JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“Secret Weapon” in Secret Weapon: Selected Late Poems by Eugen Jebeleanu (translated from the Romanian by Matthew Zapruder and Ralph Ioanid)
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2008)
so many despise
but everyone wants to make.
so many people
want to catch
as they dress up in the sirens of cars
which can go 100 miles per hour,
and in pressurized bottles,
and in dresses with patterns or no rhyme or reason,
in dresses no less shiny
than neon on those evenings in summer
when I don’t know who
high above us
This despised thing
envied by all
because it cannot be seen
because it is wolf and bird
and nation of lambs,
high, high, where it rules
without saying a word.
it costs almost nothing,
which reveals itself to only a few,
giving itself to all, wolf, bird, lamb
(without tail! without end!)
belonging to all
(if they can catch it)
which cannot be fashioned
by hands with flint finger bones.
This thing which sings,
which bites if it’s needed, which keeps you warm
breath of the Invisible.
I should probably mention that this is a translation, but I don’t really know why. After all, I don’t know the Romanian original. So it’s just a poem to me.
At night I’ve been reading Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster. It’s a text that produces Readerly Anxiety (RA), that tempts one to pin down as quickly as possible what “disaster” might mean without allowing one to do the pinning. As mentioned in another reading, I’ve been discussing RA with John Armstrong, of Bebrowed’s Blog. The other day I wrote him:
I … think we need to be within RA rather than to struggle to get outside it. As far as I can tell, there is only one type of person today that has no RA, so to speak, and those are the religious types who have an absolute book to do their thinking for them, to ground their being—a grand récit; the rest of us aren’t so lucky (or unlucky, rather).
I think that to be within RA is to be within a state of negative capability. I’m sure you recall Keats' slightly sexist definition: when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason. I only repeat it here to emphasize the “without any irritable reaching” bit. I think that is still the GREATEST difficulty for us, however long it's been that we (and I mean literary culture) has paid lip service to this ...
I'll take myself as example. Last nite I picked up the Blanchot and found myself "irritably reaching"—I, like the translator, wanted to pin 'the disaster' to B's "The Death Sentence"—which would, of course, remove my irritable reaching, as I'd then know what the "disaster" is. Which would, of course, also destroy the power of the text, which demands RA, utterly (in the most utterly utterly meaning of utterly) demands it, is nothing without it.
But I think that irritable reaching is a difficulty we don't want to transcend, at least not entirely. I think we want to transcend it AND not transcend it, both at the same time (maybe that's what I mean by reading honorably, really).
What would transcending and not transcending mean? It would mean, to quote Anne Gorrick’s phrase, a “radical acceptance” of that irritable reaching. It would mean a redefining of negative capability as being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without CARING THAT ONE IS IN A STATE OF an irritable reaching after fact and reason. Or, one level up: Not caring that one is caring … not caring that the act of reading is a crazy-making act of being driven out of one’s mind.
“Secret Weapon” is a lot like The Writing of the Disaster in terms of RA. The sooner we can pin down the nature of the secret weapon the less anxiously we will read. And the sooner we pin it down, the less honorably we will read. Andrei Codrescu, in his introduction to Secret Weapon writes, “The ‘secret weapon’ is of course poetry itself, stripped of its need to grin or shout no matter what.” While this may be true, in its way, it’s a little facile (and really, you should not think that I’m calling Codrescu dishonorable; I really want to apply that epithet only to me). Would Codrescu’s “of course poetry” even make sense to a non-poet? Wouldn’t a non-poet think, rather, “A secret weapon that does what, exactly?” A non-poet might even wonder, “Are poets really that megalomaniacally insane?” Even if we accept Codrescu’s pronouncement, we (poets and non-poets alike) are still left to wonder what “poetry”, in this context, might mean. This is not one of those texts designed to let the reader off easily.
“This thing / so many despise / but everyone wants to make.” What thing is that? Certainly not poetry, literally speaking. At least most non-poets I know have no desire to make poems. At this point we have no idea what the secret weapon might be. So I’m not going to knock down Codrescu’s reading as I read, I’m going to ignore it, and remain in RA (negative capability with irritability and reaching, etc, intact).
“This thing / so many people / want to catch / as they dress up in the sirens of cars
which can go 100 miles per hour, / and in pressurized bottles, / and in dresses with patterns or no rhyme or reason, / in dresses no less shiny / than neon on those evenings in summer / when I don’t know who / high above us / is quietly / scything / the crops.” Once I notice that I still don’t know what “this thing” is, I note that this is a curious description of what might be considered contemporary life.
“they [who] dress up in the sirens of cars / which can go 100 miles per hour”: who might they be? The Romanian authorities? Those who are within earshot (and therefore within reach) of those authorities? OK, maybe. But who dresses up in “pressurized bottles”? People drinking sodas? People in submarines? It’s a disturbing series of images … I believe that those in dresses are people the author / narrator happens to see. I don’t know whether the “dresses with patterns or no rhyme or reason, / … dresses no less shiny / than neon” are supposed to indicate character types, or rather the proliferation of choices available to even the most totalitarianized in the 20th Century, during which even the postwar communist societies needed mass consumption to survive. This description of what I take to be modern life ends with “… on those evenings in summer / when I don’t know who / high above us / is quietly / scything / the crops.” The least plausible reading of these lines, to my mind/ear/eye, is that the urban setting is in a valley surrounded by hills upon which there is harvesting in progress. It seems much more likely that “I don’t know who” is a euphemism for God or the gods or the fates or the furies – or the natural laws – who/that are in charge of time (and life).
“This despised thing / envied by all / because it cannot be seen / but exists, / because it is wolf and bird / and nation of lambs, / high, high, where it rules / the moon / without saying a word.” It almost seems possible here to equate “[t]his despised thing” with some sort of Spinozan panpsychic substance, some sort of “live” universal. It is and it rules what it is. If this is the case, that the “I don’t know who” above is the self-same substance. But just because this sentence suggests a Spinozan universe to me, I am uncomfortable forcing “This thing / so many people / want to catch …” found earlier in the poem into this meaning … So I will think it, and let it pass.
“This thing / so precious / it costs almost nothing, / which reveals itself to only a few, / giving itself to all, wolf, bird, lamb / (without tail! without end!) / belonging to all / (if they can catch it) / which cannot be fashioned / by hands with flint finger bones.” The “riddle continues. This thing, whatever it is, is very odd. It does not resolve oppositions, since “precious” and “costing almost nothing” are not contraries (beyond price and free might be, but “precious” and “costing almost nothing” are on a continuum, as are “only a few” and “all”). So it’s not Alpha and Omega, exactly. It no longer seems like Substance, either, since it only belongs to all “if they can catch it”. The oddest bit here is the parenthetical “(without tail! without end!)”, which is affective, but (and?) incomprehensible. I think the most important thing we learn here is that it “cannot be fashioned / by hands with flint finger bones.” This means, I think, that it can only be fashioned by living (as opposed to stone/inanimate) beings.
“This thing which sings, / which bites if it’s needed, which keeps you warm / wolf / bird / lamb / breath of the Invisible.” By this point I begin to suspect that whatever the secret weapon is, it’s alive. Or, at least, it has some of life’s properties: the ability to sing, to bite, to keep one warm … is it “the breath of the Invisible”? Or does it keep the breath of the Invisible warm as it apparently does the wolf, bird, lamb? Or does it keep “you” warm, and is it “/ wolf / bird / lamb / breath of the Invisible”? It depends on the way one reads the line endings. Since there are no signposts – throughout the poem, line endings work in different ways – the poem ends on a note of more than mild ambiguity.
So what is the secret weapon? Is it poetry? I don’t see why … necessarily. Which doesn’t mean Codrescu is wrong. But what if I said it was love? How would you argue against me? Perhaps the secret weapon is … not having to say what the secret weapon is.
I’m not arguing for that reading, either. What I’m arguing for is an honorable reading. Which means living within a state of negative capability that—redefined pace Keats—recognizes its irritability and reaching. Which recognizes them as intrinsic to reading. Which recognizes that, perhaps, in this day and age, there’s no cure, and there shouldn’t be—for RA.
[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.