Tony Tost reviews
The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek
by Alexandra Papaditsas and Kent Johnson
Skanky Possum, 2003, 54 pages, USD $6 http://www.spdbooks.org/
Kent Johnson’s various poetic projects have received a considerable amount of attention, from the cyber-pages of Jacket to the hip-lit pages of The Believer to the academic pages of PMLA (which will be featuring “The Strange Case of Araki Yasusada”). As Forrest Gander noted, originally in The Nation and reprinted here in Jacket, Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada is “the most controversial poetry book since Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.”
More modest in scope — saddle-stapled and slim — the newest Johnson offering again appears with the sincerest of intentions, humbly presenting an American’s poetic interactions with some friends across the ocean. The story seems to be thus: Johnson and his horned co-translator have tried their hand at translations of classic Greek texts discovered in the “Montazah Palace find, Alexandria, Egypt, 1998.” There is also a murder mystery — Johnson’s co-translator (and former lover?) is now dead.
Presenting itself as a volume of “traductions,” Alexandra Papaditsas and Kent Johnson’s The Miseries of Poetry is a book of transformation, but refreshingly the text itself becomes an agent of metamorphosis as opposed to just an account of it.
An example: the poetry blurb is widely derided as a corrupt genre, the sort of market-driven writing best left to aging poets anxious about their legacy perhaps or to upwardly mobile poets eager to brand themselves as market forces. The Miseries opens with an excerpt from the Papaditsas long poem Sacred Horn (rhymed, and in iambic tetrameter) and then moves directly to fourteen pages of blurbs (overwhelming since the total page count of poems is twenty-one) by forty-two poets and critics; in fact, the blurb section acknowledges the reader’s likely bewilderment and is titled “Praise and Confusion for The Miseries of Poetry.”
The range of blurbers is impressive. Within this section are blurbs from both the absolutely most interesting emerging American poets (such as Ben Lerner, Eleni Sikelianos, K. Silem Mohammed, Jenny Boully) as well as poets and writers of established cultural cachet (John Ashbery, Mikhail Epstein, David Lehman) in addition to blurbs from those in what a friend of mine has labeled “the Kent Johnson subculture.”
Within this frame, my first expectation was to read these opening blurbs as symptoms of the titular Miseries, a sort of extended joke about the production of poetic identities as well as a poke at poets’ often self-serving discussions of other poets’ work. But the actual experience of reading and re-reading this opening section has been far richer than I would have imagined — it strikes me as a fluid set-piece where creative bodies are brought together to improvise to some set of rules, or in this case, a theme.
The unstated theme in these blurbs appears to be self-preservation, which is also the sub-theme of this review — how to discuss a writer like Kent Johnson who has such applicable and timely ideas on authorship and poetic self-delusion without becoming an unknowing or passive example of what Johnson anticipates and seeks to reform: the unthinking or cynical poet’s relationship with his or her persona and product. That is, underlying many of these blurbs there is the question of if and how to enter Johnson’s set-piece (as you and I are doing now) and how to do so with some autonomy, if only in the form of a willful submissiveness.
So the blurbs range from mock outrage in the guise of the still developing anti-Yasusada sub-economy (“Kent Johnson has provided us with yet another work of profound unoriginality”) to implications of being a part of the gang (“Once I wrote a fake interview with John Ashbery, and this caused some poets to become very anxious. Now I am writing a fake blurb for the pathetically fake Kent Johnson”) to detective fiction-isms (“Do not assume that all that is here is invention or forgery. The full story is much more complicated. Including who killed her”) to references to literary forerunners (Kenneth Rexroth, Fernando Pessoa, Armand Schwerner, Nabokov). I get the half-feeling that one or two of the blurbs are forged, which would only add to the odd, almost-utopian community of various voices of ranging “authenticity” colluding in support of this small, seemingly unassuming book.
It’s a paradoxical book. The project is movingly, even profoundly (and “orangely”), focused on the fates, desires, and fears of individuals even as it undercuts assumptions about literary individuality. It dramatizes an imperialistic approach to translation even though Kent Johnson is a supreme translator and editor. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that poetry is what gets lost in translation. In contrast, an important writer to Johnson, David Rosenberg, writes of poetry as springing from the translation of the oral to the written word; he presents translation (in a wider sense) as the site of poetry: “the poet as original translator doesn’t so much imagine the future as explore it by re-imagining a buried past, one that every culture is based upon defeating and becoming superior to. All except the primal culture, that is, the one with no preceding tradition besides evolution itself.”
One of Rosenberg’s implications is that the poet’s job is to write his or her way into the future of the human race. This pushes the entire idea of translation (in Rosenberg’s sense of the word) as a biological necessity. Johnson and Papaditsas’ theme seems to be “poetry gets lost.” Papditsas herself, born with a curling horn on her head that “approximated the size and shape of a billy goat’s” appears to be an individual from either the far past or near future of the evolutionary chain, with her distinguishing feature (her horn) being perhaps an omen of her role as literary cuckold. Or perhaps Kent Johnson is our contemporary Theseus, and Papaditsas is both Ariadne and (in Gabriel Gudding’s blurb) “the pint-sized Minotaur farting in the center of these poems” for she is both killed and betrayed.
This review has yet to address the actual poems/ translations/ traductions, which is my inadvertent nod to the conceit of this and other Kent Johnson projects: a meta-fictional, or hyper-real, apparatus is elaborately constructed to support seemingly humble, personal, direct poems, all of which serve to illustrate the usual identity-obsessed apparatuses employed by more “ambitious” and “genuine” poets working in mainstream, experimental and other genres of poetry.
But still, there is the honey in the comb (the poetry), or as Robert Duncan put it, “the hive of human being” which is what, as poets, “we work in composing.” These traductions rely on the constant friction between the longing and bitterness (mystical and/ or sexual) of the poems and the materialistic vulnerabilities of the persons and the texts themselves. A disclaimer in The Miseries (this disclaimer is placed before several prefatory notes which then lead to Papaditsas’ introduction which then lead finally to the poems) notes “This disclaimer applies to all of this book, from the rotting papyri that are its source, to its present (already, alas, decomposing) covers...” The book focuses on the elemental materialistic (as opposed to just linguistic) attributes of being.
From the title poem, “The Miseries of Poetry”:
In Lydian tone she said, “Come hither, I will plug up
your tight asshole.” And she beat my egg sack with a sprig
of lilac as if I were a satyr. I fell backwards, breathing
heavy, and caught there by writhing vines I suffered
torture times two, and then some: A dried rose stem
lashed my man-tits; someone smeared me with cow’s
shit, and then my ass started stinking like Hades.
The appeal of these poems, even separated from their apparatuses, is for me two-fold. First and most immediate is the extreme sensuality of the language and imagery, the human animal addressing the miseries and “miseries” of the human animal’s life, filled with sex and defecation. These miseries so often seem to go unmentioned, or are poorly lit, in American literature, where in most poems only one of the body’s orifices — the mouth — is worthy of the poet’s attention (and hardly ever as anything than a speaking orifice).
Edward Dahlberg, in Can These Bones Live?, writes of the American tradition: “To damn sensuality, laughter and irony, Cotton Mather had turned woman into a witch; Poe took the infernal witch, begot by Mather, and buried her alive; Melville exorcised her!” To extend the conceit, perhaps we can say that Kent Johnson collaborated with “her” in The Miseries of Poetry, but then perhaps he also had some hand in “her” premature death, as various prefaces and blurbs hint at; he acknowledges some duplicity, but only in the most general terms. “Perhaps in some sense these marks are also mine,” he writes, “her pain having some Archaic source in me.” Which leads to another brilliant fold in these poems, that of placing (thrusting?) this immediate, unapologetic physical poetry into the mouths of the ancients, reanimating their figures with spleen, bile, shit and sperm.
The poems also turn to the mystical but are grounded by the material, even as the material threatens to erase them. The scholarly notes employed throughout range from the expected — context-establishing details about the source of the papers and biographical notes on the poets — to the paranoiac. The scholarly notes are touchingly human; they are often lonely, frightening notes-to-self. The poems themselves careen from the sexual and satiric to the humbly philosophical.
From “A Single Mind”:
1. A single mind is all things.
2. All things are a single mind.
[Large holes: Moths? American academics?]
10. Listen: One can never step twice in the same river.
11. Listen: In swallowing, the moon is brought forth.
12. Listen and spit out: The swollen moon is brought forth.
13. Swallow your self and swallow others.
14. Spit out yourself and spit out others.
[Large strange holes, mysterious gaps, frightening loss.]
26. When clouds fly, the moon moves.
27. When a boat goes, the shore moves.
28. The boat and the shore travel at the same time, walk together, without floating or turning.
[Holes eaten by time, American academics, loss, and mystery.]
Here in America, where even our best experimental writers seem to be constructing gigantic monuments to their own talents and are eager to lie beside Wordsworth in some canonical garden, Kent Johnson’s project, whatever it ultimately is or ends up having been, strikes me as either the most moving, unsettling, and important thing going on right now or as the most egregious and dangerous self-delusion in American letters.
One way or another, it feels necessary. And important. The Miseries of Poetry has all the friction of a truly difficult work, one that forges a path of protest, a path for the ghosts of Alexandra Papaditsas and those like her to protest those of us who would bury them for our own glory. Papaditsas’ last written words, from March of 2002, are in fact about Kent Johnson, the famous American poet, translator and provocateur:
Even though I know that poetry is much more than Poetry, I know these are Poems we did in another time, when we were happiest before the terrorist brown color covered everything. I am going to go away now. I am going to go away, like antelopes roaming from Uruguay, where he lived as a boy. The annotations about what is gone in the moths are mine, after his death. I am sure he would disagree. But fuck him, still. Fuck him in the mouth with a great velocity. Minor lying god.