Monday, January 18, 2016

Spadework: On Poetry, Empire and the Commons

I have been reading, back to back, Richard Flanagan's marvelous novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Stephen Collis's book of incantatory poems, The Commons.  In his now quite famous essay, "Of Blackberries and the Poetic Commons," Collis argues that
Poetry and blackberries are homologous in their relation to capital--marginal, fringe, ignored by investment, sprouting in the gaps profitability and privatization leave everywhere...Because capital does not accumulate around poetry, it is allowed to exist--as it always has--as a putative commons (135).
 This is an appealing argument, and in many ways it feels true.  Poetry is the language of the interstitial; it works the gaps between sense and nonsense, ordinary language and arcana, generating out of what looks like nothing pure surplus. 

And yet, perhaps this view of poetry is too alluring. Is it always so revolutionary?  Elsewhere in his essay, Collis speaks of the blackberry bush as "virtually the negative image of European colonization" (134).  Blackberries thus occupy "the junk spaces capital has used up or forgotten or left as underdeveloped pockets" (134), Collis writes; they are fruitful, and give their bounty from these "wastelands" for nothing.  Nevertheless the blackberry of which he writes, Rubus armeniacus,  more commonly known as the Himalayan Blackberry, is, as Collis acknowledges, also itself an interloper, a settler, an introduced fruit given to taking over "disturbed sites." First cultivated in North America in 1885 by Luther Burbank--a real seed entrepreneur, among other things developer of the Shasta daisy and the Burbank Russet, the most widely cultivated and consumed potato in the world--the Himalayan Blackberry has thoroughly colonized West Coast byways. What has this once Persian fruit replaced? Harvested trees? Salmonberries? Thimbleberries? Currants? Who can now remember?

We don't care about such details when it is hot and we are thirsty and the berries hang, delicious and ripe, along the roads and trails where we walk. But we do care whether such public spaces will be gobbled up by the real estate boom on the West Coast--indeed, we sometimes find the paths to coastal rights of way by following where those blackberry bushes lead. But how many more years will we be able to sit on such scraps of beach, framed on  either side, as they always are, by multi-million dollar properties? Sooner or later, if the boom continues, these blackberries will be uprooted; this beach and then that one, along with the right of way, closed off and overshadowed. 

I seem to agree with Collis then, that blackberries are space-holders; as figures for the commons, they also stand in, at once, for past and future losses.  They are the surpluses, the marginal life forms that capital will ultimately overrun.  Collis writes,
The blackberry commons (as a social space and relation) is not so much a holdover from the past as it is a by-product of capital's speculative aims in the present and future. What shreds of commons we now have are more often than not gaps and lesions in capital's ever expanding body....breaches that will later be filled with investment, once devaluation has proceeded far enough to be profitable (135).
But--and this is the crucial question--does poetry work as blackberries do, opposing capital, but nevertheless also functioning as its forward and rear guards? Flanagan's tale suggests a weirder and less comfortable scenario.  In it, twentieth-century Anglo-American and Japanese empires are shown to be mirror figures; each reserves and exalts its poetic tradition (Catullus, Tennyson, Kipling; Basho, Issa, Shisui); each commits its wartime atrocities; each has its idea of glory, of perfection, of worthiness. Here, poetry is at once diversion and finest expression of national belonging; history; anthem; the body of the emperor, of right; and prelude to slaughter. Here, poetry is hope, death, and an idea of order so demanding that it does not admit of incompletion. How can this be?

Here our arguments converge.

Because it is worth nothing, poetry may also be exalted; it can be affiliated with absolute rule and absolute butchery, with nobility, hopefulness, handwashing and death--precisely because it is not aligned with capital.  In Flanagan's account then, poetry is exactly what is limned by empire, and not simply the wild force at its ragged edge that speaks other truths. And this too is true.

Flanagan takes as his epigraph a line from Celan's Wolfsbohne (Wolf's-bean) that gives the lie to Adorno's claim that after Auschwitz there can be no more poetry: "Mother, they write poems." We might say then that radical critique is a matter of blackberries--like us, as carelessly wandering blackberry pickers, it feasts on the succulence of the by-ways; meanwhile, poetry does its awful double-duty, playing at profligacy, at waste riches, at little nothings--and the very names of power or empire itself.

On either side then, for its memory can be very long, poetry reminds capital that it too will amount to nothing. Someday. 

his head cut off and all the vowels
and consonants taken out one by one
Stephen Collis, from "Clear as Clare," The Commons (33).

Uneasy ground / Afterthoughts

Having written these reflections on poetry, empire and the commons, I went to sleep. I dreamed that I had gone down into the basement to investigate a strange sound, and found an unfamiliar child there, an 8 or 9 year old boy.  Upon seeing me, he fled upstairs. I wondered what he was doing, and worried vaguely about my father, who in the dream was on an upper floor.  But when I turned around, the child was coming back downstairs, wielding a shovel.  I could see that he was going to swing it at my head. Panicked, I reached beside me for the fire rake, picked it up, put it down, lost it, searched again, all the while thinking no, I cannot do this: I cannot hit a child in the head.  I am going to have to take this beating, even if it kills me.  And then I remembered that I had a voice--would my father, who is quite deaf, hear me? --And if he did, what good would it do? He's also quite frail now, and crippled by arthritis. Still, with great effort, as the boy swung his shovel at my head, I cried out, waking both myself and the dog, who slept beside me.

Spadework. Poetry: if ever I thought it might help me or prove me innocent, I was wrong. Clarity (and not too much of that!),  not moral superiority, are all that one can hope for in its fields and laneways. A citizen of privilege in this most destructive and self-righteous of empires, I too do murderous harm, and will also die. Poetry may look as if it will ennoble me, but it cannot absolve me. And my father will neither hear me nor save me as we sit on both sides of this ditch, slaughterers and slaughtered:  
Mother, they write poems.
Mother, how much
most alien of ploughland bears your fruit.
Bears it and nourishes
those who kill!


Images of wild grasses, thistles, raspberry canes, broken bulrushes and lichens ("weeds") were taken in December 2015 on our (thoroughly surveyed, partially fenced and containing a right of way to a launch slip) property in West Quoddy, Nova Scotia. If we are being truthful about such borders, we must also acknowledge that this property is located in Mi'kma'ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi'kmaq People. Although this territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) peoples first signed with the British Crown in 1725, the treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources. Instead, these treaties recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations, rules repeatedly and continually disrespected, breached and broached from then until now by settlers, as our putative legal title to this bit of land suggests.

All citations from Stephen Collis are from The Commons (Second Edition). Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2014.

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North shares its title with Basho's prose and verse travel journal from 1689, Oko no Hosomichi.  One of the best books I've read in a very long time, Flanagan's novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. In North America, it is published by Alfred K. Knopf.

I've cited Michael Hamburger's translation of Celan's 1959 draft of Wolfsbohne from Poems of Paul Celan (Revised and Expanded), New York: Persea Books, 2002, p. 345.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Snow: On the Peculiar Politics of Whiteness in Carol

Three days ago we went to see the British-American romantic film Carol, winner of the 2015 Queer Palm at Cannes.  It's rare that we hurry out to see a new mainstream theatrical release, and rarer still that we rush out to see a romance, although some films (the Bond franchise comes to mind) are truly only worth seeing on the big screen.  We went, however, because we'd been persuaded to take a neighbour who had  lived and loved, one foot and both elbows in the closet, in Southern Ontario in the bad old days of the sixties, a full decade or so after the action depicted in Carol.

Directed by Todd Haynes in a Cincinnati, Ohio made over to look like New York and its suburbs in the early 1950s, Carol is loosely based on Patricia Highsmith's happily ever after 1952 lesbian romance, The Price of Salt.  Published under the pseudonym "Claire Morgan," and one of scores of lesbian pulp fictions available at the time from Bantam Books, The Price of Salt was and remains notable for its happy ending; this is because love stories involving gender non-conforming people tend, still, toward tragic plots involving suicide, insanity and murder. Indeed, so accustomed have I become to such plot devices that I was unprepared for denouement of the film: the moment where the lovers catch each others' eyes across a crowded bar, and you know that their relationship will continue. That's it? I think I asked aloud. I was sure that one of the protagonists would have to die, be committed, or go to jail.

The story seems a sweet one, if you go for that kind of thing.  Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird, a mink coat wearing wealthy suburbanite, unhappy in her marriage and her big house, but deeply attached to her daughter and her best friend and former lover, Abby. Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young aspiring photographer. The two meet in the Christmas rush at the department store where Therese works; their relationship unfolds slowly as mutual fascination over martinis and cigarettes in enclosed spaces--the interiors of cars, restaurants and houses, their faces often in shadow, the camera peering at them through soft focus, rain-spatter and around and across thresholds--not quite voyeuristic, but dreamlike, a bit out of the world, despite overheard occasional chatter and radio broadcasts that refer to Senator McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the midst of a nasty divorce in which it looks as if she will lose her daughter, Aird (in whose name you would be right to hear "erred") invites Belivet ("good living") to go for a car trip "west"--the two become lovers in a small motel west of Chicago, and then part when they discover that Aird's husband has had them tailed and taped by a private eye. Such evidence allows him, on the basis of an "amorality" charge to sue for exclusive custody of his daughter--historically a not uncommon event in the lives of North American lesbian mothers.

Nursing her broken heart, Belivet returns to New York, where she finds work as a clerk in the photo department at the New York Times--for to be paid to be a photographer, well, that's a man's job. After work, she develops her photographic practice, and wanders, unattached, in a sort of straight village bohemian scene.  After a time--Aird has settled some aspects of her divorce and moved to a swank Manhattan apartment--the two meet again for drinks. Aird confesses her love, but gives Belivet time to think about whether she wants to pick up their love affair again. Late that night, Belivet has her answer, and the lovers catch sight of one another across a crowded smoky bar. Fade to black from bright eyes. Riff of American songbook inspired jazz, Jo Stafford's 1953 hit, "No Other Love."

Innocuous at worst, right? Possibly even uplifting; a recovery, albeit partial, of some aspects of North American queer history. And yet, the film bothered me. A lot.

What do you think?  my partner Marike asked me.  Why was this film made now? We both knew it couldn't be because lesbian love is somehow now worthy of celebration--that remains an iffy proposition at best in mainstream cultural productions. The price of salt remains very high in the lives of most gender non-conforming people. We've not yet moved to a place where families don't frequently toss their queer children or commit them, and closets are simply places where you store your shoes and your extra tights or ties. Some other politics is at work in the revival of this particular version of the queer New York 1950s.  

Why so much vaseline and soft focus, the camera that caresses Blanchett's pale face, her tossing blond locks? For sure, this is a film about blond allure--as the enthusiastic road home commentary from our friend, who describes herself as "partial to blonds," amply testified. Even more than that, however, I'd say that this is a film about and in praise of whiteness.

Not only can you count the fleeting appearances of silent people of colour in the film on one hand--the walk on by a black couple in a Village street scene, the black maid at Airds' in-laws--the film works hard to abolish class and ethnic barriers among its principles, to subsume them in affluence, "local colour" and nostalgia, in order to create a seamlessly white world in which no barrier is truly insurmountable, provided we ignore any inconvenient historical chatter at the edges of the screen.

When, at their first meeting, Belivet begins to explain to Aird that her last name is Czech, but misspelled and corrupted by the immigration process, Aird cuts her off; she doesn't want to know even that much. Therese Belivet, she says; that's a lovely name. Likewise, the film gathers Belivet's friends, all of whom are male, and some number of whom might be Jewish or of Italian working class extraction, into its snowy fold.

Everything is possible in this hopeful world of affluence-polished upward mobility--provided you're not too leftist, too outspoken, too racialized, too poor. The soft focus and Carol's flipping blond curls, the close-ups, the peering at pale faces through darkened, rain streaked glass, the winter landscape as the couple flees west, the expanse of Therese's white skin as the two women at last begin to make love: these key tropes serve to establish a love affair between these two women as a love affair with whiteness.

As such, the film bleaches away history, political critique, class distinction, financial limits, even loss--it all comes (or promises to come) right between the protagonists in the end.  No matter lost custody or family recrimination; no matter the recently ended Nuremberg Trials, the Rosenberg Trial, or the McCarthy hearings; no matter job loss or gender limits, unequal distribution of wealth or sexual discrimination: Therese can come to live in Carol's luxurious apartment, and the two will continue to be served by nearly invisible servers, to drive at night along dimly lit streets, listening to nostalgic and mostly white--Billy Holiday is the only notable exception--crooners, in a world where checks on freedom of speech, assembly and political affiliation and long-running battles around integration at lunch counters, in the military, in schools (Brown-vs-the Board of Education will begin to mandate school desegregation in 1954), on voter's roles, and in sport are so far away as to be non-existent.

Thus, while the film seems to be about queerness, or even a principled and proactive stand--Carol's quite striking insistence, as she and her lawyers meet with her husband and his lawyers, that how she loves is not immoral, but any law that would sever her from her daughter is--such moments don't hold up against the cigarette saturated nostalgia and watery focus of the rest of the tale. In Carol, in short, the lesbian story is a whitewash,  a screen blocking out other contemporary and pressing concerns.

Why this film now?  I think it is clear: we are living in a time when a certain part of (increasingly mainstreamed) American politics is all about whiteness: there are the birthers and truthers, who persist, against all evidence and reason, with the argument that Barack Hussein Obama is an illegitimate and ruinous president simply because he is black and has three non-European names; there's Trump's insane and all-too-popular demagogic vision, where what will make America great again involves ridding the country of immigrants, non-Christians, and people of colour; at this writing there is the band of armed white men who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregan, in protest against first nations and federal land management strategies that limit their (apparently divinely granted) use of park lands as cattle-grazing territory. And while it might be easy to dismiss all of these phenomena as the last stand ravings of an outrageous maniac white fringe, that's too easy.  Like them, Carol is all about the celebration of white privilege; we shouldn't let the lesbian theme or the lovely blond curls of Blanchett (more whiteness) blind us to such snow.

Carol enlists a new fringe (white middle class or affluent queers) to a new mainstream, to a history in which black and indigenous lives not only don't matter, they're virtually invisible. This is a dangerous message and an abuse of history, as well as a turn away from spaces of the present where we, as citizens and North Americans, are called to act.  Where #blacklivesmatter; where we look for and count murdered and missing Indigenous women; where unemployment and poverty are rampant; where access to clean water is not a given for all of our citizens, nor is healthcare or shelter; where more than one in five children are raised in poverty; where prisons are big business, and nonwhites are disproportionately arrested, detained and incarcerated; where corporate kleptcrats flout the law and do not pay their fair share; where the 1% continues to make more, while many of the rest do with less; where soft focus neoliberalism persuades us to cede more and more common spaces, not to mention our critical acuity.

The Price of Salt might have sold a million copies as "the novel of a love society forbids," but I'm not buying the that story today, as Carol tells it, where a love between women forbids not only most of society, but clear vision and nuanced contemporary conversation.

Why should Carol be the big queer tale of the year (and The Imitation Game last year's offering)? If we're going to hang about in the precincts of the queer mid-twentieth century, where is the film version of Audre Lorde's Zami? Or a life of Lorraine Hansberry--To Be Young, Gifted and Black? Where's the Marsha P. Johnson blockbuster, the smash biopic about Babe Bean/Jack Garland? What about a big film about Samuel Delaney? Or James Baldwin?  I tell you, it had better be The Fire Next Time!