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Joe Amato

Comment faire, commenting fairly, and commencing with the alphabet L?

A response to Rob Wilson’s ‘Writing the Experimental/ Local Pacific’

This piece is 1,700 words or about four pages long

BOB WILSON’S high-energy excursion through the Hawai’ian tangle of identity politics — as these are embedded and embodied in the competing poetries of this culturally conflicted island community — foregrounds a question that continues to haunt contemporary postmodern practice, Pacific Basin and otherwise: How best to understand and implement the aesthetic as a site of social struggle?

Borrowing from Susan Schultz’s working conception of ‘two postmodernisms’ — one linguistically ‘experimental,’ the other grounded in a creolized approach to ‘the local’ — Wilson disrupts the incipient complacencies associated with recent appropriations of the local to transnational ends (in 31 global flavors). Wilson’s strategy consists, in the main, of seeking out and interrogating poetry that navigates these two impulses to varying aesthetic advantage. Yet as if sensing that the critical leverage he employs is itself at stake in his discussion — i.e., that there is no neutral discursive technology of which we may absent-mindedly avail ourselves — Wilson turns his critical-poetic gaze on his own maneuvers, concluding his piece with an autobiographical ‘panic poetic’ foray into the quasi-expatriate ports of his own dislocated (isn’t every academic’s?) history.

So much for paraphrase. I wanted to say something, too, about how Schultz’s ‘two postmodernisms’ itself brings to (my) mind Teresa L. Ebert’s testy dismissal of ‘ludic’ feminism in favor of a ‘materialist Red’ feminism, and her related critique of libidinal, as opposed to political, economies (‘labor’ viewed here as more pressing than ‘desire"; see ‘For a Red Pedagogy: Feminism, Desire, and Need,’ in College English 58.7 (Nov. 1996): 795-819). But I’m not sure that I want to go where this would lead me, not least because (unlike Ebert, I gather) I believe ultimately in the material value of ludic labor.

Instead, I want to follow Wilson’s example, and offer my readers a rather odd, and oddly personalized, set of conjunctions — or perhaps better, disjunctions. Unlike Wilson, I’m no Connecticut Yankee, but I nonetheless hail from [tut] the next best thing — Central New York. And I want to try to reimagine, in brief, how this Central New Yorker might have imagined Hawai’i (most certainly not as ‘Hawai’i’, spelled with an apostrophe to represent a glottal stop) before he became such an astute — or is it abstruse? — commentator.

First, though, I want to examine a few lines of poetry that Wilson himself glosses, from Dan Featherston’s 26 Islands:


propinquities: Hawai’i
not far from Le Havre
are there Hawfinches


A wee bit of translation, etymology, definition: ‘havre’ = harbor, haven (according to my Larousse, sitting here next to my keyboard). And ‘havre’ is itself (among these other things) a contraction of ‘Le havre de notre dame de grace’ (according to my Brewer’sDictionary of Phrase and Fable, sitting here next to my keyboard). ‘Hawai’i’ is ‘akin to Marquesan Havaiki, legendary homeland of the Polynesians’ (according to my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, sitting here next to my keyboard). And a hawfinch is ‘an Old World finch’ (according to my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, sitting here next to my keyboard).

If, as the title declares, L is for lexical, this little poem, but one in an alphabetic sequence of twenty-six, must signify the act of lexicography itself, or the dictionary-like prescriptive process by which a word beginning with L must participate in the predicate of this poem’s title. And if this title presumes to speak to the substance of this poem, then the poem — this spatial island of ink linked semantically and syntagmatically to its neighbors (ain’t we all?) — might provoke us to pose particularly lexical questions. (Note too that L is the twelfth letter in the alphabet-sequence, and that Featherston indicates in his prefatory ‘Primer’ that there are ‘only 12 letters in the Hawai’ian alphabet,’ which was subsequently amplified by ‘early Missionaries.’)

The obvious local lexical question, then: How are Hawai’i and Le Havre in proximity? As words, as sounds, as places? Real, or imagined? Yes, they share an uppercase ’H’ and an ’a.’’ (‘Hawfinches": another (why uppercase?) ’H’ and ’a,’ plus a ’w,’ or two v’s.) ‘Where’ in fact is ‘there"? And how is any ‘there,’ Old World or new, a function of the indigenous, as opposed to the imported, or import-able? Given the antiquated but persistent notion of French as the ‘diplomatic’ language (and the language of love), the legendary resistance in some French quarters to the very sorts of standard / nonstandard variations that typify Hawai’ian language practices, with their incumbent creolizing (and decreolizing) of Polynesian, English, Japanese, Korean, and Philippine (and Spanish and Portuguese and — ); and in light of French complicity in the very sorts of colonialist policies that brought the English, in the personage of Captain James Cook and crew, to the former Sandwich Islands in 1778, which Cook named after the Earl of Sandwich (according to my Columbia Encyclopedia, sitting here next to my keyboard); policies that also brought New England missionaries to the islands in 1820 to teach English, ‘designated the official language of the government and the medium of instruction in the schools’ in the 1890s (according to my Reader’s Digest Success with Words (309)): well, gives a reader pause, no?

I can’t answer these questions in any definitive (definitional?) sense, and I am, after all, scrutinizing but one poem in a sequence. Yet I get the impression that Featherston wishes for us only to ponder such questions, for there is no safe interpretive haven when it comes to this matter of reading and writing across cultures (regardless what may be sitting next to one’s keyboard; and note that ‘haven’ is etymologically, as one might expect, ‘probably a ’container’ for ships,’ according to my Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins, sitting here next to ... hence an apt word, I think, to adumbrate Wilson’s ‘two lurid ships [i.e., the experimental and the local] passing in the postmodern night’). And indeed, in pondering such questions, I find myself falling back, inexorably, on my own idiosyncratic lexicon — my interior sources, and unauthorized motives.

‘Nobody gets too much haven no more."

Which brings me ’round to my aforementioned (and no doubt much anticipated) work of reimagining. Herewith a randomly composed list of words / things / events / ideas I might have associated with Hawai’i oh, say, some fifteen-twenty years ago (you’ll note that I’m not proud):

islands in the Pacific, Don Ho’s ‘Tiny Bubbles,’ Hawai’ian Eye,Hawai’i Five-O,Magnum P.I., 7 December 1941, the (first) film based on Jones’s From Here to Eternity, the epic film based on Michener’s novel, Honolulu, Charlie Chan, Warner Oland as the first (talkie) Chan, Sidney Toler’s debut as Chan in Charlie Chan in Honolulu, Keye Luke as ‘Number One Son,’ sun, surf, sand, sea, sky, tropics, palm trees, coconuts, the colors blue and green, rain forest, volcanoes, aloha, 50th state, where English and Hawai’ian are spoken, lei (I had to look this one up to make sure I was spelling it right), luaus (looked it up), hula (and hula hoops), tans, brown-skinned natives, boats, bikinis, sexual promiscuity, I’ve never been there

And ditto with regard to Le Havre:

French city and port on the English Channel, where my parents were married on 7 September 1945, having to do with WWII, all things French, like my mother, where mostly French is spoken, temperate climate but cold at times, white-skinned natives, all things black & white (like the photos in my family albums), all things romantic (in a 40s sense of the word), I’ve never been there

(I take that back: there is some semblance of order here.)

Joe Amato’s Parents

      To add to which assorted cultural naivetés and outright prejudices the fact that, as the bird flies (hawfinch, or Boeing), Hawai’i is a further distance from my birthplace (Syracuse, NY) than is Le Havre — but somewhat closer to my current abode (outside of Boulder, Colorado) than is Le Havre (according to our Replogle 12 Inch Diameter World Classic Series Globe — no, not next to my keyboard, but downstairs, next to our tv, sitting on an old piano stool my father refinished years ago).

Anyway. I guess I’m what you call your typical white USA American (male) in some ways; in other ways, not so typical. To be sure, first generation or no, I benefit from certain structural-political realities everywhere in evidence here in the sprawling web of 21st century US, much to my dismay (and much as I believe my dismay must be factored into my sense of self-identity). So to put it in the most unflattering terms: if I participate, as is the liberal fashion, in hand-wringing over controversies of identity (Hawai’ian, American, European, generational, creole, corporate, ‘global,’ and so forth), my effort (let’s say) is necessarily undercut by the recognition that I do, finally, enjoy such benefits — no matter how much I may have struggled (let’s say) personally. And I’m clearly not the first to remark so, or to so struggle, outsider-insider that I am, or imagine myself to be.

And if I find myself asking, What can I do, as a wordsmith, in the face of these sorts of controversies, and corresponding injustices? I may likewise find myself asking, What is the relationship between my work as a wordsmith, and my other labors? As a creative writing teacher? (For the time-being, anyway.) As a citizen of the US? (If this is yet possible in the wake of, oh, say, Starship Troopers.) Are we being simply too literary in expecting that formal aesthetic difficulties will do justice to the complexities of our once and future social sphere, and identities emerging therefrom? Or are we still not being literary enough? And what sorts of aesthetic difficulties can meet the experiential demands of the many global forecasts being uttered by the many who are in a position to so utter?

Wilson, Featherston, Balaz, Saijo, Schultz, Spahr, Tranter, Luoma, Kinsella, et al. are busy asking such questions, and no doubt ruffling some feathers. And it seems to this east-west migratory bird that, while making due in our ports and happy havens, we would do well to listen to them squawk.

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