Friday, March 24, 2017

On Eléna Rivera’s Scaffolding*

In the vast majority of poetry books, we encounter poems stripped of their scaffolding. Which is to say, the incredible labor that has gone into the writing—drafting, redrafting, editing, revising; not to mention reading, research, and living—has been removed and made invisible. An evidence of labor withdraws, leaving only the poem as artifact. In Eléna Rivera’s third full-length collection of poetry, Scaffolding, the poet offers a corrective to this trend by revealing (and reveling) in poetry’s living labor. Using dates, strike-throughs, and the indication of “versions” in her titling, the reader becomes privy to a poetic process synched with a process of life, which is to say, working, seeing, breathing, conversing, remembering, imbibing, and loving. My favorite among the poems are the versions, which offer variations on the same poem, distinguished only by dates. The poems are similar enough that we almost see them as ‘takes’—as in filmmaking or studio production. Interestingly, neither poem seems to be ‘better’ than the other. That one comes after the other does not imply ‘progress’. Rather, the poems are merely different—and all the more pleasing for being offered in succession, unfaithful copies of one another without original. Yet, there is something else that is unusual about this book, in terms of how it transgresses and challenges the norms of the ‘poetry book’. And this involves Scaffolding’s take on the sonnet, since all the poems in the book consist of 14 lines. While the poems assume the conventions of the form—they are often “epideictic,” to quote the Renaissance scholar Joel Fineman, inasmuch as they not only offer praise, but are about praise—they also challenge the sonnet tradition through a kind of amplification and displacement of this aboutness. Here, in Rivera’s poems, we have an insistent sense of the speaker’s distribution through and dispersal by a set of perceptions, sensations, and textual encounters. And it is through these distributions and dispersals that we realize the subject, too, is in fact scaffolded by those with whom they enter into contact. Like George Oppen before her, Rivera is an ethicist who wishes to reveal a phenomenology of relation—with things, with other beings, with people, and with a (real and imagined) locale. Scaffolding gets at the ground under our feet—a ground constituted not by being itself but by being-in-relation. It shows not just what stands, but that upon which it rests, the inextricable and at times reversible relations shared between ourselves and other beings—within the field of the poem and the world. Remaining in perpetual motion through Rivera’s careful attention to lineation with sparing uses of punctuation and spacing, we experience the world not as a static entity but an evolving series of particulars inviting our participation as well as our inculcation—a sense that we are responsible for the world’s making. Writing through a reduced vocabulary, however an expansive prosody, we hear the “self” largely as a construction of sound, stress, and idiom. Much in the way we make our way through the urban spaces they describe (the principal one being that of Morningside Heights, Manhattan), we read the poems reiteratively and ergodically. To tread and retread their pathways is to encounter the world with ever-refreshed attention and insight.
 
*read March 23rd, 2017 at the 92Y. 








Thursday, March 23, 2017

Annotation/Redaction*

Since I read her book In the Wake: on Blackness and Being a few months ago I have been thinking a lot about Christina Sharpe’s terms “annotation” and “redaction,” which she develops in relation to representations of Black people (what Sharpe calls “Black portraiture”). After the current confrontation between Hannah Black et al and Schutz/Whitney Biennial curators, I am reminded of how powerful these terms of Sharpe’s are, which provide a corrective for the erasure of Black experience (represented by white dominated cultural production) and the appropriation of Black suffering (represented by white cultural production that takes as its point of departure Black experience/suffering). As Sharpe writes: “Annotation appears like that asterisk, which is itself an annotation mark, that marks the trans*formation into ontological blackness. As photographs of Black people circulate as portraits in a variety of publics, they are often accompanied by some sort of note or other metadata, whether that notation is in the photograph itself or as a response to a dehumaning photograph, in order that the image might travel with supplemental information that marks injury and, then, more than injury. We know that, as far as images of Black people are concerned, in their circulation they often don’t, in fact, do the imaging work that we expect of them. There are too many examples of this to name: from the videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991, to the murder of Oscar Grant, to the brutal murders of twenty-one trans women in the United States as of November 2015, to all of the circulating images of and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, to the ongoing deaths in transatlantic, trans-Mediterranean, and trans-continental crossings extending across the Black global diaspora. This is true even though and when we find images of Black suffering in various publics framed in and as calls to action or calls to feel with and for. Most often these images function as a hail to the non Black person in the Althusserian sense. That is, these images work to confirm the status, location, and already held opinions of spectacular Black bodies whose meanings then remain unchanged. We have been reminded by [Saidiya] Hartman and many others that the repetition of the visual, discursive, state, and other quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violence enacted on Black people does not lead to a cessation of violence, nor does it, across or within communities, lead primarily to sympathy or something like empathy. Such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the project of violence. With that knowledge in mind, what kind of ethical viewing and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts? What might practices of Black annotation and redaction offer?” Following Sharpe’s invaluable theoretical insights and terms in the passage from which I just quoted, I wonder if we might not consider Black’s et al’s letter in which they call for the “destruction” of Dana Schutz’s painting (whether by the painter herself or the institution sponsoring its exhibition) as both a call for redaction (for the painting to be “edited” out of harm’s way) and annotation (for words to perform a work of redress in the presence or absence of image-making which appropriates black experience/suffering in order to sustain the production of white jouissance (i.e., “empathy”) before the hyper-visibility of the wounded/destroyed Black body). Or, as Aria Dean puts it in the second of two incisive responses to Black’s et al’s letter: “censorship is the stifling of protest not the shunning of power to cause harm.” I too understand Black’s et al’s letter not as a call for “censorship,” but rather as an (as yet misunderstood and unanswered) “shunning of power” via the demand that a work of art be withdrawn from an anti-Black scopic field in order to be replaced by (a lack of) images and (the supplementarity of) words which might not only redress and mitigate Black suffering, and specifically the original harm of Till’s murder and mutilation reenacted if not redoubled by Schutz’s and the curators’ decision to show Open Casket, but the an/original harm of the destruction of Till’s visage/person, which, as Fred Moten writes in his essay “Black Mo’nin’,” demands that the viewer-listener-witness produce a response (what Moten calls interchangeably a “cut” and an “augmentation,” and which reveals itself viscerally through an involuntary turning away of the gaze) to the ethical-political performance of the showing of Till’s body to the (principally Black) world by his mother and the mass reproduction of this showing by an international media. Following the profound insights of Sharpe/Moten (articulated long before the Open Casket “controversy”), I concur with the call to destroy Schutz’s painting—to withdraw it from sight, if not from existence—as a ethical-political-aesthetic response to institutionalized anti-Black violence which the redaction (by means of the destruction of the painting) might enact.

*originally posted at Facebook, 3/22/2017