor of Gazing Grain Press. Read more at sarahannmarcus.com.

 

A Review of Brenda Hasiuk’s Your Constant Star

Constant Star_Hasiuk

A Review of Brenda Hasiuk’s Your Constant Star

by Will J Fawley

Brenda Hasiuk’s YA novel, Your Constant Star, opens the first of its three sections by introducing readers to Faye. Adopted from China by a Polish mother and a Scottish father, Faye is “pretty much happy ho-hum.” Still, she possesses a lingering feeling of displacement in light of being adopted, especially in regard to the frequency and state of child abandonment in China. Faye provides many lovely cultural details throughout her narration, such as the Chinese story of lovers being connected, however far apart they may be, by a red string. These details make Faye a believable and compelling character.

Next readers meet Bev, Faye’s self-proclaimed sort-of friend. Bev is pregnant and has decided to give her child up for adoption. She has recently returned to Winnipeg after living in Vancouver for many years, and is reconnecting with her childhood and with Faye. Much of the novel’s second section follows Bev in her attempts to choose the right adoptive parents for her baby, with Faye tagging along for the ride.

The third section is dedicated to Mannie, the father of Bev’s baby. He seems completely lost, though readers learn that he has given up carjacking and dealing to make pizzas in order to earn legitimate money that will help support his future baby. Bev doesn’t want him to know who the adoptive parents are, and part of Mannie’s quest concerns his efforts to contact Faye and learn of the whereabouts of his son after the adoption takes place.

There is a gravitas about the book that is still with me. I enjoyed the first two sections, but the third was a bittersweet sucker-punch that made it all meaningful and terrible and beautiful. We are left with the idea that “what’s most beautiful and what’s most brutal are just two halves of the same whole.”

Overall, this is a book caught in liminal spaces – between beautiful and brutal, between cultures, between times, and between genres.

As for the cultural divide, there is a clear focus on globalization. It seems like no two characters in the novel have the same background. They are Chinese, Polish, Scottish, Métis, Russian, Argentinean, Pilipino, and they are all, with one exception, Canadian. Characters are constantly being whisked around the country and around the world to China and Russia, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver. Still, this is a very Canadian novel, a very Winnipeg novel. It is a novel about Canada and how the country, and Winnipeg itself, is a melting pot of cultures from around the world.

This is also a novel that spans not only distance, but also time. It is full of flashbacks and daydreams. Present events always seem to be fuelled by memories. Hasiuk weaves a web of time that pulls the reader through these characters’ lives, giving us an intimate look at their complexities. The flashbacks are so many and so smooth that the present becomes a bridge between memories, the reader scarcely realizing they’ve crossed it until they are on the other side, looking back. Though this could be confusing or slow the pacing, Hasiuk handles these instances beautifully, successfully adding layer upon layer of depth to these characters and their histories.

And as for the genre divide, Kirkus Reviews published a piece in which the book’s YA classification was questioned, because so much depends upon the teenagers’ parents and situation in life, leaving them little room to act. And while these characters may be affected by the past, they feel liking living, breathing teens in the present. Certainly it’s important to remember that people are a culmination of their pasts and their families, and therefore what Brenda Hasiuk provides in Your Constant Star is an honest look at young people’s lives.

The novel reads very clearly as one for young adults, a book about the struggle of young people finding their place in a complicated, globalized world in which they have been displaced since birth. Each character is halved by culture, by distance, by borders, and is searching for their true self at the other end of the red string.

Brenda Hasiuk, Your Constant Star. Orca Book Publishers, 2014: $12.95

***

Will J Fawley is a writer and blogger living in Canada. He blogs at The Wildest Edge.

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: NO

no


from NO
By Ocean Vuong


TORSO OF AIR

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night—sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

and gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve.

Until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, for once,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side—

waiting.



HOME WRECKER

And this is how we danced: with our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. And this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

sweeping though my hair—my hair a wildfire.
We covered our ears and your father’s tantrum turned

into heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart

there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above the fireplace.

Always another hour to kill—only to beg some god
to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not the car,

the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance

we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:

This is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.



Today’s poems are from NO, published by Yes Yes Books, copyright © 2013 by Ocean Vuong. “Torso of Air” previously appeared in BODY Literature, and “Home Wrecker” previously appeared in Linebreak. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


NO: Anyone who has already sensed that “hope is a feathered thing that dies in the Lord’s mouth,” should get their hands on NO. Honest, intimate, and brimming with lyric intensity, these stunning poems come of age with a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in an attic, with a record stuck on please, with starlight on a falling bomb. Even as Vuong leads you through every pleasure a body deserves and all the ensuing grief, these poems restore you with hope, that godforsaken thing—alive, singing along to the radio, suddenly sufficient. —Traci Brimhall, Our Lady of the Ruins


Ocean Vuong is a recipient of a 2013 Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from Kundiman, Poets House, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Poems appear in Poetry, The Nation, Beloit Poetry Journal, Passages North, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY.


Editor’s Note: I’m just going to come right out and say this: Ocean Vuong is one of the best and most important poets writing in America today. I have not been so moved as I am by Vuong’s words since I first read Li-Young Lee. This poet has changed my life. He has renewed my belief in American poetry. That it can be emotional and heartbreaking. That is can be beautiful and full of hope. That modern American poetry can—and does—matter. In my humble opinion your poetry collection is simply not complete unless it houses both Vuong’s groundbreaking chapbook, Burnings, and his newest release from Yes Yes Books, NO.

NO is a surprisingly experimental collection, yet Vuong remains dedicated to the lyric and the narrative, guiding us through its formal twists and turns through emotive language and evocative imagery. Throughout its pages the poet intimately explores themes of love, sexuality, and belonging against a backdrop of devastating loss. It is a brilliant and beautiful collection, a true heartbreaking work of staggering genius. As the book’s publisher did when reading through the manuscript for the first time, when Ocean Vuong says NO to you, be prepared to say “Yes Yes!”


Want to see more from Ocean Vuong?
Buy NO from Yes Yes
The Poetry Foundation
Interview in The Well & Often Reader
Ben Lerner on mentoring Ocean Vuong, Brooklyn College

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: THE ARROW

Picture 9


from THE ARROW
By Lauren Ireland


Picture 4





Picture 8





Picture 7











Today’s poems are from The Arrow, published by Coconut Books, copyright © 2014 by Lauren Ireland, and appear here today with permission from the poet.


The Arrow: “It took almost a lifetime’s worth of emotions to read Lauren Ireland’s THE ARROW. She says Time eats at the edges of things so we hear her say other things, too, I am hating you from very far away and I am a grownup/flying right into the mouth of fear. This book is fraught with emotional emergencies, sometimes reckless, almost a little demented as one has to be when one faces who and what and where and how we are. Lucky for Ireland there are friends to whom many of these poems are dedicated who accompany her as she’s permanently lost in this very very mysterious flight we all share.” —Dara Wier


Lauren Ireland grew up in southern Maryland and coastal Virginia. She is a graduate of the MFA program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and an editor at Lungfull! Magazine. Lauren is the author of Dear Lil Wayne (Magic Helicopter Press, 2014) and two chapbooks, Sorry It’s So Small (Factory Hollow Press, 2011) and Olga & Fritz (Mondo Bummer Press, 2011). She co-curated The Reading at Chrystie Street in New York. Currently, she lives in Seattle with her husband and her husband’s cat.


Editor’s Note: As I read Lauren Ireland’s The Arrow I pushed against the book’s air of flippancy, its self-preservation in the guise of farce and self-deprecation, its false oaths of apathy. These are, as Naomi Shihab Nye would say, “the armor [the book] put[s] on to pretend [it has] a purpose in the world.” But this book does not need to pretend. It wears its armor as a tricked out husk around its fervent vulnerability. The poems within its pages are the bloodlettings of a twisted, tortured, and exceedingly human mind.

The Arrow is full of moments of lyric beauty and stunning, brutal clarity interwoven with equal portions of heaviness and frivolity that make for quite the witches’ brew. There is something unsettling about this book. Something that does not sit well. A wound or scab that begs to be healed yet must be picked at. I was often uncomfortable reading it, yet I could not put it down. I was drawn to the beauty and put off by the grotesque, and I believe this was meant to be the author’s poetic commentary on life. Life—like this book—is full of debauchery and death, fear and imagination, the mundane and the absurd. Love is inextricably linked with hate. There is a thin line between reality, waking dreams, and nightmares. This book is labyrinthine, in both the literal sense and the David Bowie sense of the word.

While it is easier to take some poems in the book more seriously than others, this, too, is an artistic reflection of the human life. As a work of art, however, I felt myself anchored throughout my journey by very deliberate artistic choices. Wickedly smart and poignant titles. Moments of lyric clarity that took my breath away. And a healthy dose of killer end-lines, which I am always a sucker for. “Now I am a grownup flying right into the mouth of fear,” “Now… I am running / from the nighttime wolves / in the forest that never was,” and that crushing Orphic echo, “Oh / I am exiled / my friend / this once / don’t turn.”


Want to see more from Lauren Ireland?
Official Author Website
Buy The Arrow from Coconut Books
Buy Dear Lil Wayne from Magic Helicopter Press
Small Press Distribution

A Review of Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room

Cousins Potato Room

A Review of Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room

by Jennifer Dane Clements

Something in the Potato Room, the book-length poem that won Heather Cousins the Kore Press First Book Award, is an unexpected ars poetica. It is about many things, but ultimately about moments that surprise and redefine us. The constraints that birth new freedoms.

These constraints stripe each page: lines or coffins or boundaries, asking the reader to look beyond. Boredom. Routine. Depression. Sometimes—adulthood. Stillness is a rope, solitude a tether. We enter this book with an unnamed character bound by each of these things, exhausted by the details of her own routine:

“A pot of
paperwhites. A green
mug. A bottle of ibuprofen
and a sheet of Sudafed, the
little red gems sealed in foil.”

It is a dead boy, emerging from the basement earth, that breaks from his own hiding place and ultimately pulls the unnamed character from hers. Sometimes you are the skeleton buried in the basement of a newly purchased home. Sometimes you are the homeowner buried in the minutia of a tedious job and a solitary life. The unexpected makes you feel suddenly “pink/and full of skin.”

Sometimes a poem is a constraint. Sometimes a book. Mutual exclusivity can have that feeling too—the entrapment of either/or. We feel it for the unnamed character, and for Cousins too—for her poem that won’t be tucked in to notions of brevity, for her anthropologist’s eye for charts and medical illustrations and the things they only suggest.

We see the tidy boxes, squares and rectangles of text on the page, holding in what needs to be suppressed.

And we see the things that emerge from constraint. A discovery, an adventure. An excuse not to dress and go to work. A skeleton in the basement of a house. Death reimagined into life—and this doesn’t just mean the skeleton. The book, too, emerges from the brevity and smallness expected from the word poem. The book is a poem, the poem is a book, and the bones of a dead boy swim through layers of basement dirt to the surface to insist these constraints are all imagined.

“It seemed as if it hurt—
the coming-back-to-life.
Like frozen toes in hot
water. The ache and
shiver of blood breaking
from its sluggish sleep.”

The skeleton is dead, then reborn through imagined story. The unnamed character is alive without playing a part in her own existence. That thing that we expect, that very simple fulfillment of definition, is shut down and broken apart.

“Life
doesn’t stay still, and
death doesn’t stay still ei-
ther”

And here, still, are the things that can be made whole from the dirt, from the seeming emptiness of an unsatisfying routine. Here is a poem that was made a book, the skeleton made flesh through Cousins’s imagining.

Heather Cousins, Something in the Potato Room, Kore Press, 2009: $12.99.

***

Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiot, Nerve, and Psychopomp (forthcoming) and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and others. Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. jennifer-dane-clements.com.

Consider the Rant: A Book Review

Consider the Rant

by Okla Elliott

On Pain of Speech: Fantasies of the First Order and the Literary Rant
Dina Al-Kassim
University of California Press
ISBN 978-0-520-25925-6
$34.95 Paperback
$28.00 E-Book

In Dina Al-Kassim’s new book On Pain of Speech: Fantasies of the First Order and the Literary Rant, she takes up (among other things) Michel Foucault’s interest in the limit-experience of reading certain texts (particularly Georges Bataille) and turns it around by asking what it means to write such a text—that is, under what conditions, with what linguistic tools, and to what purposes such texts are written. Al-Kassim focuses mostly on Oscar Wilde, Jane Bowles, and Abdelwahab Meddeb—giving each of these authors an entire chapter—and makes regular use of Georges Bataille, Charles Baudelaire, and Aimé Césaire, thus making her project an utterly comparative one that insists on its portability across national and linguistic borders.

The basic argument of the book runs as follows: Speaking truth to power has been co-opted by institutions of power in many instances; these institutions, such as elite universities, exclude more people than they include, thus making them part of the Foucauldian schema of the microphysics of power in society (as he lays out in Society Must Be Defended and other works); therefore, the rant (whose tradition harkens back, Al-Kassim explains, to the “rakish libertinage” of the seventeenth century) is often the only form of discourse available to the dispossessed or the subaltern. She is clear, however, that the literary rant is not a genre. “Postscripts, letters, afterwords: marginal genres aat the edges of masterful texts are often the site of the rant’s emergence, but what I am calling the rant is not a genre in itself.” Al-Kassim engages yet further definition by privation, emphasizing that the literary rant is also not parrhesia (“fearless speech”). It is a speech act or series of speech acts that run counter to the powered entities of a society, but it is not necessarily confrontational (though it can be and often is). The essential aspect of the literary rant is that it is unintelligible speech that takes place when no speech is possible.

The theoretical DNA of On Pain of Speech can be easily determined by a quick look at its paratextual elements. The book opens with three epigraphs—one from the philosopher-pornographer Georges Bataille, one from Michel Foucault, and one from Judith Butler. By picking a single line from each of the epigraphs, we can get a reasonable picture of the project Al-Kassim has put before herself. From the Bataille epigraph: “Qu’on me fasse taire (si l’on ose)!”; from Foucault: “We are dealing . . . with a discourse that turns the traditional values of intelligibility upside down.”; and, finally, Butler: “This relation to the Other does not precisely ruin my story or reduce me to speechlessness, but it does, invariably, clutter my speech with signs of its undoing.” A look in the Index lets us see that there are fifty-one references to Freud and sixty-three to Lacan, six for Judith Butler, but only two for Jameson and two for Derrida. This is fitting since Al-Kassim uses many psychoanalytic terms and tries to rethink (rather successfully) Lacan’s theory of foreclosure, and she focuses considerably more on speech acts as they constitute the self than on speech acts qua speech acts. It is surprising, however, to see that Gayatri Spivak receives only one mention in the book, and that her widely influential essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is not the occasion of this single reference—surprising because Al-Kassim’s central effort could be seen as exploring how the subaltern attempts speech via the rant.

Here I feel compelled to point out that Al-Kassim chooses never to clearly define what a literary rant is. This is not to suggest that she does not give ample examples and even certain quasi-universal features to literary rants, but it would be anathema to the nature of a literary rant, as Al-Kassim conceives it, for it to have rigid genre specifications. Its purpose is precisely to explode genre specifications and expectations.

Al-Kassim’s analysis could profitably be applied to much modernist and avant-garde writing, ranging from the feminist-experimentalist Gertrude Stein to the Communist-Dadaist Tristan Tzara to many contemporary post-colonial avant-garde artists (such as the Raqs Collective in India). It can also, however, be applied to the fascist-Futurist Filippo Tomaso Marinetti and others of his ilk productively, though given the book’s focus on leftist and post-colonial resistance, it might come as a surprise to Al-Kassim to see her work thus employed. As she conceives her theoretical model, it is already remarkably portable across decades and nations and movements, but it has an even larger scope than the author herself seems to give it. So long as the writing in question “turns the traditional values of intelligibility upside down” and challenges the dominant paradigm of thought at a given time, it seems it could be profitably read through the lens of Al-Kassim’s book.

This wide portability and the refreshingly readable prose of the book make On Pain of Speech an ideal text for courses on post-colonialism, Modernism, and avant-garde literatures at the advanced undergraduate level and beyond.

[This piece was originally published in Inside Higher Education online.]