login view cart checkout



- OR -


>> previous screen

Shultz—Shark, Issue 4
Shultz, Susan. "Review of A Book of the Book." Shark 4 (Summer 2002).

Given Shark's suggestion that I read A Book of the Book in encyclopedic terms, I performed an on-line search for definitions of encyclopedia in encyclopedias. This search netted me several kinds of encyclopedias, from the Britannica (which now charges by the month for information) to a Wikipedia, which advertises itself as "fun, education, social," and a place where "you can correct other people on the spot without asking their permission!" Obviously, my quick internet search merely skims the surface of the "encyclopedic," a concept better defined by Shark's editors in their call for work, but the stark difference between "valuable information" (for which the reader is charged money) and a virtual site where anyone can participate, provides a clue to the ethos of contemporary encyclopedias. They run the gamut from a closed shop, like Britannica, to an open one, like the Wikipedia, from information closed off within covers (or within a fee schedule) to information that is (at least theoretically) never stable, never closed off, forever free. This stark contradiction interests me on a more abstract level, as well: historically, the "closed book" has been the site of canon creation, and canon creation has, at least until recently, locked out groups that cannot "pay" their capital dues, whether they be actual or cultural. What worries me about the new anthology by Steven Clay and Jerome Rothenberg, is that their book is more closed than open, less diverse than it might be, while remaining provocative and vital in what it lays out as experimentation within the format of The Book.

The closed model has its able exponents: Marjorie Perloff casts a cold eye on cyberbooks, when she writes: "Interest in the Book… is at an all time high, perhaps because the Book is now threatened by the disintegration cyberspace may pose for it." The editors themselves write (less apocalyptically) in the "forword": "The hegemony of the material book… was in some danger of being superceded by that of the virtual non-book—much as the book and writing had challenged the dominance of the oral technologies that came before them." Against such disintegration we are faced with a book whose heft is nearly as big as its intellectual reach, a book entirely material in its construction and conception. That it comes from Granary Books, whose products are now the most beautifully made on the market, and whose list includes many of the finest poets now at work, only emphasizes the bookness of it all. It's no mistake that the co-editors Rothenberg and Clay allude to their "recognition that the physicality of the book was a necessary concomitant to Mallarmé's proposition of the spiritual book that we were still eager to further explore."

A Book of the Book is an open and shut affair, as are all non-virtual books, but it also runs anchor to a series of anthologies Jerome Rothenberg has put together, from his first well-known collocation, Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, & Oceania (1968) through the two large Poems of the Millennium, volumes he co-edited with Pierre Joris in the 1990s. Rothenberg makes an argument in all these anthologies that is best stated in the "Pre-Face" to Technicians of the Sacred, namely that there are "intersections & analogies" between the so-called "primitive" and the modern. He enacts these intersections by using two columns, one for the "primitive" and the other for the modern; they run like a poem down two pages of my Anchor edition. In the "primitive" column one finds "the poem carried by the voice"; in the modern, "written poem as score/ public readings"; in the "primitive," "the animal-body-rootedness of 'primitive' poetry: recognition of a 'physical' basis for the poem with a man's body" and in the modern, "dada/ lautgedichte (sound poems)." Finally, "the poet as shaman" meets his modern equivalents in the projections of Rimbaud, Rilke, and Lorca. The nervous quotes around the word "primitive" (to say nothing of the rather defensive first subtitle to the preface, "Primitive Means Complex") speak to Rothenberg's reach beyond categories and toward a non-binary way of looking at world poetry, oral and written. The metonymy created by setting the two columns beside each other suggests that world poetry is unified, rather than di-versified.

Poems for the Millennium continues this project some thirty years later. In the introduction to the second volume (1998), Rothenberg and Joris "translate" the language of the 1968 column-poem into 1990s' critical vocabulary. Their emphases involve "an exploration of new forms of language, consciousness, and social/ biological relationships, both by deliberate experimentation in the present and by reinterpretation of the 'entire' human past," among many others. We see again an emphasis on ethnopoetics, and its intersections with the postmodern, a privileging of the oral, the performative, and a "move toward a new globalism, even nomadism—an intercultural poetics that could break across the very boundaries and definitions of self and nation that were a latent source of its creative powers." The implicit universalism of the first volume is now presented, in avowedly contradictory fashion, as a nomadism that exists within a frame of globalism, as differences that share global space. Yet there's a sense that the farther we've traveled from Technicians of the Sacred, the closer we are to its liberal, and in many ways entirely admirable, goal of unifying world poetry.

To think self-consciously about "the book" is to acknowledge certain limitations to one's enterprise. My colleague, Juliana Spahr, and I joked one day this past year about how impossible it would be to create an anthology of local poetries, when such a collection would run against the very grain of the local. The anthology is local only when it contains one local literature; once it reaches out to other locations, it globalizes the local; presupposes a metropolitan eye that is aware of different locations and wants to link them. Difference can co-exist within the covers of the same book, but that book cannot argue for cultural or real nationalism. The book or the journal creates what Rob Wilson calls a "mongrel" space, one that insists on a lack of purity rather than on singular voices. Rothenberg somehow argues for purity within mongrelization, and that is my major problem with his argument. Because the structure of the book itself makes an argument, sets a frame of limitation around what is anthologized, it strikes me as especially crucial that the anthologist reach beyond the usual limits of such books. In Technicians of the Sacred, perhaps, Rothenberg did just that. While his argument in that book is a modernist one (see T.S. Eliot's use of Jessie Weston, for example, or Ezra Pound's collocations of eastern and western and "primitive" traditions), Rothenberg in 1968 sets the argument forth without putting the western tradition in play, except in the "pre-face." The material in the book is all "primitive." This was a radical step, to suggest that different traditions belonged together, but to do so without privileging the European/ American tradition. Compare this to The Waste Land, which ends, "shantih shantih shantih," but uses those Indian words to shore Eliot's western ruins, rather than make a call for a unified tradition. If one is to "mongrelize" tradition, the central question remains: "who is mongrelizing it?" "Who has the authority to do this work?" "What writers/ artists are being included, which excluded?" Over the decades since Rothenberg collected the work in his Technicians anthology, these questions have become more important, more highly charged, as liberal humanism gave way (for better or for worse) to a literary politics of the multicultural.

A Book of the Book begins by citing some key terms, "oral, material, virtual, spiritual," and "ethnoopoetics," which are by now familiar to readers of Rothenberg's anthologies. The first essay in the book, The Poetics and Ethnopoetics of the Book and Writing, by Rothenberg, revisits his earlier collections and then joins them to this latest one. In "A Final Note" to the Pre-Face, Rothenberg lists the members of his tradition, an eclectic and charismatic bunch: Blake, the avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, Emily Dickinson (as read by Susan Howe), Mallarmé, Cendrars and Delaunay, the Russian Constructivists, the Italian Futurists, Duchamp, Artaud, traditions of the Indian Americas, the postmodernists. This is the tradition that Rothenberg and his co-editors have advocated for decades now. A Book of the Book is innovative because it presents a poetics of this tradition, not simply examples and exemplars of it (although there are some of those, too, including a beautiful color fold-out of "La Prose du Transiberien et de la Petite Jeanne de France" by Cendrars and Delaunay). Here we find essays and manifestos about the book by poets like Mallarmé and Marinetti. There are also works of art, such as "O!" by Jess, which enact ideas put forward by the writers of the essays. We see the book as container of ideas; an idea in itself (for Mayan shamaness); a machine (for Steve McCaffery and bpnichol); as life itself (for Anne Waldman); as art; as material for other books or works of art; and we read about these discussions as part of a long intellectual tradition (Charles Bernstein).

So this anthology unfolds between the abstractions of Mallarmé, who writes a poem about creating a book he never wrote, and the concretions of the artists discussed by Thomas Vogler, including Helen Lessick's Poeme (a cow with a "poeme" "written" on its side) and Buzz Spector's Toward a Theory of Universal Causality, a terraced mound/  installation of books. It wavers between Keith Smith's physical objects (accordion books, fold books, one of a kind constructions) and the theorizing of Blanchot and Derrida.

What haunts me about this book are a series of question by the African American artist, Faith Ringgold, from her essay, "The French Collection, Part 1, #3: The Picnic at Giverny." Section eight of this essay around Claude Monet (she, too, addresses the western tradition) asks: "Can a woman of my color ever achieve that amount of eminence in art in America? Here or anywhere in the world? Is it just raw talent alone that makes an artist's work appreciated to the fullest? Or is it a combination of things, la magie par une example [sic], le sexe par une autre, et la couleur est encore une autre, magic, sex, and color." "Number 11" asks, even more pointedly, "What will people think of my work? Will they just ignore it or will they give it some consideration?" These questions, posed toward the end of the book, by a colleague of Rothenberg's from UC San Diego, could from one point of view, threaten to sink the ship. I allude to her being Rothenberg's colleague only because this is but one way in which the logic of "raw talent" inevitably fails. What rises to the top in anthologies is so often friendship, not the search for diversity that is required to find it. For, if one looks at the anthology from the perspective of power, at the encyclopedia as a machine for moral improvement, at the book as something denied African Americans during slavery (see Frederick Douglass' narrative for a compelling account of how he "stole" reading from his "masters"), then this anthology argues for a kind of personal power that its editors themselves would likely argue against. No longer is the duality "primitive/ modern" the engine that runs our literatures. Instead, under—and despite—the globalization that Rothenberg and Joris allude to in their Poems for the Millennium, the engine that runs our literature explodes the book. Were there more American minority writers and artists than Faith Ringgold in this book, representing a diversity that exists within the modern, the postmodern, and the American, the The Book might well dissolve into "a book." The real danger for anthologies like these comes not from cyberspace itself, but from the openness that cyberspace promises, if only rarely honors. The absence of more artists like Ringgold means that the work of this anthology becomes a belated defense of Modernism, rather than an argument for a postmodernism that is larger than the binary terms "primitive" and "(post)modern." For, while Rothenberg and Joris are not above bashing T.S. Eliot and the formalists in their Millennium anthologies, their books participate in a tradition more like Eliot's than like Amiri Baraka's or Kamau Brathwaite's or any number of other world poets at work today. I'm thinkinh especially of Brathwaite's creation of Sycorax font and his explosion of the book form in his recent ConVERsations with Nathaniel Mackey, where the book transcribes a conversation, then enacts it through the medium of font (a punster might call this the "font metaphor" of print). In Rothenberg's and Clay's anthology, Ringgold's questions are answered for her, but for her only, and that's a problem.

The encyclopedic, then, is a mixed blessing; while it stretches the boundaries of our knowledge, presenting us with imagined worlds where shamans sing with postmoderns, it also enforces the boundaries whose aptest metaphor is the covers of a book, however large it might be. But I'd like to return to the opening essay of A Book, where Jerome Rothenberg rehearses his own career as an anthologist. It strikes me that one of the great values of this books is not so much its "authority" as a dispenser of truths about the state of the book at this historical moment, but what it tells us about the anthologist himself. As it unfolds, A Book clearly becomes the book of Rothenberg's career, gathering together the ideas he's propounded and guarded for some 40 years now. These ideas have, in many ways, shaped recent literary history, and helped to usher in the very era that makes this book seem less innovative than historical, autobiographical, a book that is more archive than prophesy, more memoir than cultural manifesto.

Note:

I've had a more recent communication from Lytle Shaw, who aptly points out that this notion of "local vs. global" is terribly absolute and non-relational. A the editor of a journal—Tinfish—that tries hard to work the blurred lines of the local and the international, publishing "local" work from Hawaii alongside work from the Pacific that represents what I would call "regional experimentalism," I could not agree with him more. As someone who is an "outsider" to Hawaii and whose journal is often read here only for its "local" content, however, I can attest to the force of the resistance against the outside that is shown by local literatures like those in Hawaii. Such localized poetics may simplify, but that is what gives them their power, at least at their points of origin. One might call this a "strategic localism" to go along with politically-minded "strategic essentialisms" and identity politics that are necessary to burst the glass ceilings (or glass book covers) of the dominant politics and culture. It's no mistake that I, who am white, have the mobility to edit a journal that calls localism or nationalism into question, a luxury not afforded the editors of, say, òiwi, a native Hawaiian journal.





Granary Books 168 Mercer Street, 2nd floor New York, NY 10012 USAtel 212 337 9979fax 212 337 9774info@granarybooks.com

join our email list