JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“(one) Alone in that cage” in From Idylls &Rushes by Susana Gardner
(Dusie, Switzerland, 2011)
Alone in that cage
her idle hands interlace
shapes color copy
her otherwise she
In From Idylls &Rushes every page is headed with “(one)”. It is a) either a collection of poems, each of which has the same title, b) a poem in which each section is titled alike, or c) a series of stuttering beginnings, which never gets as far as “(two)” (which may then be a series of poems (or fragments) or a poem that is nothing but beginnings). Or something else entirely. But these are the choices which come to me.
For no reason I can put a name to, I am drawn to options a) and c). I chose a) simply due to the time constraints of this project. So: I have chosen to read the first “(one)”, and to consider it in isolation. This does not particularly trouble me, though it does stop me from trying to read this as one serial poem or to imagine the poem for which all the (one) might constitute a beginning.
This does not trouble me because this reading is not THE reading. It is only one of many. And nothing prevents me from reading this chapbook more than once, and from reading it in other ways.
This does prevent you, however, from taking me as any sort of “authority” – a position I have never wanted and gladly relinquish. As I wrote long ago in another context, “I have never wanted to be anyone’s unacknowledged legislator – I only want to look you in the eye and say Yo.” I emphasize this not to turn this text into “it’s really about me” but to say something that this project has taught me about reading. Yes, I knew it from theory (Derrida! Blanchot!), but it’s another thing to really learn it for oneself: every reading is – at best – provisional. Every reading is an imaginary journey, however hard it tries to remain faithful to the text.
OK. I read this poem as consisting of an indefinite number of “sentences” or “utterances” or “sentence-fragments”, depending on how one “punctuates”. One possibility is
Alone in that cageher idle hands interlacegarden-phlox embellishedshapes color copyherandotherwise she
In this case her interlaced hands resemble garden-phlox. Unfortunately (for this reading), to my eye at least, garden-phlox looks nothing like idle hands interlaced, or vice-versa.
It might be possible to also read this “version” in such a way that, while the garden-phlox does not visually resemble her crossed hands, it copies her in her idleness. This reading too has a fatal flaw. The text has “copy” not “copies”.
So scratch that reading.
Next, I try
In this reading, we first encounter “her”, whoever she is, alone in a cage, in a state of “enforced?” idleness, with nothing to do but interlace her hands.Alone in that cageher idle hands interlaceandgarden-phlox embellishedshapes colorandcopyherandotherwise she
Since we next encounter the phlox, it occurs to me the cage is a garden, in which there is no necessary reason to assume the idleness is enforced.
Third, we come to the italicized, “copy / her” … which sounds, according to this “punctuation” as an injunction of sorts. Copy her! The italics lead me to believe that this her and the first her refer to different people.
Finally we come to “Otherwise she”. I think this she is the first “her”, the idle one.
Now I’m going to get extra-textual, because I think the physical characteristics of this chapbook, along with the text as I have now parsed it, give me a reading.
It is important to note two things about this chapbook – or at least two aspects of the way it’s put together help me come up with this reading.
First, there are fragments of a torn-up copy of Collette’s The Vagabond glued to the cover, and interspersed as illustrations (I guess) throughout the book. Second, the epigraph, which is also by Colette, reads: “To write is the joy and torment of the idle. Oh to write!”
So: the first thing to recall is that the first “her” is idle in a garden cage, with nothing to do but to interlace her fingers (making them useless, making her incapable of escaping the cage). The second thing to note is that after the mention of the phlox there is a string of words, “embellished / shapes color”, which I now take to be the idle one’s ruminations on the phlox.
This leads immediately to the italicized injunction “copy / her”. Given the omnipresence of Colette, I now take this injunction to read “copy Colette” – and write. After all, the idle “her” is not so idle mentally: a string of words has already come to mind.
The final line, “otherwise she”, now reads something like “write or die in your idle cage.”
I have always thought that writing was my one place of freedom, thought it’s always been obvious that it’s a funny sort of freedom, actually. Leaving aside the obvious facts that my freedom will always be constrained by race, class, gender, history, etc etc, in some ways writing and the other arts are the least free of all activities. E.g., the poem knows what it wants better than “I” do.
Nevertheless, nevertheless ad infinitum. I will quote another old line of mine: “When I say happy I mean so damn glad to be alive.” The “agony and ecstasy” of writing is one of the greatest ways I know to be happy in the sense of that line.
So I totally get the “otherwise she”. I’ll give one famous example so that you’ll know that when I say I get it I’m not just saying, great line Ms Gardner, you’re just like me. I’m quoting Camille Martin:
November 10 marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of the murder of Miklós Radnóti, a Jewish Hungarian poet killed by Hungarian Nazi collaborators during a three-month death march and buried in a mass grave. A year and a half later, when his wife, Fanny, located and exhumed his body, a notebook of his poems was found in his coat pocket. Radnóti had continued to write poetry during his internment in various work camps, his slave labour in a copper mine, and his forced march across his native Hungary, bearing witness to the horrors to which he ultimately succumbed. … The next five poems, “Forced March” and four short “Postcards,” are the last that Radnóti composed before his execution. Soon after writing the fourth “Postcard,” Radnóti was badly beaten by a soldier annoyed by his scribbling into a notebook. Soon thereafter, the weakened Radnóti and twenty-one of his fellow Hungarian Jews were shot to death and buried. These last poems, written under the pressure of the most degrading and desperate circumstances imaginable, unfurl visions of delicate pastoral beauty next to images of extreme degradation and wild, filthy despair. They give voice to the last vestiges of hope, as Radnóti fantasizes being home once more with his beloved Fanny, as well as to the grim premonition of his own fate. This impossibly stark contrast blossoms into paradox: Radnóti’s poetry embraces humanity and inhumanity with an urgent desire to bear witness to both. Yet even at the moment when he is most certain of his imminent death, he never abandons the condensed and intricate language of his poetry. And pushed to the limits of human endurance and sanity, he never loses his capacity for empathy.
(Camille Martin, “Miklos Radnoti (1909 – 1944)”, at http://rogueembryo.com/2009/11/15/miklos-radnoti-1909-%E2%80%93-1944/ Rogue Embryo, 15 Nov 09)
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.