Rather than identify commemorative inscriptions with stelae and plaques marking sites of stated permanence, let us consider truths in truism but rewritten to reflect cultural revision. These would be inscriptions critical of the presupposed values that would be prescriptive in perpetuity. What would such inscription look like, how would it read? Compiled of lyric and didactic impulses, would critical inscription assume a poetics at variance with epigram and aphorism? Then again, if narrative, would a temporality under critical revision be markedly different from those inscriptions we already know?
Here are three contemporary poets whose poems find inscriptions problematic and address that issue in the course of their poems, drawing on their broader fields of cultural knowledge. How generalities determine the knowledge we write and how we rewrite that knowledge: these are inscriptional states of affairs that concern the poets here.
Norma Cole's Spinoza in Her Youth (Omnidawn, 2002), is dedicated to writing of all sorts that discloses the semantic spectrum of language in use, up to and including the already-written expression of knowledge. Do not be fooled by the colloquial beginning, the modest stance of this lyric:
The Internal Milieu
all wrapped up
(this before the situation can
be perfectly explained)
which is a roof
sewn with a single thread
The background of sound
Death proposes life he said
in a way, quoting a letter
As the poem goes, the colloquial beginning unwraps skepticism of the finest sort and through its understated discernment ravels the initially stated certitude and commonplace. Here is social speech tested on individual ears and in specific situations. If anything, "The Internal Milieu" derives value from the linguistic pragmatist in doubt about the possibility of semantic self-sufficiency and about language independent of a mentality that gives utterances value through subtext and pretext.
As we know from political speech, something said colloquially is disarming. By professing to be authentic folk wisdom without ideology, colloquial language may disguise its own motives. Cole's thoughtfulness is itself a form of writing that delays coming to conclusions too fast. It is like the unvoiced response from a hearer who hears plunder from the bin of received ideas. And yet we do allow inscriptional ready-mades to do our thinking for us, especially during rites of passage that mark vital thresholds. Is the speaker heard to realize accomplishment before the fact, to express a desire for a conclusive state of affairs? From the informal to the formal, the poems end on a line again inscribed with the impress of received ideas but drawn through epigrammatic eloquence – which is to say pithy memory, pocket memory.
Elsewhere in Spinoza in Her Youth is this sampling from partial statements read and heard in "The New Arcades: A Pocket Guide" (from which alphabet I cite " A" through " K").
A another killer app
B whose clear purpose was to break the tyranny of the perimeter
C as like a striking clock
D rem praesentem motion added, poised
E "intervals," we are the shape memory alloy, ultra-resilient, available and lit up
F our outlooks shape what we see and what we can know
G but when science and culture conflict, culture always wins
H room for difficulty, complexity, resistance, as in "please let me be misunderstood"
I in terms of the generation of a new system's generations of systems
J "And they're at the gate!"
K the glass roof's suspension of disbelief
The title of this prose poem is clearly referring to Walter Benjamin's celebrated cultural commentary on the marketplace of value-added beliefs. The marketplace, a social space of trade, covered over as an arcade, attracts people for whom the spectacle of sociability is an end in itself; meanwhile, the tourist, or flaneur, derives pleasure from the kaleidoscopic sights and sounds of the city wherein polyglot simultaneity scintillates. The title gives us the comprehensive perspective: that of contingency in linguistic social space. It provides the notion of a span where we read the linguistic variability of the polis. This then is a suitable place to locate phrases caught and released as they appear overheard by a spectator, who then cites and interleaves them with phrases she herself has written.
Cole is an atypical witness to this cultural scene, however. The acuity with which she selects sentences for their prepositional content and phrases for their markedly anomalous linguistic interest demonstrates why she is so valued a poet and translator. Nothing slips by unnoted for its singularity. For her, all language signifies in some sense or other. Although not everything may signify as poetry by conventional standards, under scrutiny the poetic potentiality of words is enhanced. It is by such stratagems of testing rhetoric through lyric and paratactic catalogue that Cole reinscribes words in their use value with exchange value.
Apart from the arcade, let's see where her renovated inscriptions may be imagined: within curio cabinets, at the racetrack, through cell phone soliloquy, in the symposium room, in a poetry workshop or in the corridor before and after scheduled classes, at events, nonevents, and occurrences. On wrapping paper, rubber bands, and steel bolts. At fault lines, geologic and otherwise.
It is a truism that we remember what we want to remember; another way of putting it is that our mentality informs the senses, not the other way around. Both Norma Cole and Nathaniel Mackey address the truths of statements inscribed with collective memory and the value in such collective memory realized not through mere recitation of myth but through revision, that is, re-vision of myth or ideology under the auspices of expanded fields of historical reference.
Epic poetry gives the story of a people's permanence – this is the inscriptional truth rethought by Mackey in his ongoing epical lyric project Song of the Andoumboulou, some of which may be read in Splay Anthem (New Directions, 2002). The issue is how to commemorate and tell the story straight when that story is anything but straight. Epic commemorates the truth of a collective as it wishes to view itself, in systems of belief and value, writ large, that constitute a myth justifying its cause. How do we take this inscription of generalities resistant to self-scrutiny and reinterpret the myth so that it be accountable to history? Mackey demonstrates one answer: the myth iterated but such that a historical present is used to specify myth and bring it up to date as current affairs. Excerpted here are these lines from "Lag Anthem"; imagine them whispered or sung hoarsely.
Last call in the city
of Lag. We laughed. No
one so much as budged...
Left elbow on the bar
whispered. Not so low
no one heard, everyone
Psalmed her hips' high
ride, the fall of cloth
across her jutting
Monk's po metathetically
spun, recounted one
morning leaving Eronel's
lair. Light off the
to the right headed
south, head inexhaustibly
lit by the back of her
Bullets flew, bombs fell
outside, century's end as
ever. We were the ground
he said was as it was
runaway buzz, bud, bush,
Recidivist fish, irredentist...
We coughed incessantly,
would-be religion, would-be
return to what had
Time – as lag, delay, recursiveness – this last, true of myth when doubling back on itself. Recursive retelling is the prerogative of the one who learns the myth cumulatively both to teach himself and to relay that narrative by teaching others who then inherit the role of author. In Mackey's many poems, recited as though through Dogon ancestral figures, a historical time of deferral and trial plays through the mythic time of redemption. Telling a story of ancestral genealogy, the teller anticipates what has already been inscribed in cultural memory yet tells to refresh the already said for the currency it still has and the relevance it will continue to express. Then there is the temporal register of lag. Time lag is hardwired into the historical Middle Passage that this poem revisits, revises, and reenvisions or that is improved upon in virtue of reinscripted poetic utterance more acutely complex. "Whatsame said?" asserts Mackey.
Meanwhile and throughout, a sense of time may seem precipitous as neologism compresses to bring deferment to crisis. Certain nodes of cultural politics are condensed in the extreme: "Steal Away Ridge," written as though said in passing – slipped, as it were, under the radar – is exactly the point. "Steal Away" is the field song sung to alert a community of plantation slaves that one will try his freedom that night: over the ridge, beyond this world, and hence. Encrypted messages are integral to the literature of the powerless speaking across the public speech dominated and policed by the powerful. Yet kindred with linguistic communities calling to members within are further reinscriptions, Melvin Tolson's Pound and a modernist cosmos of cosmopolitan poetics from objectivism to jazz and jazz poetry for which Thelonious Monk's rhythmic lags and Cecil Taylor's semantic spreads are relevant, Song of the Andoumboulou continues to reinscribe mythic generalities with African American specificity.
And where may these reinscribed poetic utterances be found? At unmarked graves, on stone walls, on door sills, within the spines of Bibles, in the backs of pews, within horns and across drums, on the undersides of guitars' sound-boxes, on packing crates, on hand trucks, on shoe leather, on backpacks and book bags, on library shelves, on maps and in fabric the remainders of which are reinscribed in their entirety. On flags. In offices, oval and oblong. On oblate spheroids.
As much as they may differ otherwise, Norma Cole, Nathaniel Mackey, and Barrett Watten all read the objectivist poets and their poetics and would inscribe the word-as-such with self-evidence as not so.
Watten has written both poems and essays that engage the conduit metaphor derived from Michael Reddy's discussion of "frame conflict" to question whether technological science is as free from metaphoric investment as it purports to be. The generality that Watten finds inscribed is that science is autonomous knowledge, free of metaphor – and that is what he questions.In our objective discourse, worlds unfold, models face, a chain of command speaks – and what are these claims oblivious to if not to figural language?
Watten is one among many poets who, identifying the sentence with the transmission of information and the world of practical affairs, rejects it as the instrumentality of poetic thought – unless it be subverted, resisted in some way. Noise is the information that interests him, which is to say that information theory at once provides the technological framework for understanding a sentence and for resisting the sentence's ability to broker use opportunistically.
The noise-to-signal ration in Watten's poetry is high. Phrases captured from public speech break off: are they unintelligible messages then? Remember how background noise interferes with conversation in Goddard's movies, even to the point of atomizing the scripted ideological talk of Marxism? The actual historical situation has its way with the philosophical Real that ideology would assume, even here.
Watten's Conduit and indeed all his books of poetry make a point of heightening the materialized situation of the word, although not through the soundscape peculiar to concrete poetry but through the interference pattern created of messages enmeshed in society's communication networks. Wrenched and partial, the phrases that had been sentences survive and scroll in paratactic fashion in a montage of found and manipulated social speech: the sentence enstranged, as therefore poetic, in the scheme of things. From the title poem, "Conduit," is this part 1:
An arrival in history only coincides with
The invisible body is a mirror of containers.
Perfected, a chain of command speaks.
Every road ends in an object. Unfolding, a
world of parts in a display of same.
A sign revealed in buses for the driver or
Each utterance is unique only in a theory
that specifies a point in time and space.
Then all the pawns fall.
While a model faces perception. Behind every
survival is a whole totality in words.
I.e., parenthesis it is a text. To answer a
question in runic workings of quotations
behind which passion slips.
And left, imagining a sum: an I inverted
to an it.
At the same time as an imposter.
Read through a cultural poetics informed by information theory, Watten's crushed messages may not sound very promising for producing memorable inscriptions meant to inspire rectitude, but – hang on a sec.
The sort of utterance of interest to Watten is of the problem-setting, not problem-solving, kind. Public speech cannot overlook how human beings do indeed communicate, in messages unclear because conflicted demands emerge from power struggles that the speaker's utterance disguises or else clear enough insofar as historical and ideological messages can be sorted out from the words delivered. The speaker's subjective stance may not be acknowledged openly, but even so, we read a subjective presence through language. From I to it: the speaker's biases and prejudices come disguised, often enough through propositions that render the speaker's invested position neutral. Perfectly capable of eloquent writing, as his many essays attest, Watten elects to write in modes that make an issue of the polis and the ways it represents itself through assertions authoritatively proclaimed. Truths? Epigrammatic force informs even these disarticulated non sequiturs.
Now where to inscribe these! That's easy. At emergency road repair and hard-by detours, on the undersides of stairwell stairs, near inoperative water fountains, as running LED signage installed at brokerage offices, intermixed with call-waiting Muzak, in users' manuals, on pharmaceutical warning labels. On control panels. In manifestos and testimonials.
The real politik of inscriptions would indicate that we cannot take social speech for granted. Which brings us to the recent and current inscriptional enterprise of The Grand Piano series, ten booklets made up of essays by ten poets who had lived for a time in the San Francisco Bay area and found themselves and one another through their common interests in objectivism. Each Grand Piano booklet inscribes itself with two phrases meant to give the writing project its social frame and purpose.
"San Francisco, 1975–1980" is one such phrase. Through a citation of time and place, the phrase informs poets with the coordinates of a historical moment and lends the poets a cultural content, especially insofar as they chose that moment with which to be identified. "An experiment in collective autobiography" is the second phase inscribed invariably on each booklet. These poets had indeed formed a gathering. Their interests coalesced about a cultural poetics that annealed critical theory derived from Frankfurt School readings to objectivist capture of social speech by writers concerning the politics of the Vietnam War and implications for democracies at home. According to Watten, they indeed gathered: "On 29 June 1978 we performed Louis Zukofsky's "A"-24 to an overflowing audience at the Grand Piano." It is a signal moment not unlike the birth of Dada, which for Watten had its inaugural moment on February 5, 1916, at the Café Voltaire, insofar as the reading at the Grand Piano is a marker that converts a practice of antisocial occurrences by persons in diaspora into self-conscious narrative. (What selfsame said?)
So, then, beginnings are inscriptions of self-conscious acts and interventions. Published in Detroit in 2006, The Grand Piano No. 1 would be such a re-envisioned beginning, an awareness of a poetics iterated with itself in mind – hence the textual register of "an experiment in collective autobiography." As with Mackey's project, authorship on behalf of a constructed collective is an attempt to reattribute the narrative, or authorized account, as we say, within a history that has misrepresented the events as participants themselves experience them. The New York account of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and poetics reads as other than that of the Bay area account, in large measure owing to entrepreneurial advantage that issues from living in the dominant East Coast cultural capital. (Other versions of this authorship would reinscribe the narrative differently.) Knowledge tends to affiliate with those who have ready access to information and can control it – the media has insisted on this. But poetry that makes inscription its subject finds integrity through thoughtful skepticism, complex imagining of narratives, and distressed public speech to articulate a knowledge of reinscription.
This article originally appeared in American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2009 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved.