Archaeopoetics: Word, Image, History

Archaeopoetics: Word, Image, History

by Mandy Bloomfield


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817358532
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 05/10/2016
Series: Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mandy Bloomfield is a lecturer in English at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, where she teaches both critical theory and modern and contemporary literature.

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Word, Image, History

By Mandy Bloomfield

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2016 the University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8965-9



When the attentions change / the jungle
leaps in
even the stones are split
they rive
[ ... ]
But the E
cut so rudely on that oldest stone
sounded otherwise,
was differently heard
Charles Olson, "The Kingfishers"

History weighs like a nightmare on the lives of modern poetry. Charles Olson's famous 1949 poem "The Kingfishers" marks a pivotal moment in poetry's long and obsessive engagement with the cultural past. Mindful of the elongated shadow cast by Auschwitz and the atom bomb and alert to the dawning of a new era of cold war, Olson's poem casts a skeptical eye toward hegemonic Western history and turns away to "hunt among stones" of the marginal and archaic. Ranging through the remains of multiple histories and traditions, from the ruins of Angkor Wat to the "E on the stone" (Collected Poems 87) at Delphi to Mayan ritual, the poem's attention decisively moves beyond the post-Homeric "Western Box" privileged by Eliot and Pound (Olson, Selected Writings 129). In so doing, it anticipates a proliferation of revisionist histories in the 1960s and '70s and a concurrent reshaping of the "poem including history" (Pound). It also raises a question that has come to haunt these endeavors: how do we recover histories hitherto rendered silent, marginal, or irrecuperable? This question begins to surface with heightened urgency in "The Kingfishers." This is also a poem that suggests an especially archaeological way of proceeding, a poetics of excavating material remains. Olson's trip to work on a dig of Mayan ruins in Yucatan in the early '50s provided a practical grounding for a poetics that took fieldwork as a methodological model. An archaeological sensibility is already apparent in "The Kingfishers," though in 1949 this, in itself, was nothing new. As Brian McHale points out, archaeology has been a persistent master trope of modernism (Obligation 102–3). By taking up archaeology as a poetic model, Olson drew from the tradition apparent in Eliot's The Waste Land and especially Pound's Cantos, though Olson's approach is distinct from these precursors. Olson constitutes the poem as an archaeological site not for the deposit of cultural treasures, as it was for Pound and Eliot, but as a space for reflecting on how the past is encountered.

"The Kingfishers" marks a transformation of the "poem including history" into something else — something that might be described as the poem contemplating historiography. As Michael Davidson so astutely remarks, a poem like Olson's "mak[es] historical speculation its subject" ("Hunting" 197). Archaeopoetics is a book about recent poetry that continues and intensifies this activity. The contemporary writers whose work I discuss in the following chapters — American poet Susan Howe, Korean American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, British poet Maggie O'Sullivan, and diasporic Caribbean writers Kamau Brathwaite and M. NourbeSe Philip — engage with an array of elided, effaced, and unacknowledged histories. Such a pursuit of histories not readily available for contemporary scrutiny engenders investigations into those forms of knowledge, representation, and power that mediate our cultural pasts and the contemporaneity they continue to shape. These poetries do not recover marginalized histories but present a series of inquiries into how existing modes of historical knowledge might be reshaped. In other words this poetry's concern is not so much with what we might know of our cultural past as with how it might be encountered differently.

Similarly, what is unearthed and brought into the light in "The Kingfishers" is not so much some deeply significant cultural find but the problem of engaging with histories that are at best only partially recoverable, a problem that becomes most apparent in the poem's contemplation of the inscrutable Delphic "E / cut so rudely on that oldest stone" (88). This reference to Plutarch's essay "The E at Delphi," which charts a frustrated attempt to uncover the meaning of the inscription, highlights the dilemma of interpreting remains whose cultural traditions are lost and whose meanings are thus unknowable. While Olson's poem may advocate a practice of "hunting among stones," it finds only indecipherable and fragmented traces of lost pasts. What becomes evident is a version, or an intimation at least, of the "corrosive epistemological uncertainty" (Obligation 115) that McHale associates with postmodern writing in general and postmodern archaeological poetry in particular (although McHale himself associates Olson with a much more self-assured modernist tradition). However, this uncertainty does not amount to an abandonment of epistemology altogether in Olson's poem, nor in the poetries I examine in later chapters. Rather it feeds into speculation about alternative ways of understanding dimensions of historical experience that are palpable though not necessarily intelligible.

Olson's poem looks to the practices of archaeological fieldwork for direction. Sasha Colby convincingly argues that "what appeals to Olson about archaeological modes of knowing is tangibility, object-knowledge, and direct particularity" (95). Indeed, for Olson, the notion of direct physical engagement with concrete specificities not only offers ways of countering the generalizing and totalizing aspirations of Eliot's and Pound's historicist poetics, but also forms the basis for the alternative epistemology toward which "The Kingfishers" strains. The poem's meditation on the E of the Delphic stone is not an attempt at interpretation so much as an encounter with its (imagined) physical qualities — the raw materiality of the inscription, the direct physicality of the stone's age — that promise to yield a kind of palpable knowledge.

Furthermore, this attention to concrete particulars extends to the poem's own material forms, most notably its appearance on the page. While Olson's use of the page as a very literal spatial field may not be as dramatic here as in some of his later Maximus poems, "The Kingfishers" contains numerous visual techniques, including degrees of indentation (including a three-stepped line akin to William Carlos Williams's contemporaneous variable foot); widely differing line lengths; the isolation of single words, phrases, or lines; the insertion of extra spaces into the middle of lines; and unconventional uses of diacritical marks, especially quotation marks and the forward slash. Such manipulations of typography and layout make a significant contribution to the poem's enactment of the archaeological method it proposes. In the first of the lines in the epigraph above, for example, the caesura performed by the forward slash — a recurrent Olsonian technique — plays a key role in the advancement of the poem's particular archaeological mode. In "Projective Verse," Olson celebrated the capacities of the typewriter to convey the poet's intended sounding of the poem. He states that he uses the slash in place of a comma to indicate "a pause so light it hardly separates the words" (Selected 23). But as Eleanor Berry rightly points out, the effects of the slash are more complicated; she suggests that it "visually and immediately conveys a sort of equivalence in weight, as between two items on a balance scale" (61). Indeed, in the poem's first line "what does not change / is the will to change" and in its penultimate line "shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?" the slash certainly does appear to work this way, as a simultaneously visual and conceptual pivot around which contrasting images are balanced. The slash in the epigraph above introduces a further complexity by virtue of the line break that severs the subject and predicate in the second clause, which introduces a distinct sense of imbalance. And this imbalance puts something in motion: first, in progressing from one half of the second clause to its severed and deferred predicate, the reading eye makes a movement that echoes the "leap" of the "jungle." This spatial movement leads to a sequence of stepped lines whose visual arrangement embodies a series of kinetic shifts, and these shifts in turn add force to the verbal image of stones in motion, actively splitting. In other words, these lines enact, by means of typographic marks and layout, a dynamic, even revolutionary (groundbreaking), process that develops out of a moment "[w]hen the attentions change." By creating a dialogue between the linguistic meanings of these lines and their spatial arrangement on the page, the poem induces a parallel change of attentions: one that takes into account the physical dimensions of the poetic page that normally go unnoticed. A practice of attending to concrete particulars, the poem suggests, creates the possibility of an opening into which "the jungle / leaps," where "the jungle" may be taken to encompass all that has been excluded, Othered, and thereby positioned as textual and historical wilderness. In this way "The Kingfishers" proposes that a poetics attentive to material specificities offers ways of imagining how history might be "sounded otherwise" and "differently heard" (88).

The poetry examined in the later chapters of this book shares this conviction. The work of Howe, Cha, O'Sullivan, Brathwaite, and Philip constitutes a material turn in contemporary historicist poetry in which shifts of attention become vital. Joan Retallack has remarked that "[n]oticing becomes art when, as contextualizing project, it reconfigures the geometry of attention, drawing one into conversation with what would otherwise remain silent in the figure-ground patterns of history" (10). The work I explore in this book is noticing-as-art, and indeed art-as-noticing, which reorients attention in the ways that Retallack so wonderfully describes and Olson's poetry performs. It is not the case that all of the poets I examine explicitly draw on Olson as a predecessor or overtly invoke archaeology as a model for their practice. Nevertheless, their work develops and extends an archaeological poetics akin to "The Kingfishers." Like Olson's poem, the work of these five poets reflects on the potentials of palpable knowledge and material meaningfulness conveyed through the physical dimensions of the poetic page.

My discussions of this work will predominantly focus on the visual manifestations of this physicality. The visual aspects of the written word, when foregrounded, are one of the most emphatic ways of shifting "the geometry of attention" precisely because they are so often the dimensions of writing least attended to. As the artist Robert Smithson puts it, "[l]ook at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void" (Collected 107). When we notice the visual surfaces of the written page, we perceive its physicality, and this noticing leads beyond the customary routes of linguistic semantics to tensions, presences, and absences not reducible to normative parameters of discursive cognition.

Insofar as such textual properties have been theorized at all, critics have generally associated emphasis on the word as matter with an inevitable breakdown of signification. Walter Benn Michaels scathingly equates a "commitment to the material object" (7) and most particularly the "transformation of text into material object" (8) with a "commitment to meaninglessness" (7) or else a valorization of proliferating meanings so multiplicitous as to amount to meaninglessness. He argues that to focus on what he calls the "shape of the signifier" is to make a fundamental mistake about what a text is and what reading is. The poets I examine provoke a reconsideration of what a text is, what it means to read, and of what meaningfulness might comprise. My engagement with their work seeks to challenge entrenched oppositions between meaning and (meaningless) materiality, signification and "mere mark" (Fried 198), and interpretation and phenomenological experience upon which critics like Michaels rely. While the work examined in this book does not smooth over the discursive power of these ingrained dualisms, it proposes a notion of material meaningfulness, and in so doing explores the possibilities for articulating emergent forms of knowledge. In other words, I want to suggest that the work of the five poets I examine demonstrates not only how visual materiality contributes to poetic meaning but also offers forms of meaningfulness that have implications for the ethics and politics of historical encounter, especially Retallack's "geometries of attention." By tracing the relationship between the visual aesthetics and historicist impulses of this poetry, my investigations seek to widen the compass of poetic meaning by offering openings for reflecting upon and enlarging prevailing epistemic frontiers.

The work of the poets I examine in this book has to be read in the context of a wider impulse in the humanities to seek the gaps and silences of history. Yet this work refuses assimilation into discursive theoretical projects; instead, it proposes specifically aesthetic modes of engaging questions about historical encounter. In his book The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole, McHale identifies a genre of "archaeo-poetry," which he describes as "poetry of stratification and excavation, of fragments and ruins" (102). Extending this generic classification, I want to propose a notion of archaeopoetics implicit in McHale's illuminating discussion. By embodying a poetic mode of inquiry that foregrounds the material dimensions of experience and knowledge, archaeopoetry suggests an archaeopoetics. If poetics theorizes about aesthetic forms, then archaeopoetics both performs and reflects upon the capacities of aesthetic forms to perform the work of archaeological investigation. I coined the term archaeopoetics rather than using a term like "historicopoetics" because (very broadly speaking) history as a disciplinary field implies a focus on texts, records, and narratives, while archaeology draws clues about the past from material culture and offers, as Olson knew, inherently spatial and embodied modes of dialogue with the past. The lines between history and archaeology are, of course, highly permeable, and I do often use the terms somewhat interchangeably. But my privileged metaphor of archaeology is meant to suggest an emphasis on material encounter and forms of tangible knowledge even when the apparatus of investigation and the sources excavated are textual, as they very often are. Drawing on archaeology's engagement with physical artifacts, archaeopoetics foregrounds the palpable but not necessarily intelligible traces of the past not just as subject matter but also in terms of formal strategies. It explores the possibilities and limitations of historical encounter by pushing at the edges of existing epistemic frameworks. Archaeopoetics is the poem's own formally and materially enacted exploration of what a poem can be and do as a form of historical inquiry.

Archaeopoetics also gives rise to a reflective activity that extends beyond poetic or aesthetic questions. I refer to this as archaeocritique. By this I mean a mode of critical inquiry that, broadly following a Kantian sense of critique, investigates the conditions of possibility for historical knowledge. Archaeocritique raises questions about the grounds for prevailing forms of historical consciousness. It is the philosophical dimension of archaeopoetics; where archaeopoetics explores the capacities of aesthetic modes of inquiry, archaeocritique makes wider theoretical points about the power relationships underpinning certain historiographical paradigms or the implications of particular theories of history. There is, of course, a large overlap between these activities, and it is often difficult — and indeed artificial — to separate out these "levels" or moments of poetic inquiry. I place emphasis on this critical dimension because, quite simply, poetry participates in philosophical and theoretical activities and not just aesthetic ones. The aesthetic is a mode of theorizing. In parallel with Lynn Keller, I argue for "thinking poetry" (the title of her recent book), poetry that "like philosophy or political theory enacts a significant intellectual engagement with ... important and challenging issues" (2).


Excerpted from Archaeopoetics by Mandy Bloomfield. Copyright © 2016 the University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Archaeopoetics,
2. "Radical visible subsurface": Susan Howe's Frictional Histories of the Underword,
3. "The word. The image": Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Fractured Forms,
4. "Haemorrhage of uns –": Maggie O'Sullivan's Corporeal Salvagings,
5. Isles Full of Noises: Kamau Brathwaite's Archipelagic Poetics,
6. Alluvial Siftings: M. NourbeSe Philip's Marine Archaeopoetics,
Afterword: Archaeopoetic Afterlives,
Works Cited,

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