“Can the poem,” Robertson asks rhetorically, “become the space of that solitude? In this instance I took 9 years to build a pronoun. During that time I didn’t talk about it, and that was a freedom and a pleasure.” The solitary struggle “towards a pronoun caked in doubt” has culminated in the “complex structure” of Cinema of the Present, her most extended essay at the autobiographical poem of distributed subjectivity—and its pronoun is “you”:
What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?
You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.
A bunch of uncanniness emerges.
At 20 hertz it becomes touch.
A concomitant gate.
At the middle of your life on a Sunday.
A dove, a crowned warbler in redwood, an alarm, it stops.
You set out from consciousness carrying only a small valise.
The “I” is not entirely absent from Cinema, but Robertson drops it rarely and when she does, it is subordinate. Most appearances of a first person pronoun are accompanied by a “you” or “your,” as in “I’m in debt to your radiant obscenity,” or, more conspicuously, “If I want to cry it’s because I’m not a pessimist, you said.” The second person is a notoriously tricky voice to pull off in a literary work of any length; “you,” to modify Robertson’s opening line, is a problem. It can lead to unproductive alienation of the reader, who might, upon reading a sequence of sentences seemingly addressed to her directly, respond defensively: “No, I damn well am not.” There are good reasons that participants in mediated counselling are urged to frame their remarks in terms of how they feel, rather than in terms of what their antagonist does. Another problem with “you” is its potential haziness. An “I” or a “she” is almost always specific in its reference, but the indefinite “you,” even more than “we” or “they,” can refer to no one in particular.
The polyvalent character of the second person pronoun, however, is precisely what makes it the mot juste for a hundred-page extension of Robertson’s earlier ventures. The “you” is the very embodiment of “distributed subjectivity”: it can be singular, it can be plural, it can be the reader, it can be the poet, it can be anyone and everyone.
Source: SEVENTY HETERONYMS
Across the street rests the ugly national machine: a filthy station wagon, its family’s movements through pink plastic and spittle too slow to replace Sunday cutlets for missing hubcaps. Spill out the smeared window draped in a beige patriotism, wooden cross dangling from your forehead: walk with arms crossed, a reactionary cutout unable to exchange sermons for picking up the litter of the littering nation. Do not nod but stare, take odoriferous bows to the envy of all those living west and south: to their techné comforts and atrocity shows, their constipated sugar energy. The country’s savior eases into emulation: Family and Mister God are all that need comprehending.
As if still surrounded by fields of cabbage, scream all night: before falling from balconies, snapping necks like stale cigarettes, toast, blow , spit, and scream some more. Clear your throat in unventilated rooms five times a minute: but never suffocate from those who do not yet know how to wash beyond Saturday evening. With a face full of pork and dough, leave the standard trail of a proud national occupancy: fruit vodka bottles mark time made advantageous beneath brutalist slabs and anti-Semitic and/or football hooligan graffiti. Float kebab wrappers down broken sidewalks, yet another foreign delicacy to be admired at a distance: the littering never cancels out love for soil, for blood. Leave empty beer bottles for comrades in need: a strategy of protectionist taste, support of local economy, reflection on bald heads.
Swerve your way towards shop, church, government office, bus stop: then stand fiercely, frown, move for no one. Even when curbing yourself blind-drunk in the main square Saturday night: do not ever mistake passing thug skulls for martyr halos. Await exorcisms on every street corner: bow for forgiveness to the fat skirted priest who has never looked a layman in the eye. Breathe against the stranger’s back and white-knuckle your coins: return home to blast the overhead fluorescent lights. Stay ready to worry something will end: no more bread, ham, cheese, pickles. No more of the only spice that makes sense: salt. No more sustenance to complain a route through this geographic contempt: protect it to the death. Come to us, come to your family: we invite you, very please.
This ugliness surrounding you is a lie: the lie to end all lies but not all failures. The failure of your ancestry resounds deep in your name: the joke of all our genes. You too walk like a peasant dressed like a cow for a cancelled costume party: you too are tied to the fields. You too stare blankly through intersections with five toes in the road: you too trigger vitriol with your blank wide face and suspicious eyes. You too swerve to avoid interminable potholes and puddles: you too forget to shoulder-check. You too fail to acknowledge strangers passing: which would entail vulnerability, invasion, domination, partition. Which would mean exile from the holy family: from the holy mother, holy nation, holy pork cutlet.
Study the consonant-clustered passwords to their ultraviolence: their tribalism, suffering, and fear carved into an exhausting language. Buses bear down on you as construction spills out onto the sidewalks: you too are forced into zones of centuries of unplanning. Commit a little suicide, diminutive and sweet, after betraying these patriotic values: car, coal, conservatism. Listen, you bicycling vegan Marxist: you do not belong here unless you can stomach the smog. Postwar pollution shall become normal to you: normal is the nation’s synonym for aspiration. Hostile drivers unable to make clean turns, streets of great problems and shoulder jousting: you shall miss the aggression you succumb to.
In one week, the first event: you cycle into the bike lane to cross the intersection and in his beige SUV, clad-in-all-gray fails to judge the geometry of his turn, yells at you from his seat, crosses against your bike’s front 29er. The second event: on the station platform there are expert performances of the ancient Slavic swerve, and amidst the overtaking and jostling, bearded-Napoleon-Complex-hipster slams into your shoulder, you are rigid but give way to the fuzzy responsibility, he grabs your arm and says “are you really running into me right now,” you reply in the master language “are you really running into me right now,” he says “learn how to walk” or something, you reply “learn how to walk ” or something and then “take it easy and have a nice holiday,” he replies “you too.”
There are choices to be made for this bulwark: this Christ of Nations. A nation on the edge of rebirth: one that encourages mutual respect. A nation on the edge of regression: one in which everyone knows that to thrive, you must leave. A nation described as a beast with a sweet side: good luck. A nation looking to hire a foreign PR team to rescue its reputation: accused of breaking its constitution, undermining democracy, and scaring away foreign investment. Read it and weep: take your choice.
Look in their eyes: they look away and stare in equal measure. All the middle fingers, curses under the breath, shoulders knocked, patronizing patriotisms: karma wrapped like the tendons of a dead animal around the chakra buried beneath the castle. There rests the difference between love and hate: there is no blasphemy in the national mirror. Your bow of tension is infinitely elastic: look away.
Water has its own archaeology, not a layering but a leveling, and thus is truer to our sense of the past, because what is memory but near and far events spread and smoothed beneath the present’s surface.
– Ron Rash, “The Woman at the Pond”
I spent fifteen minutes strolling under the arcades with their metal beams, slightly surprised by my own nostalgia and aware, at the same time, that the place really was extremely ugly. Those hideous buildings had been constructed during the worst period of modernism, but nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics, it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.
– Michel Houellebecq, Submission
The flight, in a too-small jet, dodging thunderstorms, cured Pip of any desire for future air travel. She expected death the whole way. What was interesting was how quickly she then forgot about it, like a dog to whom death was literally unimaginable . . . Dogs again had it right. They didn’t trouble themselves with mysteries that could never be solved anyway.
– Jonathan Franzen, Purity
Anamnesis means remembrance or reminiscence, the collection and recollection of what has been lost, forgotten, or effaced. It is therefore a matter of the very old, of what has made us who we are. But anamnesis is also a work that transforms its subject, always producing something new. To recollect the old, to produce the new: that is the task of Anamnesis.
– from The Speculative Turn (re.press)
Exile accepted as a destiny, in the way we accept an incurable illness, should help us see through our self-delusions.
– Czesław Miłosz
Leave, explore [expatriate] the grey grown
In another country, research the peasant
Rump genealogy of your particular
Surname mutation, cut through the din
To read aloud how we are surrounded with
This message: for some time you will
Survive, in some kind of horror perhaps,
But who hasn’t been destroyed before
And made a media-worthy comeback?
Bisected in movement, even if that
Movement is repetition, repetition fate,
Listen: there are those who drink international coffee
And think they are somewhere, even in the city
Which is named after the airport. Then
There are those upon whom a veil falls
While dialing the opposite city operator, who
Tells you: seekers of happiness are in danger
Of deluding themselves [exiles] that
At the proton level there is authority
In memory and at the neutron
It is in forgetting. And he continues: these
Are not levels but patterns of boredom. Fear
Of boredom is the first pattern, and there’s
A second pattern and it looks like this:
A field in Idaho, pink yellow grass
And behind are some rock bluffs, a few
Horses looking straight at you. Snap
A photo and they will look away.
We should read the diary of the splintering
Cross propped up against a beige Polonez:
It turns out those who voted in favor
Will not be excommunicated. We should
All read the diary of the huge respectable
Face: basically, they want the cigarettes.
Next up’s the diary of the imperialist ass: teach
The master language, try to find a way back
To the birth country. This series of diaries
Is called Sightseer, because he’s hers
And she deserves the best. Only then
Will you note how the people respected
Him [expatriate], because America
And cause he kept nothing for himself.
It was out by the Gaffney Day School he
[Immigrant] developed a taste for pecan pie
On cloudy afternoons: the Reverend drove
A white El Camino and did the Detroit Lean
While the kudzu crept over the billboard
Of a crying baby mumbling this speech
Bubble: “Pay attention to whom your energy
Increases or decreases around.” And yet
Another dream of the railway trestle
In a Tennessee marshland: the alarm
Wakes you to rain and a Central European
Heat wave. If you were home you’d be driving
Round Ridgewood dreaming of Highgate,
Middling in 1986: and that night yet
Another dream of a horse cart escaping you,
Of the co-worker’s gaunt prairie dog looks,
Of bashing your teeth out on the sidewalk.
Was it because you were pulled or pushed
Yourself into the woods of the foreign
That few started looking for you [refugee],
That you know not about having any of your own?
As the Incan rope bridge is rebuilt every year
From the community of grass, you are
Again branded fugitive beneath those
Coptering drum patterns of Meguro and Ebisu.
From the Carolina Piedmont to Lake Cable
To the Vistula, cross the Appalachians,
The Carpathians, battling the vapors
Of unbelonging: this has meant planning
Forays into other tongues while remaining
Unable to escape the American orbit.
Some say wrong paths right us: others say
Stay here till you can stand it no longer.
On the pleasure of wearing a wristwatch,
This separation of ebony statuettes: how many
Times this week were you almost hit by a bus?
The clear, hard light shone either on
The garden of delete or of peace. So much
You [migrant] don’t know: atomic or molecular,
The furloughs between Norway and Sweden, Civil
War border states, classical Indian literature,
Death drive, Baltic dolphins, Antifa, gold trains
Hidden in the mountains of Silesia. You [exile]
Wait out the latter days with forests, fields,
Rocks and weeds: your true companions
At the start of this fading frontier.
To start considering the cabins, mountains
More: to see a donkey in the Pyrenees
And wonder at her red sweater. These
Indulgences of summer have forced
You to wonder how to get there, how
To stay financed, keep it together: this
Is the story of that memory of a memory.
Where is the eighth continent? What [expatriate]
Is it to belong to this country?
Source: SEVENTY HETERONYMS
LT: “How does exile or migration affect the use of memory?”
SB: “Exile is both about suffering in banishment and springing into a new life. The leap is also a gap, often an unbridgeable one; it reveals an incommensurability of what is lost and what is found.”
“Does this gap at all parallel the one between hope and desolation, homeland and new land, memory and forgetting, fiction and non-fiction?”
“Only a few manage to turn exile into an enabling fiction.”
“And how different is that enabling fiction from the one it takes to get up in the morning, to try and do anything at all? I guess I am speaking of a collective memory of inherent exile, the metaphoric exile.”
“The main feature of exile is a double conscience, a double exposure of different times and spaces, a constant bifurcation. Exiles and bilinguals were always treated with suspicion and described as people with a ‘double destiny’ or half a destiny, as well as adulterers, traitors, traders in lost souls, ghosts.”
“A double-conscience, sure. One remembers what one wishes to forget, and vice versa. Memories as specters, forgetting as beyond spectral. It is as if the exile must narrate the other half of that conscience into the future, must write out that bifurcation, that betrayal, those ghosts.”
“For a writer banished from his or her homeland, exile is never merely a theme or a metaphor; usually physical uprooting and displacement into a different cultural context challenges the conceptions of art itself as well as the forms of authorship. In other words, the experience of actual exile offers an ultimate test to the writer’s metaphors; instead of the poetics of exile, one should speak of the art of survival.”
“Does this art of survival drive exilic narration and writing, or is it the other way around?”
“All immigrants know that exile is much more attractive as a poetic image than it is as a lived experience. It looks better on paper than it does in life.”
“Of course it is easier to record migrant memory than migrant forgetting, even though forgetting may be less painful and, at a certain level, more desirable and even necessary. The danger is when memory automatically imposes an alienated status on the migrant. What role does forgetting play in this exilic art of survival?”
“Instead of curing alienation – which is what the imagined community of the nation proposes – exiled artists use alienation as a personal antibiotic against homesickness.”
“So, the migrant must potentially forget the national origin, the home country, shift around memories of nationalism in favor of a different imagined community that may more easily embrace and utilize forgetting? What about the language?”
“Bilingual consciousness is not a sum of two languages, but a different state of mind altogether; often the bilingual writers reflect on the foreignness of all language and harbor a strange belief in a ‘pure language,’ free from exilic permutations.”
“But isn’t language innately riddled with ambiguity, possibility, and progress through misuse and mutation, no matter if exilic bifurcation is involved or not? Language continuously wedges itself into the dialectic of memory and forgetting. So isn’t it that a pure language could only be one that can express memory and forgetting simultaneously?”
Pierre Bertrand has written a book on forgetting in which he discusses in detail Freud’s art of forgetting. He asks what actually happens, according to Freud, after the moment of the cure. Must the cured patient (if he is cured) permanently retain in his consciousness the forgotten event that has been revived? Or does such an activation of consciousness, if continued for a long time, ultimately produce other kinds of psychic damage that can be healed only if the cured patient is also able to definitively forget what he has, with the help of the therapist, so happily dealt with? Hence Pierre Bertrand distinguishes a negative or bad kind of forgetting from a positive or good one. Adhering somewhat more closely to Freud’s judicial metaphorics, I should prefer to call these “unpacified” forgetting and “pacified” forgetting. The former is forgetting before psycholnalytic treatment; the latter is forgetting after it. If this conception is correct, and it seems to me to be implicit in Freudian theory, then Freud’s art of forgetting is essentially based on this distinction between an unpacified forgetting and a pacified forgetting as well as on the far-reaching recognition that there is no direct path, involving for instance mere weakening of the imagines agentes, that leads from unpacified forgetting to pacified forgetting. The detour by way of consciousness cannot be avoided, whence a certain paradox in the Freudian art of forgetting: if this detour is to be successfully gotten through, the art of memory must be relied on, so that the latter turns out to be an auxiliary to the art of forgetting (ancilla oblivionis).
– Harald Weinrich, Lethe: the Art and Critique of Forgetting
Despair, inseparable from the first stage of exile, can be analyzed, and then it would probably appear as resulting more from one’s personal shortcomings than from external circumstances.
– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”
To maintain a conception of the past in “a sharply delineated, precise form” was a kind of privilege for Miłosz. As he describes in “The Nobel Lecture,” as memory became a “force” in the creative and social struggles of writers in post-war Central and Eastern Europe, it served to protect “us against a speech entwining upon itself like the ivy when it does not find a support on a tree or a wall.” It follows that the more a regime attempted to repress the writer who then proceeds to forcefully connect literature, memory, and reality lived in exile, the more the writer, as Miłosz explains in “Notes on Exile,” “blurts out his dammed-up feelings of anger, his observations and reflections, considering this as his duty and mission.”
Of course, the writer also enters a host of new problems in exile, not least of which is a consequence of destierro and destiempo (i.e., Józef Wittlin’s concepts of temporal and spatial displacement, as explored in the second part of this essay series) in that “knowledge of everyday life in the country of his origin changes from the tangible to theoretical.” The tangible may remain in memory, but it is pinned to a certain stasis, almost fossilized. Through acts of memory-work, a dynamic element can be injected into the spatial determinants of the memory, and social frameworks can be pursued towards deeper and more oblique references. Theoretical abstraction may result due to the unavoidable distance of real exile, but this result conflicts with the atmosphere of Miłosz’s adopted country of the United States, in which, as he explains in “On Censorship”: “Bluntness, brevity, and brutality of expression, as well as simplified ideas, are prized because they can be conveyed by the most obvious and tangible ‘facts’ without involving any complicated reasoning.”
Accordingly, the other half of the “Paradigm” Miłosz constructs in “Notes on Exile” involves the understanding that, “Now where he lives he is free to speak but nobody listens and, moreover, he forgot what he had to say.” Coming up against the many obstacles of exile, which ultimately force energy inwards towards the theoretical, the exiled writer must not only battle the threat of his own forgetting, but also the willed (even violent) forgetting born of the disinterest and disinheritance that Miłosz saw plaguing the United States and the West. For in the exile’s experience, “that which in his country is regarded with seriousness as a matter of life or death is of nobody’s concern abroad or provokes interest for incidental reasons.”
These experiences lead the exiled writer to several modes of despair, all of which are based in relations with the writer’s native land and the collective, and of which there are three main causes: “loss of name, fear of failure, and moral torment.” Loss of name again reflects a perspective Wittlin outlines in “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile”: “The fact that not only our ambition but our creativity itself has in exile no wide field of radiation and must give up the aura in the past surrounding our names may be favorable for our work, but more often it hampers us.”
As Miłosz explains in “Notes on Exile,” this despair over loss of name is only one of many results of displacement from a specific community, where a “writer acquires a name through a complex interchange with his readers, whether he appeals to a large audience or to a narrow circle of sympathizers.” The soft borders that delineate his professional and institutional relationships have now shifted into a painful anonymity. For according to Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia, such writers in exile “carry the memory of oppression but also of their social significance that they could hardly match in the more ‘developed’ West.” Alleviation of the weight of such memories is achieved partially for the exile through the view that such fresh humiliations are “proportionate to his pride, and that is perhaps a just punishment,” thus reflecting again Miłosz’s mandate that exile accepted as a destiny necessitates the debasement of self-delusions. Indeed, engaging in personal memory-work along social and religious frameworks, there is quite a bit of exploration of pride in Miłosz’s essays. In “Saligia,” for example, he examines writerly pride and literary background in parallel to a concern over moral torment as regards name, and states, “I had enough superbia in me for it to carry me beyond nay mere authorship.” Further exploration of this concern for loss of name will be featured in the next essay in this series.