Somber, grave, sly, alive, casting doubt, cast in light. Glaring is filled with vividness even as it’s on a rigorously philosophical tear. Benjamin works the gravity of saying “you” and “I” and says them skeptically and genuinely and is there for finding what lives inside these pronouns. Poems to his family members strike me most. They offer glimpses of intimacy that feel unabashed, and yet his conceptual postures, his trying to move with it. It being life, the support of life and the censure of murder. An eerie quality of electrification—echoed in reflections, shines, bolts of lightning, glares—weaves scenes with a lushness that always seems to threaten something doomed beneath its seduction.
In a clear and steady manner, and with surprising easefulness, Butler considers an ethics built on the limits of our ability to “know thyself.” They give another valence to the notion of “speaking the truth,” encouraging us towards an ethical speaking that eschews narrative cohesiveness in favor of a criticality that can admit to the outside-of-knowing, to the parts of the self we can never account for and so must be understood as constitutive of the very self we speak from, including the very norms by which we are able to verbally conceive of such a self. How do we interrupt our constantly regenerated urges to assert our understanding of ourselves—indeed, our understanding of selves—as ourselves, and recognize the cost of that impulse to ourselves and others, to “you” and “I.”
Mekas’s journals from 1944-1954, beginning in Lithuania as the presence of the war grew ever more threatening, and ending in New York as Mekas collides with the traumatic effects of losing one’s place in the world. The entries are cinematic, vibrating with detail and longing. Though I often felt that I was receiving a “snapshot” of the day’s events, the writing regularly slips into one of a number of stylistic modes, a journal kept self-consciously by someone yearning to be a writer. I read this book slowly, on-and-off, for about two years following Mekas’s death, taking a bit at a time as a way to move towards sleep. It called to me again this month, maybe in relation to thinking about my father and his own struggles as a “displaced person,” struggles I can’t say I truly know or understand. I Had Nowhere to Go offered a chance to hear a figure like, but not, my father give words to the experience of this fracture:
“My memories. They are out to get me, they are after me. I went through a whole period of my life like in a trance, not really knowing that I was looking and seeing—and now I am like a delayed reaction, now everything’s coming back to me... I am desperately trying to create a completely new set of memories with which I could fight back the sweet voices calling me home. Home to which, I know, all roads have been erased.” (Emphasis mine.)
A collection of poems written in his Lithuanian. I was called to hear more of Mekas’s voice, to see what sort of poetry his life gave way to. The poems are written mostly in one-word lines, which I hear, in my head, in his singing voice, as I’ve heard it. The slow metronomic pulse accrues into yearning tones. Echoes of the journals—at the end of the title section, he writes “I’m a / lone / soul / with no / place to go”—raise the same difficulties of displacement, of longing for a home that no longer exists. But, a decade on from the journals, there is a different heat in parallel with the sadness, a heat of anger, of refusal, of invention: “all on / intu / -ition, / letting / improvi / -sation / guide me, / a / -voiding / firm / -ly / paved / roads // (I know / where / they / lead to, / Eu / rope!).” It expands Mekas’s character, giving him another means by which to think and feel, adding to a sense of structural integrity. Where in the journals he seemed close to dissolution, here he seems more settled on the earth, though still with a light vision that flows easily on the wind.
Where “dialogue” suggests an exchange between two, Oliver splits her figures ever further, creating an infinite series of broken reflections (“look into another mirror for answers”). This is not a book about undoing such fragmentation and becoming whole again; rather, the poet is “admitting the contractions,” describing the experience(s) of being Black, female, lesbian, and American in overlapping and often contradictory terms.
The collection opens with “another morning, she says,” a punning title that introduces a central motif of floating between: the sun rises, another morning; a body falls, another mourning. She declares, “a red sea of ambrosia is my god’s nectar,” layering the bloodshed of anti-Black violence with the cyclic appearance of menstrual blood—itself a complex sign, recurring throughout the poems as a symbol both of women’s vulnerability and of their strength, and here evincing an erotic charge as the “nectar” of lesbian sex, a pleasure constrained by the dangers of living queer in a heteronormative society. There is no rest and no resolution between these connotations—“sin and salvation are twins.” Instead, Oliver mourns openly and adamantly, in testament to the pain of those oppressed on all sides: “we try not to drown & close / to floating is the saddest kind of survival.”
Floating between is not only the poet’s profound description of the ontological crisis of Black life. Taken further, it is a rejection of the fantasy that one can and should recover from this crisis in order to submit to the “dream” of inclusion as a respectable “somebody.” Oliver speaks back to the “gandhis and kings” of the Civil Rights era, writing: “a rejection of a fixed ritual would pop the bubble. dreams are fragile like that. concealing as much as they reveal,” and, “this is not where i thought we were going to when we got on the train.” These are calls to be wary of “freedom” as the rhetoric of a false liberation. the she said dialogues describe a world in which there is no freedom for the individual—instead, we find a network of pervasive social entanglements that we can either embrace or deny. Oliver’s vision is fundamentally not utopian, and she fully acknowledges that, when people get together, there’s bound to be as much rage as there is romance (“light the match. who burns first”). These poems, in which every word is insistently multivalent, prepare us for such a world by showing us how to be nimble with meaning. They warn us of the consequences of being caught flat-footed, and seduce us with the potentials of keeping with the beat, however complex:
“two toned cadences grind a slow dance to magic”