A Frameless Review—a View
From an e-mail correspondence on September 29, 2009:
Jared Schickling: Did you notice Jordan Davis's review in a recent Boston Review? I haven't seen it yet.
Murat Nemet-Nejat: Jared… yes I heard of Jordan's review. Ed Foster read the paragraph to me on the phone, and he was furious. The odd thing is that for a fact I know Jordan likes the book a lot. He told me personally that it was the best anthology around. I suppose he thinks he is not a man unless he shows the size of his dick and tries to fuck someone nearby. He always had this alienated, sadistic side to him. One friendship gone. A total asshole.
Here lies the reviewing process in a poetic community—needling, broken friendships and sometimes provocative, generative connections, as long as the eye, not by objectivity but curiosity, friendship, jealousy, is pulled to (or repelled by) and occasionally seduced by the existence of a work. In the T.V. show Mad Men, Bertrand Cooper (alias Robert Morse who in that incarnation knew how to “succeed in business without really trying”), the Ayn Rand-fan head of the ad agency, referring to a Rothko painting on his office wall says, “the eye is drawn to it,” though in a 180 degree caustic and cynical reversal in the next sentence he says that he expects the value of the Rothko to double in the next twelve months—a pithy example of the commoditization of passion, which is of course what advertising is.
A review is not an ad. It is this pulling of the eye. The elusive thread which may exist between the reader (his/her mind’s eye) and a book—while all the time oblivious to or even resisting commoditization—that contains the heart of the reviewing process.
Reflecting on the nature of my ideal review, the first thought which popped to my head was what it was not. It did not contain judgment. Judgment frames an object, locating it in a structure. A poem (poet) may become second, fourth or eighth generation New York School, for instance. Ron Silliman is the past master of this style of reviewing. By placing the poet within a frame before saying anything else of significance about it, he starts by giving it a brand name. The problems with this approach exist on multiple levels. Not only is the delineated structure often illusionary and self-serving, what is much more crucial, it snaps the thread between the eye and the text. It kills the multi-dimensional, border-crossing genesis of thought a dialogue between a text and a reader may evoke; it names the reading before it becomes itself. It sidesteps the chaotic essence of reading, what Roland Barthes calls “the pleasures [italics my own] of the text.” A review must be a faithful record of thought dispersals during a specific, one-time reading—the record of that performance process.
Such a reader / reviewer is implicated in the reading; if the pull of the eye, evoked by the power of the text, is strong enough, he / she may feel his / her life depended on what is discovered. In that situation, the subjectivity of the reader confronts the resistant autonomy, mystery of the text, its subjectivity. Unlike the taxonomic review, this kind of review—the process review—always starts in a position of ignorance and must (needs to) end in a moment of unexpected illumination. At the very beginning of his essay “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin says, “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.”* The task of the reviewer is to penetrate this resistance in the text, its elusive autonomy, as, for instance, in After Lorca the very first response to Jack Spicer’s pursuit of Lorca’s text is Lorca’s annoyed, petulant letter from the grave (a powerful text is maybe like a grave). In many ways, the reviewing process is not that different from the translation process—not the placing of a branded object within a domestic, preset taxonomy, but the delineation of distance, tracing of new territory.
How does the mechanics of such a review work? Here again, comparing it to its opposite and using an image from film, the taxonomic review starts with a long, establishing shot, an assumption of an almost infinite wisdom, knowing already the map within which the work will be placed, then zooming in on it within the comfort zone of that knowledge. The other kind consists of close-ups (fragmented cuts), never panning backward—and only slowly and arduously—to more than a medium shot. The result is a crucial contradiction. On the one hand, the text is never seen as a whole, but only experienced, approached narrowly as a thing, an object, basically as fragments. This results in a blurring of sense, of total comprehension, in conceptual humility and openness. On the other hand, because the focus is very close, the barely comprehended fragments are seen with intense insistence and clarity. This disjunction opens the text up to a dynamic dialogue between the text and the reader, opening it, its latent potential, up to the world surrounding it. Because such a reading (and reviewing) is often discontinuous—the mind focused on a specific point of interest and forced to jump seemingly subjectively and at random to another point of focus, following its own “pleasure” rather than its judgment—the text is liberated to interact with cultural, philosophical, poetic issues of its time. It becomes a tissue of social life, an ethical, living document. While the taxonomic review potentially narrows the value of the text to a family quarrel among poets, to who is in and who is out, paradoxically, the process review extends it to the wider world, making it part of it.
The original text (the ostensible subject) in this process rarely remains the main focus of the writing; the review almost always ends someplace else to which the original has a necessary but tangential relationship. The original is one side of the dialectic which produces the text, the other side being the reader. Walter Benjamin is the inventor of the dialectic review. “The Task of the Translator,” which revolutionized the very concept of translation in the west, is ostensibly about Benjamin’s translation of Baudelaire’s texts; but neither he nor the translations are ever mentioned. This does not mean Benjamin is not interested in him. His multiple essays, and Baudelaire’s central position in The Arcades Project prove that. But in this essay, joining his efforts to translate Baudelaire with his own peculiar view of language as a mystical hypertext (hyperspace) where all translations unite, he creates an endlessly suggestive and elusive document.
The gestation of a process review is slow and arduous, having a mind of its own. It has little to do with length restrictions or deadlines. It exists in an alternate space to the exigencies of daily reviews or career prospects or economic considerations. That is the price the reviewer has to pay instead of being rewarded for it.
* Illuminations, Essays and Reflections, Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt (Schocken Books, 1966), p. 69.
Murat Nemet-Nejat is the poet of Turkish Voices and Io’s Song. He is also the writer of the essay, The Peripheral Space of Photography (Green Integer 2003) and the editor of Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry (Talisman House 2004). He is presently working on the long poem, The Structure of Escape, and on the translation of the Turkish poet Seyhan Erozçelik’s complete book of poetry, Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds (Gül ve Telve).
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence