Thursday, 26 May 2011

One Poem - Matt Haigh


The war, a thing on which you snag your shirt,
plays Tetris over us. Those hours spent
in rooms with rings of fungal light
could not have prepared us for this.

We’re here because all moons of flesh were too gentle.
There was no bite, no bullet-smash in white magnolia.
A thumb on one pink plug, a tame, ticking pulse.
We dreamt a flash grenade’s fullness in the palm.

What are stars, or snow; what is the sound
of a chandelier rocking in slow motion?
Our guilty blood boils at birdsong while we watch
for the enemy – we’ve been told he looks ambiguous.

Matt Haigh is a 26-year-old poet from Cardiff. He has previously published material in Pomegranate, The Cadaverine, Fuselit, and Word Riot.

Friday, 20 May 2011

One Poem - Sarah Chapman


Today, all that holds me together is
light/ in occasional parallel stripes
of girls wearing tinted sunglasses sucking
on a strawberry sherbet, bending their height
slightly to look at old magazine racks, and
although the word ‘mountain’ is never used,
hair is everywhere. The short men who stare
at cars order cigarettes/ boys coax gum
out of forty year machines. White fingerprints
of the check out man braise receipts that are
yellow in colour.

Sarah Chapman lives and works in the rough part of East London. She has been writing poetry for a year and has been published in Pomegranate and Spilt Milk.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

One Essay - Neil Williams

Two Interpretations of Silence: The Un-Represented in Two Grahams.

Humanity’s reliance on representation goes hand in hand with its suspicion of it. We need to represent to remember, to pass on information, to preserve. Yet it is necessarily a remove from the original event, and each form of representation lends its own form of distortion. This problem has haunted Western philosophy since the ancient Greeks, but perhaps has never had so much real world relevance as it has in the last sixty years, when the issue arose of how to represent the Holocaust. With this in mind, this essay will read two post-Holocaust poems, revealing the particular problems of representation that each poem explores, and the potential solutions that each poem presents.

The first poem to be explored is Ten Shots of Mr Simpson[1] by W. S. Graham. The poem presents ten instances of the poetic speaker trying to ‘photograph’ Mr Simpson, a concentration camp survivor. Each of the ten numbered sections enacts a different photographic attempt, and increasingly the poem foregrounds the similarities between photographic and poetic representation. The immediate thing that strikes the reader is the violence inherent within the photographic vocabulary, which becomes more exaggerated as the poem continues: the ‘shot’ of the title, ‘the point[ing]’ (2:6) of the camera, connected to the action of the Nazis(2:7), the question ‘[s]hall I snap him now?’ (3:9) indicating the breaking of the subject through representation. None of this language is at all forced, Graham is merely bringing forth the aggression inherent within our language of representation. The violence reaches its explicit peak with the line: ‘I have you now and you didn’t even/feel anything but I have killed you’ (9:13-14).

The language of the photo-shoot isn’t just violent, but possessive, as the previous quote shows. Graham constantly refer to ‘having’(1:11), ‘wanting’ (5:1) ‘taking’ (3:10)and ‘getting’(6:22) the image he desires. In capturing the photo however, Mr Simpson is also captured, and though the speaker claims ‘I am to do him no harm’ (2:9), the artistic speaker increasingly comes to resemble a concentration camp guard. This is further revealed when the poem’s continual imperative tone is considered:
                Stand still get ready jump in your place
                Lie down get up don’t speak. Number?                
                                                                                                (4: 3-4)

The representative ‘capturing’ of Mr Simpson, photographically or poetically, is presented as intrinsically the same as his incarceration by the Nazis. Mr Simpson has moved from ‘[o]ut of the blackthorn and the wired/ Perimeter into this particular/ No less imprisoned place’ (8:8-10).
The poet Paul Celan, himself previously incarcerated in the labour camps, addresses exactly this problem when he refers to art as a ’medusa’s head’.[2] One can become ‘imprisoned by Art’ (3:7), the very thing that tries to preserve or represent a moment turns it to stone, and kills it by removing it from the complex and unrepresentable flux of experience and events. Whatever enters into this realm of representation, like Mr Simpson, is removed from the living world. Representation is at a necessary remove, what it ‘preserves’ is just a testament to the absence of the ‘true’ event or object.[3] But in thinking that representations, especially perfect likenesses such as photographs, are capable of ‘capturing’ the truth, we cover over the possibility of knowing at all. As Jean Baudrillard dramatically states, the representation of the Holocaust is a more systematic extermination than the camps themselves.[4] By believing the representation can represent the truth of a situation, by believing that ‘everyone knows’ the horror of the concentration camps through experiencing televised, photographic, filmed and poetic representation, we prevent ourselves from encountering the awareness that we are ignorant of it. One now kills Jews, claims Baudrillard, through the ‘sound track and the image track’ instead of the gas chamber,[5]  enacting this re-extermination for a revolting aesthetic thrill of emotion.

This issue comes to the fore in Graham’s poetry in this stanza:

                And who would have it in verse but only
                Yourself too near having come in only
                To look over my shoulder to see
                How it is done. You are wrong. You are wrong
                Being here, but necessary. Somebody
                Else must try to see what I see.                                                (6:16-18)

This is the problem with the representation of the Holocaust: it is ‘necessary’ to remember, but representation will always be ‘wrong’. We must try to see, but this looking is necessarily destructive. Moreover, Graham shifts the guilt of the aggressive poetic-speaker on to the reader: it is the reader who would possess Mr Simpson, who would ‘have it in verse’. Seemingly passively reading, or looking over Graham’s shoulder, the reader’s implicit participation in the violent and possessive representation is made explicit in the poem, when we are asked to ‘take him’ (3:10), and told it is for ‘our sake’ (2:12) that Mr Simpson stands ‘sillily’ (2:11). So it is the ‘gentle reader’, rather than the poet, as the consumer of the poetry and thus Mr Simpson’s aestheticised suffering, who is revealed to be the ‘deadly’ (8:17) and ‘wrong’ one.

And yet for all its loudly articulated achievement of capturing, and claiming to know the subject, Graham’s poetry is full of that which it cannot know. Never once is the ‘Holocaust’ named or even directly alluded to. Only hints such as Mr Simpson’s ‘number’ (3:10), the faded photographs of ‘gassed’ relatives (6:27), memories of sleeping in ‘Hut K’ (8:5), and the speakers treatment of Mr Simpson, serve to build up an idea of what the photographer/poet is trying to capture. Its two modes of address are imperatives and questions: the statements of ordered possession (‘I have him’ (8:7)) clash with the desire to know/capture him more (‘what is your category?’ (8:3)). In this way the statements claiming full possession are revealed to be false by the continued desire for further possession. The formality with which ‘Mr Simpson’ is addressed is not only ironic considering his treatment, but indicative of the lack of knowledge the speaker, and therefore the reader, actually possesses. His name is ‘unpronounceable’ (5:7), the light which illuminates him is ‘impossible’ (6:3), his gaze always ‘beyond’ (9:12) to something that the camera cannot see, the poem cannot represent. It is, paradoxically, this exact absence that the camera/poem wishes to make present:

                This time I want your face trying
                To not remember dear other
                Numbers you left, who did not follow

The camera wants to portray Mr Simpson’s otherness, his absence, and his loss, those things that cannot be represented – because to be represented is to be captured, known and possessed by the camera/poem and the consuming public. The tensions at work between claimed knowledge and sought knowledge, between knowing and not-knowing, between preserving and killing, between presenting and absence, create paradoxes that chase each other around the page of Graham’s work. Amid the confusion the poetic-speaker Graham turns to the reader, guilty by collusion, like a magician revealing his tricks, and claims to show us ‘how it is done’ whilst doing nothing but gesturing towards a larger paradox, a larger aporetic absence that is representation.

One of the most resounding assessments of the aesthetic situation after the Holocaust comes from Theodor Adorno, who famously stated that ‘[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’[6] This statement has been taken as a dictum that states the one should not write poetry, or that poetry is now invalid,[7] but engaging with the work of the philosopher reveals a far more complex position, which I shall only outline here.[8] Adorno sees that any artistic position that takes up an ideological standpoint against the authoritarian perspective will be buying into it.[9] In turning away from society, poetry is still defined via negation by the thing it seeks to escape, and thus participates in the impoverishment of its own form (AR: 200). Indeed, far from being separate, it was the culture that artistic representation is a part of that perpetrated the atrocities of Auschwitz.[10] It is finalised ‘meaning’ and ‘aesthetic enjoyment’ that all art aims towards, and is to claim this from out of the suffering of Auschwitz that is barbaric. All literal representation is a form of dominion (As Mr Simpson shows): it claims to ‘truly represent’ and in so doing replaces. Moreover, it removes something of the horror in just claiming that it can be understood (AP: 189). Instead, art after Auschwitz must grapple with its desire to find meaning, whilst recognising its inability to do so, and so continue to exist in this state of paradox. This new art is a form of a-literal representation, it ‘challenges signification ... by its very distance from meaning’ and in doing so ‘disrupt the whole system of rigid coordinates that governs authoritarian personalities’ (AP: 179). Poetry of this kind is ‘negative knowledge of the actual world’ (AP: 160) that has the burden of ‘wordlessly asserting’ (AP: 194) what is unable to be said in society. It exists in a state of paradox, in that it is only through acknowledging and exploring its own ‘impossibility’ (AR: 210) that it creates its own possibility, and can have its wordless say.[11] This is connected to Celan’s claim that poetry ‘holds its ground in its own margin’, and tends towards silence.[12]

The tension at work in Graham’s poem creates an absence, or silence, revealing this absence to be representation itself. Once this absence has been created, Graham ends with what I’d like to call negative apostrophic language:
                Language, put us down for the last
                Time [...]
                Ah Mr Simpson, Ah Reader, Ah
                Myself, our pictures are being taken.
                We stand still.

Barbara Johnson describes apostrophe as a ‘turning away’ or ‘digressing from straight speech’, manipulating the direct address to something absent, usually the dead or inanimate, to make the ‘absent, dead or inanimate entity addressed ... present, animate and anthropomorphic.’[13] Interestingly Graham turns this relation around and – enacting a completely direct speech and a literal representation – actually reveals the thing thus represented as dead and inanimate (turned to stone) via anti-apostrophe. The apostrophic language of such statements as ‘Ah Mr Simpson,’[14] which run through the piece, ironically undercut the poem’s surface capacity to present and control Mr Simpson, and reveals that what is ostensibly present is actually absent. Interestingly, as this absence is revealed, the speaker and the reader as participants in this representation, are themselves absorbed into this absence, and are themselves ‘put down’ and ‘still[ed]’ by the medusa’s head of artistic representation. The desire for aesthetic pleasure, the desire for understanding, is horrifically stilled in us as Graham turns the destructive poem onto us with a demented grin. The poem negates meaning, and its impossibility becomes the grounding for its possibility, as Adorno described.

W. S. Graham has revealed many of the problems inherent within the representation of the Holocaust (or anything at all), and has created, if not a solution, then a method of playing with the language that not just presents but enacts these problems, and shames the reader’s underlining need to understand. Jorie Graham furthers this enactment in her poem From the New World, [15]  which attempts to authentically represent the horror of the Holocaust in a non-destructive way, starting with the claim it ‘[h]as to do with the story about the girl who didn’t die/ in the gas chamber, who came back out asking’ (1-2). The word ‘story’ here takes on particular relevance considering the problems of representation revealed in the last poem:
                                Can you help me in this?
                Are you there in your stillness? Is it a real place?
                                God knows I too want the poem to continue,

                want the silky swerve into shapeliness
                                and then the click shut
                and then the issue of sincerity, the glossy diamond-backed
                                skin – will you buy me, will you take me home ... About the one
                who didn’t die, her face still there on the new stalk of her body as the
                                doors open,
                                                                                                (From the New World:10-18)

The poem sincerely attempts a beginning, a ‘story’, but then halts itself within a few lines, with a direct plea for help from the reader, whose assistance is seemingly needed to continue the narrative. The poet-speaker claims that she too wants the poem – referring to the poem at hand and The Poem as a form – to be able to continue, but follows with a silence, a gap between stanzas that makes present the impossibility of that desire. The desire is further evoked as it describes the aesthetic pleasure (13), the closure (14) the supposed truthful sincerity (15) and the (getting more cynical) commercial viability (16) of the traditional poetic form. But the traditional form, the meaning giving structure, is revealed to be impossible with the caesura of the ellipsis (16), in which the possibility for the traditional poetic form ebbs away, and the poem collapses in on itself by returning to the image the poem started with (16-18). In this way the poem performs a self-negation of its own possibility to present a meaningful narrative, or evoke an aesthetic pleasure, from out of the horror of the Holocaust, and, again, utilises this impossibility as the possibility of its functioning.

Alongside the constant pleas for help from the reader, the poem also contemptuously dismisses any claims of knowledge the reader might think s/he actually has. ‘[Y]ou know this’ (59, 64, 69) the speaker states whenever the narratives threaten to become clear, implying an arrogant boredom on the part of the reader. Shamed, the desire for understanding is frustrated, and the reader is thrown back onto the site of paradox. In this way the silences remain open, are not covered over by leaps of understanding: ‘don’t you fill in the blanks’ (60), Graham forthrightly states. The blanks, the absence/silence that we naturally want to fill in by understanding, must remain open and present.

Otten, in his essay on the silences within Jorie Graham’s poetry, defines them as ‘a way of giving shape and solidity to an ethical dilemma ... the question of whether aesthetic objectification is a morally salutary response to annihilation.’[16] This is a similar dilemma to the one being presented in W. S. Graham, as well as Adorno, and Otten is no doubt correct. But this interpretation of the silence at work only touches on the surface of this absence. The poem not only finds itself merely, as Otten claims, ‘out of place’ in representing the Holocaust - it finds itself incapable of rendering the very thing it attempts to narratise. The absence it presents is created by self failure, only a part of which is ethical dilemma, and is the only authentic way to represent the annihilation of the Holocaust:

                                At the point where she comes back out something begins, yes.
                                something new, something completely
                new, but what – there underneath the screaming – what?

                Like what, I wonder [...]

                Like what, I whisper,

This passage occurs at the end of the poem, where the poetic speaker makes one last attempt to combine the narratives she has failed to present, to reach an ending. But all that is achieved is ‘screaming’. Underneath the screaming is a silence. This silence is incapable of being represented – comparisons, understandings of what it is like, are useless. The magnitude of the atrocity in question defies the human capacity for understanding.[17] Similar to Kant’s idea of the sublime, this enormous silence is the opposite of aesthetic pleasure: a displeasure, as the inadequacy of the aesthetic imagination is revealed when presented by something of such magnitude that it cannot understand it rationally. It cannot be represented to reason or imagination.[18] The Holocaust, and the experience of the victims, is not like anything, it just is – something ‘new’ and particular, and to suggest it is understandable in terms of anything else, in terms of representation, is to do a disservice to those who experienced it. More than a moral impossibility, Graham also enacts a rational one.

Rosalind Krauss, the American art historian, has presented a theory stating that the meaning attempted within much contemporary art is indexical, defining indexes as the ‘marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify.’[19] Opposed to iconic signs, which are motivated by similarity (by the ‘like’ – the photo of W.S. Graham’s piece), and symbolic signs, which are motivated by societal convention, the indexical signifier is motivated by contiguity. Smoke, for example, is the index of fire. [20] With this in mind, a better grasp of the a-logical representation at work in the poem can be reached:

                                 one form at a time stepping in as if to stay clean,
                stepping over something to get into here,
                                something there on the floor now dissolving
                not looking down but stepping up to clear it
The remove to the aesthetic representation – presented here as a place one can step into – is a move to clearness, a closure (‘the click shut’), and thus a move of avoidance. By entering into this area one has to ‘step over’ what one is avoiding. But Graham’s poem perpetually attempts to enter this clarifying representative area, and then reveals its (moral, rational, literary) failure to do so. This continual self-negation means the poem has to ‘step over’ the absence it is avoiding again and again, without directly looking at it. A similar effect is shown when the speaker locks herself in the bathroom, distinctly ‘not looking up at all’ (30) into the mirror, distinctly not seeing the ‘coiling and uncoiling/billions’ (34-35) of the dead within it. By stepping in an out of the representative field, the shape of the thing being avoided begins to present itself in a negative way. This thing, this un-representable thing, is ‘dissolving’, but the traces of it, the very absence and silence of it, appears as a presence within the poetry. This can be understood as a strange kind of negative indexical signification: the repeated failure and impossibly of the poem, the poet’s avoidance of ‘looking’, or representing, is in itself acting as a trace that begins to reveal the shape of what is absent. Rather than literal ‘looking’ – the photographic representation that W.S. Graham reveals to be destructive, Jorie Graham attempts an a-literal representation: the equivalent of looking from out of the very corner of your eye.

These are just two potential examples of the negative signification that Adorno has called for: what I have tentatively called apostrophic and indexical. Both revolve around deliberately revealed absence created through self negation, an absence that is in itself a more authentic mode of representation in the aftermath of Auschwitz. Though the two poems looked at here are visibly concerned with the representations of the Holocaust, Adorno’s concern was not primarily with the poetry of Auschwitz, but poetry after it. The problems of representation that have been brought to the fore after it, only some of which are examined here, are applicable to every form of representation and every subject. In this way, poetry after Auschwitz tends towards silence.

[1] W. S. Graham, Collected Poems: 1942-1977 (203-208). In the following references, the first parenthesised number refers to the section, the second to the line number within this section.
[2] Or Celan presents Buchner presenting Lenz, See Trotter(1984:219) and Celan (1960: 158).
[3] See Webster Goodwin and Bronfen (1993) and Derrida (1967): ‘All graphemes are of a testamentary essence. And the original absence of the subject of writing is also the absence of the thing or referent’ (69).
[4] See Baudrillard (1981:49).
[5] Ibid. See also Kertész (1998), who argues that survivors themselves have their memories over-written by the phony consumer language employed by the media (268).
[6] The Adorno Reader (AR) (210).
[7] See, as just one example, Guber (2003:240).
[8] For a chronological description of Adorno’s comments about poetry after Auschwitz, see Caygill (2006: 69-71), and for an examination of the various attempts at interpretation see Jarvis (1998: 140-147).
[9] Aesthetics and Politics (AP) (179)
[10] As Steiner (1970: xi) states: ‘a man can read Goethe and Rilke in the evening ... and go to his days work at Auschwitz in the morning’.
[11] See Caygill (2006: 71) for elaboration.
[12] Celan (1960:163-164)
[13] Johnson (1987:185).
[14] The refrain resonates with Melville’s famous ending apostrophe ‘Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!’ (Melville,1853:49). See also Cohen (1994:165-167), for more on the apostrophe and it’s ‘anti-mimetic’ uses.
[15]Dreams of a Unified Field:106-109. Parenthesised numbers refer to line numbers.
[16] Otten (2004: 246).
[17] See Améry (1966), who describes his experience as an intellectual in Auschwitz, and how philosophical or artistic sensibilities were useless even at the time (15).
[18] Kant, primarily concerned with the sublime in nature, allows an element of pleasure in this experience also, though this is exactly what these poets are trying to avoid( Kant, 1790: 106).
[19] Krauss (1986:198).
[20] An example used by Alphen (1993: 31-32).

·         Adorno, Thodor. ‘Reconciliation Under Duress’ and ‘Commitment’ in Aesthetics and Politics. (London, New York: Verso, 1988)

·         Adorno, Theodor, The Adorno Reader Brian O’Conner (ed) (Oxford, Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2000)

·         Alphen, Ernst van. ‘Touching Death’ in Death and Representation. Sarah Webster Goodwin and Elizabeth Bronfen (eds)(Baltimore, London: John Hopkins University Press, 1993) (29-50).

·         Améry, Jean (1966). At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a survivor on Auschwitz and it’s Realities. Trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980).

·         Baudrillard, Jean (1981). ‘Holocaust’ in Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (U.S.A: University of Michigan Press,2000) (49-52).

·         Caygill, Howard. ‘Lyric Poetry Before Auschwitz’ in Adorno and Literature. David Cunningham and Nigel Mapp (eds) (London, New York: Continuum, 2006) (69-83).

·         Celan, Paul (1960). ‘The Meridian’ In Paul Celan: Selections. Pierre Joris (ed) (Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2005) (156-169).

·         Cohen, Tom. Anti-Mimesis, From Plato to Hitchcock (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

·         Derrida, Jacques (1967). Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1974)

·         Graham, Jorie. The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1996).

·         Graham, W.S. Collected Poems: 1942-1977 (London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1979).

·         Gubar, Susan. Poetry after Auschwitz: Remembering what one never knew (Indinapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003).

·         Jarvis, Simon Adorno: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1998).

·         Johnson, Barbara. ‘Apostrophe, Animation and Abortion’ in A World of Difference (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987) (184-199).

·         Kant, Immanuel (1790). Critique of Judgement (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1964).

·         Kertész, Imre (1998).‘Who Owns Auschwitz’ in The Yale Journal of Criticism (vol. 14, no.1, 2001) (267-272).

·         Krauss, Rosalind (1986). ‘Notes on the Index: Part 1’ and ‘Notes on the Index: Part 2’ in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999) (196-209 and 210-220).

·         Melville, Herman (1853). Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street. (New York, London: HarperCollins, 2009).

·         Otten, Thomas. ‘Jorie Graham’s             s’ in PMLA (vol. 118, No.2, Jan 2004) (239-253).

·         Steiner, George. Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (London: Yale University Press, 1970).

·         Trotter, David ‘Playing Havoc’ in The Making of the Reader: Language and Subjectivity in Modern American, English and Irish Poetry (London: Macmillian,1984) (196-230).

·         Webster Goodwin, Sarah and Bronfen, Elizabeth. ‘Introduction’ in Death and Representation (Baltimore, London: John Hopkins University Press, 1993) (3-29).

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