Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Memory

Ethics of a Cloud-net: Cecilia Vicuña’s “Spit Temple”

Spit Temple

Spit Temple by Cecilia Vicuña 

“la semilla es la memoria”

I encountered Cecilia Vicuña’s work through a book entitled Spit Temple published in 2012 by Ugly Duckling Presse. Cecilia Vicuña is a Chilean poet who lived and read and wrote in New York and South America and she is still alive, but this book is kind of a retrospective of her life’s work. It compiles a useful introduction, her own retelling of her life’s events, transcriptions of her performances, and responses to these performances written by her colleagues.

Responses to her work emphasize the ceremonial quandary of disorientation it presents to bystanders. Their bafflement is directly a result of the expectation that poetic art will remain fixed in the convention of the poetic reading, a predictable zone of non-event, inconsequence, and segregation from history. Vicuña’s audience produces a perplexed response directly to the sound, language, and ceremony of her work that alters the expected frame of historic reason. By staging contemporaneous artistic ceremonies as forms of remembrance, when she is called to, she has improvised with the historical fold in which she finds herself. Always emphasizing the natural atmosphere, material composition and the properties of flow, permeability, and the sonic construction of event, she culls us back into our surroundings. This sensory imprint is otherwise lost amongst the perpetual spectacular framing of historic vision in the production of news. And this news perhaps engenders commoditized, abstracted relationships to being (at least this is my less than thinly veiled Benjaminian influenced analysis). Woven thread is a vital metaphor within her work. It reminds us of the spun fabrications of the stories we hear everywhere around us. Hearsay becomes paradigmatic; it casts a wide net. The untold story of the uncanny movement of mist that rises up at the base of a waterfall – this is a story lost amidst the concerns of an industrialized society. And she brings it back to us.

“At my Aunt Lola’s house I first heard that “vis de tarro,” Violetta Parra’s “tin voice.” I had never heard such a dissonant, inharmonious, howl-like sound. It pierced me. In an instant, I recognized the true speech and sound of Chile. The ancestral memory suppressed by official culture was in that sound. From then on she became my compass” (52)

“At some point, I began tying the audience with threads, or tying myself to the audience. Who is performing: the poet, or the audience? United by a thread, we form a living quipu: each person is a knot, and the performance is what happens between the knots” (99)

The contributors in this book share stories about the way that her work felt to experience in person. Impacting for its enchanting ability to loom in indeterminate registers, witnesses seemed engaged with her voice and words through their sheer curiosity. These people aren’t sure how to categorize it in relation to the institutions of a ‘literary arts’ performance. Therefore, in addition to compiling the work itself, this book shares the testimonials of her fellow poets and authors who were there to witness it. Her poetry is thus framed as a form of ephemera created by a living breathing person instead of a body of work in a taxonomy of authors’ names. Bringing the work back towards the oral tradition, the hearsay and the commentary of bystanders presents her work in the traditional fold it already adheres to.

Lately, the only time I’ve been inspired to write was after I read this book. Here, I practice a form of praise that follows no generic conventions, but I try to search for the source of the personal connection I feel to her work. It is an homage to her sound, ceremony, and silence, that I’ve only encountered and imagined by reading about it on the pages of this book.

How do I write an homage to Cecilia Vicuña without merely tracing the places in her work that feel like familiar footpaths for me, individually? What does this enchanting Chilean woman poet have to do with me? I think there may be a lot of things to say about this. We can’t simply dismiss such a profound Chilean poet after what our country did there, and who better to make us realize the simultaneous differences and intertwinings that bind us to one another in a knot. Nor can we dismiss the fact that Chilean poetry that is vitally significant to us. We must THINK: September 11th is twice-over an important date in Cecilia Vicuña’s life. These are significant historical events that she returns us to when she talks about the multidirectional waterfall. One side is pouring down so heavily, but the other is lifting up to the sky in the form of ascending mist. Mist, she writes, is the semen of the forest that gives birth to the streams. This turns us on our heads. Vicuña’s Chilean ties bind us to a flip-side mirror.

“Charles / Olson / said / memory is the future / because you will / remember in future tense / you will remember / whatever you did / and others did / and others will do / that is the change / think think / of / the killers / a desperate call for connection / think of / their / memory / think of their memory” (194-195)

I feel, narcissistic as I am, that Cecilia Vicuña was published just for me. Her work was edited into a book that was mysteriously presented to me by a publisher who I already trust for having introduced me to the work of Eugene Ostashevsky and Marosa di Gorgio: Ugly Duckling Presse. But why just for me? This is what is hard to explain, because it’s not really true. The enthusiasm I feel says less about me than it says about the work, which creates personal bonds with its readers.

I’m grateful since parts of Cecilia Vicuña’s writing validate the underrepresented parts of myself. In her relation to her work, I am still European, but we must understand how the Americas have transformed what is European, and though my contours of my diverse regional European roots have been sanded away by the chisel that is whiteness. Reading her work, I recall my nomadic origins. She helps me to remember these traces across time and memory and that even I, too, am an immigrant held hostage in the English language. The improvisational sounds, for example, that I used to make on the piano, I didn’t know their origins, either; threads from invisible sources. Perhaps natural processes are a more potent source than calling out to my ancestry. I have no homeland but the place I am in. I am a facet of the weather. This is what Cecilia Vicuña’s work brings us back to: the state of flux we are in. She reminds us in a political and an environmental and a oral traditional sense how memory is woven into our present. She reminds us how vital voice and its sound is for changing the political context of our public space, whether or not it is simply a room full of readers of poetry. With her voice as a sound on a sidewalk, she can pour a glass of milk to remember those who died from the paint they put in the milk. The paint they put in the milk. The paint they put in the milk. The paint. She reminds us by letting the words loop around again.

“The Colectivo de Acciones de Arte (C.A.D.A.) in Chile invited me to participate in a  project caled Para No Morir de Hambre en el Arte (To not Die of Hunger in the Arts) that would be realized simultaneously in Santiago, Toronto, and Bogotá. At the time Bogotá was enduring el crimen lechero (the milk crime) where merchants added paint to milk in order to increase profits, resulting in the death of 1,920 children. And the government was doing nothing about it. Around the city, I announced on posters the spilling of a glass of milk in front of the Quinta de Simón Bolivar. Twelve people attended. I spilled a glass of white paint on the sidewalk and wrote the poem on the pavement” (82)

How compelling is it that deuda is a theme that binds us? This bind is really important for me. We must think about the relationship between the state of debt the U.S. has imposed upon countries like Argentina as well as its own citizens with student loan debt, mortgages, and credit.

I admire Cecilia Vicuña’s courage. For her perhaps it is not so much an act of defiance, but a necessary courage. How do I express the beauty of this kind of courage and the gratitude I feel?

“I was to perform in Santiago, but I was afraid to sing. Urban poets don’t sing in Chile. A centuries-old prohibition weighed on me. Plus, my 100-year-old grandmother, the Diaguita opera singer, was in the audience! So I turned off the lights and began to sing from the back room. Afterwards, my grandma said, ‘Mijita, don’t turn off the lights, it’s very scary.’” (93)

She understands the environment in a way I can understand. She writes of the cold rainforest of Chile, like the one we have in the Pacific Northwest in the Puget Sound. She writes of the clods of dirt at a construction zone that buried an illegal immigrant named Luis Goméz. She repeats his name. When his brother came to ask for him, no one knew where he was. They guessed it might be a certain hole and they found his crushed body inside that hole, when they excavated the rubble there. She writes about the environment of the wheat fields of Illinois that remind me of the wheat fields of Idaho with their shimmering grasses. She reminds us of the memory contained in a seed that can only be preserved by keeping it alive. This is vial information with which we must confront the reality of the Monsanto Corporation. She knows the environment and she reminds me that I know it too, and we have shared similar spaces, and perhaps potential roles. We are allies, and therefore she pulls me back into the fold.

“La Selva Fria, which is the cold rainforest – it’s extremely cool. And it’s extremely misty with these huge immense magnificent trees, so its a completely different idea of the rainforest, a rainforest where it is eternally cool.”

“80 percent / of seeds / available a century ago / now extinct / extinct / extinct / extinct / extinct / and now I speak of other forms  of extinction / People wanted to know how this music / of the seeds / how the seeds’ song / began for me / it began on a hot / summer / day” (205)

Who else makes us realize that seeds, a glass of milk, the fog, and yarn are each profound politically revolutionary concepts? She breaks these words down into transformable parts, finding seeds in the word morphologies she uses. She returns the language to natural processes. This is thinking towards an ethics of a cloud-net, as she says. She also brings back the languages of natives found in books written by ethnographers.

“I suggested to Salvador Allende that we initiate a collective work to green Chile, a movement to gather, study and love seeds. Allende laughed and said ‘Chile is not ready.’ Still, I gathered and sped the seeds, and distributed them to shanty towns when they became saplings” (63)

“then / Barbara [Tedlock] comes / and in her book / she mentions / one word / which I may pronounce badly in Maya / which is K’ij / K’ij is day / but from this word / two words are derived / K’ijilabal / maybe I say it wrong / And K’igiloxic / maybe I say it wrong / which is to day love / hmmm / which means prayer” (163)

“Suddenly, I had no translator, so I began to improvise in a mixture of English, Quechua, and Spanish. The borders between the written and the oral began to shift. That day at Barnard College, there were two students with long hair in the audience, one with blonde hair, one with black. I invited them to join in. In Aymara, “allqa,” the union of black and white, is the transformation of the world—the movement in which one begins to become the other.” (97)

“The true performance is that of our species on Earth: the way we cause suffering to others, the way we warm the atmosphere or cause other species to disappear. I cover myself with clouds to feel like the Earth feels” (98)

Going back to Luis the illegal immigrant who was covered up in a hole in New York, she writes that New York is made of holes. I would like to draw a parallel between this incident of man-made processes, with a similar incident that occurred in my family’s construction business when I was growing up. A 300 lb. man who worked for our family company for many years named Virgil Rose was buried alive when one of the trench of a water main construction site caved in. He remained completely immersed underground for about 5 minutes in total. My dad was able to unbury him somehow. The difference between these two incidents? Yes, this is an important question. What is the difference between saving an old family friend and forgetting about an unknown immigrant? The difference is the fact that we, someone, everyone at that site, should have known him. We should know each other.

“And somebody had the hunch / I believe it was his brother / that he might be in the there / so they started to dig a hole / and there he was / he was crushed like a little mummy / a little body / inside the hole / So this is for Luis Gómez” (166)

She maps out the environmentalists, ethnologists, and poets who we must read. Like any valid work of literature, her book is not only an artistic performance, it is a reading list.

“Now I wish to tell you / a sort of not yet poem— / it’s about Lola Kiepja / Lola Kiepja / was a Selk’nam woman / and the Selk’nam / were the first / disappeared / in Chile, that is to say, / they were a whole people / made to disappear (…) in 1966 / she started to record songs / for Anne Chapman / and she loved la máquina” (129-131)

When I read about Cecilia Vicuña’s performances, her words and actions unbury me from a different site, a state of slumber, from a numbness that someone once told me is a disease the shamans in Chile call espantosa. Her language breathes air into my lungs with signals, strings, and bodily metaphors for concha the pussy, the conch shell, the the shape of our ear, we listen for the interconnectivity she brings to us from the Americas, ancient, present, and future.

“rain and clouds / are the law of moderation / first the trees go / and then / coolness is gone / coolness is gone / so because of that they say / mist / is the semen / of the mountains / where the streams are born / mist is the semen of the forest / where coolness / is born” (176-177)

This is a love letter pretending to be a list of thoughts I have brainstormed before I write my love letter to the poet Cecilia Vicuña, but it is the real love letter, as well.

Read more of her work in the book, itself:


Essay Review: A Berlin Chronicle by Walter Benjamin

Topographical Map of Berlin c. 1910

Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle deserves a stream of consciousness-style review. Although what else, really, do I have to offer when it comes to the sake of blog-style “production” and the pressure of time that makes me reject editing these posts?  I’m not even going to break this post into paragraphs!  While Benjamin’s autobiographical portrait of his childhood, A Berlin Chronicle, embodies a particular Proust-ish flavor, unlike Proust’s madeleine which is the trigger to a string of memories that lull to and from Proust’s set of special objects that form particular images in the mind, Benjamin’s memories start spinning in relation to the physical shapes of the spaces he’s been in or beheld, moving backward in time in fits and starts. Sometimes, though, the images, or stopping points of memory, which he finds akin to postcards (forming a certain serial abundance), lead inward towards a relic, like the prostitute adorned in a tight fit sailor suit, or the Moorish sculpture missing its pair on their mantlepiece. Since his father was an art collector, it is of no great surprise that the magnetic pull of aesthetic objects would shape some of Benjamin’s memories from an early age. Likewise, the shapes of the city become mythical shapes that comprise the movement or the material composition of memory. The cafes are concentric rings that spin inward from the circle of unknown artists and bohemian strangers towards his inner circle, which sets themselves apart from the others, and at the furthest central core of that interiority there are only two necessary cafe dwellers: Benjamin and his good friend Heinle.  And the pathos that swells in rings around Heinle pertains to the fact that Heinle is that singular poet-friend who Benjamin so-revered and who died at the age of 19. Outside of the cafes are streets filled with  transients and vagabonds. The structural epitome of their feeling of passage is the Arcade, known most famously for their Parisian construction that Benjamin will return to in his project, “The Arcades Project.” The spatial construction of memory seems to provide Benjamin’s wandering narrative its template, as it moves by way of attraction into or towards particular shapes, and then it retracts from them into different memories with different casts of characters, but similar forms: the shapes of rings or knotted labyrinths. The image of a fractal comes to mind, if we try to synthesize the entire set of motifs into one, because of the emphasis on passing between interiority and exteriority while also expressing the shifts of repetitious forms in both microscopic and macroscopic renderings. He quotes Nietzsche on this concept, “If a man has character,” says Nietzsche, “he will have the same experiences over and over again.” He uses this quote to describe the way that people, like the architectural structures of the city, themselves are passageways that will lead us again and again to “the friend, the betrayer, the beloved, the pupil, or the master.” People comprise the turning points of Benjamin’s life-labyrinth.  He is also able to capture that peculiar retrospective juxtaposition of memory when obscurity of not knowing particular things about the world runs up against the wizened clarity that he now knows.  This clarity forms bitter nodes of dissonance due to the real implications of what he later discovered, such as the mechanisms of his parents’ bourgeois financial existence.  Traditions of mercantile activity form the backdrop of his relationship with his mother who would take him along to shop at particular places owned by particular shop owners with particular last names. This is the network of trust that he contrasts with the ambiguity of his father’s trade agreements. The city of Berlin is both new and modern in a historical sense as well as in the sense of youthful discovery, which reminds us that for people of Benjamin’s generation, the newness of getting lost on a grid of streets or submerging oneself in the ‘subterranean’ cafe-culture are the changes and discoveries that wed Benjamin’s personal age and his historic age of modernity.  He renders the paradoxical structure of his memory, and thus the significance of his life, as a riddle. He states, on the one hand: “‘too late, time was up long ago, you’ll never get there’–and, on the other, by a sense of insignificance of all of this, of the benefits of letting things take what course they would.” He draws the image of his life, and it appears as a labyrinthine topographical map. It is a map that should serve as a guide, but the guide is too complex. The description of this map integrates all of the people he has known as entry points into the complexity. Interestingly, he divides men and women to the right and left sides of the map, rather than intermingling them in stages, or something. The ring he finds at the antique shop is not only a ring, it is a microscopic labyrinth and he describes how the person it was intended for would remain at the periphery of the theatrical “stage” that comprised action in his life, and in history as well. The historical mirror-image of Benjamin’s life makes him a living embodiment of his time, but the woman he would marry, and then almost immediately grow distant to, was too plantlike and still, whereas he was a mover in history.  The Kabbalistic elements of the story are clear. Benjamin is a story-teller who recounts his life not for posterity, but for some esoteric truth or magic or some combination of the two. It is not so remarkable as to what transpired between him and other people–even less what they thought or argued over–so much as the legibly symbolic importance of repetition by varying degrees. The four rings on the floor of one space mirror the four rings he and his friends bought for their future wives in the antique shop.  He weaves in the mythical shape that he finds true for all stories, of the seen and the unseen, the duplicitous and interwoven symbolic significance of time and space, and the importance of the names of people, places, and things for their rich, individual essences. And, of course, the light! The lights are mentioned everywhere, in each setting: candelabras, chandeliers, lamps–every glowing orb–these are Benjamin’s extraction of the heavens–the constellations of the night sky, from his memory.  These lights are mirrors to the moments of flashing illumination that stick out to him in his memory at times he least expects.  And the three-dimensionality (or four? or five?) of this expedition through memory is evidenced by the layering of the city: there are not only streets, but underground tunnels to pass through. Once again, to contrast Benjamin from Proust, Benjamin’s memories are sometimes the triggers into myths and fairytales rather than objects triggering memories. The concomitant relationship between these myths and memories form a partnership that provides new surprises. Those formerly loved tales are depicted for their new-found accuracy at capturing the mood of particular memories.  A quarter of the way into the tale, in a strange passage, Benjamin refutes the use of the first-person “I”.  He attributes this rule to the success of his own writings and those of other writers of his generation. However, he immediately performs the antithesis to this “rule” in that same passage, but inserting “I” everywhere! It becomes odious, and later, somehow, the “I’s” disappear, but their smooth disappearance just confirms his rule. Once they disappear, nothing sticks out in the text quite as glaringly.  The so-called logical thesis of the structure of his work is found in the middle of the piece. “Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. And these quite certainly do not, even for the Berlin years that I am exclusively concerned with here. For autobiography has to do with time, with sequence talking of a space, of moments and discontinuities.” To top off all of the memories he charts, there is also an inventory of things he’s forgotten: books, plays he went to with his grandmother, and deaths that only now resurface as charted blank spots.  I also love the synesthesia of the passage in which he describes de ja vu as a sound, like an echo. Here again, the waving set of ringlets, this time in the form of the compression and expansion of sound, forms a multidimensional immersive quality. Of course, the word that rings out to him in this strange form of sonar remembrance is “syphilis.”