Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Colonization

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.

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Brock Turner vis a vis Leland Stanford: A Tradition of Western Colonization

Brock Turner, his numerous letters of parental and social support, and the details of his rape that continue to surface are sickening reminders of a tradition of a colonizing white male superiority complex that promotes racism and the collusion between government, industry and white men that includes the founder of Stanford University, himself: Leland Stanford. As a star athlete for a university team whose mascot was formerly “the Indian,” Brock Turner and his court case symbolically reminds us on many levels that the exertion of physical strength or its evil twin–brute force–over marginal people’s bodies, whether they are women, natives, or any other variant, amounts to the destructive colonization of minds and bodies.

An excellent compilation of the various permutations of Leland Stanford’s endorsement and involvement in Western expansion via the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans has been compiled here.

Leland Stanford’s contribution to the rape, pillage and extermination policy of California is probably more extensive than most people would like to assume. Notably, we can recall that Leland Stanford arrived to California during the Gold Rush. The native population in 1840 was about 400,000 and just 60 years later, it was just 16,000. What led to such a rapid decline? Several factors:

  1. The mainstream public support in the media, government and legal system for extermination as the best “solution” to the tensions between races. Stanford, who became governor of California in 1861 and later served in the senate for 8 years was complicit in this support.
  2. The vast influx of newcomers from the east was accelerated by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1969. Stanford was one of the four primary tycoons of the railroad and together they managed to create a monopoly by dominating the shipping industry of California as well. Their monopolizing business practices led to an economic “bust” or recession following the boom of the gold rush.
  3. Natives could be purchased and sold as slaves and they were also forced to live on reservations.

One particularly significant historic incident that serves as a reminder of the colonizing tradition of brutality in the West and the moral corruption that promotes physical violence towards women is the Wiyot Massacre of 1860 which occurred on February 26th.

The Wiyots, a native tribe of about 2000 people lived near Humboldt California. A day before the massacre, the tribe had gathered for their annual World Renewal Ceremony, a thousand years old tradition for the tribe in which they asked the creator’s blessing for the people and land in the coming year. This ceremony had begun just three days after the purchase of the island by German engineer Robert Gunther. A militia group of roughly 5 men in the mining community decided to raid the island and using their mining tools, bash in the skulls of the natives. They chose this method to avoid the sound. When the island was cleared of the some 60-80 bodies, it was discovered that only women, children and the elderly had been murdered because the men had gone to gather supplies for the ceremony. Just one surviving baby remained.

Bret Harte, who would later become a member of the literati of the west and a founding member of the Bohemian Club, was temporarily serving as editor to the local newspaper and condemned the incident. He then received death threats from the anonymous mob of attackers. He left the town for San Francisco thereafter. Incidentally one of his most famous stories, “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” surrounds the story of a baby found by a pack of anti-feminist miners who decide to attempt to raise the baby in the purposeful absence of women. A grand jury was called following the massacre, but no one was indicted, although the male attackers were known as the “Humboldt Volunteers, second brigade.” The newspapers in the region typically condoned such actions as necessary for the expansionist land acquisition by the United States government.

So, how does this incident relate to Brock Turner’s rape? Like this mob, Brock Turner attacked a woman while she was asleep. Furthermore, the failure of law enforcement to adequately address the seriousness of the crime, reveals an apologetic tendency in our justice system. The mob-mentality of the attack on the natives aligns with Brock’s case since he is cited for sending photographs of the body of his female victim to a group of his friends. Lastly, the letters of apology and defense of Brock by his family members and friends parallel the newspapers which denied expressions of remorse over the event. The only difference in this case, is there is huge public outcry against Brock Turner and the complicit responses of his judge and his family members. Whereas Bret Harte had to turn away from his stance of public resistance, the public sphere is admirably speaking up. In my own attempt to speak out, I wish to revise our emotional use of the word “monster” to the more appropriate description of Brock Turner as a “colonizer” as a means to target the root of such aggression in society.

Furthermore, like Leland Stanford was in his time, Brock Turner is a member of the present-day colonizing class as a student of investment banking, known for highly risky speculative business practices worldwide. Global banking has contributed to numerous aggressive policies that promote the global acquisition of resources by colonizing multinational corporations. Brock Turner’s rape is a microcosm of the vast system of violence towards lands and marginalized peoples. A symbolic detail that is reminiscent of this is the fact that bits of earth and soil had lodged inside the victim’s vagina. Brock Turner has not only defiled his victim’s body, but the land of his own campus, while contributing to a history of such actions.

Collage: Sound Forms, Conversion, Colonization

Articulation

The following is an assemblage of quotes and notes. It is inspired by my Master’s thesis, but it won’t fit in my thesis, due to its dispersal into too many corners of thought:

In response to the question, “Where does the title come from?” Susan Howe responds that she thinks title of the poem, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, is “a definition Schoenberg gives to music,” while also having found a similar definition to language in the 1828 Webster’s dictionary (Talisman Interview, The Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history 172).

Webster’s first definition of “Language” is as follows: “Human speech; the expression of ideas by words or significant articulate sounds, for the communication of thoughts. Language consists in the oral utterance of sounds, which usage has made the representatives of ideas. When two or more persons customarily annex the same sounds to the same ideas, the expression of these sounds by one person communicates his ideas to another. This is the primary sense of language, the use of which is to communicate the thoughts of one person to another through the organs of hearing. Articulate sounds are represented by letters, marks or characters which form words. Subsequent definitions include concepts that include the arrangement of words in writing, and the speech of a nation.” (http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,language)

“The crucial importance of speaking in conversion shows that Puritans believed written texts were in some way fundamentally dependent for their intelligibility on their incorporation into speech, that sound—however transitory and precarious—was essential.” (Anne Kibbey, The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: a study of rhetoric, prejudice and violence 8)

The acoustic shapes of rhetoric depend on faith, precisely because they lack referential meaning.

“To an almost alarming extent—alarming for me, sound creates meaning.  Sound is the core.  If a line doesn’t sound right, and I do always have single lines or single words in mind, if a line doesn’t have some sort of rhythm to it, if my ear tells me it’s wrong, I have to get rid of it, or change it, and a new meaning may come then.” (Howe, Difficulties Interview I 31).

The phrase could also simply describe voice, the vocalization of speech, and the speech-act of utterance. One’s vocalization in time carries with it an independent identity. No two voices sound quite the same. Meanwhile, written text forms the illusion of sameness across time due to its visible sameness in copied reproduction through time, which reifies the subjective temporality of a speech act.

“And the friars composed couplets, or ballads, in Quiché. / Ballads using their rhymes and intercadences / recounting the creation of the world / the fall of man, / the banishment from paradise, the flood, the death / of the son of God and his resurrection. / They showed the verses to four Indian merchants in Guatemala / who went to buy and sell in the Quiché. / They set them to music / to the sound of the Indians’ instruments / ‘accompanying them with a lively and high-pitched tone / because the instruments of the Indians were low and hoarse” (Ernesto Cardenal The Doubtful Strait (El estrecho dudoso) Trans. John Lyons 117)

The epigraph that follows serves as en excellent example of the privileging of “sound-form” as a basis for poetic linguistic organization:

from seaweed said nor repossess rest

scape esaid

(Howe, Singularities 1)

“We know from this introduction that an attempt will be made to ‘repossess’ something lost, something primordial. The sound structure of the passage, with its slant rhyme of sea/weed and repossess/rest, its consonance of weed/said/esaid, and its alliteration of s’s (nine out of forty-one characters) and assonance of e’s and o’s, enacts a ritual of repossession we can hear and see. (Marjorie Perloff, “‘Collision or Collusion with History’: Susan Howe’s Articulation of Sound Forms in Time 520)

“A Bible, recently translated into the vernacular, was owned by nearly every member of the Bay Colony. It spoke to readers and nonreaders and signified the repossession of the Word by English” (Susan Howe, The Birthmark 48-49, Italics mine)

Howe’s epigraph provides an example of how sound forms a connective tissue of speech that may lack the syntax for forming determinate meaning, while still expressing a desire for return, or “repossession.”

“The greatest literature shows the impossibility of self-fulfillment through desire” (René Girard Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005 “Conversion in Literary Christianity” 267).

According to Charles Lloyd Cohen: “True piety consists in consciously turning back from sin to embrace God, reversing one’s earlier path” (God’s Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience 5).

“Cortés took the compass: / they opened paths with their arms / and came out again in the same path they had opened. / Cortés was bursting with anger. / They wanted to turn back / but now it was very late for turning back. / They raised their eyes and could not see the sky. / They climbed trees to get the lay of the land / and saw no land, only tree after tree. / Two guides fled by night. Only one guide remained / who did not know the way. / And the henequen cloth. / In 20 leagues they made 50 bridges. / More swamps and rivers which weren’t on the cloth. / Now there were no towns. Only abandoned villages, / burned huts. / And more swamps to go through. / The night rain extinguished their fires, / and animals howled all around. At this point / some deserted to return to Tenochtitlán / where they never returned.” (Ernesto Cardenal The Doubtful Strait (El estrecho dudoso) Trans. John Lyons 117)

Emmanuel Levinas: “A work conceived radically is a movement of the Same towards the other which never returns to the Same” (CP 91; italics in original).

“The idea of conversion is much more than reform, repentance, re-energizing, repair, regeneration, revolution, or any other word beginning with ‘re’ which suggests a return to something that was there before and which therefore limits us to a circular view of life and experience. In Christian conversion, a positive change is connoted which is not caught inside a circle” (René Girard Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005 “Conversion in Literary Christianity” 267).

Primitive referred to a prior time in the history of the species, in terms of evolutionary time. Europe came to be mythically conceived as preexisting colonial, global, capitalism and as having achieved a very advanced level in the continuous, linear, unidirectional path. Thus, from within this mythical starting point, other human inhabitants of the planet came to be mythically conceived not as dominated through conquest, nor as inferior in terms of wealth or political power, but as an anterior stage in the history of the species, in this unidirectional path. That is the meaning of the qualification “primitive” (Quijano 2000b, 343–44). (Cited in Maria Lugonés “Heterosexualism and the Colonial / Modern Gender System” 192).