This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Anis Shivani’s My Tranquil War and Other Poems (New York Quarterly Books, 2012).
H. L. Hix: I want to frame my question by juxtaposing two excerpts. In doing so, I know I’m taking them out of context, but I’m curious whether you see anything apt about the conjunction, or if it’s just a misreading, a kind of petty violence to the poems. Is there any sense in which this whole collection could be taken as a set of “angles of surmise” (96), points of view taken toward “panoramas” that are “refusing to unfold by script” (28)?
Anis Shivani: Thank you so much, Harvey, for this insightful question. Perhaps refusing to unfold by script is the way things unfold by script now? Your pairing of the two poems, “Twenty-Six Angles of Surmise” and “Perpetually Ascending GNP,” from which your two quotes come, is astute. In the first I am taking familiar terms—limited arbitrarily by the number of letters in the alphabet, but mocking by that act the perceived limitability of language—and redeploying them in the interest of a laxative poetry, a poetry that looks at things as they exist and perceives correspondences that complicate the meanings of both words and definitions. Words are useless without definitions, and official culture, which surrounds us like an embryo is surrounded by protective amniotic fluid, insists on precise definitions. Hence dictionaries. Hence the abuse of the dictionary form in this particular poem. Hence the abuse of abuse.
These are the twenty-six words in that particular poem: shock and awe, grotesquery, checks and balances, accountability, end of history, gallimaufries, preemption, medievalism, observation tower, relativity, elections, prose poem, genocide, fatigue, telepathy, Buddhism, Baudrillard, investment banking, poetry, rational expectations, artificial intelligence, cloning, humanism, authorship, talent, totalitarianism. Is this Wall Street in a mind-meld with the Pentagon with the academic-industrial complex? Perhaps. It is through labels like these that we find order enough to sustain the merciless quotidian, to get through it without unbearable ill-ease. Why not unhinge these definitions even more than they already have been? Why not deprive them of meaning altogether? Isn’t that a sweet form of revenge, for a poet of helplessness?
You’ve actually hit on what might be a central dynamic of the book: adopting voices, traditional, well-known, not so famous, consanguine, or alien in order not to find one’s own, my own, “true” voice, which seems as quixotic an ideal as it did when I started writing. The decade of torture and war hinged on redefining, reducing, simplifying words out of any meaning. Angles of surmise, in such a situation, is me throwing up my hands at the abuse meted out to accepted meanings of words. I cannot do anything but grope forward, look for reliable definitions of familiar concepts, find some grounds of stability, accept provisionality and contingency. I can only speculate about how the collectivity took such an absurd turn so that the entire platter of meaning was vomited upon, and all the time the people in authority smiled on—as is always the case in such abrupt revolutions of the word. Thus my point of view cannot be my own.
I find, in this book, others’ voices sufficient for me because of disturbances in the air that taint every contemporary form of elegiac self-assurance as worse than maudlin, worse than the most derivative form of sentimentality. Others’ voices, offshored angles of surmise, ballooning points of view, harden one’s authorial self in an era of exaggerated respect for authenticity and sincerity. As for unpredictability, of course the financial markets collapsed (as should have been foreseen), whereas my poem was titled “perpetually ascending GNP.” Of course, terror failed to repeat itself but also repeated itself daily, and still does. Of course, the process of reconciliation with the recent past, the confrontation with truth, never occurred, even as all is already known. In all this, there is surprise as well as utter banality.
I think poetry in such circumstances is one of the final escapes from the murderousness of certainty. At least I saw poetry that way in that perilous period. In more normal times, the authentic self—whatever the hell that is—can be allowed more than a peek through the curtains of scholarly self-protection. Then we invigorate the lyric form, which cannot abide the uncertainty I’ve been describing so far. Then we resurrect other moribund forms, our own platitudinous voice(s).
I open the collection with a mild jab at Harold Bloom, who boasts of swallowing the Western canon whole; this is followed by a meditation on Li Po swallowed by the river, the poet’s narcissism (which is another word for renunciation) getting the better of him. I adopt the angles of surmise chosen by surrealist and absurdist filmmakers and writers like Antonioni, Fellini and Ashbery more than by artists enamored of representational fidelity, such as the modest American fiction writer who reve(a)ls in an interview that “It could be the Indians and the Chinese are remaking the tongue. / If they are, it’s not a familiar tune, not a song he’s sung.: This paragon of the literary establishment (and we all have this straw man in our sights) is going to go on singing his unitary language as though the world had not gone to pieces. When I address Cheever, Whitman and Creeley I do so by paying homage to the angles of surmise they’ve gifted poets of anxiety in perpetuity. It was possible once upon a time to contain multitudes, to travel from point A to point B via placid suburban trains, to partner with deep images while bearing the burden of teacherly equanimity and transcendence, but now all we have left is spectacular madness of a kind that far exceeds the quaint Orwellian idea of war as peace, peace as war.
The poet, like any other artist, is in an impossible bind today. I wanted to address this impossibility of being, the non-choice between silence and verbalization, in this book. If I speak, I’m complicit. If I stay silent, I’m complicit. Point of view has been taken away from me. The choice has been taken away by the bureaucratization of language, among which I count the bureaucratization of poetic grief and sorrow and mourning as one of the most vulgar offenses. I try to remember—surmise how it might be to remember—Manzanar and British colonialism and the onset of both world wars and Vietnam and Iraq, but all I can come up with is “fatigue,” fatigue even in evoking idealism, such as the upside-down notion that “women are the better species. / They anticipate the end of the world more often than we do.”
Perhaps the book ought to take the name of one of the other included poems, “Conversations with Autism.” When I “converse” with Derek Walcott, Djuna Barnes, Jean Cocteau, Edward Upward and Salvador Dalì I am conversing with forms of autism—unwillingness to play nice with the protocols of behavior—that have almost become the definition of poetry today. I don’t mean poetry as it is written, but poetry as it is imagined, as a shield and barrier against true sociability. I mean poetry in its inflated self-conception, which has nothing do with the bureaucratic, mechanistic production of actually existing poetry: “I mean the strict sentences, whose every behavioral ecstasy is a surprise to the gentry. / I mean the naked Catholic insistence that foreign objects remain true to their pile.” Art is a pile of detritus. This was the twentieth-century’s insistent apocalyptic gift, which Apollinaire, for example, perceived at the very beginning of the century, and whose reverberations are still felt like the big bang going off again and again, because we have been justly deprived of the materials of our art-making.
Panoramas refusing to unfold according to script. Unhinged many-toned pop-circular angles of surmise. I find that much of my book is occupied at a subterranean level with the ecstasies of time—time passing, time refusing to pass, time passed up as a joke, time ready for the kill. Clock-time devolves into variations of war, and certain cycles are more apt to be remembered for this natural perversion, such as the frenzied period of time that is just ending. In “Perpetually Ascending GNP,” I note: “It’s a poetic world, ready-made verses scattered on the pavements / like so much victory confetti.” Poetry as war-making, with the same determination, plotting, desire to be seen and heard and to deliver enemies and friends to their appropriate stations. Poetry as war itself, with diplomacies, alliances, propaganda (another dominant theme of this book), victory speeches, surfeit of glory, death replastered as sacrifice.
We live in this kind of world. To escape is perhaps easy. Only a slight shift of posture may be needed. Just a faint bend of the body and the whole cycle starts enunciating unmistakable words of concordance, so that continuity—the first abolished virtue—again becomes manifest, like splinters of glass. Language, in its speculative mode, is infinitely elastic. It all depends on the object of speculation, however. We should shatter idols even in the very act of formation, as Cocteau does, as Godard does, stuff made of transparency and hiding in open sight in hallways of officious mirrors. At least that is my provisional surmise under the influence of an anxiety that I won’t define from my “own” point of view.