An Apologia Addressed to Ammiel Alcalay
Dear Ammiel, I’ve just read your A Little History. I envy your intense political passion, As you write essential memories have been erased from the public discourse. I share your moral outrage at the consequences. Part One of A little History, “If All the World Were Paper,” drew my overwhelming emotional support. I had not suspected your connection to Gil Ott and his Paper Air previously. I worked with Gil myself on several fronts in the first years of editing the O.ARS anthologies (Coherence, Perception, Translations: Experiments in Reading, etc.). Gil’s deliberate and quiet gentleness allowed him to serve as the interlocutor you required in completing your Cairo Notebook. Gil’s presence in anyone’s life was invaluable. For me, his presence cut through the static of my world and allowed true listening for the time and then came his unfortunate early passing. I will summarize what I hear in your book as best as I can. Your theme would seem to be how “our cultural borders are ever more heavily policed, as mop-up operations to consolidate official versions of history move into high gear… [for purposes of] American cultural domination” (23). The personal and very human element underlying your political experience as author and translator adds credibility and passion to the pages of your book. It’s often said that the victor writes history but seldom have victories been so embarrassing and sickening, so sapping of a peoples’ integrity as in Vietnam or Iraq. And your recitation of evidence of the misuse of history leaves little doubt as to the importance of the resistance that has motivated figures like Olson, Rukeyser, Dorn, Duncan, Baraka, and di Prima, some of the leading figures of your tale, persons who opted for truth-telling rather than assimilation into available power structures.
In particular, I have thought about your portrayal of “the enormous stakes in memory” that affects our understanding of the Vietnam experience in the 1960s. Here lies, you argue, clear evidence for the origins and operations of the “national security state” (92). Such stimulus has led you to follow Olson back to sources and documents in order to recover understandings and memories that have been lost. Olson crucially coined the term “post-modern” (now “postmodern”) as a way to the future by means of a return to origins and methods of reporting that require individual verification. I am impelled to borrow a term that Heriberto Yépez has introduced into our collective discourse: “neo-memory,” the remanufacturing of history to serve the immediate interests of power elites. How similar your take and Heriberto’s are, although you and he differ greatly on how to measure Olson on the scale that implicates imperialism and self-interest, as twins in the realm of poetry and its ambitions and hopes. At least the three of us, including myself, take poetry seriously enough to engage the question of its fundamental social value. You both have “outsider” eyes that allow you to measure the effects of the Americanization of peoples not already assimilated to globalized modernism. I too have “outsider” eyes but they have been compromised by complicity. My residence in Germany (for as long as five years before I reached thirty) occurred in relation to the US Armed forces occupation of that country. My other foreign residencies have been brief and I was usually perceived as identifiably alien to those among whom I lived. I think this was Olson’s situation too. As sympathetic as he may well have been to Mayan peoples and experience, he necessarily remained a “big man” from the North.
Considering the evidence that you cite throughout A Little History, it is impossible to disagree with you on the import of our diplomatic missteps in North Africa and the Middle East. I take deeply to heart the lessons of Vietnam, over which any consensus is the product of manufactured history. Yes, as you argue, in his run for the Presidency, Kerry had to reframe his anti-war history if he hoped to win the election. He failed and I have to regret the outcome that we have endured. But, as the Vietnam war wound down, Kerry seemed to me at the time (around 1971) already to be guilty of parlaying a species of anti-war resentment into political power. He did not speak for me or my experiences as a veteran. I had a similar problem with the film, The Deer Hunter(1978), starring Robert De Niro, a Hollywood generated daddy-hero figure. One aspect of what bothered me then and still bothers me is the betrayal of so many beautiful young men and women by the American government that we served. I attribute my brother’s death through the lingering after-effects of Agent Orange exposure to that betrayal. Remember the scurrilous rhetoric of “love it or leave it”? That rhetoric is a right-wing precursor to tea-party proclamations whose grounding principle seems to be to blame the weak and unfortunate for any and all social ills. Support for my disgust with American duplicity with respect to “our” military history comes in the form of two new books, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and their Country by Andrew Bacevich and Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel, reviewed in the current BookForum (Fall 2013) by Jeff Stein. Take it as a fact that, in a seeming reversal of the ignominy that greeted returning Vietnam vets, patriotic spectacles presented during major league baseball games and the like, having been staged supposedly to honor vets, often strike the vets themselves as a toxic brew of hollow 2pageantry and posturing. Such posturing is a sickening fact of American spectacle. I hear another form of such posturing when I hear Kerry justify the use of force in American diplomacy today, justifying the recent Navy Seal strike in Libya, for instance. I admit, my middle has often been to the left of what is practicable, tinged with a spice of delight in anarchy when it abrupts upon tidy minds.
It was during the Vietnam Era that I first read Olson, in a U. S. Army snack bar in Germany. It was the nonconformist aspect of his page that most delighted me. I wore rumpled fatigues and scuffed boots. Because of protest and disgruntlement within the ranks, the military then was not a regime that insisted as heavily on conformity as the all-volunteer army does. Also at this time I was reading Beowulf in Old English, memorizing chunks of what I heard to be swells and sweeps of a tide under the accentual beat. What distinguishes the character of Beowulf, so the poem itself declares, is his earnestness. I recognized Olson to be an earnest individual also. I liked the tenor of his verse. I felt my own duplicity keenly: serving and yet mistrusting the motives for war. I began to read difficult texts, Olson or Zukofsky, partially from a desire to obscure and to distinguish myself. I embraced an elitism that my own working class background did not support in any measure, without material measure or spiritual conviction. Of course, I read these texts also purely for pleasure. That USCGS map of Gloucester Harbor on the Jargon/Corinth edition of Maximus brought waves of homesickness for my own Cranberry Island, a simple trigger. My academic plans, delayed and interfered with by that unwanted war, were being redirected by engaging Olson’s Maximus.
You site the discussion of Olson as a “cult figure.” This matter requires a gingerly precise examination. I agree with you that when academia or the mainstream press like the New York Times identifies Olson as a cult figure the effect of the labelling is to obscure or silence any assessment of his true historical and cultural importance (109). And by “him” I mean his work and its influence, not always or necessarily the man for he is subject to moods. It is also clear from the final pages of A Little History that for you Olson has been and remains a deeply emotional presence of transformative importance. I have known artists in ways that have been personally transformative also. I rank Bertolt Brecht among these although I did not know him personally. His views on social fact mesh well with the views of activist scholars whom I have loved. His antiheroic views on “cult figures” and “heroes” are foundational for a poetics of “social fact.” One statement from his Galileo reads “unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” Attempting to elucidate the true nature of fascism for students, I have quoted this remark endlessly. We live among corporate fascists, I have argued. There is the unfortunate case of Ezra Pound. I join with Thersites to condemn all the heroes of the Illiad in their self-seeking vanity. I choose the subversive position for multiple reasons and I will be subversive with respect to the adulation of both main stream and counter-cultural heroes. The persons who taught me to hold dearly to this view were civil rights activists and pacifists during the struggle to end the war in Vietnam. They were also a tribe of self-identified faggots.
It’s vain for me to attempt to take the measure of Charles Olson in this context. Your arguments largely underwrite my own less perfectly informed assessments. In one case, you write, “Despite recent critiques that would see Olson as the imperial outsider projecting the white world’s fantasy upon non-white peoples, it is well nigh impossible to assimilate such readings into either his lacerating critiques of North American imperial domination or his own actions in decidedly removing himself from access to power structures that were available to him”(202). The first part of this claim is addressed to Heriberto Yépez, but it also encapsulate a critique that several anthropologists have made about Olson’s Rousseauian language when he writes, “It is so very beautiful how animals human eyes are when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes” (“Human Universe” (57). The second element concerning Olson’s removal of himself from locations of power is extolled throughout A Little History. You argue persuasively that removal of the self from mainstream co-optation, seeing for one’s self (‘istorin’), and a kinetics of a writing that is true to perception and as quick as breathing are the guiding lights of Olson’s ethics. These virtues are abundantly exemplified throughout the text of A Little History. These are virtues I share and admire but putting ideas into action involves a degree of compromise. Shameful compromises, I admit. A distorted Puritan ethics consoles me. “It’s your work that matters,” intones the melancholy spirit of Hawthorne or Melville and Olson himself even though it often happens that your best effort is swallowed by a cosmic silence. Ammiel, you have stepped forth as one who is passionately resistant to silence. You extol Olson’s actions and those of the many members of Olson’s tribe, embracing their adherence to outsider standards for ethical living. The importance of these values and positions vis-a-vis mainstream political and social history is undeniable. You present the value of this history and the need to embed it in living memory with surges of passion, surges capable of withering oppositional positions that are identified often with academia understood now finally to be the servant of corporate capitalism in the different forms that it has taken since WW II. The implications of your theses are vast, identifying distorted and suppressed histories of liberation struggles in North Africa, the Middle East and other regions as the unseen bedrock of American policies that operate to cover-up and contain resistance in the name of securing a specious freedom. Let’s acknowledge that this is the context for poetry and that this context makes careful and earnest modes of expression invaluable.
About this blog: I write about the poetry and related materials when I desire to express myself. I hope my observations have an audience. I do not consider what I am doing to be book reviews although I make careful readings and study the sources of the subjects that interest me. I have no sponsors and few allegiances beyond what is evident from my words. --Donald Wellman