Monday, November 30, 2009

Mary Molinary: Thoughts concerning poems composed for/by the left hand

This sequence of poems began, and served as, a dispossession ritual for me.

Typically, I work projects in tandem: a longer piece worked for a year or more, punctuated by one or two interrupting or concurrent, smaller projects. With a background, and continued interest, in Linguistic Anthropology, I came to poetry purposefully and seeking to explore and develop further what I hoped would be my contributions to the Human Conversation, as I call it, and concerning in particular the play between the Diachronic and Synchronic; between (cultural) History and Memory; and those Discourses at play between them all. I chose, then, Poetry rather than Anthropology and Film and, more importantly perhaps, chose a return to the Delta South to pursue these poetics and this thing called poetry.

This sequence is a sequence. Not a series. The sequence was a dispossession ritual.

I envisioned the most recent long long piece (being made in the midst of a long long war) as a long long river without end; a river cutting through a landscape with all the teeth and force of a chorus, of history, feeding and being feed in synchronic bursts over time and time. Diachronia. Confluence and contingency. Confluence and correspondence. Delta South as metonymy for a Global South, as metonymy for the long long stories of oppression, cultural amnesia, and resistance.

A sequence, like a ritual, has a beginning and an end.

Over two years deep, and a few smaller projects, into the long long river piece, I realized I needed to envision a temporary stop, if not ending. My crisis wasn’t so much with “language” itself—language can never really be emptied of meaning and power regardless the attempts—but with the very act of writing. The act of writing: the body assaying meaning and sense was moving too quickly. Pen and ink, keyboards and illuminated screens. I needed to remember. I needed slowness. I needed lessness.

Enter one #2 Ticonderoga fat yellow pencil for beginners. Holding it with estranged familiarity.

Remembering the thrill of making. Letters and words. I decided to write a tribute of sorts to my left hand who never had the pleasure of that learning, and that would act as an allegory for a very real and illusory “South” in order to help me dispossess (so that I wouldn’t end up like Q. C. in Absalom! Absalom!). Quickly, I realized that for the dispossession and experiment to work, the Left Hand would need to write the poems. The “bastard in the woodshed” needed to compose this sequence. That would be my imposed limitation leading to lessness.

A sequence is a ritual. Experiments might be rituals. Liminal spaces inhabit all of them.

What I expected from this experiment was that my left hand would move slowly and make a few mistakes, but would quickly improve. I do not subscribe to theories of essentialism or to theories of genius, so I was quite certain that my left hand would have only minor and short-lived problems with articulation. What floored me is that my left hand did not know the first thing about poetry. Apparently, I had learned that (and what else!?) with only or mostly my right hand. My left had to learn to write a poem. Even after the right was eventually allowed to edit, the left hand poems remain mostly honest about that process. The difficulty in the process was determining what parts could be cut without losing the account of that process—and how many inconsistencies and errors could or should be left. I don’t know how they have the generosity and time, but Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald spent considerable time assisting and suggesting just the right sorts of changes. (As ever.) Moreover, what Lee and John and BPJ do especially well is the arrangement of poets and poems in each issue. I am always excited to see my work in a context of their choosing. The reverberations and hauntings created that way.

While the Dispossession Ritual Experiment, and seeing/hearing the poems, in the conversational context of the Winter BPJ taught me much, I haven’t yet had the time to process fully all the implications of it.

This sequence of poems began


  1. Mary,
    You write in an email of "hauntings" among the poems in the winter issue. I wonder if you might tease out some of the strands of that haunting in the context of what you're calling Southern literature.

  2. 12.8


    Thank you for the question as it gives me the opportunity to briefly discuss “context” and some of my possible unease with the sequence in that respect. (Apologies first, however, for the delay in response. It seems this recent flu was not quite finished with me yet and I am just returning today to matters beyond tissues and rest.)
    As for the hauntings moving between and through the poems in the Winter issue, snow is certainly the most compelling—especially given its first appearance in Karl Elder’s “Snowman,” a poem not only in the company of Stevens, but also in the company of Szmborksa’s “The Joy of Writing.” In Szymborka’s poem, there is no doe, only its trace; but then, of course, there are doe. Likewise, by setting “Snowman” to lead, the reader is haunted throughout—not by snow, but by the idea of snow. By the blizzard of deconstructed trace. It might all be fiction, but some fictions are killing people. Thus begin the hauntings of Norths and Souths (“North via south”), civilizing missions, mastery and empire, race and class, patriarchy and prison-houses. And, as John Rosenwald points out, with some elegiac something (Nature, perhaps) haunting just underneath them all. In terms of literal elegy, the body count that accumulates as one reads through the issue is downright staggering. [continued below…2 postings]

  3. While there are other symbols running from one poet to the next (the idea of “ink” for example), it is for me this snow whose drift is the most significant. Those places where the snow refuses, there is still plenty that is white and potentially transformational: in Don Schofield’s “Harmony, USA” there is all that fog and steam and, ultimately, the sand from which castles are built by some while others are buried there. (An image reminiscent of Coetzee’s dream sequence in Waiting for the Barbarians: the faceless girl building sand castles before bumping into the belly of the beast.) But before Schofield’s sand, after the reader has read the left hand sequence (haunted not just by the idea of snow, but by the idea of received forms like the sonnet—forms demanding eloquence and mastery), the reader encounters Kerry James Evans series whose “Mississippi cotton” is now haunted by the idea of snow plus plenty of left hands to work that cotton. Or hold guns. Of course, Philip Pardi’s piece points out straight-away the dangers of snow and of seeking balance there. And mastery, patriarchy and empire. All manners of norths and souths.
    As to the larger issue of Southern Literature, then: that context becomes problematic since such a rubric begs the questions: Whose South? Whose literature? Until very recently, the course we have on the books here at this small art college carrying that title was taught very much as it has been for a very long time. The very title “Southern Literature (period)” tells us as much. (And, coincidentally, not unlike The Oxford American’s tagline: “The Southern Magazine of Good Writing.”) Having come of age here in the southern United States, I was required to take a course called “Southern Literature” in High School and the reading list was comprised of everyone one would expect: from the Southern Agrarians through William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams, and was taught largely unquestioned. As it is taught more recently, it probably includes a few Slave Narratives, Sterling Brown, and perhaps Yusef Komunyakaa—the context more inclusive, but rarely is the context itself really expanded or inquired upon. The lessons learned from such courses is that as “Southerners,” we are story tellers primarily and our stories are creepy because we have so many skeletons in our closets. If we are to presume to write, white or black, we’d better have strangeness and family at the ready and little else. Certainly not critical thought. And, please, no experimental writers! (See CD Wright, Forrest Gander, and many many others for welcome exceptions to the unspoken rules of good Southern writing.)[continued below...]

  4. Thankfully, the Southern Literature course here is now taught by Post-Colonial critic, Dr. Rob Canfield, who reads (after Antonio Benetez-Rojo) and interprets the South as a zone of Representation and Discourse that stretches from Virginia to the tip of South America after Caribbean critic Antonio Benetez-Rojo. Furthermore, like Angela Davis, Canfield extends that notion to a “global South” and links it to a history of US Imperialism. His extension of the title of the course reads “Southern Literature: Race and Romance.” He asks his students throughout the course to consider how American romance is bound to discourses of mastery, difference, essence/presence, patriarchy, property, race and blackness, homosociality, exclusionary morality, and the resistance to such ideologies. The “South” as belly of the beast, in other words.
    It was in that context, then, that I was asked to visit the class as a “Southern Poet” to discuss the sequence of poems written by the left hand and to discuss the implications of both moniker and the poem sequence. Both are potential problems seen in the context of that illusory South as against a quite real space suffering the consequences and legacies of slavery, suffering the consequences of Empire: poverty, prison, and the utter lack of critical education primary among them. At the local university, for example, sophomore students must choose between two literature courses: “Literary Heritage” and “African-American Literary Heritage.” Jim Crow’s Separate but Equal is alive and well it seems; the Civil Rights Movement blanketed over by a snow of rapprochement and amelioration. And it is in that context that I worry over the implications of the Left Hand sequence. I fear (at times) that the ending might be read as Separate but Equal. I guess so much depends upon how one reads the snow preceding it. [end!]

  5. Okay, well, I've written three pages of responses, and I can't seem to get even a small portion to paste into this window. :( I will email them to you, Mary.

  6. As you call it ritual, I have a question in accordance with its ritual quality. How did you prepare the left hand for the journey? And once it was in action, how did you support its successes and help it to examine its failures? Positive reinforcement? A reward system? And in letting your left wander like this, did you ever harbor a superstitious belief or consider the literal or symbolic implications of that split in yourself, that with the left trying to work against the right you might experience some irreversible metaphysical split in consciousness?

  7. Nate Fisher,
    Having spent a busy week closing the semester, I've enjoyed so much ruminating, letting my left hand wander around, considering your questions in league with Beth Bishop's comments--especially those concerning false binaries. Thanks for sending and I hope you're still tuning in.
    My initial impetuous response to your questions is: "Support its successes...examines its failures...positive reinforcement..." Well, geez, ritual isn't a twelve step program! One of the numerous problems with a capitalist society is that it tends to substitute religio-pop-psychologies for more substantive acts of ritual.
    But, the larger problem is with the personalized rhetoric of such "healings." They tend to work in reverse of ritual (and rites of passage) in that they necessitate an obsession with the Self and its desires whereas ritual demands self-abnegation for the larger collective.
    If we accept the left hand as a separate self, in that sense, we need to ask what sort of rite this is. What role is it being asked to play: coming of age, soldier preparing for battle, or a corpse being prepared for burial? Then we can determine what sort of preparation is necessary for that journey. In this performance/ritual, the left hand attempts to come of age but is thwarted by the right, "civilized" hand of society. Worse, the left hand never gets to have burial rites because the right hand severs it and throws it in a mass grave with all the other "others." (Thus the strange joy of their collective grief: a mass burial attains a collectivity not possible with the individualized burial.) Hence, the soldier preparing for battle in the Culture War is probably most pertinent. Its preparation, then, IS the journey: learning, education. Imagination and Poetry ritualized in the face of the state of violence we currently inhabit. (And this reminds me of Hank Lazer describing his work as "habitations." )
    The "dispossession" part of the ritual has everything to do with mastery, then. The left hand sees itself as not limited by the Self, but is itself the other within (and without).
    That brings me back to this troublesome ending of the sequence because, like poems and plays, rituals depend in large part upon their endings, their closures, or the lacks thereof. Summation. Death. All poems as rituals of death, but not death. What are the last words? What sort of life was lived and so on. How do we close if we reject closure? In my attempt to question closure in an otherwise rather narrative piece, I may have chosen to go one poem too far. Perhaps. I like the ending very much and that the right hand doesn’t get the literal last word (or does it). I think its important to have the hands attempt to reinvent, to rename, the ritual in more vibrant terms. Perhaps, though, the sequence should end with that right hand struggling to revise, to rhetorically cover-up its crimes, but it can’t. It cant. The left is writing messages in the snow. To WRITE in the snow is to write presence. To write in the SNOW is to write absence. And there it is: inscribing.
    As for my consciousness: it’s never in danger because it doesn’t seek unity or wholeness. Happily it divides and multiplies.

  8. Mary,

    Speaking from the "belly," I'm curious about a few things in this poem. First off, I made three gallons of chili this weekend--I was visiting a friend where I had just finished up school before going to more school, and we decided to get crazy and make a turkey-chorizo-four bean chili with various peppers and such and it did a number on our stomachs. As I was eating the chili--with my left hand, I looked at my right hand and I asked myself (out loud) if I could switch hands, and I could not bring myself to act on my interrogatory, this question of the gut and the head, my animal self and my cerebral self began tugging at my stomach. It may have been gas, but I think it was more.

    Your poem begs readers to use both brains, obviously, but I was most fascinated with how you got me in the gut, raising serious questions of identity. I've been reading quite a bit of Whitman lately, the whole finding yourself in nature. The sublime rhetoric. Gone here. You're moving beyond modernism as well. I love how this poem seems Descartian in its action, but it acts literally outside of the self with the hand movements. When you speak of haunting, I see the haunting between the mind and the actions of the body. Would you mind talking about the physicality of this poem? I find the construction and the basic premise of creation to be quite modern and revolutionary while attending to many styles and voices. That is to say, forgive me for my chili story. But I love to eat, and your poem is delicious.

  9. Dear KJE, Fellow dweller in the belly,

    Though I can generally take it or leave it, my body loves to eat,too! So, I give the body what it wants because without it I'm nothing.

    Seriously, though, you're right: that mythical Cartesian split is at the heart of all this, isn't it? That's the big white ghost haunting about the room. That's part of the dispossession of the sequence as it attempts an anti-Cartesian maneuver, the physical body being the one thing (in its materiality) that can't be essentialized. Because those policing languages of mastery do real violence to the body, we must beware the dangers of essentializing the body. And it's not only Descartes that endangers the body here, but Paul as well.

    So your question of physicality is, I think, one of the more important issues haunting us. Your question made me realize that the sequence is attempting a poetics of the body: the body as "other" and so asking: is there a way to make incarnate--in the body--a radical consciousness?

    The free play of the signifier is also the free play of the body. The dance of Carnival--a farewell to the flesh.

    I'll end here for now because I find I have too much to say here! But, I'll leave with this line from film maker, Haile Gerima, "Snake is going to eat whatever's in the belly of the frog."

    Thanks so much, KJE, for turning my thinking. I'm hitting the road in the morning, but will revisit your question in a couple days.


  10. Hello Mary,

    Can consciousness ever be radical?
    This I like: 'The free play of the signifier is also the free play of the body.' It brings us well beyond Descartes, and into Kant and Lacan. Play is crux. How can we keep the signifier from killing the thing (cfr.'the word is the murder of the thing')? It must be through playing. The body is a -particularly- moving, living thing, particular movement constituting identity, as Kundera illustrates well in his 'Imortality' (and poets in their particular, playful speech).
    However, the dance can be a 'goodbye', but never a 'farewell', to the flesh.
    You approached the left hand/thing in an oblique playful way, which is, i think, the way of poetry, and the only way of making the signifier stick. The left (signifier!) hand, you, thus becomes an 'other', or with Rimbaud before the mirror: "Je est un autre." I particularly liked part 12 of the sequence, and the way you move gradually towards memory, in part 12 and 13 (memory after analogy and metaphor being the third element of (pre-)thought, according to Nietzsche, who maybe omitted phantasy and creation here).

    My questions: you ran to the most faithful left hand for help when you lacked 'play', which was a clever, creative and probably difficult (the left side already at work?) move to make; how exactly did the left then guide you in your work? Did it impose 'other' tempos, words, hesitations, and surprise, on you? How did it help you to be new and odd; sinister and left (again)? Was it also via the surfacing of internal conflict?(The way you embrace the left, difference, and conflict or split is wonderful.)
    Did the right and left play together again, after arguing?
    Dull 'right-eous' life, bourgeois and routine, will be the poet-trap, no? You seem to have come home in the South, but is it not equally possible to be a somewhat subversive lefty in the North?

    I had planned this to be a short comment, but it seems to have followed you all in length...

    Anyway, thanks for this sparkling sequence-poem of yours, as well as for your thoughts, dynamic, ever searching and in progress, and insights in your work.

  11. Please read 'Immortality'. May have been a crack in consciousness already, i-mortality, ay-mortality, signifier, slip of the pen, and 'acte réussi', or just an error?
    And while i'm at it: i hope, Mary, that my previous somewhat brazen comment wasn't too off-beat or too straightforward or even intrusive for you. Was me thinking out loud in my own way, and happily far from knowing-it-all.

  12. Johan H.,

    Thanks so much for the exciting comments and questions—none of which I found too anything! I did, however, read Immortality as I-mortality because I watched the Jamaican film, Rockers, last night. Even with the 2 m’s, I’d probably have read it as I-Mortality. One of my favorite things about Rasta is its insistence on subjectivity as collective and individual.

    Many apologies, though, for the delayed response. I’d anticipated having access to the internet on my road trip and was wrong about that. What I did have access to was a lot of snow. Most surprisingly: the desert covered in the stuff as far south as Las Cruces, NM. Extraordinary, really. When I first encountered moonlight on that desert in the long ago, I remarked how it appeared to be a snow-covered landscape. Well, not quite, now that I’ve seen it covered in actual snow.

    That New Mexico desert is an important site for me because it is where my consciousness first realized something approximating radicality; which is to say it learned that it was and was not consciousness at the same time: Conscious and Unconscious learning to play, learning to BEcome play, itself. So, can consciousness be radical? Well, no because it isn’t materiality and there is no ding an sich as such anyway. But, yes because it can be heterological and historical; it can be nomadic and historical (more historical in that nomadism, even: southern racial history meets larger imperial history and so on). But it can never really be incarnate, can it. Ideas can’t be made flesh or thing. Except in poetry as you wrote. Because that’s where language comes in: in lieu of flesh, “language is a skin we put around ideas” as my painter friend Robin Savage puts it. If you haven’t read them, please do read Erna Brohdber’s (sp?) novel, Louisiana, and Michelle Cliffs novels (all of them but especially Free Enterprise) for perfect literary examples of heterology at play in the fields of the ding an sich. I think that Juliana Spahr’s “Blood Sonnets” do especially fine work in this regard as well.

  13. [cont from above]

    Once my left hand was freed and called upon, it did indeed impose different tempos, hesitations, and surprises. The majority of the sequence was a surprise in many ways, in fact. For example, I wasn’t overtly aware at the beginning that my left had planned to be a sacrifice of sorts; that it would be murdered later on. Later, of course, the intent was obvious as it wrote earlier on: “it’s the right that slays me.” The left hand, being allowed to play, really insisted on more directness and less intellectual play. And there was a real focus on the tactile with it.

    The most important aspect that I learned from the left was something I should have known and most likely was intuiting, but hadn’t yet put the skin of language around and that circles back to the various hauntings appearing throughout the winter issue and this blog: because a poem can never touch or be touched, every poem is about that lack, or absence. A section of Mark Yakich’s polyphonic poem, Green Zone, stood out to me during the left hand compositions. In the midst of 9 voices in unison, black and white seem amplified while an under-voice indicates the inability to touch: “Then at least/ Press your lips/ To this// Page--/ The only way/ I have left// Of touching/ You from/ Here.” Only with that skin around and heterological play of ideas, do we stand any kind of chance. At touch. At being human.

    In the long long poem that created the need for this sequence, is a line that I wrote early on and that probably built sub-consciously over time into this sequence: “We are both mud-cold I cannot feel my left hand which may be holding a kalishnokov/ Comrades/”

    Johan, I am not “home” in the South. Being nomadic of consciousness, I have no home in that sense. But if I did, it would be where my rituals of becoming took place—and that is the desert southwest. I am back here in the “South’ because there is still too much to be done here. The Civil Rights movement is far from over. Subversive lefties are north and everywhere. Just not enough down here.

    Thank you again, for the dynamic engagement.

  14. The end of December and I wanted to thank BPJ for providing this forum and to thank each of you with whom I've the pleasure of discussion these past weeks. Special gratitude to you all for your patience with me.

    On a final note, I'd like to share a personal anecdote:

    This morning I began a study of Sanskrit using the Teach Yourself series and, having read the introductory material and preparing to engage the language, I read the following regarding the script and the writing of Sanskrit:

    "Because of the way in which an Indian reed pen is cut, the thick and thin strokes lie in the reverse direction to our own Italic script; that is, the thick strokes run from bottom left to top right and the thin strokes from top left to bottom right: / \. Left-handed writers are thus at less of a disadvantage than in writing the Italic script..." Ha! This language I'm ready for.

    Thank you all again for allowing and prompting me to discuss issues that I think are crucial to us all as poets and humans.

    Best wishes for a New Year that brings peace and justice to one and all.