Kamby Bolongo Mean River named one of 25 Important Books of the 2000s by HTML Giant

KBMR was named one of 25 Important Books of the decade by HTML Giant. And was a Page One selection of New & Noteworthy Books by Poets & Writers Magazine.

Monday, December 12, 2011

No news today - Guest Post - Ira Livingston

The News from Poems: Reading and Refuge

Reflection does not withdraw from the world . . .; it steps back to watch the sparks of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire; it slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice; it alone is consciousness of the world because it reveals the world as strange and paradoxical. (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception)

. . . sometimes I have been seized by the childish desire never to return to the burrow again, but to settle down somewhere close to the entrance, to pass my life watching the entrance, and gloat perpetually upon the reflection—and in that find my happiness—how steadfast a protection my burrow would be if I were inside it. (Kafka, “The Burrow”)

In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found. (Winnicot, “Communicating and Not Communicating”)

It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” (William Carlos Williams
, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)


Frankenstein’s monster, in Mary Shelley’s novel, is rejected by his creator and by everyone he meets.

He finds a hideaway in a shed attached to a cottage. The shed is too low to stand up in, but it’s dry, and a chimney provides warmth.

The monster gets water at night from a nearby stream, and he sneaks food from the cottage’s pantry.

Unseen, he can watch the residents of the cottage through a crack in a boarded-up window.

He discovers language as they talk and read books aloud to each other, and he learns to speak when they teach English to a foreign guest.

Curiously, the monster’s situation in the shed resembles that of the reader in the act of reading.

Alone, withdrawn from public space, and virtually immobilized, the monster, like the reader, can direct his entire attention

to eavesdropping on the interior scene that keeps unfolding, in language, before his eyes.

In this monstrous image of the reader, there is some sense of escapism. Of course, the escape may be protective and restorative.

(I think of someone I know who as a child found refuge in the public library from a crowded household and an abusive parent.)

And there is also some sense of the reader as a parasite. In the largest sense, this may evoke the notion of vampiristic leisure classes

laying around reading while others toil, or even the more general notion that our so-called higher faculties—

consciousness and civilization themselves—parasitically hitch a ride on the back of our animal natures.

Writers no less than readers can easily be cast as vampires, not only because everyone they encounter is potential prey

from which material for their next novels can be extracted, but because to commit oneself to live through the posterity of books

(rather than through living offspring) might mean, at some level, never quite being alive at all.

Anyway it is here in this twilight world that reader and writer meet.

Once you get the idea that the eavesdropping monster works as an image of the reader, it’s easy to see that his situation

also matches Mary Shelley’s account of her own lifelong engagement with written and fantasized stories.

Growing up with a famously depressive, distant father and a famously narcissistic stepmother, Mary wrote stories and spun daydreams

that provided her constant “refuge” and “dearest pleasure.” Thus the “blank and dreary” countryside she visited as a girl

became for her a “pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy.”

The refuge of fantasy is the fantasy of refuge. But sometimes even survival may depend on this tenuous tautology.


Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man withdraws from what Ellison calls the “existential torture” of living as a black man

in mid-20th-century America. He finds refuge “in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement

that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century, which I discovered when I was trying to escape in the night.”

Here he is able to live rent-free and to tap into the main line of the “Monopolated Light and Power” Company to illuminate his refuge.

It is from this position that the rest of narrative-- of his life up to the point of his withdrawal—is offered.

The narrator’s position resembles certain particulars of Ellison’s immediate situation as he was writing the novel.

Ellison lived in a basement apartment in Harlem, where his writer’s hours (especially in contrast to his wife’s regular job)

made him a suspect and hypervisible character in the predominantly working-class, black neighborhood.

During this time he also wrote in a friend’s office on Fifth Avenue, which ironically enabled him “to find sanctuary

in a predominantly white environment where that same color and vagueness of role rendered me anonymous and hence beyond public concern.”

Of course a writer inevitably incorporates aspects of his immediate situation into whatever he’s writing, and as in Ellison’s case,

his immediate situation may be intimately a part of what he is writing about anyway. But my point here is the ways in which being a writer

and being a reader resonate with each other as ways of being simultaneously in and out of the world, and (in this case)

with the experience of being black in America, of being both invisible and hypervisible.

This is not to assert that being black is like reading or writing a book-- or that all writers have “the souls of black folks”--

only that we may recognize resonant points of contact.


When I read Frankenstein and Invisible Man, I was reminded of an old science-fiction fantasy of my own. In my fantasy,

the scene is a post-apocalyptic cityscape at night, something like what might have been painted by a latter-day Hieronymous Bosch.

Here and there among dark ruins and ramparts, sparks crackle up from bonfires attended by skulking shadows.

Off in the distance, guard-towers loom over lurid, floodlit fortifications and barb-wired compounds.

Uneasy silence-- in which one can make out the low hum of generators-- is punctuated by sounds of gunfire and ambiguous cries.

In the middleground of this hellish tableau, a solitary traveler picks his way, like the lone pilgrim in a Chinese landscape painting.

You can imagine what horrors our traveler has seen, what privations he’s endured, how many times through cunning or luck

he has managed to cheat death. One night, pursued by brutal cyborg police (or wild dogs, or zombie mutants), he stumbles

onto a concealed opening in a wall and slips inside to safety, into a forgotten, cavernous, trapezoidal enclosed space between buildings.

From this point, you can continue folding in assorted elaborations: the piles of hoarded canned goods, the fresh water source,

the heat and the hum from giant machines on the other side of the wall.

This is as far as my fantasy goes, but if you want to spin more of a narrative around it, you could throw in another refugee

who stumbles in with her tattered clothing, flashing eyes, and cleavage. Our hero wins her over, but then her mutant ex-boyfriend shows up,

and ultimately everybody dies, or at the very least, the refuge is compromised and our traveler is thrown back into his wanderings.

Perhaps you can see him again, in the distance now, a tiny figure trudging alongside the wall of a floodlit fortification.


All this takes us back out of the fantasy of refuge, which is, of course, a temporary state. You must always rejoin the world.

But the opposite is no less true: you can never quite rejoin the world-- or as Bob Dylan put it, “you can always come back,

but you can’t come back all the way.” And the opposite of both of these opposites also applies: you never left.

And the opposite of that: you were never quite of the world to begin with. The coexistence of all these opposed conditions

is precisely the point. Reading is a practice that puts us in touch with withdrawal and aloneness as both temporary and permanent states,

and the ways in which we are always paradoxically both a part of and apart from social being-in-the-world.

Post-apocalyptic fantasies are classic images of depression, marked by the sense that something terrible and irrevocable has happened

just as anxiety involves the sense that something terrible is about to happen.

What has happened is usually something like the loss of a world, at least of a world characterized by warmth and human connection.

Such a world is sometimes called, using the terms of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicot, a “holding environment.”

You might think, if you’re going to be fantasizing anyway, why not conjure up a whole heavenly world

—like the Big Rock Candy Mountain in the old folk song-- instead of a relatively comfortable hovel in a bleak wasteland?

If whistling through graveyards (commonly known as denial) is your dominant defensive coping strategy, then go ahead.

You’ll have lots of company. But remember how, in the movie The Matrix, the machines first create an illusory idyllic world

to pacify their human slaves, only to discover that most humans can’t handle it. As Gertrude Stein said of Mallorca,

“it’s paradise, if you can stand it.” Most people can’t.

Depression can bring a starkly accurate assessment of things-as-they-are, a phenomenon known as depressive realism.

The depressive part of the realism is a tendency to discount things-as-they-could-be in favor of trying to make one’s way

in the ruins of a world one cannot hope to rebuild.

But do I have to point out that this stance is only in its extreme forms a pathological condition?

If you, dear reader, didn’t already know something about depressive fantasies as coping strategies,

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t find you here, scavenging for god-knows-what in this out-of-the-way text--

I mean, instead of being out somewhere, with a sparkle in your eye and a martini in your hand, making friends and love and money.


So why are you here? What made a reader of you? Why have you crawled up, alone, into this out-of-the-way nook?

What could this text be for you-- what kind of refuge, pantry, pharmacy? What goodies could you get here? What are you getting even now?

Ellison went so far as to assert that “a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope”-- one “that might help keep us afloat

as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.”

The most that could be happening between you and a text is that it is keeping you alive,

will be part of what keeps you alive, what you live for. You were fortunate indeed to have stumbled into these words!

Look up for a moment. There may be others around, and they can see that you are reading. But they cannot really see

the web we are weaving, the secret psychological sustenance you are getting from this reading.

“Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies.”

It’s a physical thing, the visual scanning of the lines of type, like smoking a cigarette.

The hands hold, the eyes scan, the brain lights up. Put it down, pick it up again and read: again the eyes scan and the brain lights up.

A voice in your head reads the words aloud; it is your voice but not your voice. If you are attentive,

you can feel it being echoed in your adam’s apple and the muscles of your tongue and lips, like the shadow of a voice,

as when your mind mirrors the emphatic gestures and passionate inflections of a speaker with whom you identify,

as if you were saying the words yourself, as if you were watching someone you love perform in a play you had seen many times.

The thing about reading is that it’s like and not like interacting with another person.

It’s like it in the sense that you don’t know what will come next. The text seems to have some sovereign agency.

It seems to be different than sitting around thinking or spinning out fantasies of your own.

The reader can even be characterized as deplorably passive: all I can do as a reader is scan the text, and nothing I do can change it.

I cannot act on it. And the text, in turn, also seems almost inert. It cannot respond to me. It cannot look back at me.

But the text can do something that may even be a matter of survival.

It holds me.

Ira Livingston is the author, most recently, of Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics (Illinois, 2006) and co-editor of Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader (Illinois, 2009). He is Chair of the Department of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn.

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