Is poetry the answer to war? Of all the systems of communication we have, one of the most effective in considering and talking about the horrors of war is poetic language. That most ancient form, poetry, can tell the truth about war in a way that other forms of language do not. The ability to extract threads from the complex mass, to lay images before us one at a time – teaching us, in a sense, the aesthetic of war-
and to put those images back together, allows us entry into the landscape of humanity, a map of sorts. Poetry engages with sounds and silences, providing a visceral experience. I am reminded of poet Robert Duncan, whose introduction to his Vietnam War-era Ground Work: Before the War (New Directions Press) lays out the map of rhythms his poetry follows:
In the ground work there is a continuing beat that my body disposition finds and my moving hand directs I follow in reading. Its impulses are not schematic but rise, changing tempo as the body-dance changes. The caesura space becomes not just an articulation of phrasing but a phrase itself of silence. Space between stanzas becomes a stanza-verse of silence: in which the beat continues. (ix)
Ammiel Alcalay, whose lineage can be traced to Robert Duncan, is a poet who delves into the violence and the history of war and emerges with stories to tell. He has been engaged in poetry for a long time now, and the past few years have seen two important works come out, both from re:public/Upset Press: in 2012, a reprint of the 2002 book-length poem from the warring factions, and in 2013, a little history, a detailed, winding conversation and history of twentieth century poetics (among other things). Alcalay describes his work as an attempt to be that “which actually represents radical forms of consciousness and engagement with historical circumstances” (173). from the warring factions is a long poem about war, a poem that drifts and shifts, elegantly describing and thinking about this world. Lines are quoted verbatim from sources as disparate as political speeches, documentaries, UN documents, poets both contemporary and ancient, and the nineteenth century Pequot orator William Apess. Alcalay turns the straightforward business of war – the news reports, the magazine articles, the speeches – into a new form, placing them side-by-side on the page and in the process asking us to reconsider what we think we’ve heard, seen or believed.
This is a book full of sources, transformed through Alcalay’s lyrical view. The world of from the warring factions is large and sprawling: It “begins December 1st, 1993 and ends August 2nd, 2001. Preceded by the Gulf War, the decimating sanctions on Iraq and the wars of ex-Yugoslavia, and followed by 9/11 and the second assault against Iraq” (224). It is dedicated to the city of Srebrenica, site of the horrific 1995 massacre that happened during the Bosnian war. In his interview with Benjamin Hollander, a long and insightful piece we find after the poem, Alcalay describes his process:
I wanted to place myself as author/narrator, and the text, in a specific time frame – the time in which the war took place and the text was written. So the first poem places the narrator on a specific date, in a specific place, and it ends on a particular date that happened to coincide with the sentencing of one of the generals responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica – an event at the center of the text but unspoken until the reference to the sentencing at the end of the book. I needed to confound the whole notion of a narrator, or a single self. (191–2)
from the warring factions is, in its form and thought, a linguistically interesting perspective on war: Alcalay is using techniques of synthesis to literally engage with the warring factions. He brings these disparate elements together into one long, epic poem – an epic poem whose hero Alcalay says is the forensic anthropologist William Haglund, who worked as the United Nations' Senior Forensic Advisor for the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, and would testify at the trial of the Bosnian Serb leader Dr. Radovan Karadzic.
Alcalay looks to poet Charles Olson, taking on one of Olson’s key ideas: We need to turn our facts into stories in order to know them as true, as facts. We have to “use the critical function in the collection of the materials in order to make fact fable again” (228). We search the archive, we open it and swim in it, and we tell stories, and this is how we know. Alcalay is deeply concerned with the ways in which the personal and the political intertwine, and I use the word intertwine quite directly here – this poetry is not about the personal or the political as entities that come face to face or maybe reach out and touch hands once in a while. What Alcalay’s work aims to do is consider that these entities are not separate at all. We are given the intertwining of words from so many places, landing together on the page until you are left without any barriers. We don’t know who is who or what is what until or unless we read the afterword, “A Note on Materials and Processes,” and even then, we are still left entangled. Alcalay notes his sources for each section, but without the specifics so standard in academic and professional writing – no page numbers, no footnotes, no direct links.
This is a work of poetry, but it is also a work of scholarship, an investigation of memory and knowledge, and these are inseparable. It is not necessarily an easily definable work; as Alcalay notes, “Aware that from the warring factions fell outside the conceptual purview of almost any publisher I could think of, I was perplexed where to turn when I had finished it” (224). Publishers want – need! – documented sources, carefully notated footnotes and endnotes. Alcalay refuses: “In a curious sense, by giving up my own limitations as a ‘creator’ and turning to the words of others to compose my poem, I am re-enacting the limitlessness of…historical specificity” (206). He considers the “place” of the poet and rejects “the status of poets as ‘natives’ – those unworthy of speaking for themselves outside the boundaries of a ‘creative’ reserve within [the] academic/intellectual configuration” (209).
a little history was born in part out of the work in from the warring factions. Where from the warring factions is a poem encompassing historical and world events, a little history is another sort of amalgamation of styles and forms, bringing Alcalay’s investigation of poetics and the history of twentieth century poets into a book that is part personal narrative and part historical essay, with several interviews woven throughout. Like warring factions, this is a book of synthesis, a work grappling with war. Alcalay has long been concerned with the decades after the Second World War, particularly as to how those decades were relayed through their poets. a little history’s primary focus is poet Charles Olson, rector of the experimental and progressive Black Mountain College. By the late 1950s he had established his reputation as a Melville scholar, won two Guggenheim Fellowships (the first in 1939, the second in 1948), and then abandoned all formal channels of academia until landing a fairly short-lived teaching position at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York in 1963. Olson set his poetic and social radicalism against the growing confines of Cold War America, and it is this that Alcalay is interested in. There are several threads that Alcalay is considering: Black Mountain, the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, the Black Arts Movement. These are some of the loosely bound poetic movements that would come to define radical poetics in North America.
Alcalay, a scholar and teacher, is continually searching for the means to chip away at entrenched forms of authority. He knocks some of the clout of contemporary theory, particularly in the academy: “…‘Deconstruction’ has been the reigning theoretical rage in academia, driven by fantasies of rendering Western culture powerless through critical discourse…” (10). Though we may be deconstructing everything and anything via language, actual cultural power remains, a power that is so often destructive and cannot be willed away. He suggests that how forms of theory so prevalent in the academy are being used needs to be reevaluated:
What we’ve gotten is what I would call industrialized postmodernism, it’s off the assembly line. I feel that a lot of the theoretical language and the way it’s taught and how it’s used is really colonizing, it’s a subjugation of the material that it’s supposed to be examining, and a kind of training in subjugation. …It’s almost as if the people who are doing politics think, “Well, that’s later, we can’t really deal with that now, this is more important, we’ll get to culture and other things after the political work.” I think that’s very counter-productive. Politics needs to be done holistically. All the parts need to mesh. (85)
While we are busily deconstructing, Alcalay suggests that the opposite is what we really need: “…Projects characterized by construction, reconstruction, and historical recuperation provide people with real political footing” (10). This idea is in part the underpinning and base upon which Alcalay is functioning in a little history (as well as in his larger body of writings and teaching). To preserve and save, to recuperate what is lost, is part of the driving force in this book. In this time of great deconstruction, we stand to lose any semblance of real wholeness, and that wholeness – of people, poetry, art – is how we really know who we are and where we came from. a little history points to examples around the world – the Cold War, 9/11, the Symposium of Plato – of fracturing imposed from above, when the authorities have infiltrated, splintered, ousted, and excluded according to their own designs. This fracturing equals loss, and Alcalay fights that loss through language.
Though the center of this book is Olson, it spans far and wide in subject, exploring what Alcalay calls the politics of imagination. He considers how cultural memory functions, vigilantly aware of how easily memory can be ruptured and falsified, leaving us in a present state that is woefully incomplete. The heart of the work is concentrated on the United States after the Second World War, but it is also an exploration of world history and politics. Alcalay is multilingual and has done much translation work, as well as reading and speaking in many languages other than English (including Hebrew and Arabic, among others), and this has deeply informed his sense of language and politics. He is exploring and thinking about language as a political act, concerned that not only do we preserve and restore our histories, but
in the preservation of such a history, it is crucial that we weigh and measure our efforts in light of our relationship to, and reception of, things that take place in other parts of the world. Otherwise, no matter how profound the personal impact of such acts of creation and preservation might be, they can revert to mere markers of identity and ownership. (11)
Alcalay is interested in communities – how we construct them, who is included and who is left out, and who actually creates them. He talks about community and kinship, placing poetry at the center, thinking about language not as something separate from the self, but as the self. He quotes the Syrian-born poet Adonis:
When there is no poetry in a period of history, there is no true human dimension. Poetry, according to this definition, is more than a means or a tool, like technology: it is, rather, like language itself, an innate quality. It is not a stage in the history of human consciousness, but a constituent of this consciousness. (12)
Alcalay comments on this by saying, “In creating new communities of thought, another form of kinship could base itself on poetic knowledge” (13). He is engaging with questions of authority, seeking ways to spread authority, to give everyone the gumption to claim their right – to take it for themselves. Otherwise, we end up with lost histories and false memories, and we are left adrift. Alcalay’s books help us find our footing again, mooring and tethering us to this constantly drifting world in which we live.
Claudia Moreno Parsons was born in Brooklyn, NY. She is an associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community Colllege, CUNY. She studied North American poetics and earned her PhD at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the editor of Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters (University of New Mexico Press). Her research is in North American literature, culture, and history, with specializations in poetics, the literature and politics of the 1950s and 60s, and women’s literature and history.