each letter, oiled with the familiar / flinty viridescence of mackerel, apostolic & fluttering down / wiped with the edge of a lungi, the frayed plaid dotting / tea terraces warbling with a green / so wet it rivers my lap, so wet it migrates my throat
—from CURB, “Milestone 3 (We Are at Ease in Our Silence)”
btwn the the tiny steel frame door a small concrete portal / & a stowaway
—from Unnatural Bird Migrator, “Third Space”
I woke up this morning w/ your words in my ears: I had been dreaming of you, I realized, after reading CURB again this past week, & finishing it last night just before shutting the lights. In the dream you & I are standing in a desecrated cemetery; it is not clear what country we are in or what people are buried here, but the time is contemporary & the graffiti is easily recognizable as Nazi or Neo-Nazi. The words “blut und boden” are spray-painted red on a stone wall behind the gravesites, & on the steel door at the entrance to the cemetery: “blut und ehre.” The names of the dead on the gravestones have been scratched out by a heavy tool, & it is impossible to even distinguish in what alphabet they are written. You are reading from yr book, as though praying— “with psalms sung & palm arak drunk”—as I pour olive oil on a desecrated grave, a ritual I have learned somehow in my unconscious, & strange sensation I recall in my body after waking. The oil covers the broken stone, darkening it, soothing its cracks & scratches, & I am hearing yr words “near the glint of gold threads circling ankles in the silt,” when Zamir calls out from the hallway & day begins.
Thru poetry passed over oceans & seas, in languages’ vessels—if this is what’s meant when we say we are kith, strangers wondering in strange tongues, reaching out across interdiasporic errant thresholds btwn dreams: I awoke this morning w/ yr words in my ears, & the words I write you here appeared in my notebook w/ first light. Good morning dear Divya, how extraordinary in the midst of all this contemporal disaster, the small beauties of daily life & love: to read & dream in yr words, & in the morning to write you.
I am writing to you twelve hours later, at last light—a time for lanterns and lampyridae. Here the sun is a giant peach; I feel all pit. The four-trunk oak that they just cut down in our backyard has allowed sunlight to scythe an auburn gash right through our home, blackening the fence, toasting the hosta patch, crisping the vines hanging in the green room, singeing everything that was once protected by shade. The new landscape has introduced new borders across which we are hurrying our pots, our plants, our books, to create new temporary arrangements for the green that I’ve tried to cultivate. I am stubbornly insisting that life can be sustained as a practice– as CAConrad’s protagonist did in The Book of Frank: “Frank hammers / carrots / all day / it works / the earth / can't / leave us”. And we can’t leave the earth entirely. Across a border a few hours away, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (“Pope Francis”) has come to comment on the colonial and contemporary desecration of tribal lands, and the bodies and the spirits of countless (uncountable) Indigenous lives. Here, the House just passed a 810 billion military spending bill. That you dream of graves as land upon which fascism scrawls its name—blood and soil, as was chanted in the Charlottesville white, Christian supremacist riots—recalls “in the same breath nakba the same breath khurbn, moving slowly over green pastures”, recalls “this is the place soft in ink. garden of okra & plywood. garden of graves & silverfish. garden of the names of disappeared & now invisible (nister)” (“From Shibboleth”), recalls what you call “necrophiliac borders” engineered across race, nation, language, and religion to create a common enemy of neighbors. I’ve always written in nation-states that fear the neighbor, both within and without—ye olde Derridian hostile/hospitality—that have created various acts to constrain the work for and the love of the neighbor: the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in India, the Religious Harmony Act in Singapore, the Patriot Act in the United States. And this is the constituting law under which my poems writhe and struggle to justify themselves, as unlawful beasts (slouching towards what/which Bethlehem?), as uncitizenly, and as unnatural (fowl/foul) migrators to create a “a temporary and necessary dwelling in the most ceremonial sense” (as Pierre Joris notes you’ve said). In your dream ritual, the olive oil poured on the grave is a kind of writing, is it not? It darkens stone. Chrism, which Catholics use to write on the forehead, is olive scented with balsam. Is it not so very good that we have not buried these letters in our desk like Yeshurun’s poems? That we can write to each other while we are temporarily alive? Tell me about the borders and the neighbors who have called on you to pour the oil, to write over the graves.
Now the sun is a peach elsewhere; I am all pulp.
“To be listening is to be inclined toward the opening of meaning, hence to a slash, a cut—”
(Jean Luc Nancy, Listening 27)
We search for borders & find them everywhere: in the face of a construction zone & demolished house at the turn of our street—& at the street’s siding end we call a curb. Borders as far as the “i” can see, in every direction, neither exterior nor external but interior interstitial, “knotted as we are to this route by hair & tooth.” Where every space becomes a borderland, every-body wakes into a place already separated, divided, partitioned; so we’re crossing over & btwn at all times it wd seem, in translation of ourselves & others, splicing & dicing in the doubling of writing & speech, out of necessity, if “first there is a need”: “where shall we dig / haitch, haitch, haitch,” as you write, “for this shibboleth of breath?”
If a border to a bird is no more than a perch…& as Stephen Rodefer writes somewhere: the boundary becomes an invitation; or as the bedouin community leader Muhammad Myzel once said to me: the hole in the fence is also a junction.
I’m thinking as I write you this morning of the great Maghrebi Jewish writer Albert Memmi, & his autobiographical notion of the “nomad immobile”: a nomad poetics (nomadics) that imagines a response to blood-soil fascist constructions of identity in the form of movement between entities, cultures, peoples & languages as intra/internal flux of diasporic subjectivity, something learned in diaspora, certainly, but not necessarily the physical activity of wandering as such. This anti-fascist nomad poetics plays a crucial role in Pierre Joris’s work, as well—and indeed it was Pierre who first introduced me to Memmi’s writing & thought. I read Memmi’s (& Joris’s) immobile nomad in relation to Édouard Glissant’s sense of creolizing errantry, as opposed to isolating exile (a lachrymose diasporic history), where the collision of cleaving tongues supplants & resists (or we might even say re/dis/places) the violence built into centuries & millenia of forced migration.
In your poem “Locution / Location”, you write: “I chart this stretch of tongue, I listen / for how her breath measures / the distance, pulls skin apart / to etch the gravity of gravidity.” How potent to consider: is the border not also our own cleaving flesh? (“if you prick us do we not bleed?”) What might a practice on the borders of everyday life entail in these terms, & how do we chart the frequencies (i.e. wild gatherings) of our far flung tongues rattling in the space btwn? Or, as you write: “how will we use this / twin ruddered / throat in an open boat / home?”
The oil in my dream is indeed a sort of writing, I think, “like oil upon a burn,” as the other Reznikoff writes, “I have married & married the speech of strangers,”—a source of overwhelming relief in the sense of a proxy—as you write: “with wet wings thrashing in these lungs.”
You wrote “external but interior interstitial” and I read “external but eternal intestinal,” as if the saccade of my own attention can take us from considerations of spatiality into considerations of time and the body (“knotted as we are to this route by hair & tooth”:: “the food we enjoyed grows rotten in the mouths of the border guards”).
What you say of Stephen Rodefer reminds me of what Elaine Scarry has written about the borders of furniture (those fixtures that mediate relation)—that when we can dine against its edge, it is feeding us, but when we are thrown against it, it is harming us. The border extends deep under the surface of land and skin, reshapes one’s belonging to space. We confront it when poetry shifts practices of place-making onto languages. Thus, you and I share in the diasporic impulse not only to mourn but to gather, to sustain speech even and especially in “a language of rags.”
As Glissant says via what you raise here about creolization: “Echos-monde (the echo-world) thus allows us to sense and cite the cultures of peoples in the turbulent confluence whose globality organizes our chaos-monde.They pattern its constituent (but not conclusive) elements and its expressions.” The continued pleasures of the inconclusive intertextual—I am less interested in the fetishistic riddle or the citational prowess of literary modernity; I am more attentive now to the everyday shared intimacies of a well-referenced myth, a timely joke, a half-understood gesture, sustained puns made by threshold tongues and so on. In your book (as in better parts of my life), this latter becomes interpersonal rehearsals against the tyranny of the nation and enforced monolingualism.
In your work, I see this come through like irrepressible weeds in all directions, but especially in the artful mis-translation—what you call “translingual-poetic deformance across/between multiple code-switching dialects” and languages, including Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Akkadian. This practice of translation, for me—a person who only “knows” what you call “the host language” English within your book—creates shelters of interpretive acts inside good-faith mishearings, in my own volitional slipping between expert and fool. When I read “Yinglossia,” which skits across through a vast range of idioms, curses, ritualistic and profane speech, I feel I am sharing in the mischief of someone repurposing eavesdropped or osculating significance (where one language kisses another and they both erupt into laughter). You call it “interlingual punning & fusion-slangs.” I have seen this everywhere I have shared anyone’s dinner table—where each meal could be a rescue of furniture from its potential weaponization, where each meal is so noisy with toothsome disagreements and mutual love for the quarrel between words (any community’s “chewish law”?), so rich with sustained and intoxicating alterity.
Reading your email this morning, war is in the air, on the news, at a distance & just outside our door. At the site of the fence, soldiers plot invasions, infiltrations, imminent attacks; politicians sharpen their teeth on the bones & tendons of our body politic—vampiric. Is this what’s called a border in contemporary policy? Warzone & nomansland? A wall & fence electrified in death? Nothing, & no-thing but death, where death is the rule & operating logic rather than a crossing; an imposition & corruption, a co-opting & arbitrary disciplining of stigma, invented from violence for violence, & imposed false divider seething war. The division between Israel/Palestine—the painful slash & gash, & festering wound—& the ongoing military violence of this warring border where I dwell as visiting writer, translator, and objector—wondering, is there any conscience left?—witnessing & attempting to resist the forces of deep fascism & occupation that surround my everyday: we call this punished punishing space a naturalized warzone.
Searching for breath, I keep coming back to the shared shibboleths across & btwn our works, thinking of yr note at the close of CURB: “these are the consonant consonants: the vowels of vulning.” The sites of shibboleth on this earth present the highest stakes in language imaginable, where rules of tongue are enforced under corporal law. That word “shibboleth” comes from Hebrew, I believe, s(h)ibolet, meaning “ear of wheat”, or else “stream”, & the term as we use it today is derived from the biblical Book of Judges during the war between the Ephraimites & the Gileadites. After the Gileadites defeat the Ephraimites, they set up blockades—ancient checkpoints—along the Jordan River between the land of Gilead & the land of Ephraim, in order to catch & kill the surviving Ephraimites attempting to flee to safe territory. At each checkpoint, armed border guards ask every person crossing to pronounce the word shibolet, & since the Ephraimites have no digraph sound in their dialect they are easily identified & slayed on the spot: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” asks the Hebrew prophet Jerimiah, “Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”
The shibboleth lives in the nerves & curves of our tattered tongues—in our languages of rags. How could our language(d) lives not be haunted by the memory of this imposed linguistic selection & sudden death? In yr work I hear the tongue’s throat & lungs speak the wound of the shibboleth embodied, as you write: “The breath / an ocean of blood. / This skin, here—a dam detonating. A pulse, here / pulling history / toward these feet.” The feet of the (im)migrant, and the feet of the survivor, swept or shlepped across history along a constant border line. So much so I would say that the feet can’t help but move somehow: in trance & transformation from projected death, which is not death as such but a living gesture, a residue of death’s momentum that defies & sustains beyond the moment of violence, as you write “a marker of movement, itself disoriented from an ancient context.” I am thinking of something the Russian Jewish émigré writer, Alexandra Petrova, once told me while we were translating one of her poems: I want my words to falter, she said, never to run, not even to walk, they must falter every time.
It’s evening now & I've been writing this email all day. On the radio in the taxi to the train station I hear there may be a ceasefire tonight. So this is how it goes: naturalized warzones fester & we are left to our own devices & resources. My mind’s edges soften & I am tired from the heat & bad news of the day. & I am comforted by this ongoing language between us, this chain of diasporic witness. Not comforted as in comfortable, I should say, just soothed enough to rest my eyes & ears for the night, & in the morning rise from restless dreams & write you again.
Lyn Hejinian writes of the poet as a border-worker (in Joris’s moniker): “The border is not an edge along the fringe of society and experience but rather their very middle—their between; it names the conditions of doubt and encounter which being foreign to a situation (which may be life itself) provokes—a condition which is simultaneously an impasse and of passage, limbo and transit zone, with checkpoints and bureaus of exchange … The border landscape is unstable and perpetually incomplete.” I do see many (and not all) poets as border-workers, but I want this definition to be more than a metaphor for a universal intending/signifying subject, especially as some of us/them have always worked in scenarios that cannot be generalized into “maybe life itself” but carry out this border-work as very specific workers who are not mere “xenos-figures” but perpetual xenoi, vulnerable to excommunication and social death.
Your work in this book is returning me to my earlier interest in Joan Retallack’s persona Genre Tallique’s dreams: “an appropriative we makes way for an inclusive we of human responsibility acknowledging the shared origin and destiny of every form of life on the planet. A planetary pronoun is inherently experimental.” And when I look for lyric positioning in your work, I find it in the speculation about such a planetary pronoun, but thankfully perhaps without the western liberationist propulsion intended for universal subjects in “Tallique’s” sentiment. “but we have eaten from / the crazy wheat / (called sky // knowing from the first moment of / knowing we cannot stabilize // either side.” (143)
Memmi’s “immobile nomad” pierces right through my ribs—I feel that. I find it a helpful counter to inane global cosmopolitanism or melancholic performances of pseudo exile. It reminds me of the important distinction Cristina Rivera Garza makes between diasporic displacement and sporadic nomadism of “passing through” [performed by] “writers who pass through [Latin America specifically in her work] while also passing for many other things, thus opening the door to disidentification and to deterritorialization […]” She continues: “Here’s the thing: they are the kind of writers who sporadically (not diasporically) inhabit sites and languages with which they forge a relationship of dynamic resistance rather than one of pleasant accommodation.” (28, The Restless Dead). Garza’s emphasis on “dynamic resistance” matters much to me and helps me see where we are going/ need to be going beyond the inheritance of the US-experimental and the inheritance of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, beyond playful and protected romps within the materiality of language and towards reckoning with alterity (not merely within semantics and logic) as necropolitically advantaged poets working [often] under the protections of the US academy.
As you write:
Go thee then
as far as
thee can go
as can be:
…from there, my birthplace (where I have never seen schnitzel, yet!), from the border between rock and ocean, and me,
We, & our teachers before us—Glissant & Memmi, among others—distinguish btwn diaspora & self-imposed exile, btwn borderwork of thought & borderwork embodied, because we must; it’s an imperative of our poet(h)ics as diasporic poets, a primary need addressed at the kernel of our writing. I find this manifests most powerfully through the documentary mode in yr CURB & also KITH, when you engage the poem as forensic document, as residue & evidence—thinking also of Thelonius Monk’s magnificent tune by this title—the lyrical/universal metaphor fades away & we are left instead with the raw sound of hard particulars, not diaspora as symbolic trope but as somatic coping, as you write: “this belly / plumed into an apse—it distended / upward, a balloon hollow / but leaden, these lungs lifted / here—this diaphragm fled, bore through / a tent made of ligament / & rope.” I think of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony & also Holocaust when I read these lines, hear the echo of that documentary precedent, which is an opening & juncture that connects us—you & I, & our work—across our respective diasporas.
I return again & again to Glissant in these terms, since he emphasizes throughout his work, & especially in Poétique de la Relation, a connective tissue of global creolizing diaspora that dis/places nationalist unified place(ment) for a hyper-particular mixing of difference(s). The failure of nationalism, I think—& monolingualism, its common religion—is the erasure of difference in favor of similarity, conformity over distinction, predicated on dominion of territory, won in horror & bloody violence. The obsession with soil is an obsession with blood: killing to preserve the precious safety & sick sanctity of the fence & wall—curb & stoop.
I notice throughout your writing a powerful microsociopoetics at play, something I’ve discussed elsewhere in relation to Reznikoff & also M. NourbeSe Philip—two writers with whom I think you share a great deal. Yr attention to the social contexts of the languages you engage goes far beyond mere framing: rattling & torquing languages’ vessels at their cores thru radical documentary praxes. Your work thoroughly engages the interwoven everyday tissue of creolizing diasporic life through the numerous language lives you live & breathe into yr writing—languages that move & bump up against one another like molecules warming themselves within the unstable frame of the poem.
That bumping & subsequent breaking open of language that is not simply a rhetorical or theoretical or exoticizing move—that breaking open in sound through the foregrounding of frame, marking the body of language’s unfurling in multiple languages at once—that is what I live for in poetry. Not the multilingual pan-culturalism, so much a part of our Anglo-American inheritance, which, following Pound & Eliot & others, exploits multilingualism as a fruitful thought experiment or form of decoratavism, or worse, performance of erudition; not the things in poetry & not the poetry in things—but a ceremonial marking & remaking of languages’ stakes in & on the body, which can only be translated thru poetry: “a pinch of vermillion lifted to a face,” you write at the close of “The Ankle,”
a forehead aflame
because we occur
for safety & not to enumerate
or demonstrate a relation
our apposition is mistaken for opposition:
& is written
on a scrap tied to a place
which holds your feet
to the ground.
“A forehead aflame / with ghosts” makes me think of the clairvoyant poet, Hannah Weiner, & of the literal marking of language on the body—drawing the word you see upon yr forehead—as a means of survival from & in language simultaneously. This is what’s left to us after everything else, I think: our burning heads & heavy feet, holding steady, bracing ourselves for whatever utterance follows the prolonged silent scream of our ancestors. Jarring ourselves awake, to attention in writing at-tension: here we are, in sound, our many tongues sustaining the storm, to ride & outlast, now, as ever, & onward always—