Paul Legault, misc.
Jen Bervin, misc.
Dan Beachy-Quick, misc.
Reviewed by Brandon Kreitler
THE WORDS OF OTHERS
The title character of Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" has a blessing and a problem, and the blessing and problem have the same source. Menard is both doomed and emboldened by his knowledge of the exact content and dimension of his artistic ambition: the opus he yearns to compose coincides, word for word, with the Quixote. He has read Cervantes' novel and now he wants to write it.
Menard is, at the moment of the parable's telling, unsure how to proceed, "for he did not propose to copy" Cervantes' novel but rather, by means too absurd or intricate or metaphysically-implicated for Borges to exactly elaborate, undertake whatever adventure of life and of cognition would bring about the Quixote again:
To be, in some way, Cervantes and reach the Quixote seemed less arduous to him—and, consequently, less interesting—than to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.
He requires that he arrive at the novel by his own cunning and labor, that he compose his life and intuition such that his intuition and life compose Don Quixote. He alone must be the conduit of this vast and moving product of imagination. That this product already exists, lacking nothing, is a problem, but (and this is the parable's leap into the beyond) perhaps not an impassable one.
We could imagine a Menard, arriving on the scene in the half-century after Warhol, becoming what came to be called a conceptual writer. Menard is not deluded that the world needs a new book. He has not come to narrate his anguish or earned wisdom; he does not "have something to say." He might have slapped his own name on the Quixote and sold copies on the street á la Richard Prince, or retyped it in the style Kenny Goldsmith, or tweeted its every line like Vanessa Place. But he'd be unmoved by these projects (he's explicit about this). Such acts—we've learned to speak of them as provocative, "interesting"—would fall woefully short of his inspiration.
A contemporary poet or novelist in a more conventional mode might speak of a project modeled on the Great Book—an homage to a canonical work nevertheless updated, seen anew, touched up by the latecoming writer's hand. Borges' tale helps us see in this apparently reasonable framing a sublimation we've thoroughly naturalized—the conversion of an unacceptable desire (to be the author of another's book) into a culturally prestigious form. Menard's calculation is insane and unassailable: Why aim for a worse Quixote when the Quixote itself is possible?
As is the way with parables, Menard's impasse is our own. His project merely makes plain a permanent and impossible dynamic: that a writer's desire is—to some real if incalculable extent—mapped by her reading, by work already realized, work that needs nothing from her. Critics can afford aporia; poets need only not to get stuck. The question is how to make a large, less repressed response to influence, infatuation, or love; how to become or remain a writer while not denying the catalyzing experience of reading; how to stay transfixed and not lose oneself.
Though Menard wouldn't see it as a solution, exactly, his tale offers a view on why translation, a practice probably almost as old as writing itself, has in our era seen such broad application and advocacy. Translation (sometimes appended by "creative" or "radical") is a way to split a bad binary choice: between the old psychological account of the self-expressive artist hunting originality on the one hand, and an intellectualized, chic recuperation of plagiarism on the other. Long a utilitarian undertaking, "translation" now labels an implicit argument about literary production itself: an image of minds meeting in socially productive collaboration rather than ego-driven agon. "Only translation can increase what is known," writes Paul Legault, "keeping the old thing and growing it."
From a wide field I start with Legault if only because his work makes these implicit dynamics so literal. His statement above could serve as an ars poetica in capsule form, though the line is less than entirely his. The language comes from Fall&co., Legault's English-to-English translation of William Carlos Williams's Spring and All, itself a meditation on the imagination's dance with and against tradition. Fall&co. isn't Legault's first two-step with a canonical model: there's The Emily Dickinson Reader (ED's complete poems rewritten in "Standard English"), The Walt Whitman Reader (similar), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 2 (an error-inviting attempt to reconstitute Ashbery's book from memory). Lunch Poems 2 (after Frank O'Hara and written on Legault's own Manhattan lunch breaks) is forthcoming this year. The enterprise has an editorial dimension, too. With Sharmila Cohen, Legault co-edits the radical translation journal Telephone, and in 2013 the two compiled The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare, an anthology in which 154 writers treat the complete sonnets by an utterly untypifiable variety of means.
Legault's project is friendly, generative, the fun kind of daring: like doing karaoke from behind the mask of the great dead. The books are exciting as emblems of permission and something more equivocal as reading experiences (permission, of course, may permit too much). My favorite iteration is his rewriting of the "Brief Anthology of Quotations" that closes Sontag's On Photography. The compression of joke and the diction's wild declension are the active ingredients. Poised formulations by Baudelaire and Kierkegaard become, respectively: "Daguerre really fucked up French history when he invented the selfie," and "Everyone looks the same to me in a photograph: stupid." The Dickinson book relies on an even more drastic vernacular reduction, whereby a whole poem like "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" becomes a chatty epigram: "Suddenly it is as if all plurality became one thing, and in becoming so died. Or else just I died."
These are likable attempts, high-spirited and harmless, but what's their claim? The shrug and wink and wisecrack seem the prime revisionary ratios (not that ED and O'Hara and Ashbery didn't avail themselves of the same). The poems prefer de-metered paraphrase to unchecked eloquence; they assume a tacit alliance between the modern and the low. The intimation of possibility and exhaustion occur in close proximity. Is this influence bravely engaged or influence denuded? Is this the new or the late?
One of the quieter entries in Cohen and Legault's Shakespeare anthology was an excerpt from Jen Bervin's Nets. Bervin's book arrives at its title by trimming the initial letters of "sonnets." The poems proceed by a like method, treating the Bard's little songs by a kind of inverse erasure. Instead of blacking-out or otherwise removing unwanted language (leaving only the newly generated poem legible), Bervin dims the sonnets to a faint but readable grey and chooses her words by assigning them the normal full-black font. The new poem therefore pops out against its source, which is always wholly present.
Bervin's lean poems are like resonant strands of thought pulled from sonnet's jewel-box. The attempt to find the minimal, self-cohering route through the word-field seems to be the primary compositional principle. From this formal logic a thread of auto-theorizing emerges. The book begins to think itself.
Erasure is a fairly common generative process, one that reliably churns out evocative if less than fully self-supporting combinations. Bervin's ear and sense of the poem as a visual entity bouy Nets above the mean, but what really makes the book so salient is how it accentuates erasure's potential to function as an allegory for writing itself, which always entails selection from within a finite system, which always puts the lone voice at the helm of a common technology. As she writes in the book's "working note":
I stripped Shakespeare's sonnets bare to the "nets" to make the space of the poems open, porous, possible—a divergent elsewhere. When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest.
What's narrowly a description of the book's mode is more broadly a gloss on literary production as such. Nets stages what's always the case. In this light, Bervin's choice of source material seems less than random. Shakespeare is palimpsest par excellence: more immediately relevant to us as a fossil layer of the English language than as a historical person—a word set and not a man. Wedged in the conglomerate are paraphrases of Montaigne, Hollingshed tales punched-up (recall Emerson's remarkable claim that Shakespeare was simply uninterested in originality), and countless neologisms now standard. Shakespeare, quite apart from whether one likes or has even read him, lives on in what Bervin calls "pre-inscription," having left an expanded palimpsest on which futurity might etch itself. Bervin's accomplishment is to have rallied such a sense of voice and argument within the comparatively thin bandwidth of the sonnets.
More recently, Bervin has taken on projects that seek to weave within the space of another major figure: Emily Dickinson. With the scholar Marta Werner, she edited The Gorgeous Nothings, a gathering of Dickinson's "envelope poems": elliptical lyric jottings on receipts, used stationary, and other paper scrap. The collection—published in both a trade edition and a beautifully ornate art book—follows the Drawing Center's 2013-14 exhibition of the poems (it'd be no less accurate to say papers). That show, so evocative and curious, pivoted on the daring choice to exhibit textual objects under the Center's ostensible rubric of "drawing." Indeed, the envelope poems (as we and not Dickinson call them) are of uncertain generic status, nor were they obviously intended for readership of any kind. Though the gnomic language was often fascinating, it was not easy, in the space of the gallery, to extricate verbal facts from the redolent materiality of the author's papers. The experience was less reading than looking at words.
The Gorgeous Nothings repatriates this writing to the space of the book. Bervin's work was to transcribe and arrange the poems typographically, legibly reproducing the words' relation to their irregularly shaped "pages" (a task for which she designed a font hospitable to Dickinson's elegant and at times indecipherable hand). Is it fanciful to wonder whether, given Bervin's longstanding practice of writing within existing works, this transcription of Dickinson takes on a creative and not merely instrumental aspect? It is deluded to intuit in this quotidian scholarly operation the glowing import of poetic labor? Is it foolish—too indulging of aura, too fetishizing of archival objects—to find in this literal writing of Dickinson's words a moving intimation of literary production—here released from "self-expression," from both anxiety and originality, and nevertheless delivering to the world a lustrous textual product?
This instinct, errant or not, seems to be shared by Bervin herself, and remarkable kind of conjuring happens when her impulse to rewrite is freed from the service industries of editing and scholarship. The Dickinson Composites (2004-2008), a series of six by eight feet embroidered quilts, reproduce a handful of manuscript pages from the fascicles. Bervin, who has often worked with textiles, followed Dickinson's hand with a red silk thread woven through off-white cotton backing. A few lines of handwriting have been stitched in full but the quilts are largely shorn of language, leaving a field of floating punctuation and traces of ED's dense revision process. Most prominent are the marks of addition and deletion—+ and - signs strewn like so much exploded math—that Dickinson used to indicate alternate options of word or phrase. The manuscript pages offer a "variant system" in which much of the language has been nominated to be moved or replaced. The poems here are unfixed, yet to be settled by editors into the standardized versions we know best. By layering the marks into these "composites," Bervin amplifies this visual rhetoric of iteration and potential, leaving an atmosphere thick with devotion and unmeaning. As with the envelope poems, the written (or drawn) mark drifts between its material and symbolic capacities. Like Cy Twombly's chalk scrawls, The Dickinson Composites suggest writing without content, writing as yet unnarrowed by reference. And what writer never wants to slur away from communication?
But words remain the problem. The Composites (also published in a print edition) offer their weaver/writer way to inhabit ED's visionary penumbra without being snared by the selection of actual words—which would be either different from Dickinson's (and almost certainly lose power by that difference) or identical (and thus, in one sense, no accomplishment whatever). And so the weavings pull possibility from the actual; they invoke language while avoiding it. Their seduction as visual art is laced with bitterness for the poet, who is lured by a path of escape he can't quite take. The weaver, more readily than the writer, knows the generative capacity of repetition. The writer, more readily than the weaver, knows it guarantees nothing.
Dan Beachy-Quick's literary output—consisting of books of verse, essay, criticism, fiction, and hybrids thereof—has the feeling of a single long poem, unified if loose. The poem's investment is personal though its references are as often taken from literature as from life; the poem's posture is an enchantment wounded and disciplined by enchantment's ebb; its mode is a self-critical and at times self-revising late romanticism; its object is a knowledge known also in the senses, an intellection adequate to feeling. One might workably enter the poem from anywhere and glean its ceaselessly inquiring character.
Beachy-Quick's writing is, to an extraordinary degree, the work of an enamored reader. Much of it has occurred under the sign of a few polestars: Keats, Melville, Thoreau. A Brighter Word than Bright (2013) is a study of Keats and a meditation on poetic vocation that at every turn burns with an embodied knowledge of apprenticeship to poetry. Gentleness (2015), a book of verse, takes poetic tradition itself as its latent and sometimes explicit subject. In the Menard-like A Whaler's Dictionary (2008), Beachy-Quick means to complete the cetalogical dictionary that Ishmael describes (and leaves unfinished) in Moby-Dick. In an Escher-like braid, Beachy-Quick's dictionary, instead of concerning itself primarily with whaling, is a critical meditation on Melville's novel. Its cross-referenced entries, wide-ranging in their philosophical allusions, are a stunning testament to what could be called poetic thinking, and to resourceful and spellbound reading. The book is Beachy-Quick's second Moby-Dick-orbiting monograph.
In Of Silence and Song (2017), the threads converge and generic distinctions erode. Included are notes, extended quotations, scholia, verse, essays in capsule. You could call it an annotated commonplace book, or better, a poet's notebook. The text resembles a dense and meandering wood: you might get lost there, you might come to feel that a given section too much resembles any other, that the variation and detail are without profit, or, alternately, that they are a magic unto themselves. At best, you might come across the image of your own inner quester on the surface of standing water. You might walk home with a talisman in hand.
Underneath its sweep of subjects and citations, Of Silence and Song is a book about reading and about trying to write; it's a search for the right relationship—uncertain but surely reciprocal—between these discrete practices and trying to live fully and well in our telescoping relations: to one's own mind or soul or imagination, to a family, a nation, and to whatever is permanent and implacable in our condition. I earlier described this work as "personal": I meant this less in the sense of "self-expression" (though surely there is some) than to point to an active concern with the status of the person relative to literary experience. Literary practice, in these pages, is understood as work to which one brings one's whole capacity—why rewrite the Quixote or expend such effort tying up Melville's loose ends if it won't stretch you? But instead of self-development or -realization (things our culture imagines every worthy undertaking to offer), the poet finds the self slipping, feels the distinctions which heretofore made the self bounded and knowable now blurring. As Beachy-Quick writes in A Brighter Word than Bright: "Keats discovers in himself the miracle that he is not himself...Genius is when the self suffers a breakage from one into many and 'I' becomes anonymous, choral, and the mind not a pot, but a putty." "Keats" here is a just a projection of the poetic vocation fully inhabited.
I'll forgo—ruefully—a meaningful engagement with Beachy-Quick's actual poems in favor of following him for a few steps in his adumbration of poetic vocation itself, however variously inflected. I want to consider the wages of so direct an approach to tradition. To hunt after a new cognitive music nevertheless resonant with the eloquent dead is to develop a relationship to failure, to experience the limited capacity of one's voice as a vessel of the deep song. The main failure of poetry is, of course, to become poetry: to plausibly attain a status or effect surpassing that of so much jazzy or flat language floating in a vacuum of force and consequence. Beachy-Quick repeatedly takes on a central poetic problem: that one may speak endlessly but is able to speak as a poet only rarely (sometimes with great labor, sometimes with unprompted and unearned ease). When one speaks poetry, then, who or what is it that speaks? This, from an interview in Kenyon Review, is one answer:
The longer I've spent reading poetry and writing it, too, the more distinctly I've come to feel the lyric space as one in which voices seek a means to persist beyond the bounds of the life that wrote them. It's an old thought, one easily dismissed, hardly part of the conversations I hear about poetry today, the way in which a poem seeks some kind of eternal utterance. I feel just as keenly that the words I use contain within in them a history of uses—often by the poets and writers I most love—which carry forward in nearly occult ways in my own poems. Even more than an appropriation of works and lives, I suppose I think of the poem as a kind of conjuring and a kind of repair.
As its writer acknowledges, this isn't, in its essential movements, a new answer, but it is an answer arrived at on the far side of supplication and work.
No one would deny that poetry offers certain opportunities to the ego, but it's nevertheless a vertiginous circumstance: it's hard to say what's ours. We mean to send out a sound of our own making and something comes back deeper than the sound we sent. Other voices have stowed away within our own—or was it that our own voice was already a replica of the others? Keats remains the most recklessly far-seeing reference:
As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character . . . What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body...
In this heady braid of the personal and the purgative, Keats accomplishes things that seem at cross purposes: he says the poet is an empty and limitless function; he claims he's nothing and claims the inheritance of an august line; he divests from identity and distinguishes himself from a rival. This is at once a gratifying fantasy and a mechanism of defense, an adaptation and a wisdom, the kind of thing a writing life that brought Keats face-to-face with his will's incapacity required him to fashion. In failure one may learn to listen to other voices, one is again offered the humility that Beachy-Quick has called "the threshold of ambitious vision": "To listen to genius is to let oneself be guided by that voice in the self that is not the self's own. It implies an otherness exactly where we expect to find identity; it speaks within us a rumor to us, that we are least ourselves where we are most ourselves."
Now we're where we belong, in deep water. There is something central to the poetic task that works against "originality," and not just in the sense that the poet doesn't typically invent his own words or that the gravity of influence fixes his orbit. The language that we identity as poetic in the first place is, in Allen Grossman's term, "archaic": it carries the intimation and force of prior speech. Its possibility feels somehow sanctioned already: in the mind of God, in the dreams of the ancestors, in the tradition of speech within which one now tries to speak. This doesn't need to mean that such language sounds old, but that it sounds, to say it one way, like a quote.
Repetition and recurrence are the lifeblood of a language. What is not yet repeated is not yet a word. The issue, as ever, is how to navigate the opportunity and obstacle inborn in this dispensation. When does repetition bear the stain of invalidation? When do we think it unfair and unproductive? When does it mean accruing resonance and depth, adding something by echo?
In our time, it was conceptualism that most explicitly equated literary writing with redundancy, and its mention is therefore unavoidable, even if only by way of a brusque endnote. Conceptualism saw that the discourse around literary originality wasn't honest. Our pretenses to it were wishful; our "original voices" were rarely that. Contemporary poetry was so much self-absorbed, sad dazzling; "self-expression" was so often the same old thing. Other fields, especially the visual arts, had embraced radically appropriative practices and sometimes produced striking work. Our inherited assumptions about literature impeded us from this path of obvious forward progress. "Conceptual writing" would blow by the inhibition, break the taboo on taking; literature could "catch up" with art.
If you were tired of all that can be tiresome about poetry and, for whatever reason, still wanted to trade in the market called "poetry," conceptualism offered a way forward. It spun an energetically assertive, self-fashioning discourse that was well-suited to communicative capitalism, even as it was avowedly "against expression." (Critics found incentive to get with the program too: it assigned them plenty of homework.) If self-regard was expunged from the text, the domineering atmosphere of authorial assertion surrounding the conceptualist project was impossible to miss. "Kenny G's real art is the projection of Kenny G," Ron Silliman once remarked.
If conceptualism offered one sort of answer to the questions this essay has tried to pose, it's the sort of answer that shows the question to have been wrongly put. It took up enough air that you felt you had to talk about it, and when you did there was too much and nothing satisfying to say. Kenny Goldsmith, in a banner example, promoted "uncreative writing" as a transgressive alternative to the tame creative writing industry, but his chief critique of the industry was, in one important sense, that it was uncreative already. And like this conceptualism could make audacious gestures in the vicinity of real issues, it could ponder itself endlessly and retype as much as energy permitted, but it was, from the start, stuck in an unworkable stance: literature was exhausted and fey, but somehow wholesale appropriation brimmed with potential. There was a curious blend of iconoclasm and capitulation in its pose: an impotent knowingness at the end of history.
Maybe there was something valuable in recuperating a vision of impersonality in the face of contemporary poetry's unending passion play, even if this particular vision was so totalizing that it forced readers who'd actually experienced consolation by way of poetry to dismiss the program out of hand. Conceptualist method guaranteed an automated, invulnerable triumph over sentimentality and preciousness, but if one could gain distance from the near-sighted critical discourse wrapping the work, it was hard not to find the older version of impersonality to be the richer one: a process of the self bringing itself to, struggling toward—despite some of its instincts—renunciation of personality, of the self's narrower needs, as a refuge for a broad or depleted person, as the fate of writing that had accomplished, rather than been assured of, real distance from its maker. Literary practice, in this spirit, promised a way to engage rather than absolve the paradox that the self, as Herelictus said, is "too much and never enough." Beachy-Quick: "It is not so much our recognition of the impersonal, but the impersonal's recognition of us. That difference, once established, is vast." From this view, the anti-humanist vanguards grasp the telescope from the wrong end.
At stake is the fate of that recurring character called "the author." The character has been differently played depending on the era and fashion: she is variously dead, all-too-human, cyborg, helplessly sentimental, an aggregation of reading run through the variable processor of a given mind. She's been cast, anti-humanistically, as a "function" and, heroically, as an emblem of human capacity. And what's the right word for what an author does? Plagiarism, translation, influence? Ultimately, these are differently shaded metaphors for writing itself and are variously responsive to the wants or worries one finds attached to the act. There's still to ask whether in writing by any method or conception we're not regardless thrown back on the same thing—individuation through and against the inherent resistance of a linguistic vehicle thoroughly contaminated by precedence, made of it. Nothing we handle is our own; we can't but be ourselves (whatever that is).
We return to Pierre Menard if only because on this same vexed ground he sees an unlikely way forward. His position—before Borges' parable—would've seemed logically and psychologically incoherent: he divests entirely from concepts at the core of our literary mythos (creativity, innovation, originality) while indulging an extravagant belief that literary composition offers the context for the self to summon its deepest visionary faculty.
Menard's model is probably impossible for the practicing writer to take on board. He's a fool—a fool whose inspiration shames our own. His conception of writing is at once enormous and drastically curtailed. Call it the psychic romance of "original genius" uncoupled from textual originality. We're unlikely to follow him all the way to either edge of the opposition he holds in such remarkable suspension. Easiest just to say he's an eccentric case. And yet, Menard might be more searching and less defended in answering a question we don't permit ourselves to ask: What are we denying ourselves—what are we obscuring—by the need to see our words as our own?
Assumptions about creative labor and its products are deeply seated. Norms and cultural preferences pass into ideology and are finally embodied in our own instincts. It's hard to see past or outside of this acculturation. Still, it's useful to remember that the arrangements we've come to are not the only arrangements possible, nor the only with a meaningful degree of internal coherence. In a note collected in the posthumous Gravity and Grace, the French mystic Simone Weil gives a description of the imagination's work at once beautiful and jarringly skew to our mythology of art and creativity: "We use imagination to try to fill a universe which is already full. We must not imagine that we can fill it more, but trust that it is there, and work towards it." This complex statement takes us quickly from our complacent pieties to a vaster scale, where our commonplaces about art-making begin to lose purchase. To believe, in some form, that all is full already, that nothing new can or need be added under the sun, is perhaps a spiritual achievement, but for artists such a belief would risk a death of purpose. In the fictional Pierre Menard, Weil would've found a reader able to assent to her premises and nevertheless hear in her aphorism's final clause—the injunction to "work toward" the already existing fullness—the call to effort, adventure, and risk.