David Michael Wolach
The Evergreen State College
We are struggling with language.
We are engaged in a struggle with language.
–Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 11e
Why repeat ourselves? Why, I repeat, repeat ourselves? As almost axiomatic, I take the construct of “selfhood” to be an extension of our languages, and our languages extensions of (often) forced assumptions born of mediating forces. “Words are deeds,” states Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations. When we repeat ourselves as we speak, we often repeat ourselves publicly, explicitly, and, in some circumstances, out of necessity. An activity born of the need to imprint sub-dominant narratives onto the familiar, dominant narratives of the total (and given) story-commodity, the well-rounded declamation that is the normative narrative loop in the head. Othering discourses frame the repeated repeated utterance as pathological, imbue such self-same echoes with the term “madness.” To repeat is also an exilic mode of becoming, according to Adorno. Or, according to Wittgenstein, a Cartesian exile, exile tout court. Exile from the world. A poetic mode of utterance. Strange thing, repetition.
There is an historical kinship between poetry, exile (in the true sense, the non-literary sense) and what has been, and is, deemed madness (Foucault, Birth of the Clinic). A relation strung by the thread of repetition. Here, exile’s relative distance need not be oceans: one can be ghosted easily amidst otherwise familiar terrain. In reading Hyden Carruth just recently, I was reminded of the schizophrenic on the subway, his constant need to speak to himself, repeat himself to himself (in clinical circles they call this phenomenon “clacking”—as if putting a word to a way of being makes it less mysterious, or horrifying to the person who is clinically ascribed). From “Contra Morten” (1966) we find the musicality of madness, its twin, the need to force language into a circumscribed, ordered kind of familiarity:
Such figures if they succeed are beautiful
because for a moment we brighten in a blaze of rhymes
and yet they always fail and must fail
and give way to other poems
in the endless approximations of what we feel
Hopeless it is hopeless Only the wheel
endures It spins and spins winding
the was the is the will be out of nothing
and thus we are Thus on the wheel we touch
each to each a part
of the great determining reality How much
we give to one another Perhaps our art
succeeds after all our small song done in the faith
of lovers who endlessly change heart for heart
as the gift of being Come let us sing against death.
Note the way Carruth at once clarifies and obscures “hopeless” here, as if that word were embodied formally within the text-line, where art in stanzas succeeds only if it manages to bring us back to a kind of clarity, and with clarity, a “re-apportionment of parts,” to use theorist Jacques Ranciere’s terms. This is a kind of knowing ourselves (the self’s multiple and contradictory understructures)—and each other. And to know ourselves, our languages, is, for Wittgenstein, to bring ourselves back home. Where “home” is not the homogeneous world of commodity discourse, but the heterogeneous landscape of any household, no matter how small. Perhaps a temporary reprieve, the proprioceptive quality of the act of repetition, its successful employment in a poetics, it brings us back home to the state of skepticism that is tantamount to a “free” society, free in Paulo Freire’s sense of the term, which links so firmly to the act of hearing an other “sing.” By successful I mean a poem’s acknowledgement of its getting close to familiarity, groping, yet never quite making it—a wayward journey home, an Odyssian journey with twists the likes of which we wake to every morning, and every morning, though a repetition, varying to the last day only so much, the day or the poem’s “success” is here measured in its acknowledgment of presentness, its temporal, limited capacity to do what needs doing—but coming up short.
Why repeat? This tactical maneuver, its formal employment surviving in poetry when its most of its formal counterparts have long since been shed as inadequate. Imagine an infinite parabola, like a differential function, representing all the narratives ever written or could be written. Look at the bell’s tails, utterances approaching near total a posteriori impossibility: on one end, we may have sets of lines or stanzas that lack repetition entirely; on the other, those that repeat ad naseum. We would like to say: those on the end without repetition are not poetry—this set of sentences approaches something, but whatever it is, it’s not poetry. While those on the end that simply repeat, with no variance, with no slightly altered position of words, lines—those are sentences that lack meaning; they are senseless. Stein awesomely rubs up against the senseless in such poems as “Picasso,” using the blues twelve bar structure, deeply repetitious when transliterated, to both paint and sing a becoming that gives us one major aesthetic trajectory of modernism. There is “an art” to straddling the line between nonsense and poetry, and the great sagging middle of unchallenging, utterly forgettable scrawls of sap, shows this.
Meet Lourdes Vázquez. Unknown to many readers in the United States, Vázquez is one of her native Puerto Rico’s avant-garde poets. Having lived in Brooklyn for many years, she is, in her own words a “Caribbean living in exile.” She writes mainly in Spanish. Some of her works are translated (by her daughter as well as others) and yet many remain—due to the American sensibility of knowing no language but that of one’s native tongue—absent from many poetic lexica. This is a shame. If there is a reason for kids in schools around America to learn Spanish, beyond the dire necessity of communicating with nearly half of the country’s population, it would be to encounter to the great Latin American writers, among them Lourdes Vázquez.
Ron Silliman, one of the few in this country who have delved deep enough into her work to review it says of Vázquez’s Park Slope that “there is a troubled relationship around which so many of these poems turn – yet not one articulated with beginning, middle and end.” Silliman, and editors of Forward, quite rightly highlight Vázquez’s modern feminist challenges to the reader, her anchoring to the things of neighborhoods and families that are decidedly not kitsch ironic Americana—the Starbucks on every corner, the commodification of even the most densely insular immigrant populations in and around Brooklyn. It is spot-on to say that Vázquez covers terrain that is stubbornly provincial rather than cosmopolitan, deeply personal-political rather than overtly, grandly ideological, lyrical more than anti-lyrical.
But subversive is here in Vázquez’ work to a very high degree, and this subversiveness often takes the shape of a repeating longing: the worlds in her poems are whispers to the air—phrases, deceptively quiet at times, raging at others, reaching out to that which is right in front of the poet, real in every sense, yet unfamiliar, strange, and dangerous. Lines fall back on themselves, repeating themselves so as to know themselves—to hook up to something that has been either lost or somehow killed. In “It’s Been Like This Being Born” each “stanza” (paragraphs in the prose form) challenges the work’s main premise: the familiarity of a catastrophic heartache metaphorical of catastrophe as massive loss of life, brought into focus through the narrative of losing a lover. Though the body of each section speaks of that which is familiar enough to destroy—“Violently, her clothes become dislocated, she opens her delicate lip and we cross, entangled her wood’s knots”—at the same time each comes back to a refrain of skepticism about its own inner-life:
It’s been like this.
It’s been like this.
It’s been like this.
This, what things have been like, is how each section begins, and is where the work acknowledges that what follows is not how things are but similes—what things are like. Everything about a woman, a love, a loss, becomes lost, unfamiliar, distorted by a closeness, a proximal valley where we want more than what we see, though we know what we see is mediated in ways and by forces often not benign. We know this, and then we forget this. And so the poem swan dives into the kind of confusion that comes with eyes that simply and immediately stop functioning. “I embrace you,” the poem aches.
“I embrace you.., I try to
embrace you with a hold that
approximates the straight line
A first reading of any of her poems in translation will hit us with their immediacy and lyricism, where what is lost and unfamiliar is a person, or people. Vázquez deftly applies the revolving, evolving construct of personhood here as metaphor: all of the constraint, weakness, and loss of focus that comes with trying to bring another close, to know one, can equally be applied to the notions of homeland and exile. The characters of Vázquez’s poems, the places and people who inhabit them, are in exile. And her voice is not her voice but a collective, disembodied several. Repeating, going back, constantly returning to particular themes and lines of text, even words such as “line” (Park Slope) these works ask the vital question: Where are we? And a moment later: What is the “I” that speaks? Where is it/they located?
Here, again, I come back to Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein and Adorno. Two writers almost never mentioned in the same breath to be sure, their individual worldviews perhaps polar opposites, but both, in some way, in perhaps opposite ways, in exile. Two quotes can be of service here. There’s Wittgenstein’s, a rather famous quote from his journal: “When I came home I expected a surprise and there was no surprise for me, so of course I was surprised.” And then there is Adorno’s: “If all philosophy is homesickness… then homeland is the state of having escaped.”
Vázquez at once gives us the feeling that we are homesick, and that our longing for a homeland—a world familiar—is in some sense a consequence of escape. But an escape from what? Memory? The reality of what it was like to expect unfamiliarity, since when at home we paradoxically feel more comfortable in a state of discomfort, alienation? Linking up to Wittgenstein’s surprise: have we suddenly jumped from the formula of surprise—a gift, say on Valentine’s day—to surprise itself? Ineffable, essential, surprise? That of arriving at a foreign destination, where to be is to become ghosted? Memory serves as the poet’s excuse, the poetic doomsday device, nothing nostalgic about it (from Park Slope):
To close my eyes.
Let memory disappear
Let time cease and my sheets never remember.
But for repetition in verse to have use value, to be difficult, to be part of the voice that is not Voice, but in a dialectical sense sublation, this Adorno takes to be one element working in the service of the function of art at its core. Such repetition, in as many ways as there are poets, must somehow approach the horizon, come close to the Narrative Bell Curve’s tail of total or wrote repetition, yet never quite get there. As philosopher Lydia Goehr writes—in her case about music—taking time to learn or read something over and over again, repeating this process, is, when cultic, nearly the opposite of wrote memorization: “a process of coming to understand, and one aspect of coming to understand is that a change in thought occurs: we see something one way… then we come to see it another way…” The danger, of course, is that repetition serves to block a kind of didacticism that is associated with becoming, that shift, that change necessary for the discourse between poet and reader to somehow pivot around praxis. One aspect of Vázquez’s art is the mastery of repetition, infusing repetition with use value by varying tone, timing, and sequence. Here, her refrains are truly refrains: they serve to offer all of us a fleeting glimpse, a minute understanding of the banal, the real, the people, places, and objects of her world an ocean away, a “territory”—which is our world, that which we are complicit in ghosting and also affected by. A world that, when in exile, appears before us as a landscape unfamiliar, populated by phantasms, unendingly elusive.