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Last Exit Magazine « Say It Plain

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[published: January 26, 2009]

Screengrab by Muhammad Adnan Asim

Say It Plain

Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem has been criticized as “bureaucratic” and “too prosy” by a generally underwhelmed public. But this may say more about the public’s appetite for soulfulness than it does about the merits of a remarkable work.

“You’re not putting sugar on cake. You’re building!”—William Carlos Williams

How do you ventriloquize a nation? Presidents are given the privilege to do so daily, as are, more peremptorily, talk show pundits and journalist hacks. To poets the notion is more anathema even though they have, from time to time, claimed to more accurately channel those energies of the demos, returning to bardic origins, becoming oracular. Perhaps the silence surrounding Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem attests to a disappointment; we played the dummy for eight years, but yet we (if we can say “we”) are still looking for someone else to pick up the hollow limbs and give voice to what is a strange object. What Elizabeth Alexander’s poem did was to keep it that way: to show that only word by word, each becoming strange as the next passes, can each person “build” what goes by another word (“democracy”).

Alexander avoided inclusiveness—the violence of talking for others—but also highlighted the problem of alienation—which we inevitably still try to overcome—by beginning the poem with many instances of the word “each.” “Each” is left to its own cell, and this is performed in the halting manner of her performance. Each also is left to resonate, so that, although she read off paper, the poem seems like it’s coming up on the teleprompter, one word after another, as in Michael Snow’s structural-concrete-poem-film “So Is This.” Snow’s film hyperextends the tendency of the word “this” to glom onto multiple angles when left unattributed, to the point that the film becomes an exploration of the ambience of meaning, even (and perhaps especially) heightened when phrase is stripped down to word units. Similarly, in Alexander’s performance, you listen unit by unit, so that by the time you get to the first truly inclusive word (“all”) it has become mere word, pomp deflated. Then “all” does at least two other paradoxical things. The inclusive word reminds of the separation with which the poem began . . . “All about us is noise.” But the homily of the day might be in the third meaning. Noise doesn’t just “surround” us, but it is what we are all about.

Each word was a space for projection, where the massive audience was invited to take up the work of figuring out the disconnects nearest to hand. I’ve never heard Alexander read before, but I think she played with this dynamic of projection just as much as she played with the materiality of each word. So she was both channeling the materialist, localist poetics of Williams and the more context-bending work of language poets. You don’t hear much anymore about syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes and their poetic confounding, but she was doing just that. By placing word after word as if it could be sucked back into the totality of noise, meaning faded in and out. Only occasionally did she permit the temporal axis of language—the fragile syntagmatic—access to the paradigmatic—the history that powers a sentence and its overall meaning. Because of this, when she got to the obligatory American tableaux announced by the next abstract repeated word (“someone”), they did not have the cocksure gravitas of a Chevy commercial, but rather seemed instead the fragments glimpsed or imagined by only one person, in one place and time. And each “someone” described is dealing with their own attempt at this elusive “one.” I like the line “the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables,” precisely because of the way it just hangs there. You figure it out.

All these moves, by-now pedestrian in most contemporary poetry, are all told a striking response in this context to the unspoken expectations she was faced with, circulating around the problems of soul. And this is not only the problem of speaking the soul of the people, but also the perhaps racist expectations for a soulful reading. Soul, however, is not merely the cordoned off domain of how blacks (and poets generally) tend to be expected to perform, but is also what powers the down-home-before-hard-facts ethos of those who get along with their Texan (or Alaskan) soulfulness. Remember that many who voted against Al Gore cited his “robotic” qualities. Soul usually wins out, skimming over the hard details of the material substratum, even as it admits—or fakes—a deep knowledge of that material (which makes it different than, say, “spirit.”) Soul can have liberatory potential—going straight to love through a world of pain—but can also miss the point—deranged by pain’s surly revisions. When Alexander says, “say it plain, that many have died for this day” she starts to approach this fraught category of soul, albeit undercutting it still. If history appears—the thing which is no longer a thing—it is shared history of no special days and no special deaths. Sick of memorials used to cover cynical maneuvers, history is blanked. It’s as if she’s going for the Maya Lin-effect of reflective minimalist granite, although here without referent. When the word “love” rears, she is also at pains not to ally it with jingoistic forms of connection. It is instead something which may be akin to the future. “Today’s sharp sparkle” picks up its light just a bit (for we are “on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp”), and this is the place where work happens—the task at the level of the sentence, where the world is passed on through the mechanisms of the word. For all those who rushed to their telecommunications device of choice to see “history” the other day, she was clearly telling us: nothing to see here; for all those people who celebrated on the streets a few months back, the message was also clear: Now, get to work.

Joe Milutis is a writer, media artist and Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts at the University of Washington-Bothell. He is the author of Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything (Minnesota). His last contribution to Last Exit was an excerpt of the short film, The Idea of South.


Copyright Last Exit 2009


Reader Comments [2]

  1. 1.  

    You make an interesting argument, but I still think her poem sucked. (How’s that for a poetic response?) In fact, I think her poem is exactly why most people don’t like poetry. Don’t blame the victim! Now Rev. Lowrey, he was poetic: Lord … we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when… Read More brown can stick around … when yellow will be mellow … when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.

    Robb Todd · Jan 26, 11:19 AM ·#

  2. 2.  

    When a poem needs analysis like this, you know it is a failure.

    “You don’t hear much anymore about syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes and their poetic confounding, but she was doing just that. By placing word after word as if it could be sucked back into the totality of noise, meaning faded in and out. Only occasionally did she permit the temporal axis of language—the fragile syntagmatic—access to the paradigmatic—the history that powers a sentence and its overall meaning.”

    More conceivably, she read a pretentious piece only meaningful to literary academics to an billion-person audience hoping for simple truths and inspiration.

    Lowery got attention for the “black will not get back” part of his speech, but tell me this doesn’t blow the temporal syntagmatic axis right out of the water:

    “We go down and walk together as children,
    Praying that we wont get weary in the difficult days ahead
    We know you will not leave us alone
    With your hands of power and your heart of love.
    Help us then now Lord to work for that day
    When nation will not lift up sword against nation,
    When tanks will be beaten into tractors….”

    Tom · Jan 29, 12:25 PM ·#

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