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Whose Nation: Literature and Culture

Whose Nation: Literature and Culture

Investigating historical events on a purely factual basis is a vital exercise in order to understand the context of current events. It is also vital to investigate the historical narratives told and received by a population. Sometimes these narratives cross over into myth or legend; these are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and it can often be very beneficial to look at these myths and legends as they’ve been recorded both to see how an era views itself and what ideals and lessons they want to transmit to future generations. This can also take the form of poetry, parables, and many other literary forms. Understanding history is absolutely essential, but I would also argue having a firm grasp on the literary tradition of a people may be just as important. I will not so much be concerning myself with historical facts for this piece, but rather taking a look at how the written word functions as a reflection of a people/ethnic group, society, culture, sub-, or counter-culture, and how literature helps frame and/or comprehend historical events and particular narratives.

Certain modern collections exist as a “time-slipped universe” that adopts these “worlds” inextricably intertwined (though with the “now” assuming more of an oblique presence with the action of the poems set in the merged space of the former “worlds”) essentially fusing time together where clean distinctions between periods and events, and the ability to identify a clear chronology beyond the characters’ narrative arcs, are rendered impossible; not only is it unnecessary to attempt to match each scene in some of these collections with a corresponding date or historical occurrence, it would be to risk missing the point entirely. In this respect, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, and Damian Walford Davies’ Judas are illustrative examples that present starting points for the idea of a hyper-cultural or historical atemporal universe.[1] These collections are significant because they broached the possibility not only of “time-slipped” space, but of an animating merger of lyric and narrative to varying degree. Mercian Hymns, for Anthony Thwaite, seeks not to re-create the past, but rather:

The commanding and unifying figure is sometimes the ancient king, sometimes the poet himself in childhood or present manhood: throughout the sequence, the remote past, the recent past and the present are obliquely presented, often within the space of a single section—as is plain from the beginning.[2]

Similarly, Walford Davies’ Judas is a complex figure torn between eras and wracked by questions of morality; Bunting uses Saint Cuthbert and Eric Bloodaxe as “stand-ins” for his own biography in his homeland of Northumbria. The autobiographical elements of the collection are not intended to be highlighted by the reader as such—again recalling the rationale of the folded time space and historical events—but are one aspect of the overall “big picture,” so to speak, and are capable of illuminating one’s own place in the flow of history.

Damian Walford Davies discusses in animating terms the “imaginative initiative” of New Historicism, leaving the issues of that discipline behind to affords the poet-critic “a critical-creative space in which he might hope to render over-familiar canonical poems strange, suspect, or treacherous.”[3] Adhering strictly to New Historicism as a purely critical discipline is a dead end, but employing it for its potential creative energies seems to me to be a very valuable literary exercise. Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al is a re-imagining of Catullus in a contemporary, gender-altered state. The volume displays a number of New Historicist elements, illuminating the possibility of a fully realized ghost-poetical exercise, notably in its re-construction/re-situating of the narrator on an alternate timeline where the ribald poems of Catullus were in fact composed by a woman projected across thousands of years.

Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al. re-genders the poet Catullus as an explicit inversion on gendered construct, blending classical antiquity and modernity as a successful example of how such a collection might work, and its concerns with inter-personal relationships, excess, and decadence at times mirror my own. Atkinson’s “If you are reading” and “99” feature a sexually-conflicted patrician—a significant departure and added layer of complexity from Catullus’s hyper-sexualized source material.[4] “Italian cars” situates itself in not only the geographical locus of Catullus but engages with bodies and flamboyant wealth, inhabiting a voice that ties material and physical possession together: “our bodies braced like diamonds - / far-flung and barely affordable”; it also bridges the millennia via the Renaissance (“I’m the real Medici”) in the most literal sense where the ancient ruins abut modern buildings in the Italian landscape.[5]

Atkinson subverts the cult of domesticity in “Dear Kate,” (where women are “thickening in the cul-de-sacs / of clapped-out marriages”); I am not overly warm toward her message in this particular poem, but it does adeptly blend the fictive with the historical through her engagement with the source material.[6] Her brief interactions with pop culture and scraps of contemporary trivialities show their pervasiveness in modern-day life. Atkinson’s Catulla proves to be a vehicle not unlike other de-stabilizing historical figures, where the code of accepted social behavior is confronted and often de-constructed, though Catulla is of course causing far less violent disturbances than say a Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. Like Attila, Catulla is far from a one-dimensional figure, however, and she strips the straight-jacketing popular view of feminine “decorum” to assert her own agency. Atkinson’s use of the dramatic monologue is used to great effect in poems such as “99” and “00.52.”

These types of collections allow for the conceptualization of space and time, and the setting of many of the poems suggests contrasting architectural eras existing at once can serve as a visual manifestation of a creative component’s time-slipped universe. It was in Rome that I began to link my work to that done on cultural cartography and the mapping of spaces in an often more abstract sense. I also engaged in extensive inquiry into the history and culture of the countries and people of Europe, which exposed me to an entirely different perspective on borders, boundaries, invasion, subjugation, and identity. The history of the continent has been a tale of resilience and resistance, empire, decline and rebirth, and distinct identities.

The literary influences of Europe and the European Diaspora (the United States, Australia, Canada, etc.) span classical antiquity, the Renaissance, the moderns, and post-moderns. As I discussed previously, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts proved foundational to the modern idea of “throwing” the voices of specific characters and interacting with an existing historical narrative in a deeply personal and culturally relevant way. Hill and Bunting join more contemporary writers and collections. In particular, this work is animated by Damian Walford Davies’s Judas, Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al, and Nicelle Davis’s Becoming Judas. All three collections employ time-slips as a means to investigate historicity, conflict both internal and external, and the seeming inflexibility of dogma (Offa as “overlord of the M5”; Davies’ Judas wandering broken and bewildered through a Jerusalem that is at once in the 21st century and just after Christ’s crucifixion), expanding the possibilities of a disturbed chronology as a means of critical inquiry and creative exercise. Further, Briggflatts and Mercian Hymns point toward an extended interaction with warrior culture across time, and yet each touch-stone offers successful examples of balancing the lyric with a narrative and dramatic momentum; there is a certain freedom in deconstructing ideologies and pushing poems into a universe where even habitation of dominant discourse could serve as a means of critique, however if my views on this are not yet apparent, this literary liberation should not extend to the actual study and analysis of historical events. Bill Herbert’s well-known collection of interviews, Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry (with Matthew Hollis) is an important offering and suggests a critical language with which to discuss influence. His Bad Shaman Blues can be illustrative of a successful use of time-slip and through its investigation of place, culture, and history.

Nicelle Davis’s Becoming Judas attacks the gospels with sardonic humor (“Jesus Propositions Judas with Salvation,” “Faith as Seen on YouTube”), portrays Joseph Smith as a snot-nosed kid who just wants a tuna fish sandwich (“The Mother of Invention”), and charges the relationship between Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ with homoerotic overtones. To Nicelle Davis the body is sacred, though not above satire. This seems to me to be the essence of much modern feminism, the body-as-a-temple trope grotesque in both its aesthetic- and health-neglect, and through the worship of that which is of this world, that which is holy is wholly terrestrial. Essentially Becoming Judas becomes the Book of Mormon and the Gospel According to John Lennon as told by a multi-purpose Judas Iscariot. Whereas Atkinson’s collection was undoubtedly feminist in orientation, it still maintained a certain reverence for the source material, and voiced some legitimate concerns. Atkinson strikes me as more of a Camille Paglia or Christina Hoff Sommers-style feminist. Davis clearly has talent, but it is derailed by some puerile shot-taking, and for failing to critically interrogate her own position as satirist. Approaching the text purely as a critic, the satire falls flat much of the time. I point out this text to illustrate how, even in critique, certain texts and traditions have proven inextricable from Western civilization itself.

Returning to Davis, on “Apple,” she works in tercets, layering the sexual relationship of John Lennon and Yoko Ono with Jesus and his mother, and continues to complicate the former with Paul McCartney emerging as John the Baptist. Sins of the flesh are at once sacred and transgressive, and Davis charges the erotic content with dialogue (“She says, Behold your son dangling from my nipple”; from “Contemporary Gnostics”: “There is more than just this body, / she’ll say. Oh yes, he’ll / say, more. more.”; from “Jesus Propositions Judas with Salvation”: “Hot July, Jesus says, Stop struggling against me and give us a kiss.”). It’s a “piss take” on the gospels and the Book of Mormon (with Mormonism as a corollary to the gospels), but the ultimate irony of Becoming Judas is that despite her seeming irreverence, Davis’s collection is one of reverence, and in the form of the Book of Mormon source material, is working in a purely American space.

Walt Whitman, one of the great American poets, drew on a kind of cosmic spirituality, and was more focused on communing with the disparate peoples of America in a harmonious way, and yet he was also always investigating himself. For Corbett E. Upton, discussing “Song of Myself”:

[Whitman’s] opening salvo…reflects our lasting portrait of Whitman. With optimism and a radically sympathetic democratic spirit, “Walt” links his fate to the reader’s through apostrophe and shared assumptions, beginning a mystical experience that reveals democracy’s power in its unconditional acceptance of the ordinary. Supremely representative, he glorifies “you” by glorifying himself. He avoids traditional hierarchies, grounding his claims instead upon the average person, an embodiment of speaker and reader whose likeness is signified by atoms rather than by race, sex, or social class. The physicality of atoms points to the poem’s central concerns: corporeal individuality and the individual as a microcosm of the nation.[7]

Whitman addresses inequality on the “atomic level”—universality through individuality, investigating the individual as defined by their essence as opposed to an ideological category that precipitates neat formulations. He also toys with the sensibilities of his time with overt homoerotic sexuality in “Song of Myself”—“love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine”:

How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, / And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, / And reach’d till you felt my beard[8]

“Song of Myself” is not suffused with the self-conscious hysteria and dark humor that Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” is, for example, but “Song of Myself” is a starting-point for “Howl.” For Frederick Eckman, “Walt Whitman is [Howl’s] chief master.”[9] While the poem is an ecstatic dissection of “several types of modern social and psychological ills,” it is also “a celebration of the intellectual outlaw…that highbrow cousin of the black jacket, switchblade-toting street-fighter.”[10]

The influence of the “intellectual outlaws”—such as Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and Gary Snyder—on counter-cultural movements distill the abstract feeling of alienation and channel it into something greater. For Jude Davies, these “subcultural styles…offer a ground upon which we can risk alternative strategies of critical writing,” indeed, any kind of writing.[11] This is the language of the resistance, of the underground, of chaos and distortion, but it remains firmly planted in a particular kind of tradition.

“Song of Myself” and “Howl” possess a distinct American-ness—one out of the many—which explorations the poets’ relationship with their surroundings not only in a cultural context, but within the grander scope of an entire nation, and, indeed the world. Ginsberg links “lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon,” a reference perhaps to his time spent at Columbia, and his East Coast roots from New Jersey, with his eventual relocation to the West Coast, crossing the vastness of America and incorporating it into his scope (“Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstacy,” “the Chinaman of Oklahoma,” references to Kansas and Arkansas).[12] Not only does he consider his place within this unique American patchwork, but references to Mexico, the pole of Canada (evoking an image of the moral compass which becomes quite prominent in “Howl,” addressing issues of censorship and sexuality) and Africa show a placing of the American tradition in an international context. Although Ginsberg is predominantly situating his experiences in a certain time frame in America, he is aware of the American position in the international realm. An entire continent—Africa—is mentioned on par with a single U.S. state such as Oklahoma, reflecting either Ginsberg’s pre-occupation with his position within the American frame-work, or his wider sense of the singularity of the American experience. Neither position differs in signal terms from the exploration found in “Song of Myself.”

Where for Maria Mabry Whitman’s homoeroticism can be “veiled and seemingly ambiguous,” in fact I find him to be almost omni-sexual (“I receive them the same”). Ginsberg’s “Howl” is an exhortation of same-sex passions.[13] For Jose Marti, “Whitman had eroded traditional perceptions of what masculine and feminine were…transcending the polarity between masculinity and femininity.”[14] Ginsberg borrows a Buddhist sense of the world that shows in places in “Song of Myself,” but it’s used at once both more caustically and more humorously in “Howl.” For Tony Trigilio, Ginsberg’s Buddhist poetics “encompass the politics of gender, sex, and sexuality”; Whitman’s “embodied spiritual vision…for Ginsberg…empty heteronormative sexuality of its authority by commingling polymorphous bodies whose ecstasies are experienced as conditions that resist delimitation by any particular gender coding.”[15] Trigilio continues, “[Ginsberg’s] poem stages what Judith Butler would describe as subversive sexual parody.”[16] Ginsberg’s and Whitman’s poems were each written at significant turning points in American history, where the idea of a singular American experience was being challenged in new, distinct ways; each poet explores the self in this unsettled universe, striving for deep insight (“Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”) not only with respect to the authors themselves, but with their art as a kind of transmutation owing a debt to a number of different traditions.

Continuing specifically in an American context with another central figure of influence at a time of bubbling unrest, Yusef Komunyakaa’s work sits at several critical junctures in the nation’s history, inhabiting a culturally particular arena, and yet, like Whitman and Ginsberg, finds universality on the “atomic level.” His perspective provides a counter-point to that of a Patrick Bateman (the American Psycho character), who speaks from “on high” in support of the tiered society the “intellectual outlaws” and Komunyakaa are responding to and writing back at. Komunyakaa’s poetry not only delves into the “African-American” experience generally, but it captures its pulse specifically—be it in the form of the colloquialisms, the rhythm, its dialectic nature, the jazz pentameter, the stripped-down blues or some combination thereof. He is Southern, he is a veteran, he is a black man, and he at once explores what these tags mean and undermines them; there is universality and particularity as he investigates “corporeal individuality and the individual as a microcosm of the nation.”[17]

Komunyakaa inhabits what academics tag the Other in the American cultural construct, being a black man and consequently viewing himself as alienated from the white discourse of society. He bears the distinction of having come of age during the Civil Rights Movement, and as such his dawning consciousness regarding these issues is often reflected in his poetry, albeit in occasionally coded ways. For example, in his poem “Saigon Bar Girls, 1975,” Komunyakaa tackles another kind of Other—the Vietnamese prostitute. This image has become as iconic in American discourse as a scarred black man bent over a cotton plant in the middle of a vast field. They are evocative images for they invoke a history of racism and exploitation, and yet they are also imbued with a straight-jacketing one-dimensionality that makes it impossible for the subject of said picture to exist as anything more than a still or, at best, a caricature or construct. Komunyakaa often deals with the idea of a snapshot or photograph, and he will often interpolate a story, tease it out of this photograph, and give it dimensions and life.

He does so in “Saigon Bar Girls, 1975.” The poem is an address to the country of Vietnam which, due to on-going colonial and American occupation, witnessed the advent of an entire group of women forced into sexual exploitation, or, for Jesse Lawson, the “asymmetrical relationships between two parties in both a labor and economic sense.”[18] There is this idea of the leaky body, the antithesis of classical ideals of the human frame; the whores “shed miniskirts thinner than memories denied,” equating their clothing to the body, and a shedding, snakelike quality; the fact that these miniskirts are thin speaks to a malnourishment both literally and figuratively. This is a stark image of exploitation. Komunyakaa speaks to the plight of Vietnam by coming in to the poem directly: “I know your story.” The story is “molded from ashes” and “into a balled fist.”[19] This evokes the colonized struggle and resistance; in an American context, one may think of the Black Panthers.

Komunyakaa engages directly with the idea of soil as a surrogate for homeland and as a means to explore notions of both growth and contamination. There is no coincidence in his using French perfume, referencing the French occupation of Vietnam until 1956, and the line, “pale as history” is perhaps the strongest tie yet between the speaker and the addressee.[20] Komunyakaa here is making a commentary on Eurocentric views of history and the policies of colonialism and imperialism that have defined centuries, be it French, British, Dutch, or American exploitation of Southeast Asia, or a reference to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that displaced the poet’s ancestors, speaking from the post-colonial perspective. For Anthony Brewer, sitting at the nexus of post-colonialism and Marxism:

Capitalism has almost completely supplanted earlier forms of organization (peasant agriculture, feudal estates, slave plantations) in the advanced countries. In the underdeveloped countries…these areas have been drawn into a world market and a world-wide system of specialization which has completely undermined traditional economic and social structures. The colonial empires hacked out by European powers, and the whole system of European and American military and political dominance over the world…can only be understood in the context of this process of uneven development. The basis for military supremacy was economic…Colonial empires were exploited ruthlessly as sources of cheap raw materials and cheap labour, and as monopolized markets.[21]

On his home soil Komunyakaa perceived himself to be all too familiar with this kind of exploitation, and the exploitation practiced by the white power structure as a Southern man still feeling the reverberations of Jim Crow. One of his central critiques was the very composition of the United States Army in the Vietnam War was dramatically disproportionate to the composition of the U.S. population at home, tending to consist of poor whites, Hispanics, and particularly blacks. Komunyakaa served in Vietnam, and this experience would prove formative to his subject matter. For William L. Andrews:

He captured salient moments of his experiences in Dien Cai Dau, the title a Vietnamese military term for insanity. He quickly learned that race affected black, yellow, and white people in Vietnam just as readily as it did black and white lives in the United States. Vietnamese women were in some ways the equivalent of black women in the American South; they were exploited sexually and discarded, as Komunyakaa depicts in Saigon Bar Girls, 1975.[22]

His drawing of these parallels allows for a certain level of detachment that is meant to evoke a sense of outrage in the reader, and yet while he is expository about the horrors occurring in a faraway land, he is meticulously selecting imagery that can also be extended to an American context. Komunyakaa situates his indictment of racism in America by at once dislocating his critique and conflating it with the Vietnamese context. He ties the personal to the universal, with the aim of disrupting the exploitative link between oppressor and oppressed. This poem is underpinned by the speaker’s treatment of the body politic, black identity-based struggles in America, and, more largely, in terms of wider conceptions of geo-politics and its assumed attendant exploitative practices. Engaging with voices such as Komunyakaa’s is vital to understanding how our country looks to someone who was born and raised in it, yet remains estranged from it as a permanent outsider. In many ways, blacks in America live in a parallel society that rarely intersects with the traditional American nation. As I’ve written before, even the theoretical cultural over-lap in many places between salt-of-the-earth whites and blacks remains paradoxically situated in this negative or anti-space, where despite commonality in economic outlook, religiosity, geography, and other experiences, they never truly “meet.”

Finally, I’m going to look at the Patron Saint of the Underclass, Charles Bukowski. Bukowski’s work is strongest in his attitude toward the de-personalized and even de-humanizing aspects of urban life, including the impulse to turn to violence, sex, drugs, and alcohol as a means of escape from what R.R. Cuscaden terms “the sense of a desolate, abandoned world.”[23] That Bukowski often approaches the horrific and mundane in much the same way—with a bemused attachment that is tonally somewhat flat, recalling the reportage style employed by Bret Easton Ellis.

Bukowski achieved his greatest recognition in the 1980s, and his work of the period reflects an often ambivalent attitude toward fame—as the writer had first-hand interactions with the Hollywood machine through the production of his script for the movie Barfly (1987)—both in the culture of Hollywood/Los Angeles and in his own life, where he had emerged as a cult hero of sorts. Bukowski not only describes the violence, the often indiscriminate sex, and the self-medicating of his thinly-veiled “alter ego” Henry Chinaski, but the people living on the margins of society, the marginalized denizens of skid row. These often outlandish characters are given voice in Bukowski’s work, and the buttoned-down, normative people he encounters become grotesque caricatures marked for intense criticism, though he himself is not immune from the harshest scrutiny. He is generally poo-pooed by the academy specifically because he lacks academic bona fides and wrote from a distinctly working class perspective. And yet, his lines, simple as they often are, contain more truth and reality than the whole of most college English departments’ stilted output.

Reading historical accounts and studying historical events is a crucial exercise in identifying the forces at work in our modern world, and so, too, is studying the literature of a time period or a people. Looking beyond the timeline into a different type of account, by different types of voices, can also help illuminate our understanding and give us perspective. Reading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and contrasting its contents with the level of outcry it generated in the Muslim world is a good case-in-point exercise. Ideally, exposure to what are held to be the great (or even minor) works of a people/ethnicity, society, culture, sub-, or counter-culture, along with understanding the historical context, will go a long way toward being able to frame that which might not otherwise be so easily comprehensible.



[1] Eric Bloodaxe from Briggflatts and Offa from Mercian Hymns should be viewed as a creation of historical account, personal experience, and creative license combined, and Judas is an instructive example of a highly successful creative-critical project that, like the other two texts, employs aspects of time-slip/time-fusion.

[2] Anthony Thwaite, Geoffrey Hill (http://literature.proquestlearning.com/quick/printItemById.do?ItemID=bio2729%20pqllit _ref_lib&Print=yes: ProQuest Information and Learning, 2001).

[3] Damian Walford Davies, “‘This Alabaster Spell’: Poetry as Historicist Method”, Essays and Studies 2011, The Writer in the Academy: Creative Interfrictions 64 (Boydell and Brewer, 2012), pp. 27-48, at p. 28-9.

[4] Tiffany Atkinson, Catulla Et Al. (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2011), p. 11, 26.

[5] Ibid, p. 40.

[6] Ibid, p. 23.

[7] Corbett E. Upton, “What He Has Assumed, We Have Assumed: ‘Song of Myself’ as American Poetry”, Literary Imagination (June 2012), pp. 1-17, at p. 1.

[8] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” in Song of Myself (Boston, MA: Shambhala Press, 1998).

[9] Frederick Eckman, “Neither Tame nor Fleecy”, Poetry Magazine 90 (September 1957), pp. 386-97, at p. 392.

[10] Ibid, p. 391.

[11] Jude Davies, “The Future of ‘No Future’: Punk Rock and Postmodern Theory”, The Journal of Popular Culture 29.4 (1996), pp. 3-25, at p. 3.

[12] Allen Ginsberg, Howl, and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Pocket, 1956).

[13] Maria Cristina C. Mabry, “Mapping Homoerotic Feelings and Contested Modernity: Whitman, Lorca, Gingsberg, and Hispanic Modernist Poets”, South Atlantic Review Winter 75.1 (2010), pp. 83-98, at p. 83.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Tony Trigilio, Allen Ginsberg's Buddhist Poetics (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2007), p. XI and 213.

[16] Ibid, p. 49.

[17] Upton, “What He Has Assumed”, p. 1.

[18] Jesse Lawson, “Woman, Exploited: Reframing Contemporary Exploitation Theory” (May 13, 2013), Available at SSRN.

[19] Yusef Komunyakaa in The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Anthony Brewer, ed., Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 1-2.

[22] William L. Andrews, ed., Forward to Yusef Komunyakaa in The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), p. 1032.

[23] R.R. Cuscaden, “Charles Bukowski: Poet in a Ruined Landscape” (The Outsider, Issue #2, 1962).

Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. I

Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. I