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  • A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature by Jacob Edmond
  • Brian Glaser
Jacob Edmond. A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature. New York: Fordham UP, 2012. 284 pp.

In the first chapter, in Edmond’s readings the materiality of the word leads to indeterminacies in which some of Yang Lian’s contexts (a cemetery in New Zealand and the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989) are made to relate to each other as radically different and yet sometimes mutually illuminating. The motif of “touch” takes on in these contexts an immediacy that recalls to me Levinas’ conception of the other as infinite. In any event this immediacy leads Edmonds to imagine, via the “translation style” of Chinese poetry, an intermingling of influences of Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire in Yang Lian’s experience of expatriation. This densely argued attempt to go beyond the “collapse of difference in deconstructive play” in its appreciation of Yang Lian as a flâneur is imaginative and will be informative to those who, like me, come to this discussion of Lian’s work without any previous knowledge of him.

The second chapter begins by making explicit the theoretical problem that remained mostly implicit in the first chapter. Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s poetry “raises a question that increasingly preoccupies scholars writing after deconstruction: how can we reconcile the generalized abstractions of language, culture, society and history with a particular text and with the person who writes it?” If the first chapter looks to history to supplement deconstructive reading, the second chapter focuses on eroticism in the work of Dragomoshchenko in which he corresponds with and writes about Lyn Hejinian. But it turns out that Dragomoshchenko doesn’t have much to say about eroticism—his desire for Hejinian is obscured but legible, whereas reflection on the subject of emotion is neglected, at least in Edmond’s reading. While Hejinian emerges as an interesting figure to love, Edmond’s readings risk no discussion of the qualities of love or desire, and so being in love seems almost boring as an experience. This is probably not precisely what Edmond means by “rejecting the tendency to situate reading outside the text,” but it is how I understand the cause of Edmond’s representation of Dragomoshchenko’s postmodernism.

The third chapter also addresses Dragomoshchenko, but indirectly—it focuses on the effects that travel to Russia had on the writing of Hejinian. Edmond presents Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of estrangement as the purpose [End Page 426] of art as melding with Hejinian’s privileging of the idea of “the person” as existing on an “improvised boundary” rather than as a fixed self. The result of this melding is that “description” in Hejinian’s writing becomes more spontaneous and vital. Edmond reads passages from Oxota which describe Russian environments to emphasize a point that is crucial to this book’s attempt to rescue life-contexts from deconstructive reading—that “Hejinian…discovered in Russia a place where estrangement could merge art and life, Russian and American poetry.” Travel to Russia gave Hejinian both theoretical and experiential grounds for integrating estrangement into her engagement with subjectivity. The light of Leningrad gets especial focus in Edmond’s readings, which depend less on indeterminacy than those in the first two chapters and offer a convincing appreciation of the inventiveness of Hejinian’s improvisations.

In the fourth chapter, Edmond sustains an argument against Stephen Owen’s reading of Bei Dao as a poet of a kind of world literature in which “nothing is lost in translation.” Historicizing Owen’s charge by looking at the efforts of Dao’s early English translator Bonnie McDougall to claim “universal” rather than provincial interest for his poetry, Edmond turns to de Man’s notion of allegory to suggest that Dao’s poetry “produces forms of alienation that stress a continuous process of re-presentation and rereading. His work undoes the apparent fixity of its own allegorical relations between text and world.” In this undoing of fixity, the “tension between historically located and dislocated world-poetry readings of Bei Dao is a structurally critical part of the work.” This chapter fits the least neatly into the...


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