Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Category: Literature

My first Medium Article on ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is live–here’s the link!

220px-Rye_catcherAn excerpt from “Holden Caulfield’s #Metoo Narrative in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’”:

Lately, I have been training to become an English Language Arts teacher. Along the way, I’ve been perusing classic literary texts taught in high school, which brought me to The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. SalingerI re-read it, hoping to find a way to connect the text to issues that are ripe in today’s media.

I’ll admit, I struggled with the beloved story and its protagonist. Part of me wanted to brush it off as mid-century and male, and therefore obsolete. Throughout the exposition, the privileged-white-male-boarding-school-student-narrator’s only problem appears to be his disinterest in school, and his cynicism towards “phonies.” The language is outdated, there seems to be an oozing preoccupation with masculine cis-gender roles in the text, and the derogatory view of women held by many of the characters make the text difficult to teach without lots of bracketing and contextualizing. I’ve been struggling to find a way to interpret The Catcher in the Rye as a future English teacher who hopes to empower my students who identify as female. A possible solution dawned on me when I realized Holden Caulfield may be searching for a way out of the environment of toxic masculinity. I feel his narrative calls for a #metoo reading.

Continue reading on Medium… 

 

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Extreme Boredom: A pitfall of reading a lot of literature

If it’s boring, it might be literary.

There are stylistic tropes that fling around literary writing, just like they do around marketing writing or humor writing. Marketing writing always includes some kind of manipulative “why not” statement that tips your weight off balance, making you accidentally click “buy.” Jokes tend to be gestural and feature costumes, accidents, squeamish sex or other bodily functions, self-deprecation and the like. Then we reach the literary, wherein the words are supposed to cling to our palettes like fine wine. More often than not, I find that it clings to the roof of my mouth like peanut-butter. It is precisely this everyday-plain-yet-sublime-concrete-details trope that I’m bored with. Personally, I never liked peanut butter as a child, especially since my mom always bought the chunky kind. Any other nut could have made the spread more glorious. I mean, why not grind up pistachios, instead?

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Here’s an example.

Susan Straight — award winning author — writes the following paragraph in her story, “The Perseids,” found in the most recent issue of Granta:

“He turned the binoculars on his house – thirty feet away down the long cement path bordered with river rock, past the old plow and stone water trough. The ancient redwood shingles on the house had darkened to tight black scales. The first time his best friend Manny’s father picked up Dante for baseball practice, he said to Dante’s father, ‘Damn – these shingles aren’t even painted, homes!’”

(my emphasis added)

These are precise details, surely. Yet, to me, they are so uninspiring in the imagination, that I get that peanut-butter-sticking-to-the-roof-of-my-mouth feel from reading this. Perhaps the nausea rather than sentimentality towards my Spokane, Washington upbringing has something to do with it. Our faded-glory landscape featured plenty of river rock (as I recall from when I lived there). The main geographic feature of that area was a river. This portrait reminds me of the middle-class homes that people like me could have afforded in my parents generation. River rocks remind me of the 1970s when people had an opportunity to make significant changes in society and didn’t, opting for Nixon followed not long after by Reagan. “River rock” reminds me of how my grandparents, who would take me, in the twilight of their dementia, down to the river to show me how to skip rocks. We’d watch adorable ducks waddle by, and my grandpa would tell us stories of duck hunting. The river rocks even remind me of the popular Christian-Methodist summer camp I joined once, situated along the Spokane river, with the teenage cliques and full-blown group-think episodes of Jesus-acceptance catharsis that made me feel even more alienated than my own Catholic-republican family did. River rocks as evocative details are such a turn off for me.

On to “old plow” and “stone water trough”–don’t even get me started. These are clearly out-of-use relics that have been turned into middle class decorations. Why not throw in some old boots, a long saw-tooth blade and a buffalo skull? These things once had a function, you know, and those times were not as simple and easy-going as this nostalgic home-portrait suggests. These were backbreaking days that led to newly worshiped inventions: motorized tractors and lighter weight materials such as plastic. The ease and convenience of our new technological advancements in fact make the objects in this portrait fantastical, like a stage-set designed by Ralph Lauren. Placing these items inside the frame of the picture does nothing to highlight history, since our white parents with their complicated stories of genocidal Indian Wars paired with immigration and agrarian hardship aren’t usually the history-disseminating types. So we ponder our origins by decorating with old plows. These objects aren’t placed here to hint at the forces that shaped history in this dainty portrait, but to delete them with an emphasis on our limited, yet satisfactory, purview of cozy domestic life.

Next, the “ancient redwood shingles” emphasize the distance of time as if to slap us on the face and say, “get nostalgic!” This was so far back in time, they could actually cut down redwoods and turn them into something as mundane as shingles and not even protect them with paint! Back in those days, they could easily replace such shingles, so paint was but a mere afterthought. Oh my, how the prices have changed and our world has been turned upside down by clear-cutting. It’s as if the toilet in the house is studded with diamonds–and moreover, they didn’t even bother to wipe the piss of of them! This is not a pretty picture. These were distant times with vastly plentiful resources that are now scarce. (Oops!) Rampant expansion known as “civilization” happened and now the memory of abundance tugs our heart strings. How about that California drought? Not just shingles but entire redwood forests are turning black.

The “tight black scales” of the house emphasize the ruinous state the house is in. Moreover, this house is but a fish, and that could be a reference to the Bible, even, in case you haven’t had enough of the Bible stuffed down your throat in summer camp. And do you see how the “river rock” and the “fish scales” of the house turn the portrait into a river-setting without once pointing out water? Don’t stories with rivers usually feature drowning? Just like Chekov’s theory that introducing a loaded gun in the first act only leads to one conclusion. Yet, you’ll notice how the paragraph is “balanced” with these “scales.” These interpretations are all a stretch, and the stretch doesn’t take me anywhere that triggers insight or intrigue.

I’m still bored. And the homey disrepair of the era is again emphasized by the onlooker, who gently criticizes his neighbor, as if unaware he is doing so. He is, in fact, a bit rude. But we are somehow obliged to forgive his folksy ways, because he is just a suburban bumpkin, unaware that his comments are potentially condescending. Because in ‘merica, monkey see, monkey say. We verbalize and apologize later, all unawares. We expect hearty comradeship without push back, especially in white-on-white dialogue. In other words, literature in ‘merica means a no-nonsense embrace of the banal.

Sometimes, I cannot stomach literature. Indeed, the above details are not “nice” or “sympathetic” or even “interesting” to my ear. The paragraph is the definition of nausea for me, and my boredom increases with each added “concrete detail.” Details alone don’t make a story good. The details are always strapped like a damsel in distress to some overriding Godzilla-like associations, beliefs and ideologies which can easily sweep the text away from a reader. It doesn’t comfort me to read about good-‘ole white America (the elephant in the background of this text).

I crave wit, provocation, originality, estrangement, a sense of history and an outsider status. Those are my google keywords. Perhaps that’s why I eat up Roberto Bolano’s writing like ice-cream. And perhaps this article is not fair to the author or the text. I admit I couldn’t read much beyond this paragraph of the story, so my analysis really only applies to that paragraph.

But I’m not trying to be fair, I’m trying to define my literary taste.

Book Review: & Silk & Love & Flame by Birhan Keskin

 

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“Every culture has a poetics of pathos.

In Greek, pathos means “suffering.” Aristotle defined pathos as one of the rhetorical modes of persuasion. It involves eliciting emotion to produce a desired effect on one’s audience.

In America, we have the blues, with its origins in the spirituals sung by African American slaves on plantations. The blues are laden with feelings of sorrow and hardship. However, they evolved to encompass personal themes, and political messages, without loosing their roots in suffering. The lyrics by Irving Mills of Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo take us to that poignant state (especially when sung by Billy Holiday):

‘Cause there’s nobody who cares about me
I’m just a soul who’s bluer than blue can be
When I get that mood indigo
I could lay me down and die.

A feeling of deep misery is wedded to the potency of the blues, which has been disseminated and adopted by cultural art forms of all kinds in America and beyond.

In Spain, poet Federico Garcia Lorca identified duende as the tragic streak of madness found in the work of great flamenco dancers and bull fighters. He describes it as the “earth spirit of irrationality and death,” in his book of poetic criticism titled In Search of Duende. This form of pathos found in Spanish poetics emphasizes dark and mysterious undertones of creative impulses.

For Turkish poet Birhan Keskin, a famous line of the seventeenth century folk poet Karacaoğlan concretizes the theme of pathos: “Bir Ayrılık, bir yoksulluk, bir ölüm” (A separation, a destitution, a death). In a shared “Şiir Masası” (“Poetry Roundtable”) interview conducted by Deniz Durkuan with Birhan Keskin, Ezel Akay, Serenad Bagcan and Hakan Gercek published in Pul Biber, Keskin points out that these are three primary concerns in Turkish poetics, with the themes themselves originating four or five thousand years ago with the Sumerians. (…)”

Read the full review in the Bosphorus Review of Books May Edition.

Find out how I learned about Birhan Keskin’s work by scrolling down to my Editor’s Note here.

Birhan Keskin

Birhan Keskin, poet

 

Demystifying Poetry

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It’s the tail-end of poetry month and I’ve decided to go off on a rant about poetry discourse. In America, people often assume that poetry can’t possibly be popular. Maybe if they came to Turkey, they’d change their minds. Here, people graffiti the walls with lines of Nazim Hikmet. But a shift is taking place in and around America. Just north of the border, Canada’s Rupi Kaur has shown us how huge Instagram followings for poetry can lead to book contracts. We also live in an era when pop-icons can hand-pick their own poets. Beyoncé collaborated with poet Warsan Shire to include spoken lines of poetry throughout her album Lemonade. Suddenly, it’s as if poetry can become something more than an isolated bookish art. Poetry loves new media, poetry loves sound recording, poetry loves the stage.

This month, year, decade, I’ve come across some efforts to legitimize poetry. Joshua Johnson’s podcast 1A recently aired a segment titled, “How do you know if a poem is good?” He invited guests Kevin Young, the poetry editor for the New Yorker, Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd U.S. Poet Laureate, Matthew Zapruder, the editor for poetry publisher Wave Books, and Danez Smith, the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry winner to discuss.

No, a love of poetry is not akin to an odd fetish or a closeted drug addiction.

The questions were framed as if to give rise to a series of confessions: Who was your first? What got you into it? Why do you like this? Teetering towards … Aren’t you embarrassed by it? No, a love of poetry is not akin to an odd fetish or a closeted drug addiction. We don’t have to stigmatize it as such. We don’t have to hide it, nor are we obligated to represent all readers of poetry, when it is a highly personal form of art. I’ll be the first to admit it: I like poetry. Specifically, I like my own taste in poetry. Just like music, this is not a homogeneous art.

There’s a sense that poetry is not taught correctly and that if it were to be taught correctly, it would miraculously become popular. So typical. Blame the teacher. Can you tell I was a teacher? In the podcast, the guests suggest that teachers have kept poetry removed from our daily lives, forgetting that we use lines of poetry at funerals and weddings. Do we, though? The last few weddings I attended mostly involved impromptu toasts or roasts. If poetry classes were designed with the assumption that all of the students would become future poets, the same way engineering teachers see their students as future engineers, these doubts towards its relevance might disappear. But we can’t blame this on the teachers themselves. They are underpaid, overworked. No brilliant insider’s view of an “everyday” style of teaching poetry is any less offensive than an average teacher’s assumption that poetry might actually be removed from people’s daily lives. Developing a clever strand of poetry-lite is just condescending.

When prodded about the merit of poetry for laypersons, Tracy K. Smith says people simply have to “feel” poems to get them. But she follows this up with a more thorough explanation: it involves listening to the sounds of words, identifying how the poet used them, and connecting to their meaning. Kevin Young defended his role at the New Yorker, which Johnson calls an “upper-echelon” establishment, by saying that he would read the New Yorker poems in Kansas as a child. He calls the New Yorker (surprisingly) “democratic.” These are cases in the podcast when the poets didn’t want to bite on the bait. At least Young later asserts that we do bring our own framework to poetry when we identify its meaning. Going one step further, this suggests that a highly developed reader like Young will likely have a different impression of a poem than a non-reader of poetry. It is, to an extent, an acquired taste.

I don’t think poetry has to be “democratic” for people to like it. Zapruder’s comment that there’s a poem for everyone made sense to me because it implied that such a poem is NOT a poem for everyone else. I like Emily Dickinson’s riddles. I like Susan Howe’s esoteric cut-ups of Puritan speech morphology. I also like the biting decolonizing polemics of Amiri Baraka’s rhythmic poems. These are filled with clever wit and wordplay, and I like finding their layers of meaning. I didn’t attend an ivy-league university. That wasn’t a pre-requisite for liking poetry.

Poetry asks us to tune in with our mental powers, just as much as our feelings. We are linguistic creatures, and poetry recognizes this aspect of our nature. Poetry is a mixture of oral and written forms. It stands in this in-between zone of contemporaneous performance and studied composition. It combines high and low diction. It is the parasitic jester of all verbal and linguistic possibilities in the world. It is not a static art form, and it cannot be codified, either. Poetry is a malleable beast.

Intellectualism is not a crime!

Matthew Zapruder’s recent book, Why Poetry, also takes on the challenge to demystify poetry. I like that he refutes the notion that poems deceive. Again, I found myself adding a personal addendum to his point. It is as if he’s saying: poems don’t deceive; straight-talking politicians do. He also describes an in-between dreamlike state induced by poems, and he celebrates their material form, as language. Although its premise involves making poetry accessible to lay-readers, the entire book was like a easy-going fireside chat of the very same lectures on poetry that emphasize rhyme, meter, syllable stresses, metaphor, image, enjambment, etc, that these poets are blaming for “elitism.” Why can’t we just admit that poets are elitist in a sense, and that intellectualism is not a crime!

I don’t see why we’re picking a fight with the many possible tools that comprise the craft anyway, just to make the art more easy to approach or digest. These are tools that have developed over time, and just because they involve unfamiliar terminology, like “iambic pentameter,” doesn’t mean we have to negate their worth. Poetry offers a centuries-old tradition that may carry a lot of academic baggage, but it is not sealed off from time. I think the most important thing to emphasize when “demystifying poetry” is that it is a thriving art with longstanding traditions in all parts of the world, and the traditions and innovations of poetry are still unfolding. Poetry doesn’t belong to the dead, it belongs to the living.

 

What happened to me as I was writing about Don Quixote

DonQuixoteReading Don Quixote was a pleasure. Writing about it here in Istanbul in the most recent issue of the Bosphorus Review of Books became surreal. I became a detective. I ravaged all kinds of external sources including one of my favorites, Echevarria’s Open Yale Lectures on Don Quixote. Who was this Cervantes, this strange Spanish author fighting the Ottomans and staying captive in Algiers?

My mind started to draw a lot of parallels. Don Quixote seemed to be creating strange links between elements of my life that are otherwise disconnected. I don’t really know what to make of it. I think its a facet of my own quixotic “literary madness.” It’s when we start to see connections across the mediums: between things we’ve read or seen and the reality we’ve actually experienced or even dreamed.And this makes one framework melt into the other. I even dreamt I was releasing prisoners a few nights ago, just as Don Quixote does in one of the scenes.

The fact that Don Quixote goes off to live a romantic lifestyle that he read about sounds so familiar. I did the same by becoming an expat with dreams of writing my novel abroad. It’s not quite the same as a knight errant, but I think the source of inspiration is similar–it’s the inspiration wrought by my library. The heroes of my books, though, are usually the authors themselves.

But then when Quixote meets an arbitrator (I work for a law firm specializing in international arbitration), and the Captain Piedma travels to Istanbul as a slave (the city I live in, which sometimes feels like it has captured me), and a wealthy Moor named Zoraida goes to Spain (one of my closest friends in Istanbul is from Morocco), and when I started reading about how scholars spread news that Cervantes had worked on the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque (which is a five minute walk from my doorstep), I started to feel attached like an adoring Little Prince to a particular fox who warms his heart. And it also happens that a few of the most renowned philologists who have theorized the Quixote are Leo Spitzer and Erich Auerbach, both of whom were émigrés in Istanbul for a time to escape Nazi Germany. Even the theme of captivity happens to be something I touched on in my earlier studies on themes of Puritan literature (Mary Rowlandson) and my head looped back to that area of interest. It’s almost too much to bear for one little literary soul.

Am I living in my own Cervantine reality?

I just find it sad, strange, and unfortunate that in our time, the weight of thought control and book burning is felt more here in Istanbul than elsewhere. And to think our own sweet city is where people once escaped from such treatment . . .

For less wistful on the book please read my essay in the Bosphorus Review of Books.

Link round-up: mistranslation

We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders.

 

One of the first essays that really turned me on to translation–not as a practice, but as a kind of ‘genre’ of literary critique–was Borges’ essay on the translation of 1001 Arabian Nights.

The Thousand and One Nights by Jorge Luis Borges

Of course, the evocative and elusive essay by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” came soon thereafter.

The Task of the Translator by Walter Benjamin

While translation promises the noble pursuit of universal communication, more often we are such tribal, provincial, territorial creatures that our language resists transcendence–sometimes intentionally so.

We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders. And this applies not only to languages of nations, but to languages of different professions, languages of different races, and even language differences between generations.

One thing that has become clear to me, both from reading these essays and from living abroad and trying my own hand at translation, is that mistranslation is inevitable. Delightfully so!

For those with the necessary insider knowledge, mistranslations are a joy to unravel for the humor that arises from discovering the latent boundaries between different languages. I even find discussions on mistranslation entertaining to read. That’s why I’ve created a list of articles that take a stab at identifying and decoding mistranslations in some capacity.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Admittedly, this is just meant as fodder for nerdy amusement. I do realize, though, that such discussions are capable of starting holy wars when sacred texts are involved. I also know from editing translated book quotations that it is very easy to mince/distort the words of non-native speakers, who are often very important people (such as when people assumed that JFK made the err of saying “I’m a jelly doughnut” in German). This is when the humor turns sour. But, alas, that’s for another post/author/blog to discuss. I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. Add your own links in the comments, if you feel inspired.

xo, Erica

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She (also) brought us “The End of Imagination”

This year brought us Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which I have not yet read. She soared to the top of any publisher’s chart in the wake of her first novel, God of the Small Things, and then “disappeared” (for some) into her role as an activist, non-fiction commentator on politics. When people craved the artist, she narrated the facts. We should be grateful! I just finished reading her collected essays, The End of Imagination published in 2016 by Haymarket Books. What I’m about to write is rough–culled from memory–because I don’t have the time to go searching through my kindle for quotes or anecdotes found in the book. Then again, I never promised polished, perfect analysis on this site.

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What a soreness it is to see how deeply entrenched we are in the same themes she wrote about starting nearly twenty years ago–nuclear arms races, displacement via multinational investments in hydroelectric power and dams that devastated the Indian landscape, crisis market economics, the Afghanistan War, and the longstanding impact of the Patriot Act and the War on Terrorism following 9/11. She honors Noam Chomsky in these pages and questions her role as an author with a deeply committed spirit of activism that does not look away. She distinguishes the importance of her role as a fiction and a writer of non-fiction, which she bemoans for falling into the category of activist-writing. Labels haunt her because her work, as any work of a brilliant author would, constantly defies them.

I found this collection profound and impassioned–urgent. How have we sustained this treacherous urgency for so long without apparent headway or resolution? Reading these essays lifted any veil that clouded my vision about the curse of neoliberalism. Where can I possibly start?

I felt relieved of some ignorance after reading this book. I have read North American tales of neoliberalism brought to us by Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. I have read European theoretical critiques brought to us by Guy Debord, Tikkun, Franco Berardi, Zizek, Serres, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, but these didn’t draw me in like Roy’s pages. The approach is different. Testimonies and pure blasphemy, not theories, are narrated to us as a comprehensive story in Roy’s text. Her wit ascends proportionately to the horror. She paints a picture of liberal ignorance, freedoms being stripped away, the gloss of democracy that maintains perpetual warfare, and so on and so forth.

When she questions her role as an artist, she is questioning a thousand-year-old caste system. These are lived injustices, that she gives testament to–not by accident, but by an investment in opening herself up to the social wounds at her disposal. She does not suppress them for her own benefit. She is not one to hide her head in the nearest hole or gloss over the havoc wreaked upon individual lives for the sake of her educated audience. Her writing stings and sings. She acknowledges her implication in injustice while with such a candid outcry and binds herself to the cause of poor people and the environment by unraveling tight knots of hypocrisy.

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She reminds us that nowhere on paper can we find the economic benefits that hydroelectric building projects bestowed upon India. She is waving the non-existent reports in the thin-air and counting up the lives of the displaced–all from the lower strata of society–now virtually disappeared as an interest group. Resettlement promises were not kept and the losses merely place those people who depended on their small farming for survival–on lands now immersed by a reservoir–in perpetual limbo without relief.

Now, if you’re following the news, these hydroelectric dams are guaranteed to investors in Brazil, causing very similar indigenous strife for the sake of very dubious benefits to society, considering their guaranteed deforestation and pollution of the rain forest and its watersheds. The social benefits of the developmental-craze sweeping across “developing countries” has proven false–again and again. The same goes for Turkey, where I currently live, with its debt-driven megaprojects.

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Roy reveals the hypocrisy of Nelson Mandela to remind us that market economy politics is not a sacred sphere. Even our saints could not withstand its pressures. It is a rigged, delusional battle of unjust promises to wealthy investors backed by militaristic regimes. The apartheid continues under the false guise of a democratic market economy (an oxymoron).

The insistence of her words gave my own vision of dissent new life. I found it acceptable after reading this book to call myself an anti-American. To articulate the precise moments when the government and its henchmen conflate its policies with romantic ideals to relieve itself of accusation. To recall that secretary of state Madeleine Albright could write off Iraqi children as collateral damage, a simple calculation error, and brush it aside as a necessary part of the process. So often, I don’t know how to speak about these things, let alone how to demand justice. She offers up her own voice on behalf of others. She is generous in that regard. She wants us to take her passion and let it ignite our own.

What are the crimes she cries out against? Crimes of globalization, i.e., that the global market economy is simply a more efficient, updated form of imperialism. Guarantees for investments can wreak havoc by displacing millions of poor citizens with the click of a mouse. Instability and crisis are not merely symptoms, but strategic tools in this system of distraction. The military is the backbone to the economy. Things we’ve heard before–but she reminds us that we need to pay attention, for the power to resist lies in public outcry.

She reminds us that the Taliban was in part a U.S. invention because Afghanistan had been primed and stoked to become more zealous in its religious opposition of communist Russia, as a ploy by the U.S. This was back in the 1970s. She articulates with ease how weapons are sold to both sides of an argument by the U.S. These are not details to overlook and write off as coincidental marginalia. Her book gives a vision of what it means to connect the dots, and to dedicate oneself to caring, to speaking out about what interpretation tells us.

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She details how terrorism is used as a blanket term to crush non-aligned ideologies, beliefs, critiques, protests, etc. This manipulative rhetoric was devised by the U.S. and exported to developing countries. She describes how this occurred in India with its armed backlash against Muslims and it fittingly describes the situation in Turkey, where the military coup attempt was followed by an exploitative system of mass-jailings, firings, and etc. to initiate an educational, financial and political restructuring of the country to benefit the wealthy few. All in the name of democracy.

So I read it with my mouth agape in astonishment and I suggest you do the same.

 

 

While on Hiatus . . .

I’ve been on hiatus from writing book reviews for Pomp and Intertext, and I feel slightly guilty about it. I’ll admit, I’ve focussed my attention elsewhere, but only temporarily.

Recently, I’ve been volunteering to help with outreach and editorial assistance as well as writing for the Bosphorus Review of Books. The journal is so far the only English language literary journal located in Istanbul. My contributions there have included a book review on Achmat Dangor’s novella, Kafka’s Curse (May), and my most recent contribution, a book review on Yashar Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk (July).

Apart from that project, I’ve been focusing my attention on my biodiversity blog entitled Biodivvy.com. Even there, I’ve turned to books as an important inspiration for my writing.

Today, I’m trying to succinctly summarize a book-long history of modern Western ecological thought starting from the 18th century in response to the question:

“Why should we care if just one species goes extinct,

especially if it is no use to us?”

Presumably playing devil’s advocate, a friend posed the question to me. The question is compelling and has many possible responses, which is why I’ve turned to history for answers.

My gut reaction is, of course, “no species is an island” and that any one species’ decline has myriad consequences. However, some species may seem expendable, especially if we don’t notice the related symptoms of decline and imbalance, or if we don’t personally experience any consequences. For me, that response is ignorant, far too common, and indefensible, so I’m writing about it.

Natures EconomyThe history book is Nature’s Economy by Donald Worster. So far, I’ve introduced the contributions outlined in the book of Gilbert White (holism, as opposed to abstract, mechanistic scientific approaches) and Linnaeus (a hierarchy of interdependent species, “economic” limitations of food, range, and reproduction upon individual species, a benevolent utilitarian whole–in contrast to Hobbes’ vision of a natural system of war and carnage). Next, I’m onto Thoreau, then Darwin, then others . . . after I take a coffee break. Once I’m finished with this, I’ll write a separate post on Vandana Shiva’s book, Staying Alive, to fill in some of the gaps for the post-colonial and feminist approaches to ecology.

 I hope my blog will spread important knowledge in the manner of Freire a la Pedagogy of the Oppressed meaning, I want to distribute information horizontally–to put it into free, shareable terms, as many other knowledge-based platforms have already done successfully (i.e. Wikipedia–currently banned in Turkey). Though my blog is not specifically intended for a Turkish audience, I’m writing with fervor due to the stark reality that soon Turkish citizens will not even receive education about evolution, which is frightening!

I promise, I’ll return to Pomp and Intertext to focus on other compelling books and topics, ASAP.

Book Review: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

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Although Maggie Nelson is more popular for her “genre-bending” book, “The Argonauts,” I recently had a chance to read her earlier poetry book “Bluets.” In an attempt to revive my hobby of writing literary commentary as I previously have for “The Cave” by Jose Saramago and Walter Benjamin’s article, “A Berlin Chronicle,” I chose a book that came from an independent publisher, offered a unique combination of prose and poetry and relied on the concept of theme and variation.

Published by Wave Books in 2006, this book of prose poems invites responses as varied as the material it contains. This is revealed by her fans’ and critics’ comments on Goodreads: “Dippy.” “Evocative.” “Borderline humorless.” “Filled with life.” Nevertheless, the resounding opinion from her readers is positive, as it has received 4.3 stars. For me, the almost-cluttered material of the book promises too much. It promises to divulge a love affair with the color blue, but instead results in a semi-confessional narrative about a less-than-glamorous personal sexual relationship. I emphasize sex, because the book is preoccupied with sex. Yet, somehow the sex and feeling of the book never seem to intersect. Allusions to a mysterious quality of blue as their supposed point of crossing never fully suffice. In fact, the stronger feeling the book projects is one of the author’s inadequacy to fulfill her desire for intimacy with either her lover or her color. They are always mediated through too much clutter or “detritus” as she refers to it, to allow the feelings in the book to linger.

At times while I was reading, rich feeling comes through in the sensational descriptions of color as a phenomenon of shimmering light. These descriptions are mediated by memorable references to other author’s inquiries into color. At times, the feeling of light and color almost oozes out of the pages. Darkness is also included to frame the concept of color by way of Stanza 73., when Nelson describes Newton’s discovery of the spectrum in a “dark chamber” with an aperture through which to refract sunlight. This technical description is betrayed for a seemingly arbitrarily planted tangent—that the assistant may have been a rhetorical fiction. The meta-plane of textuality is never far from reach. In stanza 130., Nelson writes “We cannot read the darkness. We cannot read it. It is a form of madness, albeit a common one, that we try.” This smacks of mystical religiosity in a way that is buttressed by the not-so-subtle name-dropping of “God” twenty-five times in ninety-five pages. Yet, I found that such attempts at feeling, meaning, depth and “naming the unnameable” never let me immerse myself enough to escape the sense that this work is a “project,” and as such, its mysticism felt prescribed.   

For instance, throughout her writing process, she receives shipments of blue objects by friends who she calls her “blue correspondents” and she also applies for grants to travel abroad to seek out blue, though she never receives one. This marks an instance when she must merely default to what she deems common as much as she’d prefer to escape it. Nelson introduces the French word bluets only to later discover its English counterpart: a common cornflower. Just like other English flower names such as amaryllis or calla lily, the name cornflower offers less of a cue for the senses than the name bluets does. This sense that common things are inadequate may not have been an intended theme, but it can be observed repeatedly throughout the book.

It promises to show the process of falling in love with a color. The first of the numbered paragraphs says: “Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it because more serious.” I never got the sense of any gradual change in the text other than the sea change that comes from demystifying a topic. We are lead from descriptions of bluets to cornflowers, from the discovery of the spectrum to collections of blue detritus. By the end of the book, it is clear that the romance has faded. Otherwise, the mere presence of numbered paragraphs grants the pages an artificial progression.

Nelson suggests she is keen on “having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock” in one self-satisfied diatribe (62) against Puritanism. She teases us with the suggestion that she’ll give us access to her feelings about sex. But later, she offers little more than a cold, graphic fuck for a description of her lover. There are no names, no faces, no histories, no details about him given. The only information granted is that she is willingly sleeping with someone who has an open relationship with at least one other person, which she seems to resent. In fact, Nelson displaces the underlying longing for this character by erasing him as character and drowning him in pull quotes of well-known male icons like Newton, Andy Warhol, Goethe, and Wittgenstein. In that sense, the project seems to be grounded in a feeling of longing or misery that is intrinsically linked to this lover, but unwilling to articulate him as character. Instead, she meanders through thoughts on the color blue.

It feels like a passive aggressive near-confession meant to derive some revenge. Perhaps this revenge is taken upon the object of desire in the text—the male fucker with too many female prospects who is personified as a bowerbird in one part of the text (68). Perhaps her form of revenge is publication. In this sense, it has an interesting mixture of intimation and intimidation.

The sex is too loud, the science of color is too contrastingly stiff, and the collection of ‘blue’ anecdotes is, in fact, strikingly bare. Let’s consider some of the well-known blue referents not mentioned: the nazar (evil eye) pervasive in Turkey, the Greek flag and the color of the Greek Orthodox Church, Picasso’s blue period (perhaps briefly mentioned when she describes “The Blue Guitar”), the American Blues tradition (whose main proponent in the text is Billy Holiday), the films of the Three Colors Trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, one of which is Blue, Blue Monday, and even (with so many references to other thinkers from this time period and region of the world) Der Blaue Reiter. Yet, her status as a professor and her female loneliness are glaring as if to send a fatal warning to anyone who dare enter into the evocative promises of the text. She proclaims an urgent need to be revered for this work of academic gesturing (or else!). It smacks of privilege in the sense that the poetics are demanding as if her project “deserves” some empathy from us, the readers.

Another character is in the hospital, being cared for by the narrator. Yes, in addition to collecting blue pull quotes and ephemera, she tends to an aging friend. This is perhaps the most sympathetic relationship drawn of the narrator as opposed to the narrator as professor (whose idiot students can’t understand Gertrude Stein), the narrator as lover (whose object of love is not worthy of characterization), or the narrator as reader (whose readings really only encompass the supposed greats of the Western Canon with minor cameo appearances of ‘other’ figures). Apart from these markers of an elevated status, she is a caregiver, who marvels at the color of her sick friend’s feet. She almost heeds the warning offered by this woman: your relationship is “morbid.” However, admitting to such a denunciation would derail not only her relationship, but also her project-based text.

Surprisingly, I felt that the text was drowning in tropes of ‘maleness’ and a problem of gender seems to be at the core. The text leaves us wondering—is she the damsel in distress, is this a captivity narrative, or is this a female warrior asserting her prowess? However, when she describes a longing to be “subsumed into a tribe of blue people” or the “Tuareg, which means ‘abandoned by God,’” the problem of gender dissembles to one worthy of postcolonial criticism. She has the gall to justify this “exoticism” by claiming that she’s not the only one to share in this fantasy. This “Western” inescapable desire triggers the sort of spice-box nostalgia for the British Empire and other heart-of-darkness themes that eliminate any further possibility to read her evocative text without a grain of salt. An underlying problem of whiteness also appears to linger in the folds of the text.

While comparing itself to a confession at the start of the book, the most convincing revelation is the unnerving forthrightness of this woman to assert her Western privilege and academic status with such unabashed caprice. After this striking incapacity to sort through the implications of her own text—which is one that is composed on the binary pillars of savagery and civilization, striking chords of mysticism for the former, and encyclopedic referencing for the latter, her appropriation of the term blue from African American music is all the more glaring. When she incorporates the most well-known female jazz singer, Billy Holliday, as if to announce the elephant in the room—the appropriation of an American theme hailing from African Americans, which she refuses to otherwise address, I was left starving for the real blues, not her clever French bluets.

Meanwhile, this sideswiping of a tradition is structured through a range of distracting measures meant to delude us into believing she is confessing something personal. And by that, I only mean personal-according-to-the-custom-of-an-American-literary-and-aesthetic-tradition. Much of the thematic material feels like academic (or poetic? or literary?) posturing. At no point while reading the text did I get the sense that I’ve actually read anything intentionally revealing about the narrator. Her collection of material stirs up varied impressions that stem from avoidance of the central dilemma—the self-proclaimed “Western” coldness of the text.

In another color-themed artistic endeavor, several years ago, artist Anish Kapoor got exclusive rights to the Vantablack pigment the “blackest black.” Equally pretentious as it is superlative, Anish Kapoor made his “work” exclusive as a means to give it some kind of longevity. Likewise, Maggie Nelson’s text practices the art of restraint more than it practices revelation, offering up a kind of exclusive set of inquiries that are probably only scratching the surface of a larger whole. No purchase or patience could grant us that access. Even the mentions of drunkenness, dope, and booze feel like textual placeholders to signify “depth of experience.” In the end, the overwrought text generally diffuses any connection between signifier and signified so thoroughly that all we’re left with is a medley of self-conscious efforts at artistry in which the effort remains more pronounced than the artistry. Her complete dissatisfaction for the familiar is marked with an excessive desire to find “exoticism” throughout her daily life with a forcefulness. In addition to an underlying sense of inadequacy, the text projects a sense that she wishes to take power, conquer and divide the winnings of her daily life—as a form of sweet revenge.    

What do we call this book? Textual collage, chapbook, novel-in-verse? Clearly her efforts at elevated meaning are driven by researching a theme and its variations. We are pulled into a medley of linguistic and philosophical tropes. We can easily break the text down into its parts. Firstly, it contains signature blue objects: tarps, lapis lazuli, tuareg, garbage bags, blue light. Then, to make even further use of numbers than her own numbering system, I used the search function in my Kindle. There are 25 mentions of God, 16 mentions of Goethe, and 100 instances of blue in the text—achieving absolute numerical and textual stasis. Her own awareness of the potential inability of her leaflet to take flight is brought up in Stanza 226: “I thought I had collected enough blue to build a mountain, albeit one of detritus. But it seems to me now as if I have stumbled upon a pile of thin blue gels scattered on the stage long after the show has come and gone; the set, striked.” Drawing upon a well-known literary trope, she likens the text to a theatrical performance. Perhaps this is one last effort to avoid complicity in an otherwise problematic text.

Why is Ecology pushed to the Margins of Literary Criticism?

People often push the importance of ecology for literary writers to the margins. While the field of Ecocriticism exists to study this particular intersection, I feel that certain writers warrant their ecological concern to play a more prominent role in the way critics write about them.

Margaret Atwood’s wikipedia entry describes her as a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist, with “environmental activist” conspicuously listed last. Her various roles are also listed as if her environmental concerns and her literary are discreet parts of her oeuvre, operating independently of one another. However, considering the thematic content of her recent works such as Oryx and Crake and Surfacing and the artistic projects she has developed, it is clear that ecological thought, as a philosophical world-view, motivates her writing in an essential way. Her legacy will be skewed in this regard, in that critics will continue to diminish the essential role that an awareness of nature plays in her literary praxis. The same is true for other authors.

An obvious example of an author whose work fundamentally derives from natural observations is Henry David Thoreau. His literary texts are clearly shaped in both form and content by the experience of living his solitary existence on Walden Pond. What is less known about his legacy as a thinker is that he made a substantial scientific contribution to our understanding of ecological succession. By observing the strange patterns of tree growth after clear cuts took place in which pine trees would grow up after oaks had been cleared, he developed a theory of tree succession in his text, The Succession of Forest Trees. This text gave farmers and later scientists important insights about how seed dispersal is dependent upon the interactions of other organisms such as squirrels who carried seeds. His scientific and literary approach both equally contributed to this breakthrough and this historical episode is being highlighted by theorists of the Nature of Science. However, this scientific contribution is overshadowed by his other literary work in which people often give undue emphasis to the humanistic elements rather than his environmental insights.

Vladimir Nabokov was another naturalist whose etymological insights as a butterfly collector led to a later proven theory of the evolution of blue butterflies. Furthermore, his vast amounts of time spent in nature contributed to his insights about aesthetic mimicry which play prominently throughout some of his most famous works such as Pale Fire. His engagement with nature played a crucial role in his literary production.

Many contemporary authors including Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Leguin, and Arundhati Roy have turned their full attention to using their literary influence as a platform for environmental activism. After Roy’s publication of the critically acclaimed novel, “God of the Small Things, she has written mostly nonfiction that has criticized the Indian government for militarization and the construction of large scale nuclear energy plant and dam. Her political activism essay writing is intrinsically connected to both social and environmental concerns which are both inseparable from the experience of the landless poor in India.

Likewise, Ursula K. Leguin has written essays that defend the central significance of ecology as a concern of the left and Margaret Atwood is also an active member of the Canadian Green Party and an honorary president of the Rare Bird Club division of BirdLife International.

Reading these author’s work alongside other ecologically inspired writers can reveal a cohesive set of literary interests based on natural history and its role in society. Such significance depends on their experiences and observations of the environment.

In most of these cases, environmental activism is fueled by the experience of spending valuable time observing the natural environment, which forms not only the subjective material of the writing, but also an underlying ecologically-aware worldview. Such a view may not be in direct opposition to other economic, political or religious world views, but it often supersedes those concerns. In a Guardian Interview, Margaret Atwood dramatically described the greater significance of natural constraints to those of human rights:

The trouble with politicians [at events like the Copenhagen summit of 2009] is that no one wants to go first, go skinny dipping and take the plunge. Oh, and then you have people arguing about fatuous things like the environment and human rights. Go three days without water and you don’t have any human right. Why? Because you’re dead. Physics and chemistry are things you just can’t negotiate with. These, these are the laws of the physical world.

Margaret Atwood seems to have developed an understanding that the inclusive framework of the natural world should be our primary plane of inquiry, whereas other systems have a tendency to ignore or distract from this already-existing system.

This privilege for ecology need not be antagonistic towards technology or a modern/futuristic society, as Ursula K. Le Guin’s futuristic novels reveal. Instead, she feels that technological advances that are compatible with natural phenomena are this that we, as humankind, should privilege. In her recent essay about Murray Bookchin, who is known for his famous essay, “Ecology and Revolution,” Le Guin describes his urban social and technological perspective the future of the political left, a contribution which surprised the journal editors who published it. I think this surprise derives from an inability to take authors’ environmentalist “side projects” seriously as an essential element of their work.

I don’t personally know much about Murray Bookchin’s ideas yet, but from this article in Jacobin, I learned that his work has had an influence in my current region of the world (Turkey) within the movement to free Kurdistan.

Overall, I believe the only way to fully honor these literary figures through criticism is by conceiving of their legacy as situated within a tradition that bridges natural history, ethics and literature.

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