Je Suis L'Autre: Essays & Interrogations
(C&R Press, 2017)
Je Suis L’Autre: I am the other,” a riff on Rimbaud’s perversion or poetic re-vision, Je est un autre, “I is someone else,” which Lacan, in turn, took up to recognize as having no real control over one’s self, to exist outside one’s self, to have an unconscious that is located elsewhere. It is this someone else or something else that Kristina Marie Darling’s essay collection, Je Suis L’Autre: Essays and Interrogations explores, in the process, expanding our conceptions of not only poetry, but also our sense of a shared self, and the many ways that the coupling of poetics and a communitarian I can rehabilitate our way of looking at ourselves—and the world.
Darling, author of twenty-seven books, is a poet primed to form these connections through her incisive criticism, and especially through her personal experience as editor, writer, and instructor. Responding to a changing literary landscape that is increasingly more and more open-accessed and appropriative, and, at the same time, self-contained and curative, she combines elements of cultural commentary and craft analysis with personal narrative, an effort to mirror the hybrid cross-genre poetic works she is concerned with.
Darling establishes the contemplative tone of her collection through a critical framework that gestures not only toward a poetics of uncertainty, but also our production of knowledge, in and outside of the walls of academia. “We tend to elevate knowledge as a finished product,” she begins, “a somewhat permanent manifestation of our intellectual and imaginative labor. For many of us, poems are a form of knowledge, each one a small discovery made by placing disparate things—whether textures of language, vocabularies of imagery, or fragments of vastly different discourses—in the same rhetorical space.”
But what happens after the process becomes a product—i.e., when a work of art is produced—is as problematic as the widely-held worldview that a finished work of art must be always already-defined and demarcated, draped around an aura of mysticism, that “atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity” that John Berger famously critiqued in his Ways of Seeing. Darling is at odds with this tendency of the academic expert and cultural gatekeeper to safeguard knowledge and to value its mere production instead of the various processes—and persons—that contribute to its formation.
The work of the experiment, and the process of discovery, are finished before we even walked through the door. The reader is left to wander the great halls of a museum, a little brass plate beside each butterfly, explaining in detail its origins. Only when the findings have been labeled, catalogued, are we even allowed into the room.
Our conceptual frameworks were built for certainty, and it is difficult to step outside these familiar structures for thinking and reasoning. Yet the nerve wracked psychic terrain of process is much more real and more true than anything finished.
In championing this poetics of uncertainty, Darling is also championing a form of criticism that is in desperate need of rekindling. I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s literary criticism, through which Benjamin absconded literary theoretical concerns and instead rearranged his favorite quotes to segue from different moments in his own life that spoke to the text and that spoke through the text. As his letters to Gershom Scholem indicate, when Benjamin was working on his study of German tragedy, he boasted of a collection of “over 600 quotations very ... clearly arranged.” Editors, publishers, and other academics—prospective employers—thought Benjamin crazy; he was only ahead of his time, anticipating a crowd-sourced, appropriative-rich Internet literate culture that has spawned so much interdis- ciplinary, multimedia, genre-less literary work, especially from the marginalized voices that would otherwise not have a body to be counted in the pre-fab forms of systematic creative and cultural structure. What Benjamin didn’t want was to ruin everything with explanations that sought to provide solutions or well-wrought connections, that production of knowledge that is always already presented as finished, excluded and occluded, windows shut on the fifth floor of the room I’ve just walked in, to lecture. (In reality, I only ever conduct seminars.) What Benjamin was endeavoring toward was not only a poetics of uncertainty, but the preservation of the original work’s “intention” ... “to plumb the depths of language and thought...by drilling rather than excavating.”
Revolution would mean reversion, but toward a return in which everything has changed. Of course, we are back where we began. But to begin, and to begin again. The self as someone else; to coexist within a voice or voices, not to separate one’s self through citation but by integrating others into your own voice.
Je est un autre: also a fundamental concept in film theory; the suture that evokes the closing of a wound. I close the wound, the gap, the void, because I wish to communicate. And by communicating, I’m communicating my wishes. Wish fulfillment: life on a screen. Suture, the false sense of reality that cinema is supposed to provide for us. Editing sutures away from the presence of an actual camera in front of which stands the actors we are watching, as if we are the ones witnessing all things and all things at the same time. Editing, through suture, makes us forget the artificiality of cinematic language, so as to merge with others, who might as well be us, in another reel or another real: the wish fulfillment made possible only through performance. And so Darling spends a great deal of time confronting and interrogating the lyrical, performative I in several contemporary hybrid works. Consider the commentary—and the important questions Darling probes—in the space of a few pages:
To what extent is the lyric “I” dependent on other voices as a point of contrast? How can we understand voice, alterity, and subjectivity before they inevitably slip away from us, becoming something else before we have finished speaking? Will we ever extricate self from other, or would we even want to? ... The poem is no longer a presentation. It has become a space for building hypothetical worlds, imaginative topographies that chart our progress as we think through some of our most difficult philosophical questions.
What’s most fascinating is the book’s treatment of agency. We rarely choose the types of literary, cultural, and popular texts that we encounter, but from these incredibly varied works, we cull everything: voice, our modes of representation, and even thought itself. The individual voice, then, is merely an inheritance. But none of it is really ours.
Throughout the book, the reader is called upon to assume an active role discerning the philosophy being set forth by this orchestrated collision of vastly different lexicons, discourses, and registers. Rather than envisioning a reader who purchases a book to witness someone else’s imaginative labor, the reader becomes a co-conspirator, ultimately disrupting the very foundation of our linguistic and textual economy.
We are prompted to consider all text as found text, all of language as appropriation, and every poem as an act of careful curation.
So much of Darling’s commentary functions not as instructions for reading the text, but a how-to in re-orienting our position as readers who are also active agents in bringing about a creative revolution. “What’s more, we’re able to build something entirely new, because we’ve seen things being built before,” she writes, in another early chapter. And sentences after: “The reader becomes an accomplice in this wonderful subversion of a product-oriented textual economy, as these writers engage us in imaginative work that will continue long after each book has ended.” Darling is challenging our hierarchies of academic intellect, knowledge production, language, and also, perhaps most pressingly, the ones we build ourselves, between viewer and viewed, subject and object, author and reader, self and other. Throughout these interrogations, she employs Bakhtin, Heidegger, Kristeva, Ricoeur, and yes, Benjamin, but perhaps her strongest cases are always made through her cultural criticism that proves as prescient as they are perceptive. Her chapters on “Collaborative Poetry & The Fiction of the Single Speaker” and “Your Scholar: Tracking Emily Dickinson’s Ghost” in particular brush up against a recent tide of interest for process notes and revision technique, as evidenced in the New York Times Book Review devoting its recent cover and feature to “Poetry in Action” (August 1, 2017) and the illuminating notes of marginalized contemporary poets like Eduardo C. Corral and Jenny Zhang. Writing about Rebecca Hazelton’s Fair Copy, Darling’s commentary resonates, again, with Benjamin’s own endeavors to complicate the divisions between author and audience through re-defining reading and writing: a refusal to separate the annotating of experience and the experience of annotation.
What’s fascinating about Hazelton’s collection is the way she utilizes constraints to personalize the tradition she’s inherited. For example, she writes in a section called “Notes on Process,” “On my twenty-ninth birthday, I began [this] formal experiment with Emily Dickinson.” I’m intrigued by Hazelton’s use of her own lived experience as a source of inspiration for the form her experiment would take. With that in mind, one might think of her “formal experiment” as more of a collaboration, one that takes place across time and history, and allows Hazelton’s voice to inhabit Dickinson’s poems. Thus Fair Copy presents readers with a graceful matching of tradition and modernity, but also form and content.
It is this provocative idea of translation as a mode of passage that includes the reader’s footsteps which Darling seems most taken by, and which reappears throughout Je Suis L’Autre. Elsewhere, discussing Maggie Nelson’s eschewing of formal citations and her use of space between citation and text proper, Darling writes: “Though seeming at first separate to be texts, entirely disconnected from one another, one observes the myriad ways that Naomi Ginsburg’s words ... offers the narrator a vehicle for conveying her own affect and experiences. Even more importantly, the fact that this same image travels from correspondence to poem to lyric essay suggests that all of consciousness is communal, every thought an act of theft.”
The italics are mine, but everything else, as Darling suggests again and again, is entirely shared. In this important, exploratory book of hybrid criticism, the one door I would have liked to see open is the aspect of performance I introduced earlier. I would have liked Darling to perform more of her theory, less by evolving her incisive commentary, or by evoking past and present critical theoreticians, but by restructuring it on the page to mimic or mirror a level of lyrical cross-genre, uncategorizable writing. Darling’s rapt, elegant prose poetry, scattered throughout critique and commentary, is striking, and at times, haunting, foreshadowing an echo meant to be supplied by the reader. “A broken statue. The castle in ruins. To whom should we attribute this narrative, then? Who’s speaking?” she writes in response to our postmodern cultural landscape and history as alterity. “A bottle by firelight. A blossom unfolding into pears. Where do we go from here?” in response to her own assertions of our nostalgic gaze and the “beautiful and inaccessible past” it produces. “That single tiny portrait remaining. A heap of inscrutable letters and a white dress. The envelopes already torn. What’s left has been stitched together, piece by piece. Now the needlework is all we can see” she observes, to introduce a chapter on “Tracking Emily Dickinson’s Ghost.”
More often than not, Darling appends her excerpts of cryptic prose poetry with unequivocal questions for her audience to consider. The one that repeats most often is also the one that remains this collection’s mantra, that of opening doors not by breaking them down or by securing a key, but simply by re-orienting our perspective on access and accessibility, a call to re-engage the present not by turning toward the future but by re-evaluating the past: “What does this make possible then?”