Repetition as Conjuring, as Litany, as Prayer

by Cecilia Llompart

(1)

The inimitable Annie Finch said, “Repetition is a physical force, not a mental one…” I doubt my ability to put it more concretely, but I’ll add that I definitely find repetition to be the most powerful physical force in a poem. The one which grounds us to the earth whenever the imagery and other forces at play would have us lingering in the clouds. It can make a poem more tactile, more responsive to the touch. It’s important for a poem to exist out in the world, rather than just in our heads. Important for it to have legs to stand on, as well as the wings on which it will rise. Perhaps a repeated word acts like a series of weights holding the rest of the bright canvas down.

(2)

The truth is, we learn nothing if not for repetition. The human brain is hardwired to respond to it above all else. A soldier’s drills rewire the instinct, train them to run towards the battle rather than—as sense would have it—away from. An actor’s rehearsals sync up every step with every word, so that the show can—as they say—go on despite the most rattling disturbances. A musician’s recitals introduce them to muscle memory, the only reliable way of remembering, the idea that we can count on our fingers and hands and sinews and bones even when the mind—as it so often does—fails us. From infomercials to meditation to rituals to sermons. . . Repetition—be it tedious, or soothing—has been used to teach us things, to sell us things, and to help us remember them in a real way.

(3)

I navigate my poems by instinct rather than by intention. I guess you could say I follow my ear. Every so often, while working out a line, I’ll find myself ending or beginning the following line with the same little flourish. I don’t set out to do it, and I don’t always see it coming. When it happens I tilt my head as if to say: I’m listening. At this point, the poem is trying to tell me something. I’m no longer holding the reins. I’m holding a metal detector and I’ve stumbled upon a mine. And the repetition will feel refreshing if it connects the writing to some deeper truth that exists—that reaches—beyond the work.

(4)

In the case of my bat poems (in AGNI issue 85), I closed my eyes while writing them and, instead of envisioning an existence for the animal in which everything was dark, a world in which it had no alternative but to swim through the absence of light, or to dodge the many shadows of things, I saw instead a world in which everything was a distinct shade of blue. As such, the word “blue” is referring to an ultimately different color each time it appears in the bat’s catalogue of sights (some of which are, obviously, also sounds). I hope the reader can see that—that a color can be more than a color, can be a variation unto itself.

Call it a disability, like blindness, or a disorder, like synesthesia, if you like. But the fact that a being uses its senses in a way we don’t understand doesn’t make that creature’s way of interacting with the world inferior to ours. I suppose that’s what I was trying to express in the other poem, with the string of “I see you.” Call it echolocation. Call it dreaming, or delusions of grandeur. The bat makes a point of seeing, of its ability to see, whether or not we share a definition of seeing, whether or not we underestimate the small prophet. This animal is a visionary, it sees beyond seeing, it knows that what is essential is invisible to the eye, that sight itself can be blinding, can distract us from hidden truths.

I can’t say whether the repetitions will achieve all of this.

But I’m content if the poems stay with you longer than a poem usually does.

(5)

I don’t remember when I first learned the word litany, but I do remember how beautiful I thought it sounded, and I remember how right it seemed that a thing like the use of repetition in poetry should have its very own word to reference it. The exact definition of litany involves other words meaning “supplication” and “prayer.” The word please comes to mind, as a word that comes to us when all other words have left us, when we are feeling hollowed out. A word that leaves us humbled even as it escapes our lips. Please. Perhaps repetition itself serves to humble. Perhaps it serves to bargain. But I think it can also serve to empower. To give us courage in a moment of fright to brave the flight.

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Author PhotoCecilia Llompart was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Florida. Her first collection, The Wingless, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in the spring of 2014. Her poetry and prose have been published in numerous anthologies and journals. She is the recipient of two awards from the Academy of American Poets, a fellowship from The Dickinson House, was a finalist for The Field Office agency’s 2016 Postcard Prize in poetry, as well as a finalist for the 2016 Tomaž Šalamun Prize given by Verse journal, and lastly a winner in Neat Streets Miami “Growing Green Bus Stop” Haiku Contest. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Peddling a Poetry Chapbook

by Joan Michelson

To peddle. To go from door to door. Or as I am, from person to person selling a signed poetry chapbook with a cover drawing of a cane and a walking frame. Behind me stands the memory of my mother’s father, a Hebrew scholar, who escaped service in the Tsar’s army by fleeing Russia for America. Landing in Boston, he travelled twenty-five miles west and started selling things he could carry. It was his first experience of peddling. A century later, this is his granddaughter’s.

From a Poetry Peddler’s Journal,
London, 25 March 2017

The first catch this morning is the new counter girl in the Health Food Shop. Paying for my sauerkraut, which is on offer and drew me in, I ask if she has any interest in poetry. She says that she loves poetry. I ask her if she writes it. She says no but that she is studying poetry at school. Now I notice how young she is, her face soft and open. For English they are reading Edward Thomas and Robert Frost. Robert Frost is her favourite. I tell her I aspire to write in simple language like Frost, only I don’t rhyme. I show her “Bloomvale Home.” She opens to the first poem and reads aloud, “everybody’s mother and her own.” She says, “This is beautiful. This is like my granny.” I’m moved and gratified. “Your granny must be special.” “Absolutely,” she says, while looking for details to order the book. I tell her the publisher told me I had to sell it. It’s £3.60. She can have it for £3. I look at her, uncertain, and lower my voice, “Or is that too much?” She says she has no change on her. But tomorrow she works at the Cancer Charity Shop. Could I bring a copy there? I think she’ll read the poems. I think they’ll speak to her. My thoughts seesaw between selling and giving. I wish I had given it to her in the first place. “Take it.” I say, pushing it at her. “Please.”

In the supermarket, I spot Steve, a fellow American who has also lived in the area for most of his adult life. His glasses lenses have thickened and he holds a shopping list close to his eyes. Could I show him my little poetry book? He is not interested in poetry. Does not read it. I say that people who do not read poetry like these poems. Diana Athill likes these poems. She was surprised she liked them because she sees herself as a difficult reader of poetry. He doesn’t know who Diana Athill is. “She is a ninety-nine year old literary critic who lives in a Home like Bloomvale.” He shrugs. Why oh why do I go on? Praise the line drawing on the cover. Praise the artist. Show him the book. Now he is with me. He’s seen it around the house. My heart sinks and I feel embarrassed as I recall selling his wife a copy. A few weeks earlier approaching on her bicycle, she’d pulled up to chat. She had not yet seen the dental implant surgeon I recommended but she had had one of her hip replacements, and she wanted to buy the book.

I am grateful for the crowd on the Broadway and the gusts of cold in the wind. I breathe the cold in and collect myself.

At the bank I deposit the week’s takings from sales: £20 in coins. The teller has been reading my poems to his aunt on Sundays. I tell him about my blunder with Steve and about the schoolgirl who reads poetry and giving her a copy. Not for the first time, I tell him I’m happier giving it but I have to keep to my rule: sell three and a half for each give away. Today I am in the red by half a book. He laughs. “You have your work cut out.”

Heading home, I keep a look out for one more person to try. I meet another American. Ken is younger, not on the road to a Bloomvale Home as might be said of Steve, his wife, and me. The last time our paths crossed, Ken was on his way to play squash. But today––to the cleaner’s and walking the dog—he has time for my schmooze. We stand where we meet on a street corner in the fitful wind. I’m well-wrapped up, hat, scarf, thermal gloves, winter coat but, a fit fifty, he’s bare-headed in black zip sweatshirt with the hood dropped back and, as if anticipating summer, his sunglasses are propped on top of his head.

He puts his clothes-collecting bag on the pavement, propping it against his leg, and he keeps hold of the dog’s leash. The dog seems happy to wait and look around. I pass Ken the chapbook and stand odd-angled half facing him, half looking away. I hug my daypack against me protectively. He goes straight to the middle of the book and reads two poems. Then he opens to the first poem, a first stop for Home visits, “The Receptionist.” His face is composed and closed, his hand, fisted with the dog’s lead, covers his mouth. Whatever he is thinking or feeling, he is keeping to himself. Save for a single interruption, he reads steadily to the end.

By now I am focused on his reading and worried about his response and his judgment. He is an international journalist in a senior position. Journalists are writers who write every day, who think about words and let them flow, who can’t and don’t redraft for years, creating files of rewrites to be rewritten, and surely they don’t have time to write themselves into a corner. My doubts about my work surface. My stomach knots, unknots, rises, falls, squirms, takes in the thumps of my heart. I swallow against dryness.

Now I start noting his progress and mentally reading along. I am overtaken by the people in the poems, people reimagined from those remembered, my father’s fellow residents from his years in a Home. Although he can’t know my love for the people and how many times I reworked the poems hoping to bring the community to life, as if he might know how absurdly my feeling are rising, tears burning behind my eyes, he lifts his head and points his finger to a line break. “This one,” he says. I lean forward to read, “the other woman” and hear, without really taking it in, his comments on line breaks and how important a role the break has taken on since free verse came in. I say, “I have so much trouble with line breaks. I am never sure.” He says, “This one works.” And turns back to his reading.

I look at him and, to give him space, I look around. A gust catches an empty beer can and pushes it over the kerb with a thud. The sound reverberates in me as if it’s a bang. The can rolls to a stop against a car tyre. It is silent. But nothing in me is quiet. Here and now the bang of the beer can. Here and then the shuffling of the Bloomvale Home organist moving up the carpeted hall in his slippers. Though it can barely be heard, and it is long past, I hear it. Beside the organist, leaping from a different page, is the thirties’ refugee from Berlin. She is sitting at dinner in the Home with her tablemates, seeing far away the grapefruits she picked as a kibbutz pioneer when Israel was Palestine. She makes no sound but I hear her sigh. And I hear the scrape of her chair as she pushes it back to leave to be alone with her past. Now Judge Daxon is stirring his oatmeal before he too pushes back his dining chair. As his heart gives out, I hear the chair fall over with a loud knock. It happens all at once—the lives in different poems unfold before me, crowd into my heart, which is beating everywhere, and into the life in which I am standing in the March wind, bonded to my reader. Ken has arrived at the last poem, “The Reader.” His fist moves away from his face and something like a smile edges in. He would love to buy it. He looks at the price. “That’s outrageous!” he says. I say that the publisher is in rural Wales, and he is a non-profit, as if that might explain the bargain rate. The next words rush out like sales patter. “Five years work,” I say. “A ten minute read. The cost of a coffee. That’s poetry for you.” We laugh and part. In my pocket, the envelope coin bag to bring to the bank next week. In it two £2 coins.

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AGNI JMJoan Michelson’s book publications include: forthcoming, a poetry chapbook, The Family Kitchen, The Finishing Line Press, USA, 2018; prize-winning collection, Landing Stage, Sentinel Press UK, 2017; Bloomvale Home, Original Plus Books, UK, 2016; Toward the Heliopause, Poetic Matrix Press, USA 2011. ‘Self-Portrait with Secret’ won Poetry Society UK quarterly prize, 2016; ‘Stories’ won first prize in the Bristol Poetry Competition, UK, 2015; ‘Daxon Fraser’ first prize in the Torriano Competition, UK, 2014; ‘Muslim Girl’, the Poetry Society UK Hamish Canham prize, 2012. Her writing has been selected for British Council and Arts Council anthologies of New Writing. Originally from New England, Joan lives in London, England. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Villoro/Hernandez, Brody, and Melnicove: New work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—a story by Juan Villoro (translated by Jorge Luis Flores Hernández), an essay by Leslie Brody, and a poem by Mark Melnicove. Check it all out!

AGNI Hernandez“One afternoon, my father got in his Studebaker, and we never heard from him again. The last and defining fact tying these photos to my father is the absence of pictures afterward.”
from the story “Bad Photographer” by Juan Villoro (translated by Jorge Luis Flores Hernández)

 

AGNI Brody“I’d never been manhandled before. There’d been no physical violence in my childhood. When I was nineteen, a policeman had clobbered me in the head at an anti-Vietnam War protest. Then, there’d been blood and stitches, and I’d displayed my scar proudly. Nothing in my life had prepared me for being flung across a room.”
from the essay Daisies: An Observation” by Leslie Brody

 

AGNI Melnicove“Just when all feels lost,

the fire department volunteers show up in shiny,
red corvettes, gather in a circle around
the crumbling frame of the house, and piss

on the charcoal timbers”

from the poem “Where I Came From” by Mark Melnicove

 

 

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Poetry Is Dissent

by Richard Hoffman

Poetry is political. Period. It has often been remarked that the so-called “apolitical” poem, the objet d’art, is of course political in its acceptance of the status quo. But while I agree with that view, that’s not quite what I’m getting at here. I believe poetry is political because a poet is always both working with and straining against language. That may seem like a truism, and you may ask “What’s political about that?” Well, for starters, the question of what to accept about how the world is represented in words, and what to reject. In some respects it is a poet’s duty to reject the verbal and rhetorical formulations of his or her moment in time. In other words, a poet is always on a quest for originality, which is not a question of trying not to sound like anyone else, a question of what these days is called “branding,” but a return to the great storehouse of language, to see what can be found there that is useful and true to this moment.

The part of me engaged in that process is the oldest part of me—or maybe I should say the youngest since I started doing it before I can remember anything else.

As a child, words come from a world that was there before you arrived, and you presume, because you must, that there is some correlation between the words and the things and actions and qualities for which they stand. This is the original suspension of disbelief required to acquire language in the first place. And then you go about choosing among the words offered. You try to match the right one with the right thing. You try to say it correctly. You test out the words on other people, usually your parents. Sometimes they think you’re cute, other times they threaten to wash out your mouth with soap!

But soon enough and before you’re even aware of it, you are toughening your spirit on the successive disappointments that you suffer as you learn, again and again, that the words are inadequate. You must find new ones, or combine them in a new way. Many, if not most people, make some peace with the inadequacy of language. I think what makes a person a poet (whether they write in verse or prose) is an abiding commitment to try again, all the while knowing that it is in the nature of language, and of the essence of the whole enterprise, that you will fail.

This is, at heart, a moral commitment, or so I believe, because one of the reasons words have come to disappoint has to do with their deliberate misuse, with their having been poisoned by dishonesty. Here is where I could rant about the ubiquity of advertisers’ and politicians’ designs on us, but it is enough, I think, to simply make the point.

Let me give you a favorite poem of mine, by the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, as a way of describing the act, the ethical and political act, of writing poetry:

A KNOCKER
by Zbigniew Herbert
translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott

There are those who grow
gardens in their heads
paths lead from their hair
to sunny and white cities

it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down from their foreheads

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me
yes—yes
no—no

for others the green bell of a tree
the blue bell of water
I have a knocker
from unprotected gardens

I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralist’s dry poem
yes—yes
no—no

Maybe in another time, a time when the world had not been poisoned by a century of genocides and mechanized murder, and before the continuing threat of ecocide, a poet could trust his or her culture’s assumptions about what it means to be good, or powerful, or heroic, or simply human. We do not live in a time like that. And so, we are “moralists” or ought to be, as Herbert unapologetically suggests he is. But it is not the finger-wagging moralism of the self-righteous Herbert’s talking about here; it is instead the weighing of words, and a rigorous attention to how these same words have been used before. Because the discourses of the past have brought us to a sorry spiritual state, we can take nothing for granted, nor can we be silent.

Here’s a recent poem of my own — not great, way too simple, but at least short—that asks a similar question about the poet’s relation to the received world:

PERPLEXITY

In my seventh decade
I have not been able to decide
if we have made a mess of everything

because we have turned away
from what the old stories, poems, rituals
sought to preserve by teaching us,

or if we’ve learned those lessons all too well.

Though I’ve railed against Caesar
and raged against the gods,

I am still unable to decide.

If, as poets, we do not fear the misrepresentation of the world, if we do not guard against it, work against it when hunched over the page, then what are we doing? What is being accomplished, and whom does it serve?

It seems to me that poets are of little value who aren’t trying to see through the fog of stereotypes, untruths, half-truths, and alienating narratives that profit a few at the expense of the rest of us. How do we address the racism, or racialized oppression, that has deeply injured our ability to see one another clearly in America? Why should we continue, as writers, to acquiesce in our own infantilization, as if literature were a playground where what happens is of no consequence in the world?

Here’s how the post-WWII critic George Steiner put it “…any thesis that would, either theoretically or practically, put literature and the arts beyond good and evil is spurious. The archaic torso in Rilke’s famous poem says to us ‘change your life.’ So does any poem, novel, play, painting, musical composition, worth meeting.”

And yet, without beauty—in the case of poetry the satisfying and pleasurable play of language, the bodily, erotic tongue caressing the thrilled ear—the soul remains asleep while the intellect goes on chewing its flavorless daily bread. I’m reminded of Yeats’ comment that some poets have pulpits but no altars and others have altars but no pulpit—his version of Aristotle’s charge to the poet to both “delight and instruct.” The temptation is to try to oppose the pulpit-less deco-poets by leaning way out over your own pulpit with an excoriating index finger in the air. But the real alternative is to enact the poem in beauty’s sanctuary, the heart thereby opened to hear words that challenge, inform, and refresh us in the struggle for a just future.

Far from being a luxury, poetry is the essential medium. It is because poetry is handmade, because it does not require a great deal of money to perform its artistry and effect its influence, that it can save us. Most people find poets archaic, quaint, maybe charming, like candle-light. But think how useful candles are when the power goes out. And think about the gathering storm, and the darkness that has begun to fall.

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AGNI HoffmanRichard Hoffman is the author of seven books, including the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, published in a 20th Anniversary Edition last year, and the 2014 memoir Love & Fury. In addition to the volume Interference and Other Stories, he has published four collections of poetry: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and Noon until Night. A former Chair of Pen New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

Clowns

by Rick Bursky

Great clowns move seamlessly between sadness and humor and understand the influence they exert on each other. A clown is grotesque, colorful, outlandish. Isn’t a poem? Though few people have ever hired a poet to read at a birthday party. In medieval Europe clowns could say things poets would be executed for. They probably still could.

I was in a bank in Hollywood, California. Standing in line next to me, a man with a white painted face, red rubber ball on his nose and shoes that extended six inches past the toes and curved up. Other than that the rest of his clothes were typical—khaki pants and white collarless shirt. In most other cities the police would have been called. I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to write a poem about this on at three occasions. I wonder if a clown, after reading one of my poems, ever attempted to perform in the smaller ring at a three ring circus while a man poked at a lion with a chair in the largest ring and a chimpanzee juggled in the other. Clowns seems to exercise better sense than poets. And unlike poets, most clowns have little to say. Body language, expressions, and props carry the performance. The narrative is based in image. Often there’s music like in a poem, music does more than contribute noise.

A poet is like a clown except not nearly as brave.

“Writers are a little below clowns and little above trained seals,” John Steinbeck.

The white-faced clown is often the serious member of the troop. A sonnet would be this clown. A traditional sonnet is in iambic pentameter as a traditional white-faced clown has red ears. The similarities between clowns and poems are numerous. Prose poems would be Auguste type clowns, he is the fool and lower, much lower, down the clown social scale than white-face. As there are forms of poems there are other forms of clowns.

I considered compiling a list of poems about clowns but what would be the point? Though I did compile a list of poets who at one time or another performed as clowns, make-up and all. The length of the list did not surprise me. Subsequently, each wrote to me asking not to be included on this list. This also did not surprise me.

The oldest clown registry in the world is the Clown Egg Register in England; hundreds of years older than the International Poetry Registry and Administration in Geneva, Switzerland. Fear of clowns is called coulrophobia. Fear of poetry is more prevalent though without a name. I plan to create one soon.

There is much to be said for location. One of my favorite places to write is at the kitchen table at night. Something should be said about dress. What if put on baggy pants held up by suspenders and painted my face? What if I dressed like that while I wrote?

The man holding defibrillator paddles hunched over the heart attack victim has bright orange hair, a bold striped shirt and sad black lips painted on the bottom of his face. Saturday night, two clowns sit in a movie theater holding hands. In the jury box, three people in white-face with red ears and rubber noses. Without saying a word, image changes narrative.

The expression “clowning around” deserves more respect.

“A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast,” Groucho Marx. A poem is like an anti-depressant except it has more side-effects. A poem is liquor except the hangover lasts longer.

A man wearing a white shirt with a large frilly red color stands at the back of a bus slowly making its way through the early evening traffic in Brooklyn. He juggles bowling ball pins. Everyone on the bus watches. Three rows up from him a woman is writing a poem in a notebook. Just a guess, she could be writing a story or the explanation as to why she’s leaving her boyfriend. I am convinced she was writing a poem. The way her face lifted from the notebook and momentarily started at the passing streets, a poet looking for an image. I missed my stop, was busy watching her write.

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bursky_bio_photo BIO Rick Bursky teaches poetry for the Writer’s Program at UCLA Extension. His most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By the Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions; the previous book Death Obscura, was published by Sarabande Books. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Rely, Rely

by JP Grasser

Poets are, by nature, unreliable. Or so goes the stereotypic vision: we’re a clattering of penniless loafers. Mercurial, if winsome. Far from the pragmatists professionalization might’ve whittled us into, we’re more interested in taking stock than in taking stock options. We’ve got our heads in the clouds and cotton balls in our ears.

(Note: I do have my head in the clouds right now. Specifically, clouds of smog—the winter inversion in Salt Lake City—the worst air quality in the country. On bad air days, my friend wears a gasmask to ride his bicycle.)

In the weeks immediately following the election, I thought there was a great irony to the road that had led us here. How ironic, I thought, that embracing radical subjectivity, self-reliance, & individualism—you can be anything when you grow up (even a poet!)—had seemingly spiraled into a dark state of post-truth. How ironic, I thought, that the same worldview that nurtured my creativity likewise served as catalyst to the alt-fact landscape, a place where the anecdotal supersedes the verifiable, where everyone’s opinion is equally valid, if unequally true.

On the first day of class, I often ask my creative writing students to list their favorite novels. Invariably, someone throws out The Great Gatsby. Invariably, I ask if they can differentiate reliable narrator from unreliable narrator. Same difference, they say.

My mentor in college, Wyatt Prunty, once relayed the phrase “the mutual dependency of apparent opposites” with regards to Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” What happens, he asked, if we are unreliable narrators of our own lives? What’s true fiction, false truth? This is, of course, always the case; it’s not exactly breaking news that memory distorts reality. Same difference?

(Note: after some quick digging, I’ve determined this quotation appears in Dr. Prunty’s book Fallen from the Symboled World: Precedents for the New Formalism, which is listed under—prescient, eh?— Political Science on Google Books.)

The writers I know are incredibly reliable. When my dog tore off his dewclaw during a particularly rowdy round of fetch, a poet-friend dropped everything (uh, job interview prep) to drive him, bleeding in the back seat, to the puppy-ER. She & her husband also let me sleep on their futon for a week. Maybe this is just what friends do. But, take a quick tour of the pop-culture sphere, and the unreliable friend seems a sturdy trope of the millennial generation—they flaked on drinks, they flaked on the movies, they flaked on the birthday party, ad infinitum. These flake-friends sound like a box of Idahoan Instant Spuds.

Apparent, bolded in the quotation above, suggests multiplicity over binary structures. Love and Hate are not true opposites, but perhaps points on an ideological spectrum. Perhaps this spectrum exists in four dimensions, like life. Perhaps this is finally the best operational definition of Keats’s “Negative Capability.”

The etymology of “reliable” comes, in part, from the Latin “ligare”: to bind. See ligament, the OED says. I like this. I like to think reliability might be as integral to the architecture of one’s being as fascia and sinew.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of the New Criticism’s desire to discount authorial intentionality is a supreme ambivalence toward truth. The syllogism works like this:

  • The text is a self-sustaining entity; all that matters is the text.
  • Any reasonable explication of the text is a valid reading.
  • Any reading is merely an opinion.

Unbound Opinion = Truth.

This is a faulty syllogism to be sure. But hey, same difference, right?

Intentionality matters now more than ever. Subjectivity might only be the apparent opposite of objectivity; there is, per force, a Utilitarianism to the writing life: we tell the small lie to expose the big truth. Perhaps the rules have changed though, perhaps we must now tell the big truth to expose the big truth.

All narration is unreliable. All memory is unreliable. Truth can, perhaps, only be approached asymptotically. Still, we must try to reach it.

I used to think that radical subjectivity led us here, to this place, where “post-truth” deserves a dictionary entry. I thought that my artful deceit wasn’t all that different from deceit in general. But that was before I understood that absolute self-reliance is pure myth.

Even the doomsday-preppers, the hardline self-reliers, (who are looking smarter by the minute), relied on others to grow, harvest, and can their corn, to parboil their rice, to dehydrate their boxed potatoes.

It’s a deleterious strain of narcissism which tricks us into believing we’ve done something alone, based purely on merit, hard work, sweat and blood and tears, etc. (Of course, ligaments don’t figure into that cliché.)

These days, I’m reminded often of the scene from the Odyssey in which, as their craft approaches the Sirens, Odysseus fills the ears of his crew with wax. In which they lash him to the mast. In which they bind him.

(Note: in legalese, a Ulysses Pact designates a freely made decision, which binds one in future action, as in an advance directive.)

If the ship is sinking, it must, I think, be our intention to navigate toward the fundamental veracity of humanity: different sameness, to rely on the spectrum of possibility. The act of creation is still an act of love. Pursuits of the creative imagination, by their very nature, are pursuits of happiness, even if tinged with pain and sadness. And joy must be the truest thing around, even the small joy I see in my students, as they recount Gatsby’s green light, across an expanse of water, symboled as it may be, dimmer now than it was before.

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Headshot_Grasser (1)J.P. Grasser currently lives in Salt Lake City, where he is a PhD candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Utah, and where he serves as Managing Editor of Quarterly West. J.P. will begin a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry in September 2017. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Lorca the Marginal on the Marginal

by Matthew Landrum

I read on a panel at Signal-Return letterpress in Detroit during banned books week this October. Taking a step beyond banned books, the panelists were asked to read work about or translated from authors who had been imprisoned, exiled, or killed. I read Federico García Lorca, a poet who wrote about the marginalized of society while being marginalized himself.

I worked up a version of “The Ballad of the Civil Guards” for the reading. It gave me chills delving into Lorca’s imaginings—a black-clad militia storming a festival, setting fires, shooting indiscriminately, assaulting and mutilating gypsy women and girls—knowing his fate at the hands of Franco’s soldiers, arrested and summarily executed on charges of socialism, freemasonry, and homosexuality.

The poem opens with civil guardsmen riding toward a city, their horses’ hooves muffled. Against this impending menace, Lorca sets a scene of surreal beauty and calm. City of cinnamon towers, of moons, pumpkins, and cherry preserves, / who could look at you and not be love-struck? The threat and the surreal festival meet when the civil guard enters the city—pandemonium ensues.

In October, the poem’s depiction of the wanton use of excessive force seemed immediate enough. Events since have brought to sharper relief the importance of Lorca’s poetic witness on the oppressed and disenfranchised. Lorca’s took its stand through poetry. He spoke for his beliefs, his lifestyle, and for the abused fringes of society. His brave outspokenness cost him everything.

Lorca writes about the aftermath of the raid—The soot, the ashes, the bodies, the mosquito song / of stray bullets—you will see them on our brows for years to come. Those silent marks on the body, the private griefs and pains that follow atrocities. His work brings those into the public sphere. It stands in the solidarity of witness. His time and place needed poets to speak up and ours does too. It’s always a time for witness.

I hope I’ve done some justice to Lorca’s vision and voice (I take comfort in the fact that he himself did experimental translations transmogrifying traditional Arab, Galician, and Andalusian sources), especially in his depiction of brutality and injustice. One of the things I love is how the act of devotion and deep reading that is translation brings me closer to another author. And in this, it’s also my hope that his vision of justice and witness can help me better speak to this time and place.

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landrum
photo by Kurt Simonson

Matthew Landrum holds an MFA from Bennington College. His poems and translations have recently appeared in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Glass Poetry, and Image Journal. He lives in Detroit. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.