Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Repression & Remnant (Review)*
Since as long as the publication of Cary Nelson’s *Repression and Recovery* (1989), and the scholar’s establishment of the Modern American Poetry Syllabus website (MAPS), there has been a necessary reframing of American literary modernism through the recovery and reconsideration of writers critically neglected from the period, if not all but lost to the cares of literary scholarship and publication. The process of “recovering” culturally important yet neglected writers from modernism’s “first wave” is no uncomplicated matter as it entails a concomitant revamping of cultural modes of production and fields of reception across which texts continue to have value and a potential existence for a readership. To “recover,” as Nelson is at pains to point out in his book, is not merely to “save” or “redeem” a text lost to a society’s attentions, but also to assert the importance of texts within a larger evaluation of institutions and other locuses of interpretative (and thus permittive and trasmittive) authority. As Nelson himself writes eloquently of said dilemmas:
*Literary history is never an innocent process of recovery. We recover what we are culturally and psychologically prepared to recover and what we “recover” we necessarily rewrite, giving it meanings that are inescapably contemporary, giving it a new discursive life in the present, a life it cannot have had before. A text can gain that new life in part through an effort to understand what cultural work it may have been able to do in an earlier time, but that understanding again is located in our own time. If the effort to understand past cultural projects can only become authentic when we demonstrate that we have transcended our own historical entanglements, then such efforts will never be authentic. Though one cannot ever stand outside this hermeneutic circle or even decisively identify its components, one can nevertheless begin to accept the existence of its constraints and thus, at least intermittently, to recognize their pertinence.* (Nelson 11)
The reissue of Lola Ridge’s *The Ghetto* by Joel Kuszai’s & Bill Marsh’s Factory School is a movement both within the time of a cultural present and outside that present insofar as the act of republication—the reframing of our attention as poets and scholars—intends a remnant neither of historicity alone (“back then”) or our present (“now”). Walter Benjamin has put this idea more eloquently in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” where he relates the objects of history (texts and other facts) as those existents vanishing just as they appear, which flit and flicker as such: *The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. […] For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)* (my brackets) In his recent works revisiting Messianic conceptions of time after Benjamin, Hegel, Marx, Bataille, St. Paul and others Giorgio Agabem has pointed to such a time as a time that *remains*: between “now” and “then,” before an imagination of an “end” and an end “in itself,” “past” and “future,” “here” and “there”; that is, somewhere between redeemability and an unaccountable, yet salvageable, *potentia*: “But in the time of the now, the only real time, there is nothing other than the remnant. This does not properly belong either to an eschatology of ruin or salvation, but rather, to use Benjamin’s words, it belongs to an unredeemable, the perception of which allows us to reach salvation. […] The messianic remnant exceeds the eschatological all, and irredeemably so; it is the unredeemable that makes salvation possible.” (Agamben 57) This remaining concerns Kuszai’s & Marsh’s efforts as well as a movement of scholars and poets nowadays as they attempt to renew texts for our present, allowing them to exist in a time contingent and undecided towards futures (plural). In our era when (Left) public intellectuals are increasingly attacked, when the march of global capitalism appears unabated if not self-assured, when the academy battens the hatches once again and basic human rights for all but a few are guaranteed, I can think of few more important endeavors within the rings of literary scholarship, publication, production and reception than to reconsider the works Kuszai & Marsh have put “on the table” and into the hands of their readers. The effort for recovering & undoing repression, and to ensure remnant, starts with republishing and circulating—maintaining works in print that redistribute and radicalize debate about cultural-historical knowledge: that reevaluate & reaccess for the continual creation of a contingent present. So Lola Ridge’s *The Ghetto* is yet another text that should call to, if not demand, our attention for what it offers present and past as they bifurcate future.
Admittedly I had never read Lola Ridge before Andrew Levy’s offering me a review copy of *The Ghetto*. My own grounding tends more to be in poets after Pound, and especially Ridge’s Objectivist contemporaries: Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker and Muriel Rukeyser. In such a test of poetry—a placing beside her most valuable contemporaries— Ridge succeeds in countless ways, however she may fail in some others. It has long seemed a problem to me when we talk about “recovery” or “recuperation” to what extent we would like to recover a work for its technical or formal radicality, and to what extent for a work’s rhetorical/artifactual value within a particular situation or context. The works of Objectivists, and Rukeyser (who was not an Objectivist of course by Oppen’s, Reznikoff’s and Zukofsky’s discrepant definitions of “the objective”) matter to me because they straddle a crucial threshold between political and ethical contents conveyed by rhetorical utterance and formal (language) values that transcend rhetorical effectiveness alone—that may arguably be said to be transcendent of rhetorical value. Mark Scroggins has a wonderful example of this problem in his book *Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge* when he considers Zukofsky’s different versions of a poem for New Masses and the poet’s revision of that same poem for inclusion in *“A”*. Here Scroggins demonstrates that Zukofsky’s poem has been “conceded,” if not compromised, in its formal innovation by the politically radical editors of New Masses (see Scroggins 156-158). In the end, of course, we know form and content to be inextricable; and, what’s more (to paraphrase Alan Gilbert’s timely twisting of Robert Creeley’s original words to Charles Olson), form to be never be more than an extension of *Culture*. So perhaps it is culture itself we must seek in reading Lola Ridge’s poem, “The Ghetto,” and the other poems accompanying Ridge's volume by the same title.
This culture “The Ghetto” refers to is that of New York’s Lower East Side in the Nineteen teens, a culture Louis Zukofsky was also well-acquainted with as a childhood native of the neighborhood. Ridge, born December 12th, 1873 in Dublin, Ireland, eventually moved to New York City after living in Australia and New Zealand with her mother. As Donna M. Allego tells us about Ridge (at MAPS), to support herself Ridge worked as a model, illustrator, factory worker and labor organizer. The experience that Ridge sings in her poem, “The Ghetto,” is that of the immigrant (and the Jewish immigrant in particular) situated in the city during the early 20th century.
In the critic F. Hackett’s review of Ridge’s *The Ghetto* (also at MAPS) I find interesting the critic’s insistence that Ridge negotiates “the game of rhetoric” with “self-expression”/”emotion”. This distinction is useful for our present, where rhetoric remains necessary—tactically exigent—but emotion—a “sincerity” of the formal object in Zukofsky’s sense of the term—saves rhetoric from merely being an act of communication, pushing it instead towards ecstatic and heightened sensibilities: that wonderful sense of language as a thing beyond its mere operation so necessary for *poesis*.
In the title poem to Ridge’s volume she sings the Jewish immigrant experience of Hester Street in NYC in the teens, conveying such an experience in a multi-faceted, poly-vocal way—not unlike Langston Hughes does later for Black-American urban experience in *Montage of a Dream Deferred*. Here to lay a politics on one’s sleeve, as I believe Ridge does, does not mean to resort to easy caricatures of marginalized ethnic identities or social standing/class position. Likewise, for Ridge, it is not to suture identity categories easily, where “to suture” means to smooth over difference, eliminating conflict for a general cause, ideal, belief or social goal. A commitment to class antagonism—radical indeed for a (presumably) Catholic Irish immigrant (which is to say, an "outsider")—does not mean the subsuming or synthesizing of other identity categories. Neither gender or the particularity of “the other” are forsaken, as Ridge puts identities into mobile relation. This radicalization of identity may be felt in the following lines where gender, ethnicity and class partake equally in the unique potentialities of two fellow workers, women, friends and Jews(?)—Sarah and Anna. The fact that the womens' intellectual and physical labor-power involve the same substance, are metaphorized as such, and that their power is also conveyed through their sexualities is a moving occurrence within Ridge’s expressive text:
*Sarah and Anna live on the floor above.
Sarah is swarthy and ill-dressed.
Life for her has no ritual.
She would break an ideal like an egg for the winged thing at the
Her mind is hard and brilliant and cutting like an acetylene torch.
If any impurities drift there, they must be burnt up as in a clear
It is droll that she should work in a pants factory.
--Yet where else…tousled and collar awry at her olive throat.
Besides her hands are unkempt.
With English…and everything…there is so little time.
She reads without bias—
Psychology, plays, science, philosophies—
Those giant flowers that have bloomed and withered, scattering
--And out of this young forcing soil what growth may come
--what amazing blossomings.
Anna is different.
One is always aware of Anna, and the young men turn their heads
to look at her.
She has the appeal of a folk-song
And her cheap clothes are always in rhythm.
When the strike was on she gave half her pay.
She would give anything—save the praise that is hers
And the love of her lyric body.
But Sarah’s desire covets nothing apart.
She would share all things…
Even her lover.* (Ridge 19-20)
One of the beauties of this passage lies in its abutting of two personalities. Like Whitman before her, and the poems of 30’s Objectivism, Ridge is both the social ethnographer and nuanced cultural analyst. But a beyond of both ethnographic-documentary and analysis lies in the language itself, that will not be pinned down so easily in its effulgences of sound-image as they bear meaning, and as those meanings turn in the line and over us—the reader. What is “the winged thing at the core” for which “she would break an ideal like an egg” if not the vivid actuality of a poignantly renewed metaphor? What is in the parataxis of “She has the appeal of a folk-song / And her cheap clothes are always in rhythm” racing to “She would give anything—save the praise that is hers / And the love of her lyric body?" One cannot doubt the formal capacities, the innovation and clarity of Ridge’s poem in these lines just cited. And yet these lines, these telling overturnings of the poetic word, will ultimately serve to describe the difficult experience of a social “world,” the fact that cultures are messy and the personality—that singularity among multitudes, multiplicity—must also be sung in its exact proportions, proportions that only an attention to the particular values of individuated text can present to a readership.
So many other radiances and revelations occur in the full volume, *The Ghetto*, the title poem of which I have only begun to address. Mythological and "internal" realities, memories and ontological propositions are peppered about social relation (externalities) and observations of an "exterior" world—the world, as such, as it exists between inequal entities: “She gloats in a mirror/ Over her gaudy hat,/ With its flower/ God never thought of…” (Ridge 48) These occurrences draw us inward, if only to move us out again: to the language of the poem, the culture it must be a part of to continue being relevant—sincere. When Ridge does get rhetorical there is something brutal in the poem's address—a generative salvage of lyric poetry sentimentally, yet outwardly, directed:
What of the silence of the keys
And silvery hands? The iron sings…
Though bows lie broken on the strings,
The fly-wheels eternally…
Bring fuel—drive the fires high…
Throw all this artist-lumber in
And foolish dreams of making things…
(Ten million men are called to die.)
As for the common men apart,
Who sweat to keep their common breath,
And have no hours for books and art—
What dreams have these to hide from death! (Ridge 71)
Turning a lyrical tradition on its head towards the difficulties of her society, and taking up innovative tactics in an unpretentious, concise language of or after (Poundian) modernity (regardless whether Ridge was aware of Pound, or gave credence to his poetics) Factory School’s resissue of *The Ghetto* is another crucial step towards “recovery” and “remnant” as it replaces a text of cultural interest before the readers of our precarious present—a present both detached from Ridge’s own, and yet eerily contemporary. Ridge’s most insistent problems are ones of labor, and the incommensurability of identities coevally exploited by the brutal dictates of force unleashed at an alarming rate in the early 20th century. To understand the world Ridge lived in—the immigration experience of New Yorkers at that time, the class character and conditions of labor of the period, the position of poor, immigrant women—*The Ghetto* is an invaluable text. To reenvision our present, *The Ghetto* is yet another text ardently recovered by Factory School.
Agamben, Giorgio. *The Time That Remains*. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.
Nelson, Cary. *Repression and Recovery*. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Ridge, Lola. *The Ghetto*. NY: Factory School, 2006.
Scroggins, Mark. *Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge*. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
*This is the draft of a review intended for Roberto Harrison's & Andrew Levy's *Crayon* journal.