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The risk of poetry

An extract from an essay by Parham Shahrjerdi
 

 

All poems quoted in this article are by Ali Abdolrezaei and have been translated into English by Abol Froushan.

Obliterature – or obliteration of celebrity

Literature? Letter? The literate, the man of letters? Let’s forget about literature, let’s proceed to unliterature, obliterature, let’s renew the old in favour of a neo-literature. Because this literature is so much politeness (as ‘Adabiat’, the Persian word for literature implies), because so much nicety and etiquette keeps literature pure and orderly? So much reactivity? So much stagnant gratification? Shall we think of the gratification of stasis, of stagnant literature, literary gratification in stagnant waters? No! This literature is finishing. This literature finishes.

The authors of this neat and tidy Iranian literature advance in the service of an order (a moral order, a religious, a political order) of a regime, as their Persian literature retreats further and further backwards.

The Iranian literary regime chases after itself in a protected zone – a literary protectorate. Thus, through abiding by the law, writers of this Iranian literature become law-enforcers. One is not to defect from the protectorate, not to take language beyond its neat and tidy boundaries. So you don’t cross the line – you stagnate.

Order and fear meet at a point: you fear transgression, you fear you are disorderly, you’re afraid to ruin the make-up on this order, you’re afraid of sticking out like a sore thumb, afraid of change, of the unknown, afraid of risk and risking it, afraid of being afraid.

As such, perhaps there never was a ‘literature’, but rather treatises and paginations and illusions. This illusion must be ended.

Language of the world, language of poetry, language of risk

To write is to shake the foundations of the world. Language has built and builds the groundwork of the world. Let us lay a hand in this foundation of the world, let us interrogate the order of things.

Danger begins when the poet stands up and stands against everyday language, the language of communication and conversation, against common usage, i.e. when the poet stands up steadfastly against the colloquial world. The language of poetry isn’t the language of habit, it is not the language of newscasting, it is not reporting, is not didactic, cannot give lessons, is not repetition, is not repeated.

Regimes wish to survive, want to remain, so they follow the popular rule; and do we follow the popular rule?

Think of grammar, in Persian ‘Dasture zabaan’, or literally, ‘the order of the tongue’. Order? A tongue that orders the hand? Who gives the orders? Orders what? Grammar is a moral construct that determines the future of language according to a certain predetermined list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. But poetry and the poet are there to alienate the order and the language of order, i.e. to estrange themselves from the world, to create a new turn of phrase. For the danger poet, language is not a means, however, but the end and object of work.

Sanctity in literature and sacred literature

Sanctity, sacredness and sanctitude raise their sacred heads and bring the Word under their command. It happens that a question mark hovers over sacredness and sanctitude. For instance, Shamloo came out one day and brought up the vulnerability of truth, i.e. one can doubt, that one ought to doubt everything like Descartes; and then? He himself became the subject of doubt, but the subject matter (Fedowsi), because of its enormous sanctitude, never came into question. There are things that never come into question. Poetry intimates that everything, without exception, is questionable. The risk of poetry starts here.

Social institutions define or want a defined poetry. But poetry is not wisdom and has no moral value. Poetry does not write that which is seen. It’s not speaking that which is. Rather, it is speaking that which is not. To be other than this and to be that.

‘I’ lives in Riskdom

Someone says “I lived in Riskdom” [In Riskdom Where I Lived is the title of a collection of poems by Ali Abdolrezaei] and immediately puts himself at risk. Someone writes his land of risk (into being) and immediately sets risk against risk. What happens? (What being’s happening?) When we speak of danger(hood), someone with us, within us, without us, starts to speak. A voice comes: to write is to risk, to live in danger (to live dangerously), in the (con)text of danger, and to go from text to text, to travel in this land of danger. One takes the other along (being textualised), the (unholy) writ, the risk, the risk of the writ, that one is the other (in the gap).

A close shave – being in danger, remaining at risk, speaking of risk. I lived in Riskdom, read: I lived in the writ. Here we’re dealing with the being and nothingness of the written. The risk is that of being and nothingness, the risk of writing, the risk of the cessation and suspension of writing. In other words, risk is lack of certainty. Risk is in this and that . . . so what? Danger, risk, is in the deferral (or dropping) of obliteration, it’s a respite, before danger gives way to the unwritten, before the writ pulls itself back. To live in Riskdom is to live in the respite of the writ. The moment of writing is the moment of risk. I lived in Riskdom and then? Either you unseat the danger, or the danger defeats you. You prolong the risk, or finish the risk, or the risk will finish you. Finish? When danger is finished with, there is no longer any writ.

Riskdom: when the writ approximates its origin. I lived in Riskdom. We are confronting the same experience. Let’s think of George Bataille: the inner experience. To his credit, the writ, the risk of the writ, and, in danger, to risk the writ, is the innermost, deepest experience. A trial that endangers life, the life of text, and the poet’s. Here, experience, danger, dangerous experience, have no outer form. Risk is to live with the text, to confront the text: to step onto the road to the unknown. Danger is here: one writes something one has not written, that no one has not written, one writes the unknown, the unrecognised, from roads unridden, words unbidden, from lines unwritten and from juxtapositions untried, from forms unfabricated and from images unseen, one writes, to throw oneself into their fray. Will one return? Will one write them? Will they write oneself? Will risk remain limited by risk?

I lived in Riskdom: return and give your experience to the text. Return and put life in the context of risk, on the line. Risk is one-off. It’s once, and is not even once. Risk can come once and only once can it come about. The risk lies behind behind the writ that touches the censor's line. So, the incidence of the text is this very touchline.

It’s not fortuitous that the title of a poem becomes ‘Fear Not’, and that its first line begins with the imperative “fear not”. Literature is right here, fear not! In other words, write!

I’m trying to open a door
To say something else

someone else to say

what can no longer be said

A door that opens, and converses. A door that is a word. A door that speaks and gives word to and becomes the other. Talks to the other. Another door that is the other.

Change and evolution begins in the text, and from the text. From here on, a revolution is evolving in the text.

What does it mean “to propose a new revolution” in poetry?

Poetry of the mother tongue

If mother is the tongue and we are in it, then where is the mother? Where are we? Where in the mother are we? Where is our language? We are after-words, exiles, far-aways; where do we intersect? Mother is our distance. So what is distance? Or who is it? Distance is the presence of the other, distance is in my being there and in your not being there or vice versa, distance is here and there, the distance of here and there, me here, you there, between us nothing but distance. Thus the most beautiful lines of distance are written:

On this side of the world    even if you had a living son

it would be a son  on this side of the world

This opening seeks a refrain which suddenly turns into an unexpected ending:

On that side of the world    even if I had a living mother

it would be a mother       on the other side of the world

(from ‘Banished’ by Ali Abdolrezaei)

Mother is the tongue, mother is the body, the tongue and the body are absent. Mother is absent. The mother’s tongue, the mother’s body are separate, unlikely. Separation from the mother’s body is the beginning of exile. From the outset of birth, the child learns negation from the mother’s body. All of a sudden at birth, we’re in exile, we’re distant, we are narrators, we narrate what in the distant past we have lost out of hand, and so invoke this in the text, call out to the lost one to find the lost one; that is the pleasure. And to replace the mother’s body, the mother’s gender and sexuality, we exchange with the word, the gender of words, going from sexuality to non-sexuality, and returning, giving words a gender, making a mother of words.

Fast, far, late

Where is the early seat of one’s voice, when the voice reaches someone, reaches the voice of someone?

A call is heard at the limit of distance between two people, when the distance approaches infinity, word and speech, syllable and sound, drive time in a different direction: when the voice, the call, the call of a voice, is no longer heard. The mediation of distance sends speech adrift:

Mother                    was the early seat of my voice
                            Which as I drifted further away from
                   became late


There is memory, there is forgetting and then there is remembering. To distance is to mediate and then to call forth the immediate. In this immediacy, this happens sometimes; literature offers a taste of pleasure.

A secret that remains a secret

Let’s think of secrets and hermetics. A literature that writes the secret but does not divulge it. Let’s bring democracy to bear here. Determining why to desire a secret or why not to. There is a literature that is written in code language and thus is mysterious. The reader’s pleasure would be in confronting the mystery, in grappling with secrets that are never revealed. A literature that shares its secret with us, but what secret? The secret that says, behind me hides another and yet another and so on.

Mother?!


Foolish            the poet
   Who tries to pin this with the pen

(from ‘Held my hands and step by step died of sorrow’)

Doesn’t the mother’s gist in this book of poems speak of this secret? The secret of mother as the source and reservoir of the secrets of language.

Normopathy or the disease of the norm

Let’s note the syntax and the tone of these sentences:

When I came first, I was going to
But the thousandth got lost

Had promised the bicycle and father flustered and never got twenty
Out of the bike that he never bought him
Years later I fell down so bad my mother came grand
My son who’d become three
Was going to count on mother’s promise
Grandmother was walking past her kindness
Final results given him twenty and summer was spraying sunlight when suddenly the sky covered in crows
What a hundred excellent croaks it gave!


Or:

When I have no sure
To keep a favour for later
I hold no hand in the style of please
To put on the hair of relatively


Or:

Go to the go that I went don’t go so you’re left behind

Absence, displacement, manipulating the make-up of a sentence, swapping parts of speech, word-leaps. These are some of the events evident in these sentences, which can be seen or read as poetry of falsehood. The reader feels something missing at first sight, or that some things are not in their place and that something, some things have lost their position; what things? Here the syntax and tone of words have lost their age-old structure. The classical structure, ordinary combinations and customary images are jettisoned. It’s this overboard quality which moves the reader: when words move, they move the reader.

Society makes standards and is, therefore, after the stamp of approval. It looks for introduction and recognition. Society evaluates, media, newspapers, magazines, television – advertise the norm, imperialise the standards and everyone (everyone?) endeavours to live by them – that is to survive. Even the poet and the writer become standardised. For they seek to approve and to be approved. Because they run after society. But the dangerous poet draws away from the norm. His or her job is not to follow society. Maybe the poet’s job is to drag society along.

So we manipulate grammar, the order of the tongue. We manipulate the order of language to manipulate the order of the world; that is, to change the truth of the world, like a sentence cast as a spell on the world. There is no longer an ultimate truth. There is only the truth, the poetic truth, that is its own virtue:

He manipulated the truth so much that
               when he died
                         it was a lie!

In every norm, there is a past. Out of the established norms in the arts come art museums. Museums are places that exhibit artistic standards. Viewers are assured that they are viewing something that carries the stamp. Because the works are time-honoured and have passed the tests of worth they are therefore proven to have “artistic value”. In poetry too, museums have taken shape out of the taxidermy of dried-up words – poems whose life is in their absence of life.

The poetry of risk obliterates the promise of the pre-approved. The poetry of risk does not resemble what ran before it or what has garnered approval. The poetry of risk is unique, endangered:

If you are the promise why then am I so settled?
I also ran off also ran                      another yes am I
Settled from before am I me before when?


The poetry of risk distances itself from the well-trodden and the well-known, distances itself from any pre-established norm.

Since I can remember
I have learned to forget the road they put on my
way


Multi-vocal, multilingual

Perhaps it’s necessary to think about being multi-vocal, an alternative form of thinking. We find in the poem ‘Absurdity’ by Ali Abdolrezaei a new opportunity to find forms of multiple voice.

Honestly!
Even laziness has tripped you down get up!
had got up
I can’t believe you’ve been dreaming till dusk
wasn’t sleeping
How come you’ve been sitting around the seats you’ve picked round the table?
hadn’t picked an apple
Now you’ve been grazing for two grazes what have you seen?
hadn’t eaten seen nothing
What stink you’ve made up in this room you scum head you farted again?
had shitted
Shame owes a jugular to this sleeping of yours
pity the jugular you ain’t got
had cut
and lonesomeness which nestled in him for a
lifetime
had dyed the rug under the table red
She was blind not to see
was dead.

A voice speaks in black letters; whom does it talk to? To someone, to me, to you, to them. It puts you in place of the interlocutor. It speaks in the present tense. And just as her sentence finishes, the blue voice [in the original poem the bold text is blue] begins. The beginning of the blue voice is the ending of the black. The blue voice emphasises that the expression of black has joined the past. It’s a response, but a response that is un-addressable. The black voice is a lone authoritative voice that speaks, interrogates and demands an answer, but cannot hear it. Neither can it read or look: “She was blind not to see”.

What is blindness? It’s a sound that uninterruptedly and in one breath issues forth. It is nothing but itself. It interrupts the reigning voice, that of the other. No dialogue or conversation instantiates between the two voices that issue forth in parallel, two powers that fight each other to be listened to. The blue voice whispers.

Alien language, conscious tongue

On the night of 11 October 1939, Walter Benjamin, living in a concentration camp, has a dream. Benjamin thus relates his dream to Gretel Adorno, Theodore’s wife:

Last night, as I was lying down on a bed of straw, I had too beautiful a dream not to tell you . . . It’s a dream that I have perhaps every five years and revolves round a hub of ‘reading’ . . . what I saw was a cloth adorned in patterns and colours and the only thing I could recognise was the upper part of the letter d . . . This was the only thing that I could ‘read’. A conversation revolved round this topic for a while . . . At one point I said exactly this: “The issue is to swap a piece of poem for a scarf”.


Es handelte sich darum. Aus einem Gedicht ein Haistuch zu machen.

Among the women, there was a very beautiful woman lying in her bed. Hearing my explanation she suddenly made a lightning move. She pulled aside a bit of her sheet cover. Not to show her body, but to show the pattern on the sheet.


From the concentration camp, Benjamin, who is German, writes a letter to Gretel Adorno which uses the French word fichu that simultaneously means a headscarf as well as finished, ruined. Benjamin says that all this finds meaning only in French. Similarly the dream and its interpretation only make sense in this language. Jacques Derrida takes this a basis to investigate alien language and the language of dreams: Benjamin can only recount his dream in French. His dream was calling for a language to be recounted in, in order  to find meaning. One year after this dream Benjamin was ‘finished’ – dead! The dream thus visited the future and conveyed it.

The air of exile: the space of possibility

Just for once, let’s see what possibilities exile offers poetry and the poet. Yes, I agree that until quite recently the poetry of exile was exiled from poetry. However, exile is the place of experience and fresh poetic possibilities – indeed, we always are in exile. First we are exiled from the mother, and then draw away from society and its language, though the latter could be a voluntary exile, and then we find ourselves in a different clime, amid different lives. When poets of risk go into exile they bring new experiences to bear on poetry. Experiences made incidentally possible only in the dimension of distance, the same new life. Let us review some examples:

To latch away double tongued from college
To saddle a horse to gallop to the casino and not to lose to the role that perhaps Mr Zero will play on the Roulette table


College, casino, roulette: the concatenation of college and latch, role and roulette. New atmospheres of life create new lives for text, for diction and also for poetry. Fresh combinations, fresh language and fresh imagination, these are the makings of life in exile. The poet converts the experience of exile into the experience of poetry.

And:

With trouser cuffs that walked round and round the Black Jack table and jacked to stand

And:

From the Punto Banco table sloppily to pass by
The fifty-pence machine to fumble by


Exile is the language of the other and brings the possibilities of the other language. The poet implicates everything in his poetry. The other language even infiltrates the lines of poetry:
برای win اگه مردی برعکسِ جان وین برو که I’m lost برگردی
Life goes on in exile, but we have witnessed how often life in exile is not drawn into poetry. Poets of risk bring details of exiled experience into their poems, pose anew the dangers of exile, such as bipolarity, (which incidentally the poetry of the 1990s did away with).

Asylum means laughing and crying and then laughter and stubbornly carrying the day into midnight and then the dawning of then and then what?!
Since everything’s so black and white I have been politicized? For what? For who?


The ambience of exile poetry that appears in In Riskdom Where I Lived proposes new aesthetics for exile, for poetry, for exile poetry (despite the fact that poetry is always in exile). This multilingual, multi-spatial aesthetics brings the atmosphere of the world to the service of poetry. The poetry is no longer written for the mother tongue, but encompasses the world of the mother tongue. Remember? The mother tongue is our country.

The full essay is also available in Farsi and French here.

© Parham Shahrjerdi (Translated by Abol Froushan)

Source: Poetrymag, 2010

 
 
 
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