An Occupation

by David A. Axelrod

In his recent blog posts to this site, “Is Myth Still Relevant to Poetry,” James Crews revisits Tony Hoagland’s essay, in Real Sofistikashun, about the “skittery” poems of the present—oblique, fractured, discontinuous, and, moreover, distrustful of language’s and narrative’s ability to represent reality. In a separate review, Crews also quotes this very welcome passage from Lynn Emanuel’s new collection of poems Noose and Hook:

I will never again write from personal experience.
Since the war began I have discovered
(1) My Life Is Unimportant and (2) My Life Is Boring.
But now as Gertrude Stein wrote from Culoz in 1943,
 Now, we have an occupation.

That small “o” occupation puns on the Nazi Occupation of France and the poet’s “real work,” as Gary Snyder once called it. In these five lines Emanuel captures perfectly the suspicion of personal narrative that Hoagland describes as, “tainted by overuse…sentimentality and narcissism.” She also points the way forward toward the moral imperatives of the engaged imagination that may show us the way out of the disillusionment with language and story.

The “dissociative” poem, as Crews calls it, intends a critical mimesis: for better or worse technology has created new forms of communication that distract us laterally and at such speeds that the slow unfolding of linear narrative seems quaint. As Crews suggests, dissociative forms mirror the distracting flood of mediated information, but don’t necessarily liberate us from suffocating domesticity, self-dramatization, or clever self-consciousness of solitary minds.. Under such conditions we don’t engage much beyond the borders of ego. Emanuel signals an entirely different, far more hopeful way forward. Her occupation is others, and her most powerful tool, the imagination. If the mimesis of the dissociative poem reflects our retreat from the social (rather than the so-called social network), Emanuel points us back toward an instinctual faith in our ability to imagine our way into the conditions of other lives and experiences.

How does Emanuel’s vow suggest a way forward toward the construction of a reasonable notion of truth and accountability? How is this an act of imagination?

In Zadie Smith’s beautiful, hopeful lecture, “Speaking in Tongues,” reprinted in both the New York Review of Books and The Best American Essays 2010, Smith goes to great lengths to demonstrate the “gift” and the risks of being “double-voiced” rather than “single-voiced,” terms that ultimately identify different magnitudes of imagination. Specifically, she discusses how individuals who may be socially upwardly mobile or who have mixed heritages, African and European for example, are, depending on cultural biases, caught in “the middling spot,” or are expected to choose between one identity and another, that is, limit the boundaries of their identity, rather than embracing both. She uses herself as a negative example of someone who has lost the “double-voice” of her youth, but goes on to discuss Barack Obama’s ability to cultivate both his cultural inheritances, and the ease with which this allows him to move between and speak to audiences that are often segregated one from the other. Consternating as some Americans find Obama’s “double-voice,” trying to delegitimize it as inauthentic, disingenuous, even dangerous, this ease with which he speaks to diverse audiences that we might say don’t watch the same cable networks. Smith says the gift of speaking in tongues is precisely what Shakespeare possessed, the ability to imagine the language and experience of men and women of different races, religions, and stations in life, and do so so convincingly that his character seem complexly, humanely drawn. “He understood,” Smith writes, “what fierce, singular certainty creates and what it destroys. In response, he made himself a diffuse, uncertain thing, a mass of contradictory, irresolvable voices that speak truth plurally.” Smith also cites Keats on this point, reminding us of how he describes this phenomenon as Negative Capability: “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” More telling for us in our fractious society, Smith cites Stephen Greenblatt: “There are many forms of heroism in Shakespeare, but ideological heroism—the fierce, self-immolating embrace of an idea or institution—is not one of them.” Open Shakespeare’s plays, and we are astonished anew at his ability to live imaginatively beyond the limits of his own era and its “atmosphere of equivocation.” Instead, in the medium of his plays, “he lived in freedom.”

After a passage in celebration of the joy of being “double-voiced”—Smith turns here naturally enough to poetry, to Frank O’Hare—she concludes describing the process of contemporary alienation: “A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own.” This is exactly what Emanuel seems to be resisting: autobiographical, numbing self-absorption. This is also a sad commentary on the pressures of ideological conformity that our discourse and to a significant degree our technologies assert on us. To live beyond the narrow borders of the self, is, however, just the stuff of poetry. Czeslaw Milosz says this very directly in his “Ars Poetica?”: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.”

Whatever our doubts about language and narrative, these are the tools we have to stave off chaos and brutality, and keep us humane. Which brings us back, I think, to Emanuel’s rejection of personal experience and eager acceptance of Gertrude Stein’s notion of occupation. What is our occupation? Must we continue to mirror the “skittery” qualities of contemporary life, the distraction by floods of information, popular culture, and the carnival of lurid celebrity? Must we doubt narrative’s imposition of order on what is the chaos of competing url’s, mock the power of gadgets to disrupt our attentiveness to unmediated physical reality? Must we continue, in a high cultural sense, to despair, as Robert Hass’ friend does in “Meditation at Lagunitas” at language’s

tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds
a word is elegy to what it signifies.

As an alternative, consider Milosz’s Lecture 4 from “Six Lectures in Verse,” in which he begins by asking a question that is all too familiar to us: “Reality, what can we do with it? Where is it in words? / Just as it flickers, it vanishes.” What follows is a catalog of cities and, especially, of nameless individuals living, suffering, and dying often under horrific, tragic circumstances. All of these are illuminated for a moment before us on the page and then are gone. But not quite, as the residue of memory persists, even as the poet describes himself, disparagingly, as “an instructor in forgetting.” The remainder of the poem contrasts the individual case of “trying to save Miss Jadwiga, / A little hunchback, librarian by profession,” and the abstractions of history and ideology that buried her alive

…in the shelter of an apartment house
That was considered safe but toppled down
And no one was able to dig through the slabs of wall,
Though knocking and voices were heard for many days.

As narratives go this is not an elaborate one, occupying only six lines. What’s more, the poem admits to the insufficiency of its language to fully evoke this and other lives and fates like Miss Jadwiga’s. Milosz takes to task the alternatives to this tiny narrative.

The true enemy of man is generalization.
The true enemy of man, so-called History,
Attracts and terrifies with its plural number.

He concludes in the strongest possible terms with a declaration of his allegiance:

The little skeleton of Miss Jadwiga, the spot
Where her heart was pulsating. This only
I set against necessity, law, theory.

I’m reminded here, in the context of our own recent history, of the conclusion of Linda Perillo’s poem, “Juárez,” in the course of which she takes herself to task, as a younger writer (“who wrote this poem many times”) for drawing a too familiar portrait of the violence of the border. The younger women “suspect[s]” the violence of Juárez is the curse of “the dirt itself.” That’s a nifty Romantic diversion from ethical consequences, attributing mystical powers to the landscape. This turn toward nature, to the so-called “spirit of place” as a means of accounting for what seems an intractable human catastrophe, she realizes is flawed, facile. To cross the border, literally and metaphorically, the mature poet tells us,

you will have to pass by a large pink cross
made out of such spikes at the border station,
and here’s the main thing, forgive me, I missed in my youth:
how from each spike hangs a name.

The names, the lives they stand for, their suffering, is precisely the point. The many ironies we devise to distract ourselves and evade this point are moral hazards.

At the end of his essay, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of the Moment,” Hoagland quotes Hass, “‘It is wrong to have an elegiac attitude toward reality.’” And Hoagland glosses: “[Hass] suggests that it is unethical to consider reality decisively outside the reach of language. To exclusively practice an art of which this is a premise and implication—that language is inadequate, that the word cannot reach the world—is a bad idea, one with a price tag attached.”

Our popular discourse in anger, mockery, incivility, confusion, and cynicism are symptoms of that “bad idea” applied to an entire culture. The consequence, “the price tag” is almost too horrible to contemplate, though we’d all be liars if we said we had never considered the direction this is heading. As writers, we are under no obligation to collaborate with fractious ideologies that deploy corrosive discourse. Our allegiances should be as clear as those Milosz and Emanuel declares. This is our “occupation.”